Brace yourselves—here comes the hyperbole.
I think we may have just witnessed one of the best moves in Survivor history. While I’ll show some restraint and not make any binding proclamations until we see how the aftermath of this insane Tribal Council plays out, even if Luke still falls short of the win, this has to be one of the most flawlessly executed moves we’ve ever seen. And the best part of it was that it was strategically sound without abandoning any of Luke’s patented flair for the dramatic.
A HISTORY LESSON
The 2-1-1 plurality vote has been a white whale for years in the US, never eventuating in any iteration through its 38 seasons and seemingly doomed to stay that way given the removal of the Final Four vote in favour of an automatic fire-making challenge since Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers. And yet, as if in response to the eradication of this vote, international Survivor opened the floodgates on this elusive strategy last year.
NOTE: If you’re averse to spoilers from 2018’s Australian, New Zealand and South African Survivor seasons, skip ahead to the next bold heading.
The first-ever 2-1-1 vote occurred in Survivor New Zealand: Thailand. With the Final 3 looming, a 3-1 majority were set to eliminate Tess Fahey—at least, until she won the Final Immunity Challenge. This put tentative allies Dave Lipanovic and Lisa Stanger in the hot seat, with one of them destined to fall just short of the Final Tribal. However, Tara Thorowgood, the last of the trio and an assumed FTC goat, had promised not to vote for Dave and was reluctant to send Lisa home. Thus, the majority found their own loophole, with Tara volunteering to be voted out to allow her allies to both make the Final 3. So with Tess believing the women were all voting for Dave, Tara fell on her sword and threw away her vote at Lisa to allow Dave & Lisa to cast their votes on Tara to mutually assure themselves a Final 3 and blindside Tess in the process. 2-1-1.
But while New Zealand may have boasted the first-ever 2-1-1, the circumstances were so unique that it didn’t necessarily feel like an honest-to-Survivor-gods 2-1-1. The math worked out, and the strategic loophole to allow the majority to still pull one over on their singular adversary remained impressive, but it required a player to voluntarily resign to being voted out. Thus, a true 2-1-1 vote still felt like it evaded us.
But hot on New Zealand’s heels came Australian Survivor: Champions vs. Contenders. In the penultimate episode, we saw a familiar 3-1 situation where, once again, the outsider, Brian Lake, emerged victorious at the Immunity Challenge. The majority—the newly forged “Shh Alliance” of Shane Gould, Sharn Coombes and Shonee Fairfax—would be forced to break apart as quickly as they’d come together. Brian pushed for his sworn adversary Sharn, but Shane & Sharn were in it together and saw the opportunity to force a fire-making tie-breaker by throwing their votes onto Shonee, allowing Sharn to easily beat Shonee in a contest of survival skills. But Shonee realised she was a dead woman walking and decided to make a hail Mary plea to Sharn to work together and instead vote out Shane as a Jury threat. But when it came to the vote, with Brian voting against Sharn and Shonee taking her final shot at Shane, Sharn ultimately sided with her Champion ally Shane to send Shonee home. 2-1-1.
This 2-1-1 was a strategic gamble on Shonee’s part—a slim chance of swaying Sharn’s vote versus an almost assured defeat against her in fire—and though it ultimately failed for Shonee, it revealed the beautiful complexity of this strategy through the position Sharn found herself as a kingmaker. Shonee’s decision to split her vote to a 1-1-1 against the non-immune players meant that Sharn was the decision-maker. Obviously not able to vote for herself, it made her the decisive swing vote able to choose who would make it to the Final 3, and as it turned out, who would then sit next to her at the FTC. It was a move rife with intrigue, and yet given the 2-1-1 was effectively orchestrated by the player who went home and not the kingmaker, it felt like the move hadn’t fully matured into its potential.
So what would be its full potential? Why it would be the coordination of a 1-1-1 vote by a player such that they would be the deciding vote; effectively, if Sharn had been the one to instigate the aforementioned 2-1-1 instead of Shonee. We got close to that scenario over in Survivor South Africa: Philippines, where the season’s dominant strategist Werner Joubert presented a plan to construct a circular firing squad between Annalize Sainsbury, Jeanne Michel, and Tom Swartz, putting him in the position to cast the deciding 2-1-1 vote to ensure his security. Unfortunately, for Werner, his opponents conspired to turn the tables against him before his plan made it off the ground. Nevertheless, it showed what a 2-1-1 vote could do…
…and it’s exactly what Luke pulled out of the hat tonight.
SEEDS OF A PLAN
Somehow, Luke managed to convince his three fellow tribemates to vote for each other, 1-1-1. Pia voted Abbey, Abbey voted Harry, Harry voted Pia. That left Luke in absolute control of the vote, allowing him to execute a total blindside against Abbey. It’s the kind of move that required absolute finesse and an improbably accurate anticipation of his competitors’ actions to work effectively, and yet he made it happen. And in the moment of Tribal Council, no less!
Luke recognised that he was the biggest threat on the board—socially, strategically, physically, he was perceived as someone impossible to beat in the Final 2. So even though he’d helped marshal a counter-alliance with Harry, Baden, and Abbey to take out Simon & Janine and leave Pia for easy pickings, his new allies were just as quickly turning against him. But after nearly dropping his chance at safety with some reckless high-stepping, he managed to secure his safety by scoring his fourth Immunity win (equalling the Australian record set by Brian and Sharn last year). He was in the Final Four, but how would he get further?
The easiest option would be to hope for the Immunity Run. He could stick to the easy vote against Pia and then hope he could beat out Abbey, Harry, and Baden in the final two challenges. But if he lost? There would be absolutely no way that he would make it through that vote unscathed—those three were targeting him now, and their voracity would only increase the closer they got to Day 50. But a new opportunity presented itself in Pia, now a lone wolf after losing her closest ally, Janine.
Pia herself played this round perfectly, sizing up her competition and angling for the best possible options. It’s easy to forget that Luke and Pia were Day 1 allies, but their connection was still active and proved critical to their mutual survival to the next stage of the game. Pia appealed to Luke as being someone disinterested in coming after him, certainly in comparison to Abbey, Baden, and Harry, and Luke saw the value in working with the lesser of two evils. Now we at home know that Pia would have no hesitation in voting Luke out to preserve herself, and should he lose Immunity next week, I would bet that Pia will put his name to parchment. And Luke is a savvy enough player to recognise that Pia would be foolish to go to the end with him. But someone 99% intent on voting you out is still better than someone deadest 100% against you.
There was another upside to teaming up with Pia when it came to Luke’s endgame strategy. Pia might have been the only other castaway remaining with an Immunity win to her name, but across the board, Abbey was a much more significant danger due to her versatile skill-set. Even with Pia on board, Luke’s best chance at the title remained an Immunity run, and he would need to improve his chances, so removing Abbey from the equation was a perfect solution. And so the plan was hatched: he and Pia would put their votes on Abbey.
But what about the others? Now there’s one thing that this 2-1-1 vote has that the historical precedence lacks, and that’s that this 2-1-1 occurred at the Final 5. The first hurdle to Luke and Pia flipping the game on Abbey was that there was a numbers deficit, down 2 against 3.
Enter the Tribal Nullifier.
NO TRIBAL FOR YOU
I’m honestly shocked that we’ve not seen this particular advantage in the catalogue of curious and wondrous artifacts to grace modern Survivor in recent years. It’s so elegant, and though Survivor has included twists that skirt the edges of it, it’s never looked quite like this. Obviously, Hidden Immunity Idols have been a part of the show’s DNA for almost 15 years at this point, ensuring a player in possession of one the ability to secure their safety from a vote. Survivor has also flirted with players not being able to vote: Lee Carseldine blocking Sam Webb from voting in the first season of Australian Survivor, Devon Pinto’s infamous “this is not an advantage” moment in HvHvH, the Vote Steal debuting in Cambodia or the No Vote booby prizes debuting on Ghost Island.
This also isn’t the first time players have missed out on the whole Tribal experience, either, imbuing them with implicit Immunity but preventing them from casting a vote. The early Ghost Island visits and the oft-used tribe swap mechanic of sending a player to Exile until after the next Tribal, where they’ll replace the castaway just voted out, have provided Immunity in the past. A similar conceit to the Tribal Nullifier appeared at the merge in this year’s South African season, Island of Secrets, where the Immunity winner would banish a player to the titular island and miss the merge Tribal—but also all of the strategizing before Tribal, allowing their absence to be accounted for in the planning for the vote.
However, for the first time, this all comes together in a pretty stellar package with the Tribal Nullifier, designed to be played in the moment at Tribal with the spectacle of many other Idols and Advantages and opening the door to upset the applecart. I really love this advantage, and would really like to see it again, particularly if it were to show up earlier in the game so that the bearer has more opportunities to make use of it because, simply put, there are so many ways this advantage can play out.
Of course, it could be used simply for its value as Immunity; if Luke had lost the challenge tonight, he undoubtedly would have saved himself with the advantage. It could be used to shield an ally or better yet, stonewall a majority Three Amigos-style; if Luke had used the advantage on Pia, he would have secured the safety of his new ally and forced Abbey, Baden and Harry to turn against each other. It could be used to undermine a majority—imagine if this advantage had been what Daisy found instead of her Idols? Instead of the Idol roulette that took out John, she could have sent one of the Champions back to camp to even the numbers at 4-4 and perhaps induce a tie or a flip from a Champion eager to avoid rocks. Or better yet, it could have given the Contenders the majority at the 6-6 merge vote, changing the course of the entire game. And think of the disastrous misplays that could happen with something like this, like sending the wrong person back to camp and unintentionally foiling your own or even someone else’s plan.
But those are just the obvious permutations. And then you get the 3D chess that Luke used it for tonight. I was flabbergasted when he suggested he would use it on Baden, as it seemed like such a slam dunk to protect Pia with it, sending her back to camp and forcing the other three to cannibalise themselves. Yet there was a method to his madness, and it’s pretty incredible once you break it down.
Baden hasn’t been playing a bad game, but he has been playing a quiet one. It’s a tried and true tactic for Australian Survivor when you look at our past Sole Survivors, but up against the more competitive field in the current endgame, he seems like the least likely to pull out a win. Even Pia, who’s taken a similarly quiet tactic, has been seen to be more actively strategic, and with Janine stumping for her “smiling assassin” game, she’ll have the leg up when it comes to the under-the-radar story. But a big part of Baden’s success has been his relationship with Luke since their time on the New Champions beach. Even though he’s clearly reached the point where he’s ready to turn coat, he still has that personal bond with Luke. And while Baden had his shining star moments as a “Challenge Beast” throughout the season, he’s yet to clinch a win.
So for Luke, Baden is almost as valuable as Pia when it comes to protecting him in the game ahead, perhaps even more so, given his lesser odds at winning. Baden’s less of a threat in challenges, but even if he were to win one, say at the Final Immunity Challenge against Luke and Pia, there’s a non-zero chance that Baden, recognising he might lose either way, might take the approach of giving his closer ally the win. I don’t want to discredit Baden entirely (Australian Survivor’s first season reminds us to never entirely count someone out), but the point remains that Baden is a useful asset for Luke moving forward, so granting him the Immunity of the advantage is beneficial.
But what is more important is what it leaves behind—the far more intense players in Abbey and Harry and conflicting narratives. On the surface, the move can be read many ways. It could maintain Luke’s loyalty to the alliance of four by leaving Pia vulnerable and just looking like a showy move by Crazy Ol’ Luke to burn his advantage. Or it could look like a reunion of the Champion majority ganging up against a more defenceless Harry. The best part, however, is that it didn’t have to hint at the actual plan to blindside Abbey; a benefit that would not have been afforded if Luke had blatantly protected Pia by using the advantage on her.
It’s convoluted to the nth degree, but that’s just Luke’s way of playing the game. He emanates fun in the way he approaches Survivor, but that joy for the game and any possible hijinks is woven into his ambition to still make the most of his opportunity to chase the victory. His creative use of this advantage tonight could not be a more perfect example of this beautiful medley of a Survivor game.
KING OF THE JUNGLE
So with Baden heading back to camp in a state of confusion, Luke was able to thoroughly conduct Tribal Council. He quickly filled Pia in on the plan with a whisper that immediately sparked the concern of Harry and Abbey, wondering why he was talking to the enemy. Even with Baden gone, they still had the numbers to take her out, right? Pia earlier made the observation that Abbey is prone to paranoia, noting the importance of not triggering her before Tribal, but here, Luke made the apparently intentional effort to stoke Abbey’s fear by leaving her out of the whispering.
He let Abbey stew in her confusion for just long enough until he crossed the floor to whisper to her too. We didn’t hear what he said to her, but given her ultimate vote and the earlier conversation of the Champions at the well, it’s pretty apparent that he gave Abbey the indication that he was forcing the Champions’ hand to vote out Harry—a threat in his own right. It was a reasonable explanation, just logical enough that it would sate Abbey’s paranoia and convince her to go along with the plan.
Harry, too, unwittingly played the part perfectly. On the surface, it certainly didn’t look great for his chances. The only other Contender was off back at camp and the Champions sitting in front of him were all whispering to each other but not to him (aside from Pia’s fantastic joke whisper). There’s not really another scenario that made obvious sense, and naturally, Harry began slipping into his scrappy underdog role but with a more defeated tone than when he’d had Idols or other Contender targets to shield him. But his only hope was for it to all be a distraction on Luke’s part and for the plan to remain the same.
Thus, Luke’s play effortlessly utilised his knowledge and experience to predict how his fellow castaways would react to the bombshell. Pia would get the logic in his explanation and understand how the plan benefited their earlier discussion, Abbey would grow paranoid but then latch on to the Harry plan with the right nudge, and Harry, left in the cold, would assume the worst, lending further credence to the lie sold to Abbey. If Luke’s reads had been wrong—and particularly if he’d misjudged Abbey’s reaction to vote Harry—the vote could have resulted in a 2-2 tie, a likely fire-making challenge and the potential for Pia to go home, even after all the fanfare. But Luke knew what he was doing, and it was an absolute masterclass.
Now, I can’t dock Abbey or Harry for the way they reacted to Luke’s bombshell. Neither had any reason to suspect a 2-1-1 against Abbey, and both played as best they could give the adrenaline rush of a seemingly live Tribal. For Harry, sticking to the plan was his best bet—what would going rogue to throw a vote at Abbey accomplish, aside from randomising an already unexpected Tribal further or undermining himself if Abbey stuck by him?
For Abbey, too, she had little reason to doubt Luke. He was instrumental in bringing her over to work with Harry and Baden in the first place, and she flipped from the Athletes Seven in part because of her interest in teaming up with him. She might have been gunning for him, but he’d shown no sign of reciprocating that. And with the tableau looking like an obvious vote against Harry, it made sense to pile on the numbers. Perhaps you could argue that she should have stuck with voting Pia to pre-empt any funny business, at worst leading to fire between Harry and Pia, but when one of the people you’ve known the longest in the game has produced a secret twist and is then giving you a privileged whisper of the plan, I can understand why Abbey chose to fall in line.
That said, Abbey played a pretty remarkable, if underrated, game. Arguably, the two of biggest moves in the game were solely at her discretion in her flips against the Athletes and Simon & Janine. Following her flips, she integrated herself well into her new alliance, ultimately leapfrogging pre-existing players like David when she teamed up with the women and Luke as she plotted with Baden & Harry. The most recent move was set to put her in a position where, aside from Luke, she was a favourite to win out at Immunity. Her game certainly wasn’t perfect, and her emotions guided her along the way, but when push came to shove, she was willing to get her hands dirty and play a surprisingly aggressive game. And ultimately, if she were to go out, this was one hell of a way to do it.
THE 2-1-1 WE DESERVE
This dissertation on Luke’s move nears its end, and at this point, it goes without saying: this was one of the most impressively innovative plays I’ve seen in Survivor. In one fell swoop, Luke demonstrated his skills in the physical game (through his record-tying Immunity win), the strategic game (through his domination of the vote with a secret advantage for good measure) and the social game (through his use of personal bonds and impressive reads to manoeuvre his plan into place). He was already the odds-on favourite to win out at the end, but this historic vote cemented it.
And this is a historic vote! It might be the third 2-1-1 we’ve seen, but it’s the first 2-1-1 to blindside its target. With so few numbers in play, that is an awe-inspiring feat. And we’ve still got two more episodes to go!
This Final Four is no slouch and is arguably the most ambitiously strategic Final Four we’ve seen in Australian Survivor, and I can’t wait to see how it all comes to an end next week. And even if it doesn’t reach the heights of tonight’s incredible gameplay, I think it’s safe to say that Australian Survivor: Champions vs. Contenders II will go down in the history books as one of the most exciting seasons of Survivor gameplay to date.