Four episodes in, season four of Australian Survivor is smashing it out of the park. Tonight’s episode had a little bit of everything but culminated with two stellar centrepiece events. The first half of the episode circled around Sarah’s traumatic experience in the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami and its gut-wrenching impact on her during the iconic and horrifying Tower of Terror challenge. It was a rough event for Sarah, but the episode wove a sympathetic and poignant picture, not just for the woman at the centre of it all but also for the Contenders tribe around her.
The second half, meanwhile, kept the foot on the gas of the human drama but cranked it up with a dash of conflict and the pressure of Tribal Council. The fallout from the Susie vote shook the Champions tribe apart as Steven and Nova reeled from being tossed from the top of the pecking order to the chopping block. As they placed the blame on Abbey, tensions rose, tearing apart one alliance and forging another, all on the back of social dynamics.
It was only one word, but it signalled a significant turning point in the game for the Champions. The minority of Luke, David, Janine, and Pia managed to pull off a most unlikely plan in the previous episode, independently swaying Abbey and Ross to jump ship from the majority Seven alliance. While I’d been impressed by Steven’s quick work to secure a majority on Day 1, I’d also been cautious. Alliances built on first impressions or convenient surface-level similarities, such as the athletic history of the Sporty Seven, can be effective, but unless carefully managed, they can easily fall apart because they fail to account for the social game. Just because a group of people all played professional sports, it doesn’t mean they’ll inevitably get along well enough to cooperate in a game as intense and self-driven as Survivor.
Such was the fate of the Sporty Seven. It was social dynamics that split them apart at the Susie vote – Abbey for feeling like she didn’t have a voice in the alliance, and Ross for personal conflict with Nova and a better rapport with the larrikin attitude of Luke – and it was social dynamics that burnt the bridge tonight. Naturally, Steven and Nova were devastated by the Susie vote. Not only had they lost an ally, but it had been at the hands of a betrayal of their alliance, and now they were firmly in the minority. They had reason to be frustrated with Abbey and Ross, but instead of putting their heads down and finding a way to ingratiate themselves back into a majority, they stewed in their animosity and dug their own graves with indignant self-righteousness.
I’d been feeling optimistic about both of their games after the premiere – Steven for his sly assembly of a majority, and Nova for swaying her alliance to vote out her choice of target – but in the intervening episodes, it became quickly apparent that such cunning was not their brand. Instead, Steven and Nova became overconfident top-dogs who bristled at the reality of the cutthroat game of Survivor. They championed “tribe strength” (but only when it suited them) while deriding the manipulation and deception that’s been at the core of the game since its inception almost 20-years ago (and again, only when it suited them). It was a disappointing turn, and it reached a tipping point in the latest episode.
After losing their second consecutive Immunity Challenge, the remnants of the athletes’ alliance – Steven, Nova, ET, and Simon – were in a rough spot. Simon reached out to Abbey to explore whether she would return to work with them, but the die was cast. Even though tribe strength remained a consideration, Abbey had no reason to return to an alliance who hadn’t given her a voice – and in Steven’s case, had completely neglected her. She attempted to explain her thinking to Steven directly – that she felt like she couldn’t have her say in the alliance, and he hadn’t made an effort to get to know her on a personal level, and so she’d taken another option. Steven’s response?
Lambasting her reasoning as ridiculous, Steven’s response was brash. In his eyes, he couldn’t get past her betrayal and posited that she should have told the alliance that she was flipping rather than lying that she was with them. It’s thinking like that that has Survivor fans putting their head in their hands because… really? Welcome to Survivor mate! Regardless, while Steven was entitled to feel betrayed, his reaction to gaslight Abbey’s legitimate feelings and thinking was strategically moronic (especially for a player in the minority, and hours before Tribal Council) and simply obtuse on a social, interpersonal level. Steven has shown a few instances of speaking without thinking, such as him calling out that he would have voted Baden out if he were the Contenders, but this was an all-timer.
Naturally, Abbey was shaken. She had tried to offer her rationale for her move but had been rudely dismissed. While it seemed like she may have interpreted Steven’s comment to further imply that she, herself, was weak (and not just her reasoning for her vote as he’d intended), she was visibly upset by Steven’s words. Emotionally, it eviscerated any connection they could have rebuilt, and strategically, it only validated her previous decision to flip. If she hadn’t felt like she had a voice in the athletes’ alliance before, Steven had just outright confirmed it by shutting her down.
Now, this interaction was bad enough on its own, but the fact that it occurred in the presence of both Nova and Pia only further exacerbated the incident. In Pia’s case, she consoled Abbey, who broke down in tears as she processed Steven’s insults. As the rest of their alliance – David, Janine, Luke & Ross – gathered around, the conversation was recounted, and they all sprung to Abbey’s defence. While I don’t doubt that this was largely an empathetic human response, it speaks to how an alliance built on personal relationships can be so effective. This group had a majority of numbers, but for Abbey, they also became a very real support network who would listen to her, take her side and stand up to those coming for her.
David, especially infuriated, took the fight back to camp and ensured that the incident came to public knowledge. And here we find the nail in the coffin for Nova’s game. As David challenged Steven for his comments, Nova stepped up to defend him. If Steven had been dismissive, Nova came across as outright callous. Between defending Steven’s remarks as not insulting and casually dismissing Abbey’s reaction as “crocodile tears,” it painted her into the same corner as Steven. Much like Steven’s initial comments, Nova’s reaction lacked strategic consideration by drawing attention onto her and also reading as pretty heartless on the social level. Even if she thought Abbey was over-reacting, what does voicing that opinion achieve in a situation such as this?
At this point, it seemed all but certain that Steven had dug his own grave. As he climbed in, he attempted a mea culpa, apologising to Abbey for the misunderstanding, but the numbers were against him. It was so foregone that even ET and Simon tried to jump on the bandwagon, casting their votes against Steven at Tribal, and Nova and Steven were both convinced that it was his night to go. But the new majority alliance was a whole lot craftier than that. With the smokescreen of emotion clouding the air, it was a perfect opportunity to make a smarter play. Luke knows this game, and from what we’ve seen of David, Janine & Pia, there’s a lot more strategic thinking going on in the brains behind that group. So instead of shooting the obvious target in Steven, they decided to take a side-swipe at Nova.
It was a blindside that wasn’t spelled out for the viewer, but the seeds were there. Nova’s impassioned defence of Steven and dismissal of Abbey continued throughout Tribal Council, and by comparison to Steven’s sheepish defeated acceptance of his fate, she rose as the more vocal threat. Luke also spoke of the value of conflict, and while Nova and Steven were both staunchly opposed to Abbey, Steven seemed to be the less intentional of the two. He’d blundered into offending Abbey with an admittedly cold off-the-cuff remark, but Nova was the one who wouldn’t let it go. In much the same way, she wouldn’t relinquish control of “Nova’s kitchen,” and perhaps her dominant personality at camp was also reaching the extent of its tolerability. Strategically, it also made sense to keep the vote from being obvious, just in case there was a second Idol out there (which, given the situation with Janine’s Idol, could have been a real possibility), and there’s the argument to be made that Steven was a greater challenge asset than Nova.
So for all of the athletes’ accusations of voting emotionally over logically, it was only Steven and Nova who voted against their strongest female tribemate simply because she’d betrayed them. With all of their talk of targeting the weak in recent episodes, it’s shocking that Pia and Luke weren’t more of a target after they got their ropes tangled in the Immunity challenge, but here we are. Meanwhile, logic dominated the rest of the tribe. ET and Simon logically followed the tides of public opinion, and the new majority alliance made the calculated move to continue dismantling the opposing group while putting the direct conflict between Steven and Abbey on ice. The choice to target Nova was a smart play, and it sets the tenor for the season – particularly for these Champions who are getting a true taste of the brutal nature of the game of Survivor.
The move leaves the Champions in a pretty compelling place. The alliance of Abbey, David, Janine, Luke, Pia & Ross has voted together for two votes in a row, and with a network of personal bonds tying them together, they could easily stay strong against the remnants of the athletes. Steven is, as Jonathan LaPaglia himself noted, skating by on thin ice, and after burning his relationship with Abbey, I can’t imagine he’ll have an easy path ahead of him. But ET and Simon are also keeping on – each has been hiding in the background (perhaps intentionally if the editors wanted to break any negative association with the season’s early villains in Steven and Nova), but could this fracturing of the convenient Sporty Seven and a second vote left on the outside of the majority spurn them into action? Regardless, I’m fascinated to see how all of this plays out!
A BOOST TO THE GAME
Before we head over to the Contenders camp, we have to go back to the Reward. Winning hot chocolate and marshmallows, the Champions quickly gorged themselves on sugar. While they were distracted by the confection and by conversation with the Mullet himself, John (invited to join them for the afternoon and starstruck by his teen crush in Pia “Josie Alibrandi” Miranda), Janine was in game mode. Much like Luke thought to search the raft supplies for his Idol clue, Janine scoured the Reward for a clue or an advantage. Sure enough, her efforts were rewarded, and she was able to nab a parchment from under the table. She might not have been in pure stealth mode, but thankfully, the only witness was an ally in David, and she quickly found an opportunity to sneak away and read her prize.
It led her to the well and an Idol hiding in wait… only, this wasn’t a normal Idol. This was an Idol solely usable by a Contender at a Contenders Tribal. For Janine, it was useless, but the good news was that there was an equivalent Idol hidden at the Contenders beach, usable only by a Champion at a Champions Tribal. Thus, the only way for Janine to get her hands on an Idol useful to her would be to make a deal with a Contender.
I loved this twist immediately. Anything that encourages cross-Tribal interaction is a blessing, and when it ties directly into the game, it’s even more impactful. It also serves to make the Idols far more than just an Idol – they become currency, favour, and information. That’s immensely powerful in Survivor but equally precarious. Trust the wrong person, and everything falls apart.
I have to imagine that this twist was intentionally designed to coincide with the Reward allowing the winners to invite a member of the losing tribe to join them. It was perfectly aligned for Janine to give the Idol to John in the hopes that he’d dig up an Idol for her and pay her back. But Janine is an incredibly smart woman and is evolving to be a savvy gameplayer, and she made a fantastic call by electing to wait. She barely knows John, and even if she felt like he would honour an agreement, that’s a big secret to share. There are ten other Contenders on the opposing tribe, and for Janine, there could be a much better ally in the making amongst one of them. Holding onto the Idol until she can choose the opportune player to strike a bargain with also serves to maintain control. As soon as she gives up the Idol or even information about it, it’s out of her hands. The longer she can keep the cards close to her chest, the more considerable influence she’ll have coming into her negotiation of power.
The previews have suggested that it won’t take much longer for this saga to unfold, but I am thrilled to see how all of this plays out. It feels like mechanically willed or traded Idols have rarely had a significant impact on Survivor – I think back to Sabrina Thompson’s Idol in One World that only amounted to an ornament in Colton Cumbie’s pocket – and the double trade-off mechanics of this twist make it a much more compelling idea!
ECHOES OF THE PAST
While strategy was first and foremost on the Tribal-bound Champions, tonight’s Contenders story was purely personal. And boy was it moving. Sarah’s personal experience surviving the Boxing Day Tsunami is harrowing, and though the disaster has defined her character on the show thus far, it’s clear that it doesn’t define her as a person. But as the tribes marched knee-deep into the water for their Reward challenge with the enormous Towers looming in the distance, it was clear that this would be more than just a typical Survivor challenge for Sarah.
Surprisingly, Sarah did not sit out of the challenge – one that involved leaping off the huge tower into the ocean in an eerie recollection of her own experience leaping from the roof of a dive shop into the rushing waters of a tsunami. Despite it seeming as though the tribe knew of her story, Casey claimed dibs on sitting out before the tribe even had the opportunity to discuss it. We don’t know Casey’s reasoning for being so adamant on this, but it seemed rather odd for no-one to even check with Sarah before going into this one. But one of the clearest traits that’s emerged about Sarah is that she is determined, and she wanted to conquer this challenge.
Only once she reached the top of the tower, fear took over. One by one, Champion and Contender alike leapt, dived or belly-flopped from the tower and swam their way to the floating platform. But Sarah couldn’t do it. Her mind was determined, but her body locked up. Her legs froze in place. Her tribe called out encouragement – even Abbey called out across tribe lines to offer her support – but for Sarah, this wasn’t about a fear of heights. This was so much more. This was a moment of PTSD and something that intense can’t be easily pushed past.
As heartbreaking as it was to see her left alone on the tower, and later taking on the burden of causing the challenge loss (the guilt that comes with that), it wasn’t all pain. In the darkest moment, there was light, and it became abundantly clear that Survivor can bring out the absolute best in people. John, and later Matt, swam back out to the tower, climbing to the top to offer their encouragement, offering to jump in with her, urging her to forget about the challenge and just conquer it for herself. But when it became apparent that Sarah wasn’t in the right space to do it, they hugged her and assured her that all was okay. The tribe backed her up, praising her for her contributions over the first week of the game; this was just one challenge, and that did not define her. John, too, shared this sentiment with the Champions during his excursion to their beach, and when he returned, he brought a gift for Sarah – a marshmallow. It was clear that it wasn’t a gift of pity but one of respect and love.
We’re so used to seeing a moment like Sarah’s struggle undercut by game opportunists targeting the person who lost the challenge or a cruel or oblivious player making uninformed comments about her performance. So it was refreshing to see the Contenders rally around Sarah so wholeheartedly and build her back up, and the show itself embrace the wholesome affirmation of experience. For some, it might feel like Australian Survivor luxuriated in the tragedy of Sarah’s past (or worse, exploited it by revisiting this particular challenge) and the drama of the challenge, but for me, it felt genuine, earned and moving. Survivor can be a lot of things. We often tend to view it through the lens of the strategic game, but at its core, it is a social experiment that hinges on the personal experiences of the players on the island. For some of those players, it’s not the game itself that is the important part of Survivor, it’s the journey and the experience. Sarah’s story was a reminder that the human element of Survivor can be phenomenally compelling.
And for Sarah herself – she’s a tough cookie. She signed up for Survivor knowing that she could face something like this, and despite her trauma, she set her mind to it and went for it anyway. That takes a lot of strength, and though she may not have performed the way she wanted to in this particular challenge, she showed that being strong doesn’t require an absence of weakness. Sarah has grit, and I think she’s got a lot left to give to this game.
NEXT TIME… ON SURVIVOR
Australian Survivor is only getting better with each episode. The dynamics of the Champions tribe is a wonderful mess, but as the strategic thinkers are rising to the top, it feels like the level of gameplay is only going to get better. The Contenders, meanwhile, are also nuanced, if under-edited at this early stage. But from what we’ve seen, we’ve got a bunch who are passionate about the game and supportive of each other, which could be fascinating as the game gets tougher.
Tomorrow night, it’s kicking goals and what looks like some Idol shenanigans – and it couldn’t get her quick enough!
OTHER #SURVIVORAU COVERAGE on INSIDE SURVIVOR
Australian Survivor will be back to Tuesday 30 July at 7.30pm AEST, and Dylan Vidal will be on hand to recap everything that goes down, down under.
Also, be sure to tune in for this season’s Power Rankings as Season 2’s Tessa O’Halloran, Season 3’s Fenella McGowan, and Redmond himself, Martin Holmes, go head-to-head.