As Jonathan LaPaglia bid farewell to the tribe at Tribal Council, his words of wisdom seemed particularly prescient. “Amateurs play the game, but experts play the players. Only time will tell which category you’re in.” As the castaways applauded this turn of phrase, the cynic in me wants to throw the snark: then where on earth are the experts on this cast? After a disappointing string of boots cutting out players willing to mix the game up and get some blood on their hands, it’s easy to be frustrated by the frogmarch of the Champions and the seeming blindness or bad luck facing the Contenders.
But then I have to take a step back. We’re at the half-way point in the game now. The merge is knocking at the door. We’re about to head into the bloodbath free-for-all that is the end game. It might feel trendy to point to the Lydias, Steves and Robbies of the season, who are championing (no pun intended) physical strength and their massive tribe-strong alliance, as boring or bad players – the amateurs, so to speak. But I think that’s disingenuous and takes away from a lot of really strong self-interested gameplay going on in these final days of the pre-merge – and I’m optimistic that it will give us some interesting fallout in the episodes to come.
The trouble is that good Survivor gameplay often makes for dull television. We like players who flip the game on its head and who keep hitting the refresh button every episode. Yet so often, big players like that become big targets – particularly in the longer format of Australian Survivor. There’s wisdom to laying low, to going with the flow, to couching yourself in a stable alliance – and taking out personal opposition. And that’s what’s happening out in Fiji.
Let’s begin by looking at the New Contenders tribe and the disaster that is the fractured original Contenders. On paper, the tribe swap should have been a perfect lifeline for the tribe – 4 Contenders to 3 Champions could have naturally lent itself to a few thrown challenges to even out the numerical disadvantage. But the original Contenders faced so much turmoil in the days before the swap – blindsides and broken trust galore – that there was no stability to be had in trying to stay Contenders strong.
Rather, it was time to start finding a lifeboat. Robbie and Benji made the shift after the swap to begin building relationships with Lydia, Sharn and Monika to form a new majority in the tribe, and it made a difference for them here. They were able to not only assure themselves a comfortable position in the tribe but also build new alliances – which could prove essential in the post-merge – and eliminate a personal threat in Heath, who they’d already blindsided twice before. On face value, their decision to flip to the Champions seems short-sighted – surely they’ll be at the bottom of the pecking order, and at best will place somewhere around 8th or 9th. While I’m reticent to say that their connection to the Champion women will give them a leg up in the merge, I’m not sure if the alternative is any better. Saving Tegan at the last vote, or keeping Heath in the game this round would have only kept around players who have already attempted to come after them. In the chaos of the merge, who’s to say they wouldn’t turn on the boys first?
Benji spoke tonight of the kill-or-be-killed nature of Survivor – and it’s an accurate tenet. For someone drawing ire as Benji has in the wake of Tegan’s first elimination, he can’t afford to bide his time to eliminate someone he can’t trust. He might not be the most likable player on the season, but for all of his “dethrone the queen and king” rhetoric, he’s playing a solid game with the hand he’s been dealt. The Contenders ship is sinking and taking his chances with new alliances (and new trust yet to be broken), along with a staunch ally in Robbie and an Idol in his pocket seems like a decent plan.
Robbie, meanwhile, stands out less as a player. Physically, he’s a force to be reckoned with, but the game isn’t all about strength. Trust is paramount, and Robbie has been in lockstep with Benji as they’ve broken promises and made enemies. But Robbie also faces a different danger, and that target began rearing its head tonight as Fenella and Heath attempted to throw him under the bus as a post-merge Immunity threat. As a physically imposing player – even amongst the sheer amount of muscle amongst the Champions – Robbie will inevitably have to fight that target after the merge. The best defence for that is to be a tree in a forest – teaming up with other challenge beasts like Lydia gives him a natural defence. It also helps that there seems to be a similarity in the way that he and Lydia view the game – both want to emphasise to the physicality of the game and lean on trust. Whereas Fenella and Heath are looking at Robbie as a danger, Lydia is looking at him as a compatriot and asset. Why wouldn’t he want to work with her?
On the other side of the coin, Fenella and Heath found themselves facing an uphill battle. With the line in the sand drawn after they were the only two to vote to save Tegan, they had to scramble to pull new numbers. Sensing that Benji and Robbie had abandoned ship, they tried to build a new plan with the Champion women – and particularly with Monika and Sharn. It was exciting to finally get to see more of Fenella, a player who had been pivotal pre-swap but from whom we heard very little. As she shot off one-liners and jumped headfirst into strategizing, it’s easy to see why she was able to put herself in such a solid position on the original Contenders. Picking up on cues like Monika’s fireside talk of wanting to encourage girl power via her Instagram, Fenella drew on her own experience at the Contenders beach of the boys sticking together to pitch a uniting of the women to seize control of the game. It ultimately wasn’t successful, but perhaps it will help lay the groundwork to give her (and her ally Shonee) somewhere to go come tomorrow night’s merge.
Heath also tried to appeal to the Champions, taking the age-old tactic of asking the players in the minority who they wanted to get rid of, and getting them to put Robbie’s name on the table. It gave him a legitimate out when Robbie later learned of the plans, allowing him to honestly say that he didn’t suggest the name, but in this particular scenario, it wasn’t enough. Even though they talked about being in the minority, the Champion women knew that they were the swing votes and held the power – the divide between the Contenders was too clear to miss. Thus, Heath met his end in a disappointing conclusion to his story.
Heath played a solid game – he found strong allies, he made moves early on to gain power, and he broke the Australian record for votes cancelled with an Idol when he saved himself from a unanimous vote and paved the way for his closest ally to return to the game. Yet Heath seemed to struggle to find his footing after the rug was pulled out from under him – perhaps playing with too much trust in the idea that the past could be forgotten, and critically failing to make in-roads with the Champions at the swap. While I’m sad to lose a player like Heath right before the merge, there’s something poetic about going out in this spot, right after Tegan, and leaving the so-called throne vacant for new players and stories to emerge in the future.
Meanwhile, the Champion women have to be applauded for their efforts in overcoming a minority on a swap tribe – particularly when they represented the top dogs coming in. Lydia’s work to curry favour with Robbie was a strong move over the last couple episodes and was revisited tonight as she shared information with him to drive a wedge between him and Heath and solidify her own position in the game. While her primary asset may be her strength, Survivor isn’t just about monkey bars – yet I still get the sense that Lydia knows she’ll have to turn up the heat in the other areas of her game to win. Charming Robbie to her side was a step in the right direction towards playing a more social and strategic game, so we’ll see what comes of that.
But tonight really came down to Sharn and Monika. Although Monika remained the sidekick to the plan, the two women found themselves in complete control of the vote – able to pick their side and their path forward. They considered the options – including the chance that a unified Contenders alliance was duping them – and ultimately chose the right side for them.
Sharn and Monika are in a good position in their original Champions alliance – they’ve got good connections to Mat, in particular, who seems to be the ringleader – and by building on their relationships with people like Robbie and Benji, who are more willing to work with the Champs than desperate underdogs like Fenella and Heath, it gives them options. Benji, particularly, has a growing connection with Sharn. At the top of the episode, he approached her and talked game, both of them excited to make the big moves. In past episodes, Sharn has discussed wanting to knock him down a peg or two, but like Robbie and Lydia, there’s a likemindedness between them that could be an asset for her – and at the end of the day, he needs her more than she needs him.
It’s also worth noting the critical information revealed in Sharn’s voting confessional. She states that she wishes Heath had approached her sooner – if he had, he might not have been the one going home. It goes to show that timing is everything in Survivor, and by not talking to Sharn about working together before he absolutely needed her, Heath lost her vote – and potentially sealed his fate. It is essential to build up your options early – and that’s exactly what players like Sharn (and Mat) are doing.
While the game was heating up at the Contenders beach, something else was heating up over with the Champions as Steve satiated his inner pyromaniac by smoking out a hive of bees to harvest some natural Fijian honey. Camp life moments like this are always welcome – not only because we finally got to see Steve crack a smile – but because they offer a glimpse into the fun and reality of Survivor. It’s not just about challenges and strategy and personal journeys – it’s also about strangers from all walks of life crossing paths and sharing in the wild experience that is Survivor.
But there was one person who was not enjoying the camp life of the Champions, as Shonee – an obvious outcast and fish-out-of-water – struggled to find a place in the tribe. Her monologue on the boring conversations and uphill battle was yet another example of her quippy, fun character, but it also showed us more glimpses of the game she is playing. To this point, she’s largely been able to skate through the drama of the Contenders beach unscathed, but is now having to fight for her place and build new in-roads with people she would never have imagined and find ways to slip through the cracks. Time will tell if she can dodge the bullets at the merge, but Shonee knows her strengths and is playing to them.
Meanwhile, Mat continued to put more arrows in his quiver. It seems like every week he’s building a new relationship and forging a new ally, and tonight he also spoke of the value that Shonee could bring him as a number. At this point, it seems redundant to say that Mat is playing exceedingly well and positioning himself in a strong position come the merge. But the concern is that his profile is clear – from the other tribe, Heath, someone he’s never interacted with, was able to pinpoint him as the head honcho. And as he builds more alliances, he’s now facing a situation where he’ll have to break most of those promises and put them on a Jury. We’ve seen Mat build his army – now it’s time to see the battle.
EVERY CHAMPION WAS ONCE A CONTENDER
I don’t always take a moment to discuss the challenge, but as we close out the pre-merge, it’s worth discussing this one. This season has featured an unusually high amount of purely physical challenges, and it’s been a large contributor to why the Champions so outnumber the Contenders. So it was refreshing to see tonight’s Immunity challenge finally utilise a real puzzle – and we saw its benefit as a great equalizer. Even though the physical portion of the challenge gave one tribe a head-start (notably, in part, to Lydia underperforming for perhaps the first time in the season), the challenge ultimately came down to a complex 30-letter word scramble where the “genius” Samuel found himself stumped, and it was the goofy jock in Brian who solved the phrase. It was a nail-biting finish, it was exciting and it was a refreshing change of pace.
I’m not advocating for every challenge to end in a puzzle – that too becomes frustratingly predictable, and if you have one tribe with exceedingly gifted puzzle masters, it can still end up with lop-sided results. But Survivor is at its best when it is diverse – when its cast is full of unique stories and differing backgrounds, when the story-telling gives us well-rounded perspectives on every player, when the challenges require different attributes and inevitably favour different skill-sets. Australian Survivor knocks it out of the park with the exciting scale and ingenuity of its challenges, but I hope we’ve got a more diverse set of challenges to come in the individual portion of the game.
WE ARE MERGED!
At the halfway point of this season, it’s easy to look at the pre-merge as a story of strength winning out over strategy as a wealth of players willing to play hard have seen their torches snuffed while those speaking of honesty, tribe unity and physicality have made it to the merge. Would I have liked to see the pre-merge players – all of them compelling characters and/or promising game-players – make it further? Sure!
But I don’t discount the players still in the game – and the conflicting strategies and philosophies on the game that will inevitably divide the 12-strong merge tribe. Players like Mat, Sharn and Benji – even Samuel – bring strategic gameplay but can they exert the control they need to pull off their moves and put themselves in a winning position? Players like Robbie, Lydia and Steve are all about the strength, but there’s only one Immunity necklace up for grabs, so can they adapt to the other pillars of the game? What about Fenella and Shonee, willing gameplayers who now have nothing to lose by playing hard? Or players like Brian, Monika and Shane – complete wildcards on the periphery of the Champions who’ve each expressed a desire to play the game for their own success. And these twelve players have taken out Matt, Russell, Damien, Stevie, Jenna, Moana, Anita, Zach, Paige, Jackie, Tegan and Heath – all dangerous players.
It’s clear, on Day 30, that our merge tribe isn’t full of amateurs. And I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to confidently see some experts emerge by Day 50.
OTHER #SURVIVORAU COVERAGE on INSIDE SURVIVOR
Australian Survivor will be back Tuesday September 4 at 7.30pm AEST, and Dylan Vidal will be on hand to recap everything that goes down, down under.
Also be sure to check out our Power Rankings with AU Season 2 legends Luke Toki, Sarah Tilleke and Tessa O’Halloran, and keep an eye out for exit interviews with the Champions and Contenders after their torches are snuffed!