We’re at a fascinating point in the game. With the two biggest forces of the game sent packing over the last votes, the Final Seven is a web of uncertainty. On paper, it seems straight-forward enough: two alliances battling it out. But the dynamics within each alliance are nebulous at best, and with many of the castaways in positions of self-interest, there’s no guarantee that alliance numbers mean you can put the car in cruise control.
Tonight’s episode only muddied the waters further by introducing one of the more creative twists to come out of Australian Survivor – and at first impression, it’s certainly one of the best as it stirs the pot just enough to put the castaways on their toes without completely shooting certain players in the foot. No one saw their torch snuffed tonight, and while the anointment of Steve as the Dead Man Walking could seem like a mere prolonging of the inevitable, the branding of a player as the next to go can sometimes light the spark – and we know Commando likes his fire.
DROP DEAD GORGEOUS
But let’s get into the nitty-gritty of tonight’s goings-on. The Koro Savu tribe was clearly split down the middle: the remnants of Mat’s Alliance – Shane, Sharn and Steve – against the last of the Contenders – Fenella and Shonee (or Shonella, the now-canonised portmanteau). Meanwhile, Brian and Monika float somewhere in the middle having sided with the Contenders to form the Mighty Ducks to eliminate Mat, only to flip back to the Champions against Benji. It quickly became clear that Brian was all-in on his Ducks alliance, happy to continue his rule as “King Grub” – but the tension in the episode came from Monika, who found herself caught between her respect for the Champions and the strategic relationships she’s built with the Ducks.
Yes, tonight was all about what was best for Monika, and it’s about time we got to see something of her game. For a player who has been regularly articulate at Tribal and has been at the centre of many key moves, it’s bizarre that she has been so hidden in the edit (particularly given the glut of repetitive confessionals from the likes of Benji and Mat over the past weeks). Thankfully, as the numbers dwindle, we’re able to see a little more from our end-gamers, and the Monika we saw tonight was not the one I was expecting to see. From what could be gleamed from her small moments, Monika appeared to be playing a smart, self-driven game, building good relationships and keeping her head down (Day 40, and she’s yet to have a vote cast against her or be on the wrong side of the numbers at Tribal) while playing a pivotal role in eliminating huge targets. But the episode instead painted her through the lens of “just a model” – floating along, unpredictable and unreliable, somewhat ditzy, breaking down over how hard the game is.
Although many of these perspectives came from the other players themselves, particularly Shane and Brian who each lamented having to put their trust in – God forbid – Miss Universe, it detracted from the effective game Monika is playing. Even tonight, she made the smart decision to swing back to the Ducks in an effort to thin out the Champions block while keeping her options open in the middle of the field. Yet the trouble for Monika is that perception is reality in Survivor and even if she is playing the best game she can, she’ll need to work hard to convince her fellow castaways that she has intentionally blazed her own trail and isn’t just going whichever way the wind is blowing. By staking her position with the Ducks at tonight’s vote, on top of being a deciding vote against both Mat and Benji, she’s got the foundation – but can she build the persuasive argument?
Where Monika was in the middle, the other players seemed more firmly locked in place at this vote. Like Monika, Brian has been the key player in these last votes and with Shonella tightly aligned with him, he’s emerged out of nowhere to become a powerful player. Throughout the season, Brian’s goofy (and often a little off-colour) humour has been a spark of much-needed levity, but it’s clear that he is fighting to win the game, and he’s willing to play hard.
But he’s not the only one – despite their small victory over Benji, the core Champions alliance still found themselves in a precarious position. Knowing that Brian was untrustworthy and had a stronger bond with Fenella and Shonee, they were forced to put their hope in Monika – and to their credit, they went all in. Sharn has had a rocky few days, but her recovery has been pretty impressive in spite of her failing to regain the numbers at this vote. Her strategic conversations with Monika might not have had the most finesse, but she pitched her argument for sticking Champions-strong well, pointing to Shonella as the dangerous power couple that needed to be broken up. Sharn’s scrappiness is transparent, and her direct statements at Tribal (“fortune favours the brave”) were leaving the Ducks openly commenting on how hard she was fighting, but when you’ve been a dead man walking as she was at the last vote, there’s nothing to lose in playing hard. I’m not sure if Sharn can get herself to the end from her current position of dwindling numbers, but she’s not going to go down without a fight.
Shane, meanwhile, is the definite dark horse of this Final Seven. The Ducks pegged her as a non-threat. Even her own alliance members seem to underestimate her – they’re impressed that she’s toughing it out 40 days in, but they don’t seem to credit her with any role in gameplay. But as we saw when she was “inclined to do a blindside,” singlehandedly turning the vote against Lydia at the merge, Shane is willing to play aggressively, and she wants to win. Breaking up the last Contenders is the smart move from her perspective, even though it is motivated by revenge for Mat’s blindside. Shane’s social game also seems under-estimated, as tonight we saw her share personal stories with Steve and compliment him as a Grumpy Old Man. But when it came to trying to sway Monika, Shane took the more personal approach – whereas Sharn laid out the move strategically, Shane talked with Monika about how they could advance in the game together. It’s a small subtlety, and possibly not even sincere, but it demonstrates that Shane isn’t all talk when it comes to playing Survivor. I am so excited that we’ve got such a unique character like Shane on this season, and I hope she gets to add some more to her Survivor resume before all is said and done.
DEAD MAN WALKING
Now tonight’s unconventional episode wasn’t the most jaw-dropping installment, but the introduction of the new Dead Man Walking twist certainly put a spanner in the works. Australian Survivor has always been a bit hit-and-miss with how it handles the non-elimination episodes required for its production, but between the Exile Beach twist in the pre-merge and tonight’s innovative idea, Season 3 has served up a decent batch. As the castaways learned after Shonee’s unexpected Immunity win, their Tribal would not vote out the fifth member of the Jury. Instead, they would vote to designate one player among them as the Dead Man Walking, robbing them of their vote at the next two Tribal Councils.
On the surface, this is a powerful twist. At the end of the day, Tribal Council is where the rubber meets the road. It’s where you can prove your loyalty or make your move using the power of your pen and parchment with a vote. Removing a player’s ability to vote (and particularly at this late stage in the game) defangs them. But we’ve seen it before (heck, we’ve seen it this season!) – when a castaway knows they’re decisively on the outs, it can give them the licence to play more aggressively and recklessly – because what have they got to lose? It’s hard to pass judgement on the twist when we haven’t seen it play out, but at the starting line, I have to say that I’m intrigued.
So from what we know – was targeting Steve the right choice by the Ducks? Initially, Fenella and Shonee pitched the plan to target Shane, citing her as the lesser threat of the three Champions – not physical, not socially persuasive. Taking away her vote would render her even more ineffective for the coming Tribals, and make it easier to go after Steve and Sharn at the next votes. But Brian was adamant in wanting to go after the big dog, the irritating yoga man, in Steve, and he ultimately got his way – seemingly at Tribal!
Nevertheless, I think Shonella had it right the first time. Ideally, you want to maximise the non-votes of the Dead Man Walking by keeping them through the next vote. If Shane is the lesser target, removing her vote makes it easier to keep her around at the next Final 7 vote, where you could target Steve or Sharn. Then at Final 6, she still can’t vote, and you can eliminate the other threat – or her. By blocking Steve’s votes, it discourages getting rid of him at the next vote if you wanted to get the most out of the twist while also incentivising one of the bigger physical threats to give his all in the Immunity challenges. That said, I’m excited to see how this completely unprecedented twist affects the endgame, and that all starts tomorrow night with the real Final 7 Tribal…
OTHER #SURVIVORAU COVERAGE on INSIDE SURVIVOR
Australian Survivor will be back Tuesday September 25 at 7.30pm AEST, and Alice Barelli 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!