At the merge, we were promised the best endgame in Australian Survivor history – and even though the season’s flaws have still been felt in its latter half, it can’t be denied that the individual game has been unexpectedly chaotic, unpredictable and ultimately entertaining. The biggest contributing factor is the struggle of the individual game. When the gloves come off, and the game gets real. When big targets fall, and new power players arise. When big moves are made, and mistakes are dire. And for this cast, largely consisting of players less familiar with the beauty that is Survivor strategy, the slow blooming of strategic minds has been an enticing conclusion for a season that felt destined for mateship to prevail.
That’s not to say that Champions vs. Contenders will ever stand in the pantheon of the greatest Survivor gameplay. After all, tonight’s episode was still dominated by strategies of loyalty and ‘going up against the best.’ Yet tonight we also saw a 2-1-1 vote for only the second time in Survivor’s 18+ years, driven by a player taking a creative and calculated risk that ultimately cost them the game. Tonight was all about the tug-of-war between self-interest and self-perception. Strategy vs. emotion. The head vs. the heart. It’s a well-trod dichotomy in Survivor, but one that is so integral to the nature of a cutthroat social game that it can never be forgotten – and will forever drive our Survivor stories.
Coming into the penultimate episode, it felt like every one of the Final Four had a path to victory and yet the road to the Final Two was still obscured by uncertainty. It felt like anything could happen – and even still I would never have predicted the outcome of tonight’s vote. Victorious after their successful blindside of Monika, the Shush Alliance of Shane, Sharn and Shonee were poised to keep the power as they kept Brian firmly in their sights. Meanwhile, Grub was despondent in his sudden loss of control and rightfully saw an Immunity streak as his only reliable path to the end. And when Brian emerged victorious in a nail-biting challenge (winning his fourth Immunity to break the Australian Survivor record of 3, previously held by Lee Carseldine, Locky Gilbert and Sharn), it succeeded in turning expectations on their head and showing that any line in the sand can be washed away.
Naturally, Brian continued his usual tactic of remaining fixated on his biggest target, attempting to pull Shonee and Shane on side to eliminate Sharn. However, Shane found herself in the swing position, and despite recognising the danger posed by the barrister, she wanted to stick by her buddy and vote for Shonee, to reach a 2-2 fire-making tie-breaker that Sharn should handily win. But when Shonee suspected that Shane would not turn on Sharn, she blazed her own path and approached Sharn about voting out Shane, pitching her that Shane could still be a dangerous threat at the end. Thus, Sharn became the deciding vote, choosing to stick by her closest ally and vote out Shonee without even needing to strike a flint.
At face value, it’s easy to say that Shonee made a critical error – by casting her vote for Shane instead of sticking with Brian’s plan to vote Sharn, she robbed herself of the opportunity to emerge safely from the tie-breaker, and instead handed a golden opportunity to an unbreakable pair to simply vote her out with no fuss. But let’s be honest – was there any chance that Shonee, who only cooked her first meal (or side dish) some 20-odd days into the game, would be able to build a fire faster than Sharn, who was known for tending the campfire through the night? Of course, there’s always a lucky break, and we can’t ignore the fact that everyone should know how to make a fire by Day 47, but in Shonee’s present predicament, she had nothing to lose by taking a gamble.
Shonee was such a surprise this season. I admit I doubted her in the pre-season, but she played a subtle and creative game that allowed her to slip through the cracks and exploit the growing divides between her tribemates. More often than not, she was able to put herself on the right side of the numbers, using her killer insight to read her competitors and strike out on the path that best suited her. And if that path wasn’t at her feet, she’d blaze a new trail. In her laid-back, sometimes blasé manner, Shonee was able to commit herself to a gamble, and she did it well tonight. Recognising that Shane wouldn’t flip on Sharn, and knowing that going to a fire-making tie-breaker was more-or-less a death sentence, she took a bold risk. She pitched a decent argument to Sharn – Shane has respect from much of the Jury, and has a strong story to back it up, and therefore is a big threat for her – and even though it was a total long-shot, she followed through. If Sharn had bought it, it would have been a massive coup for Shonee, almost guaranteeing her the Final Two, given Brian and Sharn’s disdain for each other. But if Sharn didn’t flip with her, then there was no net loss – she would go home this way or with a pile of sticks and magnesium in front of her. What was the difference?
After 18 years of Survivor, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that there are set ways to play. Even though our winners have been many and varied, we still find ourselves thinking that one move is right or another wrong. Yet the beauty of Survivor is that there is no defined rubric. Sometimes the best way to approach Survivor is to play with the complex strategies in your head, sometimes it’s to feel and trust in the guidance of your heart, and sometimes it’s to throw caution to the wind, be bold and take a crazy risk. And to cross-pollinate our Survivor talk by paraphrasing Christian Hubiciki of David vs. Goliath, there’s an exhilaration that comes with risk – and that exhilaration, excitement and unpredictability is a bedrock of what keeps Survivor fresh.
THE CHAMPION OF THE CHAMPIONS
And so at the end of it all, we are left with three Champions, each with a road to the end that’s been fraught with peril, close calls and public blunders (notably, all three have misplayed an Idol!). But now each stands a very real chance of winning the game, although the road may be harder for some.
The most precarious candidate is clearly Brian. Painted by his tribemates and the Jury alike as the conniving villain, his biggest hurdle is the perception of his social game. He’s viewed as someone who has been selfish, entitled and lazy, and with a Jury built mostly of players who he actively betrayed, it’ll be a challenge to win them over. But even with all of the negativity surrounding his image, I wouldn’t count him out. Brian is aware of this perception, which is more than can be said for some social disasters in the Survivor endgame, and is conscious of the fact that he would have been perceived as villainous regardless of how he played. So he just leaned into it. He has played hard and unapologetically – right down to the opportunity he had tonight to curry favour by sharing the BLT sandwiches with the tribe.
But when presented with the prisoner’s dilemma alongside Sharn, Brian chose the most selfish option – to steal the sandwiches – while she tried to share them with the others. On the one hand, it could be seen as inflexible not even to attempt to make amends with the women after Monika’s blindside, but just as Shonee recognised that a fire tie-breaker was a lost cause, Brian sensed that no amount of talking would turn his fate around – winning Immunity was his best hope, and a burst of sandwich energy was the best advantage. Now at the Final 3, he finds himself in the same position. Barring an act of divine intervention, his only way to the end is to continue his Immunity run – and that’s not an impossible ask!
So the question of Brian’s victory really comes down to that Final Tribal Council. He’s got a strong resume that he articulated tonight. On the outside from the start, he hid in the shadow of the Champions Alliance until he saw his opportunity to strike. Once he did, he governed the next few votes, and then when the tides turned against him, he did what he had to race to the end. If he can defend himself well and appeal to the Jurors looking to reward someone who can articulate their successful strategic decisions, he might be able to sway a few votes. But the growing sentiment at the Jury Villa seems to be the matter of “earning” the title of Sole Survivor, and it’ll be an uphill battle to earn the votes of the more resentful Jurors – particularly up against Shane or Sharn, who have votes that would just about be locked in their favour.
Shane, meanwhile, is almost the total opposite of Brian. She is not without her strategic moves – her deposing of Lydia at the merge was brilliant, and her role in this endgame scrambling has been key – but her greatest strength is the respect that is inherently instilled in many Jurors by her unique position in the game. She has been recognised in-game as an Australian legend, and as the eldest castaway at 61 (and would-be eldest winner of all-time, beating out the 57-year-old Bob Crowley of Gabon), she had her work cut out for her to make it this far. But she demonstrated her strength around camp and held her own in challenges, and she built a strong rapport with several of the castaways now sitting on the Jury.
Particularly if she were sitting beside Brian, her story is one of triumph against the odds – a Champion rising to the title compared to the duplicitous Brian trying to steal it for himself, at least in the Jury’s perception. The bigger issue, however, is that Shane isn’t interested in going to the end with Brian – at least, not right now. Instead, she wants to go with Sharn, falling prey to the kind of “I want to beat the best, not an easy win” that sunk many a losing finalist. Shane has learned a lot about how Survivor can be played over her run, coming to relish in the manipulation and deceit of blindsides and big moves, but she still can’t separate the head and the heart. She knows that Sharn is her biggest threat – least of all because she speaks publicly before a Jury as a matter of occupation – but she still can’t bring herself to turn on her. At least, not yet. Perhaps if she finds herself wearing her covered Immunity Necklace tomorrow night and with victory just within her reach, she’ll see things differently. Nevertheless, Shane is in the best position to make it to the Final 2, almost guaranteed a seat at Final Tribal, and with a compelling narrative and an endearing story, she’s in with a great shot.
Finally, Sharn is the balance between Brian and Shane. She has the publicly strategic moves a la Brian, such as her Idol play to take out Fenella, without the animosity. She has the same social connections that Shane does, but was seemingly closer to players like Mat and Steve, and certainly had other bonds to players like Benji. She has three Immunities under her belt so far – the most of any woman on Australian Survivor – and she has a reputation as a hard worker in camp and in strategy. She has flip-flopped from power position to sitting duck over and over again but somehow made it all the way to the end.
On paper, I would argue that Sharn has the best shot to win of the Final Three, but there are very clear flaws in her both her past game (namely, her blunder with her first Idol that ultimately eliminated Mat) and her present. Like Shane, she found herself leaning on the argument of loyalty, and similarly sees a path to the Final 2 together. However, I do think that such a Final 2 would suit her – playing into her strategy of loyalty – and if she’s able to be the one to slay the beast in Brian at the Final Immunity Challenge, that will only solidify her standing with the Jury. But, funnily enough, I also see one of her biggest problems being her performance at Tribal.
Sharn is calculated, directed and effective in much of her gameplay on the beach, but when it comes to Tribal, she often finds herself uncertain, speaking in cautious maybes. If she begins to buckle under the pressure of Final Tribal, as she did when put on the spot by Benji at her first Idol play, then she could lose much of the goodwill heading her way. Perhaps, though, it’s just that Sharn struggles to hide her poker face, and doesn’t trust herself to disguise her plans before casting a vote – something she won’t need to worry about in the transparent and direct forum of the Final Tribal Council. All in all, though, Sharn is in a stellar position to win out in the end – but she’ll need to keep that Immunity Necklace away from Brian or she’ll end up our fallen angel.
And so we arrive at the end of our third season of Australian Survivor. Tomorrow night, we will crown Brian Lake, Shane Gould or Sharn Coombes as our Sole Survivor. The best part is that it truly could be any one of them – and hopefully, the end of the endgame will be just as unpredictable as the road to this point.