Australian Survivor: Brains vs. Brawn

Episode 1 Recap – Frothing Mad

What went down in the premiere?

Photo: Network 10

Australian Survivor is back and bett… No, it’s pretty much the same as it was before, only now with vistas of the dusty outback and temperatures in the chyrons. Relocating to a desolate corner of Queensland near Cloncurry, the location is stunning and the incredible cinematography of Australian Survivor has gloriously captured the Australian environment. The red earth, the fields of termite mounds, the galahs taking to the sky—it’s beautiful.

It’s also the best part of the premiere, and it’s not even close. While Survivor fans have been champing at the bit for a fresh location (and SurvivorAU is delivering in spades with the inland, local and unique setting), everything else about the show feels like we’re stuck in a cycle of strength reigning supreme and ill-devised twists that break the game, leading to unsatisfying story-telling.

I really wanted to jump back into Australian Survivor with a burning enthusiasm, but I’m going to need to contact Phil for a crochet blanket because this premiere left me cold.

THE CROCHET CROCODILE HAT IN THE ROOM

There’s a lot to dissect with George’s insanely overpowered advantage and his ineffective use of it to disrupt the Brawn First mentality on the Brains tribe, but I want to do what the show failed to do first, and that is to highlight Phil Ferguson, our first boot.

In a cast that is pretty bland at first glance—a lot of white, muscly types—Phil stood out from the start and I was excited to see them get to play. With the gruelling nature of Australian Survivor, I knew they’d be fighting an uphill battle, but in their limited promotional material, they popped as a unique personality with energy and humour that seemed destined to make them a Character with a capital C. Additionally, it was exciting to see Australian Survivor cast the first non-binary castaway, across all English-language franchises, and I’d hoped that this would add an additional note of positive, proud queer representation.

But unfortunately, the nature of Phil’s elimination robbed them of not just their personal Survivor journey but also their Survivor story. Gameplay-wise, Phil appeared to do very little wrong. Although they were singled out as one of the physically weaker members of the tribe by Cara, Georgia & Mitch during one of the few strategy talks we witnessed. As Phil said to open Tribal, the “froth this tribe”—and it seemed the tribe frothed them. Even after the advantage was played, Mitch articulated that Wai & George had been the target and the back-up, Phil not yet in danger. And as they passed on their crocheted hat to carry on their legacy, as they commanded their tribe to avenge them, Phil exited the game with the love of a tribe backed into a corner. As JLP snuffed their torch with the traditional “The Tribe Has Spoken”, Phil’s droll “Suuuuuuure didn’t” speaks volumes to the improbability and unfairness of the circumstances that cut their Survivor journey short.

Was there anything Phil could have done differently? We did see them accept the unanimous vote heading Wai’s way, knowing that it was based on challenge strength. And maybe the extrapolation of that should have set off alarm bells for Phil to be worried that such logic could (and ultimately would) put them next in line. But beyond that? It’s difficult to say, because we saw so little of them.

Photo: Network 10

I can blame the twist for Phil’s elimination—and I do. But once the mechanic was deployed, there’s a world in which it doesn’t screw them over (and I’d argue that George’s optimal play would have kept them safe), but that’s not the world we’re in. The twist—and George’s use of it—did send Phil home first. But Australian Survivor dropped the ball again by glossing over their first boot so egregiously that they became an afterthought, and that almost feels worse.

It feels like the show tried to push Phil to the background in an effort to build up the George vs. Mitch rivalry and perhaps downplay the likability of a player screwed by an overpowered twist. They became a generic “Yay Brains!” cheerleader, but we saw nothing of their personality, their gameplay or their story. Phil didn’t get a highlight introduction package. We only know they’re a crocheter because it was in the promotional material—there was no context for the incredible crocodile hat in the episode proper. And most frustratingly, Phil’s pronouns (they/them) were never made clear by the show. While I wouldn’t have wanted the show to tokenise them, the oversight will inevitably lead the audience to misgender the first non-binary contestant in the series’ history and that is deeply disappointing.

Even for their one episode, Phil should have been a character we got to know and love. It would have made their departure brutal, but it would have allowed the audience to better empathise with them and the difficult decision their tribemates made. And given the show is clearly framing George as the callous, villainous politician (even when he makes valid arguments), his actions causing the elimination of a likable character would only add to that characterisation. But most importantly, it would have given Phil something of an identity as a Survivor character, beyond “Brain #8, the one with the moustache.”

Phil
Photo: Network 10

Australian Survivor has set itself an uphill battle with its enormous casts. Still, I had hoped the hiatus would have allowed the team to reflect on the imbalanced and frustrating editing of the last few seasons and course-correct to some more balanced, well-rounded and transparent story-telling. Even beyond Phil, two of the five players who voted for Phil to go home were hardly mentioned by name in the episode (Andrew and Laura, for those keeping track). Because of the twist eliminating Phil as collateral, there might not have been much reasoning to dig into why they chose to vote for Phil. But without understanding who the cast are, the outcomes feel random, generic and meaningless—and doubly so when a twist actually makes an outcome random, generic and meaningless.

Survivor is not a fair game. Countless players have been screwed over by something outside of their control. But not since Wanda Shirk was eliminated from Palau because she was the last woman left in the tribe pick’em has a season started with such a frustratingly unfair elimination. Phil deserved better in the game, but at least Australian Survivor could have made up for it by at least telling their story. But alas, SurvivorAU is still committed to the “main character” narrative to the detriment of the show’s ability to tell diverse, compelling and complex stories.

WALK-OUT

And you know what else stifles story-telling? Twists that exist for the shock value over a meaningful impact on the game. The advantage that George found was so unbelievably powerful, and I honestly can’t comprehend how production thought this was a good way to jumpstart the season. Granting him the ability to excuse himself and up to five other tribemates from the first Tribal Council (granting them immunity, but also depriving them of their vote) is… It’s legitimately insane. It creates the “big moment” of George playing it, shocking his tribe and blocking the tribe’s plan to unanimously eliminate Wai, but it is such a manufactured moment that it loses any ability to be compelling.

It’s the struggle SurvivorAU constantly encounters with its surprise non-eliminations and its love of the “Gotcha!” advantage that seems to exist solely to have a “YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT” promo ad. But to begin a season with an advantage that so immensely disrupts the balance of the tribe and the game by literally splitting the tribe in two, and leaving those left behind with no ability to counter or strategise… What other outcome is there than what we saw: self-preservation leading to collateral damage?

Well, maybe the producers hoped to see the advantage used more tactically. And arguably, it should have been. George played his advantage—one of the most powerful advantages we’ve seen deployed in the game—and played it in the worst way possible. By keeping it a secret to ambush his tribe, any goodwill he hopes to muster by “saving” Rachel, Baden, Cara & Georgia is undercut. And he has to know that the five who survive the disrupted vote will be out to get him. There was nothing for George to gain by keeping it a secret.

Nor was there anything to gain by leaving behind a player like Phil, who was clearly in the “weak” category the tribe was hellbent on voting out. George’s dogged pursuit of cutting Mitch down had no chance of working if the six he left behind to vote had an alternative target. Yet again, leaving it to chance and to others was simply too risky.

Photo: Network 10

In an ideal world, George needed to share the knowledge of his advantage with the people he hoped to work with. They needed to know what to expect if he was going to parlay this advantage into an ongoing partnership, or else the surprise will only engender mistrust. And honestly, he shouldn’t be looking to take his potential allies back to camp—he should be leaving them at Tribal to stack the numbers against Mitch. If he can find at least four allies willing to conspire against the doctor, George leaves them behind, and they have a clean majority 4-2 or 5-1, and Doctor Mitch sees his torch snuffed.

This advantage is overpowered beyond belief if used tactfully and with open communication with allies, allowing a player to completely stack the deck for the vote to ensure an outcome. But George dropped the ball by keeping it a secret from everyone and leaving those at Tribal to scramble rather than execute the hit on Mitch. And instead of seizing control of the tribe’s agenda, he has made himself public enemy number one. He’s saved Wai, but will she be loyal to him? If the entire tribe is turning against him for his sneaky play, which also follows his barrage against Mitch at Tribal, I can’t imagine she’ll stick her neck out. Unless the tides turn rapidly, George’s advantage has only purchased him a ticket home.

In truth, he shouldn’t have played the advantage at all. As apparent by the frustration of those left at Tribal and the confusion of those he saved, George didn’t have the social capital to utilise this advantage safely. It’s success is contingent on communication with allies, but given he was at least Mitch’s Plan B, George didn’t have any to draw on. Wai was desperate and might have gone along with his harebrained scheme, but who else? Phil?They seemed to have found a decent rapport with the overall majority. Hayley? Wai approached her and she considered a Mitch vote, but as her vote at Tribal suggested, she’s committed to self-preservation. But who else? George didn’t have options, and the advantage has only limited those further.

In essence, the advantage looks like a free pass to an assassination and a clean majority. But in reality, it’s a curse for those without the social capital, a curse on a majority player. But a dud in the hands of an underdog or for the people who need the miracle of an advantage. Again, that contributes to why this advantage is OP in the right hands. The only upside is that its play immediately fuels fallout back at camp. But I’d rather see relationships grow and fracture organically than with an artificial lightning bolt of an advantage like this.

JLP
Photo: Network 10

Following George’s one-sided feud with Mitch could have been a great story on its own, especially given he raised excellent points to combat Mitch’s overtly strength-focussed criteria robbing the Brains tribe of their strength in diverse experiences and mindsets. But to be fair, Mitch’s point stands in Australian Survivor, where the gross physicality of the challenges punishes tribes that lack brute strength. And even though this episode’s challenges were actually fairly well balanced and were tight competitions, the dichotomy of Brains vs. Brawn creates an illusion of needing strength to compete. And this is another Australian Survivor trope I’d be really happy to move on from—this is the fourth straight season of that narrative being the dominant story.

But to come back around to the George/Mitch of it all, that tension was there and would have bubbled without the need for the kindling of the advantage. Similarly to how Simon’s choice of the survival kit led to many of the Brawn women—Dani, Shannon, Kez—questioning his leadership, Survivor is at its best when it is a social experiment that is supplemented with the mechanics of the game. Where choices, interactions and decisions in the social dynamics of the tribe matter because they’ll guide the outcome when the game mechanics come into play.

HOPES AND DREAMS

That said, I am intrigued to see where the Mitch vs. George rivalry leads, especially now that the advantage means it is front and centre. While I fear SurvivorAU’s track record will see the head-to-head dominate the screen-time, I hope that we do get the chance to see more of the cast settle into their games too. That we get to see how Wai navigates her way past this close call. How the rest of the Brains begin to intersect beyond an amalgam of antagonism towards George. How the Brawn tribe’s social dynamics coalesce after their initial victories.

I hope that this season’s premiere was an anomaly—an overbearing twist that played out more chaotically than anticipated, twisting the season’s narrative in the process. Hopefully, from here on out, we get more balanced story-telling and diverse characterisation of this wildly successful cast. Hopefully we get fewer twists that exist more for viewer shock value than actual contribution to game strategy.

But this is Australian Survivor… And I hate to do it, but I’m going to temper my expectations.

Here’s hoping we follow the opposite trajectory of those Guatemala-esque roller carts. Let’s hope this season goes up from here.


Written by

Austin Smith

Austin hails from Canberra, Australia. By day, he works by the light of office fluorescence. By night, he can be found swing dancing to Top ‘40s tracks (1940s, that is), playing board games, and enjoying life with his wonderful wife. His pedigree as a long-time Survivor superfan is evidenced by his Survivor-themed 11th birthday party featuring a gross food challenge comprising Brussel sprouts. Austin writes Inside Survivor’s episode recaps for both Survivor US and Australian Survivor.


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