One of my favorite types of Survivor episodes is one I’d call the “heist movie” episode. You’ve got massive stakes, high tension, action-packed thrills, massive plot twists that threaten success, and painfully detailed schemes where every member of the team plays a role in the plan. And most importantly, the audience knows what’s up and follows every step, waiting for something to go horribly wrong up until the credits roll. The final episode of Brains v Brawn’s pre-merge is the ultimate heist episode and wraps up the pre-merge with the biggest bang in a season already brimming with them.
But before the figurative heist movie gets underway, we have to deal with the pre-show material, so to speak. In this case: the Brains. The stage has been set for days. Laura is on the bottom and needs a crack or an idol. George knows he’s as cooked as his iconic failed split vote plan once she’s gone, listing the pecking order as Emmett on the top, followed by Gerald and Kez as his underlings, then Cara as the honorary Brawn, and finally George himself as a tag-along.
However, George is willing to work with Laura in the future and pitches himself as a possible ally. Still, after voting Rachel out the previous night despite having a great opportunity to give himself an extra buffer vote or two, he’s burned that bridge and Laura isn’t buying into George’s campaign promises.
And luckily for Laura, a reward win gives her a golden ticket to an Australian Survivor classic: the one-at-a-time reward where pigging out to the audience’s horror and finding advantages are always guarantees. But unluckily, she’s forced by the power of a random stick draw to go second behind Cara, who quickly finds the advantage hidden in a candy container. And by hidden, I mean sitting in plain sight because there’s no way anyone could miss the parchment sitting front and center, basically guaranteeing the first person to go would find it. A bit underwhelming, but anyone who knows their Survivor AU history would tear the candy store apart upon arrival and find it anyways. And the advantage being found early did give us some amusing pig-out scenes of the Brains rubbing themselves down with fudge and getting sugar highs, so it’s a worthy trade-off.
What Cara finds is a Tribal Council VIP Ticket, which allows her to choose two people to intrude on the next Tribal Council as two extra voters who can’t be voted out. So if Brains lose, she can bring two Brawns over and vice versa. And after winning immunity, Cara appoints herself and George as intruders to Brawn’s climactic Tribal, potentially throwing a spanner in the works of all the hard work being done across tribal lines. But the Brains were just a meager appetizer compared to the main course that was the Brawn Tribe.
To break down how this Brawn heist played out, we have to start with the inciting incident: Simon spilling the beans to his allies about both his idols, affectionately nicknamed his claws of fire and fury. On paper, I can’t say it’s a terrible move for Simon despite the episode going out of its way to make him look like a clueless idiot. It’s not a good move, no matter how results-oriented you are, but I can understand the strategy behind it.
In Simon’s eyes, his relationship with Dani and Chelsea has been strong since the beginning. They haven’t turned on him yet, and displaying this level of trust with them should cement their final three alliance as a ride-or-die trio. But Dani, who reveals she’s been planning to get close to an alpha male and cut his throat since the start, hears Kill Bill sirens once she learns about that second idol and goes on a mission to take out Simon at all costs, effectively carrying Shannon’s torch for the cause.
I have mixed emotions about Dani’s strategy here. On the one hand, she’s absolutely right that someone like Simon having two idols is incredibly dangerous heading into a merge. He’s already a challenge beast, so even if he was to find himself at the bottom, Simon going on an immunity/idol run and eventually finding a path to the end isn’t out of the question. On the other hand, Simon was fiercely loyal to Dani and could have used his idols to protect her should she be in danger. And he served as a top tier meat shield, so to see Dani (and Chelsea, who hasn’t spoken in weeks yet went along with the plan with a smile on her face) so easily turn against him is a bit baffling.
It’s a move that essentially throws away all Dani’s power in the game for the sake of stuffing a resume and fulfilling a pre-game goal. A classic case of Big Move-itis if I’ve ever seen one. Even Hayley points out how tunnel-visioned Dani gets here, and Dani’s plan quickly goes from the clever assassination of a power player to having her own head in the cross-hairs once she gets drunk with power.
Dani’s plan is very simple, however. Brawn throws the challenge (which Simon ironically sits out of, making their job that much easier), everyone votes for Simon, Simon votes for Flick thinking it’s going to be unanimous in his favor, and if he inexplicably plays an idol, they still get rid of someone Dani doesn’t want at the merge. A Sandra Bullock blindside, as she calls it. And as Simon follows Flick on her wild goose chase of an idol hunt, the rest of the tribe laughs at how oblivious he is to his own demise.
But not everyone’s laughing because Hayley, labeled the Queen of the Brains, isn’t sure Dani’s plan is what’s best for her. She still wants Simon gone, but Flick is an easy number for her alliance, and risking Flick’s life in the game to have a unanimous vote on Simon isn’t the smart play. Plus Dani’s hellbent on taking all the credit for the move, and Hayley isn’t about to let this chance to pad her resume slip by. So she pulls together her own coalition of Brains votes to assure that if Simon dodges the blindside with a last-minute, epiphany-driven idol play, Dani will be standing behind him to take the bullet instead.
I can’t sing enough praises for Hayley right now. She was barely in the season for the first two weeks and most viewers probably wrote her off as yet another UTR player who’d get ignored alongside the likes of Andrew, Chelsea, and Georgia. But since masterminding Joey’s blindside, she’s emerged from the shadows and ascended to star status, masterminding vote after vote against a cast of strategically outmatched players. And the Dani contingency plan is no different.
Last week she used the threat of an idol to shatter the OG Brawns, and this week she used her new numbers advantage and swung a potentially plan-ruining twist in her favor to maintain control and take out one of the few big players standing in her way. And she still has her public immunity idol after all this chaos. The only question about her game heading into the merge is whether or not she’s going to burn out and fall short like many big pre-merge players have in the past or continue her streak of near-flawless domination through to the end and have a serious shot at the title.
At Tribal, Baden is tasked with informing intruders George and Cara of the plan to blindside Simon… while they sit several feet away from the rest of the tribe. In one of the few truly scary moments of the episode, Cara more-than-quietly asks Baden who the split vote is in case Simon plays an idol, and Simon calls out the whispering to shut it down. That should have been the moment when Simon realized something was up, not that he shouldn’t have been suspicious all day given the numbers advantage the Brains had, but the incident is quickly brushed under the rug and Simon goes back to feeling comfortable.
So comfortable he’s willing to provide the proverbial rope the editors will hang him with: an immediately classic “Everyone loves a blindside!” quote. He came in wanting to play like David with his double idols and strategic domination… and ended up going home like Kat Edorsson, ironically calling his own demise. What a glorious downfall.
Simon takes his blindside in strides, though, smiling his way out of the game with respect for the big move his former allies made. Despite appearing as a meathead jock stereotype at first glance, Simon quickly proved he was bringing more than just muscle to the table. He was a cunning super fan strategist, willing to play hard and always down to have fun with the game, and he went out as someone who more than earned a spot on the next returnee season.
In fact, I’d be shocked if he’s not back on our screens in the next few years having learned from his mistakes and playing smarter. He had the makings of a great Survivor player and could have done big things had he survived one more vote, but a couple infamously dumb moves combined with having untrustworthy allies cost him.
But let’s talk about this VIP twist for a minute and why I don’t like it. While it did add some bonus tension to an already intense episode and didn’t actively hurt anyone’s game—and I’d take it any day over the OP advantage from the premiere that royally screwed Phil—letting people vote someone out of a tribe they aren’t even on never sits right. I don’t like the Joint Tribal twist used in Survivor US either. And while this twist was barely the same concept, since George and Cara were only two intruders with immunity as opposed to an entire opposing tribe having a say, it’s still tragic to imagine the results had this been a different situation with a closer vote. One where two outsiders unexpectedly joining the dynamics for one night could end someone’s game after days or even weeks of careful strategy.
Imagine someone you rightfully outplayed finding a piece of paper by sheer luck and personally inviting a couple people you might not have even met to vote you off. You can’t even campaign with them at camp, only at Tribal as they sit several feet away.
While I appreciate that producers put short-shot clocks on these big advantages so they don’t get stockpiled until an Advantage-geddon situation, if we have to include advantages at all, why not just put a standard extra vote or vote steal at the reward? Give it a shot clock to the final eleven, for example. You still get the guaranteed big moment, but the player who finds it has more agency and has to make the right move at the right time, rather than simply playing along with a set-piece production fabricated for easy promo drama.
With the VIP ticket, Cara simply took her closest ally to interfere with another tribe and add a (pointless at best, unfair at worst) twist to an episode that was already firing on all cylinders. There was all reward and no risk for whoever used it unless someone just made blatantly stupid picks, and had Laura been the one to find it, it would be pretty much useless compared to an actual idol. At best, she’d turn a 5-1 vote into a 5-3, assuming the two intruders wouldn’t have joined the obvious majority to avoid making enemies.
But as one electric, wild, and stupidly chaotic half of the game ends, another begins. We’re merging next week, and there are several factions vying for control. I can only imagine how insane this season can get once playing selfishly is the name of the game and more bizarre chaos rears its head. With big heroes, big villains, walking disasters, and massive wildcards coming together, I have high hopes for the rest of the season and pray to the Survivor gods we avoid another All-Stars style post-merge. My fingers are crossed.