This season’s unexpected delights continued into an intriguing slow-burn of a merge episode that was both simpler and more complex than I’d expected coming into this week’s episode. Aside from my inner (and outer) superfan screaming at the change to Idol rules permitting an Idol handoff after the votes were read (and I’ll get to that later), this episode was a perfect example of why it is so exciting to see intelligent fans play.
The cautious dance of cooperation between George and Hayley was fascinating, and I was thrilled to see their plan come together perfectly. But most excitingly, it was clearly a means to an end for both of them. Thus, nothing is certain moving forward, and the two can continue to play with and against each other for at least one more round—and that is thrilling.
WHAT’S OLD IS NEW AGAIN
The most shocking part of this episode was the alliance split on the Fire Tribe (an all-timer for terrible merge tribe names). Brains and Brawn had seen such division within their ranks that had only seemed to be exacerbated by the swap that I would never have predicted that the numbers would have so cleanly divided back into Brains vs. Brawn (+ Cara & George). I expected fallout from the Simon and Shannon votes on New Brawn to be a particularly divisive indicator that new alliances could shape the way forward.
But ironically, it seemed that the elimination of the two “leaders” of the opposing alliances on original Brawn paved the way for a reconciliation between those that remained. It could have easily been a situation where Dani & Chelsea became outcasts for their decision to turn on Emmett’s bud Simon, and while Gerald & Kez had been happy to stick with Brawn post-swap, the fracture could have sent them into the arms of Laura (with whom Kez had bonded with) and Flick’s new ally Hayley.
However, the reality was entirely different. I wouldn’t be surprised if Hayley’s call to mark Dani as the backup vote last week was a catalyst for this newfound Brawn reunion. If they’d stuck with the original plan, maybe Dani & Chelsea would have contemplated working with Hayley’s Brains contingent going forward. But now, they had no reason to trust them, and it made Hayley an easy scapegoat for them to target and smooth over any ill will about what happened with Simon & Shannon during the split.
Dani’s cutthroat but blunt gameplay is really intriguing, and to see her so quickly regain her footing after pulling off a massive blindside while also getting blindsided is impressive. Of course, she’ll continue to be a target for the Brains, but unless they can pull off a miracle moving forward, she could be in a great position to run it forward into the endgame.
So did Hayley make the wrong move at the Simon blindside? Arguably, it wasn’t great—not only breaking any working relationship with Dani & Chelsea but also going out on a limb to protect Flick, who promptly folded back in with the Brawns too. But Flick is an interesting case, especially as she pointedly told Hayley that she wanted to work with her moving forward—just not yet. There still is a working relationship there (and it’s for this reason that I’d say Hayley putting backup votes on Dani was not a bad move).
And I do get the sense that Flick is genuinely weighing up options to navigate the post-merge. She’s shown herself to be a socially savvy player, and biding her time to feel out the new tribe dynamics before making a power move is not a terrible plan (especially with so many fractures, however tentatively they’ve rejoined). If Flick could have brought her old allies Gerald & Kez across to the Brains, then they would have had the decisive 8-strong majority now, but she’d be outnumbered 5-3 Brain-to-Brawn in the long run. So letting the merge tribe simmer makes sense, and I’m very curious to see how she navigates being a free agent as the Fire brings the tribe to a boil in time.
THE MASTER PLAN
So with the tribe unexpectedly split along original tribe lines (with a minor but established addition to Brawn), it seemed pre-ordained that one of the five Brains would fall first. The only hope was Hayley’s publically known Idol, but a 20% chance of playing it correctly is far from ideal, and no matter what they tried to do, the Brawn majority wasn’t budging.
The Brawns played it well, too, knowing about Hayley’s Idol—and knowing they couldn’t numerically split the vote—and decided to avoid the risk of targeting Hayley and hope they landed on one of the other Brains. Choosing Laura was a good bet, with her having spent so much time away from the other four during the swap. It’s reasonable to expect that if Hayley was playing blind, she’d be smart enough to protect herself or favour one of the Brains she’d worked with more recently and save them with the Idol.
But what the Brawn didn’t count on was George working both sides. Up until this point, George has talked a big game, but he’s not quite executed on anything particularly ground-breaking. His Big Moves™ have backfired, and while he played the swap dynamics very well, he was simply taking advantage of favourable numbers. So getting to see him finally pull off a really solid play at the merge of all votes was a thrilling climax of his story to this point.
George is well-positioned for the time being, but he knows he and Cara are outsiders, and he doesn’t have firsthand knowledge of the Brawn fractures to necessarily have a clear path to navigate them if he sticks with the Brawns. Thus, trying to weaken the Brawn majority is exactly what he needs to do, and managing to do it surreptitiously was an impressive feat. Knowing that the Brains were desperate but had an Idol, he quickly recognised that all he needed to do was feed the right information to Hayley The Brains could play the Idol on the right person, take out a Brawn, and his allies would be none-the-wiser.
But what is so impressive about George’s play here is that feeding this information to Hayley and the Brains required them to trust that he wasn’t being slippery or deceptive—that he wasn’t playing double-double-agent and trying to throw their Idol off-target. With so much bad blood in the water from his time on the original Brains tribe, when he was at his most chaotic and disruptive, proving his trustworthiness was a feat in itself. Only being able to convey his earnestness in fragments of hurried and hushed conversations while the Brawns weren’t looking added to the difficulty.
Could this move have backfired on George? Absolutely. The Brains could have used his information to take him out or go off-book and target a Brawn that wasn’t George’s preferred target. Heck, it could still backfire if the Brains reveal his treachery (which was heavily hinted in the promo for the next episode). But it nevertheless stands that George navigated this particular vote flawlessly—even managing the hiccup of Kez finding an Idol and turning the Brains’ vote against her to flush both Idols out of the game (well – if the rules hadn’t been oopsied by an incomprehensible production decision).
While I’m not yet ready to crown him as King George in the game—he’s still in a very precarious position and with a lot of notoriety to his name—he is definitely the King of Character in this season, and backing that up with a stellar strategic play is thrilling.
THE OPPORTUNITY IN DESPERATION
While George may have crowned himself King, Hayley continues to earn the Queen’s crown of strategy this season. Even though she hit the merge and quickly fell out of favour, she managed to perfectly play the opportunities she was presented with. She approached potential Brawn swing votes, but when they didn’t bite, she made sure to keep her options open. And the fact that Flick was upfront about not voting with her now is a further testament to the social game that supports her strategy. While she couldn’t have pulled off this move without George, she had full control over whether or not to believe him.
And that was a tricky proposition, especially with the news that Kez had found another Idol. George could have easily been setting her up for failure, but she had to trust him, and to her credit, it wasn’t blind trust of desperation. As she discussed George’s reliability, she voiced one of the most poignant assessments of trust in Survivor: “I need to make sure it makes sense in his brain, so then it makes sense for me.” This wasn’t a question of whether George could be trusted. It was a question of whether George’s proposed plan could be trusted to be advantageous for George.
With Survivor being an inherently self-interested game and recognising that that instinct is going to be even stronger for strategically-minded fans, Hayley made the call of whether to trust the information based on the quality of the plan from George’s perspective (i.e., what’s he getting out of it) rather than basing it on their interpersonal dynamics or the desperation of what she was getting out of it.
In the end, she arrived at the correct conclusion—eliminating Kez with an Idol and flushing her own was ideal for George, and so it made sense to trust him. But what I love about Hayley is that she always thinks of the contingency. To be fair, this contingency may have been suggested by one of the other Brains, but Hayley has long been positioned as the strategic centre of that coalition and the one suggesting these kinds of moves, so I’ll credit her for now.
It could have been easy to heap all their votes on Kez, but Laura ended up casting a single vote for Dani. In the case that Kez got spooked by Hayley playing the Idol correctly, there would be a chance she’d play it in return. Now, the planned “word on the street” was that the Brains would be targeting Dani, and if Kez was drawn to play the Idol for her, then that’s all good; the five votes on Kez would still be valid and send her home. But what if Kez got antsy and played it for herself? Then we get a 0-0 vote, and the Brawns overwhelmingly send a Brain, odds on Hayley, home on the revote.
Thus, the minority vote split. It’s a strategy only recently introduced into the Survivor playbook, but it is a phenomenal way for a minority with an Idol to counter an Idol in return, and it was beautifully executed. The risk (and irony) is that by splitting the votes themselves, the minority leave themselves vulnerable to a vote split by an insightful majority, but that’s only a risk if the majority know—and the edit suggests that this was a call made without any consultation with George. From the edit alone, it could even be that it was an impulse play by Laura, but the precision of a backup plan like that suggests foresight to my eye. And it’s the kind of thing that wows me.
Now, the only downside of the move is that Hayley & co are still massively outnumbered by the Brawn, who would be mad to split before picking off at least one or two Brains. But in a season as chaotic and unpredictable as this, and with a few incredibly savvy and clever players unafraid to take the reins, anything could happen.
This includes, apparently, breaking a nearly 15-year-old rule on how Idols work. I was among the many Survivor fans who were furious that Kez was permitted to pass off her Idol to Flick after being voted out. This is unprecedented, and though it just happened with another advantage in Survivor South Africa in the last week, it feels especially egregious with something as intrinsic to the fabric of the game as a Hidden Immunity Idol.
For over a decade, blindsiding a player with an Idol has been a pinnacle of strategic gameplay because it requires such a deft touch to not alert the Idol-holder to the blindside. And the reward for that play is that the Idol is snuffed along with the player. That’s the way it’s always been, and that’s the way that makes the most sense.
Allowing a player who has been voted out to hand out their Idols or Advantages—when it’s not a specific aspect of the twist like a Legacy Advantage—is such a huge change to the way that Idol strategy must be dealt with. And it takes the teeth out of the move’s effectiveness, punishing the players who pull off the blindside. With a player able to palm off their Idol to an ally, it forces the blindsiding players to have to keep contending with an advantage that they already outsmarted. And it rewards the allies of the player voted out with an advantage for (presumably) getting blindsided too.
Is there a possibility that this could be exploited for a Legacy Advantage subterfuge akin to Sarah Lacina? Sure. But more often than not, what’s going to happen is this: an ally just getting handed an Idol that was voted out of the game.
I don’t know what possessed Australian Survivor to change the rules on this. Nick Iadanza has confirmed that this rule was specifically changed for All-Stars. It seems counter-intuitive both in terms of game strategy and entertainment. But if Australian Survivor really wanted to shake this up, it frustrates me that this rule change was not announced in any way, shape or form. If it had, then at least it would have felt like Kez’s play here was legitimate even if it’s frustrating for the Survivor purists.
Instead, it feels like a blindside to the viewers who have been trained to understand that blindsiding someone with an Idol flushes the Idol. And it ends up reflecting poorly on the players, who were, in actuality, legitimately playing within the constructs of the game. It doesn’t take much to be transparent, but it feels like Australian Survivor continues to go out of its way to obfuscate the game in ways that are actively detrimental to the quality of the show.
FIRE REPRESENTS YOUR LIFE
But despite that glaring frustration in the episode’s final moments, this was a fantastic merge episode for what has turned out to be a really fun season. It has its flaws (and many production choices I really, really don’t like), but due to a solid cast and gameplay that runs the gamut of brilliant to baffling, it’s succeeded. I’m optimistic about this second half of the game, and I can’t wait to see it really heat up.