Episodes like this feel bittersweet to me. They burgeon with the flavourful hit of fascinating gameplay—good and bad, and all without the interference of superfluous or game-breaking twists. But they also sour with the recognition that even with one of the most delectable moves of the season, the show continues to squander its own potential through its lopsided and repetitive storytelling.
In a way, the aired version of the episode feels like a shadow of what could have been an all-time great instalment. That said, I loved the actual gameplay in this episode, so spare me a couple paragraphs to criticise the edit (skip ahead to dodge that negativity!), and then we’ll get to the good stuff!
THE CUSTOMARY SURVIVOR AU RANT
I’m not adding anything to the conversation that hasn’t already been said. Gerald was horribly edited throughout the show, given he was clearly a pivotal player in the Brawn contingent to be so repeatedly targeted by the Brains. And he had at least some strategic sway (recall his spotting of Simon’s Idol find and his leveraging of that within his alliance).
So for him to go out with such a sparse edit—and with nary a confessional on his way out the door—feels like the loss of what should have been a standout character. In the hands of editors interested in a more nuanced story, this episode could have been a strategic smorgasbord AND an emotional gut-punch, losing an earnest, likable, and personality-filled castaway.
But between Gerald’s poor edit throughout the season, the still-lacking under-editing of the Brains trio of Andrew, Wai, and Laura, especially in the post-merge, and the redundant, repetitive confessionals of the season’s “main characters,” it’s the same old story when it comes to Australian Survivor’s finished product. It has more air time than any other franchise, and it wastes it so egregiously that even a brilliant round of strategic gameplay can end up feeling like a bit of a slog.
Is Australian Survivor ever going to get itself sorted and be the best it can be? I keep hoping every season it will course-correct, but it feels like it keeps veering further and further away from what fans of the show are interested in and instead chases the lowest common denominator. But I still hope that one of these days, the show’s producers will recognise that its audience can handle a less twisty game and a more nuanced story. Alas, with Brains v Brawn, it is not this day.
So let’s put aside the product and focus on what we’re actually here for, the Game.
THE BIG THREAT HUNTER
Upfront, I have really enjoyed Dani as a player. At first, it was easy to assume she’d be a strength-focussed, mateship-driven archetype, but she’s busted that wide open to show herself to be a dynamic and complex player with far more cutthroat instincts. Obviously, the Simon blindside was the first taste of her self-governed aggressive strategy. But even looking back to her being a part of the contingent gunning for a Shannon blindside at the first Brawn Tribal over an “easy vote” in Janelle speaks to the fact that Dani has been willing to play hard from the start. I love seeing castaways play hard and work to manipulate the game in their favour, and so seeing Dani emerge as such a key strategic force has been a thrill.
In large part, what’s made her such a fascinating player is that her game instincts are sound, but her execution and timing are consistently flawed. As with Simon, her recognition that Emmett poses a long-term threat is what everybody should be thinking. His dominance in the Immunity challenges is absolutely something to be concerned about, especially given he’s also been a vocal leader of the Brawn alliance. If he makes it to the end, odds are that he’s going to draw a lot more credit compared to someone like Dani. That makes him especially dangerous—not just a jock immunity beast, but one who has been managing a surprisingly effective social game for how bloviating and smug he is at challenges and Tribal, as well being as a stern and steady strategist.
So putting a target on Emmett was exactly the kind of thing Dani needed to be thinking about. However, her execution of the move ended up turning against her. And it could have very nearly gotten her voted out of the game, again, much like the situation with Simon. And that tension of a good idea with iffy execution is what I enjoy about watching Dani play.
Even at the time she was pitching her plan on the KFC Pub reward, I was grimacing nervously—it was the worst possible way to introduce her plan.
On paper, using a Reward group as a template for a new alliance is an age-old Survivor tradition, and there’s a world in which Dani is able to corral Gerald, Flick, Laura, and Wai into a five-strong crew that could seize control of the tribe. But the trouble is that Dani’s initial alliance pitch felt cavalier (though I imagine—and hope—there was more to her pitch than just “hey, us five, let’s do it,” as we saw in the edit). It also seemed lukewarmly received, but she nonetheless charged ahead with the proposition of a huge move against the ostensible figurehead of her own alliance, pitched to his closest allies and two people she’s never worked closely with.
If she had left the conversation open to the group, allowing them to table some suggestions for who to vote out, perhaps Emmett would have come up anyway (surely all the players are looking at his Immunity run with a little bit of a side-eye). But compounding her off-handed alliance proposal with such a huge blindside seemed to compound the alienation we saw in Flick. It seems Flick, Gerald, and Emmett were closer than we’d realised, and certainly closer than Dani suspected, and that was the next domino to fall on the path towards the Brawn implosion. But even then, Dani’s pitch still fell short in one other aspect: the timing.
When Dani pitched the idea of voting out Emmett at the Reward, there was every possibility he’d win Immunity the next day, forcing her blindside to be put on ice. A move like this, against a well-insulated threat, has to be timed precisely, and the longer the plan has to percolate, the more time there is for something to go wrong.
It’s a tricky balance, though, and leaving some time for her new “allies” to mull over the idea of blindsiding Emmett isn’t inherently an error. And I do think that we see the same fallout if Dani only throws out the Emmett blindside to the same people, but after the Immunity challenge, given Flick’s reluctance to make that move. But pitching the plan too early gave Flick more time to organise a counter-attack.
So is there something Dani could have done to make the Emmett blindside work? I think it’s possible that if she waited until after the Immunity challenge (and confirmed Emmett’s vulnerability) and then approached just the Brains, it might have worked out. But even then, numbers were tight, and it’s clear that Dani’s read on Emmett’s social insulation was misjudged.
In hindsight, this was a colossal mishandling of a good instinct on Dani’s part. Getting Emmett out was a priority, but now was not the time. However, given she was spared by George’s counter-counter-measure, I’m fascinated to see where her path leads next. I’m not sure that Dani will want to work with Emmett (or he with her), but where else can she go? She’s even more alone than she was after being blindsided by Hayley at the Simon vote, but I am thrilled to see a free agent Dani in action.
But Dani wasn’t the only one to bungle a good instinct. Flick’s mistrust of Dani’s eagerness to make a move makes sense, given she was apparently tight enough with Emmett to ultimately play her Idol on him (a relationship that came out of nowhere in the edit). However, the knee-jerk response of wanting to target Dani immediately felt like a huge over-reaction, and Emmett and Gerald’s willingness to go along with it has completely destroyed the Brawn alliance’s tenuous control of the game.
Even with Dani starting to get antsy, the Brawns had a perfect opportunity to try to rinse and repeat and send Hayley out again. They should have been working to stoke George’s animosity and the Brains’ mistrust to resoundingly keep guns trained on Hayley. And if Dani goes rogue and votes Emmett, then that makes her an easy target next round. But they bought Hayley’s meek humility after returning from Redemption Rock and got distracted by Dani’s new plan, and in doing so, they overlooked their weak grasp on the tribal dynamics.
What the Brawn alliance needed to do was lock in a decisive majority. But they rested on the laurels of their control of the merge to this point. They knew George had been flip-flopping (having learned he’d spilled the beans about the Idol—Kez’s original find AND the hand-off to Flick), and Cara was theoretically in his pocket. So that makes only four original Brawn, and one getting squirrelly, and 4, or 3, into 10 is far from a majority.
They dismissed—actively or subconsciously—the possibility of using a neutered but desperate Hayley as a number to replace Dani. They didn’t seem to consider trying to form a new group with the original Brains trio to completely reset the power dynamics. Instead, they made the mistake of assuming George and Cara were locked in with them, despite evidence to the contrary, and planned to go to a 5-5 tie, using Flick’s Idol to negate the votes on Emmett and win out.
Again, on paper, that’s not a bad plan if your 5 are perfectly locked in. But Emmett, Flick, and Gerald made the critical error of assuming that this was the best move for George and underestimating his continued willingness to make self-serving moves in the game. Last week, we saw Hayley actively weigh up whether or not to trust George by looking at a move from his perspective, but the Brawn alliance didn’t seem to put enough stock in whether or not this would be the best more for George… and it cost them.
THEY THOUGHT THAT THEY’D MADE AN ARRANGEMENT
George… Gotta say, as tired as I am of the show cycling through a dozen redundant George confessionals instead of advancing or fleshing out the story of the other castaways out in the Outback, it’s hard to deny that he has dominated the post-merge game thus far. After his rough first weeks in the game, I never would have expected he’d not only recover but also manage to position himself as the conduit of all information and the one driving the conventional votes of the merge thus far.
But this play was perfect. In many ways, it wasn’t strictly necessary. Dani and Emmett turning on each other, and Flick flushing her Idol by playing it for Emmett, sending Dani out. That outcome is still advantageous for his game, weakening the Brawn numbers and opening the door for him to swing across to the Brains next time around. However, just because it’s a good outcome doesn’t mean there’s no better one.
Rather, George saw the opportunity to make sure this Tribal’s move added to nobody’s resume except his own. Dani’s move is absolutely foiled. Flick’s big Idol moment is wasted (and perhaps there’s even some superfan satisfaction in ensuring that an Idol that should have died when Kez was voted out has no impact on the outcome of the game). Emmett’s smug confidence in dodging a blow and redirecting it at Dani is also blunted. And Gerald, seemingly the soul of the Brawn alliance, is excised.
At the same time, George curries favour back with the Brains trio of Laura, Andrew, and Wai, ensuring them that he’ll still work with them even after the last few votes saw Brains go home. And by using Hayley in the incredibly narrow 5-4-1 vote, it goes some length towards burying the hatchet (until he wants to target her again), but it’s also clear that this was not a move of her doing.
Going forward, this outcome is good for George too. Keeping Dani, Emmett, and Flick all in the game keeps their bad blood fresh. With them fractured and outnumbered, it gives him options to scoop them up as he needs to form a new coalition moving forward. Or it gives him the option to keep working with the Brains and solidify a new power structure there.
The only major concern I have with the move is that he left Cara out of the loop. Ever since Cara was voted out of the OG Brains tribe, she’s been all in with Brawn, so I can understand why George didn’t want to bring her into this move lest she runs it back to Brawn and it blows up. It may also have just been too tight a timeframe to attempt to convince her, given that it seems like it was a last-minute development on George’s part. Nevertheless, it could precipitate a problematic fallout.
But secondary to that concern is whether it is too big of a move to single-handedly make at this stage of the game. It is an incredible play in isolation, demonstrating superb knowledge of the other castaways and their relationships, expert utilisation of the information gained by being involved in all the plans, and a cunning management of the numbers.
However, much like Hayley’s counter-counter-move at the Simon vote to pile back-up votes on Dani, George’s counter-counter-move is so clearly “His Move” that it could make him a target that could bring the Brawn back together against a common enemy, cause Cara to break away from him and/or allow the Brains to now make him a scapegoat. And that’s not even factoring in whatever will happen with this twist that the teaser promised to be “the most powerful advantage ever” (which, ugggggh. George’s history of using advantages has ranged from disastrous to ineffectual, so the precedent isn’t great.
Yet, despite my reservations that it could blow up in his face moving forward, I do think this was the right call for George, and if he can artfully manage the fallout, then he could be positioning himself for a phenomenal chance at the endgame. But the move did leave a lot of blood in the water, and even though we’re far from the coastline in Cloncurry, there are plenty of sharks left in this game.