As the first week of Brains vs. Brawn comes to a climactic end, I’m left with a renewed sense of hope for this season moving forward. After a lackluster, frustrating premiere and a surprisingly solid second episode, Episode 3 came out swinging, giving us full opening credits, introducing new faces, building upon existing stories, developing emotional investment in the cast, and as it was said at Brawn’s intense Tribal Council, drawing a line in the sand heading into the rest of the season.
My expectations for this season were reasonably tempered after All-Stars dragged the show down an unfortunate path production-wise in basically every possible way, but the show I love is back in style. Mostly.
One of the biggest concerns every Australian Survivor super fan had coming in was that the meathead Brawns would dominate every challenge, and the plucky underdog Brains would be utterly annihilated, effectively making the season a 24 episode compilation of geeks being shoved in lockers. Yet in a surprising subversion of expectations, the Brawn Tribe, while significantly advantaged in the more physical reward challenges so far, has struggled with immunity challenges because production wisely, and finally, added puzzles to even things out.
The show loves its one on one duels, and I can appreciate a good physical challenge for the iconic moments they produce, but props to those in charge for considering what fans have been yelling about for the past three years. Sure, obstacle courses and puzzles are a bit cliché in modern Survivor, and I like to see creativity. But in a season called Brains vs. Brawn, where one tribe is physically stacked by design, this model is a perfect equalizer, especially when the puzzle is placed at the start of the course, as we saw in this episode’s immunity challenge.
I’d still like to see the Brains face more reward challenges that play to their strengths though, because this episode’s edition of the memorable “Damn it, Reed!” challenge turned into “Damn it, production!” once I saw the goal was holding up something heavy. Oh well. You can’t win them all.
And in another subversion of expectations, though the under editing of the Brains is a factor, the Brawn Tribe has emerged as the more strategically complex side, a far cry from the dreaded “meathead athletes voting out the weak” mentality we’ve come to expect from the last couple seasons. It’s been a tried and true story for the show since the first Champions vs. Contenders, often at the expense of great characters and players who simply didn’t have the muscle to win a gauntlet of demanding challenges that reward physicality alone.
So with the immediate downfall of the Brawn’s alpha alliance, though it wasn’t much of a downfall at all as they never had any power to begin with, hopefully the beyond tired “keep the tribe strong” mentality has been put to rest and the show can move into a new era where the social and strategic game are afoot from Day 1.
While Brawn were unquestionably the stars of the episode, let’s break down the Brains first. George is just as unquestionably the main character of the tribe, having taken control of the airtime rather than the game. Off the heels of his insulting salvation of the “weakest” Brains members and insistence to go against an AFL legend one on one, George continues to ostracize himself in humorous fashion, suggesting the tribe abandon their quest for fire and do nothing but rest until the next challenge.
As usual, nobody’s interested in what George is saying despite him making a decent if blunt and poorly delivered point. Meanwhile, Andrew, the resident wilderness expert who was undoubtedly cast on the Brains to give them a fighting chance against a tribe full of athletes, makes fire while George is away from camp washing up.
However, George does find his redemption at the immunity challenge, as he’s the first person to figure out the brain teaser despite nobody wanting him anywhere near the puzzle to start. George’s clutch solution allows the Brains to steamroll Brawn for the first time to earn a second immunity win in a row, and if George was looking for a solid place in his tribe, he might have just found it as a master puzzle solver alongside fellow “weak link” Wai.
If the Brains manage to lose again, and I assume they will once production forgets to add a puzzle somewhere in the mix, it’s still tough to see George and Wai both making it out alive. But it’s Survivor. Anything can happen as the OP advantage in the premiere and the show’s history of maligned non-elimination twists have proven.
Unfortunately, that’s about all one can say about the Brains this episode. It’s the George show featuring a rotating band of supporting characters. While a Brains loss would likely send home a fun character, I’d like to get an idea of the dynamics on the tribe as soon as possible, so perhaps another Brains loss where the entire tribe gets to vote for a change would be a net benefit for the show’s narrative. I don’t know who’s really aligned with who, who’s willing to shake things up, or who Georgia even is. That’s not good.
But what is good is the content we got from the Brawn Tribe. Outside of the strategic discussions, their reward win showed us a little about who some of them are playing for back home. Chelsea’s dad inspired her to fight harder, Gerald’s bond with his sister is unbreakable, Daini and his mother didn’t have much growing up but overcame adversity, and Kez was bullied as a child but learned to be stronger and wants to win this game.
The classic photos from home reward is a staple for the show at this point, and I’m always happy to see it make an appearance. Survivor is and always has been about the players as humans, not pieces on a board. If you can’t tell me who these players are as human beings and communicate their personal stories on screen, it’s hard to be fully invested in their success as a viewer. And while this season hasn’t given everyone their dues yet, and probably won’t, it’s comforting to have a handful of people to root for beyond gameplay related reasons.
But once the happy times were over, alliances formed and scrambled for the crucial swing votes needed to get a majority. On one side, we have Simon, Emmett, Gavin, Dani, and Chelsea. This is the group of tough, brawny challenge beasts that seems to form every season. You know the drill. They want to keep the tribe strong, vote out the weaker members, and enjoy a life of luxury with rewards and immunity galore. The problem? They have no power.
After last episode’s Tribal Council, I assumed there was a split vote plan between Janelle and Shannon in the event one of them had an idol. I assumed Gavin was told to vote for Janelle and Flick’s swing vote talk was just the edit’s attempt at forging suspense for the show because Australian Survivor loves its cynical, fake hype now and then (e.g. Sue’s Big Move). But no. Gavin was confused and legitimately didn’t know he was supposed to vote for Shannon with the rest of his alliance, not that it mattered once Flick left them to be swept away by a tide of Janelle votes.
Prior to the season, it seemed as if Gavin was prepared to play. He did his research, got invested in the game, and aimed to be the first Indigenous Australian Sole Survivor. But after one Tribal Council, he walked out with a big dunce cap on. And after another, his torch was snuffed. But how did we get there?
Opposite to Simon, Emmett, Gavin, Dani, and Chelsea, a new alliance forms between five outsiders: Flick, Shannon, Kez, Gerald, and Benny, who’s neck and neck with Georgia to escape the dreaded, ultra-purple Sam Schoers edit. While this group was a loose coalition against Janelle at the last vote, they quickly solidify under Flick’s leadership and pull in Daini, aka Big D, to have a six-person majority. But Big D isn’t a 100% sure vote for their side. He’s still a major powerhouse in challenges, so Simon sees a chance to grab a new key member for his jock alliance.
I know Simon’s going to be raked over the coals for being outwitted twice in a row and being unreasonably cocky this week, but I do have to give him and his alliance some credit here. Even if they failed, I liked part of their approach. They picked out someone who’d fit in with their group, respectfully asked him to join, and when Big D proposed an alternate target out of the blue with Kez, they let him have his way instead of forcing him to accept a plan he didn’t want to carry out. It was a half-decent pitch and proves this jock alliance has some game sense.
But where things go horribly wrong is Simon telling Big D he’s coming in as the sixth person in the alliance, and Kez going home instead of Shannon is simply a way to throw him a bone. Not exactly a compelling pitch after all. It’s not the worst play possible, but Simon did very little to convince Big D he wasn’t going to be expendable in the future. Why choose a guaranteed 6th spot when the opposing alliance might have room for him in a higher tier?
However, even if Simon had convinced Big D to join forces with the jocks, they were still getting outplayed by Kez, who was worried about a potential flip by Big D. Having found an idol clue, she quickly finds the first idol of the game in hilarious fashion as her clothes, likely poorly chosen by production, are too small and tight to conceal an idol found right in front of the tribe. So to avoid being caught red-handed, Kez decides to be caught red-skinned instead, opting to lay down and get a sunburn all afternoon so nobody would spot the bulge behind her back.
Idol hunts can be fairly boring in modern Survivor since they usually amount to one person finding a package in a tree with no tension. This, however, was a really fun idol hunt because it had dramatic tension and built Kez up as a fun player and character. Give us more idol hunts like this, please. Hide more clues. Make players be resourceful to keep their idols a secret. It’s why idols hidden at challenges or in public can be fun. For every intense scene of someone grabbing an idol without anyone suspecting a thing, you get a Sharn dropping an idol from her pants in front of the entire tribe or a Kez having nowhere to go but on her back.
At Tribal, the talk of lines in the sand continues. Simon takes most of the heat for creating the division. From the start, it was made incredibly obvious that Simon, Emmett, and Gavin were a tight trio. On a tribe of twelve people, all from various walks of life, despite the Brawn label pigeonholing them into an archetype, a three-person alliance might as well have a neon sign over it reading “Vote Us Out!” Granted, they did scoop up a couple extra numbers in Dani and Chelsea, so control was within reach. But the rest of the tribe wasn’t about to let them have said control even if they brought some serious muscle to the table.
With Kez playing her idol on herself, which I’ve since learned was a result of Big D knowing about it and working both sides to flush it out immediately, so props to Big D for his game sense, Gavin is ultimately doomed either way the votes go. Big D sides with the outsiders to take power, Simon, Emmett, Dani, and Chelsea are left on the bottom, and the season’s biggest celebrity casting choice leaves with a confused whimper after a pre-season full of Wanganeen hype.
Coming into the season, Gavin seemed to be a great character in the making regardless of his longevity. A former AFL legend turned middle-aged artist representing Indigenous Australians sounded like a guaranteed super star. But with only a couple confessionals and a confused strategic disaster under his belt, his role was strangely small. As the victim of a flip and an idol that both overshadowed the fact that he was even on the season to begin with, Gavin Wanganeen leaves as a disappointing if amusing joke character in the overarching story of Brains vs. Brawn.
And I can’t even say he did much wrong to be voted out because his voting misfire was totally overlooked. Instead, it was being perceived as the weakest member of his trio that was his undoing. If he could have done anything, it was using his accidental Janelle vote as a means of flipping across said line in the sand, adding himself as a low-ranking member of Flick’s opposition to save himself for a couple more votes once the writing was on the wall. But when the lines were five on five with a swing vote in the middle, I can’t blame him for sticking with his tight allies and hoping for the best.
While I’m happy to see his alliance be knocked down a peg (seriously, the reactions to Kez playing her idol and dooming the jocks were incredibly satisfying), Gavin had big goals and I can’t really say he succeeded in achieving them. But I still appreciate him giving the show an honest shot and representing Indigenous Australians, and I hope he got something positive out of this once in a lifetime experience.
So where does this leave us? First, Kez lost an idol. I can’t judge her for misplaying it because a potential 6-5 vote is scary, and it’s better to guarantee your safety than risk just one person flipping. I think she made the smart play here, especially with Big D knowing about the idol and playing double agent to flush it. Does it make her a target? Perhaps. But she has five people on her side and appears to be in the upper tier of her alliance alongside Flick and Shannon, so her position is fairly secure.
Simon, Emmett, Chelsea, and Dani need to scramble. Either they flip a vote or two, find that re-hidden idol, or simply get back to winning immunity until the swap or merge. Regardless, their minority alliance is in a terrible position and with no lack of raw physical strength on the tribe, simply being strong alone isn’t as valuable as a bargaining chip as it’s been in past seasons.
With the previews promising a massive blindside and several other “unmissable” moments, I can’t imagine the season is about to lose steam in its second week, unless we’re getting Sue’s Big Move’d right now. The first week of Brains vs. Brawn started off incredibly rocky but quickly picked up the pace and the editing slack to have a strong, respectable showing in the end. With an all-time great inland location, a cast that’s willing to play, and improvements in several production departments, this season is shaping up to be a worthy addition to the Australian Survivor history books. I can’t wait to see where this potentially crazy Outback ride goes.