Brains v Brawn was a season of surprises, both pleasant and less so. From the broken twists to most of the endgame players being twist-saved at some point, there was plenty to be disappointed with. But from the crazy gameplay that gave us legendary great and awful moves to some all-time great Survivor characters shining all season long, there was a lot to love. It’s been a weird and wacky two months, but it’s time to finally put it to rest with an epic finale for the ages.
Sizing up this competitive final three, Flick was a social and physical player who overcame obstacle after obstacle with pure mental strength, giving her a unique path to the end. George relied on his strategic senses and hard work to get him to election day rather than luck or pure physicality, becoming the poster child of the Brains. Hayley mixed brains and brawn to create a balanced game as she endured and pushed herself to the end. It’s truly an anyone’s game scenario, but with a final two format, it all comes down to that final endurance challenge for the last ounce of control.
Aided by the support of their loved ones, the final three take their places between two beds of spikes, their feet grinding against small pegs as the ceiling gradually lowers hour by hour. It’s a grueling, agonizing challenge, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Australian Survivor’s production team makes questionable choices year after year, but when it comes to setting the stage for an epic final challenge, they always deliver.
After three and a half hours, the sun sets. An hour later, George’s body finally gives out, leaving it up to Hayley and Flick to secure the necklace one last time. At five hours, just one meter of space remains for their bodies, pushing them to their breaking point. Despite her best efforts, Flick’s tank runs empty and she drops, giving Hayley a fourth necklace to add to her collection and launching her into the final two.
But she has one decision left to make: George or Flick? Flick makes the case that George has played a dominant strategic game and has the speaking skills to sway the jury to his side. George argues that Flick has more locked votes, and that against him, Hayley would have a wider margin of jurors up for grabs seeing how similar their strategies were. Ultimately, the decision is easy, but putting Flick’s name down is hard.
The big wave surfer fought to the bitter end and wipes out just one day short of likely winning the game. Her voting record was nothing to write home about, and her strategic plays in the endgame were disasterous. But had she succeeded in taking Hayley out at four, there’s no doubt she beasts that challenge, takes Cara to the end, and wins in a landslide. She was just outplayed one too many times by better players, but I’m still proud of her for enduring so many setbacks and coming out with a smile on her face.
And so we’re left with the final two I never expected. It’s Hayley vs. George in the ultimate battle royale showdown. Both played incredible yet imperfect games, leaving a series of massive blindsides and epic moments in their wakes. It’s a bit like the anti-Gabon, where the finalists are still the last combo you expected to see in those seats, only in this case, it’s down to the two best players rather than the three worst.
Both finalists have good arguments. Hayley was a triple threat, dominating strategically, socially, and physically. George dodged hit after hit, was never voted out, and played a crazy game verging on implosion for 47 days straight. Either way, we’re leaving with a deserving winner.
George kicks it off with a top tier opening pitch, laying out his game in phases: changing the tone of the game to suit his chaotic play style, maintaining his social bonds and working with the Brawns after the swap to give himself options, and using those bonds to play double agent and knock out threat after threat down the home stretch. He’s engaging, funny, sincere, and confident, owning his strengths without remorse. As he said, he’s not here to preach his likability or show off his muscles. He’s here to explain his strategy and why it should net him the win. Simple as that.
Hayley’s pitch is more subdued, but her narrative recap sells her best moves and worst moments to create a likable, easy-to-follow story from start to finish. She had a comfortable majority but used her information to swing votes however she pleased to take control of the pre-swap Brains. Her public immunity idol was weaponized across three Tribal Councils to break up the old Brawn, lull Simon into a false sense of security, and take out Kez at the merge with a clutch play on Laura. But after facing elimination and heading to Redemption Rock, she spun her downfall and subsequent rise from the ashes as a catalyst for adaptation and evolution, testing herself physically while making bold moves and working her way back into good graces.
With the stage set for a do-or-die final battle, it’s in the jury’s hands as the open forum begins.
Laura asks what George learned about himself. It’s an easy question, and George runs with it, explaining his growth from a suburban boy to a master spy who eavesdropped on chats and survived intense situations with the power of his dedicated mind. Great answer. Not only does it sell his narrative in an engaging way, it makes his game sound fun and downplays the more villainous undertones with a bit of humor.
Cara goes for Hayley’s jugular, asking if she planned to lie, deceive, and manipulate as much as she did. Hayley owns her game here, defending her constant lying as a skill learned from administering placebos in her pain research projects, as well as a part of the game she’s loved from a young age. She set a clear tone for what Survivor is all about to her and doesn’t falter in the face of a recruit-heavy jury that might not respect a sinister play style.
Andrew, swearing he called the final two six weeks ago, asks what regrets they have. George makes his first mistake of the night and says he has no regrets at all. It was an easy question, and the jury’s confused reactions sell just how hard he whiffed it. If someone asks you for regrets, they’re fishing for a certain answer. Give it to them and you win some points. Refuse to answer and you look arrogant.
Hayley, on the other hand, gives a solid answer, owning her 9-1 elimination as a massive mistake, yet one she was able to overcome. And when Dani calls her out for pointlessly lying to herself and Flick about a final three alliance, Hayley gives yet another great answer, owning her lie as a necessary evil that prevented the Brawn women from targeting someone they assumed to be an ally.
Gerald’s question is fun. If the game restarted at the final eleven, who would the finalists see working with them? George gives an honest and pretty epic answer: nobody would work with him. They know what he’s capable of, so if anyone still trusted him, they’d be making a stupid mistake. Not exactly an answer that butters up the jury, but it’s honest game ownership, and that’s respectable.
Hayley gives the exact opposite response, claiming everyone would work with her because she rose from the ashes of Redemption Rock and still had everyone on her side at some point. Again, she does a great job at spinning her humiliating downfall as a net positive for her narrative, weakening the one big argument against her victory before it can even be thrown her way.
Dani’s question is where the margin between the finalists starts to take shape. George held his own against Hayley’s calm, confident speeches, but when Dani drills him on his controversial challenge quitting, he starts to spiral. He argues he knew his strengths and weaknesses from the start and played in a way that maximized the latter, but the jury doesn’t quite buy it. He’s too defensive when he should be humble, too stubborn when he should be flexible, too dodgy when he should be direct. The jury wants to see him admit his mistakes and apologize where it’s appropriate, but he’s too set on preaching his top-tier strategy to back down and show his weaknesses for what they were.
The tough questions keep coming as Flick asks why he relied on lying and manipulation so often, and once again, he resorts to the same struggling arguments. Granted, his argument is correct. He was never going to be a challenge beast, so he used his brain to outwit people at any cost instead. The issue is that’s not what Flick wants to hear. Meanwhile, Hayley explains why they never worked together despite teasing an alliance several times, giving another good answer. She butters up Flick with subtle compliments, saying she wanted to sit next to people she could beat in challenges and at the end, and Flick didn’t fit either category.
With Wai and Baden effectively edited out of Final Tribal outside of brief comments, Emmett is the last to address the final two, giving them fairly easy questions. He compliments George’s ability to cockroach his way through the game but feels he burned too many bridges and asks once again if he’d do things differently. Hint, hint: time to show some humility.
If George was struggling with the last few questions, this is the one he straight up chokes on. Refusing to answer the question, he returns to singing his own praises, explaining how he put everyone but Baden on the jury and walked the tightrope between strategy and lies. A great argument, one that would work for another jury perhaps. Too bad it’s not what Emmett or this jury in general wants to hear. His awkward question-dodging is his late note of the night as the jury heads off to choose a winner.
As the votes are read, it’s clearly Hayley’s game to lose, and the 7-2 vote in her favor, losing only Laura and Cara’s votes, proves it. It was a long, difficult battle with many precarious points for the Queen of the Brains, but after 48 days, she takes the title in a flashy fashion, snatching the King’s crown at the finish line and entering an elite league of legendary players.
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People will hold her 9-1 boot against her, but writing off all her impressive work because of that one blunder would be a disservice to such a skilled player. She excelled strategically, pulling in numbers left and right to orchestrate some of the best moves I’ve ever seen, and weaponized an idol without even playing it. She excelled physically, winning four immunities and holding her own against athletic specimens in brutal challenges. And she excelled socially, bouncing back from a unanimous elimination as if it never happened, finding herself as a crucial swing vote for most of the game without burning bridges beyond repair. It’s one of the most balanced games I’ve ever watched, and to see it play out on such a messy train wreck of a season was a delight.
But with Hayley’s victory comes George’s dramatic defeat after the biggest edit in Survivor AU history. It’s hard to say he got robbed, even though I’m sure that argument will be made for years to come. Yes, he was never voted out. No, he wasn’t saved by a twist despite collaterally benefitting from plenty of them. Yes, he played a great strategic game while being an all-time character. But if the jury doesn’t vote for him to win because he quit challenges and struggled socially, then couldn’t give a good performance for them at the end, that’s on him.
Would I have considered giving him my vote had I been on that jury? Without question. Despite his awkward performance at Final Tribal where he basically threw out Russell Hantz quotes to defend himself and unleashed every patronizing stock line in the book, such as “Great question!” or “I love how you asked that and I can’t wait to answer it!”, he made a great case and had the cleaner game record by far. But without any physical or social prowess to point to, he was simply outmatched against a triple threat who accomplished everything he did and then some.
Against Cara, he probably wins in a landslide, but he was never making it to the end with Cara once Flick and Hayley reached the final four. So in a sense, he found himself in an unwinnable position, backed into a corner without enough ammo to shoot his way out to the $500,000. Had he pushed himself in the challenges and burned fewer bridges, or at least pitched those issues differently in his speeches, he might have stood a chance to swing three votes.
But in a game with 24 crazy cooks in the kitchen, you can only judge the meal put on the table. And his meal was missing some key ingredients. Perhaps he’ll refine his game in time for the next returnee season, because you know he’ll be out there, and I’ll eagerly await for the return of the king.
And so ends a truly wild season of Australian Survivor. Brains v Brawn was a tale of high highs and low lows. I loved this cast, finding the balance between big, messy players and wacky characters a welcome and hilarious change of pace from the strategy-heavy seasons of recent years. The season had an identity and a soul at its core, made even better by a great inland location I’d love to see become a constant should production wish to join Survivor US in singular location purgatory.
However, the editing, while a massive improvement from the dregs of All Stars and its half-purpled cast, left plenty to be desired. And the twists. Oh my god, the twists. Look, I don’t mind non-elimination episodes when they’re done right. Send someone to the other tribe, do a Redemption Whatever duel, you name it. Those twists are staples at this point and all incoming players should expect to see them. Heck, I’d take the boring urns again compared to some of the nastier twists. What I’m not a fan of is the sheer amount of episode-to-episode gimmicks thrown in to cause cheap drama and make for easy promo bait.
A six-person Safety Without Power at the first Tribal is broken. Giving four challenge winners the power to decide which falsely-eliminated player should be officially eliminated from a double Tribal is a bit much. Packing a new idol in every other episode is overkill. Spending an entire episode giving one person the sole vote at Tribal is one of the worst twists of all time and nearly ruined the season.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it as many times as it takes: let the players play the game. If you have faith in the cast, they will likely deliver in spades and make your promo hype for you. While the constant disasters made this season entertaining as a standalone season, I don’t need to see it repeated every season moving forward to capture the “magic” of twist-driven chaos.
But even with these complaints looming over it, Brains v Brawn is a solid entry to the Australian Survivor canon. It gave us a dominant win that didn’t feel totally oppressive over the season’s other narratives, several all-time great characters, some worthy returnee options from both the pre-merge and post-merge, innovative and hilarious gameplay of various quality, and some insane narratives so epic you’d think they were scripted. Hopefully next year’s season can deliver more of the good and less of the bad, pushing the series into a new renaissance. Until then, we wait and see what’s in store.