I’ll admit, after last season, I was feeling like I’d been strapped into a torturous Australian Survivor Final Immunity Challenge and forced to endure the show blunder its way through what should have been a much better season. I was exhausted, frustrated, and burned by the twists and the lopsided editing and the way that the season’s strengths, including a compelling match-up in the Final 2, ended up feeling hollowed out by production choices. I was completely worn out, but I wasn’t giving up on Australian Survivor.
I came into Blood v Water with actively lowered expectations—and to be fair, I still have them. But it made the premiere all that more surprising when it ended up being a mostly pure, engaging, and dramatic opening that sets the scene for an intriguing season ahead.
It hit all the marks for me. The complex, layered strategy, especially on the Water Tribe (or should I follow Jonathan’s lead and resign myself to calling it the Blue Tribe? No – if SurvivorAU wants to give the tribes dumb names, they can live with their life choices). There was humour and heart in equal measure in the early characterisation of our cast, amplified by the intimacy of the partnership dynamic of the Blood vs. Water conceit. And to cap it all off, a dynamite Tribal Council that was wonderfully chaotic while still being clear to the audience as to what was happening. It felt surprisingly transparent for SurvivorAU, and that made it all the better.
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THE RIGHTFUL HEIR
There really is nowhere else to start than to praise the stand-out player of the episode: Nina Twine, daughter of Survivor royalty but immediate icon in her own right. Don’t get me wrong, seeing Sandra Diaz-Twine herself not just return to Survivor but to do so by coming to our local version is an absolute treat, and she was in fine form here. But Nina had big shoes to fill, and she stepped up with ease and confidence to immediately make her mark on the game.
I had been worried that Nina could immediately be targeted out of her own control—easily othered from her tribe as the sole American, not to mention the looming legacy making her a juicy target to weaken Sandra herself. But not only did she ingratiate herself with her tribe such that her name never arose in serious contention, but she effortlessly controlled the vote itself with calculated finesse.
When easygoing tribemate Alex Frost tweaked his back on his way to the first Immunity Challenge, he seemed poised to become a straightforward, easy first boot. He’d only be a liability to the Blood tribe if he couldn’t compete. Perhaps an additional factor in the meta context of avoiding his partner’s wrath, Alex and his partner Jay Bruno probably have the least connected relationship on paper, with Jay dating Alex’s sister: in-laws, without the Law. Would Jay hold the same grudge that a tighter familial relationship might? Regardless, he was easy pickings, but not if the tribe had anything to do with it.
In fact, the only castaway who seemed eager to push the Alex vote was Andy Meldrum, returning to SurvivorAU after becoming the sacrifice the island demanded at the merge of Champions v Contenders II. Andy had fallen into the trap of directing the tribe as camp was established on Day 1, but it’s hard to blame him for being the one championing the vote everyone was thinking. Despite fellow returnee Mark Wales critiquing Andy slouching into a leadership role, I don’t think this was what caused Andy’s downfall—nor was it being the one to voice the Alex discussion. Not even being the one to initiate plans to split the vote between Alex and Chrissy Zaremba, the tribe’s transparent fish-out-of-water.
Rather, Andy’s downfall seemed to be much more nuanced. As he and his sister Kate Meldrum observed, the biggest hole in his capabilities was the social game, and without his sister on hand to smooth that over, he was done in by his self-professed Achilles’ heel. As the Alex plan circulated, there was immediate dissatisfaction. Chrissy was reluctant, identifying Alex as a likable and potentially loyal tribemate. Shay Lajoie and Briana Goodchild concocted their own elaborate scheme to save Alex (and we will come back to this, mark my words!). But it was Nina who pushed hardest, not to specifically save Alex (though his passively effective social game was clearly doing work for him). Rather, Nina saw an opportunity to strike at someone she couldn’t see herself working with.
“I may be a rookie,” she admitted (in paraphrase), “but I don’t want to do something for someone else’s game.” Nina saw that cutting Alex might be the easy option, but it didn’t help her. It didn’t empower her or open up options for her. If anything, it would give power to the one person on the tribe she later identified as being the one person she got a bad vibe from—Andy, champion of the easy, strong-tribe vote. And she wasn’t the only one feeling it: as the plan took off, others quickly agreed that they couldn’t trust Andy and would prefer to take the risk on an injured Alex rather than keep a ‘shifty’ player in the mix.
Given Andy played pretty transparently on his two days this season, the perception of untrustworthiness has to come from somewhere—a reputation from his first game, sure, but more critically, mismanaging his social perceptions with his current tribe. Perhaps he didn’t realise he wasn’t gelling with them, or maybe he noticed but just couldn’t overcome it, but regardless, it was that social limitation that led to an unfortunately brief return from the superfan.
But by contrast, Nina’s management of her reputation by proxy was expertly handled. Though others, especially Mark, clocked her as potentially dangerous due to her pedigree, she worked through it to form strong connections and employ them to the best of her ability. It was classic Survivor, but Nina’s conversation with Mark (and later Jordie Hansen) at the well was textbook. She knew she wanted to turn the target onto Andy, but she opened the door for Mark to say his piece, creating space for him to suggest the idea first, for him to lead the pitch to Jordie, and for him to direct the dissemination of the plan.
She also took an active role in reinforcing the plan, confirming it with Mark and Jordie. It wasn’t her pushing her own plan (which could bite her), nor was it “Mark’s plan” (robbing her of the recognition)—it became their plan, collectively. A reinforcement of an alliance, without a pledge of allegiance uttered.
Nina also helmed significant efforts spreading the word, passing it to Khanh Ong, who confided that he wanted to play with people he vibed with (echoing her sentiments of not vibing with Andy and inferring he also vibed with her). She also convened with Mel Chiang and KJ Austin, who collectively agreed on an ongoing alliance between the three of them. Nina was insulated in strong social bonds. She was direct and decisive in her language but collaborative as she emphasised emotional and social play (her strengths) to take out the person that lacked them.
And in the end, even with a hilariously non-impactful dose of chaos at Tribal, Nina’s plan went off without a hitch. She played her part, as did Jordie, Mark, and the rest of the massive alliance, and Andy was sunk in a swift strike.
So without a doubt, Nina has established herself as a capable Survivor player worthy of her claim to her mother’s throne. What’s most impressive is the commanding subtlety of it. Nina earned respect without an outright target. She didn’t make a move just for the sake of making a move. She didn’t put all her eggs in one basket. She worked to her strengths and assured herself a strong position moving forward. To be fair, it’s far from smooth sailing: there’s still 45 days left in this game, and eyes may start turning her direction now that she’s made her presence more acutely known, but for now, the Princess Stays Princess.
It would be remiss to overlook Nina’s partner-in-crime Mark, who has similarly hit the sands with a sturdy but subtle outlook on the game. After he and now-wife Sam Gash were voted out in the pre-merge of Australian Survivor’s second season, the pair have carefully evaluated their strengths and weaknesses for their second chance. And so far, Mark is playing things perfectly. Despite being the biggest guy on his tribe, he’s looked to sit back and observe, marshalling allies and relationships rather than asserting leadership.
While wary of Nina’s potential danger, he was willing to trust her to work to pull off a blindside. And he’s found loyal allies like Jordie and names potential assets like Shay, Khanh, plus Alex and Josh Milgate (who are, notably, the only two who did not get looped into the Andy plan). Nevertheless, he’s in a commanding position for now, and if he can continue to manage his threat level while leveraging his social capital, he could put himself in a stellar position.
TUSSLE AT TRIBAL
But while Nina & Mark effortlessly outflanked Andy, they weren’t the only ones scheming and plotting. As mentioned earlier, Shay & Briana had their own designs of how to seize control at the inaugural Tribal, albeit with far more questionable tactics. The pair had developed a fast rapport, and when Shay uncovered a clue to an Idol hidden in plain sight at Tribal, they seemed poised to catapult into power—except for one small hiccup. Their clue wasn’t the only clue on the beach.
I love a public Idol. Open knowledge of Idols makes for fascinating gameplay as the players must work to circumvent transparent knowledge covertly. The Idol on the host’s podium is a modern classic, originating in Survivor South Africa: Philippines with the iconic Palesa Tau seizing it, inspiring a savvy Adam Klein to seek out a fleur-de-lis decoration in a similar position in Winners at War. But in Palesa’s case, she had the only clue: the Idol was just waiting in plain sight for her to grab when she wanted to play it. And in Adam’s case? Well, it wasn’t actually an Idol at all. So there was never an urgency to the public nature of it.
But Australian Survivor did something it rarely does: create an elegant twist that encourages risky plays without becoming overbearing. The simple addition of a second clue (and likely two more clues at the other camp) and informing the players of this fact created an immediate pressure. Shay & Briana now had to act urgently if they wanted that Idol, especially once their apparent nemesis and complete Survivor casual Chrissy found the other clue in an obliviously public way. Now it became a race to the Idol—not only to claim it themselves but to ensure it didn’t fall into the wrong hands.
And the best thing about this? Jumping out of your seat to publicly claim an Idol at the first Tribal is an almost guaranteed way to put yourself on the radar as someone dangerous and sneaky. The risk is unlikely to be worth the reward unless you’re on the chopping block or so well socially insulated that you can afford to flaunt that social capital. And in Briana & Shay’s case, neither seemed to be at play. They were not in danger themselves (despite a despondent Alex throwing a stray vote Briana’s way), but they seemed to be on the periphery of the current power centre of the tribe.
On top of taking the risk to seize the public Idol, their plan to use it to play it on Alex, save him, and send Chrissy home instead feels like a wildly over-the-top play out of the gate. It’s flashy but unnecessary, and it wastes an Idol that could be used to actually protect them or their close alliance (and that’s assuming Alex isn’t in their inner circle, given we saw nothing explicitly to confirm that). There were already rumblings against sending Alex home—use a majority of votes, not an Idol, if you can. And on top of that: Chrissy? Is she really the right target to burn an Idol for?
Chrissy is the definite stand-out character of the episode: a comically unaware player who casually, nay, proudly, admits that she has no idea what’s going on. She doesn’t even know what Tribal Council is when she reads the Idol clue she stumbles upon by accident. It’s almost so absurd that I have to assume she’s exaggerating her cluelessness, but then again, maybe not? And there is something endearing about watching people who know nothing figure out the game; or cause chaos through their own disregard for the patterns that can lock superfans into rigid mindsets of how to play.
Right out of the gate, Chrissy’s accidental discovery of the clue contributes to Shay & Briana’s tailspin, disrupting the plans of two eager and competitive players. And when Shay botches her headstart sprint for the Idol, allowing Chrissy to snag it, only for Briana to pressure Chrissy into wasting it when no votes were heading her way, it’s a testament to how fun it can be to have varying levels of experience on the show.
Do I have high hopes that Chrissy will become a top-tier Survivor player? Probably not. But a top-tier SurvivorAU character? She absolutely has the potential. And while she’s certainly got attention focused her way from Shay & Briana, I wouldn’t rule her out as the next boot. She’s a wildcard, and her naivety of the game could be seen as an asset to a savvy player seeking an ally they can mould. Then again, we’ve seen time and time again that trying to control a wildcard can be its own disaster. So whichever way it goes—Chrissy, Briana & Shay, Nina, Mark… the whole Water tribe: it feels like it’s going to be a real storm at sea, in the best way possible.
By contrast, we didn’t see much of the victorious Blood tribe. Sandra worked to lower her threat level as much as possible, but the tension at the camp seems poised to threaten her. To her credit, she knows the physicality of Australian Survivor, and even when Blood had the chance to sit someone out due to Alex’s injury, she made sure she competed to avoid the easy “bad in challenges” target to add to the threat of her reputation.
Her reputation could potentially help her. Jesse Hansen fanboying over getting to play Survivor with a legitimate icon was wonderfully wholesome, and she may be able to parlay that starstruck awe into friendly loyalty, as is her modus operandi. However, it’s far from a sure thing, and the ominous shots of the physical powerhouses like Jay, Michael “Croc” Crocker, Jordan Schmidt, and Ben Watson feel like they could be telegraphing an insurgency against the Queen.
Perhaps, though, it might be a social media queen who takes the hit first: Sophie Cachia was the only other notably highlighted player on the tribe. Featured in one of the few solo “character packages” of the episode, Sophie related her journey from footballer’s wife to entrepreneur to personal revelation and embracing life as a queer woman. This is a compelling backstory (and after last season especially, openly acknowledging an LGBTQ+ story in the premiere is a nice beat), but the “front-story” of Sophie at camp felt like a few red flags.
She admitted that her direct and blunt proclivity for leadership could be dangerous and that she’s particularly surprised she hadn’t told anyone to “—- off” yet. Perhaps Sophie’s journey will be one of managing her threat level, but her leadership could easily become an albatross around her neck. And a player like Sandra would be quick to exploit that if needed.
But this is all speculation divined from the dregs of a teacup. Until we’ve seen more of the tribe, including anything substantial from the current background players like Sam, Kate, Amy Ong, David Goodchild, and Michelle Chiang, it’s difficult to prognosticate with any real authority. But one thing’s for sure: if this season’s premiere is anything to go by, Blood vs Water has the potential to be a competitive and dynamic season that could really spill the blood in the water.