I already loved the Blood vs. Water theme as a format for Survivor, with its injection of deeper bonds and emotion into an already challenging and emotional game. But without a doubt, Australian Survivor has completely elevated the format beyond my wildest dreams. What’s even more impressive is that some of its inherent format flaws (the bloated cast, the huge tribes and drawn-out pre-merge, the non-elimination twists) have actually served to enhance and highlight the theme in surprising and compelling ways.
It’s without a doubt the best version of Blood vs. Water we’ve seen and absolutely the most effective theme we’ve seen in Australia. And the best part is that just because we’ve hit the merge and reunited a majority of players into their partnerships, it feels like there is still so much more juice to squeeze from the theme.
Look at this episode where the thirteen remaining players merged into one, blood and water combining to form… lava, I guess? Less than inspired tribe name aside (though there’s a certain ironic goofiness to it that amuses me), a merge in BvW could easily become a bit straightforward.
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In the past, we’ve seen pairs lock into place and either become immediate targets (as in the inaugural Blood vs. Water with Aras & Vytas and Tina & Katie) or to form a coalition to run the game (as in San Juan del Sur with Jon & Jaclyn and Missy & Baylor manouevering into a decisive power position that gridlocked the numbers).
There’s still an essence of that here, with pairs making up nearly two-thirds of the tribe. And two of those pairs (Jordie & Jesse and Josh & Jordan) easily coagulating into the Boys’ Club majority alliance. And yet the strategy of this episode was far from straightforward. And in a season where we’ve seen pairs vote against each other or strategically diverge in some capacity three times already, the tension between the reuniting pairs was palpable.
While Jesse & Jordan wore a little dissent, they were largely on the same page due to their own similar approaches to the game—strategy masked by charisma. Nevertheless, they were drawn in different directions by the vote based on their pre-merge connections. Mel & Michelle, in their first substantial content of the season, identified as mirror twins. And while they seemed to be in lock-step through what we saw of their strategic conversations to target Shay, there was clearly something misaligned as they voted differently. Michelle stuck with the Shay plan, while Mel piggybacked onto the majority, almost compromising her own position in the game as she sided with the plan that ultimately put the split vote back-up on her.
Yet these were but whispers of tension compared to the complexity of the readjustment period of our season’s clearest power couple, Mark & Sam.
THE POWER COUPLE
Throughout the pre-merge, Mark & Sam spoke of their tactical plan to divide and conquer. While their ultimate goal was to reunite at the merge and run the game together, they knew the risks of being too visible as a power couple. This fed into Mark’s decision not to join Sam’s tribe at the swap. Individually, they could focus on their own games, gather their own arsenal and intelligence on tribal dynamics, and then combine their powers at the merge to come out on top. And to this point, they played it brilliantly.
Sam efficiently and effectively dominated the strategy of her tribes and was willing to rock the boat and create risks, but never ended up in the firing line due to her immaculate social game and insightful choice of allies like Sandra and Jesse, who drew heat before her. Meanwhile, Mark downplayed his aggressive gameplay to become an easygoing, social pivot in his tribes, always at the crux of the votes but never outwardly seen as the ringleader despite his imposing physicality.
Despite being strong, capable players with the reputation of a returnee, neither caught votes coming their way all throughout the pre-merge, and both stepped into this episode with loyal allies. Sam had cultivated a partnership with Jesse but had close ties to Khanh & Chrissy after the post-swap run, while Mark had surrounded himself with a gaggle of meatshields in the Boys’ Club, Jordie, Josh, Jordan, and Juicy Dave.
Logic would suggest they’d simply unite their alliances into a super-majority or collaborate on how to assemble a dream team from their individual work. Especially with each having ended up with one of the brothers as their second-in-command, Mark & Sam and Jordie & Jesse could easily have become a rock-solid block right off the bat and immediately run the merge. And yet… Reality doesn’t play by logic’s rules.
As Sam articulated several times throughout the stressful episode, when a couple reunites after time away, there’s often a readjustment period of reacquainting with each others’ quirks and dynamics. The process of doing so in Survivor, with the heated pressure of Tribal looming, only enhanced the anxiety of that process, especially as the pair seemed to be immediately out of sync.
Whereas Sam seemed to be approaching the merge with the mindset they’d agreed on, Mark’s plan was… well, a little inscrutable. At face value, Mark had thrown his entire lot in with the Boys’ Club. His strong guys apparently never make the merge in Survivor (Narrator: Mark is incorrect). Rather than intending to combine his game with Sam’s, Mark came into merge with the intent to absorb Sam into his game.
Sam immediately pushed back, especially when it became apparent that both hoped to prioritise different targets. Sam wanted to focus on eliminating Shay, a loose number and a physical threat that could skate through and then go on a disruptive Immunity run. She was an easy vote, in many ways. After losing her partner Ben and her ally Nina, Shay had no real allies in the game. Mark’s boys had wanted to vote her out pre-merge, and had she not won that Individual Immunity challenge, she likely would have been making fire against Ben.
It was an easy compromise for both alliances and an opportunity to remove a random factor from the equation. Sam had potential allies in her corner. Khanh & Chrissy had no reason to want to keep Shay, KJ was a loose number who was coming into the merge as a clean slate and could be swayed, and Mel & Michelle agreed on Shay as a physical threa. It could have been an easy pile-on, and in Sam’s mind, it was a simple, straightforward play.
But Mark had other ideas and was wholly determined to blindside Khanh with an Idol in his pocket. Mark spoke early on about keeping Khanh in his pocket until he could snipe him, but the uncompromising intensity with which he wanted to pursue the blindside now was surprising. Perhaps it was influenced by sentiment in his alliance against Khanh—a physically capable player who also had an Idol and who had just won an unprecedented $60,000 in the first individual Reward Challenge.
Khanh was certainly a dangerous player. In principle, taking a bold strike at him at the merge was not a bad idea. There were enough numbers to comfortably split the vote, and with the largest tribe yet, he might feel safe enough in the throng to not notice the target on his back and sit on his Idol (which is ultimately how the Tribal played out). So in isolation, a strong play.
But the downside was that Khanh was one of Sam’s most loyal allies. Just last vote, Khanh had won Individual Immunity and given it to Sam, despite it making him vulnerable (and very nearly the target of a cold blindside). By targeting Khanh, Mark invalidated the game Sam had been playing. She knew Khanh would be too dangerous to take all the way to the end, but that’s also a long way away. Having a loyal ally with an Idol, who has also shown a willingness to honour an agreement and give away Immunity? Maybe that’s an asset in the short term.
Yet Mark showed his hand to Sam: he wasn’t willing to make a move that suited them both. He wanted to make a move that suited him. He’d gone so far down the track of ensuring they were each playing their individual games that he was losing sight of their partnership. So much so that he didn’t even tell Sam about his Idol.
You’d think that divulging one of the most powerful tools in the game to the single person in the game with whom you share unmitigated trust— your wife—would be a no-brainer. And yet… Mark withheld this crucial information, only for Sam to learn it second-hand when Jordie let it slip. Sam clarified on Twitter that this was almost 24 hours after the merge—a whole day that Mark had kept the secret for… reasons? When she confronted him about it, he tried to deflect that he was going to tell her and that they shouldn’t necessarily need to tell each other everything at once. And that Jordie thinking he might have the upper hand by having been privy to this knowledge when Sam wasn’t might make him trust Mark more, but it was a pretty flimsy and convoluted rebuttal.
Public Idols have been an absolute thorn in the side of many players, so Mark’s hesitancy to speak about it too much is fair. Yet, when the Idol is already known by your strategic partner (who notably already passed it on to his brother, betraying Mark’s confidence), there’s really no excuse to hide it from your wife. It immediately throws up red flags of an individual game, and on top of Mark’s adamant voice in the determination of the vote that served him over Sam, it’s a concerning wrinkle in the game plan to play together.
Sam, rightfully, was frustrated at feeling like she was being stifled. She called herself “silenced” in an instantly iconic confrontation where Khanh walked up on Mark & Sam arguing about the vote and proceeded to mediate them through couples counselling to resolve their issues. There’s obviously a lot of nuance to the realities of Sam & Mark’s relationship and dispute here that we don’t see in the show. Still, Sam’s agony over being pushed out of having an autonomous game or even a say in their combined strategy was palpable. And it only seemed inflamed by Mark’s dry humour and blunt rhetoric that literally belittled her contributions. “Our show is bigger than your show,” he said of their respective alliances.
At the end of the day, Mark had the numbers, and there was only so much social currency Sam could expend with him or her other allies to buy back the upper hand. Perhaps she could have tipped Khanh off to play the Idol and possibly pulled a strong enough coalition to target Shay. But that’s a lot to cash in to take out an “easy” target. Maybe tip Khanh about the Idol but let back-up Mel go out on the split? Perhaps effective, but then she may have to fight for Khanh again next time, and it’s just a rinse and repeat.
While rallying the players on the outs and using Khanh’s Idol to take out one of the Boys’ Club would have been the obvious move in an ordinary season, that would have been too big of a shot across the bow against her own husband. And no matter how hard Sam & Mark are playing this game, an all-out war between them is something neither wants.
And thus, as flabbergasted as I was in the moment to see it play out, I completely understood Sam’s reluctant decision to fall into line. The numbers were too significant, and it wasn’t worth divorcing her game from Mark’s over it. Yet, for the loss of her ally Khanh, who was also close to Mark (Survivor boyfriends, lest we forget), she has learned valuable information. Between the vote and Mark’s omission of his Idol, she’s seen firsthand that he’s prioritising his game over hers. Whereas Mark might be seeing his position in the game through rose-tinted glasses. He’s in the majority, he’s got his partner, he’s got an Idol—Sam sees the cracks and the vulnerabilities that could threaten both their games.
She’s also getting a glimpse of Mark’s current endgame—dominated by players she has little to no allegiance with. And it may behoove her to stoke the flames of the players on the outs like Mel & Michelle, Chrissy, Shay, and KJ to try to turn the game on its head. Or exploit the egos and cracks within the Boys’ Club to break it up from the inside.
Sam might have been forced into following along with this plan, but she is anything but a follower. And I am on the edge of my seat to see how she plays from here to manage her shared game with Mark but ensure they don’t get squeezed out by Mark’s narrower focus on his own game. It’s the beauty of Blood vs. Water, these conflicts of interest. And the long pre-merges—almost the length of an entire modern US Survivor season—leave so much space for couples to delineate.
We saw it with Nina & KJ both realising they couldn’t risk their own games to protect their loved ones from near-unanimous votes. We saw it with Chrissy & Croc torn between different allies and different priorities. And the fact that we’re seeing it even in The Power Couple themselves is proof of how hard this is. Even returning players like Mark & Sam, perfect Survivor specimens on paper, can come into Blood vs. Water thinking that nothing will ever break that bond and that they’ll be an unstoppable force together, and yet here we are.
There were many subtle moving parts to the Khanh blindside, with Jordie, in particular, shining as an emissary of information positioned wonderfully as the cunning jester, hiding in plain sight within his own alliance. Jesse, too, proved his worth and adaptability, not only in his victory at the Immunity Challenge but his own deft navigation of the readjustment period with his brother and his own conflicting allegiance with Sam, who had shared her reservations about the Khanh vote.
KJ, putting in an excellent showing at the Immunity Challenge, also played a subtler game to find a new path as a single-player amongst the sprawling merge tribe. But it would not do for me to miss eulogising one of my favourite players of the season thus far, whose game ends with a wailed cry of disappointment but a smile on his face.
I wasn’t familiar with Khanh from MasterChef, but he quickly won me over with his relaxed but enthusiastic charisma and his clear enjoyment of the experience of playing Survivor. While he clearly cherished the relationships he built, he was also eager to experience the game as much as he could. Between Idols and Challenges, he proved himself a worthy and competitive player. And while he definitely tipped his hand too early and that target only grew throughout the pre-merge, he nevertheless made a number of small, subtle shifts to help keep him in good graces with his tribe and the powers within it while sniffing out the true danger coming his way.
Until this episode, at least. After holding onto his Idol for so long, it’s a shame to see Khanh go home with it in his pocket. It’s not an uncommon trajectory in Survivor history as players grow comfortable with the protection, managing the paranoia to pre-emptively play the Idol so well that they overlook the paranoia when the blindside is actually coming.
Nevertheless, Khanh walks away from this game as a bright spark of a character. Entertaining and competitive at the same time, and approaching the whole experience with a beautiful blend of vulnerability and celebration. For as hard as the game might be, it’s still the game of Survivor, and what could be better than living out the dream of playing it?
As it stands, I feel like that’s what I’m loving about this season: the tone. This feels like the most real and vulnerable Australian Survivor has gotten, with the format aiding in highlighting intense personal and emotional moments. Still, the show learning to tone down the bombastic tenor a little to let these quieter moments shine. Yet it’s also been a season that’s felt surprisingly light at times, with many players embracing the ups and downs of the experience and being willing to make a move or take a risk.
The season certainly has its flaws—the abysmal edits of Mel & Michelle and even the comparatively thin overarching story of Josh, Jordan & David, who are largely background bodies and/or eye candy at this point. But after a couple of really frustrating seasons hamstrung by production twists and even sloppier edits, it’s refreshing to feel like Australian Survivor is recapturing the essence of what made it a must-watch franchise.
It turns everything up to 11, sure, but its players are its strength as they bring both heart and game in equal measure. We’re halfway through Blood vs. Water, and it feels like we’re only just beginning, and it’s been a while since I’ve been this eager to see how the back half of the season plays out.