Well, the good news is that this was easily the best episode in the most recent stretch. Not because there was a shake-up strategically. Definitely not because of another overpowered advantage (geez, Australian Survivor was quick to squander my goodwill towards its restrained deployment of twists pre-merge). Not because there was some grand shift in the storytelling and editing. But it all felt like a step in the right direction.
We actually got to see a little personal content from one of the supposed biggest players in the game, and yet at the same time, the ultimate boot came a little out of nowhere, and they were barely shown. We got to hear some strategic insights and fascinating gameplay from multiple sources, but we were also still subjected to the same droning, repetitious themes of the confessionals of our main characters. I get it: Jordie’s the joker; yes, Sam & Mark having two Idols is a dangerous threat!
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However, I’m holding out some hope that this episode, which, on the whole, felt a little more balanced, personal, and competitive, is a sign of a shift now that we’re out of the literal stagnant limbo of Purgatory week. I still have a big bone to pick with the production decisions around Purgatory—too many episodes to essentially just circle back to square one. But what’s done is done, and all I’m hoping for is a strong endgame that might bring this season back to being a middling season of Australian Survivor.
READING THE TEA LEAVES
The Purgatory twist is an inherently unsatisfying one: four Tribals that only amount in one truly mattering and returning three people back into the game who are scorned but still outnumbered. If the players who originally voted them out just rinse and repeat, well, then it’s going to make for some really straightforward (if effective) gameplay. But if the PurgaTrio who return manage to flip the game, then it feels like a slap in the face for the players who managed to navigate themselves to a Final Six, only to be shunted back to Nine by a secret production twist.
To be honest, coming into this episode, I was feeling pretty cold and worn out towards the whole situation. And it was only exacerbated when an incredibly overpowered advantage was deployed via the Auction. It was refreshing to see a relatively pure auction make a return, but the fun of it is still undercut by the full-amount bidding, often in the hopes of securing an advantage. However, Australian Survivor has always managed to mitigate this pretty well by hiding the game advantages in other rewards—a jar of jellybeans, for instance, or here, with a cup of tea.
The advantage itself, however? Oof, far too powerful. Being able to banish a third of the tribe is just too much and too significant of a dynamic shift. Granted, it’s not as bad as half the tribe at the very first Tribal like last season, but it’s still not great, especially on the heels of Purgatory. It’s either going to give a complete upper hand to the returnees, manufacturing a potential majority (or at least a tie) that they would otherwise need to finagle through social gameplay. Or it’s going to just empower the status quo and all but assure the revolving door. Australian Survivor got lucky that the advantage worked out well this time around, but nine times out of ten, it’s not only going to stifle and thwart measured, intentional gameplay, but it’s also going to produce an unsatisfying result.
But we got the one in ten, as KJ’s expensive pot of tea turned out to be even more valuable than she realised. KJ’s been one of those stealthily good players throughout the season. Though her edit has definitely relegated her to a supporting role, when we have seen her, her gameplay is clever and calculated, and her personal drive is compelling. So while Jordie’s umpteenth Joker confessional was grating in the background, getting to have a fresh perspective front and centre and ultimately driving the PurgaTrio’s only hope was an exciting prospect. For KJ, this was precisely the advantage she needed. But while it’s insanely powerful, it’s not a slam dunk. And to her credit, she played it absolutely magnificently. It definitely took me a while to understand its merit, but the more I dwell on it, the more impressed I am.
The alliance of 6 had strong motivation to stick it out. David was getting antsy, but Chrissy, Josh, and Jordan seemed to have a solid gameplan going, and ultimately, their numbers could prevail over Mark & Sam, even with the one Idol they believed they had. So it was no surprise that when Josh won Immunity in only the second puzzle of the season (come on, Australian Survivor, it’s really not that hard to have more puzzles!), it was obnoxiously obvious that the move should be sending Jordie straight back out the door.
Perhaps there might be a move to be made against Sam and Mark before whittling down to six again, but they had to thin out the PurgaTrio first. Jordie was not only a proven challenge threat but also was a vocal player with charm on his side. Letting him get anywhere near the endgame would be disastrous, and while Shay & KJ are no slouches either, Jordie was too big a target not to hit.
Thus, KJ had to utilise her Tribal Pass immediately to get some sort of upper hand. Convention might have suggested to use it to send herself, Shay, and Jordie back to camp, giving them all Immunity and forcing the six to eat one of their own. However, as KJ articulated, that was a short-sighted play. Unexpected twists tend to prompt players to play conservatively, and even though that might allow the opportunity for Josh & Jordan to work with Chrissy & Dave to take a shot at the Idol-holders Sam & Mark, it was just as likely that the safe move would be made and the bottom run, likely David, would just become the consensus target.
Not only would that not really fracture the majority, who’d still outnumber KJ and her allies 5-3, but it would also remove the player most likely to flip to work with them to improve their own position in an alliance hierarchy.
So what KJ did was a beautifully efficient offensive strike. She split the core six down the middle, dividing the couples by sending Mark, Josh, and Chrissy back to camp. Mark, with a known Idol. Josh, with the Immunity Necklace. Chrissy, with (essentially) social immunity, as she is both insulated in her connections but not enough of a strategic threat to be a realistic target.
In doing so, she left behind the three most vulnerable players of the six. David, who’s been itching to make a move but ultimately hamstrung by numbers and caution. Jordan, who’s socially strong but is very much relying on his duo game with Josh. And, of course, Sam, who’s copping endless flak from Jordie about Jesse’s Idol and who has a growing reputation of being paranoid (which, when others are actually gunning for you, isn’t really paranoia, but a reasonable read). It’s also a divided three. Sam, Jordan, and David may have started on the same tribe, but they don’t really have much in common strategically.
With Jordie preaching that Sam made a heinous move, naturally, it’s going to make her nervous. Maybe nervous enough to play the Idol if she has it. But the PurgaTrio’s secret plan? Don’t waste time on actually taking the shot at Sam and risk it backfiring. Instead, side-swipe the straightforward Jordan, who is completely vulnerable and unlikely to make a risky play. In doing so, appeal to David’s desire to finally make a move against the couples and open up the game for the singles by actually making the flip numerically possible and strategically advantageous as it comes with the insinuation of a new singles-focused alliance where he at least jumps from a #6 to a #4.
Is it the optimal move? No. In a perfect world, KJ, Jordie, and Shay could have conspired with the move-hungry David to go to a 2-2-2 tie, allowing them to either eliminate Sam if she didn’t play an Idol or re-vote to take out Jordan if she did. I have to imagine this approach was discussed, but ultimately it is a risky play. It hinges everything on David, and he’s backed out of making a move with them before. And by splitting their own votes, it would allow David to ride a 3-2-1 majority and stick it out with his core alliance.
“Next vote” has basically been his motto these last few rounds, after all, so allowing him to defer making a move isn’t great. By sticking together, it forces David’s hand, either make the move now or risk going home in a rock draw. So while it may not have been a theoretically perfect execution of an insanely powerful advantage, it was a realistically flawless play.
The best part of it for KJ, too, is that it allowed her to own the stage and the move. Not just in playing the advantage, but it also emboldened her to articulate her reasoning and show that she wasn’t just the lucky facilitator for her alliance. No, she was the driving force. With someone who’s been as vocal as Jordie, now one of her closest allies, KJ needed to assert her own voice, or else he’d just slouch into the de facto credit for breaking up the alliance he’d been trumpeting against.
So KJ’s confident ownership of the move, and also calling out her perception as being “translucent” as well, was a wonderful play. And while it puts her on the radar, she’s still not at the top of the hit list should David slink back to his old majority again—that’s still big challenge threats Jordie & Shay. So it gives her a move she can call her own but also give her the wiggle room to finagle her way forward.
AN ASSURANCE OF INSURANCE
And while this was certainly KJ’s breakout episode (which is wild to say when she also made the call to vote out her sister for the sake of her own game earlier in the season), she wasn’t the only player making bold and impressive plays. This season has really been through Sam’s eyes, but in large part, that’s because she’s been playing a really effective game of calculated risk. After being screwed over by non-elimination after non-elimination, a twist of this magnitude felt like a fitting irony to be her potential doom. And yet, at the most vulnerable she’s ever been at this Tribal, she still managed to work the floor and ultimately maintain enough doubt around her having an Idol to protect her and force the PurgaTrio to fall back on the safe option Jordan.
And she needed to work it because she’d also collaborated with Mark to exploit one of the biggest rules loopholes I’ve ever seen in Survivor. Last season, fans (rightly) lambasted the show for allowing Kez to pass her Idol to Flick after she was voted out with it in her pocket. It was a direct violation of Survivor lore and law up to that point, where the whole point of blindsiding someone with an Idol was to also kill the Idol itself in the process. So when Jesse read aloud the Idol clue and revealed that this clause had been corrected this season, I breathed a sigh of relief.
However, an Idol in your pocket and an Idol left back at camp? Apparently, they’re distinct, and possession is nine-tenths. For an inseparably allied pair like Mark & Sam, the loophole of Idol ownership being ambiguous if the Idol is not on their person was a fascinating and exploitable ambiguity. Sam & Mark know there is an unmissable target on them. One of their Idols is public knowledge, and the other is so front of mind in rumour, even if many doubt the validity of Jordie’s story. It’s growing increasingly likely that they won’t be able to ride out the season to the Final Tribal Council together, so in the interests of their collective benefit, they hatched a risky scheme.
If they left their Idols back at camp when they headed to Tribal, then they remained in nebulous ownership. If one of them were to be voted out in a blindside, then it would mean that whoever was now fighting alone could return to camp with two Idols to get them through two Tribals and potentially turn the game back in their favour. Taking the Idols with them to Tribal could result in them going home in their pocket, taking away that lifeline for the remaining spouse, and misplaying the Idol could be just as bad. Plus, it would give more validity to Jordie’s story. which they’ve gone all-in on denying.
It’s the kind of self-sacrificial play that could really only be seen in a Blood vs. Water season. No matter how close two strangers might become, unless the prize money is ultimately going to the same bank account, it’d be hard to fall so heavily on your sword by preferring to go home by willing your Idol to your ally instead of using it yourself. A part of me balks at the ambiguity of the rules in this case—I’d honestly rather the Idols still carry defined ownership no matter where they are or placed. But in this case, Sam & Mark exploiting both their knowledge of the game, their confidence, and the bendy nature of Australian Survivor’s rules (which, let’s remember, have also screwed over many of Sam’s blindsides already this season), it’s just an incredible thrill.
And for better or worse, this contributed to the tension of the Tribal as we were privy to the fact that Sam had no safety net when left behind. And if she allowed that fact to become apparent, it could have given the PurgaTrio more confidence to take a shot at her. Yet Sam, and Mark, who passed her an empty bundle as he left, worked well to sell the uncertainty. The whispering to everyone, in turn, amplified her nervousness and her openly asserting that Mark had passed her his Idol, all worked in the end.
But where does the power couple go from here? I’m not sure if leaving Idols behind is the best move in the long term. Let’s not forget the Jordie/KJ double Tribal that happened just last week, so two votes at Tribal isn’t completely impossible. But that’s not to mention that playing an Idol could help reduce some heat on them too. But at the same time, the threat of the Idol helped shield Sam here. So it’s a tricky balance, but if there are two players I’d trust to walk it, Sam & Mark have absolutely proven their mettle.
But the strategic complexity wasn’t even the most satisfying part of the episode. It was the small human moments that have been sorely lacking this season. One of the best things about an auction is that it can bring out lightness and fun during a more intense point in the game, but it can also twist the knife. It’s not an unprecedented dilemma to offer letters from home, then give the winner a choice between keeping it for themselves or giving the letters to everyone else—though it’s also a dilemma that’s not really a dilemma.
The only real personal content we’ve seen from Shay was about her deep connection with Ben, so it did feel like there was a chance she might choose family for herself, especially as everyone else on the bench had voted her out only a few days ago. But that’s also social suicide, and Shay needed every ounce of good favour she could earn, even if it might ultimately be lip service. So it was not really a surprise to see her give up the letters.
But what was a surprise—and a wonderfully wholesome one at that—was the news in Josh’s letter. We learned that Josh and his partner had been trying IVF but had been struggling with the process. But within his envelope, a sonogram, and the news that he and his partner were pregnant. It was such a huge personal moment, one of utter joy. It honestly moved me—and that’s something we haven’t had much of in a deeply personal season. I’m disappointed we didn’t know anything about Josh before this episode to make this news hit even harder, but I’m so glad we still got to share in this memorable moment for him.
This really is what Australian Survivor needs to prioritise going forward. Show us the people, show us their character. Even the dullest, driest gameplay can be overcome by complex, relatable, and compelling stories of people. But it doesn’t work the other way around. If the show had actually invested more personal content in the players outside of Sam, Mark, and Jordie, it would help soften frustrations with a stagnant alliance or any frustrations with the twists.
As a big fan of the game, I’m always thinking about the strategy at the end of the day. But it’s the people that ultimately keep me coming back. It’s why Survivor 42 has burst onto the scene and captivated me the way I haven’t been drawn into the last several weeks of this season, which have become so singularly focused on the main characters. And even then, not given us much more than repetitious strategic confessionals.
Survivor is the greatest game, but the show has survived over 20 years because of the people. Moments like Josh learning he’s going to be a father might be among the high highs of personal content, but it’s exactly why I care about this show. Here’s hoping to some more personal and character focus in this home stretch.