It was a matter of when, and not if, before a significant twist washed up on shores of Blood vs. Water. Was it perfectly deployed? Well, like Australian Survivor as a whole, it eschewed subtlety entirely. But as for twists and non-elimination episodes, it was a step up from the disastrous overkill last season; it was practically elegant. And in all honesty, I’m pretty intrigued to see the fallout. Nevertheless, it’s difficult for a non-elimination episode to ever really feel satisfying given it inevitably undercuts its climax. Still, in the scheme of things, it’s the necessary evil with SurvivorAU, and this was about as innocuous as it can get.
In short, after the Blood Tribe struggled to form the archway puzzle (perhaps, the double O in Blood probably causing a few extra headaches), they were destined to immediately return to Tribal Council. But “tonight, things are a little different”: the victorious Water tribe would be in attendance as spectators. To anyone who has seen a single season of Australian Survivor, player and viewer alike, this should be a huge blinking neon sign that there is some sort of twist incoming.
Despite the signposted twist, we certainly didn’t see this play into any of the strategy. But I hope it was in savvier players’ minds—and certainly gave me pause as it seemed like a blindside was formulating. Is it really a good move to make an aggressive play when there’s likely to be a twist that will negate your hard work?
The simplest prognostication was what ultimately bore out: the eliminated player would just be voted out of their tribe and swap buffs, likely reuniting with their Loved One. In theory, this is a perfectly neutral non-elimination for SurvivorAU. It’s clean, it can create a little drama, and the telegraphing of the twist (even if it isn’t outright stated) should give clever players a little room to manoeuvre. It’s unlikely to completely tank anyone’s game unless they handle it in a sloppy way.
But in this season, where relationship dynamics are even more complicated, having an eliminated (and in this case, blindsided) castaway rejoin their loved one is cause for all sorts of drama. Will they take out their vengeance on the loved ones of their tribemates who voted against them? And how will a pair reunited this early in the game be able to work to advance together? Will it just make them an easy and obvious target?
All of that is for the next episode, though, so let’s break down what happened here, because even though it was somewhat neutralised by the twist, it still proved to be a fascinating episode of strategic manoeuvring.
A CROWN IS EARNED
There was little doubt that Sandra would make a splash in Australian Survivor, even if she went home early. But the thrilling thing about Sandra is that no matter how big her target is or how threatening her reputation, she can always find ways to overcome it. In her last two seasons, the two-time winner mantle made it seem like she’d be an easy boot, but it ended up being an unlucky swap and misplaced trust (plus her own Idol) that ended up being her downfall. Even here, she wasn’t even in the conversation to go home! She has a way of making the right allies, and most evidently, in her stint so far in SurvivorAU, she has preternatural insight and effortless skill in weaponising it.
This is the first time Sandra has played with “rookies” since Pearl Islands, and seeing her abilities contrasted to the capable but untested newbies on this season has been an absolute delight. In the previous episode, her survival felt like it was as much luck, as her efforts to cast doubt on David had the tribe already primed when he turned the gun on himself. But in this episode, it was all smooth skill.
Sophie came out of the gate talking about how she was a natural leader, and I’d worried at that point if it would bode ill for her, leading her to stand out or assert control in a way that would draw ire. In actuality, it didn’t seem like Sophie made any horrendous faux pas with her leadership. Certainly no more than Andy in the premiere: both simply acted as the mouthpiece for the “obvious” vote. For Andy, the injured Alex. For Sophie, it was emphasising the target on the untrustworthy and inscrutably named “Juicy Dave.” But in both circumstances, that surety in voicing the obvious vote made it easy for others to react against the mouthpiece’s social game.
For Sophie, that was an increasingly transparent alliance with the three Big Boy Top Dog Alpha Male Choose-Your-Analogies. Much like Sandra herself had identified that aligning with alphas could offer her a solid shield, Sophie had formed a tight “awesome foursome” with Ben, Croc, and Jordan. On paper, it’s a solid group, and Sophie’s social game filtered out to others too—especially Sam, whom she defended against Dave at the last Tribal. But the trouble was that her alliance within the tribe was growing increasingly obvious, which conflicted with her championing of tribe unity against the singular bad egg in David.
For Sandra, Sophie became a perfect target. Not only was she gathering strong shields around her (which Sandra would prefer to guard her), but Sophie’s ideal target of David was inopportune for the Queen. Startling, in some respects, given David had been pushing hard to vote Sandra out until his paranoia got the best of him. Now, David was so out of the loop that he was being publicly mocked by the tribe—in a way that toed the line of good fun, and in confessional, the weight of that ostracising was clear.
David might still be a loose cannon, but it always takes a while to reload a cannonball—as the winner of the pirate season knew all too well. David had his tail between his legs and wasn’t a threat anymore. And he also would remain a public enemy ahead of her in line. Why go after Dave when she could instead target a social threat that could truly rival her?
I won’t lie: I started to fear Sandra would overplay her hand, especially with the looming dread of an incoming twist. Would she orchestrate a huge blindside, only for her to be immediately punished for it by her target surviving? And let’s be fair: she still might suffer the blowback. But yet again, Sandra showed a decisive and insightful awareness of the game that her opponents lack.
With finesse, she pitched the idea to her seemingly closest ally Michelle (who we’ve seen flashes of deliberating one-on-one with Sandra at crucial moments in the last couple episodes, and who I’d love to actually hear speak at some point). Michelle seemed down, and so Sandra passed the idea on to Amy, who also jumped on board eagerly. Amy revealed that she was close to Jay and that he could rope Dave in. Then it would just come down to making sure Sam & Jesse were on board. With that, Sandra had lined everything up and could take her hands off the wheel.
A GAME OF TELEPHONE
We saw it last week too, where Sandra tasked Ben with being the one to circulate David’s name, but she voiced that tactic even more succinctly here as Amy became the mouthpiece for the blindside. Sandra might be the mastermind of the move, but Amy would be the one seen talking to everyone and pulling it together, and perhaps Amy would get the blame if there was blowback. It’s subtle, it’s crafty, but it’s effective, and it’s the kind of confidence that comes from experience.
Sandra doesn’t need to prove herself or bulk up a resume or earn clout by spearheading Big Moves. She just has to play effectively, and her reputation will help speak for her. So she can afford to sit back and let the eager rookies try to claim the big moves she’s planning. It was a wonderful play, and whether or not it was actively informed by suspicion of a twist (which, given Sandra did her research, I wouldn’t be surprised by), it seemed to play out perfectly.
Amy pitched to Jay, who seemed in lock-step with her, agreeing that losing David could hurt them in the physical challenges and he was no longer the Big Threat, while Sophie’s cabal could become a danger. We haven’t seen anything from this partnership before now, but they spoke with the ease and confidence of simpatico players, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see more from them as a duo. Jay, naturally, was able to get a despondent David on board with any plan that wasn’t him, but Amy had the hard sell: Sam & Jesse.
Smartly, Amy recognised the challenge of swaying Sam, who was personally close to Sophie, but she made her pitch logically and concisely and left it to the swing votes to take it from there. From what we saw, Amy did a great job of not overselling the move and played it with cool confidence that allowed it to become a real consideration for the swings.
Sam & Jesse themselves balanced the conversation well. Jesse made the valid point that Sophie’s foursome with the boys would mean he and Sam were at the bottom of that pecking order. And while I’d say it’s too early to start thinking too restrictively about that, it’s a fair point that the more fluid side of Amy & Jay, Sandra, Michelle, and David had wiggle room that could benefit them.
But Sam also had valid reasons to be cautious. She had good relationships with Ben, Croc, and Jordan, and burning those bridges could hurt her—not to mention cutting Sophie, who seemed to have her back. On top of that, she remained personally wary of David after his paranoid betrayal and especially spooked that he’d labelled her a social butterfly: the exact game she was trying to play. In a lot of ways, keeping the status quo would benefit Sam immensely, and so I’m legitimately a little surprised she sided with chaos.
Sam has been playing a strong game, course-correcting some of her mistakes from 2017 and effectively positioning herself as a social nexus, but not the obvious threat she became last time. But in many ways, a huge aspect of Sam’s downfall in her first game was rigidity and being seen as inflexible and powerful in her solid power couple with Mark. Of course, as we know now, that was all for a good reason, but in the game, that can hurt.
So perhaps it was looking for that flexibility as a contrast to her past game that led Sam to follow Jesse’s logic and side with the blindside. Maybe her social game can recover with the alphas. And if not, perhaps there’s more room to manoeuvre within the nebulous Sophie-voting majority—especially given David and Sandra could still become easily rallied targets based on their distinctly different, but still threatening, reputations.
So was it a good play to blindside Sophie? In many ways, I think it was worth the move, even with the threat of a twist. Cutting David could have still been a worthwhile, straightforward play (with the added benefit of not angering a loved one on the other side). But it can become difficult to crack when a social player can slouch into a sturdy alliance. For Sandra, who needs to keep an open playing field to have options, breaking up an early alliance preserves fluidity for her to bank and weave as she hunts the rookie mice.
For players like Amy, Jay, and Michelle, who seem wholly on the outside of Sophie’s core, anything to break that alliance apart benefits them. And for Jesse & Sam, there’s something to ensuring that if a core alliance is to gather, it needs to include them in the inner circle.
The downside, of course, is that Sophie didn’t end up going home and has now headed to the other tribe with a vendetta. But in many ways, the nebulous majority that succeeded may be able to benefit from their partners’ relative positions of power. Mark and Jordie are comfortable at the social core and can avoid retaliation from Sophie. Nina seems to be in a good social position. And Mel hasn’t been left out of the core plans either.
Khanh is on everyone’s radars as well, so even if Sophie pins the blame on his sister Amy, she’d only be hopping aboard the momentum that’s already building against the canape-creating social threat. On top of that, her own allies’ loved ones are interwoven through the allegiances of her enemies’ loved ones. Sam might have betrayed her, but Mark and Josh are working closely. And thus begins the convoluted mess of Blood vs. Water in the best possible way.
In fact, I’d suggest that Blood vs. Water makes taking the risk on a blindside at a likely twisty Tribal more valuable than on a cast of strangers. It’s never as simple when pre-existing relationships come into play. We saw it in the positive sense with Ben & Shay briefly reunited at Reward (a wonderful use of the ‘bring one loser’ reward mechanic, and something I’d love to see continue). These connections can be a boon and a source of strength and collaboration. But it can also be a crutch and draw your attention away from playing your own game on your own tribe. Both are valid considerations when playing with a partner, so all that complexity can create a lot of cover to hide the barbs of betrayal.
It makes it harder for Sophie to strike back. And based on the preview, even KJ seems to be taking pause, fearing her sister might disrupt her game. After all, Sophie is not one to take something like a betrayal lightly: she’s here to play and play hard, and now that she’s had a brush with being voted out, I expect she’ll cease watering herself down to some degree.
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But regardless, what’s apparent is that Blood vs. Water is making for some truly thrilling TV. Creating opportunities for the pairs to interact with each other or create conflicting or reinforcing relationships with other players and their partners only makes for a more and more fascinating web.
Non-elimination episodes are a pain, but if we’re using them to enhance the theme and highlight its strategic and social complexities through a relatively light touch, I’m all for it. Give me this over Urn Week or Redemption Beach any time. Simple is best: the game can get complex enough on its own, and this season is truly proving that thus far.