To be honest, it felt like this was going to happen eventually, and every episode it was deferred felt like a small miracle. Was it a perfectly satisfying culmination? Not especially. Was it even the most compelling episode of the season? Even with some intrigue in the mix, it was far from it. Nevertheless, was it memorable? Absolutely.
For the third time, Sandra Diaz-Twine met her end on the curséd Day 16. The sheer kismet of that feels legendary in Survivor history—that Sandra is destined to reach the end and win or fall short on Day 16. I’m ecstatic that this trivia made the edit. While it may have foreshadowed the outcome (that was heavily emphasised as the episode went on), it is still a bold recognition of Australian Survivor’s place in the global canon, lending some meta weight to a largely straightforward, perfunctory vote.
Get exclusive content and features by supporting Inside Survivor on Patreon.
Yet Day 16 is not the only echo of the past, as Australia’s first venture with the Blood vs. Water theme also fulfilled the most iconic promise of its US counterpart: “she voted out her mom!” A reflection of Ciera Eastin tearfully joining the majority to vote out her mother Laura Morett, here Nina was faced with the same dilemma. Her vote may not have been the deciding factor, but writing down her mother’s name nevertheless is a statement, and for Nina, a tactful one.
LIKE MOTHER, LIKE DAUGHTER
One of the exciting things about Nina is watching her play a game that learns much from Sandra’s experience: resemblance and adaptation alike. While she is certainly playing a game that is uniquely her own, it is still fascinating to see the cool practicality that Sandra’s strategy often employed—the casual “as long as it ain’t me” being the by-line. The tribe swap pressed Nina into an unfortunate position where the tribe dynamics tore her between her familial allegiance to Sandra and her game loyalty to her entire core alliance of Mark, Jordie, Josh, and Shay being preserved through the new tribes.
Where traditional Survivor would make this scenario a dream—tribal and alliance domination on a new tribe!—Nina would have to weigh up if she had the capital to stick her neck out to protect her mother. Conversely, the rigid alliance made a disruptive play unappealing, whereas upsetting the applecart to help keep Sandra safe may have been more possible in a more chaotic tribe.
So it came down to clear logic. Despite Nina having hinted that she’d prefer to be left out of any vote heading her mother’s way, she seemingly sussed out the plan. Spotting Mark and Mel avoiding eye contact and dancing around options and sensing a tonal shift from the tribe as a whole, she realised Sandra’s number was up. Taking her mother’s own advice to stick with a majority where it benefited her, Nina made the seemingly cold, but practical, move to vote her mother out.
Was it a good move for Nina? Some might fear it amplifies her on the radar, adding the Ciera Factor to her resume. But with this particular cast, I’m not sure that they’ll jump to that label. Especially with Nina’s demonstrated skill in spinning words, I think there’s a good chance she can attribute her joining the unanimous vote to a show of loyalty and trust to her alliance. She told them she understood if her mother needed to go, and she put her money where her mouth was: she recognised their move, and decided to work with her alliance rather than blow up their spot.
This gives Nina a buy-in and hard evidence of loyalty to her core group. Maybe it’s something she can leverage in return when loved one connections start to get more complicated, or maybe it’s just something she uses to emphasise her place amongst them to the exclusion of any other distraction. That’s not to say it’s smooth sailing, but a simple demonstration of loyalty can go a long way.
And thus, Sandra’s journey ends on a note of practicality. It’s a shame, in some sense, that it’s not as explosive or dynamic an exit as, say, Denise blindsiding Sandra with Sandra’s own Idol in Winners at War, and it’s also a little unfortunate that it’s shadowed by talk of challenge strength. Yet we knew that would always be a struggle for her with the ultra-physicality of SurvivorAU challenges.
Sandra did her best to steer away from that narrative by avoiding the sit-out bench. But the edit always felt like it was reaching whenever it tried to make Sandra’s relatively competent performance in challenges out to be a great detriment; it felt like it would be an inevitable factor. Add onto that the dynamics of her swap tribe, still 0 for 2 in the challenges despite being dominated by physical powerhouses like Mark, Jordan, Josh, Shay, Jordie, and David; it was an unwelcoming climate for Sandra.
Furthermore, Sandra was cut off from the players she’d been working with. Michelle, Sam, Ben, Croc: all on the New Water tribe. Meanwhile, she was swapped over with her hilariously one-sided feud David, Amy, who’d just tried to vote her out, and Jordan, who’d gone out of his way to warn Amy last Tribal. Sandra thrives when she can build solid relationships in the early days and cultivate a tribe’s dynamics with fluidity. A tribe swap erases much of the malleability that helps her operate. It’s not a coincidence, perhaps, that Sandra’s two victories were on seasons without tribe swaps, whereas the post-swap phase has spelt her doom in more recent outings. But even on top of the general disruption, she got dealt a really unlucky hand.
Was there anything the Queen could have done? Even if she had picked up on the target centering on her instead of the infuriatingly underedited Mel ahead of picking up on Nina’s body language and words at Tribal? Honestly, I don’t think so. She didn’t have the relationships to pull on, and putting too much pressure on Nina could jeopardise her daughter’s game.
Maybe there’s a world in which she and Nina find a way to get Shay to burn the Idol she’s desperate to get rid of. Using it to protect Sandra and take out a target like an Amy, Dave or Mel that might be relatively inoffensive to the majority. But that still makes a splash and could likely cause repercussions for Nina and Shay. Perhaps Sandra should have taken a more proactive approach on her new tribe rather than trying to blend into the background, but I think that would have just made her an even bigger target in a tribe primed to make the “easy” vote against her.
So in many ways, the episode’s transparency that this was going to be Sandra’s swan song felt like it mirrored the inevitability on the beach. I’ve been a fan of the more transparent editing of the strategizing this season, and while I still wish we’d hear from more perspectives each episode, it’s felt like I’ve been able to more clearly see what’s happening and how we’re arriving at the votes. Does it sap some of the tension from a clear unanimous vote like this? A little. But when it’s someone as iconic as Sandra, the overdramatic score is justified.
It’s wild to me that Sandra played Australian Survivor in the first place, and even more impressive that she made it to a swap while pulling off a couple of tactically sound blindsides to boot. I’d have loved to see her make it further, but I’m so grateful for the Sandra we got. And if she had to go early, maintaining the Day 16 curse is doing it in style.
MEN IN THE DOGHOUSE
The Sandra and Nina of it all is certainly the headline, but we’re not without a few other strategically notable figures in this first post-swap episode. Keeping to the vote first and foremost, this episode was Jordie’s real big break. He’d been framed as the goofy larrikin sidekick to Mark in the early days: a capable player, but the sidekick. Yet here, he was the one calling the shots.
In the aftermath of the Immunity loss, Jodie’s alliance initially circled around voting out Mel on account of her apparent struggles in the challenges. It felt a little out of nowhere for the viewers, as this hasn’t been highlighted to us. And we barely know Mel in the first place. But whether the accusations were as true as asserted or whether Mel was just a convenient offering that could skirt around the awkwardness of voting out an ally’s mother, the tribe seemed cautious.
Jordie, however, was anything but. True to SurvivorAU players feeling feisty for bigger, riskier moves, he wanted to skip past the tender footed approach and just take the clean shot at the Queen. And to his credit, he succeeded where Sandra’s original tribe failed. He got his allies Mark and Josh on board quickly and then took point spreading the word throughout the rest of the tribe.
While it didn’t seem like he had to fight for it, Jodie also showed some solid savvy in factoring in fringe complications like Shay’s Idol and avoiding telling Nina to prevent a scramble upending his decisive strike. I’m curious to see if this more proactive and ruthless side of Jordie is just a one-off or if it’s a dimension to his goofier side that will continue to show itself. I certainly hope it’s the latter, for if he is ramping up his game, I do think he’ll be one to watch.
That’s not to say I loved everything he did here. While I can’t blame him for wanting to make sure the gender balance doesn’t run away from the boys, terms like “male strong” don’t exactly sound great. And while I’ve been a fan of his more nuanced bluntness in his first Tribal, his seeming dismissiveness of Sandra’s earned experience felt a little misplaced (even as I was surprised to see her own words of wisdom at this Tribal sounded a little murky and contradictory). Nevertheless, Jordie helmed the move that took down the Queen, and while it may not have been a grandiose coup, it still got the job done.
His partner-in-crime Mark also had a memorable night for his own strategic decision at the swap. I continue to be incredibly grateful that SurvivorAU has dramatically eased up on the convoluted twists. They might have concocted some elaborate mess around the empty wrapper at the swap previously. Instead, they relied on a simple choice that produced infinitely more drama because it centered on the player, their game, and their decisions.
With an uneven number at the swap, Mark was left without a buff and was given the choice of which tribe to join. The Blood vs. Water dynamic continued to sing as the choice became one of head versus heart: join the tribe with a bulk of his alliance or join the tribe with his wife Sam.
Sam made no secret of wanting to play alongside Mark and do damage together, and the prospect of fast-tracking their plans to reunite at the merge was thrilling. So understandably, she was shocked and hurt when Mark chose to join the opposing tribe. Legitimately speechless, she worked it through with her tribe and in confessional. She could trust the logic in Mark’s decision. After all, being a power couple was what ended their games in Season 2. But the emotion was still real.
I love that we’re seeing so much of this authenticity from Sam. The head and the heart together, often in conflict but unified in purpose to win. It’s a really welcome and nuanced portrayal of a player in a show that tends towards caricature.
And in truth, Sam has a lot that is weighing on her. Not only did Mark actively choose to stay separate, but it’s left Sam in a rough spot herself. Sophie still has a bone to pick and has her sister, as well as her previous allies Ben & Croc (and his partner Chrissy), who’s also seemingly close to KJ. Those numbers could easily come back to bite Sam, who has few allies like Jesse & Michelle, and a loose (and powerful) factor in Khanh to work with. But would having Mark have helped? I think not.
Mark made the right call here, and I think Sam realises it too, as tough as it might be on the emotional front. The advantage of the partnerships in this format is exactly what Mark & Sam’s gameplans were in the first place. Work through the pre-merge individually, and reunite strong to power through at the merge. By staying separate, they can each keep an eye on the dynamics of each tribe and build their own relationships.
That way, when they come together, they’re uniting a faction from both tribes, with intelligence from both sides and a full picture between them. If they’re both sequestered on one tribe, they lose that wide scope of information and relationships. And for Mark, being separated from his entire alliance could be detrimental, allowing him to be frozen out of that unit come merge.
On top of that, teaming up too soon could pose a bigger threat. Even though Sandra and Nina were split up here, I don’t expect “split the pairs” to be a dominant tactic at the fore through the next few episodes. But having a couple as visibly strong and smart as Mark & Sam on the same beach is probably going to get gears turning faster and makes them a bigger target as a unit earlier on.
Of course, there are likely to be benefits to reuniting. Chrissy and Croc working together to spot and decipher a clue and locate an Idol is a prime example of it! But in this case, Mark made a savvy decision, and I think there’s a decent chance it pays off for both him and Sam in the long-run.
And that’s what I love about this format. Blood vs. Water is complex and challenging in its integral incorporation of close-knot pre-existing relationships. And in the aftermath of this swap, as some bonds are reinforced and some tested further, it feels like we’re on the precipice of a greater bloodbath. For all the love between loved ones, this cast feels like they’re playing to win and are willing to make big swings. And that feels like it’s only going to get more impactful the further down the line we get.
Nina might have been willing to let her mother go: but will others be as willing to follow that precedent?