In the aftermath of her tribe’s Immunity loss, Michelle Dougan contextualised the first Tribal Council of Australian Survivor’s first-ever All-Stars season as a “sliding doors” moment. While she was speaking out of self-preservation and wanting to make sure she was on the right side when the doors closed, it’s a perfect description for what ultimately played out in the claustrophobic arena of Tribal Council.
In Champions vs. Contenders I, Olympic gold medalist Shane Gould defied all expectations to emerge as the victor—the oldest player to ever win Survivor. She beat the odds so often faced by older women, regularly targeted for being perceived as weak or too different from a usually much younger crowd: an easy vote. Time and time again, Shane slipped out of sight until the end, stepping into the spotlight at just the right time. Then, she was the last one standing. Now, she’s the first one out. A mirror image. Sliding doors.
But even though our premiere episode resolved with the “easy vote” that Shane lambasted as being the “boring” option, there was nothing boring about it. Seeing a full cast of Aussie returning players hit the beach was surreal—even if some of the 24 castaways are questionable choices—and Australian Survivor picked up right where it left off with its daunting challenge builds, high octane gameplay and alternately cheeky and melodramatic storytelling. If this is where we’re starting for the season, then there should be a truly exciting game ahead.
BLANK SLATE OR SET FATE
But let’s return to the woman, the myth, the legend that is Shane Gould. Coming into the season, Shane seemed destined for an early exit one way or another. Even though she avoided it the first time, the curse of the older woman was something she’d have to contend with again. Worse, she would be starting the game on the same tribe with players who she had a history with. She’d narrowly beaten Sharn Coombes in the tense Final Tribal Council, and she and Shonee Fairfax had squared off at the Final 4, where again Shane had come out on top. Most critically, Shane was responsible for blindsiding Lydia Lassila at the merge, brazenly orchestrating the plan from the sit-out bench as Lydia was still fighting it out in the endurance Immunity challenge. Each of these women had reason to target Shane given their past experiences, and that’s a quarter of her tribe right there.
However, perhaps worst of all was the crown on her head. With only two winners back for All-Stars, one on each tribe, it makes them easy pickings for the other 22 castaways hungry for victory. Even if it wasn’t as intentionally planned as on the US All-Stars, it almost felt inevitable that the tribe would gravitate towards clearing the field of past winners. And it’s really no surprise that Shane Gould became our Tina Wesson, going from first to worst in an instant.
But how did it happen? Even though Shane seemed to be a no-brainer easy out, these All-Stars weren’t necessarily driving towards that goal from the get-go. Shane did herself few favours by immediately drawing a target with her lack of subtlety as she skulked around in her “old nana shoes” looking for Idols. As if she didn’t have enough working against her already, her sneakiness and reputation for being a wildcard pinged on the radar of one Harry Hills. While Harry certainly had his own reputation to contend with, his suspicions of Shane gave him the motivation to assemble an army, or a ‘troop’ if we stick to the terminology of Shane’s well-studied chimpanzee politics.
Harry’s suspicions were bolstered by a key advocate for showing Shane the door, as Lydia’s bloodlust for revenge was top of mind. Even as Shane made a cursory attempt to break out the old tabula rasa and wipe the slate clean, there was little chance that Lydia was going to let it go. Competitive and intense, Lydia was cut down in her prime in her first season, and for her, a blank slate meant evening the score. Intriguingly, though, Lydia saw the necessity in not being the one leading the charge lest she stood out and drew a target onto herself again. So instead, she voiced her support for the move against Shane, and then let Harry do the dirty work.
It was certainly an effective strategy, but as the game goes on, Lydia will need to step up to the plate to drive moves, or else she could become viewed as a tag-along, and I don’t see this crop voting for a passive winner in the end. Yet that’s a long way away, and right now, staying out of the spotlight is a great place to be—so kudos to Lydia for getting her way and getting zero attention for it despite being the most personally invested in the vote.
But the magic-maker here was definitely Harry. He was the one pounding the pavement to bolster the troop. He brewed up an alliance with John Eastoe, the Boil to his Trouble, and added a dash of Abbey Holmes to the pot as well, drawing on his own relationships with his fellow Season 4 players to assemble a core. He then wasted no time in getting the word out, being the one to pass the plan on to Shonee, Michelle, Nick Iadanza, and Henry Nicholson. There was little doubt that Harry was leading the charge, and the tribe seemed receptive. Particularly in the opening days of the game, everyone just wants it to be “Anybody But Me,” and Shane was an obvious out with other players actively pushing for her to be the target. It was a low stress, low-risk option, and for a tribe that had the luxury of winning a pre-built campsite in the first gruelling Reward Challenge, it matched the relaxed, easy-going tone that the Mokuta tribe had been able to enjoy from the start.
That said, while the majority of the tribe could just fold into the numbers and join the crusade against Queen Shane, Harry couldn’t escape being the one out in front. To draw from the metaphor later used by Henry and Nick at Tribal, someone has to be driving the bus. The problem is that in Australian Survivor, with its extended 50-day length, the driver rarely survives the journey.
“BUT HOW BORING!”
To her credit, Shane recognised that the tide was turning against her. Walking into a strategic conversation between Harry, Henry, and Michelle, she was asked if she had anyone she wanted to gun for. In the Shane-iest of ways, she answered by silently pointing at Harry while his back was turned. For her, it made sense. If Shane had a reputation for being unpredictable, Harry’s reputation was tenfold, especially with All-Stars heading out to film right after Harry’s most dastardly pre-merge arc as “Dirty Harry” on Champions vs. Contenders II. It was a reasonable target for Shane to choose, but what was surprising was how big of an impact it had.
You see, one of Shane’s other successes in her short time on All-Stars was identifying Henry as a “secret friend.” This potential under-the-radar allegiance may have been a key factor in why Henry latched onto Shane’s push to vote Harry with such fervour. But the bigger factor was simply Henry’s philosophy on the game: go big at every single opportunity, rhyme or reason be damned. For Henry, Survivor is all about the big moves, the flashy plays, and the risky gambles. It’s the kind of gameplay that Shane later encouraged in her speech at Tribal, suggesting that voting her out was the boring choice for a group as creative, imaginative and ambitious as her fellow All-Stars.
Thus, Henry took the wheel from Harry, scrambling about camp to pitch voting Harry instead. While some, like Sharn, seemed receptive, others like Zach Kozyrski seemed taken aback by the apparent change of plan. Most important of all, though, was Nick. Henry saw a potential ally—a merging of the minds—with his fellow snake and pitched his plan to blindside Harry for his reputation as a dangerous player. Hungry for an aggressive game from the outset, Henry was raring to go, and in a move that was beautifully mirrored to his early over-playing in his first season, Nick promptly shut it down.
Nick argued reason—it was way too early to be playing so hard, and they needed to bide their time, take an easy vote while they could, and ensure they could get in sight of the end before the gloves came off. Henry bristled at being urged to slow down and began to consider one-upping his overplaying even further to the point of contemplating playing an Idol for Shane, a move so bold (and objectively terrible for Day 2) that it would put a target on his back that would be nigh inescapable.
This partnership between Henry and Nick is fascinating, and I really hope we get to see it develop further. What is particularly interesting is that while both are renowned for their aggressive over-playing, they are coming into All-Stars with very different mindsets. For Nick, he suffered for his hubris, almost getting voted out at his first Tribal (save for a tribe swap twist) and having to battle against his reputation as a snake. He has come into All-Stars with a more measured approach, stumping for old-fashioned alliances at Tribal—at least, during these infant stages of the game.
Henry, meanwhile, appears to have learned very little from his first time out. In his first season, he mostly succeeded in spite of himself as many of his impulsive strategic decisions could have easily spelled his doom as easily as they ultimately succeeded. And his downfall came from a calculated blindside rather than his own obvious blunder. So now he appears to be doubling down on his recklessness, and that could very quickly earn him a snuffed torch.
PEN TO PARCHMENT
Although it would have been dynamite television, thankfully, Henry saw some sense and let the vote against Shane play out without making a scene. Ge wasn’t able to snag the Idol before sitting down at Tribal and would have had to make a performance of plucking it from the tree bough to blindside the majority of his tribe. But fascinatingly, he still stuck with his gut against the collective reluctance of Mokuta, voting alongside Shane against Harry. It seems like a particularly strange move to make—was the Harry plan folded into a split vote on Shane just in case her scrounging about for an Idol had been fruitful? Or was it Henry continuing to stir the pot against better advice? Regardless, it’s abundantly clear that Henry is a dangerous wildcard in the game, and now that he’s armed with a short-term Idol, he’s even more of a risk.
But there was an unexpected third vote for Harry in the mix that we later learned was cast by Sharn. Although we saw Henry pitch his plan to her, we saw next to nothing of Sharn’s thought process in the episode, and given her history with Shane, this is a rather unfortunate shortcoming of the episode. Shane and Sharn faced off in the closest Final Tribal Council in Australian Survivor, with Shane only beating Sharn by one vote. And notably, fellow All-Stars Shonee and Mat Rogers were among the Shane votes, as Shonee beautifully reminded us in her instantly iconic voting confessional. That relationship is complex and fascinating, and even if it was as simple as Sharn not wanting to cast a vote against an old friend and ally, it’s disappointing we didn’t get to hear her perspective on the vote.
The other anomaly and silent voice in this vote was so off-the-map that we didn’t even see their vote. While a majority of 8 cast votes for Shane and 3 went to Harry, ex-cricketer, inaugural runner-up, and recently-beaten-in-a-throwing-challenge-by-a-DJ Lee Carseldine was on an island of his own, casting a lone vote for Michelle. We saw no articulation of Lee’s thinking in the vote, so it’s difficult to ascertain if it was just a remnant of a split-vote plan or if Lee truly was going solo.
Given Michelle’s confessional lamenting the tribe dissecting how they needed to improve to win the next challenge while she was just hoping to be present for the next one, could it have been that Lee—historically driven by principles of mateship and challenge strength—named Michelle as a challenge liability, but his plan got no traction? It’s hard to know, but much like Henry and Sharn siding with the person just voted out, Lee’s rogue vote could be an indicator of being on the outside of Tribal dynamics, so it’s something to keep an eye on.
But after all the to-ing and fro-ing, the sliding doors shut, and Shane Gould saw her torch snuffed for the first time. It’s unfortunate to lose her so early, but it’s a great relief that even in her short time out on All-Stars, she brought her A-game. Her trademark quirkiness was abundant, and her lack of subtlety at camp but insightful reads on fellow players and eloquence at Tribal was on full display. She may have become our first boot due to being the ‘easy vote,’ but it was ultimately for positive reasons: she was a dangerous player and potential threat, she had historically bested an opponent who carried a grudge into a new game, and she had already accomplished a feat that 22 of her fellow All-Stars could not. Shane remains an icon of Australian Survivor—and not even a Day 2 elimination can tarnish that legacy.
There’s one last big element in the game that we’ve yet to touch on in detail: the Tribal Idol. On paper, this twist ticks so many boxes for my tastes. It’s a short-term Idol, only lasting three Tribals and thus encouraging immediate (and often risky) gameplay. It’s an Idol requiring a clue, adding a step of difficulty missing from the Idols that simply lurk in a hole in a funny-looking tree in camp. It’s an Idol hidden on neutral ground at Tribal Council. But best of all, it’s a single Idol with multiple clues in the hands of multiple people. This is an element of Idol clues that I’m surprised hasn’t been explored more in recent years, as there is inherent drama in players scrambling to be the one to claim the Idol before someone else does. The fact that Henry told Mat about the clue, thus ensuring that they would know who their opponent was in this race, was a serendipitous cherry on top of it all.
My one nitpick was that by placing it with the torch, it puts it in the path of the players taking on a hero position role, which generally excludes less challenge-adept players from having the chance to get their hands on it. That said, at least the role itself was just running to the end of the course, untying some knots and walking back with a torch—a task that could have reasonably been taken on by anyone regardless of athletic or mental ability. Nevertheless, I’m intrigued to see if this is a precedent for the season—are we going to see more of these short-term Idols or more Idols with multiple clues to create competition? I’d sign off on that.
Especially as the twist is already yielding fruit, even apart from Henry’s over-eagerness to put it in play right away. One of the most fascinating aspects of the Idol was the dilemma of how to attain it. You could only get your hands on it if your tribe lost Immunity, and Mat and Henry both knew that the other would claim the Idol if they could. Thus, it became a very real consideration of whether it was worth throwing the challenge, which put them in an intriguing position, especially for a player like Mat whose style of Godfather ruthlessness still requires having a mob to control, which could be jeopardised by facing Tribal.
There was also an intriguing moment—and perhaps a huge missed opportunity—for Mat to influence the Mokuta Tribal while he was back home in the ‘hyena graveyard’ of Vakama. After the challenge, he made a point of stumping for Shane to some of her tribemates and explicitly asked her if she felt safe. She replied in the affirmative, and Mat went no further, but it seems like it could have been a perfect opportunity to tell Shane about the Idol at Tribal. It could have given her an out if she learned she was in danger (as happened over the course of the afternoon), and it could have also disrupted Henry’s game. And I would wager that another hot-shot is not what Mat wants in the game, especially with all of the alpha male tension already brewing on Vakama between Mat, Locky Gilbert, and David Genat.
Even though it didn’t play out this time, the way this Idol was implemented opens up so many opportunities and permutations for fascinating repercussions, and I’m excited to see how that bodes for the season’s twists and turns ahead.
Twist-wise, I’m less enthused by the Haves vs. Have-Nots dichotomy established by the opening Reward Challenge, which gifted a luxurious shelter and fire from Day 1 to Mokuta while stranding Vakama on a desolate beach to do Survivor the old-fashioned way. Quality of life can make a huge difference in Survivor, and a disparity of quality can be devastating. I’m relieved that Vakama earned Immunity—and that glorious sword of an Immunity Idol—if only so that they have fire and the opportunity to even the quality of life and hopefully keep the tribes on a more level playing field. Despite that, the storytelling certainly enjoyed making use of the conceit, from Jonathan LaPaglia asking Michelle point-blank to “describe, in detail” how great their shelter was, to Mokuta laughing about their opponents weeping in the weather without fire and shelter followed by a diegetic smash-cut to Vakama bemoaning the wind and cold.
It’s also a shame that we saw so little of Vakama as a whole. Aside from the battle of the alpha males, narrated astutely by Mark “Tarzan” Herlaar, and David’s magnetic personality as he dubbed AK Knight the Silver Prince to his Golden God and gathered potential allies like Flick Eggington, Phoebe Timmins, and Jericho Malabonga, we saw very little of the dynamics of the yellow tribe. The likes of Daisy Richardson, Jacqui Patterson, and Moana Hope barely even appeared on screen, and even Brooke Jowett’s revenge plot was left to simmer for later in the season. I have no doubt we’ll see more from them soon, and we know to expect less from the tribe that wins Immunity, but it still feels strange to see so little from a decent chunk of the cast when we’re kicking off an All-Star season. Then again, that’s the blessing and the curse of a 24-castaway format.
Nevertheless, we’re off to the races with a strong start. There is no doubt that these All-Stars are going to bring their best to the table, and I’m thrilled to see what strategies, blunders, and blockbuster moments await us.
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Australian Survivor airs Monday through Wednesday at 7.30 pm AEST.
Be sure to check back in on Inside Survivor as Alice Barelli, Dylan Vidal, and myself continue to review each episode and recap everything that goes down, down under.
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