This episode was one of the more straightforward episodes of the season. Still, after the wholly unnecessary and manufactured twists of last week, it was a very welcome relief—and in my mind, a fascinating episode nonetheless. While the outcome of Tribal Council was not unexpected, the episode still brimmed with tension as we were presented with a diverse range of perspectives, plots, and plans during Vakama’s scramble.
We had two challenges that were exciting changes of pace—the elegantly simple but exhausting feat of swimming upstream and a classic obstacle course that featured two different puzzles and led to a remarkable comeback from Mokuta thanks to Nick’s puzzle skills. And we had the return of the recent favourite one-at-a-time reward that doubles as a gif-machine for messy eating.
Let’s start with everything going down on Vakama, and there’s no beating around the bush. Barring a miracle, this was always going to be the end of the line for Mat Rogers. After the previous Tribal Council, swing votes Flick, Harry, and Shonee had called their shot and chosen to stick with the majority alliance. Although they would have had the numbers to swing over to Mat on this vote, for a 4-3 vote against the Vakama core of AK, Brooke, and Locky, that ship had sailed to the point where it wasn’t even considered by a desperate Mat.
Without his Idol to shield him, he was vulnerable, and without any firm allies left on his tribe, he had very few options. To his credit, Mat played his cards as best he could. The other outliers in the tribe were the ex-Mokuta pair of Harry and Shonee, so Mat returned to the battlelines of original tribes as he pitched a logical plan to his Old Vakama crew. Harry was a dangerous player, but so was Shonee, and that partnership could spell trouble. It was in their best interest to break up that dynamic. As he pitched his plan to Locky and AK, he elaborated that Shonee’s social game was top tier and a huge threat—a pertinent argument given her increasing closeness to Brooke to the point where they swapped dresses at the previous Tribal.
Mat’s argument wasn’t flawless, and as he grasped at straws, he returned to the age-old argument for keeping the tribe strong. While Vakama’s losing streak would undeniably be weighing on them all, Mat’s justification that Shonee wouldn’t be missed in challenges was simply off the mark. Only an episode ago, Shonee’s endurance saw her and Brooke last nearly 2-hours in the Immunity challenge, far outlasting Mat’s contributions. Furthermore, as pointed out by Brooke at Tribal, Vakama’s loss in this Immunity wasn’t due to their lack of physical strength—it was due to a poor showing in the puzzle. Nevertheless, Mat’s fighting spirit was commendable, and even though his strategic conversations with his tribemates didn’t feel especially promising, there were just enough irons in the fire that you couldn’t count the Godfather out.
Strategically, the Vakama majority made the right call to flush out a major opponent. Mat is a dangerous player, and while his domineering style in Champions vs. Contenders I was formidable, his scrappier, hungrier play this season was even more concerning. Clever, physically strong and well-placed with a small army of Moana, Jacqui, and Tarzan waiting to reconnect at a future merge or swap, Mat was not to be trifled with, and they had a clean shot at him now. While blindsides and Big Moves™ make for exciting TV, oftentimes, the best Survivor moves when you are in power is to consolidate that power with straightforward votes. For the Vakama core of AK, Brooke, and Locky, finally catching the rat on the run that has plagued them throughout the pre-merge, is an indisputable victory.
But what about the other half? Flick has been grotesquely underedited this season in one of Australian Survivor’s most baffling storytelling decisions from the same minds that brought you the egregious null-confessional journey of Sam Schoers and blatantly misrepresented votes. Thankfully, though, this episode marked Flick’s first confessional as we finally got to hear from one of Season 1’s biggest characters. Although it doesn’t make up for a record 9-episode drought before her first confessional, it was welcome to hear her perspective on the game.
And it’s a truly fascinating position (making her edit to this point especially frustrating). Flick is clearly on the bottom of the Vakama core. Even aside from the drama of the distrust between her and Brooke, given their Season 1 history, I’m always intrigued by players who are aware of their uneasy place in the game and are trying to navigate out of it. As we learned here—and began learning last episode—Flick is certainly aware of her situation but is waiting for the right opportunity to make her move. Evidently, she’s been chummy with Mat for a while, and utilising him to whack a crack in the core alliance that’s sidelined her seems like it should be killer move. However, teaming up with Mat to take over the tribe only buys her the pre-merge, as there is very little chance she’d rank higher than Mo & co in Mat’s priorities in the long run. It also destroys several connections with her current alliance without forging new ones—Mat’s plan was to eliminate the only other players on the outs of the tribe in Shonee and Harry, which only limits Flick’s options further.
While I can understand the temptation to make a move now, Flick made the right call in biding her time. However, she’ll need to be aggressively proactive from here on out if she wants to have a chance to survive the looming Vakama implosion. Having not gone against Harry and Shonee, it’s possible she can team up with them, and if AK is ready to make a move of his own, it could be the time to break up the power couple at the core of the alliance, but it will be a tough sell. Flick has a good head on her shoulders, though, so hopefully, we continue to see her emergence as a key factor in the game moving forward.
Similarly, I can’t begrudge Harry and Shonee for sticking with the majority. Obviously, with Mat gunning to take them out, that bridge was burned after last week, but it seems clear that genuine relationships are forming between them and the power centre of Vakama. Shonee and Brooke are growing increasingly close and are even joking about whether their friendship is threatening to Flick. Harry, too, is digging his claws into that alliance, and here, we saw both playing a key role in the strategy of the alliance. They haven’t just been picked up as disposable numbers—they are crucial cogs in the machine. Shonee, realising Flick’s awareness of her position in the alliance, discussed contingency plans with Locky and Brooke. But it was Harry’s move that was especially intriguing.
Modern Survivor strategy 101: split the vote. Wherever possible, if you have the numerical majority, split the vote. But one of the biggest hiccups in this strategy is how to split a vote when it’s a unanimous decision? As Dean Kowalski found out in Survivor: Island of the Idols, it’s not so easy to settle on a back-up name when everyone is supposedly on the same page. Splitting votes onto an ally can easily be read as a betrayal, especially if they aren’t told about it beforehand or are otherwise uneasy about their place in the alliance. For instance, splitting this vote on Flick could have been disastrous—either giving her the push to ignite chaos at this vote or lighting a fire under her to go rogue at the next.
So logic should state that in such a situation, just keep it simple and pile all the votes on your target. However, when your target is prone to finding Idols, such as Mat is, then such a fallback strategy puts all the power in the target’s hands. If they find the Idol, then they have the unilateral call on who goes home, and if they play it smart, they’re using that power to pluck out a power player in the dominant alliance. Nobody wants that—but what do you do? Risk the Idol, or risk alienating your alliance?
Harry’s solution was ingenious and reckless, all in one. As Mat slipped out of camp to go Idol hunting, the ice-cream man did the unthinkable and proposed splitting the votes with two on himself. It’s the kind of play that sits on the razor-edge of “Worst Move of All Time.” If Mat were to find the Idol and play it, Harry’s move effectively eliminates himself. But there’s a lot of nuance and gumption to the play that’s admirable, and at its most effective, it could be a powerful tool towards solidifying power and trust.
For one, Harry’s move cuts out any of the scrambling or paranoia of having to secretly split a vote on an ally or openly single out a member of the alliance as expendable. Volunteering for that role is a show of strength for the alliance as a whole in a “taking one for the team” attitude. More critically, it demonstrates explicit trust in these allies—nothing shows loyalty more than being willing to lose your life in the game in order to protect them. It’s assertive and submissive in one, and it’s the kind of move that could buy unflinching loyalty in the right circumstances.
The trouble is that I’m not wholly convinced it was the right circumstances here. As we have been reminded ad nauseam, this is All Stars, and although the Vakama core has played a staunchly loyal and traditional game to this point, they’re not going to be so easily bought. This move might strengthen the bond between them and Harry, but I doubt it will secure his place in their hearts and minds. In fact, my greatest concern is that it could have the exact opposite effect.
Whereas this move might be effective with new players, especially those eager to play the honesty and loyalty game, these returning players know what to expect. They know that Survivor can be a dirty game and one where true trust is a rare commodity. Even more damning, they know the reputation of Dirty Harry. A self-sacrificial stunt like this is a ballsy play that shouts, “I trust you!” but is that just the long con to lull them into a false sense of security before Harry mounts an assault from the inside? Paranoia over whether this play is a Trojan horse could have the exact opposite effect on Harry’s young partnership with Vakama, and that could easily be his doom.
In the immediate, I’m still not convinced that because his plan worked this time, it meant that it was a good move. An Idol would have ended his game. Flick deciding to make a move and telling Mat the plan, making a 4-3 vote on Harry—as Shonee feared—would have been disastrous. However, I can’t deny the benefits of the move, either. Harry put a pre-emptive stop to any unanimous vote split concerns, he demonstrated trust in his alliance by placing faith in the whole group to protect him, and he’s also added a subtly successful play to his resume. Time will tell if it was truly a good move, but for now, I simply have to marvel at the willingness to initiate the risk.
THE LITERAL CAKES
Mokuta’s winning streak is impressive, and without a second swap in the near future, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them steamroll their way to the merge. But that doesn’t mean the tribe is lacking in intrigue, though the dynamics were certainly highlighted by their visit to the Cake Shop Reward. After two successful iterations, I was honestly surprised to see the return of the one-at-a-time reward. It’s such a clever idea, but as it was revealed, my first thought was to worry that it’s a gimmick that can’t really be repeated. Once everyone knows what to expect with this Reward format, namely that an Idol, Advantage, or clue will be hidden somewhere within, doesn’t that take away from the magic of it?
As it turns out? Nope. If anything, it felt like the expectation of the Reward offering an Advantage only heightened the drama. Now choosing the order became a strategic conversation, with Nick desperately trying to suggest an idea that would get him into the Reward early only to be overruled with a drawing of sticks that ironically pushed him to very last. Now, players had to contend with how brazen to be in their dismantling of the Cake Shop, given everybody would be expecting everyone to go hunting and not just overwhelmed by the huge reward that they might not think to question the giant pile of popcorn on the floor.
Best of all, I was thrilled that the gimmick returned to its original form of a clue, rather than an Idol itself. By presenting a clue, it offers the opportunity for multiple players to discover it, which fuels additional excitement in the scramble to see who will be the first to find it. While I almost expect the next iteration of this game to be one that makes hiding the clue harder, such as printing it on an immovable object, I was thrilled with Phoebe’s discovery. Not only did she find the clue by methodically slicing through each and every cake, but she took the time to use cake icing and sand to obscure the clue itself and hide it out of sight. I assume the rules forbid her to throw it into the jungle, otherwise why else would she still hide it on the cake shop platform?.
Australian Survivor likes to literally have its cake and eat it too, using this twist as an excuse to have its contestants make a disgusting mess of food, and this iteration was no exception. Joey Sasso of The Circle fame would have been proud of the mess these castaways made with the abundance of cakes, with highlights (if you want to call them that) including Lee’s full-face cake mask, David’s gluttonous milk shower, and Nick, using his last position as an excuse for pure carnage, excitedly finding a donut on the floor. It’s the kind of gif-worthy and delightful stupidity that Australian Survivor occasionally embraces (see also, Season 2’s charades challenge) and, as gross as it is, I can’t help but enjoy it. With the added bonus of players knowing what to expect with this twist, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this evolve into an ongoing staple of the series.
Australian Survivor: All Stars started off strong but has had a rocky stretch with the unnecessary twists, the dull narrative of “keeping the tribe strong” and some horrendously unbalanced and manipulative editing, but it’s episodes like this one that gives me hope. A dollop of humour. A dash of humanity. A balanced mix of perspectives through confessionals and storytelling. Hearty and diverse challenges. Finished off with a straightforward vote that was still told in a compelling way. It’s a perfect recipe.
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Australian Survivor airs Monday through Wednesday at 7.30pm 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.