I scream, you scream, we all scream for a more unpredictable endgame.
I try to be optimistic about Survivor, but taking the temperature of Australian Survivor: All Stars, things are looking pretty dire. With Mokuta having a solid grasp on the numbers and every intention to Pagong the dwindling Vakama on their way to Final 7, where it seems likely that Moana and/or David come out on top, it certainly doesn’t feel like we’re poised for “the greatest endgame ever” as trumpeted by the promotional material. But what should we expect from the same ads that also erroneously labelled both Nick and Harry’s eliminations as “blindsides.” Add to that the appallingly lopsided editing that only feels like it is getting worse as the season is progressing, and it’s easy to feel pretty disappointed with the forecast.
It may seem over-reactive, but All Stars is quickly plummeting towards being my least favourite season of Australian Survivor yet, but there is still a lot of game left to play, and I’m hoping it picks up. There were certainly some seeds planted this episode for potential avenues of intrigue moving forward, so maybe there’s a chance. I’m going to keep holding out hope, but that fire is dwindling fast.
FULL STEAM AHEAD
There’s nothing inherently wrong with a Pagonging. Admittedly, if you can assemble a group of players loyal to your alliance where you are going to be well-situated once the alliance has to start eating itself, then it is inarguably the most effective Survivor strategy. For a player like Moana, and a lesser extent David, this is a successful and proven strategy. This is especially true when your allies are broadly the less experienced and less proactive players, and your opponents have the reputation of being among the best strategists, physical threats, and social players in the series’ short history. It’s hard to deride them for playing a smart game that is going to increase their chances of walking away with the half-mil, but it’s definitely making for dull television!
Pagongings might not be all that exciting, but they don’t damn a season to mediocrity. Borneo is an anomaly, given it was pioneering the game, but the season’s focus on character and story help add light and shade to an emergent strategy. Let’s not forget that Heroes vs. Villains, widely regarded as one of—if not THE—best season of all time, became a functional Pagonging (with one DiLorenzo deviation). However, keeping a viewer engaged with a predictable narrative where the status quo is maintained is an understandable challenge.
The trouble with All Stars’ approach to the apparent Pagonging of New Vakama is that a straightforward narrative has been restricted further by only significantly featuring the strategies of David and Moana. David is definitely an entertaining character, but this season has proven that there can be too much of a good thing. His overdramatic bravado, once fun and engaging, has become rote. Coupled with a current strategic game that is straightforward (and thus at odds with the Big Moves™ mayhem he exudes in his confessionals), David has quickly become one of the least interesting characters on the show. You can only have chocolate cake for dinner so many days in a row before you start needing something with a bit more substance.
Meanwhile, Mo is playing a fantastic game and is very well-situated to run the tables all the way to a victory. Even though her gameplay is far from flashy and her introversion has threatened her social capital, it’s very apparent that she is the one calling the shots. If she can get to the Final Two next to a Jacqui or Tarzan or Zach, it seems like the outcome wouldn’t even be in question. It’s also telling that gameplay is earning respect—Harry’s first action on being voted out was to offer a hug to Moana in congratulations on a well-played move. If we’re in for a down-the-line post-merge, garnering this game respect this early will go a long way, especially given her mantra of trust and loyalty was the kind of thinking that left two of her allies (Lee and Sharn alike) as runners-up next to a player that could have become a goat in another timeline. The big trouble here is that Mo’s game is all about stability and predictability, and that becomes repetitive very, very quickly. While incredibly effective and it would make her a worthy victor, it’s just not an exciting journey for the viewer.
But while David and Mo have featured in abundance, the rest of the alliance has been almost entirely sidelined. Sharn has been featured at times, but we’ve still never seen her rationalising why she wants to work with David & Moana. Meanwhile, Lee, Jacqui, Tarzan, and Zach have been relegated to background characters almost entirely devoid of individuality, personality, or instinct. Without understanding why they want to stay loyal to an alliance that—from our perspective—is going to get them far in the game, but without a high chance of winning, we have no investment in the plodding majority. These players must have reasoning for their actions. But leaving those perspectives on the cutting room floor in favour of overemphasising a couple key players only exacerbates the repetitiveness of a Pagonging.
It doesn’t help that the minority alliance are, on the whole, more rounded characters than the faceless army of Mokuta. It’s second nature to root for the underdog, and when the show has given you a reason to root for them while providing little reason to become invested in the majority (outside of the figureheads), it creates a vast disparity of interest. This isn’t to say that the minority alliance should be sidelined either so that the viewer doesn’t care about them getting picked off. It’s about creating balance. After a while, it gets deflating to see your favourites get helplessly picked off. Unless you’re also given reason to invest in the characters in the majority alliance, it gets bleak.
For a Pagonging to contribute to a stellar season, the storytelling has to be impeccable. Big characters and instantly iconic moments can help, but the editing has to bring the viewer in and invest them in the nuance of the players on both sides of the divide. It’s an understatement to say that Australian Survivor has dropped the ball so far, but if there’s a small beacon of hope, perhaps it’s in the way Lee and Zach were featured in this particular episode.
THE TOUGH CALL
Lee has been one of my favourite supporting characters throughout the season. Leaning into the dorky dad vibes and finding a kinship with Nick, that was especially meaningful given their history, could have been even more impactful if the show had addressed this reconciliation directly as a wholesome contrast to the pursuits of petty vengeance lingering from other past conflicts. Nevertheless, Lee, one of the biggest characters of the inaugural season and our first runner-up, has been relegated to the background or short comical cold opens.
Thankfully, this episode, he had a chance to step out of the shadows. With the Vakama core in a decisive minority, they landed on a plan of targeting Lee and Zach as potential swing votes. As Harry pitched the idea to them, he framed his conversation as an opportunity for Lee and Zach to advance their own games. They could make a move that could add to their resume, and by voting for Jacqui, they could weaken the Mokuta core controlling the game while not blowing up the majority entirely.
There was never any question in Season 1 that Lee would stick to his word and his alliance—much like Mo appears to be this time around. But Lee’s come along way from the Captain of the Mateship who bristles at any Nickish, snakey moves. Having decisively lost the game at Final Tribal, Lee doesn’t want to come second again and is determined to learn from his mistakes. His first lesson is the need to make moves that will impress a Jury. While I’d argue that Lee’s bigger failing in his first season was leaning on the crutch of morality and not owning his game at Final Tribal, his willingness to play a different game is the kind of growth that I love to see in returning player seasons.
So the most intriguing aspect of this episode came in setting the table for Lee to make a proactive move in his best interest. To the viewer at home, it looks like Lee is clearly at the bottom of the Mokuta power structure. So it is encouraging to see that Lee is not only aware that he’ll need to step up his game beyond the loyalty train, but that he’s also considering that it may require him to betray that alliance to get himself ahead in an individual game. I would have loved to have seen more of this Lee throughout the pre-merge, especially as he’s been hovering in the middle of the pack since the very first vote, where he was the only person who didn’t get the memo that the vote had changed from Michelle to Shane. Nevertheless, I’m grateful for it now, and I’m hoping it’s also a signal that we’ll see more of the underedited players in coming episodes—better late than never.
Similarly, Zach was complimented this episode for being a sneakier player than Harry and Vakama had given him credit for. After working with David to dupe them at the Locky vote and going back to the time he tried to flip to work with the Little Rascals on Old Mokuta, he’d shown his stripes as someone willing to make a move. This slippery gameplay is a stark contrast to Zach’s strength-first mentality in his first season, and so far, taking a low-key and adaptable approach has served him well. Much like Lee, eyeing an opportunity for a move, Zach has been in survival mode since coming back from Exile, and the silverback gorilla is now in a position where he’s watching the numbers dwindle and waiting for the right time to strike.
Ultimately, that’s what this vote came down to—timing. As much as I would have loved to have seen Lee, Zach, or both, flip to the Vakama minority to keep the game more fluid and unpredictable, it would have been a dangerous and likely disastrous play for either of them. Harry’s pitch was all about short-term gain, “give us Jacqui before you take us all out,” rather than the long-term loyalty of flipping to work with Vakama moving forward. Still, even if Lee and Zach wanted to switch sides, they’d be moving from the bottom of one alliance to the bottom of another that was even more tightknit.
Eliminating Jacqui might weaken Moana and David’s grip on the game, but it would also break their trust. Mokuta might still hold the majority, but if they weren’t at the bottom before, then Lee and Zach certainly would be if they decided to go rogue. And that’s not to mention David’s petty crusades of vengeance against anyone who doesn’t follow his plan. This is a dangerous combination, and Vakama could easily exploit the newfound distrust between the Mokuta core and Lee and Zach, leading to them becoming easily expendable.
It’s also worth noting that aside from Lee staring at Zach’s amazing glutes, we haven’t seen a strategic partnership between them. It appears that Lee is tight with Sharn, and Zach with David, giving them direct connections to players in the Moana/David/Sharn triumvirate. But breaking away as two lone agents with very little proven loyalty to each other is also risky. If only one of them made the move to flip, that would have ostracised them even further and made them an even more expendable number to a vengeful Mokuta or a desperate Vakama.
Zach had full power to make the individual executive decision here. In the 5-4-2 Harry-Jacqui-AK vote split, he was assigned to vote for Harry. If he switches his vote, Jacqui goes out with 5 votes. Lee was more hamstrung to make the move himself, having been assigned to vote for AK. If he were to flip his vote—and Zach didn’t—he would only force a 5-5-1 tie that would probably still send Harry home on the revote, bringing Lee all the repercussions of making a big move without the benefit of changing the game. Lee and Zach were in a position where the only world it would make sense to flip would be a world where they trusted that the other was also all-in on the plan, and without a strong prior connection, that’s a big gamble in an already risky situation.
Unfortunately for the viewers, the timing wasn’t right. There’s a reason alliances are still a core part of Survivor strategy after 20 years—quite simply, they work, and in an unpredictable game, there times when minimising chaos and waiting patiently is the best play. As much as I hate to lose Harry and hate to see Vakama marched into the firing line, and as much as I want something more than a predictable Pagonging in an all-star season, I have to agree that Lee & Zach made the right play to hold tight this time. The risk is that they may not get another chance, especially Zach, who has now offered to work with the minority twice in a row only to leave them hanging. But there’s still a lot of game left to play, and the fact that players like Lee & Zach are actively looking for an opportunity to make a move against their alliance in order to advance their individual game gives me hope that this might not become the plodding trudge to a predictable finish.
END OF THE LINE
But where Lee and Zach will have more chances to make their move, Vakama is not so lucky. This was the last stand of Dirty Harry, but AK, Brooke, and Shonee seem destined for the same fate. Vakama played this bad situation to the best of their capabilities. Despite Harry and Shonee considering piling votes on AK in a last-ditch effort to scramble out of this together, Vakama made the right play to stick together and look for cracks or opportunists willing to shake things up. Harry singling out Lee and Zach as the potential swing votes was a good pick from a pool of limited options, and he led his alliance’s reasoning with a catchy chorus. Pitching a move from the perspective of the person you’re trying to convince is Persuasion 101, and Lee & Zach certainly saw the potential value in the play. But so early in the merge, with so much still to go, it’s still a hard sell.
Harry’s exit, on the back of losing the exact same challenge that pre-empted his elimination last season, is a tough blow for the game. He got his nickname of Dirty Harry for his ability to scramble and upturn the game from a minority position through bravado and resourcefulness, and it would have been great to see more of his scrappy side emerge. But for this exact reason, it made absolute sense for him to be the target of the majority’s move.
David always needs to slap a personal reason onto his plays. Here, he cited revenge for Harry voting against him (even though it was, ironically, given his voting confessional, the Godmother Janine and her smiling assassin Pia who were the architects of the move). And a fixation on earning an obscure record of most days played in consecutive (or, back-to-back) seasons (which still pales compared to Luke Toki’s total days on Australian Survivor at 93, the 78 consecutive days played without getting voted out achieved by Amanda Kimmel and Russell Hantz, and Amanda’s 108-day streak before ever getting voted out). So while I don’t buy that David’s self-interest was the real motivator here, Mokuta made the right choice to take Harry out.
But for AK, Brooke, and Shonee, it’s not looking good. After proving herself with a gruelling Immunity win, second of the season, and a career fourth, Brooke is on the radar as a challenge threat. Shonee, too, has shown an aptitude for the delicate balance and endurance challenges that are commonplace in the post-merge, and her reputation as a dangerous social player makes her an easy mark. AK, meanwhile, is a definite strategic threat, and though he hasn’t had the chance to prove himself in a post-merge game until now, he knows how to arm himself with chaos and pull off a blindside.
All three are legitimate threats to win in isolation, and if they were to make it to the end after surviving their current plight, that’s a hell of a convincing underdog story. As such, I would be shocked to see Mokuta do anything other than keep picking them off, and it’s the right strategy for them to remove such dangerous players. However, for any of the players who aren’t at the core of the alliance, it would behoove them to be looking at their options and considering the right time to strike against those currently occupying the throne in anticipation of coronation.