Let’s make one thing abundantly clear: Abbey was playing a good game and joins the long history of players who fell victim to a swap or twist. Was she playing a phenomenal game? Not particularly. Was she playing an exciting game? Not exactly. Was she playing a game that appeals to the superfans who hunger for strategy, gameplay, and blindsides? A big nope. But that doesn’t invalidate a lot of the good work she was putting in that was largely undone by an unlucky swap and the bizarrely insubstantial Exile twist.
That said, Abbey’s game had its flaws, and the most glaring in my eyes is the challenging concept of narrative. Of course, we see a story shown to us on our screens, but that tale is curated in the edit bay. What I’m concerned with is the narrative happening on the island. The narrative that is being written as it is happening and over which the players have active and complete control. The narrative that is being projected by the players themselves that is perpetuated or redirected by the choices they make and that governs the tone of the game.
In-game narratives often develop naturally, being birthed by an off-hand comment or expression. Think the game being played in ever-shifting “voting blocs” in Cambodia or the pilots and passengers analogy that dominated the mid-merge of Edge of Extinction. Other times, they’re tactically utilised to direct the game or specifically target or elevate a player. Pertinently, think of the labelling of Nick as a “snake” in Australian Survivor 2016 or the auras bestowed by titles such as The Godfather, The Godmother, Dirty Harry, and so on and so forth.
If I had to point to where Abbey’s game hit a wall—setting aside the tribe swap shenanigans—it comes down to the narrative that she and her alliance perpetuated. The narrative of “keeping the tribe strong” is not without value, but it is a fine line to walk in order to avoid the narrative becoming inflexible and exclusionary. So let’s get into the specifics.
A NEW CHALLENGE
Abbey’s game was on an upward trajectory through last week. She’d solidified a core alliance with Lydia, John, and Lee, and had players like Sharn, Harry, and Nick swirling at the edges. She’d eliminated her targets in Michelle, had conceded to the plan to remove a volatile player in Henry, and had successfully marshalled the votes against Shonee. Though an asterisk hung over the last move with the surprise of Exile Beach unexpectedly saving Shonee (and Zach) from outright elimination, Abbey held the majority and the power in the Mokuta tribe.
Better yet, it was intentional. Abbey touched on her strategy last week and elaborated further here. She had just come off of Champions vs. Contenders II, where she was voted out for being too much of a physical threat in the end-game and saw the players who relied on their social prowess over their strength come out on top. We often look at how returning players emulate and respond to the winners of their past season, and it’s abundantly clear that Abbey’s All-Stars game was a direct response to Pia’s victory.
Knowing that a straight social game is not something she can match, Abbey sought to change her potential future and guide the game towards a merge tribe full of physical threats that could help shield her from danger that took her out last time. Incidentally, a Jury stacked with physical threats is also far more likely to vote for a physically dominant winner, which plays into her hand too. Furthermore, her core alliance was formed from these physical powerhouses, and so it behooved her to prioritise their security over the extraneous players on the fringes of her alliance.
Had a swap not come her way, Abbey was in a great position to ride the Mokuta majority deep, likely to merge, if not further. There was a reason I had made Abbey my winner pick in our pre-season draft, and I’m so glad to see the seeds of it in her game. She was smart, adaptive, and capable, and if the cookie had crumbled slightly differently in the tribe swap, I think she would have been in a very good position come merge.
However, strength in numbers relies on those numbers, and unfortunately for Abbey, dropped buffs swapped her from an insulated majority to a volatile minority on her new tribe. Donning the yellow buff of Vakama, she found herself facing a united front of Old Vakama in AK, Brooke, Flick, and Locky, with Mat (himself isolated from his entire network of alliances) folding into the pack. At the same time, she had Lydia and John, but also a steep divide with Harry, and worst of all, Shonee returned from a refreshing night on Exile with vengeance on her mind. What was ostensibly a 5-5 even split became a lot messier due to the internal conflict amongst former Mokuta.
Shonee was naturally a spanner in the works for Abbey and was the driving force behind turning the vote onto her. However, even without the Shonee dynamic in the mix, I’m not confident that Abbey, Lydia, and John would have come out of their fourth consecutive Tribal Council unscathed—and that’s because of their self-perpetuated narrative.
Almost from the start, Abbey and company were championing the mantra of “keeping the tribe strong.” It’s not an unreasonable stance, especially with the brute physicality required by so many early Australian Survivor challenges. Still, it is an inherently ostracising narrative to push time and time again. When players like Abbey—and the athletes’ alliance around her—are always coming back to the story of strength, it instantly pushes players like a Shonee or a Michelle to the outside. Less physical players are never going to feel comfortable in an alliance built on strength. Last week, we saw that even physically capable players like Sharn, who currently holds the Australian Survivor Individual Immunity record, feared that they were at the bottom of such an alliance if the pattern of “vote out the weak” were to continue.
This is a trap most obvious in an alliance that calls itself by a number (the Four Horsemen of Fiji or the off-handed “Top Five, Baby!” of Cagayan) or labelled by an identity (men’s or women’s alliances, cool kids’ alliances, young pretty people alliances), or, in some cases, both (the Sporty Seven of Champions vs. Contenders II). An alliance identified by something restrictive—number, identity, or ideal—is going to inherently freeze people out of working with you because it is immediately obvious that they don’t belong.
As alluded to throughout this episode, a tribe swap is an opportunity for a new beginning and a chance to recalibrate. Harry explained it beautifully as a tumultuous and dangerous phase of the game for this very reason. It’s transitional, not only as players begin preparing for the individual post-merge game, changing gears at different times, but also as a melting pot for the forging of a broader web of relationships as you meet new people. For Abbey (and Lydia & John), it was a perfect opportunity to ease off their existing narrative and focus on building new relationships that could change their perceived story away from being the players leading the charge for challenge strength. There were also deep cracks in Vakama ripe for exploitation—if Old Mokuta could have found the cohesion Nick had been preaching, all they had to do was swing Mat over, and they had the numbers.
Instead, they continued to champion tribe strength to a tribe of players who saw value in Survivor beyond winning challenges. Locky is a challenge beast, but he’s not a dunce when it comes to gameplay, and while challenge victories are certainly appealing, they’re not the be-all and end-all for strategy-driven players like AK, Brooke, Flick, and Mat. For players like Shonee and Harry, they’d been sidelined by “keeping the tribe strong” that they saw no reason to continue to work with Abbey, Lydia, and John and perpetuate a narrative and alliance that excluded them.
The narrative that came to define Abbey’s game couldn’t adapt to a new group, and it quickly shut her out. To her credit, she didn’t solely rely on the argument of challenge strength when pitching a vote against Shonee. As AK himself had experienced, loose ends can be the death of you in Survivor, and cutting them off is advantageous. However, as strength became the overriding story at Tribal once again—to the point where Shonee and even Jonathan was calling attention to the recurring theme—it was too late to change it.
It was a story that excluded the weaker members of the tribe who had a vote just the same as Abbey, Lydia, and John. It was a story that was ironic given the losing streak Abbey and co were on, and especially ironic given the “weak link” Shonee had sat out the Immunity challenge which the tribe then lost on a puzzle. It was also a story that was rapidly reaching its expiry date as the swap signalled a shift towards considering individual longevity in the game and finding strength in relationships over raw muscle.
Compare the pitch made by Abbey to the variety of narratives sold by Shonee. Out for blood after being targeted by Abbey’s alliance twice already with a third hit on the way, Shonee expertly turned to her social game. She worked to connect with Brooke and Flick as friends, setting a foundation for a working relationship that paid off with Flick confirming she had Shonee’s back as the votes came in. To AK, she pitched the danger of Abbey as the ringleader of former Mokuta and someone who could be plucked out to quickly disassemble to enemy network. Similarly, to Locky she pledged her vengeance against Old Mokuta, promising to advantage Old Vakama’s numbers in the long run. Her vow of revenge against her old tribe, specifically including Sharn, a bitter rival for him from their first season, also directly appealed to Mat in the sense of being outsiders with few connections, especially on New Vakama. Whereas Abbey’s story was unilateral in challenge strength, Shonee’s was nuanced and adaptive, flexibly adjusted to appeal to each player.
That said, it also seems like a no-brainer decision for Old Vakama. When the choice is between the ringleader of the opposite tribe’s majority alliance and the wronged outsider hellbent on tearing their old tribe apart, there’s only one option for the strategic thinker. Even if Shonee hadn’t been in the mix, knocking out a power player from an opposing alliance is a textbook play. So from this perspective, all of my meditations on the constraints of championing a single, restrictive narrative may be beside the point. From the moment the yellow buff was drawn, Abbey was in danger with very little in her arsenal. Perhaps selling a different story could have plucked her from the jaws of death, but at the end of the day, she was Screwed By The Swap™, and Screwed By The Twist™ in a similar way that Tara Pitt’s unexpected second chance in Australian Survivor 2017 doomed AK, who she saw as the one leading her elimination.
While it’s unfortunate to see a good player get unlucky, Abbey’s blindside leaves Vakama—and the game at large—in a fascinating place. For the superfan in me who is tiring of the “keep the tribe strong” story, I’m excited to see the game open up and eager to see how a player like Lydia can adapt to being unequivocally on the outside looking in, especially with Mat raising the spectre of their own bad blood. I’m also fascinated by the Mat and Shonee potential partnership, particularly complicated with Shonee’s burgeoning friendships with Brooke and Flick, which promise to make any developments on the Old Vakama battlelines especially messy.
WHAT’S IN THE BOX?
Meanwhile, Mokuta had its own little drama as Nick had one of his best nights yet. After two weeks of challenges dominated by literal brute strength, we finally had a puzzle challenge. Although it still came with its fair share of brawn, the challenge came down to the massive cube puzzle where Vakama fell to pieces while Nick flawlessly led Mokuta to victory. It’s about time to see a diversification of skills in Survivor challenges, and I hope we’ll see more variety in the coming episodes.
But it was the events of the Reward Challenge that stirred the pot. New Mokuta won themselves a locked chest, ominously titled “Pandora’s Box.” For those rusty on their Greek mythology, Pandora was given a jar containing death and disease, and as mythological figures are wont to do, she opened it, releasing evil into the world. Hopefully, for our intrepid Rascal Nick, his boon from this Pandora’s Box will be far less cursed.
I loved just about everything about this mechanic—yet another in the Australian Survivor’s growing repertoire of dilemmas, moral games, and straight-up trickster activity. The tribe was informed that the locked box contained an advantage and that there were two keys hidden out in the jungle: go! Naturally, the allure of an advantage prompted a tribe-wide hunt for the missing keys, but having two identical keys in the jungle was a stroke of creative genius as it instantly invokes an urgency to the search. It’s not enough to just sneak off and go looking for the key, you can’t afford to wait, or someone else might get it first.
Nick was the first to luck upon a key, but he was now faced with another challenge. The Pandora’s Box was left sitting in the middle of camp—but how could he get to it without being noticed? You see, Nick was also in an unlucky place after the tribe swap. Already on the outs of his original Mokuta, he had no firm friends with the retained Lee and Sharn and the return of Zach, who he had thrown votes onto in a last ditch effort to save Shonee, heralded its own bad omen. Then there was the influx of new faces in Jacqui, Tarzan, Moana, David, and Phoebe from Old Vakama. So Nick’s play to parlay the key into a potential alliance with Phoebe was a stellar instinct. Although they never shared a beach in their first season, having a pre-existing friendship with Phoebe would have been a lucky break for Nick, and the two quickly conspired to keep people out of camp long enough for him to open the box and claim the advantage.
And good timing too, for Jacqui found the second key. Rushing back to camp with Tarzan in lock-step, Nick appeared to barely get the advantage out in time as he hurriedly stashed it into his short shorts. Yet now the pure beauty of the game presented itself. As Jacqui discovered that she was too late, the entire tribe quickly found that someone had beaten her to the punch. Like the best murder mysteries, it was one of them, but which one? The paranoia inherently fuelled by this twist is thrilling, and for it to sow potential discord and distrust on a brand new swapped tribe, it’s quickly living up to its iconic name.
As an added bonus to the Pandora’s Box, the advantage Nick obtained was a solid choice. An Extra Vote is not an especially useful advantage. It is incredibly situational and requires a lot of finesse to use effectively, especially compared to something like an Idol or worse, an Idol Nullifier. Its power is neutered further in this iteration by being valid only in the pre-merge. However, despite all of this, I appreciate that it’s not a game-breaking advantage. We’re also lucky that a player like Nick found it, and I have no doubt he’ll put it to use—hopefully in a clever plan and not a harebrained scheme. Regardless, it should be fun, and the paranoia fuelled by the Pandora’s Box also sets a volatile stage for some excitement on New Mokuta, especially once they learn what went down at Tribal Council.
OH, AND EXILE WAS THERE
Yeah, that pretty much sums it up.
As much as I love the Pandora’s Box and the Shonee/Abbey dynamic had some impact, I can’t help but feel like last week’s vote to Exile was a bit of a waste of energy. While I’m incredibly glad Exile Beach wasn’t the one-off pseudo-Redemption Island we’ve had the last couple seasons, it feels like there was a lot more to mine from Shonee and Zach on Exile. Perhaps they could have spent another day or two there before joining their new tribes, or better yet, use them in the tribe swap. Coming into this episode, I’d wondered if they might be responsible for drafting the new tribes, which would have been a fun dynamic. If the producers didn’t want to leave that much in the players’ hands, why not make Shonee & Zach the prize for the Reward Challenge—either as a pair of extra tribemates, or the first pick of the two.
In the end, it feels like a missed opportunity, but at the end of the day, we take what we get from the obligatory non-elimination episodes in Australian Survivor. At least one of them is already out of the way, and fingers crossed the second is burned before we hit the merge, allowing us to have a clean shot to the end game for what is shaping up to be a dynamic season. The tribe swap injected a burst of chaos and energy at a perfect time, and as Harry pointed out, we’re in for one of the most complicated parts of the game over the next couple weeks as the game shifts to a faster and more exciting pace.
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