Austin Smith recaps the epic season finale of Australian Survivor.
There is no such thing as absolute certainty in the game of Survivor, and there is no better proof of this concept than the gripping conclusion to Australian Survivor.
Much of the post-merge game through the last few weeks has felt like a disappointing march towards a predictable ending. How exhilarating, then, that we are instead surprised in these last 80 minutes with the story of a player who seemed all but dead in the water and their meteoric comeback victory.
Going into the finale, few would have given Kristie Bennett much of a chance to take home the title of Sole Survivor. She’d infuriated her tribemates and the Jury alike by refusing to make a move against the power couple, Lee Carseldine and El Rowland, who had openly admitted that they intended to take each other to the end. Her only hope lay in an Immunity Challenge against two of the most physically capable castaways, and it seemed likely she was destined for 3rd Place and a seat as the Final Juror. And even if she did make it to the end, she faced the incredibly difficult task of articulating why her seemingly scattershot or alternately passive gameplay was worthy of the win.
It was improbable. In the minds of many viewers, it would have appeared impossible. But with every passing minute of the finale, Kristie proved that “impossible” simply wasn’t a word in her vocabulary.
She fought her way through a gruelling Final Immunity Challenge. She held her head high as she voted out the last member of the Jury. And then, to top off a night filled with more plot twists than the Shyamalan back-catalogue, Kristie gave one of the strongest Final Tribal Council performances in all Survivor history.
“People didn’t think I was going to make it,” Kristie explains, “But I have survived through EVERYTHING Survivor has thrown at me and I’m out the other side. I’ve proven that you can defy all the odds. I’ve done that: and isn’t that what Survivor is all about?”
AN ICONIC CHALLENGE
I’m certain I was not the only Survivor fan geeking out when I spotted the iconic Final Immunity Challenge, known as “Hand on a Hard Idol,” in the preview for the finale. This classic challenge was first played by Richard Hatch, Kelly Wiglesworth, and Rudy Boesch in the very first season of Survivor, and has not been seen on the US show since 2004 when it was won by Boston Rob Mariano in Survivor: All-Stars. Australian Survivor’s decision to incorporate this historic challenge delighted my Survivor-fanatic inner-child (not unlike Kristie’s 8-year-old self!), and this brutal test of endurance was momentous in its own right.
Preceded by a quick “Rites of Passage” torch walk (another Survivor tradition that has fallen by the wayside in recent years), there was a thick layer of pomp and occasion. The long-overdue family visit drew out raw emotion from our Final Three and raised the stakes for everyone involved. And perched on the edge of volcanic cliffs and bombarded with vicious sea swells, the setting of the challenge made for a dramatic conclusion to the physical game.
The brutal six-and-a-half hour test of pure willpower and endurance brought out the best in Lee and El, whose highly competitive spirits and personal strength was highlighted both by their astounding efforts in the challenge, but also in the commentary of their respective sisters, Rachel and Laura. But tonight belonged to Kristie. Her father Anthony’s account of Kristie learning to cope with adversity alongside watching Survivor was moving, and Kristie’s tearful request to Lee to let her win the challenge underscored this inner strength.
Kristie’s Immunity victory is perhaps the most emotionally charged moment of the entire season, as she collapses from her perch in tears of pain and joy. Lee and El fight through their pain and disappointment as Kristie shares joy with her father. Then, to pull the heartstrings even more, Jonathan has Anthony present Kristie with her hard-won Immunity Necklace. It speaks to one of the strengths of Australian Survivor, which has not shied away from showing heartfelt emotion, and although this moment has the potential to feel sappy, it manages to find a poignancy in Kristie’s victory with her father by her side.
Kristie’s relationship with both the Aganoans has been a story that has sat on the back-burner through much of the season. El counselled Kristie after her breakdown in Episode 2, but her relationship with Lee seemed to be much stronger, with her even contemplating that Lee might sacrifice his own game for her. This relationship comes full circle as Kristie tells Lee that he reminds her of her father (who watched from the sidelines), and Lee responds with the most Lee-ish response, “I’m proud of you.”
It is really no surprise, then, that Kristie follows through on her offer to take Lee to the Final – and it certainly paid dividends. It’s hard to know how Kristie would have fared at Final Tribal if she’d taken El, but strategically, it does seem like she made the smart decision. Aside from El’s personal bonds with a number of the women on the Jury, she has also come across as a more aggressive player than Lee. When instructed to say their peace at Tribal Council to convince Kristie to take them to the end, El rationalises that she’s unpopular with the Jury (showing some modicum of game awareness), whereas Lee passively responds that it’s Kristie’s decision and he’ll be okay whatever the outcome. It’s a purely academic exercise to dig into this decision, however, given the events of Final Tribal Council to come.
A FLAWLESS PERFORMANCE
It’s easy to undervalue Final Tribal Council. Often, the Final Few contestants comprise an obvious front-runner or a clear goat. Many times, it can appear that the Jury have made up their minds before any speeches are made, or any questions are asked. Sometimes Final Tribal, despite all of its cathartic and dramatic energy, can be mostly a formality.
Sometimes, however, Final Tribal is where winners are made.
Kristie’s performance at Final Tribal, from start to finish, is phenomenal. It’s articulate, rational, confident and heartfelt. It was worlds apart from the anxious, stilted speaker to which we’ve grown accustomed throughout the game. Whether she found her voice through the momentum of her incredible Day 54 or perhaps the restorative powers of a bacon and egg roll, Kristie’s Final Tribal completely earned her the victory.
She managed to achieve one of the hardest feats in Survivor and translate a subtle, reactive game into a clear strategic narrative. Her opening speech outlined this narrative, and when questioned about her gameplay by El and Flick, she completely owned her game. She acknowledged that she hadn’t made #BigMovez, but she reasoned that this was because she needed to play a game that kept her out of the spotlight. That game was comprised of a series of smaller, quieter moves (after all, those who make big plays all got a swift exit!). She pointed out that not only had she always been on the bottom of the totem pole, but she’d also been to 20 Tribal Councils (compared to Lee’s 11 – with only two before the merge!). Despite this, she had always been on the right side of the vote – an impressive feat!
Furthermore, she held her own even when challenged on a more personal front. Sue challenged her unpredictability, and she apologised for having to turn on her but redirected the conversation back to her need to strategically lay low and deflect the target away from herself. Matt called attention to the dichotomy between quirky Kristie and paranoid Kristie and she effortlessly responded by sharing her struggles to overcome the obstacles of her anxiety.
Every statement Kristie made pointed back to her awareness of the subtleties and limitations of her gameplay, but primarily, they painted her challenging path to the Final Two as a success in fighting to stay alive. It was clear, it was thorough, it was passionate, and it was an incredible performance.
Lee, on the other hand, is not so great at Tribal Council – by his own admission! Before they departed Fia Fia beach for good, Lee acknowledged that he and Kristie were total opposites, and it showed at Final Tribal. Where Kristie had passion, Lee was passive. Where Kristie spoke of her gameplay, Lee’s entire argument hinged on the honesty and integrity buzzwords and the faith that being a good person would be enough to win him the game.
When it came to answering the Jury’s questions, it got even worse. When lobbed a slow-ball question from El about how he’d spend the money, he gave an uninspiring answer. And when challenged on his moral superiority by Sam, Jennah-Louise, and Nick, he either doesn’t respond to the question clearly or changes his narrative into one of trying and struggling to be a good guy. Where Kristie painted herself as a conqueror of adversity at every turn, Lee bluntly admitted that he willingly placed hurdles in his own path and then struggled to clear them.
The Jury wants to vote for someone to whom they will feel proud to lose to – someone who makes them think, “I got beat, but at least I got beat by YOU!” Between Kristie’s narrative of success against the odds and Lee’s portrait of moral quandary, it’s like a what-to-do and what-not-to-do of Final Tribal 101.
SOLE SURVIVOR KRISTIE BENNETT
So how does Kristie stand as a Survivor winner, and as the winner of our inaugural Australian Survivor?
It wasn’t a perfect victory by any stretch. Her entire game voluntarily hinged on the Final Immunity Challenge, and although she pulled a clutch win, it was incredibly risky and arguably remains a questionable strategic play. She also had a number of lucky breaks over the course of the season (particularly being saved by a surprise non-elimination Tribal Council). And yet, despite many questionable strategic choices, she stayed true to her intention to play a subtle individual game, and she was able to back it up with a combination of good fortune, hard work, and a killer Final Tribal, and she wholly deserves the title.
With an eye to the future, as our first Australian Survivor winner, Kristie also sets a positive tone for strategic victors over victory on mateship alone. Hopefully, this sets a solid precedent for strategy and “playing the game” to be respected by future casts. Perhaps more interestingly, it shows that Australian Survivor really can be anybody’s game. On paper, Kristie doesn’t stand out as an obvious winning candidate and yet, against all odds, she’s the Sole Survivor.
ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN
Season 1 of Australian Survivor has been a roller coaster of emotion. We’ve had twists both frustrating, such as Sue’s kidnapping, and innovative, such as the Episode 5 tribe swap via Tribal Council. We’ve had massive Idol plays (thanks Phoebe!). We’ve felt the pain of predictable eliminations and a lack of strategic gameplay. We’ve had engrossing challenges, intriguing camp life, and a cast of characters that left an impression (for better or worse!).
In its maiden season, Australian Survivor was both traditional and experimental and often became an exercise in expecting the unexpected. It is fitting, then, that the season should conclude with one of the most unconventional victories in the show’s history.
So as we turn our gaze to Season 2 in 2017, we best remember, “Anything can happen!”