Welcome to In The Torchlight, a new, semi-regular blog here on Inside Survivor, where I’ll be taking a closer look at specific moves from any currently airing season of Survivor. These are the moves so impressive or monumental that they deserve a deep dive analysis.
The Season: Australian Survivor All-Stars
The Move: David and Mat blindside Daisy
The Episode: Episode 3, February 5, 2020
There are those moves in Survivor that send tingles up and down your spine. The kind of strategic plays so remarkable and flawlessly executed that all you can do is sit there in awe. I’m talking about the likes of the Black Widow Brigade fooling Erik Reichenbach into giving up Immunity or Parvati Shallow’s bold double idol play in Heroes vs. Villains. These are the moments that go beyond “good gameplay” and ascend to the upper echelon of all-time Survivor moves.
We’re only three episodes into Australian Survivor All-Stars, but we’ve already witnessed what I consider to be a top-five best move of all-time. In fact, at risk of sounding like a Network 10 promo, it might possibly be THE BEST. It happened in the third episode, on the Vakama tribe, when opposing alliance leaders David Genat and Mat Rogers formed a secret partnership, and through some expert bluffing and nifty idol plays blindsided an unsuspecting Daisy Richardson.
Let me be clear, the move wasn’t impressive merely because it involved idols—idol plays are as common as coconuts in modern-day Survivor. It was the chain of events leading up to the move, the various moving pieces that needed to fall into place, and the multiple layers hidden beneath the surface. It was a move of differing motivations for the players involved. For Mat, it was about self-preservation and living to fight another day. For David, it was about revenge and control.
To set the scene, the Vakama tribe had quickly split into two groups over the first few days. On one side, you had the so-called “cool, young, pretty popular kids,” comprising of Aaron “AK” Knight, Brooke Jowett, Daisy, Felicity “Flick” Egginton, Locky Gilbert, Phoebe Timmins, and their perceived leader, David, who as he pointed out himself, is hardly a spring chicken at 39-years-old. On the other side, there was the so-called “boring, older” group, including Jacqui Patterson, Mat, Mark “Tarzan” Herlaar, Moana Hope, and Jericho Malabonga, who was voted out at Vakama’s first Tribal Council.
Mat was firmly in the minority and needed to somehow assure his safety. This is where the first part of the plan came into play, as he figured he needed to cajole the Mokotu tribe’s Henry Nicholson into handing over a hidden immunity idol mid-challenge. It’s one of those situations where so many things had to happen in such a precise way and an example of how much luck plays its part in the game of Survivor.
If Henry and Mat hadn’t been chosen as the torchbearers in the first challenge, they wouldn’t have found the idol clues. If Henry hadn’t whispered to Mat about the existence of said clue, then The Godfather might not have seen the hidden note at all and certainly wouldn’t have known Henry had got his hands on one. But because these things happened, Mat knew that Henry likely had an idol and that it could only be used at the first three Tribal Councils. Therefore, if the Mokotu tribe won the next Immunity challenge, the idol would become useless to Henry, making it more likely he’d gift it to Mat.
So already, there was a lot going on and huge risk involved in Mat’s play, which is always the case when communicating across enemy lines. Things only became more complex, however, when David approached Mat about creating a secret alliance. While this idea was partly spawned out of a desire for revenge on his old foe Daisy, the Golden God did recognize other benefits to this strange bedfellows partnership. As the perceived leaders of two opposing alliances, David and Mat could continue to pit their groups against one another, while making sure to keep each other safe.
“If you’re controlling one, and I’m controlling the other, we just pit against each other the whole way,” David told Mat. “You throw my name out, I’ll throw your name out. When it comes down to crunch time, you keep the votes off, and we make sure the target is not on us.” It’s a delicate strategy that has only ever been teased in past seasons. Perhaps the closest we came to seeing something similar was in Survivor: Tocantins, when Stephen Fishbach and Taj Johnson-George attempted a cross-Tribal alliance with Brendan Synott and Sierra Reed—sadly, it all fell apart before it ever had a chance to take off.
The reason we’ve never seen this strategy before is because it requires an immense level of trust. It’s hard enough to trust your closest allies in Survivor, let alone a member of a rival alliance. No matter how good the idea sounds on paper, there will always be those nagging reservations, as Mat laid out in confessional. “Could we do it? Could he trust me enough? And could I trust him enough?” he asked himself. “I just get so nervous, seeing the way [David’s] played the game, but I also think, far out, this could be the greatest foil in Survivor history.”
After weighing the options, Mat decided it was worth the risk, and in a sneaky late-night chat, the two head honchos struck a deal. What followed was a brilliant scene of negotiation. Mat revealed his idol plan and asked David for a head’s up on where the next vote was going, that way, Mat could play the idol correctly and send one of the majority home. David was “into it,” but to secure the deal, he wanted to name the target, that being Daisy. Even though Mat would have preferred a different mark, he recognized he didn’t have the leverage to push his luck. “That’s my condition, really, bro,” David told him. “Fair?”
What I really appreciated here was Mat’s ability to see the bigger picture and make the bold play. He could have quite easily got the idol from Henry and taken the one-in-four shot of playing it on the right person or just used it on himself to guarantee one more round. Instead, he took a gamble on making a deal with the devil, a move with the more long-term benefits. If everything went as planned, he would be saving himself and his three allies, removing a member of the majority alliance, and securing trust with David.
As for David, while he would satisfy his need for vengeance, he would do so without getting blood on his hands. If it all went smoothly, he would remain in the majority alliance—who would still have six numbers—while also building in-roads with the minority, through Mat, who would hopefully keep the target off him. And it should be noted that David was taking a significant amount of risk with this play too. Mat could have easily turned around and exposed David’s machinations or targeted someone other than Daisy; there was nothing the Golden one could have done if Mat’s alliance had thrown their four votes on, say, Brooke or Locky. The move required a great deal of trust from both parties.
The layers of complexities didn’t end there, though. Things became even hairier after the majority caught Henry handing the idol to Mat in the post-challenge melee. This now meant the “Magnificent Seven” had to plot around a potential idol play, which meant figuring out the person Mat would be least likely to use the idol for. The group decided that that person would be Jacqui, and so, they planned to put the majority of their votes on Jacqui, while attempting to convince Mat that the target was Moana, so that he’d waste his idol on the wrong player.
Mat quickly realized the ploy—it was all a bit too convenient how everyone was suddenly telling him the same name. And his suspicions were confirmed when David mouthed the name of the real target—Jacqui. Again, David could have been lying too, but at this point, Mat had to put faith in the deal he made. He’d done all he could, and all the pieces were in place for the first major move of the season. But not so fast!
There was one more wrinkle to be added to this already complex strategy. In the moments before Tribal Council, majority alliance member Brooke found the Vakama idol. Now, not only did the “Magnificent Seven” have the numbers, but they had an idol to potentially combat Mat’s play. This didn’t sit well with David. Not only did this mean there was a chance Brooke could save Daisy, but it meant someone else in his alliance had more power than he did. David wanted that idol out of Brooke’s hands and back in play so that he could find it. And you know what? There was a way he could possibly make that happen.
Taking advantage of his newly formed secret alliance, David asked Mat for a favor—to start spreading his name around as the minority’s target. So while Mat approached members of the majority, pretending he was targeting David and asking them to jump on board, David played the role of the worrywart. The Golden God voiced his concerns to his allies, hamming up how scared he was that he could be the potential victim if Mat correctly played his idol.
By this point, there were so many layers of duplicity and bluffing and double-bluffing, it truly was riveting television. And I respected that the edit let us see every step of this plan from inception to conclusion. There was no attempt to hide crucial information from the audience just to make the final vote-off a surprise. Seeing how the sausage was made was compelling enough in its own right, and the shock to the players was just as satisfying than a viewer blindside.
At that night’s Tribal, David and Mat continued to play up their rivalry for the benefit of their unaware tribemates. Tribal Council has previously been referred to as “theater,” and if that is the case, then David and Mat both deserve Tony Awards, and I’m not talking about Mr. Vlachos, though that would also be appropriate. It wasn’t just the thinly-veiled insults they hurled back-and-forth at each other, but it was their side-conversations with other members of the tribe. David worriedly whispered to AK and Brooke about whether the vote was still the same, while Mat tried to tempt Locky into jumping ship. All of this was for show.
Mat played his idol, and even in this moment, he added to his performance, showing that he was thinking ahead. Rather than simply announcing his intentions to play the idol for Jacqui, Mat, initially, pretended he was using it on himself. He then stopped, turned around to read the reactions of his tribemates, and declared he was playing the idol for Jacqui, and with good reasoning. Mat revealed that he was told the target was Moana, but because he was told the same at the last Tribal, which turned out to be a lie, he didn’t believe it.
I think Mat’s pre-idol-play speech has been lost in all the praise that followed this epic Tribal Council. What Mat was trying to do here was to protect his undercover alliance with David. If he had just straight up used the idol on Jacqui, people might have questioned how he knew who to play it on. The suspicions that someone in the majority leaked the target would become extremely high. But by explaining his logic, and tying it back to the previous vote, Mat removed at least some of that doubt. Instead, the majority might just think they let their guard down and gave too much away. If Flick’s “we need to be smarter” statement is anything to go by, Mat may have achieved his goal.
The cherry on top, of course, was that once Mat played his idol, it pressured Brooke into mistakenly playing her own idol for David, who continued to play up his fear throughout Tribal. This idol play had a dual benefit. Not only did it mean David was now safe in the event anyone decided to get fancy and throw votes his way, but it meant the idol was out of Brooke’s hands and back in the game. It was masterful performance art from both David and Mat, right down to David’s over-the-top shocked expression when the Daisy votes were readout.
Could this all backfire as soon as the next episode? Sure. That is always an option when it comes to big, risky moves like this. We saw Kellee Kim eliminated in Survivor: Island of the Idols one vote after a similar play. However, I feel like David and Mat covered all their angles far more successfully than Kellee did. Firstly, David and Mat are far more logical players than Dean Kowalski and Noura Salman, who were the people Kellee had to rely on to keep her schemes secret. Secondly, the merge isn’t approaching any time soon, unlike in IOTI, which threw alliances into a free-for-all. Right now, it benefits David and Mat to work together as each other’s meat-shields.
But even if this does all blow up in David and/or Mat’s faces in the weeks to come, it wouldn’t take away from just how monumental the move was in itself. In the context of this episode, in a vacuum, this was one of the most brilliantly ambitious, multi-layered, awe-inspiring moves Survivor has seen across all editions.