In the aftershock of last week’s Tribal Council detonation, I predicted that we’d be rebuilding anew this week. Factions such as the Lesu 3 and the duos of David & Devens and Ron & Julie might stay strong, but otherwise, it was a new and open playing field. That certainly bore out across the first of this episode’s double boots, but as we neared the climax of the second vote, it felt like we were heading back to square one again. As Ron articulated at Tribal, once you’ve got the taste of blood that is a blindside, it’s hard to satiate your appetite with easy votes.
This season’s new players have demonstrated a willingness to play aggressively and recklessly, and that makes for a thrilling and altogether dangerous combination. Meanwhile, the last surviving returning players in Wentworth and David had shown their experienced finesse, resilience and flexibility in navigating a constantly shifting dynamic, including the will-they, won’t-they dance of their own conflicted relationship. But here, they were consumed by the chaos and in a somewhat fitting end to their inextricably linked trajectories, they both met their end at the hands of their bloodthirsty fresh-faced opponents.
It seems prudent to dig into this fast-paced episode chronologically, so let’s begin with the first execution. Hot off the heels of Julia’s elimination, a new majority alliance was cobbled together in the dark of night. The Lesu 3 – an ever-increasing force of power on the Vata tribe – quickly re-established trust with Gavin, the Kama who had been most reluctant to turn on the allies he’d forged at the Eric vote, and the disillusioned Julie & Ron who were desperate for some measure of stability. Naturally, Aurora – the sole remaining player to have missed the boat on the Julia vote held strangely responsible for Tribal’s dissolution into madness – was left on the outside looking in.
But what surprised me was that David & Rick and Victoria were immediately pushed out of the new power structure. It’s a testament to how quickly the game can move, as I anticipated that the open playing field could well favour these players. Victoria folded into the majority for the vote to avoid ruffling feathers, but with Julie & Ron jumping ship, and her apparent ally Gavin having seemingly cut ties as well, she was easily excised. David had tested the waters of rebuilding Lesu bridges in his conversations with Kelley, and Rick had initiated and gained credit for facilitating the Tribal switcheroo, yet it wasn’t enough, and they weren’t able to gather together the numbers quickly enough.
Kama vs. Lesu was dead, but a new monolith loomed over the Vata beach in the new 6-strong alliance. Wardog seemed to be the driving force, capitalising on his conversion of Julie & Ron at Tribal, and they formed a straightforward plan: target the ostracised and isolated Immunity threat in Aurora, and failing that, gun for the big all-around threat in David. When the former beat out the latter at Immunity, it made the decision all too simple.
It was still an aggressive move – targeting a significant threat almost always is – but it was a natural progression from the tentative bonds forged in the crucible of the Julia Tribal. Voting together to take out a dangerous, eloquent, strategic and surprising strong challenge performer in David was an opportunity to solidify those bonds, and while I was a little surprised to see Lesu keep targeting each other after finally evening out the numbers, it was a fulfilment of the returnee rivalry that had been brewing since Day 1.
For the outsiders, though, it was also a chance to galvanise a resistance. David & Devens saw the writing on the wall and pulled in Victoria and Aurora with relative ease. They were all in a precarious position, and with an alliance coalescing around the seemingly immovable object that was the unbreakable Lesu 3, they needed to act quickly. So they turned to the two people who had made their own precarious positions widely known: Julie & Ron. If they all banded together, they could fracture the Lesu 3, and David pitched targeting Wardog.
While it’s clear that David recognised the conniving gameplay Wardog was capable of, I am surprised he didn’t push for the names that had been bandied about before in Kelley or Lauren, but perhaps it was time to try a new tactic instead of returning to the same dry well. Regardless of the target amongst the Lesu 3, it came down to a decision by Julie & Ron, who found themselves with two possible alliances of six and the deciding votes to chart their paths. It was a challenging decision: both sides had demonstrated loyalty and betrayal; both sides also wanted to target strategically slippery male threats.
In the end, Ron & Julie chose to stick with the first new alliance forged, and at first, I was taken aback by their decision. Going with the Lesu 6 would leave Julie & Ron in a more precarious position as the numbers dwindled, divided 3-to-3 by original Tribal lines at a Final 6. On the flip side, the outsider’s alliance afforded more flexibility with either teaming up with the pair of David & Devens or Victoria & Aurora (to get the Kama band back together) to put themselves in the majority. Yet it seemed to come down to a matter of trust. While Julie found herself vacillating between the options, Ron had a stauncher view – David was less trustworthy, and with the experience of a returnee, it made him the bigger threat. Thus, David’s journey ended here.
But that’s not to say that David went down easily. His pitch about the danger in the power trio was strong – and if not for Wardog’s unpredictability in the second half of the episode, it was easy to picture David’s premonitions of a Lesu 3 Final Three coming true. But he seemed to misstep too. Ron bristled at the hard sell, and perhaps David’s tactics came on too strong. Maybe his repeated mantras about “loyalty is my brand,” his spiel about “the one conversation you remember” (similarly pitched to Devens a couple episodes ago) and his eloquent analogies and Tribal answers were wearing thin or were raising his profile as a formidable opponent. Or perhaps it even goes back to David’s decision not to pull the trigger on eliminating Kelley when he had the chance earlier in the season.
All in all, David played a strong game that built on the social manoeuvring that got him to Day 38 in his first season. He was able to let bygones be bygones, to de-escalate conflict, and persuade potential allies far deeper into the game than he might have. And he did it all with grace and humility that’s always refreshing in Survivor. Yet even though David might have been dying in the water after the formation of the new alliance of 6 and his elimination marked an “easy” decision, he was still a big kill by reputation alone, and that sated the appetite of the players still tasting the blood of a blindside.
The more shocking outcome came in the second half of the episode. Just as I was perplexed by Julia & Victoria wanting to flip back to Kama after voting against Eric, I was blown away by Wardog’s decision to dismantle his 6-strong alliance one vote after he formed it – and more significantly, to completely break apart his Day 1 partnership with Kelley and Lauren. As highlighted earlier, that trio had been in lock-step since the early days with only shades of disagreement in the twilight hours on Lesu, and Wardog’s choice to target Kelley at this vote seemed to come out of nowhere. Finally, his core alliance had control, and he could ride out a vote or two to whittle down the numbers before making his move. However, the Wardog had tasted the big move, and after the simpler vote in David, he wanted a bigger meal. But I don’t think this was impulse from Wardog. All the way back at the Chris vote, he knew he wanted Wentworth out – it was just a matter of timing.
With Devens (Immune, in part thanks to David’s gift of a challenge advantage from Extinction), Aurora, and Victoria still on the outs, they were natural allies for a big move, and Wardog solidified them efficiently by way of another flashback. The army veteran had numbers now to make a move, and if he waited, who could say whether he’d get to take another shot at Wentworth. Perhaps she could win Immunities, or she could find and play Idols, or maybe the future returnee from Extinction could completely derail his plans. When you have the opportunity, sometimes it’s best to seize the moment.
So the key came down to persuading the necessary fifth vote. Lauren was an obvious no, being in lock-step with Kelley all-game. Last week, Gavin had been reticent to join the supposed Kama plan precisely because he’d grown close to Wentworth. Julie might have been willing to jump ship once before, but despite her public unpredictability, she seemed to be seeking stability. That left Ron, and it was a lucky option for Wardog to be able to utilise.
Ron is calculating, competitive and had just made a choice to keep Wardog over David partly based on trust. Thus, he made an excellent candidate for Wardog’s logical pitch: clear the board of the returnees while they still had the chance. The trouble was that Ron now found himself in a position where he would have to betray his closest ally Julie in order to make the move – and we all saw how things worked out for the last people to leave Julie out of the vote. Ron & Julie’s relationship seemed solid, but it was risky to fracture it at this point in the game, and it was for this very reason that I suspected Ron would back out of the plan and stick with the safe vote on Aurora for now. Particularly with the added complication of Aurora’s extra vote.
Ron and Aurora have been on the same beach the entire game, and we’ve seen that they have somewhat of a close relationship, but that subtext became text as Aurora sought to buy herself some favour by using the only currency she had: the extra vote gifted to her by Aubry. In an incredibly risky move, she gave the advantage to Ron as a sign of trust – hold it for one vote and give it back tomorrow. This kind of strategy has backfired before (were it not for fine print, Sarah Lacina almost lost her advantage to a wily Cirie Fields in Game Changers, and earlier that season, Sarah blindsided Sierra Dawn-Thomas to loot her Legacy Advantage), and Ron certainly saw the temptation.
Aurora was already in danger, and his ride-or-die Julie was voting with a comfortable majority against her. It would have been painfully simple to do nothing, let Aurora go, and emerge with an advantage in hand. But Ron saw the greater benefit in this – by keeping his word to Aurora, he would shore up another strong ally, and he needed whatever he could get. He might have had to burn Julie, but in making the move against Wentworth at this Tribal, he forged trust with Aurora and with Wardog, and that gives him more to work with in the weeks ahead.
Thus, Wardog and Ron feasted on a fresh blindside – but was it the right move for them all things considered? Eliminating a major threat like Kelley clears the board for the new players to run the game, but it also resets the board yet again. Wardog has had conflict with Lauren back on Lesu, and his betrayal of her here only gives her reason to break ties with him. It also serves to put him in the limelight, and as I noted last week, Wardog is at his best when he’s playing the game in the shadows. Once he’s in the spotlight and his scheming is out in the open, he ends up under the microscope – and there’s still a lot of game left to play.
I can’t help but feel like Wardog’s move was a vote or two early, but if he can avoid becoming the alpha of the pack, he might be able to survive. I’m a little more optimistic for Ron’s chances, having built up some goodwill from Wardog & Aurora, but like Wardog, Ron plays better when he’s not in the limelight and has the room to play stealthier. Ron could quickly become a significant target in the wake of his big move – particularly after abandoning an already unpredictable Julie. I think targeting Wentworth was a good move for the outsiders – and kudos to them for taking her out with an Idol in her pocket – but for the ringleader and the swing vote, it could now put an inescapable target on their backs, so they will need to play with a great deal of finesse in the coming votes.
But what of Kelley’s demise? Just as David’s story ended with a degree of irony, as he was taken down by his biggest adversary in Kelley weeks after he’d passed on the opportunity to get her first, so too did Kelley’s story reach its dramatic end. Wentworth’s claim to fame is undeniably her epic Idol plays in Cambodia, and particularly her record-setting #UnderdogWentworth defeat of alpha majority leader Ander Savage. It’s a strange reversal then that she goes out in this game as one of the figureheads of a new majority alliance, comfortable in easily picking off the underdog minority – and with an unplayed Idol in her pocket to boot. Much like Aubry before her, Kelley got snowed by new players eager to make daring plays and got too cosy in a perceived majority.
To her credit, Kelley was suspicious of how comfortable the vote could be, but having never truly played from a power position, the prospect of being a part of a simple majority decision was brand new territory (that conveniently provided excellent cover for Wardog and Ron to exploit). Yet it’s still disappointing to see a strong and intuitive player make a glaring blunder – and I’m not talking about the blindside or failing to play her Idol.
Rather, what I’m most surprised by was Kelley’s casual revelation in the blink-and-you-miss-it last seconds of the episode as she arrived at Extinction and told the residents of the Loser Lodge that her closest ally Lauren had an Idol. When you’re out of the game at Ponderosa, there’s no harm in telling all, but Extinction is still an annex to the active game, and there is the very real potential that knowledge of Lauren’s Idol – via Extinction – could have a dramatic impact when the final Extinction returnee re-enters the game.
Nevertheless, Kelley fought a tough game and once again proved she cannot be underestimated. But as she – and David – learned the hard way, these new players are not to be taken lightly either. They may not be playing expert games, but the blend of game knowledge and hunger for the blindside and the win is a combustible combination that’s already left a slew of unexpected casualties.
A NEW DAWN
So we’re down to the Final 8 (give or take eight Extinction residents!), and it’s a field of all-new players. For the first time in a mixed season, we’re down to the newbies, and that’s an exciting prospect. Even more exciting is how fractured the Vata tribe is. At this point, Devens has lost his David, the Lesu 3 is divided, and even Ron & Julie have reason to go their separate ways. It’s eight players with very few ties between them – only weeks of burned bridges, betrayals, and tenuous allegiances. It’s practically a new game, and if the last few weeks are anything to judge by, I’m expecting nothing less than a bloodbath.