This week’s double episode was jam-packed, rounding out Edge of Extinction’s pre-merge with a bang. Our first returnee met their fate. Idols and advantages were found – and not played. The castaways on the Edge began to see the game drifting their way after days of nothing. We revisited one of the more controversial twists in recent Survivor history. And as has become tradition, Lesu (mostly) kept losing and Kama kept winning.
It was an exciting rush from the sheer volume of content, but it felt as though we barely had a chance to absorb what we were seeing before we charged onto the next thing. Part of that is just the pacing and balancing act of three tribes, drama at Extinction and reward and immunity challenges (which still feels like production bit off more than the editors could chew), and part of that is just the wall of sound that these back-to-back episodes can be.
Individually, these episodes tell some pretty fascinating – if dour – stories. The first hour was a trainwreck in slow motion towards Aubry’s brutal and self-described embarrassing blindside. The second was a strategic cold war that resurrected the Joint Tribal Council with a semblance of intrigue beyond the chaos factor. Together, these two stories of clever, but largely subdued, gameplay were like two sides of the coin – one a prolonged vision of imminent doom, another an extended gamble on uncertainty. In the background of both, Kama and Extinction – more alike in their isolation than we might expect – began to face the reality of how to play the game when there’s not much game to play.
Aubry’s defeat at her first Tribal Council of the season somehow felt like both the inevitable end to her arc for this story while still being a shocking result. The whole narrative on Manu beach was the story of her fall, and the audience was privy to the entire oncoming disaster. In a rare storytelling choice, even the post-challenge, pre-Tribal scenes were solely from Aubry’s perspective. Like watching the heroes in the slasher flick split up to investigate that creepy sound, we watched helplessly in horror as Aubry walked straight into the trap set by Victoria, Eric and Gavin. So where did it go so wrong for a player who has proven their Survivor aptitude time and time again?
Always playing from behind, Aubry has seemed to perfect the art of manoeuvring the underbelly of the tribe dynamics in her past seasons, and she admitted that being in that underdog role was her favoured terrain. But it’s not as though she wasn’t playing from the bottom this season. She was acutely aware that she was on the outs in the original Kama tribe, fuelling her to find her Idol to protect herself. But by the time of episode five’s Tribal, she had been lulled into a false sense of security by an Idol (and a bonus Extra Vote advantage, gifted by Rick from beyond the veil of Extinction), a numerical advantage on her swap tribe, and an obvious boot choice in Wendy — not to mention the misplaced hope in a false alliance with Victoria. Heading into Tribal, Aubry rationalised that her overthinking personality left her concerned that she was in danger, but she had to have faith that things really could work out in her favour. Grim irony, indeed.
As the first player to go home with two active advantages in their pocket since the iconic James Clement, Aubry’s mistake is one that will linger in the Survivor consciousness for a long time. Why didn’t she play her Idol, just to be safe? It’s easy to see from the outside, but it bears thinking on Aubry’s circumstances within the game. She’s never had Idols and Advantages in her possession before, and to adapt her card game analogy, just because she had good cards in the draw, it doesn’t mean she’s got a winning hand. Advantages are fickle and circumstantial, and Aubry has always been a player who has thrived on building and manipulating social connections to strategic gain.
I would wager that if she hadn’t been offered the hope of a strategic ally in Victoria – the black cat to her witch – Aubry might have been more primed to see the writing on the wall and protected herself with her Idol. Instead, Halloween night became a bloodbath. She had been waiting for a social and strategic lifeline, and when one presented itself, it blinded her. Even the Extra Vote compounded it, as she realised someone else in the game was looking out for her. Finally, she had a social network… only it was ghosts and devils making contact.
It’s undeniable that Aubry got snowed, and as a big fan of her character and gameplay, it’s devastating to see her lose out – though perhaps coming back from the literal Edge of Extinction is a perfect story for someone who’s whole Survivor history has been the cycle of getting knocked down to get up again. But let’s not forget the stars of this move.
Eric, Gavin and Victoria pulled off an astounding piece of gameplay here. It’s not easy to fool a veteran – much less, a savvy player like Aubry – but they dominated this move. Smartly recognising that Wendy could be an asset for them (she was not a strategic threat, and she had no love for her old tribe), they saw Aubry as the biggest threat to remove now. Victoria proposed the brilliant plan to offer Aubry a girl’s alliance against the big guys, coming full circle on the conversations Aubry had had with her back on the original Kama beach, and the boys agreed (with Eric, notably, suggesting that they bring Wendy into the plan, thereby building trust with a potential ally).
Victoria then executed her play exquisitely, completely duping Aubry into believing that she and “Vic” had a budding partnership. It’s a cold-blooded play, but through this episode, Victoria came into her own as a ruthless and capable player, and it would not surprise me to see her succeed in the post-merge game. She’s out for herself, and she’s a stone-cold liar and a calculated strategist. So as disappointing as it is to see Aubry voted out, it’s thrilling to see these new players bring their A game and take the credit for one of the most calmly executed blindsides in recent memory.
SOLID AS A ROCK
If the move against Aubry was a tactical misdirection for the New Manu, then what lay ahead in the second hour of tonight’s episode was a hold-out gunfight. With Survivor bringing back the infamous Joint Tribal that once sealed the fate of fan favourite Malcolm, Manu and Lesu found themselves locked in opposition as they headed to Tribal to collectively vote one person out. At four tribemates apiece, there was almost certainly going to be a tied vote and a non-zero possibility that a rock draw could eventuate. Unable to strategise across beaches, each four came together to make a tactical strike in the hopes that whoever they targeted would be expendable enough to the other players on the opposing tribe.
For Manu, the advantage lay in information and reputation. With Wendy firmly locked in with the ex-Kamas thanks to her rough history with the now-Lesu tribe, and her adoption into the fold at Aubry’s elimination, she gave the tribe her best insight into the dynamics. She pitched that Lesu would not be a united tribe as demonstrated by their disloyalty to each other in the early days of the game and that David might be slippery enough to flip sides. This led to Manu’s strongest argument to pile their votes onto either Lauren or Wardog, relying on the belief that neither David or Kelley would risk a return attempt at Survivor on a game of chance. It was a solid rationale – and even though David had risked rocks before – few would be willing to take that big of a gamble, particularly so early in the game.
Meanwhile, Lesu saw a different tactic. Wardog concocted a plan to vote for Wendy, reasoning that if they were seen to be effectively voting for one of their own, the ex-Kama Manus would be far less likely to draw a rock on her behalf. It was a cunning ploy, but one that revealed the fault lines beneath the solid surface. Both tribes spouted platitudes of strength and unity and the commitment to go to rocks, but both sides had their detractors. While Eric and Gavin saw each other as valuable allies strong enough to gamble on a rock, Victoria maintained her perspective of playing for herself, and she had no desire to draw a rock if it came down to it.
For Lesu, on the other hand, the uncertainty of drawing a rock seemed more personal. Just one week after we saw the tribe despondent at the idea of breaking up their happy family by eliminating Rick, Lesu was beginning to crumble. Although David had been the obvious outsider, Wardog’s aggressive, controlling approach to the game was rising to the surface. In early weeks, I’d praised his subtler influence of the vote, but now he was outright barking orders. In the first hour, he approached Kelley about throwing Lauren under the bus due to her struggling to eat and her growing pessimism, pitching Lauren as a wedge that would keep he and Wentworth from truly being able to trust each other.
Kelley was vaguely amenable to the possibility as a “back-up back-up plan,” but as Wardog pitched the idea to David, it led to an unlikely reconciliation between the two returnees. Kelley and David bonded over the commiseration in light of Wardog’s demanding bluster and flip-flopping Vlachos-esque strategic play, not to mention his poor performance in the physical challenges and his disinterest in helping out in camp.
Thus with Wardog controlling the plan for the Joint Tribal and then disappearing into the jungle to search for an Idol, David, Kelley and Lauren seemed to reach a breaking point of frustration with him. They pursued him into the wilderness where Kelley’s keen eyes beat Wardog to the punch as she snagged her third career Idol. But later, as Kelley & Lauren traded intel (Lauren revealing her own Idol to Kelley), the topic of rocks reared its head again as Lauren bluntly stated that she wouldn’t go to rocks for Wardog – a sentiment shared reciprocally by Wardog, who still viewed Lauren as a liability. Odds are, if this had been a normal Lesu Tribal, Wardog might have been the one put down, but with no way of accomplishing that and with the women understandably hoping to keep their Idols in their pockets, it seemed that the tactic of shooting the sitting duck (or, perhaps, chicken) in Wendy would be their safest bet.
Thus, Tribal began its coy dance. It was largely the expected theatre, with both tribes fronting an unbreakable unity while trying to suss out any cracks in the opposition. But there was little of the mad, whispered huddles that created the drama in the twist’s first iteration. It was business as usual, aside from a sidebar between David and Wendy, where Wendy seemed to pitch a safe spot for him if he flipped, and David presumably followed through on the plan to try to throw Wendy’s vote at a random target to make a clean 4-3-1 vote.
Yet still as the march to the voting booth began, I had no clue what was about to play out. In hindsight, everyone stuck to their plans, but in the moment, the editors managed to build the sense to keep the audience on their toes. Was it as simple as it seemed? We’d just seen Aubry blindsided when she thought everything was by the book – were the editors about to pull the same trick on us? With two Idols in the mix and a palpable sense of unease towards the prospect of rocks, it honestly felt like everything was fair game.
When the votes came through tied 4-4 between Wendy and Lauren, that was when the whispering started. In the first time (that I can recall), discussion arose between the vote and the re-vote as Lauren crossed the aisle to talk to Gavin, opening the door for a free-for-all as each side made their pitch. In the end, though, it was easiest to take out the outlier, and Lesu’s strategy beat out Manu’s gamble, with Wendy being unanimously voted out at the revote.
Taking it in stride and with a hug, Big Wendy saw her torch snuffed to applause – a welcome moment of relief after a tense Tribal – and headed down the path to Extinction, barely even pausing before making her choice to stay in the game. Big Wendy was a big character who was playing Survivor in her own unique way, and it’s sad to see her go after surviving so many close calls, but who knows, maybe she’ll be back from the grave to wreak havoc once again.
So with the vote played out, it’s clear that Lesu’s strategy was a successful one, and it had the added benefit of bringing Lesu and Manu together on the same page – which could be useful come the merge when they could unite against the unstoppable Kama. But what of the twist itself? While I’m still not completely sold on it as a mainstay of Survivor’s roster, this iteration showed a different side of it.
The tribes approached the twist with tactical cohesion, and it became one of those games where everybody chooses which card to play before revealing them together. It offered an opportunity for a different kind of strategic gameplay, and even though it still resulted in losing one of the season’s prominent characters, it didn’t feel like the same kind of egregious violation that it did in Game Changers. Maybe it’s because it happened later in the season, right before the merge. Perhaps it’s just because of the players themselves and the unique circumstances of this particular vote: two tribes with four a-piece, returnees on one side and a lone wolf on the other.
But it succeeded in creating great drama (even if little manufactured by a game mechanic). It won’t always work (if Kama had lost tonight, they could have simply used their 5-4 numerical majority to make the vote a predetermined snoozer), but there was a little bit of redemption for the Joint Tribal twist tonight. Who knows what it might do in the future should it return from the Edge of Extinction once more?
LIVING ON THE EDGE
For Manu and Lesu, this episode marked some significant steps forward in the strategic game. But for the other “two” tribes on the season, what game is there to play? In an unexpected parallel, the Kama tribe seem to have more in common with the outcasts on Extinction than any of the other players in the game. Both groups are stuck in a purgatory of sorts, unable to finagle a strategic game into a reality and left to scrounge for a modicum of control in the group. But for the first time this season, the game was starting to hit these beaches.
For Kama, it was long overdue to see scheming truly come to the fore. Ron and Julia’s search of Joe’s bag last week was an aggressive play, but this week we saw much more of what was going down. Joe, unsurprisingly, was still on the outs, and Julie and Julia were considering whether it was time to make their move. Although throwing a challenge was never discussed, there was a sense of urgency to their consideration of taking Joe out now – pointedly before the merge.
Truthfully, it’s a not a terrible idea. Joe has one of the best challenge records in Survivor history – he’s tied third for overall Individual Immunity wins (behind only Boston Rob and Ozzy), and this week he made history as the first player to survive the entire pre-merge without going to Tribal on two separate seasons. While that can make him an easy target if he loses a challenge, there’s no guarantee of that after the merge, so if it’s possible, strike while you can?
Joe, on the other hand, is in a pretty dangerous spot. Much like Aubry, he’s never found security in this season, but he’s starting to make some. Rather than trying to throw the monkey off his back and pretend he’s not a threat, he realised he had to embrace it. Leaning into the provider role, he was able to impress even Ron with his survival acumen, leading the educator to question if removing him from the equation was the right call. But more effectively, Joe made a strategic play, approaching Julia and singing her praises: “beautiful, smart, med student, you know the game, and you’re a killer in challenges.”
Julia seemed taken aback, but Joe leaned into the argument – everyone knew he was a threat, but at this point, Julia was a threat too and come the merge, they’d all need each other to survive. For a player who’s not exactly renown for his strategic gameplay, this was a great move by Joe while still totally in keeping with his character as a positive supporter for his tribe. While I’m not sure if it will be effective in the long run (even this episode, there were strands of resentment towards Kama from the losing tribes, and particularly Lesu), it’s nice to see another side of Joe’s game.
On Extinction, the notion of the game was a lot more nebulous. With no timeline – or any real guidance – it was just a simmering pot. As more people arrived, the perpetual waiting seemed to stoke the fire of frustration, boredom and resentment, leading to overblown conflicts like Reem’s blow-up against Chris later in the episode.
But the Survivor Gods were starting to throw some seeds to the starving with a series of map riddles. Rick was quick to solve the puzzles, recognising that folding portions of the map or lining up the holes in the second map revealed locations of interest. With the maps addressed individually, it seemed like the producers probably intended these clues to be read or used separately, but as Rick revealed the cypher to everyone, the group agreed to investigate together. Well, except for Keith, with his mind in the game, who saw an opportunity to get away ahead of the posse and reach the locations by himself.
Keith’s headstart for the first clues were foiled as Chris, Reem and Rick caught on to his disappearance quickly and it became a scramble for the two ‘advantages’ hidden at the top of the island. The aforementioned Extra Vote claimed by Rick (to be secretly willed to an active player heading to Tribal) and a bundle of sticks and twine found by Chris after tackling Keith out of the way. The sticks came with an instruction to practice and a hint that re-entry in the game would likely involve a challenge, and the suggestion that it would be the classic Jail Break.
After Aubry’s arrival, another treasure hunt ensued, where Rick just missed out on the prize as Reem spotted it in the shallows, only for Keith to swipe it from under her grasp – a challenge disadvantage that he could apply to his “biggest threat” come the return challenge.
I’m in two minds about these advantages. On the one hand, giving the players on Extinction a reminder that the game is still going on is a nice incentive to stay focused on the task at hand. I can also imagine that it was intended to stoke the kind of conflict that exploded from Reem and Chris as the players realise that these clues could lead to individual advantages for their opportunity to get back into the game. On the other hand, it spoils the sense of dull isolation that’s helped to keep Extinction interesting in previous weeks. When new information is arriving every few days, it makes the bleak endurance more bearable and reduces the temptation to raise that white sail. It gives the survivors on Extinction a vague sense of hope – which does seem a little antithetical to the concept.
Nevertheless, it was a fun diversion and one that mixes up the expectations of the players stranded at the Edge, forcing them to play. The Extra Vote gave Rick the opportunity to potentially build an ally should he (or perhaps any of the players on the Edge, if the choice was a united one) return to the game. I’ve been enjoying the use of willed advantages in recent seasons – it’s a mechanic that can be fun, and in this case, it works well by not robbing Rick of anything as the Vote he finds is no use to him now anyway.
The Challenge Disadvantage is a fun and interesting concept too, and I’m surprised it’s taken us 38 seasons to see this kind of thing. It’s less powerful than a challenge advantage and requires some strategy to use effectively, by selecting a target to handicap. Chris’ ‘advantage’ on the other hand, seems a little weak, and perhaps shouldn’t be viewed as an advantage at all, but rather an oblique hint of what’s to come. Still, if he had found it without anyone else knowing, it could have been a useful piece of knowledge.
WHAT GOES AROUND
After a marathon double episode, we’re poised for the mid-season climax. With the merge impending, the tribal dynamics of Kama, Manu and Lesu suggest an interesting confluence. Old Kama could reunite and pick off the dwindling Lesus, but could New Manu and Old-Manu-Now-Lesu come together after their Joint Tribal? Or will the parties fracture – could Kelley & Lauren strike against Wardog, or Julie, Julia & Ron against Joe, or could Victoria make another play for her own self-interest?
And that’s not to mention the spanner in the works, as an outcast finally returns from the Edge… of Extinction…