As we start to round the bend on this All-Star horse race, these past three episodes of Survivor AU produced a mixed result. We disposed of two people who would have probably been #1 and 2 on the Family Feud board for "Who will be the next voted out?" going into this week, though their boots were dressed up by amusing and intriguing antics. And the third episode brought the advent of a game changing twist, while simultaneously capitalizing on a storyline that finally poked its head up after hibernating since preseason marketing.
Speaking of marketing, can I just take a quick second to throw my hands up frustratingly at this show's social media again? Really? You're going to spend the weekend telling us only one of five people will go home next episode? Really?! I know there's been talk of Survivor AU editing for the casual audience, but now they're making commercials for them as well. Though at least we now know who was behind that "Coming up on Survivor" preview that spoiled who lost the Immunity Challenge in the season 39 premiere…
Cake by the ocean
Episode 10 was far and away the most benign episode of the season, though I don't begrudge it. Storytelling has its natural peaks and valleys, allowing you to appreciate the more bombastic moments when they come. Hell, even Pearl Islands had the Ryan O. boot episode. My only qualm is that I wish this episode had switched runtimes with the 55-minute episode 12, since it could have benefited from a brisker pace.
The highlight of this episode was far and away Mokuta's trip to the cake shop. After the success of Benji's half-eaten nachos, David turning feral with the popcorn, and the creation of the *cries and eats ice cream* GIF, Survivor AU has made a meal out of contestants going straight Double Dare in the hunt for advantages. This time around, the shenanigans have turned sweet, and a team effort from Phoebe, Nick, and a return appearance from David may have made this the best one yet.
After Phoebe does the ultimate practicing for her wedding in cutting open about a dozen cakes, it turns out that the clue is printed on a cake tray. Having seen this originate during the infamous spaghetti lunch in Heroes v. Healers v. Hustlers, I think printing a clue on the tray is the way to go. It's the least conspicuous thing to hide to avoid the people going after you from finding the same prize. I loved Phoebe's quick thinking here in disguising it like a piece of set dressing. And it was helped when David went straight-up "Hide and Go Veto" and started tipping crates, obscuring it further.
That comparison makes me realize, David would be an extremely interesting crossover into Big Brother. He's charming as all get-out, can win competitions, and would be a ham in the Diary Room. But he may get the biggest case of HoHitis in the universe. With Big Brother AU coming back with American rules, maybe this gives David a chance to become the next Australian all-around reality star.
I suppose I should talk about Mat here as well, whose game was as colorful and messy as the frosting all over Nick's pants (don't ask). I think in removing David and Moana from the tribe, new Vakama has proven themselves to be a pretty straightforward and cohesive group, so this result came as no surprise at all. As much as the online fandom may have disliked the boring outcome, often times the best moves are the least entertaining ones.
I've been going back and forth the past few days about whether I felt Mat's demise truly came from the swap. I think in retrospect, the butterfly effect comes from his decision to flaunt the idol in front of Locky. Though certainly a fun way to rile up the big guy, it was not a good move socially, and drew the line in the sand even deeper. Though Mat was brought in to take out the former athletes after the swap, it seemed like anyone who wanted to work with Locky essentially meant they couldn't work with Mat. Though losing all of his allies stripped him of safety, and he played his idol at the right time, I wonder if trying to set something up with someone like AK or Flick immediately after the swap could have led to a different outcome.
Adding insult to idolatry
Episode 11 sadly saw Phoebe's second elimination in four episodes, which makes the fire-making from last week pretty inconsequential. I think in retrospect, it may have been better for Phoebe's legacy and well-being if she actually had been voted out at the double Tribal Council rather than saved and spurned again. Because while her first vote-out was like ripping off a Band-Aid, her second was a slow-motion car crash into a factory of knives.
My colleague Mario Lanza has always said that characters like Boston Rob and Stephenie are immensely fun to watch on the bottom, and painful to watch on top. Though I still think David is an entertaining character through and through, his behavior in this episode has understandably earned a lot of flack from the online community. Phoebe did help grease his ego when she helped lead him to a second idol, and I think he put on a great job of acting like he was with her up until the vote. David is doing what you should optimally do as a comic character on Survivor: Be your charming self at camp, then shit-talk them in confessional.
I think the editing is partly to blame for the pushback on this episode. Having David gloat about stringing Phoebe along, and giving a look to the camera as he lies about not being able to find the idol is fun once or twice. By the seventh or eighth time, I think we've got the point. David being the main narrator behind this also obscures another key notion: David himself is being strung along by Moana. If we had seen some parallel David/Moana scenes replace the umpteenth "David tricks Phoebe" scene, you have a really fun piece of storytelling that hasn't really been seen before.
Moana cannot escape this without some blame too. Things turned surprisingly personal at Tribal Council, as Phoebe wasn't willing to go out again without taking as many swipes at her executioner as she could. I do think Moana was truthful in saying that her targeting of Phoebe was not personal in the slightest. But her quiet, dry, and blunt way of speaking makes her seem uncaring, dismissive, and smug. I think it's going to be tough for her to downplay being the new leader of her alliance, especially if the Rascals and former Vakama majority come together at the merge. But she's in a great position now. As mad as she wants to be about Mat being voted out, the elimination of David's closest ally just brings him closer to her. And as she herself said, he's someone to have as a weapon rather than something to work around.
The other big player in this vote was Sharn. This episode finally brought the barrister into the spotlight, showcasing how she's been expertly playing the swing voter at nearly every vote so far. That has to be tough to do, especially with the reputation of only losing the game by one vote. Here she was torn between her real-life friend in Moana and her game friends in Lee and Nick. So, true to the last reward, she tried to have her cake and eat it too!
In the moment, it was not a smooth transition to tie the vote, then change on the re-vote. Mainly because David called her out in confessional. But in Survivor, the best moves sometimes become so when incorporating the aftermath; Natalie "accidentally" voting for Alec in San Jan Del Sur comes to mind. And I think she was able to relatively recover here. Moana doesn't care a lick because they're friends outside the game, and she can still claim to the former Mokutas that she only flipped because she knew the numbers were against Phoebe on the re-vote.
It was also a very advantage-heavy Tribal Council, both played and unplayed. I'm still not entirely sure what David was doing here by pulling out one of his idols. I suppose now that he has pocket change in an additional idol, he's not afraid to expend one, similar to Jeremy in Cambodia. But it feels unnecessary to now confirm to everybody you have an idol, especially when you're not a target to begin with. I could see a scenario where the tribe could attempt a split like they did with John and Mat, forcing David to either play the idol or go home with it in his pocket. We also saw Nick use his Extra Vote, which ultimately gave Phoebe a glimpse of a fighting chance. Though ultimately wasted, it did provide a great moment of everyone trying to do simple math after 24 days of starvation to figure out what happened.
Phoebe's Final Words shattered my heart to finish off a pretty painful episode. Considering how persuasiveness is a key part of her game, to have her sit there so defeated and speechless really hit hard. I don't think we've seen that much heartbreak from an eliminated contestant since Cirie in Micronesia. Having the opportunity to talk with contestants over the years, the saddest part to me has always been superfans who fall out of love with the show due to their experiences on the beach. Considering Phoebe's love of the game, and rumors of her possibly being bullied this season, I hope that wasn't the case here.
Hold up, Harry
The sad times continued in Episode 12, as Vakama mourned having to break up the alliance of six. This has been seen a handful of times previously, from Sook Jai in Thailand up to Lesu in Edge of Extinction. But I'm always a fan of these moments. As Survivor has turned to become more game-focused, we sometimes forget that there is a beach family being built out there. We really saw it here with Vakama, and it made them having to turn on one another all that more meaningful.
It's an easy narrative to say that Brooke wanted Flick out as revenge for what happened in season 1. But I do think there's sound reasoning behind it. As I talked about in the preseason, Flick proved with her previous time out that she is willing to flip on a whim, especially when she feels she's at the bottom. Considering the argument Mat made directly to her, there's a non-zero chance she could be looking to flip again at the opportunity.
From Harry's accounting scene with AK, we know that Vakama plans to unite with Nick and some possible other Mokuta members come merge into a supermajority. If a Rascal goes here in Harry, that sends a message to the Mokutas that they would be at the bottom should they work together. Seeing Phoebe go may have also substantiated to them that they need this coalition to work, hence the sacrifice of Flick.
That's why, to me, the narrative of AK being the swing vote ultimately rang hollow. From AK's perspective, getting rid of Flick here is the optimal move. He's now the swing between two pairs with tight relationships on both sides, making him basically guaranteed to make it to merge. And Flick was the most likely person to fill that position besides him. The audible he called while Harry was mid-walk to JLP with his advantage was absolutely crazy, but a key move for him. He's able to simultaneously put Harry in his debt for not wasting his advantage, and draw a bigger target on Harry for having an advantage to begin with. Though Benji may be missing this season, between scarfing down cake and convincing tribe members to play or not play advantages in the moment, he's certainly here in spirit.
On that note, let's talk about Harry's advantage. It forces a non-elimination episode, ending a Tribal Council at any point in time and sending everyone back to camp. And five seasons in, I think Survivor AU found the perfect way to do a non-elimination episode! It doesn't involve some sort of weird mechanic that dupes all the players. It's based on my favorite component of any good twist: choice. And it can be used strategically, as Harry could (and probably will) use the opportunity to cause a lot of chaos and then call a mulligan. Honestly, if they threw two of these in every season, one premerge and one postmerge, and called it a day, I wouldn't be mad.
Mike Bloom is a television writer, podcaster, and Survivor obsessive. His work around the show can be read at Parade, where he provides exit press and other exclusive nuggets. He can be heard talking way too much about domestic and international Survivor weekly on Rob Has a Podcast, as well as the long-running Survivor Historians podcast. Mike also covers other island-based shenanigans with his LOST rewatch podcast “Down the Hatch” on Post Show Recaps. He feels BrantSteeles are a good way to keep the blood pumping. Banter with him on twitter: @AMikeBloomType