After last week's series of events left the rest of Australian Survivor: All-Stars firmly up in the air, this week brought things promptly back to the ground. While the potential of a rock draw led to possibly the most live Tribal Council in Survivor AU history, the subsequent two episodes carried through the motions, with a few questionable production decisions serving as a last hint of seasoning on our tongues going into the rest of the week.
That being said, I want to compliment these past several episodes' editing on being a noticeable step up. As we get to the pointy end of the game, we've been hearing the insights of the people most likely to fill out those final spots, namely Sharn. The David content was minimized, and even his big decisions had perspectives from other players to see how they reflected on his friends and enemies. The show also paid tribute to Shonee and AK, a fan favorite and a superfan respectively, dedicating time to how much their presence helped lift the season. Though the postmerge has been a bit up and down, it's taken a dramatic uptick in the storytelling since the dark days of the merge week.
Rock 'em Vakama
The rock draw stand-off that led to Sharn's big bluff made me realize a foundation-shaking truth about Survivor: Rock draws are exciting in the short term, but horrible in the long term.
Though the history of rock draws can fit on an index card, it feels like it leads to a rather rote pick-off after the initial thrill. In Blood vs. Water, the veterans took out Hayden and Ciera easily after Katie took her big goofy glasses to Redemption Island. As insane as a deadlock tie at the Final 10 was in Millennials vs. Gen X, upon closer examination, David's alliance was able to wipe out the victors of the rock draw consecutively. And here, though there were no stones pulled out of a bag, it looks like the only chance of a Vakama alliance member making the finals comes with Brooke winning out.
The more you think about this, the more it makes sense. Alliance-wise, those who participate in a rock draw show their coalition that they would physically put their own game on the line to protect them. It's extremely hard to distrust someone after that, considering how self-sacrificial that is. Plus, it provides the opportunity to create an easy "us vs. them" grouping, which helps create a rally around the tribe flag effect.
Let's get into Sharn's impromptu deal with the Vakamas to avoid a rock draw. I fundamentally believe all moves in Survivor could be divided into two camps: Moves to get you further in the game, and moves to help you win. Sharn misting the other alliance certainly got her another day in the game, making sure she didn't have a 25% chance of going to the jury via random draw. But I think it absolutely tanked any chance she had at winning. Not only did she make a promise to three potential jurors and swear up and down she would keep it, but she also did so in front of the jury at Tribal Council! I know that they've been trying to build up the mentality in All-Stars of honoring big gameplay. But I'm not sure how much a jury of five Vakamas would appreciate her spurning their alliance at the moment.
I really need to give it up to David this episode. While he hit a stumbling block, he recovered properly, even giving a "revenge" storyline to satiate the producers. While everyone back at camp questioned his choice in who to bring on the reward, he further dug a line in the sand to make sure there was no chance they would let Jacqui back into their alliance. Having already lost her, David's concern was not about getting her back, but rather stopping the bleeding of allies. That meant making Sharn feel protected and part of the inner circle, unaware his endgame plan doesn't involve her whatsoever.
I think low-key the best move of this episode was David playing the idol on Tarzan. First, much like Jeremy in Cambodia, he has the advantage of another idol in the wings, so this advantage is pocket change to him. Second, it brings Tarzan even closer to him, a relationship that has become even more important since last week. Third, I'm assuming Sharn told her alliance about the Vakamas pitching her on flipping to vote out Moana. Knowing the numbers, David is able to keep his tightest allies safe, aware that Mo would become immune in a deadlock. Not only does he know Sharn would never vote out her close friend from outside the game, but this also gives an opportunity to hold her feet to the fire and sink her game in the process.
The final part of this Tribal Council equation are the Vakamas. Though their decision was ultimately disappointing in setting up their own execution, there was logic in it. Spurning Jacqui was the only way all three of them were guaranteed to see the next day; otherwise, they only had a 25% chance of that happening. While Jacqui seemed to trust them, they abided by the policy of "last in, first out." And maybe Sharn's willingness to make a deal with them so easily would be a crack to further expose the majority. Who knows, maybe some twist would be thrown in again to save the trio when they're at their lowest low (but more on that later…).
At any rate, I don't begrudge their decision too much, even if it did look bad in hindsight. In not pursuing a rock draw, they saw possible options to get through. It just happened to be that those options didn't work out. The only real qualm I have from this Tribal Council is that I wish we would have seen Jacqui pitch for herself. You have to assume she did when Sharn was attempting to flip the Vakamas, considering her life in the game was on the line. Especially at the idea of having to go see Zach at Ponderosa.
The middle episode this week was a come-down from the emotional heights of the previous night. Both alliances were gloating to themselves and the camera about what they were able to pull off, and how Sharn was absolutely, positively voting with them. And then, of course, one group was left disappointed. Very disappointed. Like, "Shonee shooting daggers at her and Locky preparing for his Bachelor season by shaking his head emotionally" disappointed.
The fanbase shared that disappointment as David was spared and Shonee was spurned. As AK outlined, this seemed to be the perfect moment to dethrone the Golden God. Though the AU endgame is purer than the US in terms of twists, David could be safe until the Final 4 via idols (which he currently is), then win out until the end. With him missing jewelry to flaunt in confessionals, and under the guise that Sharn would be voting for him, it would be the best time to get him out.
The Vakamas didn't know, unfortunately, a couple of things. First, the existence of David's second idol, which he decides to show to his alliance this episode. I thought it was the perfect time to do so. Not only has the idea of a rock draw united them, but he can also set their allegiance in stone by implying that he's untouchable at the moment, even if they did decide to turn on him. He also has an easy out by saying he found it this morning since everyone is assuming he'd be out looking for one after he used one the night before.
The other piece of crucial information that we didn't even know until the last moments of the episode: Sharn wants to use David as a shield. It's an ... interesting line of logic. It's clear that Sharn is worried about becoming the biggest endgame threat since she's the only player left who has gotten even close to a Final Tribal Council in their original season. Though that was ultimately a losing performance, the others would prefer to be on even playing ground experientially. Keeping David close would allow him to take all the hits from the others, while she's able to slip into the finals undetected.
The issue, though, is that the shield needs to be ditched before the final battle. And looking at David's connections, I don't know if that's possible. I'm not sure how aware Sharn is of the connection between Tarzan and David, or Moana's plan to excise all of his connections from the game to leave her as his only option. But that means, if David is vulnerable, there's a sizable chance that he would not be the one going over Sharn. Throw in my aforementioned musings on him possibly getting to the end via idols and immunity, and that's trouble for Sharn. There's a nonzero chance she could be facing a Laurel situation, unable to get rid of her shield before the finals, sitting next to him in the end, and receiving ire from the jury for not cutting him loose.
Finally, let's send off Shonee, undoubtedly one of the brightest spots in All-Stars. Her confessionals were always a source of fun, shade, and luxury, and served as an oasis for those suffering from David fatigue. Being caught on the backfoot so early on had her playing a different game, finding and playing an idol correctly. Perhaps most importantly, Shonee has become a representative of the most crucial component in Survivor: the social game. Though it seemed repetitive to hear it over and over again, she has been one of the only players I can remember who has been able to vocalize how to weaponize likability. It's such a big part of the day-to-day out there, and Shonee has shown that in her two runs on Survivor AU.
Sure, trial by fire, why the hell not
The majority of Wednesday's episode felt like a smaller sequel to the incredible yet brutal Luke vote out from season 4. After Brooke won immunity, AK had a breakdown on the mat, knowing what we did back at home: He was screwed. Though they didn't show the results of his idol hunt, I had a feeling he didn't have one since there was no find on our screen. We're a far cry from AK finding an idol off-screen in season 2; if he actually did have one, the show would have absolutely let us know.
AK does get to go out in a blaze of glory, though, even if someone else's glory blazes higher than his. As everyone both in Tribal Council and at home groans when JLP says, "Tonight, things are going to be a little different" for the umpteenth time, we find out that if anybody feels vulnerable, they can throw themselves into a fire-making competition to remain in the game. If they lose, they go to the jury for good. If they win, they get to re-enter the game and business proceeds as usual. On top of that, whoever the challenger duels is completely safe, putting the fate of their game in one person's hands and flint.
Let me start by saying up front: I do not think this challenge was introduced to save AK. You can say a lot of things about how weird Survivor AU's production team is, but I do not think they would go so far as to say, "Wow, we're really going to lose AK. Let's introduce a challenge that he's good at to keep him in the game." I do, however, agree with Shannon Guss that this challenge was meant to create a Final 3. Had AK prevailed, with only three episodes left, the only way to get to a Final 2 would be to eliminate two people in the finale, which is unusual for AU. I would go so far as to say this is what we could have seen if Lee didn't have to leave the game. A Final 3 would produce nine jurors, making the chance of a tie that much smaller.
That being said, like the Shonee/Zach Exile twist, and Harry's non-elimination advantage, and the other Exile twist, Survivor AU is really not doing itself any favors with how they place and introduce these twists. Though the show has been surprisingly stingy on idols and advantages this season, they've been much more liberal with cycling in twists to make every vote feel like a different game. I'm sure nearly all of this was planned out, with the exception of Lee's departure shifting the mechanics of the Exile twist. But from an outside perspective, it screams of the timing being just a little too convenient.
Let me also say, Final 6 is way too late for this type of twist. Yes, we now have the Final 4 fire-making round in the US, which I am fundamentally against as well. I have prided Survivor AU on having a pure end game its previous four seasons, which has the ability to still pull out surprises and incredible stories. Twists like this muddy the waters, and feels unnecessary as people are looking to make moves in the final stages anyway. Add on top of that, had AK survived, this late in the game, there was little to no chance that he would make it out of the Final 6 again. So it would have served as a way to delay the inevitable, which was a sticking point for fans with the Exile and Dead Man Walking twists the previous two seasons.
The biggest piece of strategy coming from this episode was Brooke's decision to suggest Moana face off against AK in the challenge. At the outset, it's a questionable move. When given the opportunity to go to rocks without a unanimous decision, she could very easily stonewall the alliance to force a random draw. She then has a 20% chance of getting in, which she can easily throw to AK to get him back in the game. But let me ask: Does Brooke want AK to come back into the game?
It's weird to say, I know. But Brooke and AK both know their path to the end has to be through immunity wins and idol finds. Brooke has already claimed three victories (four if you count the Exile challenges), which has got her guaranteed Final 5. If AK returns and resets back to six, that means she has to win an additional challenge, which reduces the chance of her making it to the end. Heck, there's good odds she loses the next Immunity Challenge, which actually has her finishing lower than AK. I'm unsure as to if Brooke actually used this line of logic when picking Moana. Maybe she just thought her fire-making skills were the worst out of her alliance (despite watching her win a fire-making challenge just days ago). But if self-preservation is the name of the game, it would make sense for Brooke to ditch her accountant.
Though AK had a fairly low-key presence on All-Stars compared to others, his exit made my heart swell with emotion. He and Phoebe were two players I was so excited to see come back this season, a duo of crafty players who worked their way out of tight spots, only to get screwed over by a twist mere seconds from the merge. This time, AK was given the runway to play, and as a result, created an extremely solid game. His boot episode showed how much he counted his blessings to be out there every day, cherishing an experience he was robbed of long ago. Plus, I will always highlight a guy who sings Andy Grammar on his walk out and quotes Sideshow Bob.
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