In the end, it was two Brains facing off for the final time in SurvivorAU: Brains v Brawn, with Hayley and George vying to win the season's crown. (Insert various royal titles and election metaphors, even though voting isn't generally associated with monarchy.) In a season filled with superfluous twists and non-eliminations, it was perhaps fitting that the final choice came down to someone who had been voted out once vs. someone who had whisked half his tribe away from Tribal Council before the first vote. Despite that, it was still a highly satisfying conclusion.
This face-off came after an extremely long endurance challenge (5 hours, 17 minutes) in what looked like medieval torture chambers, where Hayley outlasted Flick (and George, who made it to 4.5 hours). It was a challenge held in front of loved ones, which had to carry an additional emotional burden for Flick, seeing her partner and best friend for the first time since receiving the news of her mother's death. Generally, the presence of loved ones at the final challenge has been a welcome staple in SurvivorAU final challenges. This one, though, felt a bit unfair.
As everyone including Flick expected, Flick's inability to win the final immunity resulted in her joining the jury. She handled it well, and then it was off to Day 48 breakfasting and reflecting for the final two. Final Tribal started off with strong speeches from both finalists, but the real meat was in the jury questions, where Hayley calmly explained her game, while George the political operative mostly evaded answering questions, pivoting instead to touting his accomplishments at almost every opportunity. (At least in the edited version.)
In the final vote, Hayley won by a landslide, 7-2. In all likelihood, few minds were changed at Final Tribal Council. One of the people who said their vote was up for grabs was Laura, and she voted for George, so .
Hayley's balanced win
As she reminded the jury, Hayley played a strong game in all three areas. She was physically competitive, with 5 individual immunity wins (counting the hill marathon, where she finished second but was still immune). She was socially adept, being in good enough graces with most of the players that they still wanted to work with her, even when she was clearly playing both sides. Most of all, though, she was a strategic powerhouse.
What's most impressive about Hayley's game this season is the sheer innovation of her strategic moves. She took an idol that everyone already knew she had, and leveraged it to break apart a 5-person Brawn majority, and giving the 4 ex-Brains the power. She used simple logic to change what looked like an easy 3-1 vote against her to a 2-1-1 vote where she was in the majority. A lot of superfans come in and try to replicate the games of their past favorites. Hayley created an archetype all her own.
Her one flaw, of course, was that she was voted out once (unanimously, even). But it's important to remember that this came right after one of Survivor AU's most pointless, unfair non-elimination twist fake-outs ever, where Jonathan LaPaglia announced that there would be three immunity winners, and only they would "have the chance" to vote. Everyone assumed that meant the three would be the only voters, and with two Brawn and one Brain, the outnumbered Brains would be targeted, and Hayley had just pulled off a big idol play to take out the Brawns' beloved Kez, so things looked grim. But it turned out that wasn't quite the case, and there was ultimately only one voter, Dani, to whom Hayley had exposed George as a double agent. Hayley's desperate scrambling would have been completely unnecessary with full disclosure of the twist. But it wasn't, she went too far, and she was voted out the next round. As Hayley herself pointed out, at this low point, she fought her way back into the game, acknowledged her error in judgment to her former allies, then picked right back up playing hard, really leaning into her physical game.
(In contrast, George *would have been* voted out once, had Cara not intentionally sacrificed her own game to continue his, idoling herself out by playing her idol for George. Then another non-elimination twist saved Cara. On the one hand, George's strong social bond with Cara led to her decision. On the other, they were both targets on this split vote because of that same, obvious bond. George did go on an impressive run of not being voted out after that, though.)
Hayley was also highly aware of her strengths and limitations, and her place within the game. At Redemption Rock, she realized how colossally she'd ruined her relationships with the Brains when she'd revealed George as the double agent. Perhaps the best demonstration of her self-awareness was her admission at Final Tribal that she'd gone with George, Cara, and Wai instead of Emmett, Dani, and Flick because she knew she would have the physical edge over her Brains alliance-mates, and that gave her a clear path to the end. She knew her game, she explained her actions, and she owned them as necessary.
Final Tribal was perhaps her greatest achievement: Hayley sold her game perfectly to the jury. She knew there were a lot of Brawn-leaning people there, so she emphasized the ways in which her physicality contrasted with George (who gave up during two reward challenges, which she knew had irritated Dani). She pandered to the Brawns without explicitly doing so — by playing up the season's theme, and how, of the two people in front of them, her game best fit both halves of the title. All in all, a brilliant closing maneuver, and that showed in the lopsided 7-2 vote, in which every original Brawn voted for her.
Hayley played one of the most creative, balanced, original games in recent Survivor history. Not just Survivor AU, all of Survivor. Her Final Tribal performance ranks up with some of the best ever — yes, even Todd Herzog's — especially considering that George's initial pitch was so impressive that he elicited a "Wow!" from JLP. Even if the editors didn't support George's overall case particularly well (more on that below), Hayley overcame an opponent that many of the jurors regarded as a brilliant strategist. It was an all-around impressive win, and one that was clearly well-earned.
King George, guillotined by the edit
One of the strangest aspects of this season is that despite showering endless confessional airtime on George, the editors somehow almost completely avoided showing what his competitors acknowledged as his greatest strength: His strategic chops.
Flick said at her last Tribal Council that George's
strategy had been incredible. Hayley said much the same. In
her exit interviews, Cara talked about how George would just
constantly talk strategy to her in camp, for days on end,
coming up with plan after plan after plan.
So where was this footage, even a little bit of it, this season? The closest we were shown to George being strategic was in the first few post-merge votes, where he was playing double agent between the Brawn and Brains alliances, and at final five, where he and Hayley agreed the best chance for each of them was to take the other to the final two. Apart from that, it was an endless stream of George confessionals bragging about his strategic game, without ever taking the time to show any of the actual evidence. Even if the editors were under some directive to make George seem like a harmless blowhard, how hard would it have been to have just one four-minute montage that was exclusively George going over an endless series of shifting plans with Cara? That at least could have been played up for humor purposes.
But no. Instead of George talking strategy with Cara, we usually saw him saying something about kings, queens, and duchesses, or how he's a political operative, or cockroaches, or Bankstown. Instead of George and Cara scheming, she's offering to wash his underwear for him. Instead of George talking strategy, he's sneaking around listening to *other people* talk strategy. Or looking for idols. (These last two are both good things to do, of course, but come on!) On the rare occasions we do see George talking strategy, it's a rushed, 10-second delivery of the plan, then he's off again. The editors seemed content to mostly focus on making George look foolish, look like a fish out of water, while completely editing out the bulk of his actual game, the part where he was plotting things. Why show that, when we can have yet another George confessional boasting about slitting throats, or whatever?
(Note: After listening to George's exit interview on RHAP, he's clearly the logical, rational, game-aware player everyone said he was. Which makes it all the more head-scratching as to why he got this particular hack job of an edit. He's a big character, of course. But that doesn't preclude the editors from showing him actually doing things! Ugh, Survivor AU.)
In short, there's no way to really judge how good or bad George's game actually was. We're left to infer that because the people who were actually there came away impressed, we probably should be, too. It really would have helped if we knew what it was that was supposed to impress us, though. "Show, don't tell" is one of the most basic rules of storytelling, people. Maybe ask Wai for guidance next time, or something, editors.
Still, it was clear that George's evasive answers to the questions at Final Tribal did him no favors. After a fantastic opening prepared speech, George appeared to struggle to hear what the jurors were actually asking him. Hayley declined to back down when Dani pushed her on betrayal, and instead explained why it was necessary, winning Dani's respect. In contrast, when Emmett gently nudged George by asking if he had any regrets, particularly about rubbing people the wrong way, it was pretty clear he was just steering George to apologize for being kind of a dick in his yelled voting confessional against Emmett (which *was* funny, though). But George didn't pick up on this, and instead launched into a prepared spiel about how he had voted out 8 of the 9 jurors, and therefore ... respect that! Emmett then tried again with another softball: Should you maybe have tried harder in challenges, like Dani said, and also please, just answer the question? George responded with more long-winded bluster about people having opinions. You could see the jurors growing more and more impatient as he pontificated. Sadly, George didn't. (To be fair, George was probably never getting Emmett's vote. But he at least could have answered Emmett's questions.)
It's quite possible that Hayley was always going to win with this Brawn-oriented jury, and that there weren't truly that many jurors whose votes were up for grabs at Final Tribal. It's also quite possible George had some fantastic answers that were edited out, and we were only shown the lowlights, so as to make Hayley's victory more obvious. At the very least, though, Hayley's answers are a great template for what works. George's opening speech was, too, but he appeared to veer off-course after that. With George, we're kind of left with an incomplete picture, which is bizarre for a guy who led the field with 158 confessionals. Still, he and Hayley were probably the strongest final two in Survivor AU history, and at the very least, it's always fun to have two strategic superfans battle it out, head to head.
Where does Survivor AU go from here?
Obviously, Survivor AU is jumping right back into filming, right away (our speculative schedule for Season 7 could be off by a week or so, so they may already be doing so). As such, it's almost certainly too late to suggest any meaningful changes to the show, at least changes that will appear any time soon.
Even so, it's a good opportunity to reflect, and maybe changes can be incorporated in the future. There were numerous obvious flaws this season:
- Too much, too fast: At 48 days, Survivor AU is still too long, as is the season length at 24 episodes. The filming calendar is now close to double the US length, since that's been shortened to 26 days. And the show is presented at a blistering pace with three episodes a week, meaning the season's entire runtime spans just 8 weeks, less than a sixth of the year! US Survivor's two seasons at least cover half a year at 14 episodes/13 weeks per season. This has always been the case, of course, so it's hardly news to anyone. But geez, guys, if you're also going to shoot two seasons a year, for the love of Macedonian Jesus, pace yourselves.
- The imbalanced edit: Because the shooting schedule is so long, the cast also has to be huge, at 24 contestants. While Survivor AU 2017 did an admirable job of carving out screen time for all of them, that has become less and less true with each successive season. In Champions v Contenders 2, Daisy was essentially the only woman on the Contenders tribe who ever gave confessionals (and even then, rarely). Here, Andrew and Laura and Georgia were virtually on mute for most of the season. If the show is doing this to retroactively punish contestants for not providing exciting enough content for them, the onus is on the show to cast more competitive, exciting people. Don't kick people who have already starved and suffered for you, while earning close to zero compensation, then endured abuse on social media, only to not have much tangible evidence they were even on the show. Do better, editors. The flipside of this is the George/David overexposure problem. (Again: Pace yourselves!) These are great characters! Don't make your audience exhausted of hearing from them by the third episode! Spread the wealth, don't put all your eggs in one narrator's basket. If they're giving you confessional gold, use it sparingly, and please, please, please, stop having them repeat themselves.
- The imbalanced challenges: Despite the theme this season, there was precious little Brain-requiring content in the challenges. A precious few puzzles here and there, but almost all the rest were endurance and/or brute physical strength (most egregious example: the hill marathon). When not that, every challenge had some kind of carnival element with balls or sandbags. Pretty monotonous. That's disappointing, because Survivor AU has had some fantastic original challenges (charades! taking pegs out of a wall while standing on them, and so on) and some highly creative upsizing of US challenges (the opening RC here), and/or taking individual challenge staples, and turning them into team events (When It Rains, Over Extended). Here, part of the problem was likely the limitations of the filming bubble, so a large number of challenges had to re-use the same basic structures in the same spot. In the future though, please bring back the creativity and fun!
- The over-reliance on twists and advantages: There were 11 idols found this season. Simon found one in camp, then hours later found another in the reward bags, also in camp. That shouldn't happen. True, some were really fun, like George's key to the idol at Tribal. Others just seemed like, "Oh shit, we forgot to put an idol out there this episode, quick, toss one in a tree." But the real problem was all the twists: Six people immune, four people immune, five people immune. The three people immune are the only ones who have a chance to vote ... after they make fire! It's excessive, it temporarily felled the eventual winner, and it was all so unnecessary. Maybe if you had a cast full of superfans this *might* pay off in interesting ways. But here, with half the cast never having seen the show before, it's mostly just confusing, or in the case of the "four slowest runners" being the only people eligible to be voted against, simply insulting. Cut it out. Survivor doesn't need a fancy rules change each Tribal Council. Just let the players play.
Jeff Pitman is the founder of the True Dork Times, and probably should find better things to write about than Survivor. So far he hasn't, though. He's also responsible for the Survivometer, calendar, boxscores, and contestant pages, so if you want to complain about those, do so in the comments, or on twitter: @truedorktimes