Now that we're nearly done with the premerge, it's safe to say Survivor AU: All-Stars' cast is absolutely delivering (from what we're seeing). They bring a combination of electric paranoia, ingenuity for crazy moves, and an overall sense of humor that makes every episode fun to watch. And this week was no different.
However, I do feel like this week unfortunately showed that Survivor AU production and editors are not saints. It was a group of three episodes that showcased the want to keep these returning players on their toes, initiate drama, and highlight the rise and fall of certain characters. What results is a story told in broad strokes that begins to show which people are important this season, and sadly which are not.
Shonee Shunned, But Swap Stuns
Though a carryover from last week, this week of Survivor AU begins with Shonee and Zach living it up on the misery of Exile Beach. Their return does make Shonee our resident Australian Arya Stark, crossing the names of her betrayers off her list. But to be candid, the further away we get from this twist given everything that happened this week, I would call this iteration of Exile completely pointless.
First, we can officially call this a non-elimination. Unlike season 3, there was not a subsequent competition on Exile, with Zach and Shonee merely re-joining the game after the tribes had swapped. Because the swap rejiggered the dynamics of alliances so quickly, it felt extraneous to throw two embittered castaways on top of that. On top of that, the show designating Shonee to Vakama and Zach to Mokuta makes sense on paper to balance out the genders. But in the moment, it felt oddly scripted, making sure that Shonee and Zach were sharing camps with the leaders of their opposition in Abbey and Nick, respectively. The show even proved it could do a better version of this twist only a couple of episodes later with the double Tribal Council into fire-making (which I'll certainly get into).
At any rate, these are your new tribes, "rigga morris" or not:
Old Vakama - AK, Brooke, Flick, Locky, Mat
Old Mokuta - Abbey, Harry, John, Lydia, Shonee
Old Vakama - David, Jacqui, Moana, Phoebe, Tarzan
Old Mokuta - Lee, Nick, Sharn, Zach
It shakes out interestingly (which, again, undermines the value of the Exile twist). Vakama has 5 members on each tribe. But while the yellow contingent seems to still be ruled by the younger alliance, Mat's coalition surprisingly has the majority among the green contingent. On top of that, Lee is separated from the rest of the athletes, though the fact that they'll all be picked off this week may have meant he was best to avoid drawing a yellow buff. And Nick loses his tightest two allies in the Rascals, but does gain a close season 1 friend in Phoebe.
I suppose I'll also use this section to take the time to discuss Abbey's boot. For how much we theorized Vakama would break apart at the swap, the fact that four people from one alliance remained yellow meant that plurality would stick together. And had Zach come over instead of Shonee, I wonder if the former Mokutas would have used that to their advantage to swing Mat, or if Harry would have similarly sold them out.
At any rate, Abbey falls victim to the classic Survivor storyline we've seen since the days of Silas: In control of one tribe, easy boot on another. From a narrative perspective, it was fun to see Shonee get her immediate revenge, drinking the blood of the sporty alliance like a margarita. But I'm sad Abbey didn't get an opportunity to prove whether she really could change the AU paradigm with her meatshield strategy. I am happy at least that we got a confessional about her explaining her intent behind that, rather than the umpteenth verse of the "keep the tribe strong" song.
Double Tribal, double trouble
The second episode of the week had everyone going to Tribal Council for the first time in Survivor AU history (while two tribes have gone to TC together before, that was in a three-tribe season). It's also the first time we've seen a double TC (with all the contestants present) since season 21 in the U.S., where it seems to have gone the way of the dodo. Personally, I don't understand why we don't do more premerge double Tribal Councils. Considering the number of players, I would much prefer it to the postmerge tribe split, or cycling two boots in one hour.
The second stage of this twist, where the two voted out castaways compete in fire-making, intrigues me. I'm glad they were warned about it before the vote, though part of me wonders if anything would have changed had JLP told them right from the beginning this would be happening. And if you need a challenge to get back in, fire-making seems like a no-brainer, despite the taboo against it now from its institution in the U.S. version. There's just something about having 18 people sitting in a Tribal Council together that seemed ... off. I think it may not have been helped by the fact that this is the third twist we've seen in three episodes. That's not a great frequency, showing that production may be trying to do too much to surprise these castaways.
Which they shouldn't need to, because they're producing some crazy strategy on their own! We'll start with Vakama, which was definitely the more straightforward vote of the two. Lydia said in Episode 7 that "the past is the past." But from her actions in this vote, as well as the premiere, it's clear that she's on her own revenge tour for her blindside. In retrospect, perhaps she could have tried to convince Mat to use the idol on her, as he's shown to be capable of secretly working with people nobody would expect. But I do think Lydia had her own agenda in mind, especially after Mat voted against her. I am a smidge surprised the young guns decided not to take Lydia's bait and go for Mat here. But despite the strength she brought, they probably didn't want any half-measures and avoid the possibility of old Mokuta coming together to eventually take them out.
Now we get to everything that happened with the Mokuta vote, which should probably be broken out in its own section…
Everything that Happened with the Mokuta Vote
There we go.
After being absolutely nowhere Week 1, these past two episodes saw the rise of Darth Moana on Mokuta. With Mat not in the picture, it seems like the Vice President of the former Vakama minority has stepped up, bringing with her some questionable moves. While she can't trust David as far as she can throw him, she decides to broker a deal with him to work together postmerge. I'm still trying to figure out whether she feels she has to work with him because of his deal with Mat, or if she's going to try to renege on the deal Dreamz-style by attempting to vote him out before they actually get to the merge.
Whatever the case, it causes Moana to plan this "blindside of a blindside" to target Phoebe, in an attempt to bring David closer to her. It's an example we've seen a lot in Survivor, most recently in Island of the Idols when Missy attempted to vote Tommy out to get in tighter with Lauren. It takes a very skilled player to pull it off, though, especially in the follow-up of convincing someone displacing their former best friend was for their own good.
Speaking of David, he's trying to rally the votes against Nick. Though not as transparent, it actually draws parallels to the dick-measuring contest between Locky and Mat on Vakama. David considers Nick the "pioneer snake," and eliminating him would make sure one fewer strategist was around. However, I do think there was a missed opportunity here for David to actually approach Nick about working together for the time being. They have a mutual friend in Phoebe, and if he's looking to flip someone to get rid of Mat's former alliance, he stands a much better chance with Nick than Lee or Sharn.
Feeling conflicted, Phoebe decides to out David's plan to her new tribe member and old friend Nick. This sets up a third prong of the tribe plan, as the two conspire to get rid of Moana. From a storytelling perspective, I totally thought this is what was going to happen. Moana had all of a sudden gotten a bump in airtime, and it would have been totally logical if we see her going home for trying to get too cute with a big move. She stays, though, in one of the most scattershot votes we've seen in a while from Survivor AU. Officially, here's who voted for whom:
Phoebe - Jacqui, Lee, Moana, Sharn
Nick - David, Tarzan, Zach
Moana - Nick, Phoebe
So what exactly happened here? My best guess is that Moana re-connected with her fellow Champion Sharn and proposed the Phoebe vote. Sharn was then able to recruit Lee, while Moana was able to recruit Jacqui. I'm not sure why Tarzan was in on the Nick plan along with David and Zach. Maybe he had taken a liking to his fellow buff guys and vowed to vote with them. Maybe this was a big split vote in case Phoebe had an idol. Either way, Moana was somehow able to pull off this move, hoodwinking one of the game's biggest players.
The biggest surprise that night, however, may be how good Phoebe is at fire-making. Though it (surprisingly) was not a test of brute strength, one would assume that Lydia is the favorite to win any contest against Phoebe. But, much like she showed on the waterlogged wrestling platform in Week 1, Phoebe Timmins has fight. She absolutely crushes Lydia in fire-making, adding yet another method to her extensive résumé of ways she's staved off elimination.
Episode 9 is used as a bit of a reset after the game-shaking events of Episode 8. There are no twists, outside of the change in the auction that I'll get into below. And while Phoebe deals with being a ghost on her tribe, John is fighting with every hair on his mullet to not become one himself.
The more I look at the partnership between Phoebe and David, the more it makes sense. As Phoebe vocalizes in this episode, they both do their best work playing from the bottom, which is where they find themselves this episode. Unfortunately, David is not keen to bring her into his inner circle anytime soon, and both of them feel oddly and increasingly alone despite having a tight ally on the tribe. I'm as shocked as anyone that Moana was able to convince David that she had to get rid of Phoebe because she was plotting against him. But if he really wanted to get rid of Nick because he felt Phoebe slipping out of his grasp, that only helps feed the flames.
I find it really interesting that David draws the line at being betrayed, not outplayed. Essentially he means that he's fine if you didn't vote with him, so long as you didn't promise him you would. That doesn't necessarily explain why he targeted Daisy, since you could say that Daisy merely voted for him out of self-preservation in season 4. Regardless, that seems to be the reason why he has this symbiotic relationship right now with Moana. Of course, finding an idol now complicates everything. David humorously and mechanically placing the idol around his neck and stretching reminds me of Thanos fully assembling the Infinity Stones. With a fake and real idol in his pocket, he may be able to cause some scrambling before the inevitable snap.
On Vakama, I think Mat felt handcuffed from working with the opposition because of Lydia's presence. Because once she's gone, this episode is all about his trying to organize a coup against Locky. Mat's maneuver involves bringing in the former Mokutas plus Flick, who we're told is at the bottom of the Vakama young guns. Now, the edit makes it seem like ultimately Flick chickens out, as everyone sticks to the original plan and splits the votes between John and Mat. However, Flick has posted on social media that it was actually Harry who backed out of the move first, making her realize she didn't have the numbers.
Is that true? Looking at the votes, if she switched from John to Locky, Locky would be gone 3-2-0 if Mat still plays his idol. But I can imagine Flick sees she would then be part of a trio on a tribe of 7, which would leave her extremely vulnerable. Not only that, amongst many things we're not seeing from Flick, I'm sure her friendship with Brooke means she's in tighter with her and Locky than initially expected. So overall, while it would have been fun, I don't begrudge Flick too much for not flipping here.
I think Harry's perspective is the more interesting one, considering he allegedly was the one to abort the mission. It makes sense entirely with his M.O., intending to prove he's not the "Dirty Harry" that people just saw. I feel he's playing like he was during the first part of the postmerge in season 4, biding his time and being agreeable to vote anyone out and show his loyalty to those in power. We even saw this earlier this season when he voted against a Little Rascal in sending Shonee to Exile. Harry may have just lost an opportunity at the king of Vakama, but he's slowly earning a place in the royal court, where the true deception can happen.
A Quick Note on the Edit
This week of Survivor AU seemed to really turn the internet community against the editors. As I mentioned in my preseason article, AU differs from other Survivor edits in that it tends to tell larger, more epic stories. There is less focus on showing everyone's involvement with a plan, so you'll often see them going back to the well with the same people for confessionals. Not only that, but confessionals will very blatantly be cobbled together from different days to form the perfect soundbite, as you can tell from the various states of facial hair and clothing a contestant will have over the course of allegedly one sitdown.
This week may have broken the dam when it comes to fan response to the edit. A whopping 11 people didn't get confessionals in Episode 7, with 8 people also going quiet in Episodes 8 & 9. People were particularly angry with constantly showing Mat, Moana, and David in Episode 9, at the expense of showing anything from swing vote Flick. And I swear to God, if I hear, "This is All-Stars" one more time ....
That is to say, of course, that it's not all bad. There are some fun stylistic choices that I love about Survivor AU. While Episode 9 was very Moana- and David-heavy, I adored the choice to have her provide voiceover during David's idol hunt. It was a fantastic contrast between Moana feeling she had all the power over him, while he finds power in the palm of his hand. The camera also chooses to linger on one particular shot of David sitting in the shelter, as we get to see him really emotionally come apart, the veneer of the Golden God showing a soft underbelly as he realizes his vulnerability.
With regards to airtime, Survivor AU fans have also danced this tango before, especially when it comes to season 4. I feel like the anger here, though, comes from the fact that this is a returning player season. No offense to the Contender women, but perhaps the editors felt they either didn't pop in confessional or were inconsequential to the larger story at hand. With All-Stars, you know these are people who can make good TV, and are capable of formulating and implementing exciting gameplay. Why exclude foundational cogs from the narrative, or even misrepresent what actually happened?
It's always going to be a balancing act when it comes to trusting the edited show versus the opinions of those who were out there. My heart goes out to players who feel like they never got to tell their story on screen. And it feels especially egregious coming from someone like Flick, who was a pivotal part of season 1 and even featured as one to watch in the marketing leading up to the season. At the end of the day, I feel it would be more worthwhile to look at why certain editing choices were made, and what they could say about the larger story we'll see unfold over the next 5 weeks:
Suffice it to say, I'm disappointed that with extended episodes and a fascinating group of players, Survivor AU has seemed to edit more towards the casual fan base. Survivor brings complex elements out of each player, and I love when the show gets to show the warts and all approach to a person's life out on the island. Here's hoping we see more in the ways of Flick and variety soon.
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