It is frankly unbelievable to me that we had 4 episodes and a combined near 7 hours of returnee Survivor to watch this week. Though international versions have made sure we're well-fed on the show at basically any time of the year, our diet has been particularly paced. Before 2020, Survivor fans had a well-portioned seven-course dinner. Now we're Nick at the ice cream machine.
With the delightful epic that was the Winners at War premiere, I would be remiss to not remind everyone that there were still 3 great episodes of AU All-Stars to talk about! It was a week (and subsequent recap) that's extremely Mokuta-heavy, as the green tribe is now far from greenhorns when it comes to seeing JLP. And though it would always be tough to follow up the insanity of Episode 3, it set up some interesting dynamics going into next week's swap and...whatever the hell Exile Beach is this time.
Strength and numbers
In retrospect, the cold open discussing Jacqui's bodybuilding career was a sign of things to come, planting a seed that would grow into a tree that not many fans have loved. After a low-key premiere week, Abbey came out in full force this week, the most vocal about "keeping the tribe strong." Not only that, but she was outed as the supposed leader of this varsity quartet with Lee, Lydia, and John, and they're bent on simply creating the best team to avoid Tribal Council.
To a certain extent, I feel bad for the online hate that's been thrown Abbey's way. She has a confessional in Episode 6 where she vowed that social butterflies will no longer "cruise" to the end of a 50-day game. That made me completely recontextualize the game from her perspective. Remember, she last played only about 6 weeks ago, and was voted off right near the end as a challenge threat. Watching Pia win last season has definitely prompted conversations on what the winning gameplay in Survivor AU needs to be. Right now, Abbey feels a person like her can never win the game, and she wants to change that. Will she? We still have 36 long days to go. But much as the more under-the-radar players on Survivor U.S. bristle at the showier, messier players getting the praise, I could see why Abbey wants to change the paradigm.
Unfortunately this comes at the expense of losing Michelle, which saddens me greatly. People like Michelle and Shonee were fated to either make it very far or get picked off early, shown by the exact mirroring of her fourth-place finish in season 2 versus being fourth voted out in season 5. In true Dougan fashion, she went all-out at Tribal Council in making her arguments, outlining her assets in basically everything except lifting heavy things. The argument of "loyalty vs. strength" is one that's at the crux of every Survivor decision, to the point where I asked it to the Island of the Idols castaways when I was out on set preseason. She picked the right target in Henry, but I truly don't know what else she could have done to save herself besides putting in some time on the Zach Attack TRX5000 workout machine.
Also, Michelle, great call on deciding not to play "4" in your lotto numbers. It never ends well.
A challenging aside
This is a good opportunity to talk about the challenges we've experienced this season. Starting with Champions vs. Contenders, we've started to see things transition into bigger, more brutal challenges. And while they have been incredibly epic to watch, if you line things up against each other, a pattern begins to emerge:
Puzzles have been absent from the entirety of the season so far, save the mini-challenge in Episode 3. Considering how much the U.S. relies on it as the "great equalizer" in nearly every team challenge, that is staggering to see. Now look, I'm not advocating for a puzzle to be at the end of every challenge. I'm not advocating for anything to be at the end of every challenge, because then it gets stale. What I'm looking for is variety.
The challenges do a great job of moving around locations on the islands, as well as making individual challenges into team ones. For example, I love transitioning stacking dominoes that was previously the bain of Baden and Locky's existences into a group activity. But a good amount of these competitions value raw physical strength and being able to lift, carry, push, or pull massive amounts of weight. If you're trying to win challenges, that's exactly who you want to keep around, spurning those who can bring other skills to the table purely because those skills haven't been shown off yet. There are certainly people who are left in the game who haven't been able to provide all they can offer. And it's because the challenges so far have not provided all they can offer in the way of variation.
The end of Zen Hen
Though Henry won that "strength vs. loyalty battle," the war was far from over. While the premiere last week saw Henry's game start to sputter as soon as he took off from the hangar, this week was a straight-up crash and burn. Their seedy suspicions about him were confirmed when AK outed him giving the idol to Mat. And Henry's look when everyone on Mokuta turned to look at him after that news screamed, "I've made a huge mistake."
Interestingly enough, Henry's journey in All-Stars was surprisingly GOB-like, failing to ever find his footing as he attempted a 12-day chicken dance. Shonee really summed it up well when she said Henry is a player who will not follow directions. We saw that happen in the first two votes, where he received an easy target and eagerly tried to skew things a different way to satisfy his own agenda. It was reminiscent of what Jericho and Luke tried to do back in the Asaga days on his original season, and they were similarly ineffective in stirring the waters to shape the tribe to their whim. On paper, Henry is a person primed to go to the merge virtually every time he plays, as he can be sociable and does indeed possess the challenge skills he talked up. But this time, he seemed to purposely put out obstacles for himself to make that path harder. Though, speaking of objects in the path, planting a fake idol at Tribal Council was a good last-ditch move, considering its plausibility and the fact that it got at least one person to switch their vote.
Nick cemented himself as the narrative voice of Mokuta (if not the entire season so far), and his falling out of love with Henry was a large part of that this week. I do not begrudge him whatsoever for doing what he did. Though he seemed to have Henry in his pocket, his behavior put a huge hole in those pants. Nick wanted a two-way relationship, and it seems like Henry was just looking for someone to go with him on whatever plan he concocted. Henry would contest at what would be his final Tribal Council that he was loyal to the people who promised to work with him. But considering working with him meant going along with his ideas, essentially what he was saying was, "I'm a boss who's loyal to my coworkers who report into me."
It's only fitting that the boss got done in by the self-appointed CEO of Mokuta Inc.: Shonee. It's been a hell of a week for Princess Pickle, as she found herself in one after Michelle's boot. Luckily, after missing a clue on the sitout bench, she got luckier back at camp, and her hunt was much easier than drawing water from a dry well. Both her idol find and subsequent reveal to the Rascals was hilarious, and gave some hope to those of us who were worried about the athletes continuing to pick off the "weak." Playing her idol wasn't exactly necessary, as Lee said in his voting confessional he was spooked by Henry's planted idol maneuver and changed his vote (which wouldn't have mattered anyway, but okay Custard Arm), meaning Henry would have definitely gone in the revote. But considering she was up against a guy who went home with an idol in his pocket, she knows the value of guaranteeing she fights another day.
Two for the price of one ... or none?
The week ends with perhaps the most scattershot vote of the season so far, with three names being bandied about right until Tribal Council. Perhaps that's why the Survivor gods chose this vote to bring in a brand-new twist, with the top two vote-getters going to Exile Beach. Before we get into the results, I will say up-front that I generally want to reserve my thoughts on this double down twist until we see what happens. The idea of someone going with the second-most amount of votes is actually rather conventional if you take into account idols in this day and age, but it's still an odd concept to wrap your head around.
Right now this twist is incomplete, as JLP only ominously said the denizens of Exile will "learn what their fate is." Will one of them get back into the game like we've seen the past two seasons? Will they both come back and pick their new tribes at the swap, making this our non-elimination episode? Speaking of the swap happening next episode, that just makes the timing of this twist even weirder. You're about to change things up anyway, why feel the need to provide some twist foreplay to get everyone strategically aroused?
Because make no mistake, things were hot and heavy at Mokuta camp that afternoon. After a few TCs, we finally got a sense as to the dynamics of the tribe, just in time to see the Rascals try to mount a Marquesas-style coup on the athletes. They brought in Sharn (who I'm surprised labeled herself as the second-weakest woman, considering she has the tied record right now for IC wins) and Zach, the latter of whom really had his meerkat coming out party. I appreciate the perspective that he had, knowing that the game isn't one dimension and deciding to target John as a social threat, ironically using Abbey's logic against her alliance. And his energetic response to the plan only makes what happens afterwards more confusing.
Let me pause here to direct people to Nick's Twitter to discuss how Zach ended up getting one of the boots here. In the edited show, it appears to make little sense. The Rascals had the numbers; why feel the need to go out of your way and turn Zach into this season's Christy/Sarah/Dolly? But Nick has explained that actually what we saw was a last-ditch plan after Sharn pulled out of the deal, making the trio scramble. With that logic, it makes sense to go after Zach, considering that they now had concrete evidence of him planning against the people who thought they had him under their thumb.
But despite the pleas going all the way through TC, Shonee got the most votes. Now, would she not have gone without this twist? It's hard to say. With Sharn voting for Zach, she could have been keen to make it 4-4-1. Or maybe Zach gets wind of the Rascals turning on him and goes with the athletes to get rid of Shonee 5-4. Either way, unfortunately Shonee's perceived weakness (though it should be noted she did just fine in the water while John thought he'd be eating Mexican parma in Davy Jones's locker) and the applause from her idol play kept her in a corner and her own patch of sand on Exile Beach alongside Zach.
Oh yeah, Vakama's here too!
After last week's incredible Tribal Council, Vakama's status quo seemed to get things settled back into a stalemate. Though Mat's quartet remained intact, they're still down 6-4. Locky catches on immediately that the mole is in his own alliance. But straight out of The Departed, he doesn't realize it's David pulling the double act. Speaking of David, despite getting what he wanted last episode, he's still moving. He makes a fake idol off of the jewel-encrusted box from the reward, and let me issue apologies to the poor art department member who made that thing everything but machete-proof. He's also set up as the referee in the continuous spars between Mat and Locky, a position that his best buddy Luke found himself in as well back in his first season.
Though Mat's play last week brought out a different side of the Godfather, finding the idol in Episode 4 showed some of that season 3 cockiness once more. Grabbing the idol out in the open isn't a huge problem, as he's shown he can use it for his alliance (and with David's intel, probably will). I'm not a huge fan of wearing it around your neck and declaring yourself "Idol Man." There's a fine line between being cheeky and cocky, and he's only deepening the chasm between himself and Locky with his display around camp. While it may be a move to intimidate your opponent and keep the majority spooked, it may also put Mat in a worse position if he winds up on a swapped tribe with Locky and few options.
"You don't need them chips, mate."
"Nah, I'm hungry, man."
"Then why don't you chew on this?"
Tarzan for the next Terminator plz.
The possibilities are endless!
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