The second week of Survivor AU: Brains v Brawn was all about the idols. And about the people holding them, although those people were also what the first week was about, before they had idols. The show also creakingly, reluctantly remembered that the Brains tribe also has people named Georgia and Andrew on it. In short: Survivor AU has not only imported US Survivor's challenges and twists, it's also ratcheting up some of the American version's worst production and editorial tendencies.
That's because four hidden immunity idols were found during this week's three episodes. They weren't particularly well hidden, although this perhaps could be blamed on the sparse vegetation offering limited hiding spots. (Apparently they forgot that Kez had to dig one up just a few days earlier. Maybe the heat affected their memory.) All were found under somewhat curious circumstances, in high-traffic locations so obvious that it's ... odd, shall we say ... that the people who most needed them were the only ones who found them, inviting the same fan suspicions and conspiracy theories that surrounded US idol fiends like Ben Driebergen.
It's a worrisome development in a season whose storyline has focused almost exclusively on a tiny fraction of its 24 contestants. To be fair, the two main ones — George and Simon, who found three of the four idols — are both big Survivor fans. As such, they're more likely to understand the ins and outs of idol hiding (especially after one is played) than your average recruit. It's possible Baden didn't look thoroughly or carefully enough for the idol corresponding to the clue he'd already found. Maybe he was too cautious, in trying to avoid detection. But it's still pretty weird that he didn't find an idol that was just sitting in a tree. Which brings to mind a US Survivor pattern where contestants swear idols were not in the location shown until right before the person finding it decided to look there.
Things stay sketchy as the week goes on. After George misplays his first idol, and goes searching for its replacement, Cara, George's one true ally, finds it ... while standing right next to him. But don't worry! This Cara person, largely invisible since the first episode, was still totally willing to sacrifice herself and play her idol for George. And she did. George is saved! Unfortunately, Cara is idoled out as a result.
But don't worry, again! The same people putting the idols right at eye level also decided that this was an episode where a non-elimination would happen, and instead of heading home after having her torch snuffed, Cara headed to the Brawn tribe. Which, to be fair, is also where the non-elimination episode fell last season, in All-Stars. Again, this all could be totally above-board, but it's hard to avoid having suspicions that it isn't.
This is fine. Nothing to see here. Let's move along.
The Simon and George show (occasionally featuring Joey)
The imbalance in the edit is no more stark than with poor Georgia. As counted by Jonathon Gray, George had 28 confessionals in the first five episodes, while Georgia had ... zero. We finally get to hear from her (and see a brief backstory) in Episode 6. Conveniently, that's also when it's her turn to be George's nemesis du jour. This is a perfect example of how to make someone a villain with very little effort: you just never show the narrative from their perspective.
Which one do you think the audience will support? The guy who's been the underdog of the Brains tribe the entire season, or some anonymous stand-in who's trying to take him out? We have seen Georgia speak occasionally, usually in a group setting where the majority is chuckling amongst themselves about how *this* is the time they're finally getting rid of George. It's easy to make someone appear sinister if they're smiling while people are talking about offing your protagonist.
When we do get Georgia's confessional in Ep6, she appears thoughtful and level-headed. She talks about trying to understand the reasons for George's various ways of acting out (in this specific case, George's stalking off in a huff after Rachel gently tried to explain to him how it's better for tribe unity/performance to not their dirty laundry in front of the other tribe right before a challenge). There's probably a lot of insightful commentary there, seeing as she's a forensic psychologist! It would be great to hear more!
But nope, after that teaser, it's back to silence and smirks, as the plan to oust George unfolds.
Survivor AU has a long season, with 20+ episodes. It has a lot of contestants to juggle in that time, to be sure, and sometimes you don't hear from late-gamers until, well, later in the game. But still, there has to be slightly better balance in the airtime the contestants receive. Do we really need Joey giving five to six variations of "The Brains need to win" and/or "George is definitely out of here" each episode? Couldn't someone else do that? He has multiple allies, right? Do they not know how to speak?
Episode 4: Who could have predicted?
The moment above, with the Brawn tribe trying to use "SURVIVER" as a word in the word puzzle (an error rapidly called out by their own tribemates, with "Guys! It's written everywhere!"), was one of the week's highlights. Just a hilarious moment, not least because the puzzle clearly marks how many letters are in each word, and SURVIVOR, whether spelled -ER or -OR is still one letter too long.
After that, though, after the Brains have staged a stirring comeback and won immunity after trailing badly on the physical stages of the challenge, the episode falls a bit flat, due almost entirely to the season-long editing patterns. It quickly becomes apparent that Shannon and Flick's group wants Simon out. Simon, meanwhile, is pushing hard to remove Benny, who had underperformed in this and the prior challenge.
In theory, this should be a tense, nail-biter of a Tribal Council, because the initial round of voting ends in a tie. The Brawn tribe, having just lost three straight immunities, is *this*close* to booting their most dominant all-around challenge performer. But despite having had 5.5 hours in the first week to lay the groundwork for this moment, they completely ignored Benny in the first three episodes, and his first on-screen appearance was really in this same episode. Simon, meanwhile, was the main character for the Brawn tribe. Realistically, come on: who thought this anonymous redshirt Benny guy would be sticking around?
This is one of the self-inflicted casualties of Survivor AU's increasing tendency to let a small number of characters dominate the edit. It's not that Simon's content is bad, or even all that excessive. He gives solid confessionals, and he narrates his own plight in this episode (and salvation in the next) really well. But there has to be better narrative balance in a show where the ending is supposed to be somewhat suspenseful.
Episode 5: Idols everywhere
In Episode 5, the trajectories of the two tribes completely reverse themselves, as the Brawns win not only their traditional Reward Challenge spoils, but also, finally, immunity.
This means we don't get an immediate payoff to the big story in the first half of the episode: Simon's two idols. (Is SurvivorAU aware that advantages other than idols exist?) The first idol follows the same eybrow-raising "hiding" mechanism seen at the Brains camp: The idol is just sitting in a tree, waiting to be grabbed. There's some brief intrigue after Simon spots it, but feels too exposed to openly grab it. But eventually he gives in and does so.
Mere hours later (assuming the RC took place the day after Tribal, which is really unclear because after spending all their budget on a full-screen date stamp to kick off the episode, SurvivorAU apparently now can't afford to put them anywhere else in the episode), Simon finds *another* idol in the bag that accompanied the reward items. Why did production put a second idol in a bag at Brawn camp on the same day one was found? This is done while the tribe is away at the reward. It should be easy to not do it this time. But they did it. Why, we'll never know.
That said, there was an amusing follow-up bit with Simon celebrating in confessional that he'd found this second idol without anyone noticing, and that he's now bulletproof. This was followed immediately by a Gerald confessional saying that no, actually, he saw Simon grab the idol. Since Brawn wins immunity again the next episode, this hasn't paid off yet, but it eventually should, since we were reminded of it again in Ep.6. So at least that should be fun.
More Episode 5: Back to the Brains
It was nice to get a more in-depth look at the Brains tribe in this episode, although it quickly devolves into a rough approximation of the same strength-above-all coalition that was dominating the tribe in the first episode, which is a bit disappointing after they had a week to get to know each other.
On the plus side, Joey finally emerges as something other than just the guy who tosses out vacuous motivational poster soundbites on the mat before challenges. It turns out Joey actually has some strategic chops. This continues into Ep6, even if his plans get thwarted by production. (Perhaps Joey should call AK Knight to commiserate.)
That's possible mostly because George nearly completely misplays his idol. And it started off so well, too! George found the idol by trailing Baden, who seemed to be paying too much attention to a particular tree, a tree in which George swiftly found the idol. Knowing he needed numbers, and seeing that Baden was also excluded from the majority alliance, George then wisely brought Baden in on the find (at the very least saving Baden from more fruitless searches). That gesture really seems to have had the intended effect. Despite his previous reservations, Baden now continues to work with George over the next two episodes.
This could have led to a satisfying blindside of someone in the (seemingly, since we only ever see them congratulating themselves on finally taking out George) smug majority alliance. But alas, no, because as the tribe is preparing for Tribal Council, George takes it upon himself to inform that same majority alliance that he has an idol by strutting around camp wearing it.
Sure, in the context of George being the tribe pariah, the guy everyone has shunned, this brief flash of power had its short-term payoffs, giving Joey and his alliance a big, middle-fingered "Nope!" But in the broader strategic context, it was clearly both unnecessary and unproductive. Blowing up Joey's plans before he left camp just gave him time to regroup and pick a more suitable target, which (ironically) turned out to be George's former nemesis, Mitch.
Yes, there was a reasonable chance that Joey's group would still vote George just to flush the idol. But obviously they were smarter than that (they are on the Brains tribe, after all). Ego over strategy never works out.
Episode 6: The one where the Brains fully become South Pacific's Savaii tribe
It's particularly fitting that the Immunity challenge in Episode 6 was one first seen in US Survivor's South Pacific. That's because the toxic dynamics on the Brains tribe almost perfectly mirror those of Savaii. A dominant alliance of the most physical challenge performers? Check. An arrogant leader who's also their top physical player (Ozzy/Joey)? Check. The tribe scapegoat, who's seen as weak and untrustworthy, but is a superfan who receives the bulk of the confessionals (Cochran/George)? Check. A mom figure who supports the pariah, to her detriment (Dawn/Cara)? Check. The oldest guy on the tribe, who's also loosely in with the minority group (Papa Bear/Baden)? Check. Another dark-haired, athletic guy in the majority, who we rarely hear from (Keith/Andrew)? Check.
That all said, George's edit gets even more three-dimensional in this episode, and it's a welcome development. Previously just a misfit player who is seemingly a magnet for idols and advantages, the audience forges a much deeper emotional connection to George here. It's weird that we don't learn until Episode 6 that he's a lifelong fan who's been watching since he was 11, but it's great to finally get that detail. We're shown the depth of his connection to Cara. We understand his emotional reaction when she plays her idol for him, putting herself in the line of fire. Finally it all makes sense.
Would we see something like Cara's self-sacrificing idol play in an American season, where pre-jury boots have to remain away from their families on an overseas trip for the duration of filming, rather than just going home, as Australian pre-jurors do? Probably not, but that doesn't make Cara's selfless decision any less heroic and tragic.
Then again, that drama of it all does get undercut significantly by SurvivorAU's necessity to have non-elimination episodes. (They need to deliver 24 episodes a season, which can't happen with a 24-member cast without some shenanigans of this kind.) And it's hard to avoid the appearance that Cara's salvation (learning she's being switched to Brawn tribe, after her torch was already snuffed) might be a case of production meddling, rewarding a player for saving a key character. But to be fair, this is the exact spot in All-Stars where Shonee and Zach were sent to Exile Beach instead of being voted out, so it probably should have been expected that a non-elimination could take place here. Even so, it felt genuinely surprising, especially after all the dramatic music swelling after the results became clear.
So ... well done on the fake-out?
Looking ahead: Desperate for a swap
It was pretty clear in the Episode 6 IC just how thoroughly overmatched the Brains tribe is now on anything remotely physical. They put their top challenge competitors in on the (marginally physical) key-retrieval task, and those people were: Baden (42), Georgia (35), Hayley (31), Andrew (33), and Joey (35). Brawn put in Simon (31), Flick (28), Kez (25), Chelsea (22), and Emmett (31). The Brains' youngest was as old as the Brawns' eldest. They average almost a decade younger (35 to 27). The disparity for the people turning the crank was even worse: Brawn fielded Daini (26), Gerald (26), Shannon (30), and Dani (34), for an average age of 29, while the Brains' team of Laura (36), Rachel (50), George (31), and Cara (47), had an average age of 41, or a whopping 12 years older.
There's no way the Brains are ever going to match up on anything other than a puzzle, and if the Brains keep doing stupid things like sitting out Wai, their proven puzzle maven, they have no hope. They've lost nine out of 12 challenges, including the last four, and they're not getting any younger or stronger. There is a glimmer of hope, though: This (Day 15/ Episode 7) is exactly where the swap happened in All-Stars, and the Brains were discussing the possibility of a swap in camp already. It's clearly time.
(Then again, in both 2017 and Champions v Contenders 2, the first swap didn't happen until Day 21/ Episode 9, although in both those cases, they immediately followed a non-elimination event.)
Regardless, bring on the amusement of George and Wai on the Brawn tribe, or Emmett on the Brains tribe.
- Always be throwing? Not sound like a broken record, but: What on earth were the Brains thinking, sitting Wai out of the Episode 6 IC, which closed with a puzzle? Wai's puzzle prowess literally won them the IC in both Episode 2 and Episode 4. That's a full two-thirds of their total victories. Wai has also sat out of three challenges now, which is two more than anyone else. Clearly, it was someone else's turn. Is it possible that Joey et al., were intentionally trying to lose this one, so they could boot George?
- Just when you think... Near the start of Episode 6, when George is lamenting wasting his idol at the prior Tribal, we get another incredible fake-out: "At last night's Tribal Council, I played my idol, and I didn't need to do that. What a stupid move ... to get rid of Mitch." Ah, George. You almost had us going there, thinking some humility and self-reflection was on tap. Oh well, it'll come eventually. Probably. Either way, a fantastic head fake by the editing team.
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