The good news: There are somewhere between 7 and 9 Survivor AU: Brains v Brawn episodes left, and someone will eventually win, roughly three weeks from now. The bad news: Production decided they *really* wanted someone from Brawn to be that winner, thank you very much, and basically kicked the legs out from under the season to achieve that goal this week.
It was a week like that first-episode immunity challenge, where everyone hopped into the mine cart, rode it down the track, and crashed into a massive pile of reddish Outback dirt. A huge color-filled explosion, raining down in slow motion. But also dust getting in everyone's eyes, noses, throats. And then you learned there was still half the challenge left to go.
The saddest thing is, it all started off really well, with a solid merge episode, and a rare instance of George's confessional/ad rhetoric finally matching his in-game performance. For an episode, George really was a true strategic mastermind, as long promised! He did it! And then everything fell apart after that.
Episode 13: It's the merge! Now, work for your food
After some cringe-filled post-Simon-blindside recriminations at Brawn camp, with Dani grilling Hayley about WTF she was thinking writing Dani's name down, we finally get to the merge. New buffs! A new tribe that hasn't yet been given one of the worst names in merge tribe history! An acknowledgment from JLP of the harsh conditions everyone has endured in the first half!
And then, as naturally follows from a tip-of-the-hat to the grueling conditions, instead of merge feast, instead of the SurvivorAU-standard auction ... everyone gets auction items, they just have to work for them.
Because nothing goes better with cutlery-free eating than massive piles of dust, it starts off with digging up sandbags, and it ends with spending an inordinate amount of time in the hot sun, catapulting said sandbags until two land (and stay) on two of three poles. Not one!
After all these rules and exertion, players get to select an item from the "buffet table," and they look suspiciously like what the contestants would have been receiving at an auction, right down to multiple covered items, and a (very public, poor Chelsea) call home. It's an interesting twist on the auction format, sure. But it seems kind of mean to make everyone go through all this effort just to end up with ... a banana, say. (It looked like JLP just let Kez and Gerald call the final spot a draw, as long as they could agree on who got the milk vs. the banana. They could.)
Also, if (like me) you spent a lot of time yelling at the first-finishing contestants (especially George and Hayley, who should know better) for stupidly picking the plates of food over the covered items — when there should be an advantage of some kind in those covered items — well, ha ha! The jokes on you (and me, obviously)! There were no advantages, just food. Not even in Emmett's jar of candy (as far as they showed, anyway). Sigh.
I mean, I get it. This filled a lot of time. It gave JLP something to do. There were even a couple of neat moments, like where the first-finishing George and Hayley got to conspire in relative privacy, because everyone else was busy catapulting. But is it really that hard to just give the poor contestants a merge feast?
(Also: sorry, JLP. If everyone wins something, it's not an individual reward challenge. There was no additional prize for finishing first. What if George had done the strategic thing and picked a covered item, only to end up with Baden's boiled egg?)
Episode 13: The post-merge maneuvering / George's big move
This week's excessive ad hype was all about George seizing control of the game, and for a lot of fans, that mostly meant seizing control of our eyeballs and trying to return them to a non-rolled position. But you know what? George *actually delivered* at the merge. This was perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the season thus far. George has been talking up his strategic chops since Day 1, and here he'd finally found the footing to turn that into action.
Working as a double agent is what George's game thus far has perfectly positioned him to do. He'd generally been overlooked and underestimated by everyone, which is just enough cover that they have no qualms telling him their actual plans. He'd been loyal (to a point), he'd won trust. After a three-episode stretch (Eps. 5-7) where he received votes every time, nobody had written his name down in any of the five Tribals he'd attended (he was immune at the sixth). Everyone saw him as their number, so of course they're telling him how they want him to vote.
This obviously wasn't ever going to last forever, and George himself was aware of that. And it all falls apart the next episode, thanks to the ridiculous "only the 3 IC winners have the opportunity to vote" twist. But in the isolated window of the merge episode, this was George's time to shine.
At this point in the game, George's attempt to play the middle with Cara, and slowly whittle down the numbers on both the Brains and Brawn alliances was a really strong idea. Tipping off Hayley where to play her idol (on Laura) and alerting the Brains to Kez's idol was a low-key way to get that rolling. It's unclear whether it was George or Hayley who had the foresight to also split a vote onto Dani, but that was also really smart, because the second Hayley announced she was playing her idol for Laura, Kez *should* have panicked and played her idol for herself. (Kez voted for Laura! She knew at least her vote was voided, and since the plan was to dump all 8 votes on Laura, a Brawn was almost certainly going out instead. Why would you not play your idol?)
Anyway, a solid strategic episode (and physical episode, surprisingly) for George.
And of course, Kez didn't play her idol, and then she was gone. Not before handing that same unused idol off to Flick, though. This cannot happen in US Survivor. As soon as Jeff Probst announces the vote total, your idol loses its power if you have the most votes, and you didn't play it. (Perhaps even *while* he's revealing the votes, so you can't hand it off if you see your name come up a couple of times?) But according to Nick Iadanza, Kez's handoff was perfectly legal in SurvivorAU, during the interim between vote reveal and torch snuff. This is a ridiculous rule. It completely takes away the utility of blindsiding someone when you know they have an idol. It keeps unplayed idols in private hands, and doesn't put them back into public circulation. It's just an all-around stupid rules choice. It's unjustifiable.
(As Nick points out, Anesu handing the Tribal Pass to Chappies after she was voted out in SurvivorSA this week is still the same problem, and just as bad. Even if it would have expired the next round anyway, and is less powerful than an idol. Please don't do this, SurvivorSA *OR* SurvivorAU!)
Episode 14: Dumb production choices all around, progressively getting dumber
Just when you thought things were getting good, that we might actually see an exciting battle between Brains, other Brains, and Brawn, in comes production to smother all that nasty "thinking" stuff.
Episode 14 is an exercise in seeing just how much bullshit and production interference the audience can tolerate before they completely give up on a show. It's as if the producers said to each other, "We really love the unfairness of when US producers sprung the Final 4 firemaking twist on Chrissy in HvHvH, completely destroying her carefully constructed final three alliance, but we wish we could make it even more infurating to the audience."
And thus was born Episode 14, the first vote after the merge vote, where AU production decides to make the entire balance of power in the game be decided by the three people who can run a gauntlet of entirely physical challenges the most rapidly.
What's that, you say? That sounds like track heats in the Olympics, not Survivor? Oh dearie me, you're mistaken. Look, sure it's not "fair" that only three agile, physical, dextrous people get to vote, but look, we've made it fairer: They're not *actually* voting, they're competing in another, final test: making fire. See? Jonathan merely said (offscreen, so trust us!) "Three people who will be the only ones with an opportunity to cast a vote tonight," so they were properly informed, technically. Anyway, now it's totally more fair! Just one person gets to decide the fate of the entire rest of the game!
Wait, you *still* don't think that's fair? After we successively peeled away all that messy, unsightly strategy and social dynamics? Well how about this: The person isn't actually "out," they're just sent to Redemption Rock! Sure, they won't be able to vote at the next Tribal, so the numbers are permanently altered either way, but see: Redemption! That's what everyone loves about American Survivor, right? Twists on twists on twists on twists!
Here's why it sucks: Hayley and Baden were both in pretty good positions entering this episode. Hayley still had a debt to collect from Flick (and Flick has an idol). Baden has forged close ties to both Hayley and the larger Brains alliance AND to George and Cara. But all that careful positioning and game playing is completely wiped out by the immunity challenge, where everyone misinterprets JLP's intentional misdirection as meaning the three IC winners are the only ones who can vote at Tribal. Two of them are rock-solid Brawn zealots. The boot is obviously going to be one of Baden or Hayley, and there's nothing either of them can do about it, beyond begging and/or making desperate, scorched-earth moves. Hayley does both, and unsurprisingly it completely blows up her game, and by extension, that of Baden. (Flick hoarding an idol that should have been gone from the game and then rehidden doesn't help much.)
The numbers entering this episode, after the merge vote, were: 5 original Brawns (Chelsea, Dani, Emmett, Flick, Gerald, with Flick possibly wavering), 5 original Brains (Andrew, Baden, Hayley, Laura, Wai), and 2 people clearly in the middle, playing both sides (George and Cara). Instead of letting these groups battle it out, allowing the tug-of-war of strategy and/or social game maneuvering to proceed, SurvivorAU said, "We're going to arbitrarily let one person decide the course of the entire rest of the season. Also, that person will probably be a Brawn due to the challenge design."
Why? Why do this? Why here, just as everything was finally starting to click, and people were at long last making big moves to advance their position in the game? Was this season brainstormed by Tonya Harding, determined to have the evil, white-collar (-ish) Brains' kneecaps whacked if there was any point at which it appeared they might be on the path to victory?
Episode 15: This is fine
So after the unrelenting fecal firehose of Episode 14, fans faced the prospect of either Andrew or Hayley, both now hopelessly outnumbered (as George and Cara sided with the now-superior Brawn numbers), getting voted out, ending the episode at Redemption Rock, and having to wait a week to see which of the two was the one removed.
Surprisingly, however, SurvivorAU did one thing right here, in ending the week on a semi-positive note (rather than grim suspense), and including the duel (which we all knew was coming after the Episode 15 Tribal Council) at the end of this week's final episode, to give *some* measure of closure. Baden is now the first juror (his jury villa video is quite amusingly cutting about several people's gameplay), and Hayley is at least temporarily back in the game. At least we have that.
The rest of the episode was, however, pretty consistently bleak. Hayley and Baden remarked to each other how nice Redemption Rock was — a visually stunning oasis amid a rock formation — and how Baden would rather hang out there than back at Fire camp, and ... he had a point.
But first, the episode starts with a surprising development: Chelsea had been removed by Medical the night before, after Tribal Council (shades of Erik Reichenbach), and whisked away like Georgia for observation. Dani is especially broken up about this, as Chelsea is her one true ally, the person she most trusts. We get updates throughout the episode: Chelsea's not there for the IC, and she won't be there for Tribal, but she gets 24 hours, so maybe she'll be back? But she's not there the next morning, after Hayley's unanimous boot, and it's clear when JLP shows up in camp, she's done. Not a great way to leave the game.
The day that preceded that official medevac announcement was also not great. Hayley's desperate attempts to save herself by outing George's double-agent status all boomerang back to bite her. Now everyone views her as a snitch, even though production forced her hand in this with their dumb twist. What was she supposed to do, just relax and let herself be voted out, as George coasts to the end, buoyed by one good move? Everything devolves from there: Emmett wins another immunity challenge, there are still no idols to be found (although everyone now knows Flick has Kez's old one), and in the least-surprising vote ever, Hayley gets voted "out," 9-1 (maybe, since they never show us the complete votes, even as a secret scene, and they did hide a stray vote in the regular show earlier this season).
Redemption Rock/Exile Beach is a necessary but almost never welcome addition to the show, but at least both of the people there are ones you wouldn't mind seeing come back into the game, so at least it's not the worst of all worlds. But there's a stain on the purity of the game when 3/10 of the final 10 have been voted out at least once. (And unless there are fewer episodes this season, there's still a need for *one more* non-elimination, sigh.)
So ... a top-notch pair of episodes in Eps 12 (Simon blindside) and 13 (merge), followed by two absolute Own Goal episodes in 14 and 15, episodes that appear to have blown up the entire season, all but destroying Hayley's shot at the win, or at the very least have strongly tainted it, even if she pulls off a miraculous comeback. All while also taking out Baden, who was steadily, stealthily building a case as a winner candidate. Oh, and also removing a young woman who had barely been seen.
Great work, SurvivorAU. Was Jeff Probst ghost-producing this season?
- Purple Chelsea's departure: On the one hand, the editors handled Chelsea's medevac slightly better than they did Georgia's 24 hours out of the game — here, giving both the audience and the players a couple of updates during the episode, and explaining why she left. On the other hand, the rest of Chelsea's season was mostly missing. By Jonathon Gray's count, she received barely a handful of confessionals (exactly five, in 15 episodes). Her few times on screen conveyed a lot of emotion and deep connections to her loved ones. But we saw almost nothing from her about the game, even though she was a key ally of both Dani and Simon, two of the biggest central characters. How does this even happen?
- Emmett's brain-free 'strategy': There should be on the order of 9-10 immunity challenges left in this season. It's certainly possible that Emmett could keep winning ICs long enough to pick off the rest of the Brains (or at least Hayley, Wai, Laura, and Andrew). Especially when production seems perfectly happy to keep throwing out purely physical challenges. Even so, there's no way he's going to win 13 straight. And Dani has already demonstrated she's happy to vote out an alpha male whenever she has the opportunity. He was pretty solid strategically in the late pre-merge Brains tribe, but if this is all the gameplay Emmett has planned for the post-merge, yikes.
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