SurvivorAU: Brains v Brawn has certainly been a twist-heavy season, and one where the aftereffects of those twists have lingered. There are now at Day 44 with five people left, three of whom are on their second lives in the game. George saved Wai with his advantage on Day 2. They're both still here. Cara idoled herself out, then learned she was being sent to Brawn instead, way back on Day 14 (Episode 6). She's still here. Hayley was unanimously voted out on Day 30 (Episode 15), and she's still here. And now, just this week, Flick was voted out in Episode 20, then promptly saved by an urn.
So as we head into the final week of episodes, with three boots and a Final Tribal to go, it's an asterisk-laden endgame. It's not the greatest of looks, and maybe that's why Survivor AU has been flogging the George hype all season. He is, after all, the only person in the final five who hasn't already been voted out or saved by an advantage. Also, he provides his own hype reel multiple times an episode, so it's easy to pick out the occasional gems. Going forward, though, with Survivor AU apparently planning to imminently film another season, are there any lessons to be learned?
Obviously, something needs to be done to minimize the non-eliminations. SurvivorAU: 2017 had a final two where one of the finalists had been voted out once. It's quite possible this season could have two. That's not Survivor, that's not outplaying or outlasting. It's luck (and over-producing).
There's no indication that the show really cares, though. So short of some agreement where two seasons a year allows them to reduce the cast size/show length to something more reasonable, or conversely, having an even more bloated cast with 27 contestants, there's not much cause for optimism.
Even so, for this season, there's still some hope that the endgame can be satisfying. George hasn't been voted out (they've tried!), and is in a solid position at the moment. Hayley is playing a great game, despite having been voted out. And Wai hasn't actually been voted out, and is slowly growing into a formidable jury threat. She won a ton of respect this week with her gameplay and challenge win, and has only ever been voted against once! (Everyone else is hovering around 10 votes against.) And the season-long story seems to now be dropping hints that Wai is in fact the one who can/will pull this off. This week was a great example of that.
Episode 19: Wai's choice
The central action of the week's first episode was Wai's decision: whether to stick with the group of four she'd just voted with (George, Cara, Hayley) or flip to the Brawn-centric group of Dani, Flick, and Andrew. The core conflict? She was, in her own words, "very protective of Andrew," but he posed an obvious end-game obstacle because he was a significant threat to win immunity challenges (>75% Mean % finish, higher than everyone left by double digits). George was gunning for him, Hayley agreed this was a logical move. The Brawns wanted George out as always, but despite having worked with Andrew the entire game, Wai clearly appreciated the Brains' position.
What was most interesting about this episode is how much insight the editors finally gave into Wai's strategic thinking. At the reward feast, she told Dani and Flick that she's been playing "three days at a time" (mostly two since this is AU, but you get the idea — one vote at a time). She's aware that George lies and creates chaos. She feels loyalty to Andrew. But she also realizes that with seven people left, a physically dominant player could really screw up everyone's plans by winning immunity.
That's the key here. George has a typically bombastic, familiar confessional about how in politics you have to persuade people, and he spins a complete fabrication to his group that Andrew was railing against Wai, wanting to vote her out. Even Cara is incredulous, but Hayley and Wai seem to nod along and agree that Andrew should be the target. Mission accomplished!
But that's not the end: We also get a confessional from Wai saying she thinks George is probably lying. She knows the Brawns are actually voting for George, not her. Even so, she still decides to vote Andrew, because that's the logical thing to do at this point in the game, while acknowledging that emotionally, it's also a painful move to make. It can be two things! (Notably, the same editors completely undercut this nuanced position in the next episode with an obvious frankenbite of a confessional that's cobbled together to claim the opposite, that she believed George. Sigh.)
This deeper conflict, between rational, calculating Wai (the "closet assassin," Dani reckons) and manic, enthusiastically self-aggrandizing George, was perhaps the broader point of the episode. Cara and Hayley each talk in the episode about how George talks too much, doesn't listen enough, tries to "push, push, push" his ideas into action. Cara has to interrupt George at one point, telling him "Let Wai have her opinion" after he jumps in to start talking about his preferences, seconds after asking Wai hers. Wai elects to stick with George this time, but readily recognizes she can still vote against him at a later date (time still TBA, after Ep21).
This is the correct approach to playing SurvivorAU. It's a 48-day ultramarathon, not a sprint, not even a 10k or a half-marathon. As Wai herself said on the hill race challenge two episodes earlier, "Slow and steady, don't gas yourself. That's gonna be the trick." That mantra didn't pay off for her there, but it could well do so in the larger game.
Most importantly, it's great that with 90 minutes to spread across seven contestants, the editors finally have the room to build these bigger narratives, and provide the audience with a deeper understanding of who these people are and how they're playing this game that we've already been watching for 18 episodes.
Episode 20: Instead of boo-urns, yay-urns?
There was very little happening in Ep20, and everything that happened was invalidated at the end, so this is a good spot to point out the obvious: Australian Survivor's biggest problem is its structural/network requirement to have non-elimination episodes. It's really not Survivor to have 60% of the final five having been voted out once already. No matter how much Jeff Probst likes to talk up Redemption Island/Edge of Extinction, voting people out should always be voting people out in Survivor. Not "Suprise! You just got switched to the other tribe instead!" or "Surprise! Go to Exile Beach/Redemption Rock!"
SurvivorAU, however, is in a tough spot. As I understand it (from complete hearsay on twitter), their Channel 10 contract requires them to crank out eight weeks of two 1.5-hr episodes and a 1-hr episode per week. That's 24 episodes, which means even with AU's bloated 24-player casts, non-eliminations are necessary. Sure, you *could* have a 27 contestant season, but that seems exceptionally dumb when the editors already have trouble giving airtime more than five or so contestants per episode.
There are other fixes possible. Maybe if SurvivorAU's production team could adopt the US model of back-to-back filming and shorter seasons. Two 13-episode seasons a year = two more episodes than they have now, and they could even stick with their 3-episodes-a-week format and have a finale/reunion special event. Or they could keep the show as is, have back-to-back 1.5-hr episodes, and put Talking Tribal on as the hour-long program. Bring JLP in occasionally for a cameo, have the week's bootees on for exit interviews. People will tune in, right?
But until or unless any of these things happen, we're stuck with non-eliminations. And in that world, this week's new version, the "Save Scroll" urns, is perhaps one of the best formats they've come up with. In Ep19, Andrew had a 1-in-4 shot of smashing the urn that could save him and send him back into the game. He failed. Flick found the right urn with 1-in-3 chances in Ep20. What worked about this is: Everyone knew *before* voting that this was in play. They were reminded each time before voting started, as well. This factored extensively into Hayley and Wai's decisions in Ep20.
This is all the way it should be done. Let the players know before they make decisions. It would have been better earlier in the post-merge, because at this point (Final 6), alliances are pretty much set, and you face the problem Redemption Island did: Someone immediately comes back in the game (like Ozzy) and gets voted right back out.
This almost happened here, and probably would have if Dani hadn't won immunity in Ep20, forcing the Brains to vote out Flick instead. Given both options in Ep21, they chose Dani. As they should have (more on that in the next section).
Episode 21: The ascendance of Wai
As the week's three episodes came to a close, the final installment was all about Hayley and Wai's plans for moving forward to the end. They were working together partly by default, but also by choice, pinned between two extremely tight pairs: Dani and Flick (the Brawns), and George and Cara (the Brains). The entire episode was about the courtship of Wai and Hayley by the two pairs, and both women reiterated how important the decision they made at the end was. Did they make the right one?
Voting out Dani and staying with George and Cara was the less-exciting option, but it was clearly the right one. It was the same logic Wai voiced when deciding to turn on Andrew in Ep19: Dani and Flick were too big of a threat in challenges. Dani had just won two of the last three, and Flick was also a consistently formidable competitor in the same stretch, matching Hayley's performance in each competition. In contrast, George and Cara posed little threat, especially with George bailing early on two of the challenges, although Cara briefly looked like she might pull off a thrilling surprise win in the Ep20 IC.
Not only were Dani and Flick more likely to win their way to the finals, they also present massive jury risks to any Brain who faces them. Brawn-loyal or physically oriented players like Baden, Andrew, Gerald, and Emmett are four of the first five jurors. It would be suicidal for Hayley or Wai to face off against a pro athlete like Flick, or the hard-playing, alpha-slaying, Brawn-Strong Dani. In contrast, Hayley's or Wai's best possible opponents come from the pair they elected to keep around: George and Cara. (Especially with Flick lambasting George's mid-challenge quit to the jury.)
The highlight of the episode was absolutely Wai's incredible come-from-behind immunity challenge victory, though. Possibly one of the most exciting finishes in any Survivor challenge (AU, SA, or US), and with such a rewarding emotional payoff afterwards, as well. Wai seemed hopelessly behind the leaders, who had been working on their word puzzle for several minutes, but her deliberate, determined tile sliding ("slow and steady, don't gas yourself") finally paid off, giving her access to the word puzzle long after everyone had most of the words assembled. Somehow, there was still just enough time for wordsmith Wai to scan the available letters, fling them hastily into place, and yelp for JLP: "Guaranteed spot in the final five!" A miraculous comeback, an all-around inspiring effort, and a massive confidence-builder for Wai. Just one of those fleeting magical moments when it seems like anything is possible in Survivor. Perfection.
(Note to SurvivorAU: See? Nice things can happen when you have challenges with puzzles.)
- Dani and Flick's idol miscalculation: Episode 21 opened with George and Cara discussing the fallout in trust after Cara played her idol for herself at the Ep20 Tribal, an idol neither of them had told Hayley and Wai about. The episode ends with another idol secret: After Flick finds the idol late in Ep21, we see her and Dani consulting how best to use it. They agree to tell nobody about it, apparently overestimating just how on board Hayley and Wai really were with their planned blindside of George. As the edit suggests, this may have been the move they needed to make, though. Hayley and Wai had no real reason to trust Dani. Sharing the idol, and perhaps even promising to play it for one of them, if needed, might have changed their calculations (then again, perhaps not, Dani is still too big a challenge threat).
- Flick's idol opportunity: The final five round (next episode) however, is the last time an idol can be played, and the ideal spot for Flick to leverage its use. Dani's absence is Flick's gain. Hayley and Wai's obvious best move is to join up with Flick at this spot and ACTUALLY vote for George this time. Flick can secure that move by revealing her idol to them. For their parts, Hayley and Wai can secure the move by telling the truth: Dani was too dangerous to their games to keep around, while pointing out that George remains a threat to all three of them. (Then they have to flip back to Cara to take out Flick, who is a massive jury threat, at four.) There's a pretty clear path for Hayley and Wai here, although how the final challenge breaks down will determine who gets to the end. Cara, as George's partner and someone who's already been voted out, is the obvious person to bring to the F2. It'll be interesting to see how that last decision works out.
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