A history lesson: the theme was first introduced in US Survivor’s season 27 (aptly also titled Blood vs. Water), where 10 returnees brought along a plus one for the first time in series history.
Initially fans were concerned that a theme that unique could irrevocably change the game into something entirely different – and they weren’t really wrong, but it was in more fascinating, emotional and bold ways than anyone expected.
The season was so popular that they brought the theme right back for season 29 (San Juan Del Sur), where 18 newbies again competed in pairs and built on the nuances of the format.
Both seasons stand the test of time and are often highly ranked among the pantheon of US Survivor standouts.
With Australia’s first foray into the theme debuting this week, we’re offering a spoiler-free rundown, based on these two seasons, of what you can reasonably expect. A teaser: revenge, drama and betrayal. Enjoy!
Survivor players in their very nature should be (but aren’t always) deceptively self-interested to their core, and if they reject this golden rule to their detriment, that’s really on them.
Blood V Water is the only concept that bakes selflessness into the theme - in season 27’s Redemption Island mechanism, players in the game could swap places with their eliminated loved ones, literally sacrificing their place in the tribe and earning emotional payoff (and strategic ripples, with players targeted in the hopes their strong partner would trade) in those decisions that became the best ever use of Redemption Island.
We’re yet to see what sacrifices will be offered, accepted and rejected in the murky (blood versus) waters of AU’s iteration, but either way I’m here for it.
Sure, players often try to throw challenges for strategic purposes and to manage threat levels, but you’ve never seen real pain in winning until someone is wrestling their mother to the ground. In Blood V Water, every win means a loss for someone you may care about more than yourself, and you become the one to deprive them of warmth, comfort, food, safety and often tribe favour.
In season 29, Exile Island was used to facilitate individual duels, and a win meant sending your loved one away from their tribe, reward-less and vulnerable. With Australian Survivor’s penchant for epic individual battles, the challenges will take on another emotional layer where every win is bittersweet.
In a game built on connections, Blood V Water changes the structure of pretty much everything. Pairs connect with other pairs, individuals who have lost their loved ones early often find solace and allies in each other.
Your partner’s fate, something you largely can’t control, structures your own game. Speaking of lack of control, your loved one is also making relationships and building a reputation on their own tribe, they could vote out the loved one of your closest ally, and you could suffer or benefit to weaken or embolden them.
Players can make friends, enemies, hit lists and innate connections with opposite-tribe opponents they haven’t even met, and you could go home for a wrong that wasn’t even perpetuated on your beach, so you have to hope your loved one is acting as a weapon, not an anchor.
The stories on Blood V Water are innately intertwined (much like the two literal Twines who are playing on this current season). Without spoiling too much about the US outcomes, dualities play out in the game in fascinating ways, sometimes even across multiple seasons, with loved ones who are used to being totally tethered ripped apart, and pairs with more variant lives watching their paths converge in the game itself.
With such a close connection to real life, the story elements end up feeling personal and sometimes strangely cosmic.
In the early days, Survivor was strictly tribal, and mechanisms such as swaps, external islands and idols were introduced, and continue to be introduced, to prevent ‘Pagongings’ (translation: the full decimation of one tribe by another).
With more prominent connections than your group on the starting mat, Blood V Water is much like the second half of its name: strategically fluid and emotionally muddy. Cross-tribe connections are ingrained and loyalty is on a spectrum, highlighting fun strategic complexities from the early to the late game.
Survivor is defined by its phases, with original tribes, swaps and the merge all making for different versions of the game. In this theme, those disparities are ramped up, as you play against your loved ones and then meet them in hybrid settings. Every player starts in the same boat – with one loved one on the other tribe, as that changes the game shifts dramatically.
Emotions and Motivations
The personal nature of playing with loved ones can add emotional wrinkles that range from petty – think, trying to politic before tribal council with a bickering couple who are more focused on their argument than your life in the game – to the extreme – the rare and game-changing move of putting a loved one down on parchment is instantly iconic.
In terms of motivation, rocking up to a challenge to see who the other tribe booted last night has more weight than ever and revenge is a dish best served in the Blood V Water theme.
Beyond the familial connections, Blood V Water is, of course, the same core Survivor you know and love, but the challenges, idol plays, blindsides and strategies all carry this complexity that makes the game that much messier for the players. Whether they’re forced to drag each other through the game or tear each other apart, we’ll be there, with popcorn.