Returning to the game that changed her life in a way she could have never expected, Sam felt like she had unfinished business. Spending so much time analysing herself, gameplay theory, archetypes and threat levels, she became a student of the game.
“The best preparation for a game of Survivor, in my opinion, is a failed experience,” Sam told 10 play. “I took pleasure in playing it so much more deeply this time around.”
As two returning players, and a power couple, Mark and Sam spent all of pre-merge on separate tribes, playing very separate games but both finding themselves in majority alliances. Despite having two of the biggest targets on their backs from the outset, Mark and Sam were able to forge real relationships that minimised their threat levels, making them the last couple left in the game.
But all that changed, and after 10 days of copping heat for the Idol she swindled out of Jesse’s hands, Sam’s time in the game finally came to an end. And, like every move she made in the season, it was all strategy.
Just before the votes were read, as Jonathan LaPaglia asked if anyone would play an Idol, Josh turned to his allies and begged Mark to play one on Sam’s behalf. The pair hesitated, time was up and Sam was voted out.
But according to Sam, just before that moment she whispered to Mark, “Don’t play the Idol, I’m good to go”.
Looking ahead, had Mark played the Idol the pair would have both remained in the game, with one idol between the two of them. “If you just forecast ahead, of course they’re going to hit us again because we’re still the only couple in the game,” Sam explained, “that becomes the biggest threat.”
Ultimately, the pair would have been split and they may have been left with one player in the game with no Idols. Instead, Sam left the game with Mark holding both, and just a few Tribals to survive before the final battle.
“It’s a risky move… but it shows just how much Mark and I were on the same page of one of us at the end and one of us at the Jury.
“Both of us were willing to sacrifice ourselves,” Sam said. “We were both on the same page, we were playing as one.”
There was no part of Sam that wanted to be at a final tribal next to her husband. One of them, she reiterated, was always supposed to be on the Jury.
"That’s the worst strategy, you would most likely split votes, you also wouldn’t have a guaranteed vote from the Jury… we would have never allowed that,” she said.
“It goes against the competitive individual desire to be Sole Survivor but my whole career has been about using ego to get to a start line and then being adaptable to get to the finishing line.
“Mark and I have always felt, with this season particularly, either one of us getting all the way to the end is success for the two of us.”
In their original season, Sam and Mark were voted out on day 16 and day 18 respectively and didn’t make it to merge. This time around, the game fundamentally changed gears when the pair were reunited.
“We were one of four couples to make it so there was this pride that we had done that, and then we realised we had to actually find a way to compliment our game styles,” Sam said.
Working out that their alliances didn’t line-up, and that they had hoped to work with different people moving forward, Sam and Mark had to figure out how to navigate the game now they were playing as a couple once again.
“The reality was one of us was going to have to yield, and it ended up being me… a lot of people say I was a subjugated woman, I had no agency, and I talk about agency in the game because I knew it would be like that if I went with Mark’s alliance.
“Perception is reality in Survivor, even if it’s not the truth, so it was complicated but I feel like we made the right decision.”
One of her most celebrated and polarising moves of the game, stealing Jesse’s Idol right before blindsiding him, added an intensity and drama to Sam’s game and holding onto the Idol for 10 days that saw her cop heat for a long time — from fellow players and the growing jury.
“I kept having to think, the way this Idol is played has to outweigh the lie, which is why I was clear that I couldn’t use the Idol to save myself,” she explained.
“The Idol had to be to save someone else, and then galvanise that trust to move forward, or as it turned out I used it to sacrifice myself and for Mark to go and, fingers crossed, I can take the heat and he can be a bit more clean with the Jury.”
But the Idol was just one of Sam’s many strategic wins in the game, convincing Khanh to hand over his Immunity Necklace to her, or what she believes is one of her best moves in the game; throwing a rogue vote on Sandra and letting Dave take the blame.
“If it was Season 2 Sam, I would have felt the need to tell people I had done that, because I would have felt guilty. I was going to tell Jesse because we were close, but then he’d know a bit more into my game style and could use it against me down the track,” she said.
Early in the season in a massive meltdown, Dave turned on Sam and threw her name out, accusing her of trying to blindside him. With the obvious tension between them, Sam used the opportunity to put one vote on Sandra, despite everyone clearly assuming she’d vote Dave.
“I was probably the last person people would have expected to have written down Sandra’s name, so I didn’t have to really lie, I just let people talk about it being Dave and I just affirmed it.
“I couldn’t believe what happened, and for the rest of the game Sandra held an animosity towards Dave… it’s a different style of gameplay,” she continued, “where it’s, in some ways, very hidden. It’s not about voting someone out, but it’s about creating mistrust.”
Watching the show back has come with its own set of obstacles but Sam admitted she was proud of herself.
“I’m proud I was a player, proud that I was able to not be influenced by the fact that female strategists — particularly ones that lean into villainous gameplay — do get demonised online.”
After the move against Jesse, the response online slammed Sam as a snake, an ice queen, they insulted her looks, her relationship, her abilities as a parent. She was criticised for not playing the game enough, and simultaneously playing the game too much.
“It has been heavy and, I feel like the last three weeks, watching it back I’ve been attacked for many different reasons… I’ve had to contend with all of that, and what I’ve come out of it the other side is I know myself, I know my gameplay. This was a game.
“Gender definitely has played a role and how people perceive me as a player, and the only way we’re going to move through that and celebrate female strategists, and maybe female villains in Survivor, is the more times we see it. Perhaps the perception will shift to being more accepting of it and maybe celebrating it.
“Last night was the first time I felt mass support,” she said of her final Tribal Council, “and maybe it’s because I’m out and therefore I’m now an underdog or a ‘fallen player’. If I was still in I probably would have been hated.
“You play the game for you, and you play the game for your family. That was my focus all along.”
With Sam now the newest member of the jury, and Mark holding two Idols, only time will tell if the pair will finally get to settle their unfinished business with the Survivor gods.
Australian Survivor: Blood V Water continues Sunday - Monday at 7.30 on Network 10 and 10 play on demand