Survivor can be all of many things – a mental game, a sport, a drama, comedy or romance and, this week on Return of the Outcasts, it was a heist.
Through the very end of the pre-merge and one giant full-cast vote, the decision makers on new Masu decided most of the action, setting up the chess board for the inevitable merge. However, with choices made on one fatefully wrong read, players were sacrificed against their greater good, and one pivotal powerbroker emerged as the ultimate queen.
When we left new Masu last week, Tejan and Toni, formerly on the outs of their original tribe, had been swapped into an idyllic swing vote position. Vying for their votes on one side were Thoriso, Felix and Pinty, three former Yontaus aligned with the outsiders they hoped to work with on the other tribe. On the other, fast friends Killarney and Steffi, the latter of whom had been an essential part of the reigning Breakfast Club alliance that had alienated Toni and Tejan to begin with on the first iteration of Masu. Steffi was a core member of that group. Ensconced in the five, a closer triumvirate of women and a duo with Marian, she may have even been the best connected of them all.
You would therefore think Toni and Tejan had Steffi right in their sights – they could target this influential opponent, or at least flush her Idol, and make a hefty dent in the other side. However, Steffi’s strong opposing position could be camouflaged – she had been left out of the first vote of the season, clearly could build strong social bonds across the aisle and was already seen as a possible flip target. With that disguise, she went deep undercover, fully convincing the swing votes she was on their side, and helping them take out Pinty, then Thoriso, players she clashed with socially and was threatened by strategically, respectively.
While it looked like Toni and Tejan had full control, the real moves were happening behind the scenes with Steffi as the puppeteer. Steffi’s name was barely ever mentioned, without the need for her idol, Marian’s Diplomatic Immunity to steal her for the other tribe or the requirement to use the ever-loyal Killarney as a shield or sacrifice to survive to the next phase. Toni and Tejan did the work but moved themselves backwards, and we were again reminded why read and awareness are Survivor’s most crucial currencies.
Steffi’s hidden allegiances would have to be tested eventually, and a major twist where both tribes would go to Tribal, but only cast votes for someone from the losing tribe, set the stage. Still considered a key cog in the new Masu alliance, Steffi quickly switched back to her day ones, albeit after a brief Patty Hearst moment where her loyalties looked slightly tenuous. She subtly played up Toni’s dictatorial approach to the vote, solidified a final two bond with Killarney and ensured Felix was on side after being alienated by Toni and Tejan and reflecting his season seven bond with Danté and Meryl.
The intricacies of this vote were complex. Yontau lost the challenge and Marian jumped ship to the other tribe, meaning Breakfast Clubbers Meryl, Danté and Shane, along with loveable Yontau underdogs Dino and Phil, and perennial double agent Palesa were vulnerable. Clashing perspectives, fragile numbers and an inability to communicate between the tribes added to the complexity. On top of that, nearly every at-risk player held a “pouch” – not necessarily an idol, but the suggestion of a trinket, pushing a looming spectre of doubt that made their names that much more uncertain.
It all converged in a live Tribal Council that will make your head spin but here’s where we landed. Steffi and her enormous influence helped push the vote to Meryl and Marian’s target in Palesa, and the Breakfast Club managed to keep all their members, without the threat of being Idoled out, and with definitive numbers going into merge.
Fascinatingly, the new outsiders are all on their own journey with this bad news. The nature of the live Tribal and communal agreement on Palesa made the vote near-unanimous, rather than a more binary 7-5 blindside. It was chilling watching Tejan protest that the vote wasn’t adding up, wondering why they’d take out one of their own and slowly starting to piece together that that lack of numbers must mean that the call is coming from inside the house. As Steffi laughed next to him and Toni put it all down to “fluidity”, it looks like Steffi’s ruse can continue.
Pinty came into the game, like many, promising a softer social game. While she did prove prophetic, first pushing the idea of Tevin and Seamus as tribe kings, then rightly warning of the dangers of Steffi making it to a merge and back to her true allies, her conflicts with Tania, Shona and Steffi headlined her experience, and she was taken out in the pursuit of tribe peace.
Thoriso’s pre-season promise was added sociability, not just to pretend to invest in the other players within her natural gaming, but to actually care. This vow became too strong – on her final day and with the majority splitting their four votes in a 2-2-2 configuration, Thoriso knew she could switch her vote to ally Felix, to send him home in a 3-2-1. Knowing she couldn’t read Tejan and any promises he gave of saving her, and aware that she needed to make the move for herself, Thoriso simply couldn’t do that to her friend. It was a beautiful, tragic transformation from her first season, the tin man journey down the yellow brick road of her return, and a heartbreaking outcome for many obsessed with her impeccable awareness and passion for the game.
As one new queen emerged, Survivor South Africa’s resident royalty was sent out of the game. Palesa built an unfortunate starting position into a game on the margins, playing double agent in a way that should’ve set her up with options at the merge. However, these connections across groups also meant she was expendable to everyone, especially as they acted in self-preservation at a chaotic vote and, with Meryl eyeing her savvy hold over Danté, without even the idea of a trinket to keep her safe. It’s a compromise-style vote we often see when big groups have limited options and a difficult loss of a franchise icon who only added to her enormous legacy. Long live the queen.
Within this frenetic double vote, Toni and Phil won the individual portions of the challenge and were sent to the Outpost, where they were able to bet on a name to go home, with the possibility of winning a half-Idol each. While their vote for Shane obviously didn’t work out without numbers to make it happen, the concept was in winning influence, rather than immunity, and the incentive to work together for safety, power and a shared advantage that wasn’t to be.
Unpowered advantages were something of a theme this week. Danté’s unusable Masu Idol was instead employed as a decoy. Dino was given the Yontau Idol in the cross-tribe exchange with Toni seen around the world, which worked to shield him, didn’t need to be played and has now expired. Meryl’s new Tribal Council Pass absolutely has power though, found in the centre of a cake in the tried and tested Survivor tradition of private rewards, where once again the work of the poor kitchen staff was left strewn across the floor.
Shane stumbled on a telling red rope in the Episode 11 cliffhanger as Toni and Phil signed his bounty at the Outpost. While we instantly found out in the next episode that it was actually Diplomatic Immunity that could no longer be played, it spoke to this season’s original and captivating use of structure in its extended episode order. That led us to the final, and maybe my favourite, moment of the week – rather than leaving Tribal Council in their usual fashion after the last vote, Nico instead presented the players with new yellow buffs. As the notion of the merge defined the season theme and delineated the tribes, placing it here treated it with the magnitude it deserved, and Phil and Dino’s reaction to making this milestone after a six-person demolition of pre-mergers made it all worthwhile.
Biggest Winner: It’s criminal how much Steffi got done this week.
Biggest Loser: Toni’s misplaced trust in Steffi has put her on the outs at the merge, with the numbers to save her sent out the door by her own hand.
Shocking Moment: Blindfold challenges are a Survivor staple, and Yontau innovated the formula with true villainy, yelling, cheering and baiting the other tribe to throw off a frustrated Thoriso and create meme moments for the ages.
Best Quote: Danté started the week calling himself the “messiah” and telling Palesa he would “walk through the desert” for her, as his character evolution becomes even more delightfully dramatic.
Prediction: The Breakfast Club will hold strong for a couple of votes before a coup on Danté is served for lunch.