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Survivor Winners at War: a great finale, but not the greatest season

“I think this the greatest season we’ve ever done,” Jeff Probst said at the start of the Survivor: Winners at War finale, which began in his garage, where he was sitting on a mini Tribal Council set built by the art department and shipped to him.

There is no way I can agree with that statement; even at its most entertaining moments, and there were quite a few, this wasn’t even close to seasons like Survivor: Borneo, Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains, and Survivor: All Stars. But I completely agree with the rest of what Probst said in that moment: “For a show that’s been on for 20 years and 40 seasons, it really is saying something. And all credit goes to the players … They deserve all of the praise.”

They do: for giving us 20 years of entertainment, and 40 seasons of engaging television.

The three-hour finale—there was no reunion, and the truncated, audience-focused format reunions have evolved into was not missed—began with a half-hour that felt like it would have also been fitting for a series finale.

No, it’s not the end of Survivor; while the show’s immediate future is uncertain, having been unable to produce its next two seasons on the normal timeline, Probst was optimistic.

But it in many ways it felt like a goodbye to a certain kind of Survivor and player. Old-school, if you will. The people whose games relied on outwitting, outplaying, and outlasting, not going out advantage-hunting.

The Edge of Extinction is a garbage element of the actual game, but it did provide much richer, more affecting television throughout the season. It gave us extended screen time with people who we’re likely not going to see play Survivor again: Boston Rob, Amber, Ethan, Yul, Tyson, Sandra.

While they stuck around to be the largest jury in the show’s history—16 people!—after the Edge of Extinction battle-back challenge, there was a lot of emotion. “Not only did it create a life for me, this show saved my life.” Ethan said, talking about a Survivor charity helped fund a treatment used during his two-time battle with blood cancer. “I just craved survival.”

The final three: Natalie, Tony, and Michele

Natalie Anderson during episode five of Survivor: Winners at War
Natalie Anderson during episode five of Survivor: Winners at War (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment)

The finale had some dramatic and emotional moments, and a satisfying conclusion. But between a rock-solid four-person alliance and editing that unsubtly kept jabbing its finger toward Tony and Natalie all season, it wasn’t surprising.

Natalie lost by a 4 to 12 vote—A SURVIVOR FINALE SHOWED THE ACTUAL VOTES! IT’S A MIRACLE!—but she made a very strong run at the end, never mind the work she did for 33 days on Extinction.

Had Natalie won, it would have also been an amazing kind-of repeat of her first win, when her twin sister Nadiya was voted out first and she went on to win the game. Her win also would have been a nice middle finger to Survivor’s very ugly history of women of color being voted out early.

As much as I would have been glad to see Natalie win, and as much work as the editing did to prove how hard she worked on Edge, she just didn’t play the game for 33 days, while Tony played an outstanding game.

Tony had a rock-solid alliance within a rock-solid alliance. He won individual immunity challenges. He was the only person in his alliance to recognize the possibility that Natalie came back from Edge with a hidden immunity idol. He received zero votes all season despite being an incredibly high-profile player.

Tony is an incredibly deserving winner with one of the strongest season-long games I’ve ever seen.

The jury clearly thought so, as Natalie told the players who were still in the game. Just watch how charmed the jury was, laughing at Tony telling stories and ignoring their questions, while they seemed perturbed that Natalie hadn’t attempted to be their BFFs.

By the way, Natalie said that her isolation was intentional strategy to try to get back into the game and not be dragged down into the depressive morass that other voted-out players were wallowing in. So, in order to get back in the game, she didn’t focus on jury management.

Natalie told EW that she told herself, “‘My head, it cannot be in the same place as some of these other people.’ People like Adam, Wendell, they literally just lulled around the beach all damn day from morning to night. And that kind of energy to me, I feel rubs off on people. So, I was just doing my own thing.”

Michele, alas, was mostly shut out of the conversation, and received zero votes. But she did join an elite group, as did Natalie. In Survivor’s history, four players have now won Survivor and then returned to the game and made the final Tribal Council in their very next season: Natalie, Michele, Parvati, and Sandra.

Also, Michele played a central role in the finale. Her alliance with Natalie, and their attempt to break up the final four, was what made this a thrilling three hours. Without that, it would have been as flat as much of the back half of this season.

Just watch the dance Natalie and Michele did when they realized they both had immunity! Or watch Michele kick down the puzzle after she came from behind and won immunity!

Michele Fitzgerald during Survivor: Winners at War episode 8
Michele Fitzgerald during Survivor: Winners at War episode 8 (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment)

The jury did acknowledge that all three took very different paths: Michele constantly on the bottom, fighting her way back; Natalie surviving; Tony dominating.

But Natalie was right: “The old-school people—basically the impression is that Tony’s doing everything and everybody else is just taking instructions.”

It was a solid final three, yet I can’t shake that part of what felt a little flat about the season as a whole was how the editing basically made this conclusion obvious. Just look at how many confessionals Tony had all season compared to every other player.

His win has been telegraphed all season, never mind his social media activity.

Even Natalie’s return from the Edge was obvious because she was really the only person who got focus last week, although her early stumbles in the challenge made me think I was wrong about that.

The three advantages that Natalie bought for the challenge were absolutely massive: she got to skip an entire obstacle, skip digging in the sand (which is always exhausting), and had one-third of her rope bridge completed for her. I suppose the fact that Wendell almost beat her proves that these advantages aren’t considerable.

Still, subtracting Natalie and her extraordinary efforts from the equation, a player bought their way back into the game, and that was made possible by how early they were voted out. That’s not game design that I like, and I hope Edge really is extinct now.

Idols are flushed, and Survivor’s sexism is addressed

Natalie Anderson, Ben Driebergen, Michele Fitzgerald, Tony Vlachos, Denise Stapley and Sarah Lacina at Tribal Council during the Survivor Winners at War finale.
Natalie Anderson, Ben Driebergen, Michele Fitzgerald, Tony Vlachos, Denise Stapley and Sarah Lacina at Tribal Council during the Survivor Winners at War finale. (Image from Survivor via CBS)

After the Edge of Extinction challenge, everyone was an emotional mess, and we heard from a few of the jurors about their Survivor experience. That’s been one thread I’ve appreciated this season: explaining, on-screen, how this game affects the very real people who play it.

“I wanted to be here for him,” Amber said of her husband, Rob. “I never thought I had a chance in hell.” She then explained that she’d internalized a message she got after she won Survivor All Stars: “Even when you read my name as the all-star winner,” Amber told Jeff Probst, “I knew that nobody really felt like I deserved it. Everybody thought that this guy deserved it, and the only reason why they voted is because they hated him more than they hated me.”

At the first Tribal Council—the one where three of the five played idols, forcing a Denise versus Sarah re-vote—Sarah opened up about something similar: the double-standard fans and players consistently demonstrate.

“If a woman in this game lies or cheats or steals, then she’s fake and phony and a bitch. If a guy does it, it’s good game play. If a guy does it, they’re a stud. What it is, is it’s a gender bias, and it holds me back and it holds other women back from the way we should be allowed to play the game,” Sarah said. After she won $1 million Survivor: Game Changers, she said, “I felt like I was such a bad person, and I’m not.”

No, definitely not, nor was Amber an undeserving winner.

This opened up a conversation about sexism, and Jeff Probst said something surprising, an admission I appreciated. “Men have never had to deal with a lot of the labels that come with playing aggressively or lying or cheating,” he said. “Let me own my part. I am certain right now. If I were to look back at all of the comments I have made over 20 years, I would find the exact same bias in me. Who I call by last names.”

And then Jeff Probst asked the two men what they thought about gender bias against women, which is the most peak Jeff Probst thing imaginable. (And don’t even get me started on Ben’s friendly, benevolent sexism when he started talking about women being their mothers and daughters; or his giving Sarah “permission” to vote him out, an entire sequence of events that I did not find affecting at all.)

Of course it’s important to include men in this conversation, but maybe—just maybe, please—start with the people who are affected the most, like the other women sitting right there in front of you?

Also, before we give Jeff Probst the Nobel Peace Prize for coming to terms with his own sexism, let’s remember that this has been a problem for years. In 2013, Linda Holmes wrote that sexism is silently killing Survivor.”

And just look around. The changes Probst and his production have made to the game over the past five to 10 years have resulted in:

Of course men are going to win sometimes, and deserve their wins, as Tony did. But what matters most are patterns, and there’s an undeniable pattern here, and it’s wildly imbalanced. In the show’s first decade, the wins and votes were pretty even.

And just look no further than the costumes the final three were wearing during the rainy, cold final Tribal Council: Natalie and Michele with bare shoulders and their Buffs around their chests, while Tony was in a long-sleeved shirt. Those clothes were selected by the producers, who decided what Survivors wear, and costuming women in skimpy outfits is one of the many ways in which Survivor’s subtle biases creep into the game.

More significantly: This Tribal Council was filmed after the events of Survivor: Island of the Idols, a dismal season I’m sure we’re all glad to forget. Even though the show had failed during production, they also failed continuously throughout the fall with both the editing of the episodes and their public responses.

In other words, there’s still a lot of work to go. And that’s okay! I’m certainly not perfect, and I sure as hell have grown in the almost-20 years I’ve been writing about Survivor and other reality TV shows here.

The mistake is in imagining that an acknowledgement or identification of the problem is the same as solving it or working on changing things.

That’s why I reacted viscerally when, at the next Tribal Council, Probst said to Lacina that there was “some gender bias crap—it’s now gone.” Identifying the pain of sexism and bias does not make it evaporate. Only vigilance and work can do that.

Survivor ends, for now

Survivor Winners at War's cast during the virtual reunion
Survivor Winners at War’s cast during the virtual reunion (Image from Survivor via CBS)

During the opening minutes of the Survivor: Winners at War finale, Jeff Probst proved why he’s such an excellent host, navigating between multiple camera angles—from cameras he’d set up himself in his garage.

“I fell like such a rude host, cutting everybody off so fast,” he said at the end of the show, since there was no time to talk to Tony, and certainly not to Natalie or Michele. But that was about time, not the format, and it worked just fine.

Some fans have been asking Probst to have an online reunion, where he can actually talk to the cast, and I’d love that, if it was just Q&A, which is the part of the reunions I miss the most.

The reveal of the final votes was still as exciting as ever, even with the finalists in little teleconferencing windows (though I didn’t understand why they were using that footage when they also had an HD camera in Tony’s living room, at least, from which we briefly saw a clear shot of him and his family). It was especially fun hearing Tony’s kid saying he’d won while Jeff was mid-count.

At the end of last week’s episode, in the final moments on the Edge of Extinction, Amber said, “As much as I hate this place, I’m sorta going to miss it. It’s not really the people—it’s just, um, I’m gonna miss this amazing view,” she said.

Amber added that what she’d miss is “the simplicity of it all. We don’t have any distractions. … That’s the blessing. You don’t get to do that at home.”

Who knew that, less than a year later, we’d all be at home watching this finale—at least, those of us whose jobs aren’t critically important, and also those of us who aren’t imbeciles.

It’s unclear when Survivor will return, though Jeff Probst was quite optimistic: “We’re committed to being on in the fall with our 41st season,” he said.

Curiously, he also encouraged teenagers to apply. Are they going to attempt some kind of teenage version of Survivor this summer?

Whether it is back this fall or next spring, or even in the fall of 2021, I’m sure Survivor will survive this. But I will certainly miss it until then.

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  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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