Survivor: Winners at War started with a plausible argument for becoming the greatest season in the history of the show. It’s ending as a season that may not even make my top 10. Heroes vs. Villains this is not, alas.
Is it bad TV? Of course not. Was this a two-hour episode? Of course not. What we have is a solid alliance—Sarah, Tony, Ben—marching toward the final three, with Tony and Sarah having received zero votes all season. No one is targeting either of them! That is incredibly impressive, yet also unsatisfying as a conclusion to an epic battle of winners. (What do you think? Here’s a poll.)
There is the clear possibility of an upset via the returnee from Edge of Extinction, which at this point would be both welcome and yet also garbage because the basic idea of Edge still sucks. But with a 8,712 person jury who’s just spent weeks and weeks with the person who will get back in the game, it’s a very strong possibility.
The returning player will be Natalie, right? At the end of the episode, which took place on the last day at the Edge of Extinction, she backed up U-Haul and emptied out her fire tokens, buying an immunity idol, three advantages in the challenge (three!), and peanut butter—and she still had six tokens left. (By the way, the menu of options they received had details about the challenge and each of the three advantages.)
Since Natalie already had an idol, she gave one to Tyson, because apparently there’s a rule about only being allowed to re-enter the game with one idol. He won his way in last time, but she’s gotten far more attention on Edge.
“She’s the queen of Extinction,” Tyson even said of Natalie, before—in the episode’s narrative, at least—she gave him an idol. “She’s the queen of the island.”
She is, though I have to at least wonder about how the length of time she spent on Extinction contributed to her wealth and thus likelihood of returning to the game. As the first person out, she had more time than everyone else to accumulate fire tokens.
Several people on Edge have gotten segments dedicated to them, but this episode made sure we remembered how far Natalie has come: “It took me a long time to get over being voted out first and feeling that worthlessness,” she said. “I feel like I’ve been grinding slowly and quietly for so long, but all this hard work is worth it.
Groundhog Day ends for Jeremy, and Nick plays too late
The last two people to join the Edge of Extinction were Jeremy—whose self-identified Groundhog Day of being a target but not being voted out finally ended—and Nick.
The episode opened with Tony, Sarah, and Ben targeting Nick. Sarah made the central alliance clear: “we’re in a lock-solid final three, no ifs, ands, or buts about it.” Tony said, “We’re 100 percent together.”
But Sarah and Tony are also clearly tighter with each other than they are with Ben, and while they wanted Nick out next, knew that Ben was a harder sell, so Sarah comically manipulated him into thinking it was his idea to propose voting out Nick. Her social game is on fire.
Then Nick won immunity. That challenge opened with one of the most beautiful shots of the season, a drone sliding backwards through trees, out into the challenge clearing, and then right through the brightly colored frames that’d been built by the challenge department.
Michele wasn’t even able to make it through her trip wires fast enough to catch the ball rolling overhead, so she never even got to her slide puzzle, and was devastated.
Back at camp, the editing is really making sure we know how bumbling Ben is with his attempts at being clever. He suggested, to his mortal enemy Jeremy (why do they hate each other so much?) that Jeremy acquire Michele’s 50/50 advantage to use on himself, and then Ben tried to slyly tell Michele that he bet Jeremy was going to try to take her advantage.
And then Michele and Jeremy just looked at each other and figured out exactly what was going on. Together, they planned to target Ben, with Tony and Nick’s help. The problem, of course, is that Tony is in a final-three deal with Ben. And Nick was not yet ready to start playing Survivor.
That group—Sarah, Tony, Ben, Nick, and Denise—targeted Michele and Jeremy, with Michele successfully flipping her 50/50 coin and using it on herself. (Had she used it on Jeremy, it would have been a 2-2 tie between her and Ben, and she would have gone home on a revote.)
That Tribal Council arrived less than a half-hour in to a two-hour episode, and this was one of the most boring episodes of The Jeff Probst Show yet, with just a lot of generic questions and vague answers. It felt endless and so unnecessary long. I could easily have found 90 seconds there for “Ancient Voices” and the opening credits sequence.
The exception was the brief discussion about how playing this game affects players when they get home: Ben said he didn’t trust his wife, Michele said she didn’t even trust people who gave her directions on the street. I really appreciate hearing this, and that time was well-spent.
Cast members become on-screen characters, but they are still real people, and being our entertainment affects them.
Okay, back to talking shit about their choices.
Michele gives the penultimate episode life
Michele gave this episode what little life it had. “I sort of feel like I took a butter knife to a gun fight, and I don’t know how I can recover,” she said at the start of the episode, but she did recover somewhat.
After the Jeremy vote, when Nick stuck with the three and Denise, instead of potentially being a swing vote, Michele laid out the truth: “We’re on the bottom of the pecking order,” Michele told Nick. “There’s no path to the end for us.”
She told us, “Nick is too naive to see it.” Nick suddenly seemed ready to play the game, but he’d waited far too long—and then accidentally sabotaged himself.
Tony, Sarah, and Ben targeted Michele and Nick, deciding to focus on Michele first. Tony said this is because she’s a goat, i.e. someone who will get no votes, but looking at the jury’s nonverbal admiration of her, I’m not sure that’s true.
But it didn’t matter: In a repeat of the episode’s first half, Michele won immunity, doing a spectacularly charming dance and also pointing out the shade she was getting from her fellow competitors, who didn’t even do that perfunctory, light reality TV cast applause thing—at least until she pointed it out.
At the immunity challenge, Ben had to do 30 percent more work than everyone else. That started with another run-and-find challenge on Extinction, where Wendell was out front but Natalie actually knew what the clue referred to, and found an advantage.
Well, a disadvantage for the immunity challenge. Natalie offered to sell it to Nick for eight fire tokens! And he accepted, getting the last two he needed from Michele. Talk about inflation: immunity idols only cost six.
Later, on Edge, Yul said in an interview that the fire token economy “adds a layer of nuance and complexity, and flexibility that didn’t exist before.” Flexibility, sure. But it seems like the opposite of nuance. In fact, you don’t have to play a nuanced game if you’re rich in tokens or idols, or can deploy various advantages to hamper other people’s games instead of playing well yourself.
Nick played the immunity challenge disadvantage anonymously against Ben, who has yet to win a challenge anyway, and had the effect of just making him paranoid, which I suppose is a small victory. But since Ben was almost even with Michele, he might have won immunity, and allowing the alliance to vote out Michele. But without her as a target, they turned to Nick. So there’s a dotted line, at least, from that disadvantage to his exit.
Back at camp, Denise put on her Eeyore costume and pretended she was going to be voted out. She asked to eat the remaining rice, volunteered to buy the tribe some more rice using fire tokens. Why do that? She told us she was just “take on the role of dejected Survivor player” for Nick and Michele’s benefit.
While Denise wasn’t actually the target, Tony’s attempts at spying finally paid off, when he perched in the tree over the water well and heard Denise talking to Ben and Sarah about dangerous Tony is.
That ended up being a sort of audience fake-out: Would Tony and Sarah actually target Denise instead of Nick? They did not, and Nick was voted out.
At Tribal Council, in my favorite moment from the episode, Michele told Jeff Probst, “I need this necklace today like a fish needs water, like you need a blue button-down and khakis.”
This was the penultimate episode of Survivor: Winners at War—and it was actually titled “The Penultimate Step of the War,” which made me giddy because that’s my second-favorite word after “defenestrate,” and so I was hoping someone would be defenestrated during the episode.
Instead, it was a bizarre episode, and not in a good way. After the final Tribal Council, we went to the Edge of Extinction to hear some nice thoughts from Amber about her appreciation of her time on Edge. But it was mostly focused on Natalie and her buying spree.
Then we were treated to several minutes of a season recap. That’s the summary that that usually starts the finale and lays out the narrative arcs as Survivor’s story producers and editors see them. I guess that means it won’t be at the start of the finale?
So yes, the “previously on Survivor” came last, and was followed by a preview of the finale, and then another scene back at camp. Survivor usually moves forward in time, but this was a Star Trek: The Next Generation time travel episode. (I exaggerate.)
A few years ago, Jeff Probst asked if Survivor should have 90-minute or two-hour episodes. This was a clear argument against that. I love long premieres, when we get a chance to really know new cast members. And some episodes absolutely merit more time, and can feel crunched when so much is compressed into 44 minutes.
Packing two votes into a single episode would have been tough, and probably less satisfying, but this episode was more padded than the Wipeout course.