Over the coming months, Inside Survivor is undertaking its biggest list ranking yet, as we count down the 100 best episodes of Survivor ever. As always with these kinds of lists, it’s entirely subjective, and we’re sure many fans will have different opinions. This is simply Inside Survivor’s ranking. Join us each weekday for a new entry.
Season: Winners at War
Episode: “It All Boils Down To This” (Episode 14)
Original Air Date: May 13, 2020
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Winners At War is a culmination of 20 years of Survivor history. It was perhaps the most anticipated season of all-time, or at least since Heroes vs. Villains ten years earlier. And the season finale illustrates beautifully how these Survivor icons can hook an audience not just through 14 episodes but two decades of TV. It’s the apex of an era, crowning the ultimate champion of champions and awarding an unprecedented $2 million.
Sometimes, Survivor finales struggle to create a viable threat to the perceived frontrunner, but “It All Boils Down To This” manages this with the looming spectacle of the Edge of Extinction. While certainly not a fan-favorite twist, the Edge does its job in giving early boots (in this case, the old school players) more screen-time. It also allows those eliminated players an opportunity to get back in the game. It’s controversial, for sure, but there is no denying that the Edge plays its part in adding suspense to the finale.
Despite Natalie Anderson, Tyson Apostol, and Wendell Holland all having advantages (Natalie having three!), the Battle Back challenge is surprisingly tense and closely run. The action is back-and-forth, and it isn’t clear who is going to seize the moment. Ultimately, Natalie, the first boot of the season, is able to catch up with the others, slightly edging out Wendell to win the challenge and earn her spot back in the game.
Natalie’s return instantly shakes things up, especially as far as Tony Vlachos is concerned. Tony had been running the game for most of the post-merge, but now a serious threat stands in his way. Natalie quickly teams up with underdog Michele Fitzgerald, who wins the first Immunity challenge of the night (the same challenge she won in Kaoh Rong). With an idol in her back pocket, Natalie tells Michele they can use it to advance both of them further, setting their target on Ben Driebergen. Meanwhile, Tony’s pleas to split the vote in case of Natalie having an idol falls on deaf ears.
At Tribal Council, we end up in a no-vote situation, similar to the Final 6 scenario in Survivor: Cambodia, as Natalie, Tony, and Ben all play their respective idols. This cancels out the votes against Ben and Natalie, leaving only Denise Stapley and Sarah Lacina eligible to receive votes. The tribe unanimously agrees to send Denise to the jury on the revote.
While this Tribal is memorable for the idol drama, it’s more important for the exchange between Lacina and Jeff Probst regarding the influence of gender politics in Survivor. Lacina’s attempt to open the jury’s minds to the nature of her and Tony’s partnership helps kick-off a discussion about how gameplay is treated differently depending on gender. Probst even calls himself out for his part in this gender bias, in how it’s predominantly male players he calls by their last names (Donaldson, Cochran, Devens, etc.).
Lacina then proves her prowess as a player by showing off some savvy detective skills and her impressive social game. Talking to Natalie at the water well, while Tony observes from his Spy Nest, Lacina convinces Natalie she’s on her side. She uses this to get Natalie to reveal her idol, having noticed the San Juan Del Sur champ hiding it earlier. When Lacina tells Ben and Tony about Natalie’s idol, something shocking happens. Ben offers himself up as a sacrifice, giving Lacina permission to vote him out.
While the decision is baffling in the moment and might seem like Ben is quitting, things are different when you reevaluate the reasons all these winners came back. Ben’s journey was a personal one and all about perception. He wanted to go down as a hero helping his friend, and he ultimately falls on his sword for Lacina.
But, if you thought that was emotional, it doesn’t compare to the Final 4 Tribal Council. After Natalie wins the final Immunity challenge and chooses to take Michele to the Final 3, Lacina steps up to take on her Cops R Us partner, Tony, in the fire-making challenge. Those who have followed the show know the weight of this face-off. The Lacina and Tony arc is one of the show’s all-time best, from their early friendship in Cagayan, to the betrayal, to reforming Cops R Us in Winners At War. To see it come down to this, with Tony literally in tears after ending Sarah’s game, is quite the sight to behold.
The Final Tribal sees the jury commending all three finalists for their merits: Tony for his ability to outplay both physically and strategically, Michele for her being able to outwit the competition despite being on the bottom, and Natalie for outlasting the Edge and making it back into the game. But it’s Tony who has the jury in the palm of his hands, making them laugh with his Spy Shack tales. Given his reputation and threat level, nobody expected Tony to make it this far, let alone do so while dominating, and he is rewarded in a 12-4-0 vote.
As Tony is crowned the second two-time winner (via video chat due to the pandemic), Jeff and the viewers say goodbye to this epic season. Many of these goodbyes are personal for fans who have followed the show and these winners for years. This is best summed up after the Battle Back challenge, where the likes of Amber and Rob Mariano, Tyson, and Kim Spradlin talk about how Survivor has changed them. Seeing these old school legends for potentially the last time on screen reemphasized my love for Survivor.
Survivor is a cutthroat game that involves lying and deception, but as Jeff serenades in the finale, “We are all part of this sort of giant weird family.” Survivor is a show that connects generations of people, families, kids, nerdy superfans. In the harshest of times, I flashback to this episode, to Tony and his sons celebrating his second win, to the conclusion of Amber and Rob’s love story, to Ethan Zohn’s fortitude over cancer, and it gives me a warm fuzzy feeling, like a big, comforting hug.
Check back on Monday when we reveal which episode placed at number 42. You can check out the previous entries here.