Best Season Rankings – No. 13 – Winners At War

The Best Season countdown continues.

Photo: CBS

Over the next few weeks, Inside Survivor is counting down all forty Survivor seasons from worst to first. 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 No: 40
Broadcast Date: February 12 – May 13, 2020
Location: Mamanuca Islands, Fiji
No. of Castaways: 20


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It’s tough to rank the most recent season. There will always be a level of recency bias, which can work both in the season’s favor and against it. For Winners At War, the recency probably plays to its advantage. Let’s give some context. At the time of writing, the world is still in the midst of a pandemic. This has affected people in various ways and changed the way we all live our daily lives. For Survivor, the series is postponed indefinitely. Who knows when we’ll see a new season? And so, right now, our last image of the show is Winners At War, and in many ways, that is perfect. If Survivor was never to return, what better way to bow out than with this celebratory, landmark season with an unbelievable winner.

Before I continue, I have to mention the elephant in the room: the Edge of Extinction. I still hate the twist, and it very well could have tanked the entire season. All the credit to Natalie Anderson for how she dominated the Edge, but if a first boot returned at the Final 6 and then won the Champion of Champions edition, I’m not sure Survivor could ever be taken seriously again. Thankfully, that’s not what happens, and looking back, Natalie’s late-game surge actually adds some excellent tension and suspense to the final episode. If I can use a wrestling analogy, it’s like how WWE uses Roman Reigns in the final two of the Royal Rumble each year, knowing fans don’t want him to win, and, therefore, when he loses, it makes people that much happier with the eventual winner. That’s kind of like Winners At War, as Natalie threatens Tony Vlachos‘s crown, only to ultimately come up short.

Let’s talk about Tony, who, coming into this season, was undoubtedly one of the biggest threats. Even with his early exit in Game Changers, his winning game in Cagayan was so impressive and memorable that it was difficult to imagine these other winners keeping him around. Making the merge would be a huge feat, let alone winning the whole thing. Yet, Tony does the impossible, and he does it without compromising his personality or entertainment value. While he contains his chaotic playstyle early on, he still unleashes that Vlachos energy in other ways, like his rickety coconut-climbing ladder or his late-night heist with Sarah Lacina. Once he makes the merge, the “sucker punch” he promised arrives, as he turns up the Tony-ness with the Spy Nests and blindsides. More than anything, though, it’s the Cops R Us relationship with Sarah that comes to define Tony’s game and the season as a whole. It’s one of the best multi-season arcs in Survivor, from cautious allies to bitter enemies to best friends, culminating in a highly emotional fire-making challenge.

Sarah and Tony
Photo: CBS

Of course, some will criticize Winners At War for its boot order, especially with all the old schoolers leaving pre-merge. That’s a valid criticism for sure, as it is heartbreaking to see the likes of Amber Mariano and Ethan Zohn not get a real shot to play after waiting so long to return. But, I suppose there would come the defense of the Edge, which at least provides some emotional finality to these players’ Survivor journies, even if it isn’t quite as satisfying as seeing them play the game as intended. Also, it’s not as if these old schoolers don’t deliver in their short time in the main game. There is the excitement of the unlikely Parvati Shallow & Rob Mariano partnership early on, Danni Boatwright’s scattered paranoia, Yul Known breaking down the “Poker Alliance,” Rob’s failed Buddy System strategy, and Sandra Diaz-Twine being epically dethroned by Denise Stapley. And, honestly, it’s just beautiful seeing all these old school winners back and interacting with one another.

However, while the old school slaughter is painful, this is still a cast of winners, and there are no real slouches on this season. The merge still features the likes of Tony, Sarah, Kim Spradlin, Jeremy Collins, and Tyson Apostol (returning from the Edge). And you have lesser appreciated winners like Adam Klein, Michele Fitzgerald, and Sophie stepping out of the shadows and bringing their own slice of entertainment. Adam’s underdog run and bold plays provide shock and humor. Sophie cements herself as a great strategist. And Michele shows off a confidence perhaps lacking in her first season, as we see in her gameplay and interactions, especially those awkwardly entertaining conversations with her ex Wendell Holland. There are lots of interesting little relationships and feuds, like the Jeremy vs. Ben Driebergen beef, the Jeremy & Tony friendship, Adam vs. Ben, and, of course, the aforementioned Tony and Sarah dynamic.

Sure, the season isn’t perfect; it has many modern-day Survivor issues like under-editing and advantage overload. But this cast overcomes those factors. Take, for example, the Fire Tokens, an intriguing twist but flawed in implementation, yet made worthwhile if only for how Tony reacts to the Extortion twist. The legendary cast and milestone of the season powers above any less than stellar moments. Remember, many thought a winners season would never happen; even Jeff Probst himself waved off the idea for years. So, it feels special just to see these 20 winners from across various eras of the show on the same beach. It’s the end of an era in many ways, as seen in the post-Battle Back scene in the finale. For many of these iconic players, that was likely their final goodbye. And so, as a celebration of Survivor, Winners At War is worthy of its high ranking.


The opening toast — As I mentioned above, just seeing all these past winners together on the same beach is incredible. The feeling hits in the premiere’s opening moments as the 20 winners are gathered before Probst, who hands them all a glass before toasting to 20 years of Survivor.

The Poker Alliance — One of the cool things about Winners At War is that, unlike past returnee seasons, it doesn’t shy away from exposing outside-the-game relationships. That is never more the case than with the so-called Poker Alliance, which becomes a target of Yul and the others the Dakal tribe. In an unprecedented scene, Yul breaks down the members of this Poker Alliance as the episode flashes to a televised poker tournament featuring Tyson, Rob, Jeremy, and Kim.

Michele & Wendell — Speaking of outside relationships, the past romance drama between Michele and Wendell becomes a talking point in the post-swap episodes. It makes for some awkward conversations, though ultimately fizzles out as a storyline.

Tony’s ladder — During his self-imposed “probation period,” Tony tries channeling his frantic energy into other activities. This includes building a rickety-ass ladder to go coconut picking. What follows is a highly comical scene of the tribe panicking as Tony scales his ramshackle ladder… which, surprisingly, works.

Denise slays the Queen — In one of the most shocking moves of the season, Sandra uncharacteristically gives away her idol to Denise, hoping to gain an ally and pull off a blindside at the same time. However, Denise takes the opportunity to dethrone the Queen, using her own idol against her. Afterward, Sandra decides it’s not worth her time staying on the Edge. In her mind, she was beaten fair and square and stands little chance of beating the others in a physical challenge. It’s a bittersweet goodbye to Sandra’s Survivor journey.

Adam’s podium idol — In of the season’s funniest moments, Adam believes an idol is attached to Probst’s podium at Tribal. Before the votes are read, Adam walks over to the podium and tries to unlodge this decoration from the box. It doesn’t budge. While it’s played for humor, Adam’s logic is valid, and it was definitely worth the attempt.

Jeremy says peace out — Having bought an advantage that allows him to leave Tribal before the vote, a worried Jeremy decides to ditch his tribemates and return to camp. This causes chaos as those remaining at Tribal attempt to figure out a Plan B now that their prime target just left.

Extortion/Sophie blindside — In one of the best episodes of the season, Tony is extorted for six Fire Tokens, which if he doesn’t fulfil he loses the chance to play in the Immunity Challenge. While the twist in itself is questionable, Tony turns it into brilliance as he rushes around camp gathering tokens from allies and enemies alike. He ends up paying off the debt, winning Immunity, and then, feeling empowered, pulls of a last-minute vote switch to save Jeremy and blindside Sophie.

Natalie returns — A first boot coming back at the Final 6 is always going to be mindblowing. But, as I said, Natalie works her butt off throughout the season. She dominates the Edge challenges, earning tons of fire tokens and buying all the advantages she can.

Cops R Us — Like I said earlier, the season is defined by the Sarah and Tony partnership. They have a lot of great scenes throughout the season, including Tony disguising Sarah’s face with ash before she infiltrates the enemy camp. But it’s their Final 4 fire-making showdown that stands out the most. It’s intense and emotional, as Tony can barely even look at Sarah after defeating her and ending her dream.

Check back tomorrow when we reveal which season placed at number 12. You can check out the previous entries here.

Written by

Martin Holmes

Martin is a freelance writer from England. He’s represented by Berlin Associates for comedy writing and writes about TV and entertainment, currently for TV Insider and Vulture, previously Digital Spy, ET Canada, and Yahoo. A finalist for the Shortlist Sitcom Search in 2012 for “Siblings,” Martin received his BA in English with Creative Writing from The University of Hull. Martin is the owner and editor-in-chief of Insider Survivor.

21 responses to “Best Season Rankings – No. 13 – Winners At War”

  1. The recency bias is real and the immediate and most prevailing feeling is… dissapointment! Yeah, this season has probably the best cast of all time consisting of legends as well as promising, underrated players, but it’s tragic how the producers managed to take what was every fan’s wet dream and turn it into a chaotic, rush, underwhelming mess with all their twist and unbalanced edit. I mean, the edge of extinction could work here as it would give us more time with our favorite winners and some emotional closure to some of them, but only if the episodes were longer – with the same amount of time as usual, it just wasn’t enough – not only on the Edge, but unfortunately on the main island as well, where it was just chaos and a lot of things weren’t explained properly. While a big part of my problem with this season was indeed the boot order, with most of my favorites voted out pre-merge (which was by the way still ok), I still had hope that the rest, while not my favorites, would deliver the goods. But the remaining players were not only mostly underedited (Kim, Nick, Denise, occasionally even Michelle and Sophie), but mainly they played very poorly, making it a piece of cake for Tony to grab the win. I’m not the biggest fan of Tony, but I respect his game and that he played perfectly this season – that being said, his victory here isn’t that impressing and exciting to watch given the fact that unlike in Cagyan he doesn’t have any real opposition here. In the end, I would probably place WaW in my top 15 as well (mainly thanks to the cast as a whole), but I would also place in my top 5 of the most disappointing seasons.
    Oh, and by the way, the Sophie boot should definitely be mentioned in the memorable moments: while devastating as Sophie was my favorite to win it all (and finally break the streak of male winners), the 4-3-2 vote was the best move of the season and the move that won Tony the game.

    • I was totally meant to add the Sophie boot/Extortion to memorable moments and somehow forgot to do it. I’ve added it in now. Thanks!

      • And here I am, thinking I was the only one rooting for Sophie to win. Her first win was so satisfying to me that it kinda save the boring season that South Pacific was. Seeing her go here in WaW is just…sad

    • Nooooooo. Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo. Low-mid tier at best. Bad editing, way too many twists and gimmicks, a boot order that rivals All-Stars and Game Changers in disappointment, and a blatantly obvious winner. It’s every problem with modern Survivr.

  2. The terrible editing after the merge is enough to drop this season at least 10 spots for me. A season of all winners should have had the best strategy and the best we got was Tony’s (winning) chaos

  3. The downfall of this season were the premerge boot of all great old school players and the remaining merge episodes where Nick, Denise, Ben and Michelle were left in the game. It is a clear win on Tony if Sarah’s not sitting with him in the end. Fortunately, Natalie joining the mix in the last episode created a somewhat exciting dynamics in the game – a threat to Tony’s crown. Hate to say it but the title at WAR did not live up to its expectation. If only Todd, Tina, Mike, Vecepia and Brian (for Wendell) replaced the aforementioned winners, then hopefully we could have called it Winners At War

  4. This wouldve been better than HvV had production been more faithful to the classic product that theyve delivered before. Couple of things this season missed:
    1. Not casting richard hatch
    2. Not casting a fair split between old vs new school (it would have been exciting had it started with 2 tribes that way).
    3. Too many tribe reshuffle
    4. Awful challenges which mainly abt balancing, endurance and those boring fiji challenges with puzzle in the end. I really thought the season would give nod to classic challenges just as how HvV did it.
    5. No more intro theme for this milestone season.
    6. To many twists that we missed out on camp life and other character insights. Seeing winners chat at camp wouldve been golden.

    • Boston Rob is mentioned at least twice, there is mention of his alliance with Parvati and his failed Buddy System strategy.

  5. I think this is the great position for WaW. It’s a pretty good season with an amazing winner, and a good close up for many of the players. Sure, some may complain about how the old schoolers were all voted out early, however they deserved to be voted out early. Except for Parvati and Yul, t he rest of the oldschoolers played awful. And unlike GC, where they did voted out the bigger players for that reason, here it didn’t happened that. It was just coincidence. Actually, it was Rob (an old schooler) who forced that division.

    Anyways, the editing was pretty good too. We had good mix of strategy and camplife (something that except for KR and maybe EoE and DvG, isn’t usual nowadays). And everyone had a role in the season for good or for bad. And of course seeing Tony becoming part of the survivor royalty along with Sandra (and finally we can stop pretending as if Rob was the best male player) is amazing.

    Perhaps the only issue is how once Sophie leaves, Tony’s victory seems predictable, mainly because except for Michele(who had an awesome underdog story) there is little opposition to Tony’s victory and it seems everyone is content with tony winning and isn’t doing anything to stop that. It lacked that “epic” feeling I had with Cagayan Tony for example, or Sandra in both PI and HvV. Or a lot of seasons. Luckily the finale recovered it and it was really nice to see Natalie trying to do something.

    Overall I’d say that it has a great and funny pre merge, unpredictable early merge, predictable late merge but amazing finale

  6. A really disappointing season. It should’ve been epic and grand, but it didn’t feel that way at all. Heroes vs. Villains remains the only really great returnee season. WaW was very thin on characters and most were MOR/CP-bores. I agree with many people about the poor editing. Tony having 18 confessionals in 1 episode was just too much.

  7. I hate this season. Especially Ben, Nick, Adam, and Wendell ruined it. They shouldn’t have made it far.

  8. A very good season that could’ve been spectacular if Survivor didn’t get in its own way with so many twists, and also its standard hero worship. As much as I understand the allure of bringing back both Rob and Amber for any television producer, but to me, it backfired completely: all it did was put a larger target on both of them, and Amber seemingly had zero fight in her. Her spot should’ve gone to a wild card like Jenna Morasca or Vecepia Towery.

    There are also many undeniably heartbreaking developments. Waiting this long to see Danni just to see her spin out and get voted out third was less than ideal, but admittedly a fascinating watch. Ethan going shortly thereafter, also a tough watch. For me, the biggest sin was being robbed of any play between Sandra and Parvati after all these years. That was a rematch many diehard fans have wanted to see for a very long time, and that they were ultimately booted, pre-merge, in the same episode is almost tragically poetic.

    The post-merge becomes a reboot of Cagayan which, I suspect, is what the story producers always wanted. Tony playing pedal to the metal and viewers left gasping, wondering whether he can actually pull it off–miraculously, he does. Entertaining to a degree? Sure. But also exhausting in its increasing inevitability.

    It’s a top 15 season that should be top 5.

  9. I wish that Mike and Tom had been on this season instead of Wendell and Adam. The Wendell from ‘Ghost Island’ was virtually nowhere to be seen in this season. He can only be found in Ponderosa videos. Wendell 2.0 was exactly like Stephenie Lagrossa 2.0 of ‘Guatemala’. Both of them went from being great heroes to unlikable villains. People say that Wendell had a bad edit, but he was still not the Wendell I remember. He even acted very arrogantly on social media while the episodes were airing. Adam was less likable this time around and too much of a drama king.

  10. Your list is pretty good, but the only real misses I see are Marquesas *way* too high (it bored me to tears–it took me like three weeks to slog through it–and I have it just ahead of Redemption Island as the second-worst of the 28 seasons I’ve seen to date) and Winners at War way too low. I actually have this season ranked No.1 and have it in my top tier of Survivor seasons, along with Pearl Islands, Cagayan, and Heroes v. Villains (my next tier is David v. Goliath, Cambodia, China and Tocantins).

    Winners at War was the season that got me into Survivor in the first place, so I didn’t really care about the old-school massacre. I just judged the players as I was seeing them in this season for the first time, and Tony quickly became my favorite reality TV contestant of all time. This was unquestionably the best cast ever in terms of strategic acumen and one of the two or three best casts ever in terms of characters. I enjoyed basically every episode, and Tony was the perfect winner. If Natalie had won via Edge of Extinction, then 13th would be about where I’d have it. But Tony won with what I believe is the best Survivor game ever, considering the competition. And he did it in such a memorable way that this season will always be top five for my at worst.

    It will be interesting to see how people judge Winners at War as the years go on. Some think this is too high (which is absurd in my view) because of recency bias, but I think it’s actually too low because of nostalgia for older seasons. As interesting as Borneo is for the novelty of it being the first season, I just can’t see how it could still be considered a top five Survivor season at this point. I have it like 18th or so on my list. Which is still a pretty good Survivor season but definitely not an elite one.

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