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.
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.