I mean, that’s the article right there. Tune in next week.
This episode was a return to form after last week’s chaotic mess of a Tribal Council that proved to be just as maddeningly confusing on the island as it was for the viewer at home (#KillTheWhispers). This week, not only did all of the beach strategy actually amount to a huge, potentially game-shifting blindside, but we got to see it all unfold play-by-play. It was beautiful, and even though it came at the cost of my winner pick, it was a masterclass of a strategic move.
Most exciting of all, though, was that it came at the hands of one Tony Vlachos. I was among the throng who couldn’t imagine Tony making it more than a few weeks into the game—surely his target and reputation were just too big for him to blend into the background, even among some of the all-time greats. But after weeks of carefully and intentionally playing possum (albeit with a few spy-shack-shaped slip-ups along the way), Tony emerged in full force to dominate this episode. Finding an Idol, successfully navigating the Extortion disadvantage, winning a second Immunity in a row, and then crisscrossing the crisscross to pull off a plurality 4-3-2 vote against a power player who happened to have an Idol in her pocket. There’s no other word for it than, “Wow!” preferably exclaimed in Tony’s trademark “Waaaoooww!” intonation.
I certainly have my concerns about whether Tony’s play was the right move for him at this point in the game, and I have my quibbles with the whole Extortion thing, but this right here is what I had hoped Winners at War would be. A-level strategy played by some of the best characters in the series’ history.
This vote was the culmination of constantly shifting moves and countermoves, and the only way to track it is to go back to the start. Following Jeremy’s exeunt stage left with his Safety Without Power, he seemed to be pushed straight into the hot seat. Although he clearly read the room correctly—and saved himself with his Advantage—it came at a steep cost. It cost him his meat shield in Tyson. The enemy, represented most prominently by Ben, were frustrated that their plan had been foiled and that they’d been forced to expend more energy in the frantic panic to reorganise the vote on the fly (which barely succeeded). And they took it out on Jeremy by pushing him further away. Meanwhile, Jeremy’s own allies saw the writing on the wall and began looking for greener pastures, leaving him in a very precarious situation.
The saving grace, or so it seemed, was Tony. He approached Jeremy and laid out a new plan to regain numbers—he could flip to work with Jeremy, Michele, Denise, and Kim to grant them a 5-strong contingency that could control the vote in the 9-person tribe. For Jeremy and Michele, who have been scraping by for nearly the entire game, this was a much-needed break, and they saw a genuine desire in Tony to work with them and to make the move happen.
However, at least in the immediate, they fell for Tony’s ploy. His plan had never been to work with them and intended to stick with his “real” alliance of Sarah, Sophie, Ben, and Nick. His flirtation with Jeremy’s crowd was designed as a distraction—a secret agent ploy to control the minority’s vote and open up the field to execute a blindside against Jeremy, one of the biggest targets. Tony was exceedingly confident in his manipulations here, bolstered by the security of a freshly minted Idol in his pocket, and he was giddy at finally being able to crank up the power on his gameplay after weeks of biding his time. To his credit, he won over half of the minority quickly, playing on Jeremy’s previous fondness for Tony built on New Dakal, and Jeremy and Michele’s desperate need for allies.
However, Tony’s machinations weren’t invisible to all. Despite her miscalculation with her Idol at the last Tribal, Kim is a shrewd player, and she saw straight through Tony’s scheme. She recognised that he was trying to deceive them, and linked in with Denise, she saw the necessity for survival. Although she didn’t trust the majority alliance, she couldn’t let herself go down with a sinking ship. Denise was in much the same boat—she’d used an Idol to protect Jeremy in the pre-merge, but when the time came for him to stand with her and their alliance, he’d literally walked out on them. Thus, Kim and Denise, reluctantly, became double agents of their own. They assured Jeremy and Michele that they were with them, but quickly made plans to fall in with the majority.
After Tony secured his second Immunity Necklace, leaving Jeremy vulnerable, the majority’s plan coalesced into a clear split vote between Jeremy and Michele. With seven votes, and only needing to account for the two opposing votes, Sarah led a plan to not waste unnecessary votes and split 5-2 between Jeremy and Michele. It’s not a terrible approach in practice, shoring up a decisive majority but preparing a Plan B. In theory, it guards against a single player going rogue. And with the arrangement of votes, it also ensured that Kim and Denise couldn’t just back out to vote with Jeremy and Michele and usurp the numbers, as this would result in a 4-4-1 vote and a likely Jeremy revote. However, it wasn’t foolproof, quickly dismantled by an opportunist.
While the decoy plan for Jeremy and Michele was for their so-called 5 to target Ben, the object of Jeremy’s present frustration, the separate double agent acts of Tony, Kim, and Denise meant that Jeremy and Michele were being led to the slaughter. However, once Tony became aware of Denise and Kim’s intention to defect, and again buoyed by the security of Immunity, he saw a perfectly unique opportunity. The split vote was strong enough to safeguard against him flipping alone, but if he could pull one other person into the fold, then he could use Jeremy and Michele to control the vote. It was a careful act that required precision.
Waiting until the sun was low to safeguard against a counter-counter-counterplan, Tony elected to use Nick as his extra number, seizing on the new school winner’s desire to play a more chaotic and disruptive game, which was especially appealing given Nick himself had been on the bottom of the tribe only a couple votes ago. He then approached Jeremy with the honest truth: they didn’t have Kim and Denise, but they had a chance to take out one of the shot-callers in Sophie. It served Tony’s selfish desire to break up Sophie’s dynamic with Sarah that threatened his own Cops-R-Us bond, and it also played on the minority’s own plan from last Tribal—a win-win. And in Jeremy’s case, it was a do-or-die decision. To great surprise, it was only now that Jeremy seemed to question Tony’s motivations and stubbornly urged to stick to the plan and vote out Ben, but in the end, the risk was too high, and the 4-3-2 blindside was executed to utmost perfection.
It was a shockingly effective play, but it does beg the question: was it the right move for Tony? All of his work misleading Jeremy and Michele had paid off, and the scene was perfectly set to achieve his objective of removing Jeremy. It left his alliance intact to protect him for another vote or two, but he also had room to move with enough loose numbers to make a move against Sophie in the future. Was it worth sticking his neck out and disrupting everything?
Tony’s entire Cagayan game was predicated on opportunistic assassinations of his own alliance, to reshape the game in his favour. He flip-flopped a path to the end with a lackey in Woo Hwang and with a clean-up crew in Trish Hegarty, but in Winners at War, he lacks such loyal allies. Although he roped Nick into this last move, there’s no lasting allegiance there. Jeremy needed Tony now, but they were on opposite sides only one vote ago with Tony intending to still vote Jeremy out until hours before this Tribal. After finding so much success playing a more laid-back game this season, why revert to the chaotic now?
But the other loyal ally Tony had in Cagayan was security through Immunity Idols—and especially the Super Idol that could be played after the votes were read. I think it’s no mistake that the rejuvenation of Tony’s disruptive style coincides with an Immunity streak, the finding of a Hidden Idol, and the successful navigation of the Extortion twist. Tony is riding a high, and that adrenaline (and a literal necklace) is helping him feel untouchable, which gives him room to take bigger risks.
For weeks, Tony was championing the Lions vs. Hyenas dichotomy, and in that pride of lions, Jeremy stood proud. With the herd thinning, Tony needs meat shields as much as Jeremy does, and in some respects, it’s advantageous to protect a player who is going to draw attention away from him. Removing Sophie is also critical to Tony’s level of control in the game, and especially in his relationship with Sarah, much as knocking LJ out in Cagayan limited Trish’s options. There’s a lot to gain in Tony’s move here, and his strategic chops to both seize on the numbers and to use tactics like the time pressure of a setting sun were wonderfully employed, but I do fear that this one move has undone weeks of hard work to change his reputation.
After a move like this, everyone is going to be reminded of what Tony is capable of at his best. Just as Jeremy and Michele were desperate enough to need Tony this vote, they’ll be willing to throw him to the wolves to save their hide. Sarah is not nearly as forgiving as Trish, and I struggle to imagine that Tony can rebuild that bridge after blindsiding one of her closest allies. Although he has an Idol, Tony is now an enormous target, and he’s going to need everything in his bag of tricks to get out of the danger headed his way.
HOLDING HER OWN
I might have loved the strategy of Tony’s move (if not wholly the context), but I’m devastated that it took Sophie out of contention. Sophie has long been an underrated favourite in my books and seeing her come into Winners at War and dominate as a strategist has been thrilling. Her incisive commentary has been incredible—culminating in her snarky derision of Big Moves™ gameplay as a schoolgirl’s CV padded with meaningless extracurricular activities. As she articulated in her final words (quote-unquote) as she headed to the Edge, she came into this season without much clout to her victory, but you would be hard-pressed to walk away from Season 40 without massive respect for her capabilities as a Survivor player.
Tony’s manipulation of the vote was an all-time blindside, and it was something of this magnitude that took Sophie out, and with an Idol in her pocket no less. While I would love to see Sophie play again, especially after proving her mettle this time out, I will be content with the fantastic showcase this season granted to one of its least popularised winners, granting her the kudos she deserved.
But speaking of Extinction, we have to touch on the latest bit of malarkey to emerge from the Edge. After a long hiatus, Natalie has returned as the Advantage Queen of Extinction, with new claimant to the throne Parvati, together discovering the latest advantage to wash ashore. In this case, Natalie was granted the power to disadvantage a player still in the game, robbing them of their shot at Immunity and their vote at Tribal unless they ponied up Fire Tokens to whatever price she named. This was the most flagrant instance of Edge meddling in the main game we’ve seen thus far, as in different hands, this could have had the potential to singlehandedly undermine someone’s game.
Much like Parvati and Danni’s 50/50 Coin, the price was free to be set by Natalie, but what if this advantage had fallen into the hands of a player with revenge on their mind? They could have sent it to the player responsible for voting them out, set an astronomical Fire Token price, and watched them be entirely robbed of their agency for one round of the game. From this perspective, I’m not a huge fan of the Extortion Advantage in the context of Edge, so I’m glad it worked out the way it did.
Rather than seeking to use the Advantage to destroy someone’s game, or blandly using it to receive an assured lowball price of Fire Tokens, Natalie and Parvati elected to use it to sow chaos, choosing to play the Advantage against Tony, with the steep price of 6 Fire Tokens. His journey from wild glee at seemingly receiving an Advantage to realising he was being penalised was a roller coaster. Still, it led to yet another thrilling showcase of Tony’s ingenuity and adaptability.
While Tony had 3 tokens in the bank, he was nowhere close to having enough to pay off the debt. As he was still undercover with the minority alliance, he first sought to approach them to earn his keep. It was a clever play to further rob the minority of power by exacting their Fire Tokens under the pretence that they needed him (when at the time, Tony losing his vote would have been one of the best things to happen to them). He first approached Michele, putting her on the spot to explain why she didn’t have any Fire Tokens, and she did an exceptional job of inventing a fake Advantage that would only be activated if she were voted out and sent to the Edge. This sent Tony to Jeremy, who conceded to grant him one of his two Tokens as a sign of trust.
Notably, we didn’t see Tony approach Denise or Kim—both known to have at least one Token due to their Immunity wins. And to make an aside, I wonder if this suggests that there was something more to the fact that Jeremy and Michele saw Tony as genuine in wanting to work with them (when he ultimately did) versus Kim and Denise being wary that Tony was lying to them (when he, also, ultimately did).
Nevertheless, the minority options exhausted, Tony then managed to extract a Token each from Nick and Ben—the latter especially impressive as it was Ben’s only Token. To my surprise, Tony managed to talk his way into the payment demanded and liberate himself from the Extortion. It was an impressive feat, made all the more remarkable that his reward paid dividends. Not only did he get his spot in the challenge back, but he won Immunity again, providing security and two Fire Tokens, which could allow him to repay the debt he owed to Ben, at the very least. And not only did he get his vote back, but he was able to use it with precision to execute a plurality vote and eliminate one of his biggest threats.
In a sense, the Extortion twist—while I’m not wild about it in principle—brought out a lot of what had made Fire Tokens an intriguing concept. With those on the Edge finally able to set their own price, it complicates the decision and allows them to consider more options on how to use it. With prices rising higher than what any one player holds, it finally gave us room to see how players would navigate pooling Fire Tokens. And also a glimpse of the complexity of exchanging material goods for promises that could make the Fire Tokens into the truly duplicitous currency promised.
Fire Tokens are showing a lot of promise as the season has gone one. If divorced from the Edge of Extinction in future seasons, I think there’s a lot of genuinely fascinating ways we can see strategy evolve around them in ways that facilitate and highlight the social game going on.
BIGGER AND BETTER
This episode was truly a delight, even down to the little moments such as Sarah’s fashion show or the tribe discussing whether or not Nick looks like a vampire. Even though the season hasn’t been a flawless journey, I am loving every minute of Winners at War. Tony’s big move is one for the history books, and even if it’s the pinnacle of strategy for this season, which still has a lot of game left to play with some incredible players in the mix, then Season 40 is going to be an absolute win for me.
Though just as Fire Token prices are inflating at an alarming rate, let’s also hope that gameplay is only going to get bigger and better as we charge into this highly competitive endgame.
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