After so many episodes in recent weeks coming down to chaotic and incomprehensible whispering at Tribal Council, this week’s penultimate instalment proved to be a much-needed cooldown. That’s not to say the episode wasn’t interesting—to the contrary!
With its extended runtime, Survivor had the space to luxuriate in the social and strategic dynamics at play, establishing exactly where the chips had fallen after so many reshufflings and provide a necessary sense of clarity and momentum heading into the endgame. It granted us time to follow plans on the beach be made, be upset by an Immunity win and be reconfigured. This allowed for some fantastic moments of minutiae from subtle callbacks like Denise’s full circle moment discussing tattoos and the blink-and-you-miss-it allusion to Ben’s PTSD triggered by a crackling fire, a compelling conversation about the mental toll of playing Survivor, to dwelling in the humour of Jeremy and Tony debating what constitutes a week.
This more measured pace gave us the opportunity to go into Tribal with a clear sense of the possible outcomes, and a welcome relief from the whispering meant that the tension could truly build. Would Nick seize upon the opportunity to fracture the power structure of the tribe, and would Tony and Sarah do the same to dismantle their own core before it turned on their partnership? It may seem straightforward in retrospect, but it was an essential return to form—sometimes Survivor can be at its best when it drives towards catharsis over chaos.
Of course, the episode wasn’t without its peculiarities. The montage on the Edge hyping up the return challenge seemed to provide a momentum that suggested we could be concluding this episode with that challenge. Honestly, that would have been my preferred choice, allowing us to head into the finale with concrete knowledge of who the wildcard would be. But instead, we had a… recap? I don’t know who the intended audience for a season-long retrospective at the end of a two-hour penultimate episode was, but it was a certainly a choice.
And while we’re on the topic of Edge, I remain infuriated in its rewarding of failure. While Natalie is to be commended for accumulating Fire Tokens at an ever-increasing rate, it still rubs me the wrong way that the first boot has the highest chance of coming back into the game with an Idol to spare. At the same time, players like Kim, Jeremy, and Nick survived deep into the actual game but have had few, if any, of the opportunities to increase their chance of returning.
But with that out of the way, let’s refocus on the real intrigue of the season through two significant Tribals and a whole lot of scheming for the future.
IN THE FIRING LINE
One of the most fascinating elements of this episode was its symmetry. Each round saw a near-unanimous target emerge early, firstly Nick for playing both sides and snaking his way through the game, secondly Michele for simply being the odd one out. In both cases, that primary target won a clutch Immunity—though with a noted contrast between Nick (who was seemingly unaware of the plans against him) and Michele, who knew how much she needed it (as much as Probst needs a blue button-down and khakis). Thus, in both instances, the return to camp became a scramble for those on the outside to ensure their safety while those insulated with allies manoeuvred to try to keep their best pieces on the board.
In many ways, this episode came down to Tony—as much as the last few episodes have. Inconceivably, despite openly suggesting he had an Idol at the last Tribal and his Immunity streak coming to an end, Tony was not even in contention for the vote. Nor was his tightest ally Sarah, and together Cops R Us dictated the course through these votes unopposed as they set themselves up with a clean shot through to the Final Tribal Council. It’s incredible this is even happening given the season began with so much desperation to break up the connected players—the Poker Alliance, Natalie and Jeremy, Rob and Amber’s MARRIAGE. Yet here we are, looking at the very real possibility of Tony wearing a two-time crown or Sarah being the first female winner since herself—and that they may be fighting for the title against each other at FTC.
It seemed like the partnership could be in dire straits with Kim setting on them last week, but now the deck had reshuffled in their favour. The pair saw Ben as a perfect player to drag to the end with them. He has been volatile enough to lose Jury votes, and he has not actively driven enough game to earn them. However, Sarah smartly recognised that keeping a potential loose cannon like Ben on board with their plan meant assuring him that going to the end with them—ostensibly two of the biggest threats left—was not only the right plan but also the right move for his game. Bundled into that was the need to ensure their trio could hold the numbers, and that might mean keeping Jeremy around for one more vote as he would be a number in their pocket, via Tony. In a fantastic moment of inception, Sarah gave Ben the tools to believe he was driving a vote against Nick to ensure the pack of hyenas couldn’t get enough momentum to take their alliance down.
But of course, with that plan foiled by Nick’s timely Immunity win, it became a question of the back-up plan. One option could be Denise—she was left out of the Kim vote and her moment of frustration at that Tribal, announcing she was “done” with the whispering, gave the excuse of her checking out of the game (a perception that Denise wonderfully exploited in the latter half of the episode). But seemingly out of nowhere, Denise was a loyal partner for Ben. It’s certainly an underreported dynamic, with the only precedent being them working together and finding Denise’s Idol in the early days. Still, evidently it’s an important relationship to the point where alienating Ben by removing one of “his people” and eliminating a “predictable” player was not even seriously considered.
Instead, it was a matter of Jeremy and Michele—another tight partnership. Even though they’ve often ended up on independent paths, there was a clear camaraderie demonstrated by Michele’s 50/50 Coin, freely given to Jeremy at last Tribal and still remaining a nebulous threat. With the uncertainty over who the Coin might be played on at its last valid Tribal, and the further uncertainty over whether it would even work, the plan quickly evolved to split the vote between them. Fascinatingly, after wanting to preserve Jeremy as a number and shield, Tony realised he had to let him go. With Ben champing at the bit to vote him out, and him clearly being a dangerous threat to win as well as the high likelihood that Michele would go the self-preservation route, it was simply time to cut Jeremy loose.
He’d flipped a vote around on Sophie to save Jeremy and cut off Sarah’s options to more tightly bind her to him. Had the Coin not been in play, I’d almost guarantee Tony would have tried the same sort of play to oust Michele over Jeremy here, but the uncertainty added too much risk. Jeremy and Michele’s plan was to bring Tony and Nick together—the Sophie-slaying alliance—to take out Ben. Both Jeremy and Ben wanted to work with Tony, but only one had a threatening chance to win, and the other was in a Final 3 agreement along with his closest ally, so in a sense, Tony’s choice to finally cut Jeremy loose made perfect sense.
But where the risk lay was in the split vote. In a bid to protect against the Coin, the fivesome of Tony, Sarah, Ben, Denise, and Nick would be forced into a narrow 3-2-2 vote. Tony’s drafting of the split vote left the men voting Jeremy and the women voting Michele, which left Nick in the alarming position of the swing vote. Nick had a clean shot at repeating the Sophie move and causing an upset. He could easily side with Michele and Jeremy to usurp a majority on the Ben vote, crippling Tony and Sarah’s alliance. But it also left the door open for that trio to come after Tony or Sarah directly. It was an incredibly risky call for Nick to be left in that position, and Sarah was right to question it. In the end, Tony’s read was right in believing that Nick would side with them, but by all accounts, Nick made the wrong move here.
Interestingly, though, the Denise plan wasn’t wholly off the table. Tony’s Spy Nest was fulfilled this week as he managed to catch a glimpse of Denise proposing a Final Three to Sarah and Ben. Denise accurately surmised that going up against Tony at the end would be ludicrous and demonstrated that her head was still fully in the game, despite her playing possum and spending her Tokens on extra rice to “go to Extinction with a full belly.” Denise’s game has been off-kilter through much of the post-merge, but it’s clear she’s a voice of reason and eloquent enough to be a danger should she make it to the end, especially with the Queenslayer clout to boot. So naturally, Tony’s defences kicked in upon hearing that the last one into his Final Four deal was gunning for him, and he proposed making the decoy Denise plan into the real plan.
While I’d quibble with Sarah’s apparent plan to go to the end with Tony (there are some definite Sharn Coombes qualities to her rhetoric this episode about not being afraid to go to the end against the best—when ordinary logic says otherwise), I do think she made the right call in dissuading Tony from going after Denise and sticking with their plan to blindside Nick. With Michele as a free agent and a total wildcard about to re-enter from Edge, fracturing their own alliance would be disastrous. Voting out Denise and blindsiding Ben could cost them their majority—they had to hold firm.
But for Sarah, individually, Denise is a much better option for her moving forward. Denise directly offered her an alternative Final Three, and she has a good relationship with Ben—which all but assures her Final Tribal Council if that foursome makes it to the fire-making round. It also serves to—intentionally or not—cut off Tony’s options by removing a player he’s utilised in the past. The one-two punch of voting out Jeremy and Nick has left Tony with limited options beyond sticking with Sarah, in much the same way he’d tried to isolate her in the Sophie move. The push-pull power dynamic between Tony and Sarah has been an absolute joy to watch this season, and it looks set to keep giving all the way through to the bitter end in some form or another.
THE FINAL FIVE
So, where does that leave us heading into the Grand Finale? I feel like I’ve touched on Tony and Sarah a lot through this article already. Tony feels like the frontrunner, and even though he’s known for his big impulsive moves, the fact that he was able to survive two rounds without Immunity or needing his Idol suggests that he has a much more comprehensive game than it might first appear. His path to the end isn’t completely clear—he’s a huge target, and even though he skated by this week, he’s definitely in Denise’s sights, Michele has no allegiance to him at all and a smart Edge returnee would see him as their biggest competition with the Jury (given the sentiment we’ve seen so far). That said, we’re living in a world where Tony making the end with a legitimate chance to win is not a pipe dream, and that is incredible.
Sarah, too, has played a pretty spectacular game. It’s been more muted—as is her style—but we’ve seen her social game highlighted throughout the season. Strategically, she’s also made some excellent plays along the way, and she is not to be underestimated. That said, it feels like she needs to make sure she gets out of Tony’s shadow if she wants a shot—and to do that, she needs to make sure he’s not at the end with her. At best, it would be dropping the axe on him herself, but with so much emphasis on the strength of the Cops R Us bond, I’m not even sure the master criminal will break those chains.
Denise is definitely a dark horse in the mix. While it feels like her move against Sandra isn’t enough to singlehandedly win, the fact that it’s still being talked about—despite the majority of the cast not being at that Tribal—is a promising recipe. That said, I can see her making an endgame push, even small moves like her rice ruse this episode (recognised as a ploy by the Jury) could help her case. But she almost certainly needs Tony out of the picture. That will be tough to accomplish, but if she can mount the heads of both Sandra and Tony on her wall, she could be adding 2 mil to that trophy room.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Ben as a character. I’ve found his rough-around-the-edges nature to be genuine and endearing even when he’s actively tanking his own game. It seems like there is no world in which Ben is destined to win against the remaining pool, and his game has been incredibly messy. However, he does still have an Idol in his pocket, and even though he’s gotten the dodo music, it’s worth acknowledging that Ben has improved on elements of his game, managing to find genuine allies into the endgame. He’s certainly forged strong bonds with his allies, but it’s his enemies who have headed to the Jury infuriated by Ben who he should be worried about.
Lastly, Michele is a huge question mark. As pointed out in the episode, she’s rarely been in a position of control throughout the game, almost always ending up on the wrong side of the vote. Yet she’s persevered, and with her back against the wall, she’s still got strong beats to her underdog story, including this episode’s Coin flip and her clutch Immunity win. And if her constant receipt of bequeathed Tokens is anything to go by, she certainly has a sympathetic ear on the Jury. Michele has highlighted her desire to prove that she deserved her first win, and there’s a nonzero chance that those same skills that won Kaoh Rong could work out here: perseverance and charm are not to be underestimated.
Oh, and someone is coming back from the Edge. With the cult of shared struggle that develops on the EOE, it is almost a certainty that if the returnee makes it to the end, their fellow Edge dwellers will validate their own struggle with a Jury vote. Fresh off of Chris Underwood’s win, I sincerely hope that the Final Five make every effort to send the returnee back out the revolving door lest this fantastic season fizzle with another Edge victor. And in some respects, I wish I didn’t feel so strongly about it.
Natalie has dominated the Extinction side-quest, and with three advantages purchased for the challenge, on top of genuine athletic skill and a peanut butter feast, she’s the favourite to make it back. But if you had any doubt about the cult of Edge, Natalie spending her surplus Fire Tokens to buy Tyson an Idol is proof that Edge is not Survivor. Survivor punishes you for giving an advantage to your opponents (how many times do we need to ridicule Erik Reichenbach for that)—the Edge rewards it. So whether it’s Natalie or we go full Underwood with an out-of-nowhere returnee, they’ll stand a good chance to win if they make it to Final Tribal (even with a Jury full of winners). Still, they are up against stiff competition—and a relatively solid alliance of four—that should make it an uphill battle.
THE LAST ONE
In less than a week (both in Jeremy- and Tony-time), Winners at War will have reached its end. Forty seasons in the books and we’ll have crowned our second two-time winner. With the state of the world as it is, it may be a while before we can enjoy new Survivor again, and so even though I have my gripes with this season, I’d rather dwell on how phenomenal it has been on the whole.
The cast is not only one of the best ever assembled, but they’ve brought it in the game. Production has been top-notch with its cinematography, design, and even it’s relatively well-rounded edit (considering they’ve also been juggling the time sink of Edge). The game design has been janky with the Edge. Still, I genuinely like the prospect of Fire Tokens moving forward—even though they amounted to a whole lot of nothing for the most part, with not enough options available to the players in the game to give the Tokens value beyond waiting for an advantage in your bag. The whole whispers thing is played out, but this season still gave us some top-tier game moves—the 4-3-2 Sophie blindside and Denise blindsiding Sandra at the pinnacle.
After a couple of rough seasons, Winners at War has been a joy, even in its imperfection. I can’t wait to see how it ends, and at the same time, I don’t want to say goodbye to season 40. But to paraphrase Denise, with what we have left, let’s enjoy and let go.
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