The end is finally here, and Tony Vlachos somehow won Survivor: Winners at War without getting a single vote against him the entire game. No one could have predicted such an outcome when the cast was first announced, and it was hard for me to believe it was actually happening even as it unfolded on my TV screen in front of my own two eyes.
The three-hour lead-up to Tony’s victory was an emotional rollercoaster. From Natalie’s triumph at the battle back after over a month on the Edge of Extinction, the tearful sendoffs of our jury as their game on Edge officially ended, Ben laying down his life for Sarah and THAT dramatic fire-making challenge, the final hours of Winners At War marked a bittersweet end to Survivor’s biggest season yet.
If Winners at War was Survivor’s biggest season yet, it still wasn’t without its faults. I pointed them out a lot throughout my recaps this season, and I’ll have a few more to make note of over the course of this recap. Still, for all my complaints about the twists, the pacing, and the editing, Winners at War was a blast and a much-needed escape from the weird world we’re all currently living in. It’s the end of an era, marking the likely final appearances for a lot of these legendary players and wrapping up the show’s second decade on the air. We probably won’t get a new episode of Survivor for quite a while, and who knows what new changes (good or bad) this new era of the show might bring. But for now, we have this massive finale of a massive season to dissect and our second two-time winner in King of the Jungle Tony Vlachos.
TO EDGE AND BACK
We open on the battle back challenge, and things get off to a rocky start for Natalie despite her numerous advantages. She falls behind the likes of Wendell, Yul, and Parvati as she struggles with the first part of the challenge, but eventually catches up to the front of the pack. It comes down to Wendell and Natalie to land a second ball in the table maze, with Natalie pulling out the win in the end. After being voted out first on day two and spending over a month on Edge, Natalie wins her way back into the game and a spot in the final six.
After the challenge, the rest of the Edge inhabitants—now officially our jury—get an emotional send-off as their Winners at War journeys collectively come to a close. A lot of this season has focused on the lasting impact (the good, the bad, and the ugly) that Survivor has on its contestants. More than ever, we hear the players speak frankly about what it’s like to play the game, return home, and try to live your life. It’s fitting for an all-winners season, one full of players whose lives have undeniably been shaped by the game in a very public way. Moments like Amber getting emotional about how she felt when she won All-Stars or Kim bringing up the pressure of living up to her legacy are usually reserved for exit interviews or post-game reflections. The show is better for including them, especially since this season was likely the last time we’ll ever see a lot of these winners play.
As the jury gets carted off to Ponderosa to get glamorous for their first post-Edge tribal, Natalie looks for an in with her new tribemates. Tony knows that Natalie’s arrival spells trouble for his game, and sure enough, she quickly blows up his spot by telling everyone that the jury thinks Tony is totally running the game. The late-game Edge returnee having intimate knowledge of the jury is just one of the many ways the EOE twist is ridiculously overpowered, but that’s not Natalie’s fault. She does what she needs to do within the confines of the twist she’s been presented with, and it spells bad news for Tony.
TRUST YOUR GUT
The final six immunity challenge ends up being the same one Michele won back in Kaôh Rōng. Should we be re-using immunity challenges that the competitors have previously won this late in the season? No. Did I enjoy seeing Michele kick over the puzzle again when she won it a second time? Yes. For that reason, I’m willing to let this re-used challenge slide, but Jeff’s on thin ice. With Michele immune, she teams up with Natalie, who reveals that she brought an idol back with her from the Edge. Knowing Michele is on the bottom, Natalie proposes that they turn the game on its head by spooking Tony into playing his idol.
Meanwhile, Tony’s gut tells him that Natalie very well might have an idol from Edge and decides it’s better to assume she has one than assume she doesn’t. He proposes a vote split between Natalie and Denise to Ben, who’s immediately against it because he doesn’t want to vote Denise. Sarah also isn’t receptive to Tony’s plan because, as far as she’s concerned, there’s no way Natalie has an idol. Sarah’s reasoning? Natalie would’ve told her if she did. Officer Sarah has shown herself to be a great player this season with solid instincts, but her certainty regarding Natalie not having an idol was baffling, to say the least.
At tribal, Sarah gives a speech about gender biases in Survivor, which leads to Jeff Probst himself owning up to his own implicit biases. It’s a moment reminiscent of the discussions about gender and race that happened on Island of the Idols, and much like the conversations about the impact Survivor has on its contestants, the show is better for including it.
After the votes are cast, Natalie plays her idol on herself (as Tony predicted), and Tony and Ben both play theirs. No votes count, and for a moment, it looks like Sarah’s tribal speech might have been her swan song, but all four votes fall on Denise at the revote instead. Denise got a pretty unceremonious exit here as the first boot in a finale tends to get, but last week’s “endure and let go” scene wrapped up her storyline decently, so it’s not a completely abrupt ending to her story.
On paper, it makes sense for Michele and Natalie to at least force a tie and try to break Tony and Sarah up that way instead of just voting out Denise. But Denise and Ben were also a duo, and we saw so little of Denise leading up to her boot that there may have been a good reason why Michele and Natalie wanted her out over Sarah, even if we didn’t see it ourselves.
After tribal, Tony immediately starts looking for a re-hidden idol, because production still likes re-hiding idols at the Final 5 for some reason. His late-night motivation doesn’t pay off, though, because Natalie is the one who finds it the following morning. For the first time in a while, Tony looks like he could be in big trouble.
The cop from Jersey pulls out a big immunity win—his fourth this season—just when he needed it most, narrowly beating out Ben in the final section of the challenge. Back at camp, Tony heads into his spy nest while Sarah talks to Natalie so they can sniff out if she found another idol. With Tony watching over them, Sarah notices something in the buff wrapped around Natalie’s wrist, and it turns out to be an idol.
After Natalie’s idol is exposed to Sarah, Michele knows she’s likely getting votes at tribal. For a moment, it looks like the vote might come down to a correct idol play on Natalie’s part, but then Ben talks to Sarah. To Sarah’s shock, Ben offers to get voted out in her place. As Jeff might put it in an attempt to connect everything back to the season’s war theme, Ben offers to lay down his weapon and wave the white flag. Sarah, of course, has an emotional response to Ben giving up his own shot at $2 million dollars so she could keep playing. Ben and Sarah didn’t necessarily appear to be this close going into the finale, so the gesture comes a bit out of left field from a story perspective.
At tribal, Natalie (nervously) plays the idol for herself instead of Michele, but it doesn’t matter. The three women send Ben home, with Michele getting Ben’s vote as well as Tony’s, who was completely blindsided by the move. Season 40 was a rollercoaster for Ben. He came into the season vowing to play differently from his first outing, and he certainly did that, even if it wasn’t always pretty. His exit ended up being somewhat anticlimactic, but he at least seemed to leave the game at peace with the way his story ended.
THE FINAL BATTLE
After spending the entire episode chanting “hands on a hard idol” under my breath as if that would do anything to summon the challenge back from the dead, Simmotion was revealed as this season’s Final Immunity Challenge. I’m personally not the biggest fan of Simmotion, but it’s more or less a Survivor staple now, so I won’t complain about its inclusion. I still long for the days of final endurance challenges, but I know that ship sailed a long time ago.
Tony loses the challenge first, then Sarah, leaving Natalie and Michele to duke it out for a guaranteed spot in the final three. Michele makes a mistake, giving Natalie a place at the end and a shot at the $2 million. And, thanks to the final four forced fire0making twist (I guess it’s not really a twist anymore, just a permanent feature of the game), Natalie also holds the power to decide who sits next to her in the end and who gets to fight it out at fire.
After a long afternoon spent hitting flint with a machete, Natalie decides at tribal to take Michele to the end and send Cops R Us to fire. This is the part of my recap where I complain about how bad of an addition forced final four fire-making is to the game. Had it not been a feature this season, the build-up to this tribal could’ve been filled with drama as Michele and Natalie try to get Sarah to turn on Tony in the final hours before tribal. Would Sarah stay loyal to her partner in crime, or turn on him to give herself a better shot at the $2 million? Instead, we got an afternoon of fire-making practice back at camp.
To be fair, the fire-making duel between Tony and Sarah is one of the more competitive and exciting fire-making challenges in the show’s history, culminating in an emotional finish as Tony’s flame burns through his rope and ends Sarah’s shot at the win. She gets a heroic exit as the story of Cops R Us—the one truly consistent and compelling relationship this entire season—comes to a close. It’s as good as fire-making challenges get, but I still contend that the lack of a vote at the final four stifles the potential for compelling final-hour strategic maneuvering in the endgame.
THE MOMENT OF TRUTH
Our final three of Michele, Natalie, and Tony reflect on the game and enjoy their day 39 feast before heading to a cold and rainy Final Tribal Council. Faced with a 16-person jury of their fellow winners, the largest jury in the show’s 40-season history, the three finalists plead their cases. Natalie, Queen of Extinction, makes her case for having played the best game she could with the cards she was dealt with after being voted out on day two and dominating EOE the rest of the season. Michele recounts a merge game spent playing from the bottom and surviving despite all odds, using a couple of clutch immunity wins to seal the deal. And for his part, Tony regales the jury with his tales about how he took control of the game in the merge, spy nests and all.
We knew from Natalie’s return that the jury was already leaning in Tony’s favor heading into FTC, and his performance here does even more to win them over. Once he had the whole jury laughing about his antics, I knew it was over. Tony gets one tough question from Nick about his morality in the game, but Ben immediately jumps to his defense. Natalie makes as good a case as she can for someone who was voted out on day two, but Rob makes it clear that he doesn’t think she did enough in the little time she had in the game because she didn’t take Tony out at fire herself. Michele doesn’t get much attention from the jury, save a question from Wendell that gives her a chance to make her case and a moment where Ben shares his newfound respect for her win in Kaôh Rōng.
Beyond Ben’s shoutout, the whole jury gives the finalists a lot of love before the game formally comes to a close. A lot of this season has felt like a celebration of Survivor itself, so an especially kind and celebratory jury doesn’t feel out of place, even in such a highly competitive season.
I’m no fan of this new Final Tribal Council format, though. With a jury this massive, the old format of individual speeches would have certainly been cumbersome, but hopefully, with Edge out of the picture, we’ll never have a jury of this size again. I’m not suggesting we go back to exactly how the old format was, but something’s gotta give. The open forum Final Tribal format hasn’t stopped feeling forced and awkward, and since we never end up hearing from a good portion of the jurors in this format, we get even less insight into why they voted the way they did.
It was also bizarre that Sophie’s blindside was never brought up by anyone over the course of Final Tribal Council. Sophie looked miserable, so it’s safe to assume she was still sick from whatever caused her to miss the previous tribal, so she might not have brought it up herself. But her blindside was framed as the turning point in the season and was undoubtedly the biggest move Tony made all game. The fact that it wasn’t mentioned at all—by Tony, Sophie, or anyone else—made it feel like a key part behind Tony’s victory was missing from Final Tribal.
In the present, COVID-19 world, Tony is crowned the new King of Survivor from the comfort of his own home, beating out Natalie in a decisive 12-4 Jury vote announced via Zoom. Natalie snags her four votes from Jeremy, Tyson, Parvati, and Ethan, with Michele netting zero.
Michele getting no jury votes at all was one of the bigger surprises of the night for me. I didn’t expect her to ever win over Tony, especially with the way FTC went. Still, I figured she’d at least earn a couple of votes with the way she played from the bottom for most of the merge, especially from someone like Nick, who also played from the bottom a lot on his original season. Michele’s story this season centered a lot on proving she deserved to win her first season, and she certainly accomplished that this time around with her scrappy gameplay and charm, even if it didn’t result in a win.
Even if I was rooting for Sophie for the whole season leading up to her blindside (which I still haven’t fully recovered from on a spiritual level), I can’t deny that Tony’s victory is beyond impressive, especially considering his legacy going into the season. His win and path to victory will be discussed and dissected in the months and years to come, and for good reason. Watching Tony keep being Tony episode after episode and no one wanting to vote him out was mind-boggling and clearly points to an incredible social game on his part. I’ll be curious to hear more from the players about why so many of them didn’t try to get him out.
As for Winners at War as a whole, the post-merge suffered a lot for me in terms of editing and pacing. I absolutely adored the pre-merge and went into the first couple episodes of the merge with equally high hopes for the rest of the season. But the incoherent relationships between the players, unbalanced storytelling, and my general fatigue regarding Fire Tokens and EOE made it hard for me to maintain that enthusiasm as the season came to a close, even as Tony made his unbelievable march to the finish line. We had an incredible cast who came ready to play this season, and as great as the final product was, I still wish production would’ve given the players a little more room to play without EOE and all the advantages that came into play.
One of my favorite hobbies is complaining about how much modern Survivor frustrates and disappoints me despite my undying love for the show, so it hurts my heart knowing that next season will almost certainly be delayed. Even if I had problems with it, I’m glad Winners at War is the season we got before this period of uncertainty, because it brought a hell of a lot of joy and excitement to my living room just when I needed it most.