Although I loved last week’s two-hour premiere, this week’s episode was the real test for me in terms of gauging how Survivor: Winners at War might turn out. With a much shorter runtime, two players already on the Edge of Extinction, and the (at this point) inevitable idols and advantages that can come into play at any moment, this first regular episode of the season gives us a much better idea of how the editors will balance all the advantages, big personalities, and fast-paced gameplay on such a highly-anticipated season.
This second episode certainly delivered, although EOE, fire tokens, idols, and an advantage took up a lot more screen time than I would have liked. It took us somewhere around 17 minutes to get to non-EOE non-advantage-related content. On top of all those advantages and twists, though, the show still managed to find the time for some really enjoyable character and alliance building moments, with Tony and his ladder being the breakout stars of the episode.
The major themes of this week’s episode were Old School vs. New School—a theme I assume will most likely feature prominently throughout the entire season—and the power of paranoia, both of which fueled the wildest Tribal Council of the season so far.
MEANWHILE, ON EDGE
At the end of last week’s episode, our Mayor of Extinction Natalie welcomed Amber to this season’s depressing camping trip-meets-scavenger hunt. They wake up to see that Jeff has left them a cute poem to help them locate something they can sell for fire tokens, but they’re unable to crack the code. Natalie stumbles upon the advantage without needing to figure out the clue (the first letter of every line spelled out “water well”). She discovers that it’s a “Safety Without Power” advantage, a.k.a. the advantage Janet turned down on Island of the Idols that also previously appeared on Australian Survivor. She offers it up to her old buddy Jeremy, who gladly buys it.
The Safety Without Power advantage is an interesting one. At the very least, it’s not overpowered in the sense that you have to give something up (your vote) to actually get the advantage (immunity). On top of that, it’s also a very visible advantage with the potential of pissing a lot of people off, especially as numbers dwindle and losing a single vote could be catastrophic for an alliance. Jeremy was pretty quick to buy it, especially compared to Janet last season, who decided it wasn’t worth the risk of playing one of Boston Rob’s carnival games. Time will tell if that was a good decision.
With Amber and Natalie as our first two EOE residents, we’ve already got two nice revenge plots set up for the season. We have Natalie and Jeremy (a dynamic that nicely mirrors their respective storylines on San Juan Del Sur) and, of course, married couple Amber and Rob. As much as I dislike EOE for fundamentally undermining the integrity of the game, its implementation on a returning player season like this does open up the possibility of having some really fun long term revenge plots. I consider this long-term storytelling potential a silver lining to the twist. However, it doesn’t erase my very real problems with it. For example, we still spent a good chunk of the episode on Natalie finding and sending the advantage to Jeremy, which doesn’t assuage my concerns that EOE (on top of all the idols and advantages) will mean that the edit suffers in the long run.
…speaking of idols, Denise and Kim each find one! On Sele, there’s a cute moment between Ben and Denise, where they each share their respective skills with one another. Denise, the level-headed therapist with a great social game checks in with Ben and asks: “Are you keeping yourself calm?” Seconds later, Idol Finding Bloodhound Ben teaches Denise how to sniff out an idol, and she almost immediately finds one.
The twist with this particular idol is that it has to be split into two halves in order to hold any power. Ben encourages Denise to give it away—not to him, but to someone else to help build trust. As messy as Ben’s gameplay was last week, he played this situation pretty well, letting Denise make her own decision while still gaining her trust. Of course, Denise momentarily considers giving half the idol to Parvati, which is about as risky a move she could make in the situation. Adam ends up with it in the end, which was the best, least risky choice Denise had here.
Kim finds the idol over on Dakal, continuing my favorite storyline of the season so far in Kim Spradlin-Wolfe: The Unexpected Underdog. Seeing such a dominant winner have to play from the bottom for the first time is incredibly compelling. As a big fan of Kim’s, I’m not happy to see her struggling for allies this early in the game, but she came into this week with a cool head, knowing that she’s in trouble and needs allies fast. Her choice to give half the idol to Sophie was probably the best option she had: she’s already aligned with Tyson, and correctly identified Sophie as one of the strategic power players on Dakal.
But just because it was her best option doesn’t mean it was necessarily a good one. As we saw in Sophie’s confessional, Kim’s reputation as one of the all-time greatest social and strategic threats proceeds her. No matter what she does, she’s going to be a threat, and now that she has an idol—and is making a bold social play by giving half that idol to Sophie—she’s going to be seen as even more of a threat. That idol may be a temporary saving grace for Kim, but she’s still got a hard fight ahead of her. I’m not ready to write her off just yet, and she bounced back decently from last week’s episode by recognizing she was in trouble and doing whatever she could to get out of that trouble. But I’m just not sure it’ll be enough to overcome her gargantuan legacy.
COPS R US 2: HERE WE GO AGAIN
Also on Dakal, it’s the Tony Vlachos Show! We get a fun scene with him and his ladder of death trying to get breadfruit, and it’s clear that even though we’re not getting Game Changers-level of Tony shenanigans, he’s still going to be delivering that wonderfully chaotic Tony energy around camp. The ladder scene and everyone’s reactions to it—especially Sophie’s confessional, where she compares Tony to a kid—was a welcome, fun, character-driven moment that really helped balance out all the idols and strategic talk in this episode.
Tony and Sarah link up on the beach and tentatively reignite the Cops R Us alliance. Tony recognizes that it didn’t work out great for Sarah on Cagayan, and Sarah herself seems a little uncertain in her confessional. They both say the phrase “Cops R Us” approximately 20 times in two minutes, and Sarah compares the state of the alliance to their shared profession, saying that their time together on Cagayan was like being “brand new partners.” Now, they’re more seasoned and know each other better, so in theory, things should run a little smoother this time. As long as nobody knows about Cops R Us, Sarah notes, it can work. It probably won’t help them that this pairing is one of the more obvious ones on Dakal. Sarah and Tony played on two of the same seasons and share a profession, so if keeping it a secret really is a key to their success, they’ll really have to be careful these next few weeks. If they haven’t already been pinned as a threatening power duo, it’s only a matter of time before they are.
RETURN OF THE ROBFATHER
We got a taste of the Robfather last week when Ben spilled the beans, and Danni confessed straight to his face, but Boston Rob was in full-blown mob boss mode this episode. Even before the Tribal shenanigans (and boy, will we get to that!), we had the absolute drama of Rob discovering Amber’s fate—first suspected when an anonymous fire token arrives in his bag, then confirmed at the Immunity Challenge. Before the challenge, he speculates with Parvati that Sandra might have had something to do with it, and if she did, “this means war.” I have to imagine this is exactly how production wanted the Rob and Amber pairing to turn out—Amber goes out early, sends Rob advantages from EOE, and they get a cool Rob vengeance storyline that, worst-case scenario, ends with him eventually joining her on EOE. But whatever his fate may be, right here and now he’s still in the game—and he’s out for revenge.
Unfortunately for Rob, though, his and Denise’s puzzle strategy at the Immunity/Reward Challenge doesn’t work out, sending Sele back to Tribal. Despite his mess-up at the challenge, which he owns up to (“my bad, boys”), the Robfather is in a pretty comfortable position post-challenge. It seems fairly straightforward: the old-schoolers will take out either Jeremy or Ben. Then we cut to Danni, observing a conversation between Parvati, Rob, and Ethan, and things start to fall apart.
Danni, Danni, Danni.
Danni handled her awkward moment with Boston Rob pretty well last week: when confronted about throwing his name out, she immediately owned up to it. She left that conversation with Rob trusting her even more than before. I thought it was a good sign of what was to come for our sole Guatemala returnee, but sadly that wasn’t the case.
Danni didn’t necessarily have a bad read on the situation: if she’s being excluded from conversations, that’s probably a good indicator that she’s near the bottom of her alliance. If Parvati’s not talking to her one-on-one, that might be an indicator of how Parvati values her as an alliance member. But it seems that Danni let paranoia get the better of her and overplayed when her name wasn’t even on the chopping block to begin with. She spills the beans about the Old School alliance in front of Ben. She tells Rob that she’s targeting his closest ally in Parvati, coming across as both an unreliable alliance member and an unpredictable player. Basically, where Natalie and Amber did almost nothing wrong to get targeted last week, Danni unwittingly did everything she could to seal her fate.
At Tribal, the themes of paranoia and Old School vs. New School take center stage. Ben blows up Danni’s spot and openly calls out the Old School alliance, which leads to a heated exchange between Ben and the Old Schoolers (for those keeping track at home, Ben pronounces Parvati as “poverty”) about who’s really the paranoid one around camp.
There’s some whispering, and Ben makes the mistake of saying the word “idol” out loud, and the Robfather is immediately on the case, forcing everyone to dump their bags out right then and there at Tribal. It’s the flashiest moment of the season so far and a peak Mob Boss Boston Rob move. As goofy as it was, the dramatic irony of knowing who has the idols and seeing Denise’s spur-of-the-moment sleight of hand was thrilling.
Danni gets sent to the EOE in a unanimous vote, which isn’t terribly surprising. While new schoolers like Adam, Michele, and Jeremy correctly want to get Parvati out sometime soon, Danni suddenly becoming the easy vote was too good to pass up. Even with big threats Parvati and Rob still in the game, a Danni vote still serves to weaken the Old School alliance in the long run.
Before she heads to the EOE, Danni bequeaths her fire token to Denise, and then joins Amber and Natalie for what will likely be another Ladies-Only Scavenger Hunt next week. As bummed as I am to see Danni go out third, it was pretty clear that she overplayed in a big way at a terrible time (i.e., the day of Tribal). Her read on where she stood in her alliance wasn’t necessarily wrong, but she did too much at precisely the wrong time, and unfortunately, it sent her straight to the EOE.
Although I still have some qualms with EOE and the potential for this season to become oversaturated with idols and advantages, this episode was emblematic of how fun returning player seasons can be. Survivor is at its “purest” form when it’s 18 strangers with no previous relationships, but from a storytelling perspective I love how a good returning player season plays off and interrogates the established quirks and legacies of its characters, giving us great moments like Tony and his ladder, the oft-proclaimed GOAT Kim playing from the bottom, and Mob Boss Boston Rob on the path of vengeance. As long as those moments and storylines don’t fall by the wayside in favor of an increased focus on EOE and advantages, Winners at War has the potential to be one of the show’s greatest seasons yet.
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