More than any other season, I’ve been bracing myself to be devastated at each and every elimination. I genuinely enjoy this entire cast as players and winners, and even though I still have my favourites, the thought of losing them one by one by one was always daunting. Yet I was doing my best to make peace with the Shakespearean tragedy that would be Winners at War.
But nothing quite prepared me for the deflation of losing Ethan Zohn in Episode 3. When the cast became known, Ethan was in a tight race with Yul for the player I was most gobsmacked and thrilled to see play again. Especially given his long battle with cancer and the sheer amount of time passed since his last outing in All-Stars, I never thought I’d get to see one of my legitimate childhood heroes play Survivor again. The first two weeks of season 40 were everything I’d hoped for as Ethan embraced his return with gusto. And yet here we are, seeing his torch snuffed.
Perhaps it would be easier to reconcile if he were voted out because of his gameplay, or as icky as this line of reasoning can be, for being a jury threat because of his story. But to be targeted as collateral damage in order to weaken his allies Rob & Parvati? That stings—and is a painful reminder that when you put 20 winners into the mix, not all of them can keep their crowns. This is a brutal reminder that this season will have winners disappear below the radar with small, or even purple, edits. This season may make one of these winners into a 0-vote finalist. It started with Natalie and Amber—both targeted primarily for their pre-existing connections to other castaways—and Ethan’s blindside here is the final warning. This season is going to be a very bumpy ride.
Yet even though I am gutted by the result of this week’s Tribal Council, Winners at War is continuing to deliver the goods and live up to the high bar that an all-winners season was invariably going to set. Could I have done without two whole segments of the show being devoted to Natalie scheming her way into her third Fire Token and Sarah pulling a Vince Moua, infiltrating Sele in the night to snag a Vote Steal? Sure, of course! But there was still a wealth of humour, drama, and enthralling gameplay as the game continues to heat up.
We might not get an Old School vs. New School season in the long run, but we’re getting a definite taste of it this season in the Tribal dynamics of the Sele tribe. The division is clear: Old School icons Ethan, Parvati, and Boston Rob up against the 5-strong New School coalition of Denise, Jeremy, Michele, Adam, and Ben. Although the whole tribe had come together to agree on eliminating Danni—now beginning her quest to follow Chris Underwood’s third boot to winner trajectory by spear-fishing on Extinction—a cohesive tribe was the exception, not the rule.
With the numbers lying with the New Schoolers, it was destined for an Old Schooler to be picked off. Rob and Parvati together had been managing to call many of the shots so far despite being on the outside. Translating their force of personality into manipulation of the game is stock and trade for them—Parvati uses her charm, Rob uses his intimidation, this is the way. Although both were dangerous threats, there was immediate dissension about who to target. After a couple of rough encounters, Ben was not a fan of Rob’s alpha tactics, but it was Adam who seemed to be leading the charge, pushing for Parvati to go instead.
Adam’s reasoning was two-fold. Parvati was incredibly dangerous in her own right as she seems to effortlessly draw people in with her charismatic charm, but is just as willing to eat them alive and spit out the bones. Yet perhaps more significantly for Adam, he had closer ties with Ethan and Rob, which would preserve his options and influence moving forward. Without Parv, Rob’s sphere of influence would be diminished further. Without his own numbers, that would make Rob easier to work with in the long run—at least in Adam’s mind. The other New Schoolers seemed on board too, seeing the advantage in weakening Rob.
Yes, that line of justification is back, once again, we’re discussing taking out a woman to weaken her male ally. I don’t like it, you don’t like it, and we always scream at the television, “Then just vote out the man!” But let’s break this particular instance in context. As the New Schoolers first targeted Parvati and eventually turned on Ethan as a tactic to reduce Rob’s power, I was initially adamant that they should have just gone after Rob. He’s the big dog, he’s the one who’s already convincing the whole tribe to dump out their bags when he isn’t even in the numbers. He’s never going to fall in line and follow anyone else’s plan, and he’s just as willing to blindside his allies as his enemies. Why on earth would you want to keep that around?
Is it purely the aura of intimidation that Rob exudes? I could buy that it might be fear of an Idol—except for the fact that Adam and Denise both know that the latter holds the tribe’s Idol (now complete, after a well-executed flashback showed that Adam returned his half to Denise before the previous Tribal). It can’t be a fear of sending him to Extinction, either to conspire with Amber or to win his way back in with a vendetta, unless they plan to take him to Final 5, they’re going to have to cross that bridge regardless.
What it comes down to, evidently, is simply that Rob has two things going for him. Players like Adam saw the possibility of working with him, but all of them must be thinking about Rob as a perfect meat shield. As Adam emphasised at Tribal, this guy has a statue of his head on a nearby island. There is no doubting Rob is and will remain throughout the entire season, a top-tier threat who is always in the conversation of who to send home. For the New Schoolers, with smaller reputations, keeping a distraction like that around is certainly tempting. Perhaps that’s in part why Jeremy and Michele, the ultimate kingmakers in this vote, chose to also protect Parvati—herself a lightning rod of a Huge Threat™, compared to Ethan, whose aura of reputation was immense but was more of a personal reputation than the looming game threat of all-time greats like Rob and Parv. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Sele tribe’s vote, at its core, was ultimately about the New Schoolers salvaging relationships from the sinking Old Schooler ship. Adam’s instincts were not wholly off-base, and it’s always important to maintain good rapport with the minority alliance. Still, his brazen attempts to curry favour with Ethan and Rob were poorly executed. He approached each in turn, telling them both that the plan was to vote out Parvati. Not only is it incredibly dangerous to leak plans to the minority alliance, but Adam misread the room badly enough (or the Old Schoolers have managed to conceal their dealings well enough) that he didn’t realise both men saw Parvati as their number one ally and would be willing to do whatever they needed to protect her—and their own alliance in the process.
Worst of all, Adam was getting way ahead of himself and trying to control the entirety of a tribe later defined as a series of individual bunkers all facing the same battlefield. In Winners at War, everyone is clearly out to get everyone, and Adam may have been better served to keep his head down. Do his best to stay chummy with Ethan & Rob—they’ll still need allies if they get blindsided and lose Parvati—but don’t try to assert power over them yet. Telling Ethan and Rob was an undoubtedly terrible call, but what really sealed it as bad was that Adam spilling the beans was a rogue move. This wasn’t a New Schooler decision to try to bring in Ethan and Rob to maintain tribe cohesion, and Adam was just the one bearing the news. No, this was Adam acting in Adam’s best interest and jeopardising his entire alliance’s plan without their knowledge.
And that’s where it very nearly got him voted out. Just last week, Danni told Rob to vote out Parvati and look where she ended up. History repeating, Rob’s first instinct was to turn the tables on Adam, and he approached Jeremy and Michele with a plan to flip the vote on the wayward millennial. They were shocked by the discovery that Adam had leaked the plan, and as they took that news back to Ben and Denise, it became glaringly obvious that none of them were aware of Adam’s actions, and it instantly threatened their trust in him. With the Old Schoolers keen to pick him off, the New Schoolers were beginning to see reason in voting out the player caught trying to play the middle. At the very least, the Parvati plan was bust. It could all go up in smoke if the Old Schoolers did have an Idol or an Advantage, and it was a non-zero possibility, given Amber’s residence on the Edge, which had been a source of gifted Advantages even in season 38.
This is where the Ethan option arose. It still achieves a weakening of the ostensible leader of the minority alliance by taking away a key ally. It still maintains a meat shield in Rob (and even adds to that buffer by keeping Parvati). It avoids the minority using Adam’s intel to mount play defensively around Parvati. It seizes control from Adam, cutting off one of his options with the other side. It keeps the New Schoolers in a decisive majority, whereas following Rob’s plan to blindside Adam would narrow the gap. Taking out the emotional stakes I had in getting to watch Ethan play again, it’s a pretty strong play by the New Schoolers, especially by the New Schoolers in charge.
Jeremy and Michele have come a long way from being left out of the first vote against Natalie to now controlling the vote only two Tribals later. While they’ve been adopted into the New Schooler dynamic, they’re arguably the 4 & 5 of that alliance behind Adam, Ben, and Denise, and so it behooves them to keep their options open. It certainly seems that they have been doing just that, given that Rob approached them directly to not only fill them in on Adam’s duplicity but enlist them in his own plan. Moreso than Rob resenting being told what to do by Adam, Rob seems to have a willingness to work with Jeremy and Michele, and I would argue that this is the biggest advantage for them in choosing to take out one of Rob’s allies, but not the big man himself.
With Ethan out of the picture, and a fissure in the alliance of Adam, Ben, and Denise, Jeremy and Michele are perfectly placed in the middle of the Sele dynamics. If the tribe as a whole comes together to single out Adam as the rat caught trying to store up too much cheese, great. If they want to stay with the New Schoolers, they’ve just established trust with Ben & Denise, who worked with them to pull off the counter-counter-attack on Ethan. And if they want to swing back the other way, teaming up with Rob & Parvati would be a natural match. Jeremy pioneered the meat shield strategy in Cambodia, and there are no greater shields than Rob & Parv (save for a certain two-time winner on the other tribe). For Michele, a highly social player with something to prove, there is a natural kinship between her and Parvati, and that pairing could also make for a dangerous duo. As for blowback after voting out Ethan, Michele and Jeremy can put the same blame back on Rob and Parv for having blindsided them with Natalie. Now they’re even.
I’m still not sure it’s a slam dunk play. Between ostracising Adam by singling him out at the vote and leaving wily players like Rob and Parv in the game at the bottom and with nothing to lose, there’s certainly room for this to all turn upside-down for them real fast. Yet I have to admit that I’ve come around on the play by Michele and Jeremy, especially given where they were standing after the first vote. They controlled the vote, and by far, they gain the most by this result moving forward.
If only it didn’t have to be Ethan. Through to the end of the final act, I was really impressed with how Ethan was playing. As he said himself, it was a miracle for him to be alive, much less back on Survivor. Best of all, he was embracing the game to its fullest despite his lengthy lay-off. While his approach was undoubtedly old-school, taking it slower and working to build alliances the old-fashioned way, it wasn’t like he was entrenched in his alliance. He was continually in conversations in the middle, with an apparent good rapport with players like Adam and Ben. Quite simply, he was a joy to watch—even through to the secret scenes, with his mama-bird culinary tricks and roleplaying with Parvati to boost his deception skills. I know Edge means that Ethan’s adventure isn’t truly over, but that doesn’t make his vote-out any less impactful.
SHARKS IN THE WATER
Everybody, sing together now: Sandra’s shark, do-do-do-do! Tony’s shark do-do-do-do!
While tensions were high on Sele, Dakal was an absolute blast. Opening with Sandra’s public declaration that this season was her “one last time” was another reminder that this season is an end to an era. However, if Sandra’s going out, she’s going out with a bang, and her contraption to catch some fish led to the hilarious sequence when the dawn brought with it a baby shark trapped in a net. Between Tony retrieving the shark before he remembered that he’s afraid of sharks and running about with it in a panic as it tries to bite at him, to the quick montage of everybody recreating his reaction in confessional, it was a joy.
Tony is the gift that keeps on giving, later recruited when Sarah felt she needed some cop back-up to pull off her night-time infiltration of the other camp to retrieve the Vote Steal she purchased from Natalie’s island shop over at Extinction. You thought Tony would be coming along for the ride, or ready to cover for her if her absence was noted at Dakal? Nope, Tony’s idea of helping Sarah’s stealth mission was to rub ash on her forehead. I don’t know what I expected from the guy who followed up his Cagayan Spy Shack with an attempted Spy Bunker in Game Changers, but watching Tony & Sarah spit into ash to help it stick was one of the most ridiculous scenes in recent memory—and I loved it. I wasn’t the biggest fan of Tony’s game during Cagayan, but it’s undeniable that he is easily one of the best Survivor characters we’ve ever had, and him bringing his brand of lunacy to Winners at War is a true blessing.
While the extended scene of Sarah’s infiltration mission was fine, and I’m curious to see how she utilises her second career Vote Steal, I felt the weakest parts of the episode overall was the time spent on dealing with the Advantage. Yet seeing as it gave us the aforementioned disguise scene, and some legitimate intrigue on the Edge, it wasn’t without merit. While, still, I wouldn’t say I like the Edge as a whole, the race to solve the combination to the lockbox was fun and managed to feature some compelling character moments and gameplay from characters who barely got a chance to play the game. Seeing Amber’s cunning rise to the surface as she was the first to break away from the pack to try to solve the puzzle on her own was fun, but Natalie continues to dominate.
Realising that the string of shells wrapped around the clue to the lockbox was a code, Natalie not only snuck away to unlock the box but also made sure to cover her tracks, throwing one of the other strands into the jungle and smashing some shells on the other to destroy the evidence. It was also compelling to hear her articulate the social challenge that arose once she found the Vote Steal—despite being far removed from the main game, she needed to judge who was the best person to offer the Advantage. She only had one shot at selling it, and she had to make the right choice. Her consideration paid off, and with three Fire Tokens, Natalie is the literal richest player in the game—and she’s worked for it!
But back on Dakal, where the real game is happening, all of the silly shark and ash antics aren’t distracting from the strategy. There’s still movement in the water, as Tyson attempted to affix the target to Sandra’s back. She certainly is the biggest target on that beach, with $2 million already in hand, and Tyson’s reasoning held further weight. Sandra is a master of sowing dissent through misinformation, and she’s a cunning opportunist. But much like what’s happening at Sele, not everybody’s ready to throw away the shields or accelerate the momentum of the game just yet. Continuing to demonstrate how to effectively play the middle, Yul approached Sandra to flag that Tyson was coming for her. Not only does this put Sandra on high alert with a direct opponent in the firing line, but it allows Yul and his allies to observe the fallout from the sidelines. For a player like him, wanting to find rational people to work with, spreading this information allows him to observe how others react to it and gives him more data to build his decisions upon.
Three episodes in, this brutal season is already soaring, even with its flaws and devastating early boots. What’s continually fascinating about this season so far is that it genuinely feels like a war, comprised of individual battles on an ever-changing battlefield. Tactics vary widely, from diplomatic decision-making to more aggressive assertions of power, but every conversation feels like it could be the tipping point between one player’s survival and another’s defeat. With honest emotional stakes in each of these players, the tension is palpable every time Tribal Council draws near, and it’s an exhilarating journey.
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