Survivor: Winners At War

Episode 5 Recap – Change Management

Austin Smith recaps the latest episode!

Photo: CBS

“Survivor is…” has become an ever-present preamble over the years as contestants and fans alike seek to express the totality of the experience into an innovative metaphor or a succinct quip. Chief among these is the description of the game, echoed this week as Rob argued that at its core, Survivor is a numbers game. But as with even the best thesis statement, a single sentence can rarely summarise every nuance of a convoluted concept.

Numbers are undoubtedly a valuable commodity in the game, but numbers alone do not make for a success story. After all, the very structure of Survivor forces those numbers to be whittled down over time—and even then, you still have to win over the hearts of the people. So in that sense, Survivor is also a game of relationships. Interpersonal bonds are integral to every facet of Survivor and can make a crucial difference. With the advent of the tribe swap bringing this web of relationships to the surface, we saw how Kim’s isolation by Dakal led her to consider other options, how out-of-game history can be just as impactful as island-born bonds with Michele & Wendell, and, of course, the complete implosion of fractured relationships on the new Yara tribe, where Sele’s easy numerical majority fell apart due to bad blood.

So numbers and relationships are both critical factors. Still, there are countless other elements at play: Survivor is a game of strategy, Survivor is a game of luck, Survivor is a game of trust. But on the night of the time-honoured tradition of the tribal swap, one of the most important “Survivor is…” statements is that Survivor is a game of adaptability. Numbers and relationships are both necessary, and both can get you far, but in the crucible of randomness and uncertainty that is the tribe swap, in the here and now, you need to be flexible and capable of change if called for.


There’s no argument that Boston Rob Mariano is a great Survivor player. His survival to this point in the game in Winners at War, and especially his assertive tactics on the Sele beach in the early days, is a testament to that. But the biggest flaw—and ultimately a key contributor to his downfall this episode—is that for all of his creativity in a complex game, Rob has a very rigid approach to Survivor strategy. If he can’t play from a power position, either in an alliance or in a tribe, then he struggles to adapt.

The Buddy System was an incredibly efficient tactic for Rob in his winning season, where he was able to direct his Ometepe alliance to stick together and freeze out the Zapatera enemy at the merge. However, it’s a tactic that can only be effective in a scenario like Redemption Island, where Rob’s directive is viewed as an authoritative word of law. The Ometepes believed in the strength of their alliance and wanted to follow Rob’s plan, so the Buddy System became a mutually beneficial strategy for leader and follower alike. There, “people together, working together” did work.

But such a stifling strategy is never going to work on players who don’t trust your directive or have other options and interests outside of the lockdown of the Buddy System. The new Yara tribe was the only swapped tribe with a numerical ex-Sele majority, but numbers meant nothing due to the fractured relationships between that majority of Adam, Ben, and Rob. All had betrayed each other at some point, to varying degrees.

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They were handed an easy opportunity to let bygones be bygones, and reunite to rebuild, ganging up on Sarah and Sophie left in the minority, but those relationships had festered too long. Even before the chaos of their last Tribal Council, we’d seen Ben bristle against Rob’s controlling approach. After Rob tried to get him voted out and continued to throw him under the bus to save his own skin, there was no love lost for Adam towards Rob. So, in all honesty, Rob was probably dead to rights as soon as new buffs were drawn, especially given Sophie’s early comment to Adam that she also had no interest in trying to work with Rob. So although the Buddy System “on steroids” became a focal point of the episode, the real kicker to Rob’s downfall was his burned bridges with his previous tribemates. By not maintaining and cultivating relationships across alliance lines on Sele, he found himself unable to rebuild those bridges when he needed them now.

For Rob, Ben and Adam had both proven to be squirrely as they leaned into the flexibility of New School play, juggling multiple plans and names moving around rather than committing to a solid numerical majority and riding it out. So I can see where he struggled to have trust in them. Still, I don’t know why he thought his best way of getting out of his situation was to strongarm them into an unwilling alliance with a constrictive order not to talk to anyone else and just spend the afternoon talking about cookies in the bunker-like shelter. Rob had options, but by falling back onto tactics of rigid control and being unwilling to adapt to a role other than the unquestioned leader of an alliance, he only sealed his fate.

Adam and Ben had their problems with Rob, and perhaps it was too late to rectify the mismanagement of his personal relationship with them. But tactically speaking, it was advantageous for the three of them to hold tight. If one of them were to get eliminated, that would leave the remainder at a 2-2 deadlock with the women from Dakal, and that’s a dicey situation (even excluding the secret arsenal of advantages carried by Sarah & Sophie). So in their best, mutual, long-term interest, they needed to stick together.

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I imagine this was part of Rob’s pitch. But where he ended up off track was trying to use this mutually beneficial arrangement as a precursor towards his control of an alliance as he talked about the move “building trust” and ultimately locking up his supposed allies with house arrest. If he had made the same pitch, but in the context of a mutually beneficial play—right now and only for right now—akin to the more flexible “voting bloc” strategies of modern Survivor, perhaps there’s a chance he could have swayed them. It’s a subtle difference, but because Rob refused to relinquish a sense of control and let others guide the tone, this avenue was sealed off.

Beyond that, there were opportunities to be even more flexible. With his alliance on Sele whittled down to just himself and Parvati, he was in a perfect position to be the swing vote flipper. Approaching Sarah and Sophie and committing to throwing Ben & Adam under the bus was an option given he had no way forward with his old tribe. But to pull off such a move, Rob would have needed to give up any illusion of control and portray an edge of desperation to convince Sarah and Sophie that he wasn’t playing them. Alternatively, this could have been a perfect opportunity to start from scratch for Rob and try to build something new, perhaps committing to one of Ben or Adam and trying to pull in one or both of the ex-Dakal women.

I don’t doubt that Rob considered these tactics. We certainly saw him talking one-on-one to Sophie about the Sele fractures. And I do think there was little chance of any of them working out given Rob’s glaring reputation and his decaying relationships with Ben and Adam. However, if Rob was to have found a way out, it had to be through adaptation. It had to be through changing up his preferred style of dominant play to try out a more loosey-goosey modern style or be willing to tuck tail and be a number for somebody else at this vote. Asserting dominance when he was already on the outside wasn’t the reason Rob went home, but it was the final blow.


For Adam and Ben, though, I do fear that it wasn’t the best strategy to target Rob here. As intimated before, they now leave themselves in a 2-2 split with Sophie and Sarah, and given the uneasy trust between the men, it could make it very easy for the women to team up with one and target the other. In a sense, an ideal scenario would have been to stick with Rob at this vote, take out Sarah, and then pick up Sophie at the next vote to flip against Rob. But at that point, it’s an exercise of moving pieces around on a chessboard, and that’s its own kind of rigid thinking. But it does leave Adam and Ben in a vulnerable place, especially as they are outgunned by the cavalcade of advantages at the women’s disposal.

Sarah came into the swap with the Vote Steal up her sleeve after her stealth mission, and for such a circumstantial advantage, this would have been a perfect opportunity to use it had Adam and Ben not been so clearly against working with Rob. Being in the minority by only one vote is the exact situation this advantage was made for. But Sarah critically read the room well enough to trust that she didn’t need it here—and it will continue to be useful at the next Tribal now that it is a 2-2 split.

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But the women this season continue to dominate the advantages as Sophie found the Yara Idol in a time of need. Having returned Kim’s Idol half back on Dakal, it must have been a relief to find her own, though she was faced with the same dilemma of needing to give half the Idol to somebody else. Although it was an obvious choice to share it with Sarah, as their minority position necessitated collaboration and rapid trust, I still love the complexity of this tweak to the Idol, and I really hope it’s a change that’s here to stay through the post-merge and hopefully into seasons ahead. Even in such a straightforward situation, one of Sarah’s most iconic moments was sniping the Legacy Advantage from Sierra Dawn Thomas in Game Changers, and no doubt Sophie would have wondered if Sarah might betray her, hold onto the Idol half and throw her under the bus to save her own skin. That tension, however unlikely, is implicit with this modification to the Idol, and I love it.

Much like Sarah’s Vote Steal, Sophie read the room well to see that Ben and Adam were just as frustrated with Rob’s lockdown as she was and chose to hold onto the Idol, and like the Vote Steal, it could come in very handy should Yara face Tribal Council again in a 2-2 split. But Idols and Advantages are just the topping on the cake of the social relationships of this season. Sophie and Sarah—two very different people and characters—were forced into a position of mutual dependence by the swap but appear to have quickly formed a working relationship that suits them well. Their dry humour is an excellent match, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them continue to work together in the long run.

This season has just been so fun with its surreal mixing of personalities, each iconic in their own way having worn the crown of Sole Survivor. But it’s also doing wonders to give more depth to these winners. Sophie was largely overshadowed by the big personalities of Coach, Ozzy, Cochran, and Brandon in South Pacific. Seeing more of her snark and strategy push to the forefront is exciting, and seeing her adapt from the rigid alliances of her previous season to be open to the ebb and flow of the modern game is an interesting parallel to Rob’s plight. 

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For Sarah, this season has done wonders for showing us how strong she is as a Survivor player. Game Changers focused on her aggressive strategic play, but we didn’t see a lot of the detail in how she managed to get everyone’s trust. This season, we’re seeing her social game at the forefront as she employs her dry humour to ingratiate herself with her tribemates. But importantly, also provide open emotional support, as highlighted this week in the opening scene as she asked Yul about the situation with Jonathan Penner and Stacy Title.

This scene was heartbreaking and I’m incredibly grateful that Survivor included it here. In the pre-season, Yul had spoken about his intention to donate his winnings to ALS research on behalf of his former tribemate Jonathan and his wife Stacy, who is facing a severe struggle with ALS. With Yul’s motivations coming in having this altruistic intent to raise awareness for this debilitating disease, I’m glad Survivor gave him the platform to accomplish this. Yul’s heartfelt confessionals—both to camera and to Sarah and Wendell in the Dakal shelter—were moving and an appropriate reminder of what’s truly important.


In what’s inherently an awkward transition from real life back into the construct of the game, let’s go to the most awkward of the swapped tribes: New Sele and its riff on Ex on the Beach. Once again, Winners at War has made the excellent decision to not shy away from the shared history of its champions outside of the show. Showing that Michele and Wendell had been “kicking it” and that their relationship had ended on a sour note was a surprising reveal but valuable to the transparency of the game. The show could have edited around this. Even if the Michele/Wendell dynamic has bearing moving forward, footage could have been edited to suggest that any fractures were limited to what happened on the beach. But like the Poker Alliance, I’m relieved that Survivor has decided to be more upfront, and it’s infinitely more compelling.

Michele and Wendell’s dating history was new information for many, but the repercussions of a bad relationship seem poised to have an impact here, especially as the awkwardness between them shone through in their interactions around camp. As Wendell bristled in the discomfort and Michele felt scolded by his attitude, it seems clear that there is unlikely to be a reunion between the two. And Michele confiding in Parvati seemed to further drive home that there’s no reconciliation on the horizon. And that certainly leaves these women in a tough spot.

For Michele and Parvati, the swap has been a bad draw. Not only are they in the minority, but the opposing ex-Dakal majority of Wendell, Yul, and Nick have come from a united alliance. There is very little chance of cracking that opposition, but Michele and Parvati are renowned for the use of the social game, so it’s not out of the question. Parvati and Yul have history having played together in Cook Islands. Although they’ve not stayed close, the scene of Yul telling Parv that she’s his wife’s favourite player was a fun scene, as was the further awkwardness of Nick sharing that he’d had a high school crush on Parvati back in the day. Perhaps it’s telling that Parvati had avenues of communication with these two, while Wendell remained a “locked vault.”

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But what may actually be the saving grace for Michele and Parvati is the Fire Token twist. With Rob bequeathing his two tokens to Parvati, who already inherited Ethan’s token, Parv is now the richest player in the game—equal to Natalie’s haul on Extinction. Although I don’t believe we’ve seen an individual advantage listed on the tribal Fire Token menu—only a tribe challenge advantage stands out from the comfort items for sale. Still, Parv is in the best position to have expendable currency to capitalise on the social relationships with Yul and Nick. Is this a crackpot theory? Absolutely. But at some point, the Fire Token gambits are going to start having an impact, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see this be a tipping point.

Things are a little more straightforward on New Dakal, where the division between ex-Sele’s Denise & Jeremy and ex-Dakal’s Kim, Sandra & Tony have created a more conventional swap scenario with a straightforward swing vote. Kim, who never seemed like she got her footing after losing Amber and later Tyson, beyond a tentative connection to Sophie, is in the perfect position to flip to find new allies. To dredge up the Poker thing, Kim and Jeremy were part of that infamous game, and Kim made a point of saying she had reciprocated good vibes with Denise. These three also have similar games and seem suited to working together. They’re all players who are loyal to their allies, but they’re all savvy enough to know to switch things up and adapt if needed. If push came to shove, Kim choosing Denise & Jeremy would make sense.

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The tricky thing is that sticking with Sandra & Tony also makes sense. Although she’s only a one-time player, Kim has long been touted as one of the greatest of all time, so joining up with the Big Threats and using them as shields is not a bad play to fend off the hungry hyenas looking to take them down. It was encouraging to see Tony take Tyson’s warning to heart. And it’s especially fitting given that Tony & Sandra being unable to hold their Big Threats alliance in Game Changers contributed to their mutual losses. But I do worry that it’s too late for them to build new bridges with Kim if they haven’t already. We haven’t seen much of Dakal in the first several episodes, and even less of Kim’s relationships within that web, so it’s hard to know where she sits with Tony & Sandra. There’s no reason to suspect it’s personally negative in the way that Rob, Ben & Adam had bad blood, but there’s also nothing to suggest she’s especially close, and that might hurt Tony & Sandra moving forward.

But who knows—Dakal has also ended up with the potential for an Advantagegeddon on our favourite ladder-climbing llama whisperer. Between Denise and Kim’s Idols, Sandra’s purchased Idol, which will expire after one more Tribal, and Jeremy’s Safety Without Power, there is a non-zero chance that Tony could be the only one without something hiding in his bag of tricks. I’m not convinced that that’s where we’re headed, but with the teaser for next week’s episode suggesting that two tribes will each vote someone out, Dakal’s story could quickly shift from a traditional Survivor swing vote to modern Survivor mayhem.


Winners at War continues to fire on all cylinders. Even a relatively predictable elimination of Rob after the swap was an endlessly fascinating episode due to the web of personal and strategic relationships between a cast of immensely fascinating characters. And to cap it all off, Edge of Extinction was left out of the episode altogether, giving us ample time to learn the dynamics of three new tribes and relish the interactions in the actual game. The Edge has not been a total disaster this season. However, it still feels ancillary when there are so many good characters and so much interesting gameplay happening on the main beaches. When it sticks to what it does best, “Survivor is” always going to keep us coming back.


Martin Holmes’s recap at Vulture.

Inside Survivor Dream Tribe Results.

Written by

Austin Smith

Austin hails from Canberra, Australia. By day, he works by the light of office fluorescence. By night, he can be found swing dancing to Top ‘40s tracks (1940s, that is), playing board games, and enjoying life with his wonderful wife. His pedigree as a long-time Survivor superfan is evidenced by his Survivor-themed 11th birthday party featuring a gross food challenge comprising Brussel sprouts. Austin writes Inside Survivor’s episode recaps for both Survivor US and Australian Survivor.

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