Winners at War was always going to be a bloodbath, but coming in, it felt like that would be part of the spectacle. To see all-time greats battle it out and witness new champions rise. Especially among the old school players who we never thought we’d see again. How blessed were we that after all this time, the all-winners season was now a reality.
And yet, Survivor giveth and Survivor taketh away. The blessing becomes its own curse as we round out the pre-merge with every single player from the first half of Survivor’s run gone. While the new school is not without its legends—and let’s take a quick moment to celebrate that Tony Vlachos just made the merge!—there’s something incredibly disappointing at the way the boot list has played out. A lot of it has been luck. If Yara or Dakal went to Tribal Council this week, there would have been no old-schoolers left to be picked off. But it still stings that the icons of the game and arguably the players we were most excited to see back have gone out one right after the other.
Looking for the poetry, though, maybe there’s something to it. Many have remarked that Winners at War is an end of an era. Losing all of our pre-Heroes vs. Villains players has been a bitter farewell to our icons, but now we’re setting the stage for new legends to be born. A passing of the torch, if you will.
Does that make it any easier to handle Yul getting booted? Or seeing Sandra take matters into her own hands and leave Extinction on her own terms? No—those losses still hit hard. But there’s beauty in it, and with a dynamic crop of winners still in the mix, I have no doubt that the post-merge is still going to be a thrill ride.
A DARK TURN
But man, did this pre-merge have to take Yul!? I have been on cloud nine getting to see Yul return to the game and embrace it in all its modern machinations. The fact that he hit the ground running and smoothly manoeuvred into a position of quiet power as he assembled his one-timers alliance to take down the poker players on Dakal, and then landed in a strong swap with numbers and seemingly loyal allies that he was able to keep in check, was impressive. And then it ground to an abrupt halt.
From the story sold to us in the episode, how Yul went from top dog to being ousted came down to his intellectual approach to the game. Yul has always been a calculated player, thinking several moves ahead at any given moment. It’s no surprise that that style of play was still front and centre. Still, it was also easy to see how that firm, cerebral confidence is less appealing when you’re in control compared to when your brains are what’s helping to keep your minority alliance afloat as in Cook Islands. It seemed like Yul’s critical error was trying to play too meticulously, and it ended up feeling too controlling for his allies.
Seeing Wendell’s bluntness with Michele, his unpredictability at the previous Tribal Council, and his tendency towards bravado and showboating at challenges, Yul arrived at the conclusion that his once-ally was too much of a liability for his game moving forward. He needed stability and subtlety—and Wendell was anything but. He had grounds to gain the numbers to remove Wendell from the picture. Michele was easy pickings and needed allies, and she had a rocky relationship with Wendell—barely smoothed over by her peace offering of one of Parvati’s Fire Tokens.
Meanwhile, Nick was equally frustrated by Wendell’s behaviour at the challenge costing them victory by the narrowest margin imaginable. While Wendell’s shouting to Probst was understandable given Wendell had lost an Immunity Challenge in Ghost Island for not being vocal in gaining Probst’s attention, it was easy to blame his distraction for the fraction of a second’s difference between Immunity and Tribal. Perhaps, if Yul had pushed the unreliability narrative, he could have swayed Michele and Nick to his side.
Yet it seemed like he quickly over-complicated the situation. Much like Sandra tried to pull too many strings and got blindsided for it, Yul tried to concoct a strategy to ensure that the remnants of Sele still earned Wendell’s Fire Tokens, pitching a convoluted plan. From what I gathered, he suggested that they tell Wendell the vote was for Michele, but have Michele vote for Yul while he and Nick alone blindsided Wendell in a 2-1-1 vote. Thus, Wendell would think that Michele hadn’t betrayed him, and might bequeath her his Tokens, of which Yul would take one as compensation for having put his name on the block.
It certainly is many levels of duplicity, and I love that the Fire Token twist is actually earning its keep as an impactful element to gameplay by introducing a literal currency to work in tandem with good old-fashioned trust. Nevertheless, Yul’s plan has so many parts to it, and his ultimate request to be paid for pulling off the move makes it abundantly clear that it’s being orchestrated for his individual benefit. Survivor is not a game of chess where one player can control every piece on the board, and in this case, Yul’s pieces rebelled.
That said, I think there’s more to it than Yul overcomplicating one move. The past relationship between Michele and Wendell is fraught with unease, but it is still a pre-existing bond. Michele had to have seen some semblance of rebuilding that relationship to have given him a Fire Token, and I’d wager there has to be more good vibes in that dynamic than what we’re seeing. But for Michele and Nick, it came down to a choice between stability under one person’s thumb—and a highly articulate and respected player who would be difficult to beat—-or a more unstable alliance but with a player whose game has been more erratic and may be more likely to earn ire, either being a target before them or an easier opponent at the end. It seems like that’s thinking too far ahead, but Nick was championing the Sele tribe as his Final Four, and he’s lived this reality before. Just as his Jabeni tribe lost this saucer challenge right before the merge, so too did the remaining trio of himself, Mike and Angelina manage to make it to the Final Three together.
While I’m gutted to lose Yul, and I think I’d personally have sided with a more rational and predictable ally heading into a chaotic and divided merge, there’s no pretending that he wasn’t a threat on the level of some of the other big names already on Extinction. Somehow Yul managed to shirk a reputation as one of the best, despite being widely lauded as one of—if not THE—smartest winner, and for fresher faces like Michele and Nick who have something to prove, taking out Yul is a big notch on the belt. For Nick, a player who also likes to dream up convoluted schemes, not having the competition of Yul opens up his ability to lean into his preferred style. For Michele, it fractures the boys she’s now working with in a way that just cutting Wendell doesn’t—it removes a clear leader from that alliance and rebalances it with her on much more even footing with Nick and Wendell. And that’s on top of her managing to escape this vote of certain doom while barely even being in the conversation as the potential target.
Where the trio of Michele, Nick, and Wendell go from here is going to be an interesting journey. Michele and Jeremy were close on the original Sele, which could give them an in with his current allies on new Dakal, where teaming up with him, Denise and Kim seems like a natural fit. Meanwhile, Nick and Wendell had also been aligned with Sophie—who incidentally earned one of Yul’s Fire Tokens (the other bequeathed to her recent ally Sarah), so aligning with the Yaras is also an option. In fact, there is a very real possibility that New Sele finds themselves in the middle coming into the merge.
But it’s not that simple—and that’s one of the things that I do love about coming into a merge straight from three tribes, even though I don’t love how small the tribes become by necessity. Dakal seems to be most like Sele—mostly unified, though with one loose cannon. While Denise, Jeremy, and Kim solidified their pact, Tony is clearly the fourth in that crew. He’s well-liked by Dakal and will have options as he’ll reunite Cops-R-Us with Sarah, but as we’re looking at the merge tribe as it stands, there’s no question that he’s the biggest threat on the board. As much as he might try to hype up Denise’s admittedly baller play against Sandra, “shooting her with her own bullet,” nobody is forgetting about Tony. That said, Tony could be a key for Dakal to solidify a bond with Yara, especially as Denise had working relationships with Ben and Adam early in the season. Just as easily as I could see Sele end up in the middle, so too could Dakal be the kingmakers if tribal lines stick.
Yara, meanwhile, is the most obviously fractured bunch. Adam’s paranoia led him to passionately and incorrectly conclude that Ben & Sarah were colluding, having found the Idol in secret. His unabashed certainty on something we know is 100% false—Sophie is the one with the secret Idol—made for some great humour, but it also deepened the ravine that started cracking immediately after Rob was voted out. There is no doubt that even if Yara tries to pretend like they’re still a close-knit tribe and alliance, Adam is definitely on the outside looking in. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned from Adam this season is that he will not sit still or go quietly. It would not surprise me to see him break rank and be the catalyst for the descent into chaos at the merge, potentially uniting the steadier alliances of against Yara—or himself specifically—or levelling the playing field entirely.
Of course, the last major consideration for the merge is what spanner Extinction will throw into the mix. With Extinction so packed with Old Schoolers, I can see the Old vs. New divide solidifying a revolving door mentality to send the Extinction returnee straight back out the door, Matt Elrod-style. But with more and more Fire Tokens bubbling to the service through literal scavenger hunts, there’s a distinct possibility that the returnee may be able to buy themselves an Idol on their way back into the game. But more significantly, their previous relationships and alliances may tip the scales of a scramble for a majority.
Regardless, we are looking ahead to a very interesting start to the end game in next week’s episode.
As we look ahead to the beginning of that next chapter, we decisively closed another. With barely two feet on the sand upon arriving at the Edge of Extinction, Sandra made the decision to raise the sail. Swathes of the fanbase may decry this as Sandra quitting, but I see it as anything but. Sandra didn’t sign up to play Edge of Extinction. She came back to play Survivor—and she just lost Survivor, being blindsided for the first time in her career, and sent out of the game by a single vote in one of the biggest moves in the show’s history. In her first two seasons, she lasted all the way to the end. In her second two, she went out on Day 16. That’s poetry.
Given Sandra saw this season as her one last ride before retirement, why should she drag out the inevitable? As a player whose strengths are not favoured by the physical challenges that determine who re-enters the game, there is no incentive for her to stay and starve just to say she did. She has next to zero chance to get back in the game, and she has nothing to prove by remaining on Extinction.
In my mind, raising the sail on Extinction is not quitting. It can’t be quitting—you’ve already lost the game, and now you’re just dwelling in purgatory. Yes, you technically still have a shot, but sitting around for the occasional scavenger hunt is not playing Survivor. And if you don’t have the physical skills necessary to win a challenge to get back in or a personal drive to battle the challenge for self-fulfillment, then what’s the point of suffering through it? The decision to leave Extinction is not a sign of weakness in my book—it’s a sign of strength in recognising your abilities and acceptance that you lost Survivor. Even if you win your way back in, and go on to take the crown, you’re still a Chris Underwood—you might have technically won Survivor, but only on the back of a game-breaking twist that goes against so much of what Survivor stands for. From that perspective, I love that Sandra did not hesitate to walk away from this much-maligned twist.
So I do not begrudge Sandra’s choice to leave. And in my eyes, there’s something beautifully fitting about it. I started this article describing the pre-merge decimation of the Old Schoolers being a kind of passing on of the torch to the new legends that will emerge from the modern Survivor seasons. In that same way, isn’t it fitting that Sandra, our first two-time winner, chose to leave the game on her own terms as the first winner to depart the season, and in doing so, abdicated the throne for the next two-time winner? Sandra will always be the Queen—the first and an undeniable icon—but as she retires, the way is clear for her successor.
And it’s going to be one hell of a battle for that crown.
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