Another week of self-isolation, another jam-packed episode of Survivor: Winners at War to help keep the existential dread at bay. With the Edge of Extinction Battle Back challenge, the merge, an immunity challenge, and an increasingly complex and interconnecting web of alliances and pre-existing relationships to unravel, this week’s episode gave us plenty to chew on in the days to come.
Going into this episode, I had a sinking feeling that whoever our EOE returnee ended up being (most likely Tyson or Natalie) might very well get sent right back to the Edge as an easy consensus vote in a potentially chaotic merge. In reality, though, our returnee Tyson managed to position himself pretty nicely here. He’s safe for now, and we might just end up seeing an Old Schooler make a deep run of it after all.
The ultimate targets of this week’s merge vote are Adam and Wendell, but the decision isn’t so much framed as a battle between the two of them. Instead, this week’s vote is all about Jeremy and Sophie: one of the established “big threats” vs. someone who’s somehow never named as a “big threat” or a “little threat.” Both get a lot of screen time here articulating their gameplay and commenting on how important the merge boot could be to their respective games. Sophie gets her way in the end, sending Wendell packing as Adam lives to see another day in this game.
This wasn’t one of the wildest merge episodes in memory, but it clearly sets the stage for the long war to come. As Sarah mentions at the merge feast, the connections between all these winners are varied and messy. The theme of “big threats” vs. “little threats” is likely going to continue playing a big part in the post-merge strategy, but it’s equally as likely to get a hell of a lot more complicated than that. Jeremy himself said at Tribal that this week’s vote was like a “sparring match” to test the waters, which means we’re due for a full-on K.O. sooner rather than later.
CLASH OF THE TITANS
On the morning of Day 19, the mood is even more somber than usual on the EOE as our eight pre-mergers (The Queen excluded, of course) prepare for the first of two EOE re-entry challenges. Natalie spends some of her seven billion Fire Tokens on a challenge advantage and an idol. Rob and Amber pool their Fire Tokens together so Rob can also buy a challenge advantage and idol. Parvati does yoga. The editors remind us that Danni still exists.
At the challenge, Jeff still struggles to pronounce Parvati’s name correctly and checks in with the Edge inhabitants before kicking things off. Natalie’s ready for battle, Tyson gets emotional, and Rob refuses to romanticize being stuck on EOE with his wife. “It stinks. I don’t like it,” Rob says, succinctly summing up most of my weekly EOE critiques.
Those Fire Tokens were well-spent for Rob, Tyson, and Natalie, and it comes down to a close race between the two former Heroes vs. Villains competitors. This is the point in the episode where I wrote, “the music is getting out of control” in my notes. As this season has progressed, the pop song from the pre-season promos has appeared with increasing frequency, culminating in last week’s dramatic lead-up to Tribal Council. One of the Winners at War promo songs returns again in the climax of this challenge as Tyson narrowly beats Boston Rob for a spot back in the game. The use of outside music this season is one of the bolder (and stranger) Survivor editing choices in recent years, and I’m not sure it’s ever going to stop being completely jarring every time it happens.
With this dramatic finish, Tyson becomes our first EOE returnee and joins the merge tribe, and the remaining EOE inhabitants become the first seven—that’s right, SEVEN—members of the jury. Comically large juries are an obvious consequence of the EOE twist, but to put it into perspective, seven was the MAXIMUM number of jury members for the first several years of the show. It didn’t really hit me until this episode just how massive this all-winner jury will be, and I’d like to take this time to personally thank Sandra Diaz-Twine for taking one for the team here and saving us from a 17 person jury. Queen stays Queen, adios.
LIONS AND BIG THREATS AND LITTLE THREATS, OH MY
At the merge feast, Tony notes that the buying power of Fire Tokens has indeed decreased with the arrival of the merge. “I’m just like a little poor kid going into the bodega, and I don’t have enough money to buy a little bubble gum,” Tony says in a confessional, and I’m immediately reminded how lucky we are that he’s somehow still in the game at the merge.
Fire Tokens aren’t important right this second, though. It’s the merge feast! A time to eat, drink, be merry, and exchange war stories. Denise excitedly spills the tea about the Sandra blindside to an enraptured audience before taking a big swig of booze as her new tribemates let out howls of “Queen-slayer!”
Denise has a lot to be proud of: she took down The Queen with her own damn idol, for God’s sake! But as Sophie notes in confessional, she’s also making herself into a bigger threat by so openly highlighting her resume in front of her competitors. It’s an especially dangerous thing to do when, in the words of Sarah, “everyone is a lion looking to see who has the biggest mane.” Denise was one of the more under the radar players going into the season, but her flashy Sandra move has (rightfully) raised the eyebrows of her opponents.
Wendell and Jeremy have certainly taken notice. At the old Sele camp, the Ghost Island and Cambodia champs talk strategy and immediately pinpoint Denise as a potentially dangerous player moving forward. In his confessional, though, Jeremy is keen to take out Nick as soon as possible. Jeremy’s reasoning is simple: Nick is Wendell’s number one ally, and Jeremy wants that spot for himself.
Finally, back in the game, Tyson has a new lease on life. Now the only pre-Heroes vs. Villains player left in the game, he resolves to “build a home” in the cracks of the Koru merge tribe. He convenes with Ben at the well to discuss the importance of an alliance of “big threats” moving forward. Tyson really is the best person to make this argument: he previously tried (and failed) to keep the big threats together, and his boot ushered in the slaughter of the Old School “big threats.” Now back from the dead, he’s the perfect person to warn the remaining big threats of what fate awaits them if they fail to band together. Ben is immediately on board, and names himself, Tyson, Jeremy, and Tony as the aforementioned “big threats” of the Koru tribe.
Speaking of, this season’s continued, convoluted obsession with the various types and sizes of “threats” reaches critical mass this episode. In the eyes of the “big threats,” the REAL “big threats” are the “little threats,” and the inverse is true for the “little threats.” Who is and isn’t a threat isn’t written in stone, then: it’s all a matter of playstyle and perspective because everyone is or isn’t a threat based on who YOU are as a player. Schrödinger’s threat, if you will. Everyone here is a winner, which means that everyone here is a threat in one way or another. It’s just a matter where you’re standing and what kind of game you’re playing.
A NEW KIND OF SUCK
Leading up to the challenge, Mother Nature arrives to dampen the mood with a nasty rainstorm. The sudden inclement weather is, as Kim so eloquently puts it, a “new kind of suck.” Adam survived a cyclone in the first days of his winning season, so he’s unimpressed.
The rain and the cold couldn’t have come at a worse time, because this week’s immunity challenge is the classic “Get a Grip,” which first appeared way back on Vanuatu and was previously won by Tyson on his first outing in Tocantins. Holding onto a pole with narrow footholds is hard enough in ideal conditions, but doing it when you’re cold and wet is a whole other beast. After checking in on a shivering and crying Sophie, Jeff reveals that one woman and one man will each win immunity at this critical first individual immunity challenge.
Apart from Michele pulling an Andrea with a nasty fall from high up on the pole, it’s a relatively uneventful challenge, with the final matchups coming down to Denise vs. Kim and Jeremy vs. Nick. Denise (who probably needed this necklace) and Jeremy (who was most likely safe regardless) each pull out a win, earning immunity at the first merge Tribal and a Fire Token to go with it.
GO WITH THE CURRENT
Now having won immunity, Jeremy again sets his sights on Nick as the target for the merge vote in order to bring Wendell closer to him. Tony and Ben are on board, and Ben cites Nick’s tendency to drop into other people’s conversations unannounced, which is backed up by some hilarious B-roll footage of Nick doing just that. Meanwhile, Nick targets Adam, whom he finds untrustworthy.
Ben tells Sophie the vote is between Nick and Wendell and asks her who she’d prefer. In a confessional, she notes Wendell and Jeremy’s close relationship and the emergence of a “Big Guy” alliance teaming up to take power, with Jeremy at the head and Wendell as his right-hand man. Taking out Wendell, then, is her best move. It weakens Jeremy’s position, and by extension, reduces the strength of his supposed “Big Guy” alliance. It’s a perfect read on the state of the game from the South Pacific winner, and she subtly manages to turn the tide of the vote to better favor her game.
Jeremy is, understandably, not pleased to hear Wendell’s name come up, but is willing to go for Adam instead of Nick if it means Wendell can stick around. Jeremy puts the work in and talks to everyone on the tribe (Sophie and Adam excluded) about voting Adam, and it seems like everyone is on board. Adam, for his part, is terrified. Sophie and Denise try to calm his fears, but Ben’s seeming lack of empathy for his (justified) paranoia leaves Adam feeling uneasy heading into Tribal.
At Tribal, the subject of paranoia and reassurance comes up. Sophie highlights the importance of recognizing that it’s okay to be “a little out of the loop” sometimes, and how that being okay with that can, in turn, build trust with your alliance members. Tony—who has indulged in his fair share of paranoia in the past—cautions against swimming “against the current” when it comes to strategy. “Right now, I think we’re all willing to go with the current,” Tony says shortly before the votes are cast.
The current, in the end, flows in Sophie’s favor. Everyone but Nick, Wendell, and Michele (who all vote Adam) votes to send Wendell to the EOE, Jeremy included. Unsure of who exactly betrayed him, Wendell gives one Fire Token each to Michele and Nick and heads to EOE.
The most shocking part of this week’s boot to me was how disconnected Michele ended up being from Wendell’s demise. It’s true that he could return, or they could meet up on EOE, and we’ll see that relationship continue in some way, but it really seemed like Michele and Wendell were being set up as one of the season’s bigger storylines. The fact that we didn’t hear from Michele at all about Wendell this week (even if she didn’t vote him out) surprised me, and it is part of the reason I was convinced Adam would be going home over Wendell up until the votes were read.
Jeremy, seemingly, lost the battle this week. Or, more accurately, he surrendered, since he wrote down his pal Wendell’s name even after all that scrambling he did to save him. We’ll most likely hear from Jeremy about it next week, but it’s probably fair to assume he came to the same conclusion Tony did at Tribal: sometimes the best thing to do on Survivor is to just go with the current, even if that means you’re not the one calling the shots.
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