Survivor: Winners At War

Episode 9 Recap – Taking A Stand

Austin Smith recaps the latest episode!

Photo: CBS

This season has been a thrilling ride, but even with a few notable high points throughout the pre-merge, it’s been a slow burn. With a cast of players who know what it takes to win, the game inevitably became more calculated and cautious with clear narratives of Old vs. New School or Lions vs. Hyenas often working to quell unpredictability and draw clean lines in the sand. This meticulous style of gameplay has made the season feel like a tense and devastating thriller as the classic icons of the game fell out of contention. But in Survivor, a cold war can’t last forever.

This week, the floodgates were opened, and it was up there with some of the most chaotic episodes of all time. We’ll get to the man at the centre of the mayhem in due time, but I think it’s telling that this episode bore a clear theme of swinging for the fences. Be it Adam’s blaze of glory, Michele selling her life savings for a chance at power, Tyson revelling in a newfound appreciation of confusion or Parvati & Danni inflating the Fire Token economy, the players at the centre of this episode knew that they had nothing to lose. Swathes of ambiguity were swept away by the merge vote to reveal the tribal dynamics, and for those who were on the wrong side of the power structure, now was as good a time as any to start trying whatever might work.

BURGEONING CHAOS

Adam’s last stand was almost too perfect a departure for his character. From his origin on Millennials vs. Gen-X, he has been renowned as a messy and chaotic player. He has always shown a mind for the strategic game, and as a super-duper fan, he thinks about the game on another level. But he succeeds in implementing his strategies as often as they end up blowing up in his face and costing him precious social capital. He’s always been a player to play with fire, and that certainly hasn’t changed in Winners at War.

I was honestly surprised to see Adam so readily cast to the bottom of the tribe after last week, and especially Sophie’s work to turn the tide on the vote away from him. However, in hindsight, it’s abundantly clear that that move was less about keeping Adam and mainly about removing Wendell. Thus, even though Adam was in on the previous blindside, he was finding common ground with the blindsided right from the start. As Michele and Nick sought to cope with the frustration of being excluded from a critical vote, Adam was right there in consolation—and that was perhaps a sign of things to come.

After Kim’s Immunity victory, the amorphous majority alliance of bigger threats seemed poised to choose between Nick, Michele, or Adam, and the general consensus seemed to be to finish the job on New Sele, primarily targeting Nick with Michele as the split vote back-up. And yet, somehow, that plan flipped on its head more times than a tumbling acrobat to become an absolute mess of a pre-Tribal scramble. The instigating factor appeared to be Adam’s own plan to target Sarah. Adam saw Sarah as a dangerous and untrustworthy player who was too close to Ben, especially after she gave up her reward to Nick, which, though a genuine gesture on her part, was read as suspicious by her tribe. 

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While Nick, eager to inject some dissension into the game to disrupt and rebuild it in his favour, initially sought to throw Sophie under the bus, Adam co-opted the outsiders’ plan to instead unite against Sarah. He pitched it to Jeremy, Tyson, and Denise, and they naturally agreed. But in the game of telephone, word of this counterplan got back to Kim, then Tony, Ben, and Sarah herself and it immediately put Adam back in the firing line.

I can’t blame Adam for putting a name on the table. He had the awareness to realise that even though he was included in the previous vote, he was in a distinct danger and needed to act. Was it a perfect execution? The end result speaks for itself, and his disastrous interaction with Ben as the two squabbled over whether or not Adam had said that Sarah & Ben were too close (he had) evidenced his inability to keep a handle on the plan as it spun out of his control. But while Adam’s choice to target Sarah was the first domino to fall, the chaos that erupted around camp was a team effort.

Tyson was probably the biggest instigator. As he acknowledged himself, a steady game is a solid game, but in some circumstances, stoking the fires of confusion and misinformation was the best way to cleverly conceal himself. Still fresh off the Edge, Tyson has heard his name bandied about and needed to ensure his safety. He also keenly recognised Adam’s underrated capability to lead a decision through sheer force of will and personality, pinpointing that his ability to put his foot down on voting for Sarah and getting his conspirators to agree on a plan made for a dangerous opponent. 

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As such, Tyson embarked on the campaign to turn the vote onto Adam as the mastermind behind the Sarah plan—and it ignited a wildfire of chaos. The brilliantly edited sequence that followed perfectly highlighted the whiplash of ever-shifting plans, with half the tribe having their names thrown into the mix and everyone racing to keep up with a myriad of plots and schemes. But at the end of all of the chaos, which continued into Tribal Council in a cascade of side conversations and whispers, it all circled back to the simplest plan to target the outsider who’d been at the centre of all of this chaos.

Adam’s case probably wasn’t helped by his flagrant bickering with Ben at Tribal. The Jury notably observed Ben as “paranoid” and lapped up Adam’s outspokenness as he openly acknowledged the likelihood of him being targeted and sharing the honest truth about simply trying to avoid that outcome. But his vocal commentary only reinforced his growing reputation as an unpredictable player who wasn’t afraid to speak his mind. That said, it made for great TV and a welcome relief from another instance of Tribal whispering to instead lay everything out on the table—loudly and publicly.

Nevertheless, I have no doubt that the majority intended to vote out Adam coming into Tribal. And the whispering underneath Adam’s arguments was merely assurance and/or theatre. So, even though I doubt even the gentlest Tribal performance would have changed anything, it’s indicative of Adam’s chaotic approach to the game that can sometimes pay dividends and can sometimes leave you hanging on the Edge.

FLEUR-DE-LIS

The pinnacle of Adam’s last ride, however, was the instantly iconic Hail Mary of the fleur-de-lis. Recognising the similarity between the Idol Denise had shared with him and the design sitting at the front of Jeff’s podium, he was struck by an intriguing possibility: what if the latter was also an Idol, hidden in plain sight? So as the vote clearly turned his direction, he made the bold play to march across to Jeff’s podium to claim it…

But it was nothing more than a decorative prop, attached to the podium. As Adam tried to wrench it free under Probst’s nose and the rest of his tribe looked on in bewilderment, it was quickly apparent that his gamble had not paid off, and he returned to his seat with a shrug. Even then, a bewildered Probst asked Adam to clarify, and in a final bid, Adam attempted to play the podium as a Hidden Immunity Idol. Probst predictably confirmed that is was not an Idol, and the votes promptly sent Adam packing.

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On the surface, the moment made Adam out to be ridiculous as it highlighted Probst’s confusion as condescension and lingering on the awkwardness of Adam trying to pull the set-piece free. But as Adam noted, you miss every shot you don’t take, and he had nothing left to lose. While he may have put too much stock in his theory of the podium Idol, playing as if he had a safety net, he knew he was in danger, and he took even the most absurd chance to save himself. In many ways, it follows in the tradition of Micronesia’s effing stick through to more recent fake Idols like Alison’s David vs. Goliath attempt. Playing a fake Idol can make you look foolish, but is that pride worth a million or two in the bank if it happens to be real?

And let’s dispel any notion that Adam’s hunch was even a ridiculous idea in the first place. This is the self-titled Super-Duper Fan, and it’s common knowledge that Adam has explored the vast world of international Survivor. In Survivor South Africa: Philippines, Palesa Tau found herself an Idol in this exact way. It was secured to the front of the host’s podium, in plain sight. Although she had found a clue confirming it to be an Idol, it was an uncannily perfect resemblance to Adam’s situation. This precedence meant that there was every possibility that the fleur-de-lis could be an Idol, and if there was a season for Survivor to go in on a hugely anticipated and blockbuster moment like an Idol at Tribal, Winners at War would be a perfect candidate.

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Adam made a bold decision based on his fandom and his gut, and though it didn’t pay off, it’ll remain an iconic moment—and I would be surprised to not see such an Idol come into play down the line, cementing Adam’s legacy. But it was a perfect way for Adam to go out of the game. In my recent bonus article, where I cast the remaining winners as Dungeons & Dragons character classes, I categorised Adam as the sorcerer. He’s a player whose force of personality, innate fandom, and creative gambits either see magic made or cause a surge of unexpected disaster. He lived up to that in spades this episode, and it’s a shame to lose such an entertaining narrator and fast-and-loose player.

Nevertheless, his dramatic departure marks a turning point in the game towards the free-for-all war that was always coming. While I wouldn’t be surprised to see Nick and/or Michele still battling from the bottom, this vote ultimately showed that these winners are ready to chop and change their plans in order to best benefit their own game. As Tyson used Adam’s force of personality against him to target him as a potential marshal of the outsiders, and himself, managed to keep that plan steady even as chaos exploded around camp. Adam may be gone, but I imagine there’s plenty of risky, calculated, and entertaining gameplay still to come.

THE EMPTY PURSE

Another new wrinkle entered the game in the form of a new Advantage sent from the Edge. As the residents of Extinction were left a cryptic note reminding them to tap into their inner fan as history repeated, the crew naturally assumed that Fire Tokens would be up for grabs in the same way that they’d been once before. But in a show of cleverness, Danni & Parvati put two and two together that the history may not be this season, but a fan’s recollection of the previous Edge of Extinction. Sure enough, hidden by the steps in the same place Aubry had found her Advantage was a new gift for Parvati and Danni.

The Advantage was a new device: the 50/50 Coin. Effectively, it was an Idol, but with only a 50% chance of working, depending on the literal flip of the Coin when played. As a new mechanic, I don’t adore it—it adds a layer of randomness that makes it difficult to use with strategic intent beyond a Hail Mary—but as it’s still a pseudo-Idol, it could still make a difference in someone’s game. But what I did like about the implementation of the Twist was that the castaways on Edge were finally allowed to set their own price as they sold it to a player back in the game. I found it strange that prices were set in the pre-merge (and especially at such a low cost of only 1 Fire Token), and the change in methodology instantly paid off.

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Now Parvati and Danni had to consider not only who to send it to, but for how much. They knew Michele was loaded up with Tokens, and sending it to Parvati’s last ally still in the game made sense. So while they could low-ball the sale to ensure it got to an ally on the bottom to shake up the game, they also wanted to make sure they stocked up on the Fire Tokens and elected to offer it for the full four Fire Tokens in Michele’s possession. It was one extreme to the other, but it was partly motivated by Parvati & Danni wanting to use the Fire Tokens earned to buy some much-needed food for themselves—and their allies who had been starving on the Edge for weeks. But I was worried that they may have missed the sweet spot in the middle. Four Fire Tokens is the most anybody has had in the game at one time, and it’s a steep price.

So perhaps it’s fortuitous that Michele won the Reward Challenge where Big Moves™ fortune cookies were then on hand to prompt her into taking a big risk. It was truly serendipitous as her fortunes reminded her that “when the purse is emptied, the heart is filled,” and sure enough, Michele emptied her purse of Fire Tokens to take a chance on a chance. The 50/50 Coin is far from surefire power, but with her knowing she’s on the outside, having been left out of the Wendell vote when she’d repeatedly expressed a willingness to take him out, you can’t afford to sit on your hands. And Michele has seen what sitting on Fire Tokens can do—Parvati went out of the game with three and a useless Advantage and based on the new menu at camp, there’s little of substance for permanent sale. If a 50% chance of an Idol is up for grabs, you might as well take it. Much like Adam’s gambit with the fleur-de-lis, no-one can dock you for trying, and if you’re lucky, it could change everything.

LAST DITCH

There is so much great gameplay going on right now. I have barely even mentioned the fantastically subtle work of Kim blending in even with an Immunity win. And Jeremy stepping right back after pushing too hard to try to keep Wendell to now spending the entire pre-Tribal scramble chilling on a bench as everyone else came to him. And that just scratches the surface.

Winners at War’s slow-burn has been fascinating, but I’m thrilled at the prospect of the game opening up. This is arguably the most competitive and capable Survivor cast assembled, and it is thrilling to watch these players manoeuvre and out-manoeuvre each other already. Now that we’re down to ten, and well and truly in the individual game, it’s only going to get more cutthroat and as that damn song keeps butting in to remind us: I’m ready for what’s coming.

MORE SURVIVOR CONTENT

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.


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