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Survivor: Winners At War Premiere Recap – Marvel At This Splendor


Austin Smith recaps the season premiere!

Photo: CBS

Winners at War is here. It’s real, and it’s happening, and it is utterly surreal. Throughout this entire two-hour premiere, I was on the edge of my seat. Even with months of speculation and discussion about this landmark event, I could barely comprehend that yes, we were watching twenty iconic winners going head to head in a season that feels truly monumental. I was grinning ear to ear as I watched players like Ethan and Yul, who legitimately inspired me as a kid, enraptured by Survivor. I was amazed to see icons like Rob, Parvati and Sandra pick up right where they left off and demonstrate just how good they are at this game. I geeked out over personal favourites banding together, and my heart sunk as other favourites found themselves on the wrong side of the numbers, or worse, seeing their torch extinguished.

That’s just it—just about every winner going to War is a favourite in some way, shape, or form. I am so invested in the journeys of every one of these victors, and watching them going full Quarter Quell is both exhilarating and devastating. This season should be epic, and if the premiere is anything to go by, this is going to be one for the history books.

Of course, I am less than enthused about the return of Edge of Extinction—a game-breaking structural twist that should have been left as a weird anomaly in the Bizzaro-Survivor that was Season 38. While I can see the intrigue in following the stories of winners after defeat, there is just so much juice to be squeezed from this epic cast 20 years in the making that we didn’t need to supplement it with artificially flavoured syrup. The only knock I have against this premiere is the looming omen of this element, but I hope that if there is a cast who can resist the spell of the Cult of EOE, it’s the cast of players who know what makes Survivor because they won it.

Despite the distraction of the Edge, nothing could shake my enthusiasm for the rest of this incredible episode. Survivor is back, and I could not be more excited.

ROOKIE MISTAKES

With both tribes heading to Tribal Council in the span of the first three days, we were lucky enough to be able to see the dynamics of Dakal and Sele develop and be immediately tested in the crucible of Tribal. But let’s begin with Sele, wearing blue: the first tribe to lose an Immunity Challenge on Day 1 and be building their shelter with an eye towards voting someone out right from the beginning. It’s a cruel twist to put the winners into game mode right from the start, accelerating the need to scramble for security, but with the need to squeeze in two more “eliminations” thanks to a certain Edge, there is no time to take it slow. And honestly, I didn’t hate getting into the meat of the game right from the get-go. The lack of time for the players to find their feet made for a genuinely paranoid and dynamic beginning—even for Dakal, who appeared just as fearful and uneasy when they reached Tribal one day later.

For Sele, though, it was straight to business, and a target quickly formed on the backs of Adam Klein (Millennials vs. Gen X) and Denise Stapley (Philippines). I was beyond thrilled to see this duo team up in what was the first of many allusions and coincidences in the greater Survivor meta-narrative. Denise was facing the blue-buffed Matsing curse that sent her to every Tribal Council in her first season (though, notably, she avoided Tribal for the very first time a couple days later!). And she and Adam immediately forged a connection as the super-duper-fan-turned-winner geeked out over the possibility of becoming the Denise’s new Malcolm. Even for Adam, the alliance felt fitting for his meta-narrative—after so much of his emotional journey in Season 33 revolved around his mother’s battle with cancer, there’s something beautiful in Adam forging an early bond with the mother figure in the oldest woman on the cast.

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Although Denise and Adam were bonding as they found themselves getting lost as they mapped out the path to the well, their absence from camp made them easy scapegoats for the other eight castaways. It’s a constant pattern in Survivor—being away from camp for too long, particularly on Day 1, can make you a target as your tribemates grow suspicious of your intentions. It’s so prevalent that Tony Vlachos (Cagayan) on the other tribe was forcing himself to act against his instincts to go scampering into the jungle on an Idol hunt in order to avoid the kind of target that pinged against Adam & Denise. However, I’d be curious if their absence would have been as big of a deal if the Sele tribe were not already in game mode. It might have still struck the alarm bells, but perhaps the ringing would have faded quicker. Nonetheless, they became the consensus targets almost instantly.

However, with a cast of this calibre, and especially a cast with such extraordinary reputations, little in this game is going to be simple. While Adam and Denise became the talk of the town, there was another pertinent relationship that was highly concerning for the tribe: the pre-existing friendship between Natalie Anderson (San Juan del Sur) and Jeremy Collins (Cambodia – Second Chance). Natalie said it herself: they may not be blood, but their relationship was pretty darn close to family. Worryingly, the forging of that relationship was critical to the story of Natalie’s victory, with Jeremy’s blindside fuelling her to carve a path of revenge all the way to the end in Season 29.

Even coming from the conspicuous tribe divisions currently at play in Australian Survivor: All-Stars, where many players with past relationships began the game on the same beach, the decision to put Natalie and Jeremy back together is curious, and I don’t love it. Survivor US has historically made a habit of trying to split up past relationships. And while it’s understandable that the web of interconnectivity between the winners’ circle makes it difficult to fully separate shared history, it does feel like having this particular established relationship on the same beach was a major contributing factor to why the pair were targeted. And ultimately, why Natalie became the first boot of Winners at War.

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Nevertheless, Jeremy and Natalie did themselves few favours as they championed a vote against Adam and Denise, but failed to decisively lead the charge or even clarify who was the primary target. This left Adam and Denise, aware of the tide turning against them, in a position to put up a firm defence that was also backed by a compelling narrative. Why worry about the 2-day-old pairing when there’s a close relationship going 5 years strong to which everybody that watched Season 29 lay witness? Or even more notably, when there was a married couple in the game! Nevertheless, with the spouses divided by tribal lines, the Natalie and Jeremy block was a more imminent threat, and I can’t fault the logic or the strategy in breaking up that duo.

It’s unfortunate to see the pattern of voting out the woman in a male-female power couple continue (and be repeated again, to a degree, in Dakal’s subsequent Tribal). Still, it’s notable that Jeremy appeared to have some budding connections, whether it be a strategic whisper with Ben Driebergen (Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers) or bonding with fellow parents over the hardship of leaving their babies at home. It seems that Jeremy may have been more connected to his current tribe, and that may have been the deciding factor in targeting Natalie over him. 

That said, I imagine Natalie was also working the social game and was perhaps key in looping in Michele Fitzgerald (Kaoh Rong), the only other winner to be left out of the vote against Natalie, but we saw little of it on screen. Furthermore, knowing how adamantly Natalie believed the tribes would be divided by gender throughout the pre-season, it’s possible that this swerve on her expectations built over several days pre-game could have rattled her approach to the game, especially with the Day 1 Immunity loss leaving no time to recalibrate.

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Unfortunately, though, Natalie’s time in the game was over, and in the most poetic symmetry, she became the first boot of the season, following in the footsteps of her twin sister Nadiya in Season 29. Naturally, Natalie bequeathed her Fire Token to Jeremy as he set out on his own revenge mission to mirror hers, and she landed on the Edge of Extinction. She would go on to become the vehicle for further revealing the Fire Tokens twist as she located an Idol she could send to another player in the game in exchange for their Fire Token, which she could put to use in purchasing comfort items to improve her quality of life at Extinction or stock up for an Advantage to help her get back in the game. 

Did you follow all that? So much for the Edge being a conceptual exploration of the human spirit in the face of desperation. There was legitimate pathos to Natalie describing the surreal shock of having her torch snuffed for the first time in her Survivor career, especially with the irony of Nadiya’s experience weighing on her mind. But all of that emotion, shot in the still beautifully stark close-up confessionals of the Edge, got lost in the shuffle of all the twists.

THE LOADED REVOLVER

Even though the battle between Denise & Adam and Natalie & Jeremy provided the drama, it’s crazy to think that the Sele beach was shared with two of the undeniable Mount Rushmore icons of Survivor in four-timer Parvati Shallow (Micronesia – Fans vs. Favorites) and the first-ever five-time player Boston Rob Mariano (Redemption Island). Even they were taken aback that, despite their ginormous reputations, they didn’t appear to be anywhere near the chopping block. It wasn’t for want of concern—Adam, especially, made it clear that having both Rob and Amber Mariano (All-Stars) on the Island was a huge danger. But in the panic and scramble, the big threats were more or less forgotten.

If I had to theorise, I would imagine that gunning for one of these heavy hitters is a daunting task, especially for the players coming back for only their second season, and especially those who are fresh to the winners’ circle. It wouldn’t surprise me if the rapidity of the Immunity loss and the imminent Day 2 Tribal spooked the Sele tribe from wanting to come out swinging too big. Or worse, try to orchestrate a blindside but fail and end up on the wrong side of two of the best Survivor players of all time. With the amount of paranoia and indecision, it was a simple case of the Queen’s Law—“as long as it ain’t me”—and surprisingly, that made the easier targets more appealing than the obvious ones.

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More exciting than the mere survival of these icons, however, was the budding alliance between them. Given their history in Heroes vs. Villains, it was difficult to predict if Parvati and Rob could come together or if they would remain suspicious of each other. However, to add to the list of utterly surreal moments in this episode, we looked on as these cunning players asked each other to prom. In 2020, ten years after they last played together, we saw Parvati and Rob forge an alliance. It was a partnership built on the necessity for the big threats to have each other’s’ backs, but given we’ve seen what these two can do on their own, it’s genuinely daunting what they might accomplish together.

Already, their acumen was on full display. Parvati’s charm was out in full force, but rather than being the flirty siren of years gone by, she was now playing the new mother card to success. Her game awareness, too, had barely skipped a beat as she observed the shifting power dynamics with ease. She navigated working in the middle between the Adam/Denise and Jeremy/Natalie battle-lines and had the wherewithal to question her own security, given it was her first time coming back to Survivor where she wasn’t immediately on the chopping block, despite her formidable reputation.

Rob, too, was right back in the thick of it. Naturally, the spectre of Romber hung heavy over camp, and Danni Boatwright (Guatemala), lacking strong connections as the winner of the notoriously forgotten Season 11, actively suggested taking the opportunity to clear Rob off the board. But when Rob questioned Ben about names being thrown around, Ben was so starstruck by Rob’s charisma and his aggressive questioning that he told him, in succession, that someone was throwing Rob’s name out, that he didn’t know who it was, then that it was one of the women, and, eventually, that it was Danni. While Ben recognised that he’d totally been schooled, Rob had already moved on and approached Danni directly. Whereas Ben had been shaken into dishonesty by Rob, Danni stood her ground and admitted to putting Rob’s name out there. Rob saw her honesty as a sign of trust, and that seed of old-school play was the catalyst for the expansion of the old guard begun by Parvati and Rob.

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With Danni roped in, there was one last cog in the machine: Ethan Zohn (Africa). As he said, it is a literal miracle that he is here, not just alive and well after his long, public battle with cancer, but back on our screens after 16 years to play Survivor. Joyfully embracing the experience, Ethan has thrown himself back into the game in full force, and locking in with the other old school players is an excellent tactic for him in the long run, much like it will be for Danni. By connecting with players who share a piece of the early style of play, it insulates them to give them a chance to adapt to the frenetic pace of modern Survivor, and I do not doubt that they will catch on quickly. It is an absolute gift to have Ethan back, and I know I’m going to savour every minute of it.

CARDS ON THE TABLE

Across the sea, Dakal was not immune from the fear that pervaded the winners’ collective consciousness throughout this episode. Fascinatingly, it was perhaps even more palpable than it was with the tribe that faced Tribal immediately, and most gripping of all was seeing players renowned for keeping a cool head fall victim to the terror of Tribal Council. This is undeniably the season of Survivor with the highest stakes. Not just financially with the whopping $2 million prize, but the bragging rights of winning the winner’s season is worth every drop, and because of that, the competition is intimidatingly fierce.

The pool of Survivor winners is diverse, but unlike any other cast in the show’s history, Winners at War is a cast without any cannon fodder. There are no head-scratcher casting choices—the classic “underestimated player” is represented by the likes of a Michele, who is cunning even if she’s driven by having something to prove. There are no players here who are only back because they’re a “character” or “comic relief.” Everybody on this cast can play the game—and has played the game successfully. Every player is a winner, and that makes everyone dangerous, which puts everyone on a frighteningly even playing field.

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Thus, a player like Kim Spradlin-Wolfe (One World) and Tyson Apostol (Blood vs. Water) are finding themselves in an unexpectedly dicey situation, unlike anything they’ve encountered before. In her first season, Kim’s performance was so dominant that it’s commonly claimed to have rendered the season boring. Her magnetic charisma and strategic, cutthroat leadership of her Day 1 alliance paved a path for her straight to Day 39 and a decisive victory. We never saw Kim on the back foot or needing to scramble, and against one of the more character-heavy, game-light casts, she always seemed to have the game in a vice-like grip.

Now, on a more even and intimidating playing field, Kim found herself on the outside looking in as she realised she was being excluded socially and strategically. It sparked a Kim we’ve never seen before. A nervous, frightened and uneasy Kim, a defensive Kim, an underdog Kim. It feels almost schadenfreudian, but it is so compelling to see someone lauded as one of the best winners of all time be forced into a corner where they have to adapt as they face a whole new Survivor experience. Of the many storylines I am eagerly anticipating in future weeks, Kim’s fight from the bottom is one I am most excited about.

For Tyson, he was that aforementioned character in his early seasons, a figure of cutting wit expected to be the trickster and not the triumph. When he returned in Blood vs. Water, he parlayed that reputation into a more strategic, clever game that could dupe the unsuspecting. But now, that humour and reputation was his own worst enemy. He had gone from being the snide villain to the guy who was too funny and likable. Tyson’s meta-narrative has to be one of the most fascinating in Survivor history, from the guy who boasted that he liked to see people cry to tearing up on Day 1 thinking of his daughters back home. The emphasis on his personal growth in this episode, as he spoke of the difference winning Survivor has made to allow him to become a stay-at-home dad for his daughters, was moving.

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But strategically, he is also in a challenging position. On the outs, he was faced with the difficult decision to concede losing an ally in the hopes of preserving his own game and winning the war. Even though he’s lost Survivor twice, he was blindsided in Tocantins, and famously took a risk that backfired spectacularly in Heroes vs. Villains, so it’s remarkable, but I don’t feel like we’ve truly seen Tyson have to fight from an underdog position either.

But why on earth were Kim and Tyson on the outs? Well, let’s cut to the first-ever flashback on Survivor US to a non-Survivor event. In a beautifully transparent choice, the show made no effort to conceal the impact of a publicly-aired poker event featuring Kim, Tyson, Rob, and Jeremy. A poker game where Tyson jokingly suggested that they would all work together should they happen to find themselves on an Island in the future. This pre-existing relationship drove the majority of the tribe to put Kim and Tyson on the outs, and it is both baffling and captivating. 

As Kim articulated at Tribal, and as reflected in the events on Sele, a one-off poker game is nothing compared to the years of history shared by many of the other winners—most notably Rob & Amber, but also the complex triad of Sandra Diaz-Twine (Pearl Islands & Heroes vs. Villains), Tony, and Sarah Lacina (Game Changers), who played together on Season 34 following Tony & Sarah playing together beforehand on Cagayan. For such a minor event in the grand scheme of things to be so critical to the tribe’s narrative is incredible, but I’m so excited that the show allowed us to know the story.

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However, in the end, it wasn’t Tyson or Kim who faced the firing line; instead, it was their ally Amber who took the fall. The return of Amber was yet another massive shock when the cast was announced, coming back to Survivor alongside Ethan after a record-breaking 16-year layoff. I was intrigued to watch Amber play again, especially given her win in All-Stars set a precedent for underestimated players—and especially women—to be the stealth threat in returning player seasons, often to the chagrin of fans disappointed to see their faves lose to ‘that random girl’. However, it was little surprise the Amber would struggle to shake not only her reputation but also Rob’s. A married couple competing together on a season that isn’t framed around a Blood vs. Water twist is uncharted territory. Still, no-one in their right mind would want to leave open the possibility of spouses—a true alliance that transcends the game—being able to run the tables together. Especially not after everyone has seen this particular couple run the table already in All-Stars.

Had early discussions of taking out Rob materialised on Sele, I’m curious if Amber would have still been the target for Dakal. However, given the spectre of Extinction, I imagine it would have still followed Amber to an extent, and unfortunately, she simply wasn’t able to forge enough social bonds to save herself. It also didn’t help that, knowingly or unknowingly, she and Rob had burned one of the bridges that could have helped Amber survive: their connection to Sandra.

In one of the most surprising developments of the season opener, Sandra’s vendetta against Rob and Amber was a crucial element. After spending 36 days together living on the Island of the Idols in Season 39, Rob had told Sandra that he was never going to play again. Yet only a couple of weeks later, Sandra was walking out onto Season 40 next to Amber to also discover Rob was back—a flagrant about-turn from what he’d told her. Whether or not Rob had been actively lying to her, Sandra took the betrayal personally and became dead-set on removing them from the game. 

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I don’t know if I’d agree with the move strategically—Rob & Amber, especially as a couple, provide a huge shield for Sandra moving forward. That said, much like Rob and Parvati skirted attention on Sele, it should not go without mention that the only two-time winner completely avoided the target at her first Tribal. And she didn’t even need to consider playing the short-term Idol sent to her from Natalie over on the Edge (for the small price of her one Fire Token). Nevertheless, the Queen got her way, and only time will tell if it was the right call.

NERD SHIELDS

But we should circle back to all of that talk about the Poker Alliance and the people behind the push against them. If I was excited to see Denise and Adam and Rob and Parvati team up, I was just as enamoured at the rapid partnership concocted between Sophie Clarke (South Pacific) and Yul Kwon (Cook Islands). This is a true brain’s trust if ever I saw one, and it is such a natural partnership. Sophie’s strategic consideration of Yul as a shield is an exceptionally clever play given their relative reputations, and her incisive commentary on the tribe’s dynamics suggests that she is in a strong position moving forward.

Yul, meanwhile, is more clearly taking the lead, and it is incomprehensively surreal to see him playing Survivor again. There is a meticulous manner in which Yul plays—both cerebral and endearing. Moreso than any other old school player, Yul has come into Winners at War comfortable in playing up an out-of-touch facade. It could serve him well, especially if others begin to assume he’s playing a more straightforward game, and it certainly seemed to work well in this first episode.

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With Sophie and Yul teamed up, and two trios formulating —the Game Changers Sandra, Tony, and Sarah, and the Poker Alliance of Kim, Tyson, and Amber, by extension through Rob—it left two free agents in the mix. Yul and Sophie were quick to scoop them up, adding Wendell Holland (Ghost Island) and Nick Wilson (David vs. Goliath), the newest winners in the mix, to their team. As a coalition of second-time players, their alliance against the multi-season experience and extensive network of their opponents was a powerful defence mechanism and ultimately acted as a swing block.

Ultimately landing with the Game Changers, Sandra’s revenge plot aligned tightly with Yul’s concerns about the Poker Alliance. While I’d argue that Yul’s fixation on the poker connection was unnecessary, it’s hard to argue with the results of breaking up the power dynamic of Amber and Rob. It’s also telling that Yul saw fit to warn Tyson that Tony was gunning for him, which suggests that Yul hasn’t wholly closed off his options moving forward. Yul is definitely one to watch, and I would not be surprised to get to the end of the season and look back to judge Yul’s game as the most changed from his last season—he’s playing to type now, but from his work here, I would wager his style will rapidly evolve as the game heats up.

IT’S REALLY HAPPENING

And that is the premiere of Winners at War. Even 4000-odd words deep into the premiere, it still boggles the mind that we’re talking about a season featuring some of the all-time greats and the most competitive top-to-bottom cast in the show’s history. This is 20 years of Survivor and 40 seasons! This is a moment in time, and I will be savouring every morsel, and in my prayers, I’ll be thanking everyone who is making it happen.

MORE SURVIVOR CONTENT

Martin Holmes’s recap at Vulture.

Inside Survivor Dream Tribe Results.

Austin is a 26-year-old hailing 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.