WOW! Or should I say WAW!? This episode was a thrill from beginning to end – euphoric, like I couldn’t even believe it was real. With two hours, there’s a lot to break down and so much squeezed in to set up storylines that will play out over the course of the entire season, so I apologize in advance for this being a robust read.
Watching Winners at War means watching winners unravel – we’re only in the beginning of witnessing Survivor gods and goddesses be struck down and if this week said anything it’s that this is going to be the most competitive and compelling season of all time, as if anyone really doubted that ....
20 WINNERS, 20 YEARS IN THE MAKING
Watching the winners being boated in was like an out-of-body experience. “This is really happening,” Adam said in disbelief and I couldn’t have said it better myself – I could barely say anything at all in that moment. With the first seconds of the show featuring a throwback to the very first Survivor marooning, I was flipping back and forth in my mind between 8-year-old me and 27-year-old me, wondering if what was on screen was, in fact, reality.
The first confessionals can often set the stage for a season. In this opening sequence, we heard from Tony, Parvati, Ethan, and Amber – mostly old school winners with Tony being the outlier. Amber’s story would come to a quick (pre-Edge) end which makes me think the other three could go the distance. Ethan stated that him being back after battling cancer was a miracle itself, so he’s likely the big “hero” of the season, understandably so, who gets snuffed right at the end. Tony is here for the title of the Survivor Super Bowl champion and Parvati is like a phoenix rising from the ashes, back to burn everyone. A few interesting themes to keep in mind ....
Of course, the highlight of the opening was the simple reminder that Tyson was back:
The Joker stays Joker.
After the tribes were divided – to their surprise, not by gender – between blue and red, or “red hot” as Tony labeled them, surely a reference to his doppelgänger Pitbull’s hit song “Fireball,” Jeff introduced another hot twist: fire tokens. He explained that these would be used as currency in the game and if voted out, players would will or bequeath them to someone remaining in the game before being sent to the Edge of Extinction. With that, “bequeath” quickly became the word of the night much to the audience’s discomfort. I actually turned that into a game for myself to see how many times “bequeath” would make the episode – the tally was 5.
I wish we hadn’t known ahead of time about the $2 million prize because that would’ve been as fun for us to watch live as it was for the winners, but I’m glad Jeff set the stakes so high immediately. Going even further, the winners learned they’d be promptly playing in their first immunity challenge as he revealed the season’s retro-inspired immunity idol:
The years have evidently not been kind to Willard.
I love when the show leads its premier with a challenge, especially one so physical and intense. Looking at the two tribes, I thought Sele had this one in the bag, but Dakal almost literally blew them out of the water. We saw four rounds play out ending in a 3-1 win for Dakal, but behind the scenes, an additional two rounds were played which extended that lead to 5-1. The other two matches featured Sandra and Sophie vs. Michele and Danni as well as Yul and Nick vs. Ethan and Adam – per Dalton Ross, these were rather big blowouts so we ended up seeing only the closer matches.
Who impressed me the most, though not enough to win for his tribe, was Boston Rob. 18 years after his first Survivor appearance and now one of the older men of the cast, B-Rob is still a beast. Too bad the rest of Sele couldn’t back him up and bring home the bacon, as watching his wife’s tribe walk away with the win made for one-defeated looking man:
That shot sent some chills down my spine. Was Boston Rob about to be the first person voted out of Winners at War? In that moment, I honestly believed he was because I couldn’t conceive a way for Rob to get rid of the target on his back in less than two days. Still, this is Survivor. Anything is possible.
BACK TO THE BEACH
It was cool for Yul to get the first confessional at camp – I feared he and some of the other old/middle-schoolers would be buried in the edit because they didn’t talk enough about making Big Moves™, but I could not have been more wrong as Yul would end up playing a huge role at Dakal which I’ll get to later. The tribe found its fire token menu and individual tokens with instructions on how they were to be used, reminding them about having to bequeath their tokens to another player if/when they’re voted out.
Nick pointed out that these fire tokens would likely have a big impact on the game, and being the most new-school player on the season, he felt he had an advantage by being familiar with this kind of new facet of Survivor. I hate to say it, but he’s probably right – not necessarily that he’ll put the fire tokens to significant, maybe game-winning use but that someone will. I’d be naïve to hope they won’t affect the game much – like Nick, I expect the eventual winner to have benefitted from these bargaining chips. Maybe that’s why everyone was so keen to kill off the poker players?
Dammit, don’t get my hopes up like this again, you two!
As Tony and Sandra built a bridge over previously troubled waters, new bridges were also built between some of the moms and dads on Dakal. Amber opened up to Sarah about how tough it was for her to leave her four daughters, and Tyson shared what he left for his own to help them count down the days until his return. Tyson then talked in confessional about how Survivor has essentially been his profession for the last decade and it’s allowed him to stay at home as a dad to his daughters – d’awwwww...
This isn’t the first we’ve ever seen of a softer Tyson – watching him hold back a few tears reminded me of his Blood vs. Water story where he went on to win for his voted-out then-girlfriend and now-wife. This moment was a standout from the premiere and if history is to repeat itself, this could’ve been the first look at a Tyson “winner edit.” As Sarah questioned him, “Just when I think you’re only here for good looks and laughs, you do this?” It’s still a little too early to tell, but obviously I’d ship this story.
Another important detail on Dakal was the connection between Yul and Sophie – the nerds. I didn’t expect this but I was O.B.S.E.S.S.E.D. as soon as I saw it happen. Yul and Sophie are both incredibly smart individuals, but Yul reminded everyone here why he is such a mastermind and so deceptively diabolical. He shared with Sophie his concerns about a “poker alliance,” referencing Rob, Jeremy, Kim, and Tyson all appearing in a poker tournament together and joking about how they’d be the “power alliance” if they ever played the game together.
Yul pulling that piece of information out showed that the man did his homework and wasn’t coming back after 14 years having done nothing to prepare. He and Sophie identified that assumed alliance of Tyson and Kim – and by proxy to Rob, Amber – as the “cool” group. Sandra, Tony, and Sarah and their Game Changers history was thus the “gritty group” with some potential bad blood there. This left Yul and Sophie to approach Nick and Wendell as the “middle people” or free agents, those without any strong connections to other people in the game and who might be able to dictate the direction Dakal would take. Could Yul actually be the puppetmaster pulling the strings for a while? That’s amazing. I also loved Sophie coining the new phrase “nerd shield” in reference to Yul, indicating intelligence is just as powerful as physical prowess in this game. Watching these two minds at work, together, is going to be something this season.
Finally, what would a Survivor premiere be without an idol hunt? Surprisingly it was Tony who held back, learning from a big mistake he made in Game Changers, and instead it was Amber who lingered a little too long in the woods. I know it had to take some strong convincing to get Amber to play this game, and to no fault of her own, she had one of the biggest targets, so I was actually rooting for her to find the idol here. Amber is as old-school as it gets with this cast, having last played in an era without idols, so her finding one before anyone else would’ve been fantastically fun. Alas, fate would not be fun for poor Amber.
THE GAME IS ALREADY ON
I loved the twist that Sele had to first set foot at camp already knowing they were going to tribal council. In modern seasons, the game starts early as is, but this brought the early blitz to an entirely new level. Like at Dakal, some of the early connections were made over the bond of parenthood – no surprise that this has got to be the oldest cast to date outside of those that were divided by age. Jeremy, Parvati, Rob, Danni, Denise, and Ben are all parents and that was especially something new to Parvati who last played the game as a single girl we all know as “the flirt” of Survivor.
Parvati is someone who I was most interested in seeing play for this exact reason. Her game has to have evolved because her life has evolved, and I’m eager to see her work her same magic just in a different way. I won’t hide that when Parvati said she was “using the mom card,” my momma’s boy heart melted a little. The curse, of course, is that in Survivor, the “mom card” is never popular and is often a kiss of death. Parvati could be flirting with disaster here, but from an early look, one of the deadliest players ever managed to make it through her first vote unscathed – perhaps the “softened” persona of a mom was exactly what Parvati needed and that the “mom card” just needed to be played by a different hand.
Denise, another mom on Sele, made a quick connection with Adam who had a very special bond with his own mother before she sadly passed away after a long fight against lung cancer after Adam’s first season. Adam joked but also had a serious tone about wanting to be Denise’s new Malcolm. I love Adam and I love Denise, so I loved this pair, but seconds later, we saw the remaining 8 tribe members back at camp wondering what was up with Adam and Denise missing. Ruh-roh.
A “rookie mistake” indeed as Jeremy put it, isolating yourself from the group. Even if innocent, it never looks that way, so Danni called out “easy target Adam” and with tribal council only a day away, this was not the best first impression for either Adam or Denise. Denise is famous for being on the losing tribe and attending every tribal council her season, a curse I’m sure she wanted to reverse this season, but I have to agree with Jeremy’s assessment. I was shocked she and Adam, two very sharp, cerebral players, let this happen. Given their reputations, I think they could’ve stayed under the radar for a very long time, and that was a big advantage they had playing with so many big dogs, so to give up that upper-hand almost immediately…woof.
Another pair that formed early – evidently not too early, though, on their own walk away from camp – was Boston Rob and Parvati, something I was surprised to see but realized it made sense. Rob and Parvati weren’t great friends on Heroes vs. Villains which Rob openly attributed to not starting off on the same foot. Here, he wanted to fix that because, let’s face it, he needed any ally he could get. Parvati sensed that and sounded like she saw Rob as someone she could take seriously because she also knew that his options were rather limited.
I’m all for more old-school alliances, and while I’ve always like Rob and Parvati, I was never a diehard fan of either, but this episode really made me root for them as a potential power couple. I think they’ll both find great use in each other’s games ... before one cuts the other’s throat, no doubt.
It wasn’t long before we got our first “Ben Bomb” of the season in the form of Ben blowing up what was a sound suggestion of Danni’s: voting out Boston Rob. The rest of the episode reminded us why Rob’s so good at this game, so Danni was thinking correctly about removing him quickly but only made the mistake of giving that name to Ben.
Later, Ben let slip to Rob that he heard his name, and thus began a rather embarrassing interrogation. Rob really made Ben look like a bozo here – something he wouldn’t have been able to do to Chrissy, for example. Ben fumbled around his words and eventually fessed up to Rob that Danni was the one that threw out his name. THANKS, BEN.
After taking candy from baby Ben, Rob went to Danni and gave her on opportunity to tell him the truth about whether or not she threw his name out as a target. Danni must’ve known Ben blabbed, so rather than digging herself a bigger hole, she admitted to Rob what she said and gave him a solid rationale for why she said it, ultimately earning some of Rob’s trust back.
This conversation led to an early formation of an official “old school” alliance between Rob, Parvati, Ethan, and Danni – my dream! While only 4 on a tribe of 10, I’ve got faith that these four will be able to make things work and settle once and for all that old school = best school. New school has far too much of Ben blowing shit up.
When Day 2 hit, Sele was short on time to talk about the evening’s tribal council. Jeremy and Natalie finally got some screen time in which they established how tight they still were since San Juan Del Sur, Natalie described their relationship as, “not blood, but pretty close” – the only other relationship in the game to rival Rob and Amber’s. Again, big-mouth Ben blew up what was shaping to be an easy Adam vs. Denise vote.
Ben wanted to keep Adam, so he told Adam he was in trouble, setting off a chain reaction that next was Adam talking to Ethan about the dangerous threat of Jeremy and Natalie. While Ben’s big mouth certainly helped, Adam deserves a big nod for being able to save himself and his number-one from being the first voted out. With only Ben initially in their corner, Adam had to swing at least three more votes, so he made use of his greatest weapon which I learned was prolonged eye contact:
Ethan shared Adam’s will with Rob and Parvati. If I was Rob, I’d have dismissed Jeremy and Natalie as something I could deal with later as keeping another Romber-esque pair in the game would only benefit Romber, but the tables quickly turned the opposite way.
There were so many great scenes to choose from this episode, but if I had to pick a favorite, it’d be the last scene before tribal where Parvati and Rob just sat and laughed about their position in the game, Parvati wondering, “Are we being punk’d?”
Honestly, though, how the hell were Rob and Parvati getting no votes thrown their way? I don’t think they’ve got it as good as “playing Survivor for ten people” as Rob suggested, but everyone was running to these two to make the decision and that just was hilariously baffling to me. The fact that they could both acknowledge to each other that they were the two best players on the beach was also refreshingly honest – like I said, I love this pair and I’m so glad they weren’t targets #1 and #2 like I worried they would be. This season needs Mr. and Mrs. Mafia Boss to stay and order more hits.
GET IN LINE OR GET OUT
The game didn’t slow down at tribal council as relationships were called out and the fast-paced intensity of this season was openly laid out on the table. We didn’t see everyone erupt into chaos, but there’s always plenty left on the editing room floor. What entertained me the most about this whole tribal council was that, again, the two biggest threats – Rob and Parvati – sat pretty and poised. It felt like watching the Godfather and Godmother show the kids how it’s done.
Just a couple of stone-cold killers.
With all the talk of relationships being threats to the game, Rob reminded everyone of an excellent point which was that there was a reason to vote out every single person there – everyone had won the game, so everyone should be a target. Nothing else could say it better – every single person in this season is dangerous, and that’s what sets such an incredibly powerful tone. Even down to the tribal council voting pen being a literal knife – this season’s going to be a bloodbath, and people who we aren’t used to seeing blindsided will face exactly that.
Never until I read Andy Baker’s recent blog would I have guessed Natalie to be the first winner to be wasted. She has all the makings of a winner who could win again, and yet the others found a reason to get rid of her. God, this season is going to be a beautiful, blindsidey mess. I’m rooting for Natalie to come back from the Edge, but I know in a few weeks, I’ll probably be rooting for everyone else too. I think she stands a good chance to win a challenge, and if she does, I think she could be someone who sneaks her way into the endgame. Still, I have a tough time imagining the Day 2 boot will be the winner of the season, but with EoE, truly anything is possible.
PLAYING FROM THE OTHER SIDE
The new twist to the Edge of Extinction is the fire token currency which can be used to trade advantages to players in the game for coins to buy advantages on EoE. I both love and hate this, but mostly hate. I think this is in one way a “fix” to the problem of the Edge in that it will make it more competitive – players won’t bond as easily when there’s still a cutthroat game to be played on EoE. We saw the most heated moments on season 38 come from the scavenger hunts, so with more tangible tokens to be earned, it’s not going to be another lovefest where everyone gets behind the eventual returnee – there’s going to be bitterness.
On the other hand, this new feature influences the other part of the game even more which is a negative that outweighs any positive. It was sad to see Jeremy lose his #1 and you want to root for the guy, but had Sele lost, Natalie would’ve been able to easily – too easily – secure Jeremy an idol to play which takes away from the impact of the blindside in the first place. Sure, Jeremy could’ve enacted his revenge on Rob, but not in a way that’s exciting to me because it wouldn’t have taken real skill. Not to say that trek Natalie made was easy, but what else was she going to do all day? That idol was as good as hers.
These gifts from the Edge of Extinction are inevitably going to shape the season in a big way, and that sucks. Even if they fall in the hands of winners I’m pulling for, I’m going to feel guilty if they pull off a move only because of an idol or other advantage. I wish I could say I won’t bitch about it week to week, but that’d be an even bigger lie than Probst recently saying we won’t see EoE return for “a while” – I give it two or three seasons tops until it’s back and bigger than ever.
SCHOOLS AT WAR
Being the only other one left out of the vote besides Jeremy, Michele found herself in a bad position sooner than she thought, and frankly, sooner than I thought. This brought up the thought of an official old school vs. new school war. At the moment, new school had the numbers 5-4 with Ben, Michele, Jeremy, Adam, and Denise representing the 5. The conversation between Ben and Michele was the last we saw of Sele for the night which tells me that this will be their big story next week, a skirmish between schools. I feel like I might get my old school wish of them finishing in first but not without the help of an idol from the Edge of Extinction. Jeremy found his EoE help with Natalie’s fire token placed in his bag as he explained the whole bequeathing process once more, but just a token – no idol this time. Still, at least another opportunity to fit our new favorite word into the episode.
HEAD VS. HEART
Mirroring Rob and Parvati at Sele, at Dakal, Yul and Sandra played similar roles of Godfather and Godmother as they laid the foundation for a hit on Amber and the poker alliance. Sandra knew that voting for Amber was more of an emotional move than a strategic one – and I agree – but she couldn’t help feeling betrayed by Rob not telling her ahead of time he’d be back, and every time Sandra looked at Amber, she was reminded of that betrayal.
This all fit perfectly into Yul’s master plan of building an alliance of the disconnected Dakals. Already having Sophie, Wendell, and Nick, scooping up Sarah and Sandra here made them an easy majority alliance. Sandra should’ve been thinking to stick with the big guns and vote out the band of misfits, but her playing a little more with her heart is exactly what would benefit the plan in Yul’s head.
IMMUNITY – DO A BARREL ROLL
No one has ever seemed more excited to sit out of a challenge than Sandra, but to be fair, Sandra as cheerleader here was a great decision. She was able to keep everyone focused even from the bench, especially bossing Tony around when he spent a little too much time looking back to see what Sele was doing. Only one other person came to mind who I think still holds the “Biggest Cheerleader” crown over Sandra:
Once again, Boston Rob was a beast in this challenge. He looked like he could’ve paddled the tribe’s boat by himself, and without him, I don’t think Sele would’ve made it over the barrel. At one point, Rob was LITERALLY LAUNCHING HIS TRIBE over the barrel, as Jeff was quick to call out (and later, probably rub one out over).
Despite a big lead, Dakal couldn’t ring in a victory – never underestimate the power of the granny shot, kids. Though victorious, Rob wasn’t smiling knowing that his wife faced tribal council and this time, there was nothing he could do to protect her.
I genuinely felt bad for Rob here, and I was amazed that I was this invested in Part II of the Romber story on Survivor. That look of concern over to Amber wasn’t worry over an ally in the game, that was the face of fear for the woman he loves most in this world. Initially, I thought casting both Rob and Amber on this season was a little too gimmicky but that gutted me. At this point, I knew Ambuh was pretty much a gonah, but damn would I be lying if I said I wasn’t rooting for her to find a way to see Rob’s face again, for her sake and for his.
A LITTLE BIT LOST
Amber was not ready dig herself out of the size of the hole that, essentially, Rob had dug her into. Dakal’s daggers were ready to come out, and the rush began. Sophie made the comment about it almost being a reward for some people to vote someone out of the game, and I imagine that being the case for most winners as long as it ain’t them.
Next to Amber, Sandra should’ve been other name on the chopping block, but the Queen did her thing. Her strategy was to “spread truths, lies, and rumors” and with that, she successfully managed to avoid any votes. You have to give it up for her – this is what Sandra does best. I think she could’ve been an easy ally for the Amber/Tyson/Kim alliance, but as soon as she heard they were being targeted because of a poker table, friends became fodder and Sandra was not only in but actively pushing for one of those three to go. She’s ruthless, and that’s why I root for her.
I didn’t expect Tyson and Kim to be targets so early, and especially when it came to Kim, I couldn’t even believe what I was watching. Kim, at one point, was literally on the ground begging for her life – the farthest thing from Kim’s image that I could ever imagine. She and Tyson had to grovel hard to stay in this, and luckily, they had Amber tied to Rob, making her a bigger target in addition to Amber not being a big scrambler herself. Without that, Kim may have been the first to go from Dakal. That sounds literally insane to me and speaks to just how topsy-turvy this season is going to be. Everyone’s a target and it could be anyone going home* at any time.
*To the Edge of Extinction
SOME THINGS NEVER CHANGE
Poker this, poker that, Poker Face – much like at Sele’s tribal council, Dakal dished the dirt on who was working with whom. I love that shot of Sandra blatantly pointing at Tyson so as to make sure no fingers were pointed at her.
Again, watching Kim fight for her life here was fascinating while also frustrating. That never happened on One World, and while I don’t think Kim assumed she’d have it as easy as she did there, if it came as a shock to me how quickly Kim was a target, I’m sure it came as one to her. Trying to save her own skin and distance herself from the poker alliance, Amber had a perfect line about how with $2 million on the line, friends or not, everyone was willing to do anything to win. I hope that after these initial two votes, discussion dissipates about what existed before the game and focuses more on what’s happening within it. The situation at Sele sounds much messier, thus more exciting, but for Dakal, I don’t like the look of Kim and Tyson being the next two sent to the Edge. Tony and Sandra, in particular, can’t continue the strategy of voting out the big dogs – because they’re two of the biggest.
Watching this vote once was sad; watching it again was downright depressing. The music and everything just really hit – poor Amber was a lamb set for slaughter before the game even began. Aside from Rob getting voted out first, I’m not sure what could’ve happened for her escape this fate. She was never going to be an aggressive gamer, but I would’ve liked to see her make her own way without the Boston Rob bullseye. Still, I’m really impressed and thankful Amber agreed to play. She seemed like a good sport, but I think the Edge of Extinction is going to be tough for her while she misses her girls. For now, at least she still has Rob in the game giving her reason to bequeath all she can.
NEXT TIME ON SURVIVOR...
Rob obviously receives the fire token from the beyond, sensing it means Amber’s game went to ashes, maybe even at the hands of Sandra. Aside from Angelina’s 100-foot ladder making a return to the game, all the action seems to be happening on Sele as Adam and/or Ben look to have fucked something else up. “Ben knows” – whatever that means. Maybe the question of, “Does Ben know he is in way over his head here?” was posed.
Rob – The Robfather reigns supreme. Seriously though, Rob owned in this premiere. I can’t believe he was as dominant as he was – physically, strategically, and socially. Avoiding being the obvious target early on Redemption Island was less impressive because he was playing with a bunch of n00bs specifically cast to be his sheep, but everyone in this cast should know better than to let Boston Rob be the boss. I’ve never been a fan of the show fawning over Rob, but I have to say that I am completely hooked now on the Romber revenge plot. Part of me is just bitter that no one listened to Danni the Wise when she suggested he be the first to go, so as long as Rob doesn’t run her over, I’m kind of interested to see just how far he can bulldoze his way through this game.
Parvati – Like Rob, Parvati shouldn’t be allowed to play the role of king- or queen-pin, but she too found herself safely secured on Sele, at least for now. I don’t know if she’ll be laughing in the face of danger as much next week when the new-schoolers try to make a Big Move™ but if Ben is leading the charge, maybe Parvati will get the last laugh after all. I loved seeing her strategy change yet her still be the social center of influence she always is. With Rob as a meat shield, who knows, maybe Parvati can pull off a win like Amber did in All-Stars. I heard Rob was recently made single in the game.
Yul – Competing for the title of “Godfather” this week, giving Rob an equal run for the money, was Yul. Color me the hell impressed. I’d have sooner thought Yul would be the one getting little to no screen-time than be the one at the center of his tribe pulling the strings. The incredible thing about Yul is that he can play the mastermind but he does it in such a crafted and careful way that no one really realizes he’s doing it. Pair that with Yul being a relatively low-key member of the cast, he’s on his way to greatness in this game.
Sandra – The queen stays queen. Again, like Rob and Parvati, any sensible player shouldn’t let Sandra get far. They haven’t yet, but I was still impressed with Sandra’s showing. Her ability to read the room is unlike any other and she’s as savage as it comes when someone needs to be sold out. She made sure her name wasn’t on anyone’s lips and instead had people literally crawling to her feet. Now, if Sandra could just switch things around to save Tyson and Kim, that’d be ideal. While I love the Yul/Sophie pair, I’m not as big of a fan of Nick/Wendell getting free rides to the swap.
Tyson – My winner pick based on the edit in the premiere. Tyson got great personal content about his family, some comedic gold as per usual, strategic insight, and something about this extended, final shot of tribal council just stuck with me:
He’ll have a long, uphill battle after this near-elimination early in the game, but this season is going to be anything but straightforward. Like Sandra, Tyson knows when to turn, and I could tell by the look in his eyes during his last glance at Amber that he had voted out a friend, but he knew he needed to do so for his own game. Tyson can be just as fierce as he is funny, so this could be a great comeback story in the making. Down, but far from out.
Ryan Kaiser has been a lifelong fan of Survivor since the show first aired during his days in elementary school, and he plans to one day put his money where his mouth is by competing in the greatest game on Earth. Until that day comes, however, he'll stick to running his mouth here and on Twitter: @Ryan__Kaiser