Remember how we all wanted 2-hour episodes this season? Well, the only one besides the premiere that we got that was kind of a let-down. It was more accurately two hour-long episodes crammed into 90 minutes thanks to that “epic” montage at the end, but for what could have been the penultimate episode of Survivor in all of 2020, I was hoping for a little more “wow.” My star of the episode had a great line about what their “path to the end” was, so in the spirit of that, this week, I’m going to take a stab with my butter knife at the remaining players’ paths to the end, paths to win, and who is likely on the path to their own funeral. But first, I’ll say some short and (maybe) sweet goodbyes to the two casualties whose paths (probably) ended here.
This is about where I thought Jeremy would land in the war. Jeremy’s a phenomenal player — a social, strategic, and physical threat who already managed to win one returning-player season which likely gave him an advantage playing this one. Somehow, players tend to overlook Jeremy as the threat he is and I believe that speaks to his strongest game — the social game. Jeremy is one hell of a likable guy and I bet a source of a lot of laughs at camp even if he’s got some looks that could kill.
Jeremy played another steady, sturdy game this season but never quite had the control he did in Cambodia. Instead of finding his meat shield, he eventually became the meat shield to Tony which both worked for him and against him — I think he lasted longer because of Tony, but ultimately left for being seen as a big threat. The master of the meat shield strategy was made into a meat shield himself, and I think that’s a fun full-circle story for Jeremy. Jeremy was as fun as he was ferocious like the lion he is this season and while I think he’s someone that could always come back and do well, I think he solidified himself here as one of the best and most consistent players of the game, so he could retire happily and go out smiling big.
Nick, on the other hand, took a hit this season. After Adam left, Nick took the brunt of being the butt of editing jokes, and I do think Nick deserves some credit for being able to navigate the ever-changing dynamics of this complicated game, when he finally got into what he called a “position of power” he sort of squandered it. He recognized who he could not beat and who he could — jury’s still out on the latter, but he was right about the former. However, remaining randomly loyal to Tony as long as he did is something I still don’t understand. If Ben is Tony’s Kass, someone not popular with the jury, then Nick was Tony’s Woo. He said he wanted to make big moves, but had he not been voted out, I think Nick would’ve stumbled into the end with Tony just like Woo did, hurting his image even more.
Some winners are better than others. I don’t think Nick was the worst, but in this season, he was definitely not the best. Him being the newest winner worked like a double-edged sword. It made him less of a threat so he was destined to go deep, but it also made him less prepared to play with the pros who came before him, ultimately getting schooled by them. Nick is able to read the room and flow wherever he needs to go or show up where he needs to be, but I’m not sure if Nick was ever going to be in a real power position in this game. I don’t question his original win at all — he made a great run there but just couldn’t repeat it here. It happens.
I don’t see Jeremy or Nick getting a second life from the Edge of Extinction, especially with being at such a sad fire token disadvantage compared to everyone else. Both have proven themselves in challenges, but I think those who have been readying for the return challenges for weeks will be more mentally and physically prepared. With that in mind, it’s one of these next names that I expect to be crowned Sole Survivor in less than a week, and here’s how I think (almost) every one could do it:
Funnily enough, before this week I had been thinking back to an earlier point of this season where Michele was the breakout star and what a fun few weeks those were, so I set up a circle of wine glasses in my living room and prayed in its center a return to those glory days. Well, I can confidently say that the power of prayer actually worked because that what this episode was for me: Michelemania.
The “sassy Michele from Jersey” busted out this week after finally having enough of being on the bottom. We saw a little of that fire come from her rolling her eyes at Ben’s obvious bullshit about Jeremy wanting Michele’s 50/50 coin back, but it’s when Jeremy left that Michele really SNAPPED. Telling Nick to his face that she wondered whether he’d have the balls to talk to her after backing out of another vote was the kind of sass I love to see. Her jab at Probst about his blue button-down and khakis was another wake-up to any fans still sleeping on Michele since Kaoh Rong.
While Michele has missed the right side of several recent votes, she’s always managed to avoid getting the most votes. We’ll never know for sure what would’ve happened had she not won immunity the last round – she thought she was done, but some other plan always seems to come together last minute to shake up the status quo. Never count out the Tony factor to turn a vote upside down, nor forget that Hell hath no fury like a Jersey girl scorned.
Her path to the end: Michele was looking strong pre-merge, but having been left out of the loop for so many votes since then, it’s hard to see her winning over the likes of Tony and Sarah who have had everyone eating out of their hands or the Edger who will already have a lot of jury support. Michele needs to get to the end with Denise and Ben — she may be able to reach the end another way, but that’s the only way I see Michele winning. Sarah called Nick “the underdog story” but in my opinion, that’s Michele going into this finale. I think she’s gone above and beyond in showing the Survivor community why she deserved her original win — she’s sharp, she’s scrappy, and despite Neal’s claim, she’s one badass bitch. I loved Michele 1.0 and I love Michele 2.0 even more — win or lose this season, her story has been one of the stars for me.
Being the underdog, Michele has maybe the toughest road ahead out of everyone. She has no endgame deals and she was most recently target numero uno until the immunity challenge. Michele probably needs to win immunity again at 6, have the Edger burn their idol there and then use them as a vote shield at 5. If Michele can at least make the final four, then maybe Michele could convince the immunity winner to spare her from the fire challenge. No matter the final four, I think all could lean toward taking Michele to the end, thinking she has the smallest résumé — potentially a fatal mistake because “everyone loves the underdog.”
I think the wealth was spread a little better this week, but the end to this season has been and I still think will be the Tony show. The other week, Sarah called her social game superior to Tony’s, but I disagree with her like I did with her calling Nick the underdog. Tony arguably has been more connected than anyone in this merge. While Sarah has been with him on all but one vote, Tony’s played the bigger hand in bringing those votes together. He’s remained tight with Sarah and Ben throughout, but what he’s done a better job at than them is keeping doors open with the members of the minority. That Sophie vote wouldn’t have happened without Tony’s relationship with Michele and Jeremy — with Nick as well, as Tony was able to swing Nick to his side with little effort.
Tony has made it to the finale with not a single vote cast against him, nor has his name ever come close to being written down. That’s definitely a “fantasy come true” for me. Going into Winners at War, I labeled Tony as someone who had a very minimal shot at winning along with old schoolers like Rob, Amber, Ethan, and Parvati. Coincidentally, I also threw Sarah and Ben into that group for various reasons, so if they’re in the final three with Tony, that’d be quite a turn from the timeline I thought this season would take.
His path to the end: Tony has talked about Denise being a threat because of her queen-slaying and Michele being a “hyena” he doesn’t want at the end, so it sounds to me like Tony’s settled on that final three with Sarah and Ben, where I believe he could almost win unanimously. Everyone on the outside sees that Tony’s the boss. Somehow, he’s brainwashed Ben and Sarah into believing they have a reasonable shot against him in the final three, but I don’t see it. I don’t think Ben would get a single vote against either Tony or Sarah, and while I do think Sarah would get a few — Sophie at least should be a lock — Tony would still win that one in a landslide.
The Edge of Extinction could throw a major wrench into Tony’s plan, and while I hope it doesn’t screw him, I look forward to it messing up his perfect plan at least somewhat. Tony making it this far as Tony is a big achievement, but even still, I want to see him defy even more odds with some added degree of difficulty in the finale. He’s got an idol, so I think he should be safe for at least the first vote, but if the returnee sides with Denise and Michele, I’m interested to see how Tony plays around that. Ultimately, I can’t see this season ending in anything but a Tony win — to me, it’s just a matter of how it happens. Tony just has to get to the end, and he wins. If he adopts the Queen’s strategy, “as long as it ain’t me,” agreeing to any way that isn’t “Tony,” then he will be the new King. Simple as that.
We’ve got 3 hours left of Survivor, which per Tony math is almost half a season, meaning there’s plenty of drama still to unfold, and I imagine Tony will be at the center of it all like he’s been for this entire latter half of the season. Even though a Tony win may be predictable at this point, I know he’ll still make it exciting.
Like Tony, I think Sarah sees her endgame with Cops ‘R’ Us plus Ben. Working with a volatile player like Ben isn’t easy, and I thought she had one of the best moves this week with her idea to “let Ben drive” to avoid him otherwise blowing up their ride. Sarah isn’t a flashy player like Tony, and instead it’s been a series of subtle moves and maneuvers like this one that has led to so much success for Sarah this season. She’s built solid relationships; she’s played smooth and steady; somehow, she’s remained unburned by the human fireball that is Tony, yet I don’t think Sarah’s walking in to the win that I think she thinks she is.
Sarah and Ben are instead walking their “funeral march” to death by the hands of Tony. Either he will vote them out, or he will beat them in the final vote. Sarah believes she will beat Tony and that’s what I believe her downfall will be. “Perception is everything” was the line that stood out to me most in the episode, and it applied directly to Sarah. Sarah perceives herself to be able to win over Tony because in her mind, she’s had more control of the game than he has and has played a better game because she’s played it cooler and calmer, claiming her social game is better than Tony’s. However, as Michele pointed out, that’s not how everyone else sees it, and ultimately, in Survivor, what is the truth is irrelevant — it’s what is perceived to be the truth. Tony is perceived to be playing the best game, so therefore, he is.
Her path to the end: Sarah needs to see Michele’s words as more than just a desperate attempt to stay alive or else Sarah’s going to be drawing dead whether it’s on Day 36 or 39. Sarah’s played a technically more correct game than Tony because she’s done everything she’s supposed to do without drawing as much attention to herself, yet somehow, Tony’s managed to deflect that drawn attention and still get credit as the mastermind behind many of these votes, so in reality, Tony’s way to play has been the best this season.
If Sarah can outstep Tony and get rid of him before the end, getting rid of him before he gets rid of her, then I think she could win. Like Tony, though, Sarah should worry about the Edge of Extinction. I think Tony would still win against the returnee because he’d match their flashiness and flare of a strong finish, so the edge there would end up going to Tony because he hasn’t been voted out. With Sarah, I’m not sure the jury would be as excited as they would be to vote for Tony over one of their own Edgers, so Sarah needs to eliminate Tony, the Edger, and then win immunity or practice fire because I think by then, Ben, Denise, and Michele might see each other as their best opponents. Long story short — Sarah has to accomplish a lot in this finale to reach the end and win.
Where to begin with Ben? He’s blinder than Sarah because at least she has a reputable résumé — she only overestimates how well it will hold up against Tony’s — but I’m not sure what Ben thinks he has been able to accomplish this season. He’s picked fights and pissed off several players, surely making him a topic of conversation on the Edge. He’s blown up a couple plans but not necessarily in ways to his benefit, and while that has made him dangerous, I think he’s made it as far as he has because he’s not viewed as a serious winner contender.
Ben’s been, at times, fun to watch except I could have done without his million analogies about marching to war or other some “big battle” about to happen (has it yet?). His unpredictability and just general bumblefuckery was strangely endearing at the start of the season, but Ben has turned mostly sour for me at the end (déjà vu). His social game has been sloppy, really only “liked” by Tony and Sarah who are mostly keeping him around as a goat — I guess Denise must also get along with him well enough to not even entertain working with Nick and Michele on the last vote. I almost hope Ben is voted out because him trying to claim victory over Tony and Sarah would only bring further embarrassment for him at this point.
As a character, Ben brings a fair amount of content to the show and one of the more “human” moments of the week was thanks to him bringing up the psychological effect Survivor has on players even after the game, something that’s rarely, if ever, talked about on TV. More moments like that, especially in the modern years where so much of the show is about “the game,” could be helpful at silencing some of the psycho fans on social media who can’t separate the lives of players inside and outside of the game.
His path to the end: Ben needs to flip on Tony and Sarah to have any shot at all, but even against Michele and Denise, I don’t think he’d win. Ben’s made too many enemies on the jury and has had a sloppy social game this season with a questionable strategic game at best. He’s made it this far, but was it really his own intentional doing?
Unable to win, in my mind, Ben just needs to get as far as he can to collect the biggest check. His best shot at the final three is probably flipping with Denise to go with Michele and the Edge returnee, voting out Tony and Sarah back-to-back. At worst, Ben would then only have to win the fire-making challenge which he’s already done before, in case anyone forgot, and he’s got the 3rd place prize. I was hoping for the perfect poetry that it would’ve been to have Ben blindsided with an idol in his pocket this week, and honestly, that may have been the best ending for Ben this season. Final tribal council could be painful for him.
I think Denise was a popular winner pick for this season because we all knew she was built to go deep — the perfect blend of strategy and a social game paired with an unwarrantedly low threat level. She survived literally every tribal council there was in her first season, and she’s only missed a handful this time — a testament to one of her new words to live by, “endure.”
Denise has been an incredible chameleon throughout the game. Her name’s been brought up several times, but after getting some votes, she’s been a master at blending back into the background and off the chopping block for several rounds. She made the most noteworthy move of the season in not only taking out Queen Sandra but using her own idol to do it, yet no one has outright thought, “Holy Chet, we need to get Denise the fuck out of here” until this very last vote.
I have nothing but positive things to say about Denise’s game. She hasn’t led the charge, but with so many strong forces at the start of all this, that probably wasn’t the best starting strategy anyway. It’s still insane to me that Tony and Sarah have been left to dictate the merge as much as they have, but someone like Denise could have only done so much damage not having the numbers against them. Since taking out Sandra, Denise has seemed to instead adopt Sandra’s trademarked strategy of “as long as it ain’t me” — we haven’t seen Denise throw anyone under the bus, but she always has managed to get out of the way when she’s seen it coming. That takes serious skill especially when you singlehandedly pulled off the most talked-about move of the season.
Her path to the end: Denise needs to keep at the Sandra strategy. She may be able to get to the end by doing this, but unfortunately, her path to winning probably relies on Ben agreeing to turn on Tony and Sarah. If he does, and Tony, Sarah, and the Edger are all removed in some order, then I could see Denise winning over Ben and Michele. Denise might be able to win over Sarah too depending on how that final three came to be — if it was Sarah’s move to turn on Tony, then Sarah would win. If Denise took out Tony like she did Sandra, then Denise would win.
Still, Denise’s safest bet is probably against Ben and Michele — definitely Ben. Between the women, it would come down to who is the more rootable and scrappier underdog. I might say Denise has more jury support, but Michele has more story support. Denise hasn’t been completely ignored, but she hasn’t been completely prominent either. She’d need a pretty big finale bump to finish with being given the biggest title of all-time. There was definitely some set-up in this penultimate episode, though. I mean, she got rice for the tribe. Only legends can do that.
And now it’s time to lay out the paths to the end for each and every one of the 13 players on Edge of Extinction!
Just kidding! That’d be fucking crazy. Also, all but maybe three of them don’t have a foreseeable future of getting back in to the game anyway. I loved that the show decided to give sweet, lovely Amber the big narrator role as we said goodbye to this wretched place (for now and hopefully forever but I’m smart enough to know better). The Edge was at times an improvement this season than over its last but I think it worked because these are people we’ve known and loved for two decades (three decades in Tony time). Watching people who we barely know face hardship and suffering — do we really care?
What made OG Edge fun, at rare times, was mostly Reem ripping everyone a new asshole. Remove Reem and other Survivor stars we care about, and I don’t think we care about the Edge at all. It kept fan favorites on-screen, but again at the cost of a lot more exciting drama happening on the other islands. With 90-minute episodes, the problem may have been fixed. However, as I mentioned, even this two-hour episode felt too slow.
I almost thought we were going to see the return challenge happen at the end of the episode, but instead all we got was a reminder of what we’ve already seen this season. With that, they made my job of predicting how the rest of this goes much harder. Hard as it may be, though, I’ve been set on Tony winning for a while, and like I said, I think I have narrowed the Edge returnee down to 3: Rob, Tyson, and Natalie.
Rob: I only say Rob because the show made it a point to remind us that he had an idol, and he’s admittedly gotten consistent airtime at the Edge. After the Chris debacle, I think the editors will make sure we’re a little more familiar with the ultimate returnee. But all of this could also be because the guy’s Boston Rob Mariano. It pleases people to see Rob’s face. “He’s not making it back in, but here’s a one-liner for you to enjoy anyway” could easily be the message we’ve gotten with Rob since he landed on the Edge, and I think it is, but I’ll still give him a shot. If Rob makes it back in, he’s for sure going right back out unlike these other two...
Tyson: His first return to the game felt like a foregone conclusion. His second, far from it. Tyson has had some content, but I feel like his Survivor story ended appropriately with finally getting his family flown out for the loved ones visit. That final confessional he gave, though, had me re-wondering just a little if he will win this challenge again. “If I get back in the game, I’m winning this thing” was such a perfectly delivered last line of the night. It gives me hope that Tyson can come back and wreck some real havoc. I still can’t root for an Edger to win, but I’d root for Tyson to get 2nd place, easily.
Natalie: The favorite. I’ve said all season that Natalie gets a lot of content because she has to — she’s finding all the fire tokens. Now, those fire tokens are why I think she might just finally get back in the game. 14 fire tokens. I think most of us would agree that Natalie has earned them by working her ass off, but at the same time, it’s totally unfair that she’s been rewarded for spending more time on the Edge after being voted out than people like Jeremy and Nick who have only had a few days, Nick with zero opportunity to earn any tokens. This is a situation of not hating the player but hating the game. At least Natalie’s someone who I know will bring the heat to a finale, having one of my favorite finale performances ever with her first win.
Their path to the end: Idols, immunity, and making fire. That’s it. That’s literally it. After seeing Chris crush the Edge of Extinction finale, every player should vote the returnee out the first chance they get, even if it means sparing Sarah and Tony for one more round. If the Edger makes it to the end, I think they’re getting at least second place, and if they reach the end after voting out Tony, then I think they’re winning. I don’t like it, but again, hate the game, not the players. Especially if it’s Natalie — she spent 33 days bonding with people as they came to the Edge. How does someone like Amber vote for someone like Sarah and Tony who she knew for 3 days, or Ben, Michele, and Denise who she never met in the game?
What could save this season from another Edge win are the jurors that made the merge. Pre-mergers may have more allegiance to the Edge while Koru may have more allegiance to Koru. Numbers there would lean about 10-6 in favor of the person who hasn’t been voted out, depending on who the returnee is, but that’s very flexible. I still think Tony is the safest bet against an Edger — anyone else could be the next Gavin and Julie. I’d like to think that the winner of the all-winners season of Survivor is someone who was never voted out this season, and deep down, I think it will be, but with 19 people still technically left in the game, who even knows? Even my Danni Girl could still win this. Hell, I’m not even sure Sandra is completely out of it.
NEXT TIME ON SURVIVOR...
Let me look into my crystal ball!
I’m going to just call the Edge of Extinction returnee “Edger” for the sake of writing what is essentially this fanfiction piece about how the finale will go. Edger comes back with an idol (so, it’s Rob, Tyson, or Natalie) and Michele wins immunity. It’s assumed Edger has an idol so no one plans to vote for them. Knowing Tony has an idol he could play on Sarah, Edger, Michele, and Denise vote for Ben. Tony plays an idol on himself, the Edger on themselves, and Ben on himself. Tony, Sarah, and Ben vote for Denise so Denise goes.
At 5, Edger wins immunity. Michele and Edger try to convince Ben to vote for Tony. Tony and Sarah target Michele. Ben ultimately votes out Michele because he’s Ben. At 4, Tony wins immunity. He debates taking Ben or Sarah to the end. Ben could more easily beat Edger in the fire-making challenge, but if Ben loses, Tony has two tougher opponents to face in front of the jury. Tony ultimately takes Ben for being easier to beat and hopes that Sarah can win the fire challenge. Sarah’s left shooketh by Tony’s betrayal and loses to the Edger.
Tony takes some heat from Sarah at final tribal council, but she still votes for him and may even be a key deciding vote between Tony and Edger. Ben receives no votes; Edger finishes 2nd, and Tony Vlachos is the winner of Winners at War and is named King of Survivor.
After the live vote reveal over Zoom, Tony is told to go look out his window and sees that his statue has already been delivered to his front yard.
Kass shows up riding a llama pulling a carriage from which Sandra emerges. Sandra tells Tony, “Get in, King. We got royal shit to do.” Tony, hesitant, looks back at his wife who gives him a tearful nod of approval, knowing what her husband must do. Tony makes his way to the carriage and enters, sitting a safe 6-foot distance away from Sandra. They wave to the empty street as they ride off into the sunset. We hear Sandra whisper a soft, “Adios,” and the screen fades to black. Credits roll as Jeff’s Winners at War theme song blasts for its 22-minute entirety.
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