That’s how you send out a Survivor season in style. There’s something to be said about how fun reunion shows once were, but in Survivor’s second decade, Probst has really driven them off the rails, so a silver lining to the world’s pandemic was the decision to forego it and instead focus the full 3 hours of the finale on the game as it played out on the island. For me, they nailed it, and it’s amazing what kind of story the show can tell when it gives itself the right room to breathe.
The ultimate outcome may not have been shocking to most of us, but the final stretch to the end was something I didn’t expect — an incredible, emotional payoff that truly felt like 20 years culminating in one night. I don’t know if I’m ready to say goodbye to Survivor forever, but this season finale could have satisfied me as a series finale, celebrating all the old and all the new of the show’s history. We said what is likely goodbye to some of our oldest heroes while welcoming in some newer stars. Everyone in this final episode absolutely delivered from beginning to end.
Survivor can sometimes struggle to tie up loose ends, but save for a certain silent assassin’s, the last chapters for these winners all felt complete to me. For my last writing on the historic Winners at War season, I bequeath to you my own final words on how this season’s stories finished:
EDGE OF EXTINCTION
The Edge has been a point of major pain, but for some low lows, it’s also given us some high highs and its farewell in the finale felt more like a high. The challenge itself went about as expected — Natalie being able to use an advantage to skip the digging portion is probably what gave her that win. Well-deserved, but that victory wasn’t the big moment of emotion for me.
Jeff likely went down the line to have everyone else from the Edge say some final words about their Survivor story, but I think the people we ended up hearing from were the best if time didn’t allow for everyone. Kim, Tyson, Amber, Rob, Parvati, and Ethan are all absolute legends of the game and for them along with several others, this season felt very much like their last hurrah. Rob, Amber, Parvati, and Ethan I especially don’t see back as players again — Kim might answer that call in several years when her kids are older and the season is explicitly labeled its last. Tyson likely lands in the same boat as Kim which is strange to think about Tyson being the “old man” on a potentially grand-finale “Legends” season.
As someone watching Survivor since 2000, their words definitely made me emotional. I was 8 years old when I “met” the earliest of these winners, and here I am at 28 saying what I feel like are final goodbyes to many. These are my childhood and even adulthood icons. Any “celebrity” I couldn’t care less about when it comes to them vs. Survivors. These are people whose lives I’ve vicariously lived my Survivor dreams through. One who really took me back was Amber talking about her All-Stars win and how controversial it was — I was there, and so were many of us fans, not physically, but emotionally connected when Jeff read those votes back in 2004. Jeff going down the line with some of these people was a trip down my own memory lane as much as it was theirs.
The ending to this season’s Edge of Extinction was the closest thing we got to an old school Rites of Passage, and I loved it. The Edge twist has so many flaws that I still hope to never see it again, but I don’t think we could have said so long to it any more perfectly, with a standing ovation to these players who put their heart and soul into the game not just this season, but for years and years. They’re all “the best of the best” in my book.
Denise received zero confessionals in the finale. Excuse me???
This woman pulled off what I think was the biggest single move of the season — one of the biggest moves in any season — so to send her out with hardly any words was a dumbfounding and, frankly, disrespectful choice. With Michele immune and Ben, Tony, and Natalie all equipped with idols, Denise’s departure felt a little inevitable at that first vote, but I still am not sure exactly how it came to be.
Michele and Natalie had absolutely nothing to lose by forcing a tie between Sarah and Denise, forcing them to go to a fire-making face-off. Did they think Sarah would actually be more likely to side with them the next round than Denise would? Hindsight is always 20-20, and in retrospect, they were right, but in the moment, I felt like Natalie and Michele were setting themselves up for failure in the final five.
Perhaps Denise was a bigger jury threat than her quiet edit would otherwise have us believe because we know sometimes the show has under-edited people that leave the game due to idols or twists — here, Denise was only voted out because of the Edge and immunity idols — in attempt to make us not feel as sorry for someone who gets screwed out of the game because of them, but we know better. Denise remains a Survivor rock star (see above) for still being the only person to survive 100% of the available tribal councils in a season and win the game. Her game is about stealth survival, and it showed (or didn’t show?) this season as strong as ever.
Thus, maybe Denise’s silent send-off is fitting, if still frustrating. She’ll still forever be the Queenslayer and known as one of the scariest assassins Survivor will ever see while also being as sweet and lovable as can be. That’s why she’s a great — you forget behind that smile and friendly face that this woman can kill when she needs to, and she absolutely did.
ISLAND OF THE IDOLS
We live in modern Survivor, so idol overload was to be expected this season, but overall, I don’t think idols did as much damage as I feared they would. Sandra was infamously slain with her own, and then ironically Denise’s doom was also at the hands of idols, but no one else’s fate was ultimately sealed by an idol play which is refreshing. Sure, they had some influence in the way votes were cast — even in the finale where Natalie would’ve gotten the votes instead of Michele, but still there Sarah flipped which nullified the power of the idol anyway.
I eye-rolled once again with a new idol being dropped into the game at the final five, but I did love the editing fake-out, expecting Tony to be the idol king as he usually is while it ended up being Natalie who snatched it up from under him. It didn’t end up being the idols that so much drove the votes this season, but other advantages and twists definitely had their impact — most of all on Natalie whose abundance of fire tokens literally bought her way back into the game.
Survivor (re: Jeff) constantly seeks for ways to evolve the game, and we’ve beaten a dead Chet about how the Edge of Extinction is the worst of them all, but I do think they might be on to something with fire tokens — with some tweaks. One big way to improve them would be to have them replace all advantages entirely. Get rid of the scavenger hunts for idols or extra votes, and instead put a price tag on them. If social politicking is the way to put tokens — thus, idols — in your pocket, then that’s something I can get behind because it makes obtaining advantages more impressive than just a lucky frolic in the woods.
Make fire tokens more of what they are — currency. Want my vote? Buy it with a fire token (or two). It’s not perfect Survivor, but it at least restores some power back to the social game, taking away from the “finding things” game. Idols have now been a part of the game longer than they haven’t, so while it may seem silly to still complain about them, it’s still worth a conversation about what the “next evolution” of them could be, to put it in Probst’s language. More Survivor twists are inevitable — but make them tactful, not tacky.
With parts of the finale feeling predictable, Ben’s bombshell in his final hours was one I definitely did not expect. Him giving Sarah permission to vote him out so she could go on and win made zero strategic sense, obviously. When there are 5 people left in the game, you don’t tell one to vote you out if you’re trying to win. As a player, that’s a stupid, stupid move, but somehow, especially with this coming from Ben, I wasn’t even mad.
Ben isn’t regarded as one of the best players, and while this definitely seals that, it also proves he’s one of the best people to ever play. He developed a strong friendship with Sarah throughout the season, and her winning became more important to him than himself winning after seeing the situation they were in. Even voting out Natalie or Michele, Sarah and Ben would still likely lose to Tony in the end, so Ben saw the best way for one of him and Sarah to win was to give everything he had to Sarah.
Sure, it was one of the stupidest things Ben’s said all season in regards to the concept of winning game, but it was also one of the most selfless things anyone has ever said in any season. The only other similar moment that comes to mind is all the way back in The Australian Outback where Rodger asked to be voted out over Elisabeth, he got his wish. Ben’s decision here took me back to a time where the game was so much more of a human experience, and while some may look at him in outrage over bowing out, essentially, of the all-winners season, I actually appreciated what Ben’s actions brought to the finale.
Ben remains as not one of the strongest winners, but he really grew on me this season as a great character. In a season full of intense “players” it, at times, was a good mix to see someone play so unorthodoxically and emotionally just to keep the game “live.” I wish Ben wouldn’t have won his season because I think then he’d have gone out as one of the “best to never win” characters, and there’d be less hate being sent his way, but I’ve always stood by that he has been one of the best characters on the show.
Ben and Sarah both broke down in front of each other their last day on the beach together, and especially from Sarah, we rarely see that kind of raw emotion (and this was just the beginning of the night). With two million dollars on the line, the most the show has ever awarded, Ben still said that friendship was more to him than a shot at more money. I think it’s easy for us to sit at home and say “I’d never do that,” and I’d like to think that I wouldn’t — I’d kill who I needed to kill to stay alive — but I don’t think we can ever know until we’re out there on the island. Stripped of everything else, maybe more of us would play with our heart over our head than we realize. I’m sure Ben didn’t go into the game expecting it would end this way — but that’s what the game brought out of him. It was definitely a “Ben bomb” to remember.
COPS ‘R’ US
Between Sarah and Tony, all season I was waiting to see who would be the first to stab the other in the back, largely thinking Tony would be the one with the knife in his hand and Sarah with it in her back, but what we got instead was one of the most beautiful endings to a Survivor story, expanding over multiple seasons and years of the show.
Fire-making tiebreakers have sometimes been heated — pun intended — but since their insertion as “the new normal” of final fours, they’ve been less so; however, Tony vs. Sarah was by far the biggest showdown at the end — the only one coming close was the original challenge between Stephenie and Bobby Jon in Palau. Not only were Sarah and Tony each other’s biggest adversaries in the way of a win, but also each other’s strongest Survivor relationship inside and outside of the game. For an unscripted show, it’s incredible how it can still achieve moments like this, so perfect that they feel scripted, but we know they aren’t.
This moved me more than any other amazing moment in the finale, seeing Tony completely heartbroken over having to take out his partner in order to go on to the end.
He could barely contain himself as Sarah had to calm him down and re-focus him on what he had to do next — finish the job. It was perfectly symbolic to their relationship: the eccentric Tony with his head literally up into the clouds via Spy Nest and the grounded Sarah having to bring him back down to earth. This tribal council felt like a movie to me — a classic, gut-wrenching “go on without me” goodbye. It ties back to what I said at the beginning of this blog about these people being a part of our lives for more than just the several episodes they’re in during a season. Knowing Tony and Sarah’s history through Cagayan, Game Changers, and Winners at War made this moment all the more powerful and emotional.
Without the fire-making, I do wonder what would’ve happened. Would Tony and Sarah have remained true to one another and instead go to fire against Michele, or would they have turned knowing that they were each other’s biggest threat? We may get our answer on that hypothetical, but I’m glad we didn’t have to on the show. Tony and Sarah ran this season, I think Sarah with a bigger hand in the first half and Tony with a bigger hand in the second. The story of Cops ‘R’ Us was definitely a rollercoaster, but it ended on an ultimate high, and with that ending, it may have been launched into being the greatest multi-season Survivor story of all-time.
I loved this. “Lacina, the tribe has spoken.” The meaning behind those words went well beyond just this season finale.
Sarah was a huge star of this finale, even if she had some less-flattering moments from being so stubborn about Natalie not having a hidden immunity idol. She’s been a star this whole season too, and I’ve brought up multiple times that this showing of Sarah’s has been far and away my favorite. Her Game Changers win was definitely impressive, but I didn’t feel compelled by her as a character. She may have played like a “criminal” but she felt a lot like a computer to me — zero emotion.
This season, we got to see a lot more of her personality, especially her humor, and it makes me wish it didn’t take this long for it to really shine. Sarah’s game shed to light a big Survivor theme that is “perception is reality” and particularly how that ties to the male vs. female bias we’ve all seen before on the show. I think Sarah played exceptionally. Personally, I’d have voted for Tony over her had they both been sitting in the end, but that’s based on the story we saw which was told to explain “why Tony won.” Based on that story, I don’t know that I picked up on as much of Sarah being seen as inferior to Tony because she’s a woman — we saw a lot of great things about Tony, and the jury clearly was in love with him.
I definitely agree, though, that it’s harder to project a strong social game when you’re working with Tony, one of the game’s flashiest players. He just looks more exciting, and I’m not sure Sarah could do anything to outperform him there no matter how hard she tried. Hearing what she had to say specifically about her game vs. Tony’s at a final tribal council would’ve certainly provided more insight into the argument she addressed, the exact same as Kass did when they played together, the idea of an aggressive Survivor female being labeled “a bitch” when the male equivalent is labeled “strategic.” I think Tony and Sarah both played the best two games this season, and I’ll just leave it there without knowing everything else that went on the game that we didn’t see because we know there’s a lot left on the editing room floor each week.
Sarah may have even had a bigger target on her back than Tony going into the game, second perhaps only to Sandra. Everyone expected Tony to probably flame out, while Sarah was one to more seriously watch out for, but she was quickly able to wipe any memories of how dangerous she was, taking control of her initial tribe and every one she landed on throughout the rest of the season. I never thought she was a “bad” player, just maybe an uninspiring one to watch, so thankfully Sarah 3.0 changed my perception entirely. Especially now, Sarah deserves to be included in a “Survivor legends” discussion – proven at least twice to be one of the best, man or woman.
I’ve been a proud Michele truther since 2016, and prouder than ever am I of her performance on Winners at War. It was a tough pill to swallow to see her shut out in the final vote, but win or lose at the end, Michele made waves this season, especially with her fierce fight toward the end, and I think she was able to prove to those that doubted her why she was one of the winners on this season.
Survivor is a tough game to play at the top and stay there, but an even tougher game to play at the bottom and stay alive. Aside from a few votes at the swapped Sele tribe, Michele seemed like she always had a mountain to climb, but it wasn’t for lack of effort. She summed up well in her speech to the jury that though she didn’t have a big alliance to make her safe in the numbers, she exceled with her one-on-one relationships which kept her in the game during at her most vulnerable rounds.
Michele is a fighter, and I’d say she was the underdog of the season even over Natalie who at least was wealthy in fire tokens. Michele never found a strong foothold and she may have been flying by the seat of her pants — or towel wrap — but for me, that made her one of the most exciting to watch. Michele’s motivation behind why she wanted to do well this season was made clear to us early: wanting to prove to people that she did deserve her Kaoh Rong win and that she was one of the best to ever play. Michele now is the only winner to play more than once, never be voted out, and make it to Day 39 every time she’s played. Some have a combination of the three, but not all three. Michele is the one.
I love that for her, and I loved Michele’s journey this season, especially when she was at the center of some it’s more memeable moments such as “New season, who dis?” or, “We kicked it.” My favorite, of course, was her Jim Halpert-like reaction to Adam being a manic Michael Scott:
She also came in with some clutch immunity wins when she needed them most, was the queen collector of fire tokens among players not on the Edge, and just was overall a badass bitch. Michele is someone whose Survivor story feels whole, but with the impression she made this season, I could see her coming back as one of the now bigger-name new schoolers. The old schoolers passed the torches along, and I think Michele was one of the new schoolers to take one and run with it. I’m content with whatever she decides — to come back again “just for fun,” finally feeling like she no longer has anything to prove or to stay home with a bottle of wine and watch the rest of the series from the comfort of her couch. For any haters that remain, she can simply pour one out.
But only with the cheap stuff.
I wasn’t sure if Natalie would pull of what Chris did but wow did she come close. I’m still not sold on the idea of someone coming back after being out of the game for almost its entirety because all the work put into the first 30+ days of the game then feels a little meaningless, but I will say that Natalie added for a much more unpredictable finale. With the five we originally had, Denise was likely still toast, and maybe Michele would’ve still been taken to the end by any of the Tony/Sarah/Ben trio, but it wouldn’t have been as thrilling of a night, for sure.
It’s hard to talk about Natalie’s “game” because it’s incomparable to especially the other finalists’. “Playing” the Edge is just something entirely different, but I did like her point of her performance on the Edge having still having an impact even if she wasn’t physically in the game (whether I think her interference was fair, I don’t need to rant about that any further). Living on the Edge is an edge for someone who makes it to the final tribal council, and Natalie had me nervous it’d be enough to topple Tony, but in the end I think the right player won while Natalie still got the respect she had earned.
She was in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” position at final four. If she gives up immunity and loses to Tony in the fire-making challenge, she’d face backlash. If she did what she did and let Tony beat someone else in the challenge, well, she faced backlash. Chris Underwood’s own move should not be the standard of this new final four — that’s absurd and some completely messed up meta game more than what the Edge of Extinction is already. “I have to win the final immunity challenge so I can give it away and face my biggest competition in fire at the risk of finishing in 4th place” — the fuck? It obviously worked out for Chris, but people who don’t choose to take that risk shouldn’t be seen as a lesser player. Rob’s voting confessional seemed to chant that which means it’s now casual fan gospel, but if that move is seriously “what must be done” always at the final four, then what a disaster that will be.
Natalie lived with the jury for a month — she knew better than anyone the odds of beating Tony in the end. It was a risk to not take him out herself, but it was a calculated risk, and it’s not like she was guaranteed to win with fire anyway. If she gave up immunity, she was looking at 1st place vs. 4th place. By keeping the necklace, she was looking at 1st vs 2nd. Which sounds better? Her assessment was that she had a better chance facing Tony on Day 39 than she did making fire against him on Day 38, so she made the decision that she did. I trust her assessment, and I’m sure there were other jury votes she thought she had that ended up swinging to Tony. So, unfortunately, Natalie now has to live with this game-saving move she could have made to win even though the outcome of the move itself will forever be uncertain as well. If I were her, I’d try to let it go and instead celebrate her accomplishment of living on the Edge for its entire duration and coming back to make it to the end of the game.
Natalie’s run was fun, but when you look at her two idols and immunity win to get her to the end, I’m happy with her finishing runner-up instead of winning. Especially vs. Tony, I’m just not sure she or any other Edger would’ve felt “right” as the winner of Winners at War. She had one hell of a run, but it ended where I believe it was meant to end. Even with her extortion and disadvantages entering the game, Tony’s influence throughout it all was just too immense for him not to wear the crown instead.
Richard Hatch should really remain the King of Survivor – the man practically invented the game and it’d be nowhere near where it is, if even still alive, without him. However, Sandra and Tony are just too perfect of a pair of Survivor royalty, so perhaps they’re the queen and the king while Richard is one step above them as the Survivor God. No matter what, they make up the Holy Trinity of Survivor to me.
I’ve been writing about the show for several years now, and I think this is the first time I’d name my official “Player of the Season” the person who also won the season. Winners at War became Tony’s war. I’m still laughing that “toned-down Tony” was the guy who built a life-threatening ladder, ran around the beach with a shark, and spit ash into Sarah’s face — these being only the earliest of his antics before his crowning achievement, Spy Nest.
Tony came into this season with a huge target on his back for being the electric, eccentric player that he is, yet he managed to make it to Day 39 with zero votes ever cast against him, an accomplishment I never thought possible for him. Without the fire-making challenge, his name may have been at least considered there, but officially on the record, no one ever wrote down Tony’s name except to give him the two million dollars. One could go down a rabbit hole of “he needed the fire-making challenge to win,” but then also comes up the point of “well, without the Edge of Extinction in the first place ... ” to where it gets too convoluted. Maybe Tony’s win wasn’t the most perfect due to Day 38, but I don’t think it majorly takes away from his entire 39 days of domination.
Tony’s a big, flashy player but his win shouldn’t necessarily validate big-move-itis as the new Survivor standard. I can look at the Sophie blindside as Tony’s “big move” but everything else was a series of well-thought-out and executed strategies that had an immediate benefit to Tony’s game. His social game above anything else is what allowed him to move and shake his way to the end of the game and build his winning resume, not a sequence of “this” or “that” type of “mumments.” Tony said that he made it a point to build better relationships with people this time, and it’s obvious he succeeded because I can’t recall a jury ever that entertained by someone at final tribal council. Quite literally if he had brought some leftover breakfast with him, he may have even had some of them eating out of the palm of his hands. They were like Twitter stans, begging and craving for more content.
With all the old school legends being massacred before the merge, I’m ecstatic over Tony’s win — not because I don’t think other new schoolers didn’t deserve it, but because Tony was definitely one of those bigger names in this cast going into the game, so I’m glad that one was able to defy the odds despite an enormous target. Tony Vlachos is the winner of Survivor: Winners at War. I’d have chuckled if I heard that a year ago along with the cast announcement. There was just ... no way, and yet, Tony found a way.
Legend, King, God, Llama Whisperer — whatever you want to call him, Tony’s name speaks for itself. There’s just no other like him, not even close, so that’s what makes his win and his Survivor story special to me. Much like the entirety of Cagayan, he had me thinking this season, “surely, this guy can’t actually win,” and yet he did. It really was ... simple as that.
ENDING ON A HIGH
The finale had many great moments, but my low-key favorite may have been the jury propping up Sophie’s obviously lifeless body and someone pulling strings tied to her hands to get them to clap during that round of applause. In all seriousness, I hope she recovered (and it seems like she has) but I’d never have guessed Sophie being the most dead-behind-the-eyes juror ever, and that’s saying something when we’ve had others like Alec Christy and Sebastian Noel.
They at least kept their eyes open, if barely.
Short of Sandra being helicoptered in and sat down next to Tony, Natalie, and Michele, I couldn’t have asked for a more satisfying way for the entire finale night to end. From the start of the show to the end was an emotional rollercoaster, ending on one of the highest of highs with an exceptionally satisfying win, not to mention the greatest final three ever. Heroes vs. Villains had Sandra and Parvati, but it also had the troll which loses it a lot of points. Between Tony, Natalie, and Michele, I think we had the most competitive final three in terms of all having a case to win – the vote tally would indicate otherwise, but I think all three fought their way to the end in different, remarkable ways. There was no weak link in this chain.
The only downer of the night was knowing that these 20 winners will likely never all be in the same place at once ever again — what we witnessed this season was something once-in-a-lifetime, and it’s hard to imagine any future season coming to close to this in terms of pre-season anticipation. What greater Survivor premise could there be than a war of the winners? I look at Heroes vs. Villains as the best cast of characters ever assembled, but all-winners is hands-down the best cast of players. There’s no denying these people collectively make up “the greatest of the greats.”
Was this season “the greatest” Jeff said it was? I can’t quite come to that conclusion. The shortcomings of super-speed modern Survivor editing and the atrocity of Edge of Extinction made sure of that, but this will always be an iconic season on premise alone. A lot of shit’s going on in our world right now, but this exciting season kept us sane — or maybe insane, I’m not totally sure. Either way, it was a euphoric ride to watch Survivor winners spanning from all the years of my life compete against each other in its Super Bowl season. Did it have more potential? Sure, but I can still enjoy it for what it was, and that was most certainly a celebration of all the success this show has had over its 20 years.
Survivor’s given family to its players as well as its fans, and for me, that’s why this grand finale of Winners at War felt like what could’ve been the end of it all for me. If it was, I’d have been heartbroken, but happy that the ride lasted for as long as it did. We all head truly into the unknown with where it’ll take us next.
NEXT TIME ON SURVIVOR…
Fuck if I know. Imagining a fall without Survivor or, worse, a fall and spring without the show is near impossible. I know Jeff is doing everything in his power to make at least one or two seasons happen, but I think I’d rather them wait than to give us a rushed job whether on the filming or the editing side. As much as I love Survivor, a lot of the world has had to compromise or change the way it operates recently, and while I still want Survivor, I don’t need it to come at the cost of quality. “Take the time to get it right” is what I’d tell the show-runners to do.
I don’t know what’s in store for the future of the show or when it will arrive, but I look forward to when that day comes to re-open the gates to Kaiser Island here at TDT. You better be ready...
Before I go, I’ll leave you with the one piece of exclusive season 41/42 info I have: a hot tip as to what the next season’s theme may be:
The hot tip just comes from me, but I’m really hoping that if I can spread it enough, then I’ll manifest it from rumor into reality. Wasn’t there a recent movie starring Will Smith opposite himself? I’m sure Debbie can do this. She does everything.
Thanks for reading, and take care of yourselves physically, mentally, and emotionally in this unprecedented off-season! We’ll survive and all be asking each other soon enough, “New season, who dis?”
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