Jeff Pitman's S40: Winners at War recaps
The long and short of challenges
By Jeff Pitman | Published: May 4, 2020
Survivor: Winners at War Episode 12 recap/ analysis

The long and short of challenges


This was a weird episode in a lot of ways, primarily because all of the action — from the post-Tribal blowup, to the plot to target Tony, to the Edge marathon, to the idol find, to the abbreviated IC, to Kim's eventual demise — all of it took place over the span of just 24 hours.


This also means that it's possible that the immunity challenge was being held at exactly the same time as the Edge of Extinction race for fire tokens. The contrast between the two couldn't be more stark: On the Edge, a brutal, grueling race where the *first* finisher took over 2.5 hours, and Boston Rob bashed up his elbow, fell out of contention, but still completed the task, because of pride or something. In the actual game: three people drop out of a classic endurance challenge after just 15 minutes to gorge themselves on peanut butter and chocolate, leaving a bewildered Denise and Tony standing there to claim victory by default.


Question: Was this by design, to make us think more kindly of the Edge? (Answer: Almost certainly yes.)


Everyone on the Edge knows the value of fire tokens when it comes time for the re-entry challenge (now just six days away). By making the reward two tokens — two-thirds of the way to maxing out on advantages in the return challenge — it's an appealing carrot. By restricting that reward to the top 6 out 11 finishers, everyone theoretically has a chance, but they'll also have to compete hard for that purse, and some will fall short. While distance running in a semicircle is pretty dull viewing, this at least has the ingredients for drama: Hunger for advantage, the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, etc. Even without people getting smashed up on the rocks.


In the real game, however, despite the (very fun!) Jeff Probst history lesson at the start — detailing how much the challenge team has ratcheted up the difficulty in this version, making it much harder — the multi-hour editions of the past are still our point of reference as an audience. Clarence and T-Bird lasted over six hours at this in Africa. Parvati lasted six hours in Micronesia, 70 minutes in Heroes vs. Villains. But in addition to making the physical part more challenging, production made one other change to shorten the challenge: the two necklaces, which made it *much* shorter.


Instead of a lengthy endurance standoff between 10 people (Africa, One World), or nine (Micronesia), or even eight (HvsV), having two necklaces meant this was now two separate challenges with just four people apiece. When you factor in the early slips (Jeremy, Sarah) and inadvertent rule violations (Ben), you're left with a 2-person duel and a 3-person duel. Throw in ratcheted-up torture conditions, food temptation to starving people, and the additional possibility of a negotiated exit via fire tokens, and there's little surprise Probst could return to his reportedly fine life of air-conditioned luxury in under 30 minutes.


There was an extremely low likelihood that these people would be pulling off an epic, grueling battle as seen in prior editions of this challenge. Which, again, Probst took pains at the very start to point out was what had happened in the past.


So let's flip back to that final Edge scene with Boston Rob grimly marching to retrieve his 20th coconut, blood streaming down his forearm (which as Ryan pointed out, would not have stopped his legs from working). He's given a heroic, marching-into-the-dusk sendoff, telling the world that he just doesn't want to quit. There was a brief interlude where Ben found his idol, then we jumped straight into this much, much shorter immunity challenge. (Which is weird, because we're actually going back in time here. The IC probably started around the same time as the Edge challenge, and almost certainly ended earlier.)


Maybe this near-juxtaposition of the Edge and the IC was accidental. Maybe the audience wasn't *supposed* to judge the IC-competing contestants so harshly. But it sure felt like we were. We get it, the people on the Edge *really* want it, and this absolutely wonderful Edge of Extinction format really shows the ex-contestants mettle, their resolve and their strengths, and meanwhile the regular Survivor game is just a load of fluff, filled with soft pantywaists. (Except of course the rugged host.)


But why shame the contestants, and the regular Survivor game this way? They were set up to fail!


Because you know what else is probably just an accident? The host was at the competition that didn't last very long. Weird how that keeps happening. He was also absent from the nearly lethal log challenge, but did show up at the similarly shortened (again, by design) version of "Get a Grip" at the merge.


Has there even been an actually long endurance challenge that Probst has attended since that time he had to feign interest in a six-hour lecture about reubens? Apparently that's beneath his two-million-per-season pay grade now.


"Oh yeah, the, the ... guy in the $4000 suit is holding the elevator for the guy that doesn't even make that in 3 months. Come on!"


Sometimes it just doesnt work

Sometimes it just doesn't work


This episode also featured the final attempt by Kim to seize control of the game, and put an end to her brief but rewarding battle for supremacy with Tony. It was fun while it lasted.


Kim entered this season carrying a huge target, which Yul made even larger with his "poker alliance" story. She struggled to stay above water at original Dakal, but seemed to find her footing after the swap. Just when everything seemed to be working out, some high-placing early post-merge immunity finishes reminded everyone of how much of a threat Kim actually was. From there, she miraculously still had chances to swing the game in her favor, but circumstances outside her control just kept working against her.


Despite having to work through setbacks like the Tyson boot, this week she was still well-situated enough to rally the troops, and had everyone on board to boot Tony (which wouldn't have worked, since had an idol, and Ben or Sarah probably would have tipped him off that he needed to play it). But then Nick decided he'd rather eat peanut butter and have a fire token than win immunity, and all of a sudden, Tony was immune and the plan was moot.


Kim consistently had great reads throughout this season. She just couldn't quite cobble together the numbers to do anything about it. Even in an all-winners season, her reputation was too great for anyone to risk working with her for too long (except Denise). It's great that the show took the time to show all of this. Assuming she doesn't come back from EoE (she might!), Kim leaves with her reputation intact, and perhaps her threat level diminished just enough to come back and win the next all-winners season.


The story begins to take shape - where is it going?

The story begins to take shape


For the past couple of weeks I've been jabbering on about the Ben and Tony similarities and contrasts the show has been highlighting, at the merge (and premiere), and in last week's episode. One thing was missing, though: Any real sense of connection between Ben and Tony. This week, that finally happened. They're now a (reluctant) pair.


Despite Tony stating unequivocally last week (in confessional) that the Jeremy-Michele/Kim-Denise group was his fake alliance, and that Sarah/Ben (and Nick?) was his real one, it wasn't until this episode that this story really appeared to be true. Tony told both Sarah and Ben about his idol. He was with Ben while Ben found an idol. Ben then later repaid Tony's efforts by ratting out Nick's attempted betrayal.


So Tony, Sarah, and Ben are a real alliance. Sarah is clearly still seen (by Tony) as a solid partner. Those two both confirmed they have each other's backs. Whether Nick is still with them remains to be seen.


In passing, Tony alluded to a broader alliance that may also be active: himself, Sarah, Ben, and Jeremy — the cops, the firefighter, and the Marine. This makes some strategic sense, as they all have similar real-life stories of putting themselves in harm's way for the public good, so they don't have to target each other for having "a better story" (they also all have kids). This would explain why Tony keeps trying to save Jeremy.


Really, though, this mostly seems like we've started a coronation edit for Tony. His strategic perspective is the central one that we've been shown. Ben and Sarah (discussed below) have both largely been recast as supporting characters in that narrative. Even as we've observed people trying to raise an opposing force to Tony, the key organizer left this week, and Michele and Denise have been mostly absent (when not talking about advantages) throughout the post-merge. The only long-term non-Tony connection left in the game is Michele and Jeremy, which appears to mostly revolve around the 50-50 coin flip advantage, which expires at the first vote next episode.


So in summary: Tony is the story, and going forward, the story is Tony.


The Sarah conundrum: buried by the edit

The Sarah conundrum


Just as the past couple of episodes have made Ben out to be a rigid player making tons of mistakes, Sarah's content this week was also pretty dismissive. Almost the entire episode (like last week) was told from Tony's perspective. We didn't really hear about any of Sarah's plans going forward, except where they intersected with Tony's. Most damning: Sarah's confessional about her post-Tribal argument with Tony was presented solely to make her look bad, since she ironically frames it as not getting pissed, then proceeds to do exactly that.


In contrast, three episodes after Sarah gave up her reward to Nick (for his damn birthday), Nick was shown talking to every other person on the beach this week, except Sarah. Nobody was shown talking to Sarah, in fact, except of course Tony, apparently giving proof to her opening rant to Tony: "They don't want to work with me! My game is sunk!"


Except that obviously they did want to work with her, we just weren't shown anyone trying. Kim did say she'd rather keep Sarah around than Tony, because there was a relationship there (from original Dakal, presumably) she could repair. The real proof there is that when Tony won immunity, instead of his #1 ally Sarah (who wasn't trusted enough to loop in on the plan), the Plan B target was ... Jeremy?


Jeremy! Who was part of their group! Who had been close to Michele since Day 1! This made absolutely no sense, apart from the likelihood that Ben would agree (while losing Michele). Sure, maybe Tony and Sarah would get on board, since it wasn't either of them.


But why did they not target Sarah? If she's in an obvious pair with Tony, why not take her out when Tony's immune? And how on earth did Sarah feel safe enough to turn down Tony's offer to play his idol for her? Obviously, lots of people must have been talking to Sarah this episode, we just weren't shown any of it.


That's a really bad sign for Sarah's chances of winning this season, especially when we were given front row seats to every move Tony made over the past two episodes.


The cleverness of Tony revealing his idol

Tony's idol offer


Speaking of Tony's moves, a more subtle one that initially looked bad, but could pay off nicely was rolled out this week (no, not the Spy Nest). Rather than waving around a "bag of tricks," Tony selectively leaked that he had an idol to his two closest allies (Ben and Sarah), then indirectly revealed it to everyone at Tribal Council.


The initial reveal to Ben and Sarah goes against conventional wisdom to always keep your idol secret, but was clearly by design: he was using this information to show he was still true to them, despite blindsiding them with the Sophie vote. Then, by attempting to play that same idol for Sarah at Tribal Council — which again, logically seemed like a good guess, even if it turned out to be unnecessary — he revealed the idol to everyone else, including the jury.


How could this pay off? Now Tony has a bit more of a buffer if his immunity streak runs dry. People know he has an idol, and will be reluctant to target him directly. The numbers are small enough, with just seven left, that they can't really split the vote to dodge that idol, either, especially when he has two close allies in Ben and Sarah, who will likely vote with him and may also tip him off if someone moves against him.


This passive, slow-motion idol reveal is essentially the same move as taking his idol out and wearing it at Tribal, as he did in Cagayan, but far less obviously aggressive and showboaty. Everyone knows the correct move when someone tries that now is to call the player's bluff, and immediatley flip all the votes onto the idol-wearer, either blindsiding them if they don't play it, or flushing the idol if they do. Will the non-Tony forces similarly follow through on that now? Probably not, which is why it was a solid step forward.


Shorter takes

Shorter takes


- Omens that nearly flew right past us: Domenick Abbate pointed out on twitter that for Italians, being pooped on by a bird is actually a sign of impending good luck. (Since Tony is of Greek heritage, does that still apply? Also, does it work with bats? Regardless, cool story, and as with the ladder, a seemingly fun Tony bit is actually positive foreshadowing.)


- The growth narrative: A story in two acts...

Episode 2 - Ben helps Denise find an idol, helps her brainstorm how to leverage its power.

Episode 12 - Ben finds an idol in front of Tony, tries and fails to hide it in his pants.


- The whispering continues: The Tribal Council whispering version presented in this episode, where everything was subtitled, was much more audience-friendly. It would still be better if the contestants weren't running the proceedings, and Tribal Council once again had a moderator. (Julie Rosenberg's point is also a solid reason for Probst to put a stop to it.) But yay for small improvements, at least.


- Challenging: Kim's last-place and third-place (out of four) finishes in her final two regular-game challenges dropped her down to #6 on the career Mean % Finish (MPF) in individual challenges leaderboard, with 75.1%, just below JT Thomas's 75.5%. But she could still be Top Five (baby!). She'll have at least one more challenge with the final EoE return challenge. Unfortunately, if it's like the one in season 38, it'll be difficult for her to score much above 75% without winning it outright, which is what she'd need to do to move back up. (Meanwhile Tony's win vaulted him into the Top 10.)


- Idol rankings update: If Tony *had* played his idol for Sarah, then found it again next episode on morning 30, he would be tied with Russell Hantz for most career idol finds (Russell has five). Same if he had been on the side of the path that Ben was, and had ended up with a second idol. With Ben's find in the books, though, Ben and Tony are now tied for second place (with Tai Trang and Rick Devens) at four.


Jeff Pitman's recapsJeff Pitman is the founder of the True Dork Times, and probably should find better things to write about than Survivor. So far he hasn't, though. He's also responsible for the Survivometer, calendar, boxscores, and contestant pages, so if you want to complain about those, do so in the comments, or on twitter: @truedorktimes

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