Jeff Pitman's S40: Winners at War recaps
Restricted access and the invisible hand of the fire token market
By Jeff Pitman | Published: February 29, 2020
Survivor: Winners at War Episode 3 recap/ analysis

Restricted access and the invisible hand of the fire token market


It's no secret that Survivor loves its idols and advantages. Too much is never enough, it seems, as the finds pile up, episode over episode, season over season. Through three episodes of Winners at War, we're already up to three idols and two advantages in play. Yet even as the overall number of advantages/idols available in a season has increased, Survivor had inadvertently stumbled into a structural problem: In order to increase the number of idols available, while also restricting the flow so that one player doesn't just hoard *every* advantage, the show has created a distribution mechanism that has become fundamentally unfair, in which only one player per episode is eligible to receive that week's advantage.


Over a full season's run, this may balance out, in theory. Last season, while this was never officially announced, it seemed pretty clear that people could only attend Island of the Idols once. So far this season, despite Natalie finding all the loot on Edge of Extinction, she's thus far offered to sell her wares to a different person each time. So it's "fair" in the sense that the free stuff isn't all going into the same person's bag.


But this is Survivor, where a person leaves every week, and if the "random number generator" — or whatever method production uses to decide who is eligible to be offered a prize that episode — doesn't provide a contestant an opportunity for a much-needed advantage before they're voted out, then for that contestant, a system that approaches balance across an entire season doesn't really seem all that useful.


On the surface, the fire token system appears self-limiting. If you require contestants to "buy" an offered advantage with a fire token, they obviously can't just go buying one every episode, since they only start with one. In theory, that should throttle down the ability of, say, Rob to simply buy something from Amber every episode. (Or Jeremy from Natalie, although he still has a spare one burning a hole in his pocket.) That puts the brakes on idol- and/or advantage-hoarding by one player, which makes sense. Except ... lack of equitable access is still a problem. Ethan was never given the chance to buy a three-Tribal idol, nor a Tribal Escape Hatch advantage. He most likely would happily have spent his sole fire token doing so, if he had. But he wasn't, and now he's gone.


This is the same problem that made the original, super-powered hidden immunity idol seem so unfair. Back in Panama, only three people (Misty, Bruce, and Terry) ever had the opportunity to find that idol. The following season in Cook Islands, that pool of eligible finders was reduced to just two people (Penner and Yul), and that opportunity was gone by the morning of Day 7.


It's also a step back from the model that seemed to be working just fine a few seasons back, in the wildly popular David vs. Goliath. There, everything (except the execrable idol nullifier) was hidden near camp, or at group gatherings like the merge feast, and was at least theoretically within reach of every person in the tribe. Even if they needed a 100-foot ladder to reach it.


Since then, Survivor has undergone a calculated shift toward larger numbers of smaller, exclusive-access advantages. This process actually started back in Ghost Island, but really gained steam last season in Island of the Idols. Now, instead of everyone having access to semi-powerful items, Survivor seems to be trending towards multitudes of small, short-term advantages, twists that are offered every episode, but only to one person.


This season, that restricted-access area has been Edge of Extinction, where the people involved aren't even in the regular game. Its not clear how much latitude the Edge people are given in who they can offer their advantages to, but so far, it's been a different person every time. This week, noted Survivor history buff Natalie decided — completely of her own volition and certainly not prodded by producers who were eager to roll out archival footage of Sarah successfully using the exact same advantage — to offer the vote steal advantage to Sarah. This decision of course made total sense, since neither Natalie nor her close ally Jeremy had ever played with Sarah, and she was on the opposing tribe.


In "evolving", the show has just gone back to the bad old days of Panama and Cook Islands, except they've multiplied the problem times fourteen episodes. But hey, at least there's a shiny new trinket every week, right?


It's a bit of a baffling choice, because one of the most-praised late-season developments in Island of the Idols (admittedly a low bar) was the treasure hunt Tommy and Dean undertook on Island of the Idols in the finale. A treasure hunt that the entire tribe potentially could have participated in, had they figured out the clues as Tommy did. A treasure hunt that had to be conducted with other tribe members potentially present. In broad daylight!


That's a much more fair and equitable system for distributing idols and advantages. Just put everything in camp! It gives the tribe something to do, and gives everyone a shot to find something.


No time for the actual game

No time for the actual game


Not only is access a problem with the advantages on Edge of Extinction, but this episode, production (for no discernible reason) decided to further drag out the process by forcing poor Sarah to invade Sele camp in order to actually retrieve the advantage. An advantage, it should be noted, that she had already paid for with her fire token. An advantage that, after she had paid for it, could have been found in the torches by anyone at Sele, in which case the official ruling would have been "Oh well. Tough luck, Sarah!" An advantage, it should also be noted, that is far less useful than Sandra's three-Tribal idol and Jeremy's "safety without power" advantage.


Sandra's idol and Jeremy's advantage were delivered directly to their respective bags. So why did Sarah have to go through all that? Is it simply because Episode 3 of Survivor is now "the episode where someone has to sneak into the opposing camp at night"? (Episode 3 of Island of the Idols featured Vince doing the same thing.) The time it took to show this completely pointless excursion doesn't come from nowhere, it comes from the regular show.


Perhaps you remember it, it's the one where our beloved former winners are building relationships with each other, whilst simultaneously plotting to vote each other out?


The entire process of getting the Vote Steal advantage to Sarah — from the puzzle on EoE, to Natalie figuring it out, to Sarah receiving the offer, to Sarah finally retrieving it — took 10 full minutes to show. That's one quarter of the episode's entire runtime. That's way too much, especially for an "advantage" whose track record is spotty at best.


Why do this? Especially the ridiculous night-time camp excursion, which the Island of the Idols contestants themselves admitted carried zero possibility of Vince getting "caught," since the contestants are used to producers and camera operators (and wildlife) walking around the camp at night. Sure, it was sorta fun, but most of the entertainment value came from the over-the-top ridiculous training montage with Rob and Sandra that preceded it. And even if it was the most hilarious 10 minutes in Survivor history, why attempt to repeat the exact same joke again in the very next season? Who does that?


True, at least this time we had a few seconds of Tony attempting to apply camouflage makeup (ash from the fire) to Sarah's face. Even so, carving out a quarter of the show for a marginally entertaining side-quest to retrieve a negligible game benefit, takes away time that could be spent watching, say, Tony nearly lose his arm to a baby shark, or climb even more ladders. Or watching Ethan tell Rob he sucked in the challenge, again. Or seeing people maybe discuss what the fire tokens are actually for. Or hearing Sele explain why the hell they targeted Ethan, of all people.


Don't worry, though. There's a simple solution. This is crazy, but hear us out: Instead of these solo expeditions, maybe have a full challenge in which every active contestant on Sele and Dakal can compete, where the winning tribe gets some kind of prize? You could call it a "reward" challenge, maybe? Then maybe make the vote steal advantage available in some way to the winning tribe? Like, hidden under a table or in a napkin, or something. Or have their napkins wrapped in a fancy shell bracelet thingy, and plop a combination-locked chest into the middle of their camp. We're just spitballing here.


True, that sort of thing would probably never catch on in a show like Survivor. Especially on a season allegedly celebrating two decades of its rich heritage. And yeah, we can't have reward challenges, because we have Edge of Extinction. Sigh.


Super obvious foreshadowing alert

Super obvious foreshadowing alert


Despite the above complaints, there were some good moments this episode. The fishing segment at Dakal was so well put together that it deserves special attention. Despite the potential winner's edit he seemed to receive in the season premiere, this was a chilling vision of things to come for Tyson.*


As Sandra is setting up her net next to Dakal's beach, to enable the tribe to catch fish without actively doing anything, in swims Tyson, expounding on his idea (in confessional) to get himself off the bottom by targeting Sandra, assuring us "toppling the Queen would please everyone here."


We even see (in the shot above) Tyson standing there, watching, right as Sandra says "They get caught, all by themselves." And as we later see, Sandra's net eventually ensnares a shark, which Dakal happily chops up, cooks, and eats for breakfast.


Alas, poor Tyson. We hardly knew ye.


Then again, the symbolism wasn't much better for Queen Sandra.


Super obvious foreshadowing alert


(*Note: Since we have Edge of Extinction this season, short-term doom for Tyson could still end up being compatible with a winner's quote in the premiere, especially considering Tyson is probably the all-around favorite to win a return challenge at EoE. It's probably not the ideal path, but it has been a somewhat successful one before.)


Classic challenges, with a twist

Worlds Apart tree puzzle
WaW tree puzzle


Despite a pre-season announcement/warning that the challenges this season would be "classic" (i.e. recycled) ones that at least one winner had seen before, so far it's happily been more nuanced. The second IC, for example, combined the water obstacle-course bits from the Ep1 RC/IC in Blood vs. Water with the closing ring-toss-onto-oars element from the Ep2 RC/IC in Game Changers.


This episode, we saw an even trickier adaptation. The ending tree puzzle in the IC, which at least one person (ahem) assumed was the same one from One World and Worlds Apart (S30 version above, left), in fact was the same idea, but a different puzzle entirely (S40 version above, right).


That's a smart move by the challenge department, since some players (see, for example, David Wright's spectacular study guide in the Edge of Extinction Ponderosa video) here are likely smart enough to have gone back and studied past puzzles. Having one that looks almost identical but is actually brand-new is exactly the kind of devious twist that production should be pulling on these contestants: Forcing them to rethink and adapt on the fly.


Quarter-point MVPs

Quarter point MVPs


Through the first four boots, Natalie is single-handedly making Edge of Extinction almost tolerable. It's time wasted, but when she's powering through an advantage find, it doesn't feel that way. Her gleeful tossing and/or smashing of Amber and Danni's shell necklaces —to ensure only Natalie had the answer key for the advantage combo lock — was a tactic reminiscent of Rob and Amber's delightfully underhanded, rules-bending first run through The Amazing Race. (Which is of course the show where Nat got her CBS reality start, and she's doing this to half of Romber, so it really is the circle of life.) That kind of creative gameplay energy is what's needed to hide the fact that EoE is otherwise a depleted wasteland where broken souls linger as they wait to pass on from this mortal plane. Which is going to make the season all the more heartbreaking when Tyson gets voted out in the next couple of episodes, blazes through the return challenge, and leaves Natalie behind to methodically acquire still more fire tokens.


Over on Sele, the other most important player has been Tony (also Tony, Tony, and more Tony). Without him, we probably wouldn't have seen anyone on Dakal at all, apart from a perfunctory check-in as Kim found an idol and shared it with Sophie. Tony's manic showman antics are so charming, so unnecessary, and yet so relentless, you can't help but smile. He doesn't need idols or spy shacks. Just give him some bamboo, twine, and maybe a shark or two, and he's good to go! Throw in some pragmatic rationalism from Yul, profanity-laced threats from Sandra, and sardonic commentary from Tyson and/or Sophie? Baby, you got a stew goin'!


Sadly, there are thus far no equivalents on Sele. If there's a scene that defines the entire Sele tribe, it's the silent standoff scene from this episode, where everyone sits around the fire after the IC, staring at each other, not talking strategy. The only story we've been shown here has been losing challenges and voting people out, and despite that (apart from Danni's boot), each time it's been a confusing merry-go-round of chats with no overarching strategy and no sense of what's really going on.The Natalie boot seemed like a last-minute decision. The Ethan boot came out of nowhere. People like Denise and Jeremy seem like they're well-positioned and hold useful tools for the future, but have we ever heard any of their plans for the future? Nope. Rob and Parvati are clearly together, but they're both obvious targets (who paradoxically are never voted against). Maybe things will improve after a swap?


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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