Jeff Pitman's S40: Winners at War recaps
Winners at war with the game itself?
By Jeff Pitman | Published: January 22, 2020
Survivor: Winners at War Pre-season analysis

Winners at War with the game itself?


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness ....


On the one hand, as we approach the milestone of 40 seasons of American Survivor, we're about to witness the greatest Survivor cast ever assembled, bar none. No cannon fodder. No duds. Every single contestant demonstrably capable of winning Survivor. Not just that, but this is a cast with big characters and big players galore, most of them thrilled at the opportunity to take their game to the next level against a field of legends. Some of whom we never thought we'd see play again.


This cast is something really special, and something we fans rightly celebrate. Normally, at this point in the pre-season (two weeks out from the premiere), we'd be jumping for joy at the chance to project the likelihood of winning for each contestant, especially with a never-before-seen format like this. They're all former winners! A battle for the ages! Except ...


On the other hand, we have Jeff Probst, who insists that Survivor's formula isn't strong enough for a season to *just* have 20 proven competitors, many of them beloved fan-favorites, battling it out under the "Winners at War" banner. Ye gods, what kind of Survivor fan would want to watch that? (Hint: Approximately all of them.)


Nope, even though Survivor franchises the world over repeatedly prove the opposite, Probst is convinced that Survivor is too boring and weak to withstand a season with merely a great cast that knows how to play, plus the usual array of idols and advantages.


A great cast plus *just* idols and advantages aplenty? That would never work! We also apparently need a new way to buy and sell idols and advantages. We'll call it "fire tokens," because "fire is life" and what Survivor really meant when it trotted that phrase out two decades ago was that eventually, we would come to see that these tokens are life. Forget about all that stuff with the torches and the voting people out. We were young and misguided back then. The *real* lifeblood of this show is these trinkets that can be exchanged for other trinkets, following the exchange rates detailed on this printed menu. No more negotiating with Probst and trading away your hammocks! (Additional conditions and restrictions may apply, please see Subsection 2.c. for more details.)


But whatever, fine. Trinkets are life. So at least we can finally get on with this all-winners extravaganza, a spectacle fans have been clamoring to see for at least a decade, right? Phew.


Ha ha! Fooled you! The best cast ever, at least one idol or advantage per episode *and* a new currency and exchange system couldn't nearly be good enough for a season of Survivor to work! Don't be silly!


What this season OBVIOUSLY needs is more ... no, not that, more ... Edge of Extinction.


You remember Edge of Extinction, right? It's that place where fan-favorite returnees like Aubry Bracco and David Wright and Kelley Wentworth were sent, as they transitioned from crushing the game to just being crushed under the misery of sitting on a desolate island for days on end with nothing to do, no shelter, and limited food. Where great characters went to ... not quite *die*, per se, but rather shed a few tears, then never be heard from again. That place where at least the first time around we had Reem Daly giving each bootee the hard facts about the hellhole they'd just showed up to. (Sadly, as far as we can tell, she won't be here this time. Not even in giant statue form.)


Oh, and it was also the twist with the minor added feature of Chris Underwood being voted out on Day 8, taking advantage of the miserable boredom of EoE to (in between naps) build strong personal bonds with each and every juror — outside of the regular game and completely off-camera — then parlaying those connections into a million dollars with four days of work in the finale. Fun times.


So why is this abomination here, then? Why is it besmirching this, the most most highly anticipated season in Survivor history? Good question.


Well, Probst asserts that a few winners would have been reluctant to participate had the second-chance opportunity not been offered. (Sandra casually mentions in her ET Canada interview that Boston Rob was one of them.) Clearly that would have been a huge problem, what with, oh ... 16 other winners to choose from. Imagine if instead of every (pre-2019) winner from the era in which Probst was show-runner (except Fabio, Cochran, and Mike Holloway), we might have had to endure a season with people like fan-favorite Todd Herzog, first unanimous winner Earl Cole, or perhaps even legends like Richard Hatch or Tina Wesson! The horror!


You know what's a bigger disservice to this cast of champions than maybe not having someone who's already played four times? Edge of Fucking Extinction.


Edge of Extinction is actually here because Probst doesn't have faith that Survivor can work any more, not without extensive production micromanagement. Even though Australian Survivor and SurvivorSA consistently churn out entertaining seasons while conspicuously lacking Redemption/EoE. Even though this season is loaded with favorites, Probst is still worried that we'll all stop watching if our favorites are voted out, yet he's also somehow certain that we'll keep watching when they're no longer playing Survivor, but rather held prisoner in a gordforsaken purgatory for up to 12 weeks. And for some reason he's absolutely sure that this, the greatest cast ever assembled, can't be trusted to produce entertaining content. Not without something more to drive the action, and of course, even this new twist of fire tokens wasn't enough.


Nope, it had to also have Edge of Extinction, which is just Redemption Island, except dumber (hooray, a 17-person jury!), a format that Probst has now insisted on trying a whopping FIVE times in the decade he's been in charge. And sure, we can all accept that Survivor should be free to try new things, to keep the format fresh. Heck, even the fire tokens might prove interesting. But Edge of Extinction? THIS IS NOT A NEW THING. It has been tried. And it's failed. Every. Goddamn. Time.


Probst has convinced himself that against all evidence, against repeated fan criticism, that this is the twist the audience is desperate to see — implying we the audience are all apparently too dumb to realize it, and maybe this time the wise and benevolent Probst will finally convince us. Even after it *finally* worked as intended, made Chris the winner with 12 days of Survivor played, and was widely lambasted for that same result. Even after all that.



Is this a season-torpedoing decision? Probably! But there are at least a few glimmers of hope, as we'll get into below. On occasion, great casts have been able to elevate a season beyond the limitations of a poorly thought-through twist or format. It's possible that this particular collection of players, as former champions and avatars of the game's first two decades, will simply rise above the twist and not allow the final Edge returnee to reach the finals. It's also possible, as we'll explore below, that one twist might cancel out the other, producing a similar rejection of the format.


Are the chances of these better outcomes great? Not really. But at least we have a cast of winners we can watch as we find out.


Fire tokens to the rescue? Maybe?

Fire tokens to the rescue? Maybe?


There is a (perhaps miniscule) chance that one of the twists Probst tossed onto the house of cards he's built — including final three, F4 firemaking, idol nullifiers, and idols that remain active through the final vote-out — may end up being the one that finally causes it all to collapse in on itself, and reverse the curse of Edge of Extinction. That chance? The fire tokens.


As Probst has explained the system thus far in the pre-season press, everyone gets one fire token at the start of the game, and when they're voted out, they must bequeath however many tokens they've acquired to someone still in the game. Once they reach Edge of Extinction, the ex-contestants can find advantages there. Those advantages can then be sold to people in the game in exchange for their fire tokens. Prior to a re-entry challenge from the Edge, those tokens can *then* be redeemed for an advantage in that challenge. That's still probably not enough of a boost for, say, Sandra to win her way back in, but you never know, it might be.


How is this a potential silver lining? It depends on how much of an advantage the fire tokens can purchase in that challenge. If it's huge (think Abi-Maria sitting out the first two elimination rounds in the Ep11 IC in Philippines), that might change the calculus for how the jurors view the final returnee's performance. You could imagine a scenario where the advantage-wielding player, despite a massive headstart, just barely edges out one or even several players who had no advantage. That might be enough for the win to be viewed as tainted or otherwise unearned, at least in the eyes of the jury. Especially if the EoE-returnee then drifts into Final Tribal via the flotation device of a free F6 idol, F5 idol play/IC win, and F4 firemaking. Could we actually see an Edge person reach the finals, and then *not* secure a majority of the jury votes?


Don't get your hopes up. But it's theoretically possible, right?


After all, a jury full of newbies did just crown a guy who won no immunities and played no idols or advantages, over two people who did. Even as recently as Worlds Apart, idols were a relatively rare commodity. Despite a lineup stacked with every winner since then (except the last two), it's not out of the question that a plurality of the jury would view a gimmick-laden end game with disdain, with or without EoE. And there's a chance — a very small one, but a chance nonetheless — that they'll view EoE as one of those gimmicks, even after spending time there themselves.


These are, after all, the winners of the first two decades of Survivor. None of them came back from Redemption/EoE to win the game, and three of them (Rob, Sophie, Tyson) intentionally prevented someone from doing so. They're also representives of, and avatars for, the game as it was in the first 40 seasons. Are they likely to collectively reject that game, and embrace the unfair advantage in jury management that the Edge presents? Fingers crossed, they may do the right thing.


There's also a chance that, since they all watched Chris's win in Edge of Extinction, one or several players may try to game the new system, and actively try to get voted out early, to reap those sweet, sweet EoE jury rewards. Tyson was willing to draw rocks and risk being sent to Redemption in Blood vs. Water, because he was confident he could win his way back in. That's a much riskier proposition here, with a potential 15-person final re-entry challenge (vs. a few three-person duels), but he's smart enough to weigh those odds and seize the opportunity if it presents itself. Plenty of other people could make those same calculations.


Again though, the format might work against itself in this scenario: If a bunch of people actively try to get sent to the Edge, they can't all be the one person who gets back in. Those who try and fail may be petty, or belatedly realize it was a dumb idea, or otherwise have regrets that force them to withhold rewarding that strategy with two million bucks.


It *could* happen. Is it likely? Not really. We can only hope.


Note: Putting EoE on this particular season may also partly be a cynical ploy to drum up support for the format. Chris's win in Edge of Extinction was poorly received in part because the editors intentionally cut him out of almost the entire season, so nobody really had any rooting interest in him when he won. Here, a former champion who comes back from EoE to win the game a second time is likely to have *some* pre-existing support, and heavens help us if that's someone already massively popular, like Rob or Parvati. US Survivor would never *not* have EoE again.


Okay, fine, but what if these winners *do* vote for someone who played all 39 days?

What if they vote for someone who played all 39 days?


Tommy's win last season demonstrated that this is still a realistic possibility. Staying in the game for all 39 days is the competition that all these people won before. (Tina, who stayed in for 42 days, is not here, sadly.) If any group of contestants is likely to reject the twists and trinkets and instead reward traditional Survivor social/strategic gameplay, this cast is one of the likeliest to do so. And our finalists could all be people who were never voted out. If that happens, who wins? Who is the most likely to sneak through the threatiest field of threats that ever threatened?


Everyone here faces a tough balancing act: They need to not be seen as an individual threat, and not have too many obvious close ties to the other players, but still be socially adept enough to form solid bonds with those other players. Boston Rob has already played on a season with five of the other people out here, was on a tribe with four of them, and close allies with three. In contrast, 11 people — more than half the cast — have only played one season, and all of those except Natalie have never played with anyone else here. That's a huge difference. We expect the balance of power will probably tilt to the latter group.


So how might all of this play out? Well, in terms of reaching the endgame without being voted out, let's go from least likely to most likely.


The biggest targets: Rob and Sandra

Sandra and Rob


This season, there's no more obvious target than Sandra. She's the only two-time winner (so far), but there are 19 other people who would love to become the second person with that distinction. Nineteen people who just have to vote Sandra out, to bring that dream one step closer to fruition. Nineteen people who, every day Sandra stays in the game, have to consider the possibility that she could instead become the first three-time winner, and on their watch. Not to mention that she's not much of a challenge asset, and the highlight of her recent run on Game Changers was her in-camp mischief making, when she sneakily pitted JT and Michaela against each other.


Sandra's a great player, and as eveidence of that, she made it through four Tribal Councils without being voted out in Game Changers, despite coming into that season with just as big of a pre-game target. It's not impossible that she'll prove similarly nimble here, but there were only two other former winners in Game Changers. (Both of whom she outlasted!) Here, it's a 19-vs-1 scenario, which seems like a bit more of a mismatch. On the plus side, if Sandra takes over Reem's role as Queen of the Edge, at least she'll have a new tiara to add to her crown jewels collection.


Boston Rob can't be far behind on everyone's list of prime targets. This is his fifth season as a player, and this time, he's not surrounded by a collection of gullible newbies who just want to be told what to do, whether it's building a shelter or ratting each other out for speaking to the other tribe. Nobody's going to want Rob "mentoring" them, especially if they're aware, as Tyson seemed to be in his pre-game interview with ET Canada, that's what Rob and Sandra just finished doing on Island of the Idols. Rob at least is useful in challenges, but so are most of the men (and women) out here. In a normal season, he'd be an easy first target. But once again, Edge of Extinction rears its ugly head here.


It's risky sending Rob to Edge of Extinction early, because he'd likely thrive in the provider role there (as Chris did), and if he's one of the first arrivals, he gets to set the tone for how EoE functions, which plays into his strengths. Furthermore, as the all-time leader in individual challenge wins, Rob has a decent shot of returning to the game at Final Six. But leave him in the game too long, and you risk Rob working his magic and running things anyway, especially with so many of his friends present. The best Rob-countering strategy? Leave him in until just after the merge, target him as a physical threat, and hope he doesn't make it back in. (A.k.a. the Joey Amazing approach.)


The Villains and other legends

The Vilains and other legends


In addition to Rob and Sandra, their Heroes vs. Villains tribemates Parvati and Tyson are also here for their fourth appearances. Parvati is a massive social/strategic threat that everyone rightly worries about. Her last two times playing, she's been a potential first boot who instead made it all the way to the finals, earning jury votes both times, and winning once. It will be interesting to see how Parvati the 36-year-old new mom approaches the game differently than did Black Widow-era Parvati. Could there be room in this game for all of us to find out? That seems unlikely, but she'll probably avoid being a first boot target this time, at least.


Tyson seems to be drawing concern mostly due to his friendship with Rob — Yul listed Tyson as his ideal first boot to Dalton Ross for precisely this reason — but he's definitely a threat in his own right (his pre-game rumor-mongering in his ET Canada interview is gloriously devious). And you never know, his unique mix of lighthearted antics and coldhearted skullduggery might still fool a few of these people. It has been 13 seasons since he last played, after all.


Overall, though, it's probably an easy consensus decision to just get rid of all the people past or nearing 100 days of Survivor played ASAP, right? (Amber also gets lumped into this group because she's married to Boston Rob, and likely knows most of the same people, although in her ET Canada interview, Sandra claims she had never met Amber before.)


If they're smart, people will also worry mightily about Kim, even though she's only played once so far, and Tony, who's played one and a fraction seasons. Both of their wins were so dominant, albeit in different ways, that they're still talked about reverently today. Kim is the complete package, a social and physical threat, who had everyone (except Troyzan, apparently) on One World convinced she was their best friend for life. Even after she'd voted them out! Despite everyone knowing all that, Kim may still be able to charm and disarm people here into keeping her around way longer than they ought to. Don't sleep on Spradlin-Wolfe.


It's difficult to imagine Tony having the run of the idol-finding field to the same extent he did in Cagayan, not against this set of veterans. Furthermore, his Day 1 bull-in-a-china-shop antics were so intimidating that they earned him a quick exit in Game Changers, and it's unlikely anyone will give him another chance to fill up his bag of tricks here. But if they do ... (no, no, we can't even bear to think it). Sigh. At least we'll always have Cagayan.


The no-longer-stealth players

No longer stealth


People whose wins depended heavily on deception will face a much tougher road this time. Surprisingly, that's a particularly small group, with just Sarah and Nick (although Brian Heidik would also have ended up here, had he been invited).


In Game Changers, Sarah switched up her game from being Cagayan's most trustworthy cop to "playing like a criminal." She convinced most of her tribemates that she was their best friend, then ruthlessly stabbed them in the back (Sierra, Andrea, and more). She was called out for these actions by the jury, but they still gave her the million, because at least she owned these moves, unlike some of her co-finalists. The problem is, trust is hard to get back in Survivor once it's been broken. How can Sarah zig back to coming across as a straight-up person that other people want to ally with? That's a big ask. Michele told Dalton Ross that Sarah is her first target among the women. She probably won't be the only one happy to vote Sarah out, rather than hassle with trying to figure out which game she's playing this time.


Nick's deception was far less egregious, but he played up his Kentucky roots and downplayed his being a lawyer in David vs. Goliath, which successfully reduced his perceived threat level. Unlike Sarah, he was pretty loyal overall, at least until he turned on Gabby and Christian, and didn't make much of an effort to prevent Davie being voted out (although he — cleverly — raised a suspiciously public fuss after the fact). But these small deceptions, coupled with an advantage find and a late-game string of immunity wins, make Nick appear more threatening than he originally did to his Day 1 David tribemates. He probably has a lot more room to maneuver than Sarah does, but as the most recent winner here, his season will be fresh in everyone's minds. Recency bias and question marks about trust probably aren't a great combination.


The solo players

The solo players


Ethan and Yul are sort of on an island of their own here. (Sadly not one with giant statues of their heads ... or perhaps thankfully, since they wouldn't be competing then?) They're both well-regarded as players, and even more universally revered as decent human beings, but with no obvious ties to anyone else out here. Does that help them, or hurt them?


The last time he played (in All-Stars), a 29-year-old Ethan was immediately targeted as a former winner. Obviously, he won't have that problem this season, since everyone else is also a winner, and he's now 44, so he's less of an obvious physical threat. He brings with him a reputation as a hard worker, dependable ally, and all-around solid dude. Working against him is his story of twice beating cancer, which may (like Elaine and Janet last season) make Ethan the kind of player nobody is willing to go up against in the finals, and thus an obvious late-game target. In his pre-game press, Ethan has floated the idea of an alliance with Adam, which seems like a solid plan, since Adam is much better connected to the recent winners. Luckily they start out on the same tribe. Could that provide Ethan the footing he needs to go deep? Maybe!


Yul is in a very similar situation. He returns to the game perceived in much the same way: as an honest, dependable nice guy, with a similar lack of visible ties to anyone. Yul last played 14 long years ago, but from his pre-game interviews, he feels unburdened this time around, excited to a play a more devious game, now that he's not having to represent all Korean-Americans. It's Yul's voice we heard in the post-IotI trailer, musing over the many layers of deception fire tokens could add to the game. Yul is one of the smartest people out here, and if anyone can turn a new twist to his advantage, it's probably Yul. But can he build as solid social connections as he did in Cook Islands, when conditions outside of their control forced the Aitu Four to band together out of necessity? He's starting basically from scratch, so we'll see.


No matter what happens, it's fantastic to have Ethan and Yul back playing Survivor again, and it'll be exciting to see how they adapt to the modern game. If they can find people to work with, they each have a decent chance to do well, Edge or no Edge.


The physical threats

The physical threats


Wendell and Natalie are probably the most physically adept people out here, well-suited to the standard array of balance/endurance snoozefests that the challenge department has apparently decided are top-tier entertainment. If Tyson lasts for a reasonable amount of time, he is too (unless he mysteriously develops another shoulder injury). Maybe even Kim, whose One World challenge dominance still ranks in the top 10 for a single season, although it has been eight years since she last won a challenge.


As soon as the merge hits, these are the people who will likely be heading to the Edge, the same as happens every season. Although ... with a cast of winners, they are almost certainly far more aware of the need to downplay their physical strength early, at least relative to your standard cast of newbies. Still, they can't all be throwing every pre-merge challenge. Someone has to step up and win, eventually. And whoever does step up will fall down after the merge.


Still, as Rob Bentele just demonstrated this year in SurvivorSA: Island of Secrets, a physical threat can still go all the way, as long as they have a solid group of loyal allies. All of the people in this group have achieved that in the past, so it's certainly possible they could do so again.


Alternatively, while this group doesn't have a great shot at reaching Day 39 without being voted out, the upside of being a physical threat in an Edge of Extinction season is there's a pretty good chance you'll just win your way right back in again. If the final returnee gets another free idol good for the F6 Tribal Council, they then just have to win ONE more challenge at F5, in which they're probably the favorite. Then the worst-case scenario is firemaking, and Wendell (for example) has already succeeded at that once. It's not an ideal path to the finals, but it's far from an unlikely one.


The underestimated

The underestimated


Michele won a season in which the edit did her no favors, largely ignoring her strong social game in favor of Tai's chicken-related shenanigans (and of Tai just being his entertaining self) and Aubry's compelling underdog comeback story. As such, Michele's well positioned here, because while she's clearly social, nobody will be thinking of her as a threat.


Sophie and Denise enter this contest with similar first games, and with neither having played in seven years. Both are smart, capable longtime fans who kept their heads down, won challenges when necessary, and let more bombastic personalities (Coach, Skupin) take all the bullets at Final Tribal, securing themselves a convincing jury victory. Danni played a very similar game in Guatemala with Stephenie LaGrossa as her jury shield. (As did Amber with Boston Rob in All-Stars, but after an on-CBS wedding, four kids, and two tours of TAR together, the hiding-behind-the-goat comparison sort of falls apart after the All-Stars finale.)


For the men, Adam, despite winning the jury vote unanimously, was seen as the second-best choice after late-breaking non-finalist David Wright. And don't forget Ben, whose win is still a sore point with the fanbase, as it depended heavily on surprisingly plentiful and well-timed idol finds and the even more surprising replacement of the final vote-out with mandatory fire-making. Both Adam and Ben also had emotional backstories that may have helped sway a jury vote or two. Jeremy also fits in here to some extent, due to the perception that his tearful Final Tribal performance aided his (like Adam's, unanimous) jury victory.


All of these people are probably viewed as minor threats at worst. Or numbers. But they're clearly not. Just like everyone else here, they won the game once, and if they're overlooked for too long, they could well do so again. They're also coming into this season as the most likely people to last all 39 days without being voted out. They should be helpful in early tribal challenges, and they won't be at the top of anyone's threat lists. Who's targeting Michele on the first vote, when they could take out Parvati or Boston Rob instead?


As long as this season doesn't end up with the default outcome of the final returnee from Edge of Extinction winning the whole thing, the most likely victor of this all-winners season probably comes from this group, the underestimated players. If not one of the underestimated players, then at least someone playing for just their second time. They're the majority of the cast (11 to 9), and hold a 6-4 advantage on the blue tribe (Sele), and are tied 5-5 on the red one (Dakal). Despite perceptions, these people have all the tools they need to win again.


Will the game allow them to use them?




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

Other Winners at War pre-season cast info and interviews

  • Dalton Ross at (1/20): (Index of all Survivor-related content, with pre-game interviews)
  • Gordon Holmes at (1/21/20): (Index of Gordon's articles, with pre-game interviews)
  • Sangita Patel for ET Canada (1/15/20): Winners at War pre-season interviews & previews (YouTube playlist)
  • Mike Bloom for (1/15/20): "Survivor Season 40: Everything We Know So Far" (includes links to individual contestant previews).


Other TDT pre-Winners at War writings

  • Dan Otsuki (1/9/20): "Winners at War cast assessment"