By Dalton Ross
February 12, 2020 at 10:00 PM EST
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Each week, host Jeff Probst will answers a few questions about the latest episode of Survivor: Winners at War. Here, he weighs in on the two-hour premiere, including the marooning, the two voted-out contestants, and other key scenes. Also make sure to watch our video interview with Probst above, taken just after the second Tribal Council.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: After getting the cast all liquored up, you threw them into an immediate immunity challenge. Tell me about the discussions you all had about wanting to start the season off with something big.
JEFF PROBST: Our original idea for the opening challenge in Survivor: Winners At War was a truly brutal idea that involved a cage and a rising tide. The Cheurlin Champagne toast was originally going to be a misdirect. But as we developed the cage idea, we decided it was not in the spirit of what we wanted to do. But we fell in love with the champagne toast! We saw it as a legitimate way to say “thank you” to the players for representing us in our 40th season. The funny part of the champagne toast was that when I went to hand each person their glass, they all started eyeing the glass for some kind of a clue or twist. That’s the mark of 20 players who were in game mode from the opening moments.

We then put them right into a very physical challenge. This was by design. We wanted them to know that in order to win, you would have to earn it. Every. Step. Every. Day. When you take into consideration that a lot of these players are significantly older, some have endured health issues, a lot of them are moms — some of them very new moms — it was a pretty demanding way to start the game. But wow, did they deliver. That was pure adrenaline, and it was exhilarating to be a witness to it.

That was downright scary watching Boston Rob take Ben’s milk money like that with the pressure he put on him to gain information about Danni throwing his name out. We saw Rob do similar things in his Redemption Island season against newbies, but what’s it like to see him do that to a former winner?
I don’t know which was more impressive — Rob’s ability to get the information from Ben… or Ben’s spot-on fear/awareness that it was going to happen in the first place. This is an example of why this season is going to be exceptional. They are all so damn smart. Ben is an incredibly aware player, and he’s a very nice human on top of it. And… Rob has a great ability to read people and situations, and he can sense what each person needs in order to give him the information he wants. He knew how to handle Ben… and it was fascinating to watch it work. And how charming is Ben when he explains how it happened and he’s literally laughing while talking about how he gave up the information? I think you will see me reflect this feeling a lot this season — I really loved having all 20 of our players out there because they each bring a unique flavor to the game.

Natalie didn’t appear to really do anything wrong except have a close connection to Jeremy. Is there anything she could have done to save herself?
I think Natalie was the victim of timing. The paranoia got so high that first Tribal Council that it was a bit like musical chairs… which direction will the vote be going when the music stops? If we had pushed Tribal another day, we would have probably had a very different vote. The players were on fire straight out of the gate. No player can be overlooked. Every single person has proven they know how to win. Nearly 600 have played, only 38 have won. That’s a massive stat. Natalie didn’t do anything wrong. She couldn’t help that she has a friendship with Jeremy, in the same way Rob can’t avoid having his wife out there. These out of game personal relationships are going to play a part in the game this season. Fortunately, Edge of Extinction is back! Ha! So Natalie is still alive… and I know fans love that.

When Redemption Island was in play, if you had to go there you wanted it to be as late as possible because that meant you had fewer duels to win to get back in the game. With the new Fire Token currency added into the game, is there a strategic incentive to go to Edge of Extinction early so you have less competition to gain tokens for rewards and advantages that could help you later?
It’s a complicated question because it really depends on your point of view about how to play the game. I can tell you this: Edge of Extinction was my idea, and I would never want to go there. It’s brutal. We do our best to show how hard it is, but we don’t have enough time in our episodes to do it justice. It’s horrible. Everything is hard. You get nothing for free.

So yes, going there early gives you more opportunity to earn tokens and find advantages, but it also means you have to survive on the Edge for much longer. And I do think that no matter how things play out on the Edge of Extinction this season, there is no hiding the fact that everybody saw Chris come back and win, and nobody wants that to happen again. I think it will be extremely difficult for someone to win from the Edge of Extinction, no matter what kind of story they bring back. And yet I know for certain that every single player is grateful that we have it because they all want the assurance of a second chance.

I found all the talk that Yul first introduced about the poker player alliance to be pretty fascinating because you all typically don’t show a lot about stuff that happens outside the game in returning player seasons that can impact what happens in it. However, you all really focused in on this story line and even showed a clip from the poker tournament to illustrate it. Tell me about this decision to show how the game outside the game can impact the one that takes place inside it?
There was no avoiding it. It’s a real issue. There is a Survivor “club” that you join once you play, and it results in every player becoming a part of a larger Survivor family. Players often go to charity events with other players, or meet extended family members, or date each other, and sometimes they play poker together. Those relationships are real. They will have an impact this season. The decision to show the footage from the poker tournament came in the edit bays, and for that you have to credit our producing teams. Every team is empowered and encouraged to try new things. To really go for it! And that courage to explore results in lots of fun moments like that one!

We saw even new players marveling at the speed of the game, and Amber seemed almost unnerved by the pace and antics of people like Tony. Was this just a case of someone from the older era not being able to adapt to the new one?
Nope. I think every player felt it as deeply as every other player. There was no acting going on. It was panic. “Why is nobody talking to me? Why is everybody talking to me? Where did everybody go? Why won’t anyone leave? It’s me. It’s me, isn’t it? Tell me, is it me? Oh my God, it is me!” I felt it and I’m not playing. You could even see it in the faces of our reality teams as they got off the boat back at base camp at the end of a day. They were beaming with joy, but they were hunched from exhaustion. It took a toll, in the best way, on everybody.

Pretty epic start to an epic season. What can you tell us about next week?
This is something else you’re going to hear me say a lot… next week is even better! It really is. I really don’t want to tease anything. I hate teases. It’s so much fun when you just experience it. Can we just leave it at that? Just trust me. It’s really fun and really good.

Watch our extended interview with Probst taken right after the second Tribal Council at the top of the post. Also make sure to read our premiere recap. And for more Survivor scoop, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.

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