Survivor: Winners at War recap: Family invasion edition!
“Love. Exciting and new. Come aboard. We’re expecting you!” I can only assume that was blaring over the Fiji Airways loudspeakers as approximately 3,849 Loved Ones boarded their overnight direct flight from LAX to Nadi to visit their dads, moms, husbands, wives, partners, sons, sisters, fiancés, and fiancées.
I understand that song is only supposed to be used on luxury cruise liners that feature yeoman pursers named after burrowing rodents and horny doctors who sleep with half the women on board, but love is everywhere, ladies and gentlemen — be it on sea, on land, or in the air. You can’t stop love; you can only hope to contain it! And this episode of Survivor: Winners at War could barely even do that.
This episode of Survivor was about 44 minutes flat of actual runtime. Of those 44 minutes … I don’t know … about maybe … 25? … were dedicated to the Loved Ones visit this week. Perhaps that annoyed you. If so, I get it. I probably would have been annoyed too before I got old and lame. I’ve written extensively in the past on my evolving relationship with the Loved Ones visit. I used to roll my eyes at all the blubbering messes on my TV screen while soaring piano music played beneath images of people awkwardly running on sand towards each other. I didn’t get it. Is that because I am an emotionless cyborg incapable of mustering an ounce of empathy? I mean, yes, but I also came to better appreciate the emotional toll players go through out there when they are stripped down to the core due to lack of food, sleep, and shelter coupled with the mental strain of trying to make sure a bunch of people you barely know are not constantly lying to your face.
So I get it. Now, that doesn’t mean that I’m impatiently waiting all season for the Loved Ones to show up and have made it my life’s mission to dis and dismiss the Kaoh Rong season for committing the ultimate reality show sin of eliminating the Loved Ones visit altogether. It just means I’ve become less cynical and, in general, slightly less of a jerk when considering the power of these sandy shore reunions. I also am smart enough to recognize that every Loved Ones visit presents the opportunity for some nutjob of a relative, or an actual contestant to lose his proverbial mind at his own flesh and blood (DAMMIT, REED!).
But whether you are a longtime fan of the Loved Ones segment, a more recent convert, or a continued holdout, you had to at the very least be curious about this season’s visit. Because it was unlike any we have ever seen before. Instead of a single spouse, parent, sibling, or wrestling buddy there to tell you your grandmother had died — “She died, dude” may be the three funniest words ever uttered on 40 seasons of this show — you had entire families flying out. Even babies! And little kids who looked like they had no idea where they were and why they were there! And teenagers in New England Patriots jerseys who may or may not have stolen a camera from the crew to film the other players without their consent for a competitive advantage! You had it all!
And it was pretty great. Yes, even when Kim’s kids looked like they were having the bejeezus scared out of them. I loved it when Ben talked about the platform the show had given him to help others. I loved it when Sophie sobbed into her fiancée’s neck. I loved it when the big burly bros were all reduced to quivering messes as they watched other people have their reunions, never mind their own. I loved it when Michele talked about her sister as her roommate, best friend, and soulmate and then told us how “She says that she’s proud of me, and it makes me proud of me to see her say that” because we all know how Michele has struggled with fan reaction to her controversial win. I loved it when Jeff Probst said awkward things like “Let’s get to some more love!” and then seamlessly worked in the Fiji Airways product placement. I loved it all.
Then, instead of having a challenge in which someone would invariably make the huge mistake of winning and then having to deny other players time with their children, Probst let everyone stay. On the one hand, yes, it’s a cop-out. There are almost always huge dramatic dividends paid over the hurt feelings when certain players are not selected to have more time with their special someone. But there really was no alternative here. What are you going to do, tell some of those toddlers that are barely even able to walk that they’re not allowed to spend any more time with mommy or daddy while cameras catch their temper tantrum for all of America to watch? #Nope. It was the right call to ditch the challenge. (They never would have had time to show it anyway.)
As was allowing the folks over at Edge of Extinction to also have a glimmer of hope in the form of a family visit as well. Interestingly enough, even with folks like Parvati, Danni, Yul, and (of course) Rob & Amber who all have young kids, the most moving moments for me were Adam once again allowing himself to be so vulnerable (as he has all season) as he sobbed and hugged his dad, and then Ethan telling his new wife that she was the most important thing in his life and did not want to be apart for a single day ever again.
“Everybody put their guns down for a minute,” said Sarah as her kids played with other tots on the beach. “The war was called to a halt.” I should hate that. I should be yelling “GET BACK TO THE GAME! ENOUGH WITH THE SAP AND CHEESE ALREADY! THERE IS A PUDDLE OF VELVEETA CONGEALING ON THE FLOOR UNDER MY TELEVISION SET RIGHT NOW!” But, honestly, the timing for this episode could not have been more perfect.
Whether you have been quarantining with your loved ones for the past month, or tragically separated from family members who may either be infected or in a facility that will not permit any visitors (I am personally dealing with both of these things right now) — the power and vital importance of family bonds has never been clearer. So to watch these legends of the game get a moment with their families that they will remember forever while we watch it unfold with our own families at home was pretty awesome.
I’m going to go ahead and say it: The super-sized Survivor all-family Loved Ones visit was the perfect medicine for the quarantine blues. The show leaned in hard to it, and I leaned right in with it, right down to that last scene. After Tyson had been voted out (again!), and after we already got our preview for next week, we were treated to a super-rare behind the scenes moment as the jurors not only thanked Jeff Probst for their visit, but full-on bum-rushed the host, and hugged him in appreciation.
Man, what an awesome scene. It probably wouldn’t have made the cut in any other situation in any other season. But this is an anniversary season. And these are all winners who helped make this show what it is over 20 years. So for Probst (sorry, and Fiji Airways!!!) to show his appreciation by bringing out their families (even though they had been voted out), and for the players to show it right back to him with that group hug— how as a Survivor fan can you not love that? It reminds me of the champagne toast that kicked off the season. Moments like that make this installment feel special in a way that a season 39 or season 41 (if that ever happens at this point!) simply cannot, and it was very cool to see Jeff get his own little Loved Ones moment as well … even if it meant getting hugged by Adam Klein instead of his own wife and kids. CLOSE ENOUGH!
Unfortunately, one person who was not a part of that communal love fest was Tyson, who was just voted out. And Tyson could be the one the players should be thanking just as much as Probst. The Blood vs. Water champ told me out in Fiji before the game began that when he was first approached about appearing again, one of his main conditions to consider it was that his daughter Bergen be allowed to visit him. He pushed for weeks for it to happen, and then later all the cast members got an email saying that kids would be allowed on the Loved Ones visit. Sure, it’s possible other players may have pushed for it as well, but it was a make or break condition for Tyson and may be a good part of the reason we were treated to all these moments.
By the way, before we move away from the Loved Ones, it’s worth noting that we had four former Survivor players among the visitors. Tyson’s wife Rachel was on the first Blood vs. Water season while Jeremy’s wife Val and Natalie’s twin Nadiya were both part of the second Blood vs. Water casts. And then Parvati’s hubby John Fincher refused to take his jeans off during water challenges in Survivor: Samoa. So welcome back to them!
Okay, much like the episode was pretty much all Loved Ones, there’s not a lot else to get to. As far as the immunity challenge goes, it was that recent classic where players pull on a rope that balances a wobbly table on which they must stack blocks spelling the word immunity. I actually tried this one out at EW’s Pop Fest a few years ago and am always curious to see which body part contestants use to carry their blocks. Nick went for under the chin, Tony and Kim went with their hands, Tyson and Jeremy went with my method of in the mouth, and I’ve also seen people hold it in their underarm, which, depending on your viewpoint, is slightly more or less gross than putting it in your mouth.
In the end, Tony won his first-ever individual immunity. I have said it before and will say it again: God bless Tony Vlachos, one of my favorite Survivor players ever. Look, we love Tony because Tony is crazy. Go watch his first 20 seconds on the Game Changers beach for evidence. Or his move the other week when he created another spy bunker for absolutely no reason whatsoever. But all that tomfoolery and all those madcap hijinks often obscure the fact that Tony is actually a super smart player. Listen to him at Tribal Council over the past few weeks. The guy has a rock-solid handle on this game and how to play it. And here’s a statistic I never would have believed if you had told me before the season: After 12 Tribal Councils, Tony has zero votes cast against him. ZERO!!!
Maybe that all changes next week. (The promo certainly makes me nervous.) But the fact that Tony has not been targeted at all is stunning. And look at the way everyone was smiling and laughing when Tony won immunity. That shows you just how dangerous he is. If Tony Vlachos can somehow win this season and put himself on the Survivor Mount Rushmore, I will be beyond ecstatic.
Of course, the other big thing to note was another chaotic Tribal Council where all sorts of advantages and idols were at play. Like last week, there were a lot of different names thrown out before they even got to Tribal, and then, once there, the madness only intensified with tons of whispering and side conversations. It all culminated with Jeremy and Sarah humming Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero” in their heads while doing their best reenactment of the tractor game of chicken from Footloose, which is universally recognized as the dumbest, slowest, most non-sensical game of chicken in modern times.
In this version, however, the game consisted of Jeremy and Sarah repeatedly at the same time asking Jeff to pause before voting but then refusing to actually say why they were asking him to pause because they wanted to see what the other person said first. I suppose, in the end, Sarah was Kevin Bacon, and Jeremy was the douchey jerk who jumped off the tractor because he eventually caved. Jeremy went ahead and presented his “Safety Without Power” advantage that allowed him to leave Tribal immediately but not cast a vote.
That was clearly the right move for Jeremy because he was almost assuredly getting voted out. The man didn’t have a choice. However, it will be interesting to see if those he was trying to align with hold it against him at all for ditching them and leaving them short a vote. Which then brings us to Sarah’s Steal-a-Vote. Her using this was also a smart decision because it turned a 5-4 vote (judging by Sophie publicly drawing lines and telling her five to huddle to come up with a plan) into a 6-3 margin.
By moving the vote from 5-4 to 6-3, that meant that the majority alliance had complete protection against a hidden immunity idol because they could put three votes on two different people. That way if one had idol protection (say, Kim), there would still be a 3 to 3 tie and they could vote out their other target (say, Denise) on the revote. Which is what makes what happened with the vote so confusing.
Kim did play the idol but on Denise. Which seemed to make no sense based on the scenario above. (Save yourself!) But what made even less sense was the vote of the majority, because it at least appears that they did not split their votes 3-3. Instead, it seems that 5 votes went on Tyson and only 2 on Denise — meaning someone on the minority alliance flipped — presumably Michele since Kim used her idol, Tyson got voted out, and Denise had no vote —and voted with them because there were only two votes on Sophie.
But what if Michele hadn’t flipped? What if the Sarah, Sophie, Ben, Tony, and Nick contingent put four or five votes on Tyson, Kim had given her idol to Tyson, and then they and Michele all voted for Sophie? Then Sophie would have been out of the game. I still can’t figure out why Sarah and co. didn’t split the votes better just to guarantee their safety. Seems like a weird, obvious thing for them to overlook. (UPDATE: This is confirmed with CBS.com video of the voting. Sarah put one vote on Tyson, along with Nick, Ben, Tony, and a flipped Michele, while Sarah put her other vote on Denise along with Sophie, so if Michele had not flipped and Kim had her played idol on right person, Sophie would have gone home.) Tyson was seemingly just as confused as we were by the whole matter as well, so reacted by giving all of the player Fire Token boxes the finger on his way to Edge of Extinction.
And we are on our way to another episode. But don’t forget about our goodies. We’ve got an exclusive deleted scene from the episode for you of Ben hoping for his first-ever individual immunity win just waiting to be watched. I asked Jeff Probst all about the super-sized Loved Ones visit and that unscripted celebration, and you can read his thoughts in our weekly Q&A. Plus: I asked each of the Winners at War to pitch a future twist for the show and you should definitely check out some of the pretty good ideas they came up with. And for more Survivor scoop, you can always follow me on both Twitter and Instagram.
But now it’s your turn. Were you feeling the love this episode? Which reunion moved you the most? And were you sorry to see Tyson go … again? Hit the message boards to weigh in and I’ll be back next week with another scoop of the crispy!