By Dalton Ross
April 22, 2020 at 09:00 PM EDT
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There have been a lot of big personalities on Survivor over 40 seasons. Greg Buis used a coconut phone back in season 1. Shane Powers upgraded it to an island Blackberry on season 12. Wanda Shirk showed up with a song in her heart. Benjamin Wade had dragons to slay. And then you had Philip Sheppard and Debbie Wanner competing in the category of least believable résumé of past employment. They were all super fun to watch in their own weird and wacky ways.

There have also been a lot of incredible gamers over these 40 installments. And we’re seeing several of them this season. Kim Spradlin, Parvati Shallow, Rob Mariano (among others) have all wowed us with their play in their winning (and, sometimes, losing) campaigns, and watching their skill and savvy is a delight.

But it is rare that a single person can rise to the top of both of those categories, being wildly amusing as a big-time personality while also possessing the cunning and guile of a top-flight game player. It’s why what I wrote back during Survivor: Cagayan still holds true today. In fact, it may be truer than ever. And that truth is this: Tony Vlachos is the most entertaining Survivor player of all-time.

Search your feelings, Padawan. You know it to be true. And this week provided all the evidence necessary. In a mere 43 minutes of footage, Tony found an immunity idol after craftily sending off another player, quoted Scarface, wiped out while running through the jungle at top speed for no reason with his bag, got three different people from different alliances to give him Fire Tokens when he was hit with the Extortion Advantage, won his second straight immunity challenge, completely flipped the vote all by himself by breaking people off from different alliances to take out Sophie, and, in the preview for next week, was seen hiding up in the trees in a freakin’ Spy Nest. Again, A SPY NEST!!!

You have players that don’t do half of that in an entire season and Tony did it in three days. He is a madman, a lunatic, and, according to Kim, a “psychotic double agent.” He’s also brilliant. And wildly entertaining. Because Tony embraces the experience unlike anyone else. Even as he was being hit with the brutal Extortion (Dis)Advantage, Tony couldn’t help but smile and laugh, “Extortion is illegal in the States,” he said. “I don’t know why it’s not illegal in Fiji!” Can you see how much fun this guy is having out there? How can you not love it? How can you not embrace it the way Tony embraces every single moment of his Survivor existence?

There are a lot of people to root for this season. There are folks like Michele and Ben, who feel like they need to legitimize their previous victories, and that drive makes me want good things for them. There are players like Kim and Parvati, who were so dominant in previous visits that you want to see them cement their legacies. There’s Ethan, whose potential victory after everything he has endured in his life and done to help others would be the best feel-good story in the history of reality television. There is a reason to root for everyone and a reason to feel positive about any of them winning. I honestly believe that.

That said, certifiable nutcase Tony Vlachos — who has yet to receive a single vote against him in 13 Tribal Councils!!! — winning season 40 against 19 previous champions would be the most spectacular finish imaginable. And I don’t mean to sound like Spencer Bledsoe at a Survivor: Cagayan final Tribal, but the dude deserves it. The guy has been making moves, finding idols, and winning immunities. He has people laughing at his antics. He has nobody voting against him. Quite simply: He is putting on a clinic… while he at the same time probably belongs in a clinic. Nobody mixes nonsense and game sense like Tony Vlachos. He is truly a gift, and as long as he remains on the tribe, he is the gift that keeps on giving.

Now, I’m not sure how alliance partners don’t want to murder him on a daily basis when he does stuff like flipping this last vote, but that’s their problem, not mine. I just get to watch it. Which is why I love him so much and want Tony Vlachos to leave his family and come marry me instead. Then I can go visit him as a Loved One when he returns again for season 50 — Survivor: Champions vs. Challengers. He’ll scoop me up in his arms and twirl me around a few times and say things that make no sense but only make me love him more. God bless that man.

Okay, let’s drill down a bit on a few of the big moments this week.

Lighting a Fire

First off, very cool moment by the editors in terms of showing Jeremy back at camp alone talking about “like a flash in the night” right as his fire sparked to life. Well-timed! I actually dug everything about this nighttime scene including Jeremy (who had left Tribal early due to his Safety Without Power advantage) watching the tribe enter the camp, Tony giving Jeremy grief for leaving early even though he was totally planning to vote him out, and then Ben and Jeremy having quite possibly the dumbest argument since “tastes great/less filling” as they tried to convince each other that the other person was the bigger threat. Jeremy told us later that he liked Ben at the start of the game and now “every little thing bothers me,” which I’m pretty sure is exactly how my wife feels about me after a month of quarantine.

Cops ‘R’ Us

The Tony and Sarah alliance over their two seasons has been fascinating. They aligned early in Cagayan, he lied to her about being a cop, finally came clean, but still did what he wanted to do when he wanted to do it. Sarah used some of the lessons Tony taught her to up her play in Game Changers and had a dominant showing as a result. They returned here as clear allies, even though they have provided a study in contrast in terms of their style.

While Tony has been building Spy Shacks and Bunkers and Nests and relying on chaos as his ally, Sarah has been relying on social connections — forming close bonds with folks like Ben and Sophie, bonds that could help her should she make it to a jury vote. And you saw Sarah’s social game in full effect when she morphed into Betsey Johnson before our very eyes with her own Survivor fashion show. Sarah, Kim, and Michele all prowled the runway while Sophie narrated the action.

The juxtaposition was never clearer as we then heard Tony say “I want to do damage, man. I want to play the game” as he launched into a campaign to woo over an on-the-outs Jeremy, Kim, and Michele. Both Sarah and Tony are smart players seemingly going about the game this season in very different ways. And Tony’s willingness to risk burning bridges with Sarah yet again after blindsiding her with the Sophie vote makes their dynamic the most fascinating one to watch moving forward.

Extort This!

Before we get to the latest Edge of Extinction advantage, I want to pause for the cause to acknowledge a quote from Tyson that led off this week’s segment from the Edge: “Some mentalities can handle it, and some can’t. It can ruin people’s lives to lose the game. There are a lot of people that go home and struggle with it for years.”

That’s so true. Sometimes we see the hidden cost of the game in exit interviews and salty reunion shows. Other times we don’t, even when the trauma of not just failing, but failing on national television in front of millions of people, runs deep. Tyson is right in that there are players who never quite recover from it. Having your dreams shattered is no fun, even if you picked up a few Instagram followers along the way.

Tyson also noted that Adam was going to have a hard time with losing. I don’t know if he’s right or not about that, but it does raise an interesting question: Are previous winners better equipped to handle losing because they at least have the comfort of having already scaled the mountain, or are they so used to success in the game that it is even more jarring when things do not align? Sophie’s confusion as to where to go and what to say after being voted off speaks a bit to this. Failure is an unfamiliar feeling for many of these winners, and for people who have only played once and won, it will be interesting to see how they handle defeat.

Okay, jeez, sorry to get all introspective and maudlin there. Let’s get back to the bells and whistles! Yay! Advantages! Fun! And we all know advantages are there to be had on the Edge. After Natalie found a clue in a bottle, she realized she had to crawl under the shelter to retrieve a special surprise. And that surprise was an advantage, which could actually be used by someone on the Edge as opposed to someone back on the tribe — the Extortion Advantage. Basically, Natalie could block one player from participating in the next immunity challenge and from voting at the next Tribal unless they met the payment demands.

And the demands Natalie and Parvati set were exorbitant — six Fire Tokens. SIX! That’s a lot of damn tokens. But I would give all the Fire Tokens in the world to get to watch the next sequence over and over again for the rest of my life. Because not only did Tony completely wipe out in excitement after finding a scroll in his bag, but the change in tone and expression on Tony’s face from thinking he was being given an advantage to extort someone else (“This is great!”) to realizing he was the one being extorted (“This is illegal, man!”) was priceless. It was like watching the exact moment when poor Ralph Wiggum’s heart breaks in two at the Krusty the Clown anniversary special.

But Tony being Tony, he was still able to smile and crack jokes about it. And Tony being Tony, he was also able to convince three other people (Jeremy, Nick, and Ben) to give him tokens so he could still compete and vote. What’s especially amazing about that is he got a token from people on completely different alliances because everyone was sure he was with them. That’s the type of thing that may burn him later, but for now? Gold.

While I am a fan of the Fire Token concept, I’m not a huge supporter of players who have been voted out being able to completely screw someone still in the game over if they want to because they found a bottle with a note inside. What if Natalie had set the price of extortion at 200 Fire Tokens? It’s just giving people at the Edge way too much power. Natalie and Parvati never played a single day with Tony. Why should they be able to completely undo his game when they had zero interaction with him? Not sure if philosophically I can get behind that. I’m not necessarily against the concept of extortion, and we know I am cool with Fire Tokens. I just don’t like that the transaction and massive decision-making power is coming from the Edge.

I do, however, want to give props to Michele for coming up with a pretty sweet lie on the spot. When cornered by Tony about giving him one of her Fire Tokens, she explained that she used them all to buy an advantage that, should she be voted out of the game, she could use at the Edge challenge to get back in. That’s quick thinking that raised no alarms whatsoever, and even though I hate advantages in challenges, I love the deception. More, please.

Pole Position

The immunity challenge this week had the players standing on a narrow beam while balancing a statue at the end of a long pole. It’s fine. We’ve seen variations on this many times before. The reason why I don’t love it is I prefer challenges where it is a little easier to track progress. With the one a few weeks back where everyone had to grab on to the pole for as long as possible, you could see who was sliding down and who was looking steady. In last week’s wobbly table block building, you could track who was in the lead and how that changed as people’s blocks fell. This one, you’re just kinda in till you're out. I’m not hating on it. It’s just not one of my faves. Anyway, it came down to Tony and Jeremy, with Tony winning his second straight immunity.

Last-Minute Strike

The stage appeared set for a Jeremy ouster. And then Tony struck. Telling us “I’ve been patient long enough,” Tony decided it was time to take out Sophie because she was getting too close to his Cops ‘R’ Us ally Sarah. But he didn’t want to give anyone too much time to counter the move, so he waited till right before Tribal before hitting up Nick and then Jeremy with his new plan. Nick was in (although I’m not completely sure why), but it was Jeremy who needed convincing. It’s like the time I tried to convince Jeremy that I would beat him at fantasy football. He didn’t believe me either … until he lost to me in the Rotten Coconutz fantasy football championship. (My sources tell me he tried to use some sob sorry to the referees about his wife being pregnant with another child back at home in the hopes that it might get him a few calls, but it didn’t work on them because they are not a Survivor jury.)

So as we headed to Tribal Council, we didn’t really know if Tony was successful in flipping the script. All we did know is that Sophie Clarke has VERY strong feelings when it comes to filling out college applications. “Nobody wants a résumé that’s super, super long but doesn’t have any quality to it. You don’t want to be like that annoying girl in school who is in Girl Scouts and debate and mathlete and, like, volunteers after school. It’s just very obvious that you are padding your résumé for no reason.” Man, if the whole healthcare consultant game does not work out for Sophie it’s clear she can score a job as the ruthless ax-wielder in any admissions department. Or, alternatively, as the newly installed CEO of IHateGirlScouts.org.

Sophie was clearly the star of Tribal Council, and not just because she despises mathletes, got voted out, and bragged on national television about having an idol in her crotch. It was downright adorable watching her walk the completely wrong way after being voted out, and then almost light her hair on fire while putting her torch in to get snuffed. “I’ve never been blindsided before, and it’s a traumatic experience,” she shared with us, and watching her be so discombobulated at her blindside was endearing for a woman who often comes across as very self-assured.

In truth, Sophie has her own self-doubt like the rest of us. Which is what made her admission that she came into the season believing she was a bottom tier winner refreshingly honest. And it’s what made her further comment that she gained confidence by her performance playing against the best of the best so heartening. I’ve always considered Sofierce to be a very underrated player, and I think she acquitted herself quite well in her return showing — especially with her puzzle-solving.

And hopefully, I have acquitted myself well enough with this week’s recap. Not gonna lie: It’s not my best. I know that. Maybe it’s the self-isolation. Maybe it’s just an off-week for me. Or maybe it’s hard to focus on anything else because 98 percent of my day is now trying to get open delivery windows for online grocery orders so I don’t die while picking up Eggo waffles at my local Acme. WHO’S TO SAY! But even if my effort was only C+ quality this week, I’ll try to make it up to you in the form of an exclusive deleted scene in which Ben talks about the difference between a reality show war and an actual, you know, war. It’s good stuff and you should check it out.

You should also check out my weekly Q&A with Hostmaster General Jeff Probst in which he answers what would have happened last week if Sarah had stolen Jeremy’s vote and then Jeremy used his Safety Without Power advantage, which meant he had no vote. I also spoke to Probst in another article about their plans for the remote reunion and you can see what he had to say about that. And for more Survivor scoop, you can always follow me on Twitter @DaltonRoss and Instagram @thedaltonross. Drop by and say hi!

But now it’s your turn. Agree or disagree with my assessment that Tony is the best mix of big personality and big player that the game has ever seen? Loving or loathing the Extortion Advantage? And does Nick look like a vampire? Weigh in on the message boards and I’ll be back next week with another scoop of the crispy!

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