Survivor Winners at War recap: Double elimination smackdown!
Two winners have their torches snuffed, while another prepares to reenter the tribe. Plus: updated season rankings!
Today is the day where I update my Survivor season rankings. It’s always a daunting task placing a new installment in the Survivor season hierarchy. To this day, I still have players upset at me for where I ranked their season. Fans, on the other hand, have always recognized that it is merely one person’s opinion and that a difference of opinion is actually a good thing because life is boring when everyone thinks exactly the same. Fans never get worked up about it like players do. KIDDING!!!! They yell at me all the time! I don’t know why, but they do! And look! Now I’m yelling too! What is wrong with me?!
So what should I do with Winners at War? Well, in the fortuitous timing department, it turns out I bought this super-rad 50-50 coin for 18 Fire Tokens, a bag of almonds, my first-born son, and three copies of the Survivor DVD Blast Trivia game. It says that if I flip the coin and the “YEA!” side comes up, then I celebrate Winners at War for having the best cast in Survivor history, for introducing the concept of currency (which‚ after the kinks are worked out, could provide a rich new layer of the game), for showcasing the most dominant 3-day stretch by a player ever on Survivor, for giving us a beautifully produced segment of people carrying a bunch of logs, for showing us someone being told she was not a threat then using the idol the person who told her that gave her to vote the show’s only two-time winner out of the game, for providing one of the most remarkable challenge comebacks on record, and, finally, for the fleur-de-lis. There were so many entertaining people and things about this season.
But if I flip the coin and the “NAY!” side comes up, then I bitch about a system in which voted out people not only still have a chance to win the game, but the earlier you get voted out, the more of a chance you have to return due to more opportunities to win advantages, and I moan about players already voted out getting to screw with the games of players still in it, and I complain about all the whispering at Tribal Council giving players an easy out where they no longer have to thread the needle in terms of saying things they hope are picked up on by certain people and not picked up on by others, and I whine incessantly about the editing, which for large swaths of the season left me a bit clueless as to who was aligned with whom and why. (Wait, Nick is somehow in the Sarah and Tony fivesome now, but Michele is not? Huh?) There was a lot of action this season, but it was also very busy. And that busyness sometimes left me a bit lost in terms of the overall flow and where players stood in relation to each other.
On which side will the coin land? Alas, not unlike Jeremy Collins, I think I’ll put the coin away and find a middle ground in between. There’s still a lot for me to ponder, so let’s go to the action this week before revealing the freshly updated season rankings and where Survivor: Winners at War falls (at least for now…until it is updated after the finale). Get your butter knives ready, everyone, as we take a stab at all the big moments from this week’s two-hour penultimate extravaganza.
Planting the Sarah Seed
I asked each of the players before the game who they wanted out first. There’s a reason why Sarah Lacina received the most votes, and we all saw it right here. Ben and Jeremy had been locked in a bitter feud since…well, I have no idea. I don’t even know why they were feuding. I wish someone would tell me because I swear it seemed like they were fine…and then not fine. No clue why. Anyway, Sarah knew that Ben wanted Jeremy out more than anything in the world and that since Ben went along with Tony’s plan to get Kim, they needed to let Ben dictate the next vote. Or at least think he was dictating it.
So she went to Ben and talked up Nick as a major threat and then — in some sort of maneuver that was half “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for” Jedi mind-trick, and half the entire plot of Inception — got it to stick! Next thing we knew, Ben was the one pitching Tony on taking Nick out instead of Jeremy, to which Tony replied, “Whatever you say…whatever you want!” Of course, what would happen at the immunity challenge would change all that, but it was another reminder that while Tony may be a lot of flash and sizzle (and Lord knows, I love him for it), Sarah is a true stealth assassin and one of the best to ever play this game. She really does need to be considered part of the group. The other winners clearly thought so with how scared they were of her before the game began, and yet here she is — still on the tribe on day 35.
The Electric Slide
The first immunity challenge of the night had the players race up to a structure, toss a ball on an overhead track, and catch it on other side. When they got both balls through, they would have to dig and go under a bar and then finish a slide puzzle. (I tried a prototype of this slide puzzle in the challenge office. They gave me 10 minutes to solve it. I did not.)
There are a few things worth pointing out about this challenge other than my lameness at puzzles. (LOOK, I AM NOT A VISUAL LEARNER!!!) I want to give props to Ben (and then Tony) for going all Chuck Norris and kicking the sand by the bar they had to dig under. It reminded me that I once paid actual money to see a Chuck Norris movie called Invasion U.S.A. that Roger Ebert dubbed “a brain-damaged, idiotic thriller, not even bad enough to be laughable."
I want to give a special shout out to Michele for providing hilarious background imagery of a person flailing and failing to throw a ball on a track while the others in the foreground worked diligently on their slide puzzle. And I also want to give a shout out to Probst for his play-by-play, which included this gem: “Tony moving much more slowly this time as if he actually understands what he is doing!” (Narrator: He didn’t.)
In the end, Nick won, saving himself in the process.
Jeremy Gets Got
We’ll get into the 50-50 and Jeremy’s exit in a minute, but I do want to pause for the cause to highlight a great conversation at the first Tribal Council. As the players talked about the difficulty of playing a game based on lies, Probst asked, “When the game is over, what does that do to your ability to trust, just in the world?” I’ve talked pretty extensively with players about the psychological whiplash that can happen when being reintroduced to regular society, and it was fascinating to listen to them discuss it here. Ben spoke of having trouble trusting his wife. Jeremy talked about not believing his fellow firefighters whom he had to trust with his life. And, in the most terrifying example imaginable, Michelle gave a harrowing account of NOT BEING ABLE TO TRUST DIRECTIONS TO THE BAR!!!
That’s it. Shut down Survivor. The show has gone too far if human beings now cannot find their way to the bar because they are worried strangers on the street in Hoboken, N.J., may be lying to them about the location of the closest watering hole. IT’S JUST NOT WORTH IT! That said, it was a nice look into how the game impacts players not just while they are on the island, but once they get back home as well. Kudos to producers for including it.
All out of butter knives, Michele pulled out her 50-50 advantage after the votes were cast. Apparently under the impression that he could somehow play the coin WITH HIS EYES, Jeremy did his best Eliza Orlins impersonation by bulging his peepers halfway out of his head, but Michele wisely held on to the coin herself and prepared for her fateful flip. You know, sometimes I manage to convince myself I am a halfway decent person. Maybe I give some money to charity, or I tweet out something really deep that doesn’t have to do with whatever dorky board game I am playing that week. We all trick ourselves into thinking we are better people than we actually are. And then reality comes crashing back down. I was reminded what a P.O.S. I am when I found myself rooting for Michele’s coin flip to come up “Not Safe.” Why would I root for someone to be miserable? Why I would root for bad things to happen to a fellow New Jerseyite? And here’s the even crazier thing: I LIKE MICHELE! She totally won me over with her openness and honesty in our pre-game chat. She’s a great person. And yet I wanted her heart to be crushed on national television. WHY?!?
Maybe part of it is because I kinda felt she was safe anyway and didn’t really need it since the vote was going on Jeremy or Ben. But the true answer probably lands closer to the fact that watching someone’s heart pulled straight out of their chest is simply more riveting television. Why else would I have sat through all five seasons of Temptation Island? Anyway, I’m a terrible person and I guess that is that. However, Michele’s coin landed on “Safe,” she did her special celebratory dance (not the last time we would see that), and Jeremy made his way to the Edge of Extinction.
Interesting game from Jeremy this time. I say that because, like Kim, we got to see a completely new side to his gameplay. The last two times Jeremy appeared he was in control of an alliance until he was either blindsided (San Juan del Sur) or won (Cambodia). This season, however, he was on the outs from the very beginning when his ride-or-die in Natalie was ousted on day 2. This time, he had to scratch and claw just to stay alive. It’s interesting watching players accustomed to a position of power having to recalibrate and play a different way to stay alive. Sure, Jeremy was helped a lot by an advantage sent from the Edge and by mischief-maker Tony to stay around as long as he did, but I still enjoyed watching him walk that tightrope over his last 29 days out there.
(Butter) Knives Out
“I was wondering if you had the balls to come down and talk to me.” He did! Nick did have the balls! But Michele was hopping mad that she had once again been on the wrong side of the vote after Nick sided with the others to take out Jeremy. After telling off Nick, Michele informed us that “They haven’t seen the sassy Michele from Jersey.” YES! Show us the sassy Michele from Jersey! Show us the Michele who can’t decide if she loves Bon Jovi or the Boss more. Show us the Michele who may or may not sport a t-shirt that reads “Jersey Girls Don’t Pump Their Own Gas.” Show us the Michele that asks for directions to a bar, and when some gentleman responds, “Sure, no problem, just take a left at the corner,” she yells “LIAR!” at the top of her lungs. Show us that Michele!
After informing us that “I have been mad more times in this game than a year in my life,” Michele finally made her move, trying to plant her own seed in Sarah’s mind. “It’s one thing to get to the end," she told the Game Changers champ. “It’s another to win it. You want to win it, right?” Michele went on to tell Sarah that if she went over to the jury next, she was going to tell them that Tony was running the show, and that even if that wasn’t true, “perception is reality.”
Make no mistake, Michele was making a threat: You vote me out, I lobby against you with the jury. And I have no problem with that whatsoever. Now, If Michele actually was going to carry out that threat out of spite, that would be one thing, but here she was just using every tool in her toolbox to convince someone to keep her around. Unfortunately for her, Sarah was unmoved. But Michele had an ace in the hole, and it came from the Edge of Extinction.
The Boomerang Effect
Getting voted out of Survivor must suck, no matter how or why it happens. But some vote-outs are more brutal than others. Nick Wilson now joins Tyson (in Heroes vs. Villains) and Sandra this season as people that somehow managed to inadvertently vote themselves out of the game. Tyson did it when he inexplicably decided to change his vote for no reason — leaving a tiny window which the other side then exploited, taking him out in the process. Sandra gave Denise an idol she thought she didn’t need. Denise then used it and voted Sandra out. Nick’s situation may not have been as stark and obvious as that, but the end result was the same.
The whole thing started where all bad things start — on the Edge of Extinction. Natalie found her 12,347th advantage, this one allowing her to sell something to a player still on the tribe who could then put a disadvantage on any other player still in the game in the next immunity challenge. After getting extra Fire Tokens from Michele to help pay for it, Nick spent the eight Tokens and gleefully decided to stick it on Ben, which meant Ben had 30 percent more beam to fill and 30 percent more blocks to stack in the classic domino stacking challenge.
Even with the disadvantage, Ben still came this close to winning, almost catching Michele before she made like T-Rex and banged the gong. It is not unreasonable to believe that Ben would have won had Nick not put the disadvantage on him. Just one problem: Ben was never going to be the target for the group. Michele was. And now that Ben had the disadvantage put on him, Michele went ahead and won the challenge, allowing her to bust out her second celebratory dance party of the night while also giving her immunity. Which meant there needed to be a new target. Can you sense where this is heading?
If there was any doubt at all who would be voted out, that doubt evaporated once we heard these words out of Nick’s mouth: “My plan worked today. I feel like I’m a genius. Ben lost. Michele won. Unbelievable. Everything worked out perfectly.… I feel like I’m in maybe the best position I’ve been in this entire game.” Oof. DON’T MESS WITH THE SURVIVOR GODS LIKE THAT, NICK!!! I KNOW YOU WERE PROBABLY JUST TRYING TO PLEASE A SURVIVOR FIELD PRODUCER IN AN INTERVIEW SESSION, BUT YOU KNOW THAT IS GOING TO BE USED AGAINST YOU ON NATIONAL TELEVISION! THE SECOND THOSE WORDS CAME OUT OF YOUR MOUTH, YOU WERE DONE FOR!
Sure, Nick was smart to point out to Tony that he shouldn’t want to bring Ben close to the fire-making final four, and yes, there was a tilt towards Denise after Tony overheard her campaigning against him while he was perched — and perched really is the only word for it — in his Spy Nest, but in the end, Nick ended up being the victim of his own eight Fire Token-costing advantage and was voted out. And that is a rough way to go.
After the second Tribal Council… the episode was not over! Instead, we went back to the Edge of Extinction, where everyone talked about all the advantages in the challenges they were going to buy. If you are a regular reader of this here recap, you know three things about me: I like knee socks. I don’t like the Edge of Extinction. And I don’t like advantages in challenges. So I really don’t like that Natalie has THREE advantages in the battle back challenge — that’s two more than anyone else, and three more than most people, including Jeremy and Nick, who just showed up there and were totally screwed.
I really like Natalie a lot. She has my respect as a player, a person, and a crazy beast of an athlete. But — as I pointed out in the pre-merge portion of the season — she was rewarded way too much for being voted out first. She had zero or minimal competition for Fire Tokens early in the season and then used her knowledge of 33 days on the Edge to learn every nook and cranny of the island, which led her to this last “throne of stone” that netted her eight more Fire Tokens. She even said herself that she knew the island better than anybody due to how long she had been there. The woman had so any tokens she even bought an extra immunity idol for Tyson!
Don’t get me wrong: Natalie deserves kudos for every advantage she earned, but the first person voted out of the game should not have more opportunities to earn them than other players, along with more knowledge of the island which gave them an even further advantage. Nick lasted 34 days in the game and — like Yul, who was voted out the day before the merge — was punished for staying in the game as long as he did by having essentially no chance to win and get back in. That’s a raw deal.
Worse than that, watching a challenge where someone has three advantages is not very fun. It’s just not good television. Which is why — and I realize I have written these words almost as many times as Probst has yelled, “Come on in, guys!” — THERE SHOULD NEVER BE ADVANTAGES IN CHALLENGES. Think about it: Right now we should all be on the edge of our seat with anticipation wondering who will win the battle back competition. But now it almost assuredly will be Natalie. And then if Natalie does win, will that seem dramatic or exciting? No. But it would have been had she won against an even field. It’s almost as if the show is robbing her of her moment by giving her such a head start that no one will be impressed if/when she wins. And that kinda sucks. A level playing field is not only fairer, but it is more dramatic. Jesus, I’ve been screaming this for a decade now. Sorry for the broken record act, but it’s just too bad watching this moment be dramatically neutered. (Cue Nick now winning the battle back challenge and me having to eat every single one of these words next week. It wouldn’t be the first time.)
By the way, I did ask Probst at the merge battle back about the fairness element of someone who has been at Edge being rewarded with tokens for being there longer while folks that show up later are punished, and this is what he said: “It is a subjective opinion that cherry-picks only one aspect of the Edge. Yes, Natalie has more shots at earning tokens because she has spent more days on the Edge, but living on the Edge is significantly more difficult than living at a tribe camp. I think every player would tell you the same thing. Even the journey to get rice on the Edge is an ordeal. I think every player would prefer to stay in the game as long as possible, regardless of the perceived advantage of having more time to earn tokens. It’s not a science for sure — and I’m not saying there aren’t better versions.”
And Now for Something Completely Different…
So, we had our second Tribal Council, and the show did not end. And then we had people at the Edge preparing for battle, and the show did not end. Because then something truly weird happened. Instead of credits rolling, there was a 6-minute season recap… just kinda reminding us of all the stuff we had already seen. It’s the kind of thing we’ve seen variations of before at the start of season finales, only this wasn’t a finale… and it was 6 minutes long!
I’m not sure why this happened. I guess maybe because the finale is so full they didn’t have time for it there so stuck it here. That would be my guess. But I’m not sure if it really worked. I actually like a little season recap at the start of the finale. It has a sense of everything coming full circle to it and gets me pumped up for the three-hour season ending extravaganza to follow. But doing it at the end of the penultimate episode doesn’t exactly get me pumped up to watch freakin’ SEAL Team or whatever else comes on CBS after Survivor.
Anyway, there it was and here we are, with a final six of Tony, Sarah, Ben, Michele, Denise, and probably Natalie. More than for any season I can recall in recent memory, I am fascinated to see how the jury is going to vote on this one. Will they love the big, brash gameplay of Tony if he makes it to the end? We know how much the players respected Sarah heading into the game, so will they give her the nod for still making it to the end even when so many people were gunning for her? We know Adam and Jeremy are not big Ben fans, but what about the others? Will they appreciate the fact that Mr. Ben Bombs has made it this far without playing a single idol (as of yet)? Michele has not gotten a lot of respect in the game, but everyone is fond of her. Could her likability earn her a second win? And Denise made the flashiest move of the season in slaying the Queen while winning multiple individual immunities. Will that give her the crown?
And then there is whoever returns from the Edge. Before the season started, I asked Jeremy if he would ever go to the Edge on purpose to win over Jury votes, and this is what he told me: “The only thing with that is this is season 40. This is going to be an epic season. For season 40, we want a great winner. If you have someone there on Edge of Extinction and they're just winning over the jury and then they come back and win the game, did they really play Survivor and win the game? Do you know what I mean? And I don't want to take anything away from Underwood, but season 40, this is going to be the champ, you know? They have bragging rights over everything.”
That would lead you to believe that folks on the Edge — especially after seeing how much fan dismay was directed at the season 38 jury for voting Chris Underwood the winner even though he was only in the game for 12 days — would never want to vote for an Edger to win the show’s biggest season ever. But Natalie is Jeremy’s best friend in the game. Will he really deny her his vote if she is the one who makes it to the end, even if she only played seven out of 39 days on a tribe? And will others who formed bonds with the battle back winner be able to separate their personal feelings from the business at hand? Or will they want to legitimize their own experience on the Edge by handing the fellow voted-out player the victory? I do believe that last point plays a big part in it. All the players on Extinction have talked about what a terrible living situation it was, so they may want to honor the person who made it out of there as a way of acknowledging the harshness of their own situation. Often that is much easier than attempting to put yourself in someone else’s situation and imagining that.
So I cannot WAIT to see how this jury votes, especially when you consider the pride that could be on the line with the outcome. They know they aren’t just voting for another winner of Survivor. They are voting for the winner of winners. Whoever takes the crown this season could immediately be elevated to the Mt. Rushmore of contestants alongside folks like Sandra, Parvati, and Rob.
But before we can find out the winner, we have to find out where Winners at War will land in my updated season rankings! First off, a reminder that I always do my initial ranking after the penultimate episode because my finale recap is already too much of a monster as it is without tacking on rankings for 40 different seasons after it. That said, the ranking can definitely move up or down depending on what happens in the finale, and I will note next week if a change occurs. Also, don’t take these rankings so seriously. Like, you don’t need to send me hate mail or be mean to each other in the comments. It is one person’s opinion. Nothing more, nothing less.
I never understand folks who get angry when you have an opinion that differs from theirs. I LOVE different opinions. As I have said a million times, who wants to be part of a community that all thinks the same? That’s super boring. It is our diversity of opinions that makes Survivor fandom so fun. Remember: THERE IS NO RIGHT ANSWER! So, yes, feel free to call me crazy when you inevitably disagree with my rankings, but, you know, do it in a fun way. Let’s be bonded by our love of Survivor rather than divided by it. Okay, that said, here are the only Survivor season rankings that matter and everyone else is wrong and I am right, thank you very much and goodnight!
SURVIVOR SEASON-BY-SEASON RANKINGS
(From best to worst)
1. (Tie) Survivor: Borneo
(Winner: Richard Hatch)
and Survivor: Micronesia — Fans vs. Favorites
(Winner: Parvati Shallow)
I’ve gone back and forth with these two over the years. After Micronesia aired, I named it the best Survivor season ever. Upon reflection, while I still considered it the most enjoyable, I also worried I was understating the impact of the first season, which became a national phenomenon. (Yes, Borneo now seems dated and tame by comparison, but it’s the biggest game-changer in the past 20 years of television and you have to do your best to judge these seasons on the era in which they aired.) So then I returned that to the No. 1 spot. If I wanted to watch one season again, it would be Micronesia. If you ask me which is the most important season, well, obviously it’s Borneo. So instead of constantly flipping them, they can simply share the top spot… until I change my mind again.
3. Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains
(Winner: Sandra Diaz-Twine)
The Russell vs. Boston Rob feud made for the best pre-merge run of episodes ever. And the greatness just kept on coming. Filled with huge memorable moments like Tyson voting himself off, J.T. giving Russell his immunity idol, and Parvati handing out two immunity idols at one Tribal Council. Loses a few points for having so many three-timers, though, including a few (Amanda, James) we simply didn’t need to see again. I know many people would consider this No. 1, but it’s all returnees. For me, the fresh blood of Micronesia keeps that season higher.
4. Survivor: Cagayan
(Winner: Tony Vlachos)
Quite simply, the best Survivor season ever with all new players since the very first one (which is only better by the fact that it was the very first one). It was an intoxicating mix of terrific and terrible gameplay in which the big personalities (Tony, Spencer, Kass) weren’t just personalities — they actually were there to play the game. (Maybe not well at all times, but at least they were playing.) The casting was killer, the challenges were solid, the boot order was completely unpredictable, and the creative twists worked (although I was not a fan of the return of the post-votes read idol; thankfully that never came into play). The fact that Woo inexplicably brought Tony to the end with him added one last great “WHAT THE HELL?!?” moment to a truly exhilarating season.
5. Survivor: David vs. Goliath
(Winner: Nick Wilson)
The theme was goofy and the challenges weren’t particularly mind-blowing, so how does this season sneak all the way into the top 5? Casting. Casting. Casting. That’s what it all comes down to. And it’s not just Christian, who was one of the most universally loved contestants of all-time. Just look at this slew of other players and personalities that created great TV: Angelina, Nick, Davie, Gabby, Mike, Elizabeth, Natalie Napalm, even wacky Jeremy. That is an amazing nine out of 20 that I would easily welcome back on another season.
Often, that’s all a season needs. And that really is first and foremost the reason David vs. Goliath became an all-time great. But there were other trophies to hand out as well. The editing job done by producers was perhaps the show’s best ever. They experimented with new techniques that served to freshen up the franchise in its 37th season. They added comedic flourishes that were totally unnecessary yet improved the episodes nonetheless. They cut back and forth between players and stories in ways they never had before. They had a contestant (Dan) talk about the idol he found and then showed how it happened instead of the other way around. This wasn’t reinventing the wheel by any means, but it presented the story in ways we hadn’t seen before — and it worked. We always talk about the show taking risks in terms of creating the story via twists, but now it was taking risks in how it presented that story as well. The result? A top 5 finish.
6. Survivor: Cambodia — Second Chance
(Winner: Jeremy Collins)
The first thing to note about Cambodia is how well all the production twists turned out. Letting fans vote in the cast? Brilliant. Hiding idols at challenges? I think you all know how I feel about that. Tempting people to quit an immunity challenge for a mystery vote steal advantage? Loved it. All the tribe switcheroos? They played out to perfection. The Survivor producers always throw a bunch of twists out there. Usually, some work and some don’t. This season, they all paid dividends.
I also appreciated how hard the bulk of the cast was playing. Usually, you get a small handful of big-time gamers. This season you only had a handful that weren’t going hard (which granted, is somewhat a function of returning player seasons in general). Another plus: The votes were completely unpredictable from week to week, leading to some truly crazy Tribals. Sure, the challenges were a bit blah, but still, a rousing and triumphant success.
7. Survivor: Amazon
(Winner: Jenna Morasca)
Probably the first truly unpredictable season ever from week to week. Some people hate on Jenna as a winner, but she won challenges and played an effective social game.
8. Survivor: Pearl Islands
(Winner: Sandra Diaz-Twine)
Rupert stealing shoes. Fairplay getting drunk at Tribal Council. Osten sucking at everything. It was all delicious. Loses points, though, for the awful Outcasts twist, which also led to a disappointing final two. (Lil? Seriously?)
9. Survivor: Palau
(Winner: Tom Westman)
I loved watching one tribe decimate the other, culminating with Stephenie becoming a tribe of one. And the challenges may have been Survivor’s best ever. What’s interesting about Palau is that we basically all knew Tom would win from episode 1, but it was still gripping nonetheless.
10. Survivor: Winners at War
I already shared some of my thoughts about the season as a whole at the top of the recap, but that was over 8,000 words ago, so here’s a refresher as well as an explanation on the ranking. I’m going to start with some of the issues. Obviously, the season loses points for me due to the Edge of Extinction, but not just for the reasons I always state about how people that are voted out should stay voted out, and how it’s not fair that the earlier you are voted out the easier it is to get back in, and how people that are voted out always bond together against the people that voted them out so that’s not fair either, and blah, blah, blah…. The main problem with the Edge of Extinction is not that. The problem is there were several times where viewers were completely lost as to who was aligned with whom in the game and why, and that is something that might have been cleared up had we had more time on the actual tribe beaches and less time watching people talk about how much the Edge sucks.
Quite simply, the editing was choppy and — like Game Changers — there seemed to be no real flow to the season in terms of tribe dynamics. The lack of a consistent narrative flow was also partly due to all the various advantages and twists at play. One former player (who shall remain nameless) who is not a fan of this season told me his issue is that the storytelling this season did not center around players reacting to each other, but rather players reacting to twists and advantages. Twists and advantages are fun in moderation, but they can tend to overwhelm what is the basic core of any great season —the personalities themselves.
Which, interestingly enough, is why even though Winners at War has its flaws, it still cracks the top 10 for me. Because the players and personalities themselves were A+++. I know a lot of fans were bummed to see all the old-schoolers go early. As an old-schooler myself, so was I. But PEOPLE!!!! Sarah, Tony, and Jeremy are three of the best players this game has ever seen! They’re that good. Respect is due. And Denise gave us an all-time epic move and will now forever be known as the Queenslayer. How could you not be invested in watching these folks do battle? I was. And remember, a great season of Survivor needs not only great players, but great storytellers — because it is the contestants themselves who narrate the action, and this season had the greatest collection of storytellers in Survivor history. Folks like Adam, Rob, Sophie, Tyson, and Michele did a great job of providing entertaining and enlightening and refreshingly vulnerable confessional interviews along the way. The quality of confessional interviews is always the most underrated aspect of any Survivor season, and the ones we got this season were aces.
There were also unforgettable moments like the log carrying contest, which — from a television production standpoint — is one of the best-produced segments in the show’s history. Go back and watch it. It’s amazing on both a technical and an emotional level. The Fire Tokens need some tweaking, but adding a currency to the game is an example of a bold idea that can actually expand strategic decision making in an exciting way moving forward. And Tony Vlachos cemented his reputation as the most entertaining player of all time. Nobody mixes game sense and nonsense more than Tony, and if he can pull off the win while playing as boldly and aggressively as he did, then Winners at War will truly have earned its top 10 ranking.
11. Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X
(Winner: Adam Klein)
With the exception of Caramoan, I’ve never had a season rise so much through the rankings from week to week. When Millennials vs. Gen X started, most of us were like, “Yeah, it’s fine. Not amazing, but not terrible either.” But then things kept happening. And everyone kept flipping on one another. And everyone kept getting blindsided. And everyone kept futilely using their idols for other people.
It was madness and chaos in the best way possible. And what was so fascinating was that (with the exception of Michaela) nobody took their ouster personally. This was a season remarkably free of any sort of fighting whatsoever. None of the ugliness of Worlds Apart or Kaoh Rong permeated the proceedings, even amongst all the lying and backstabbing. Everyone seemed to legitimately appreciate and respect the competition they were going up against, and, as a result, so did we.
What seemed like a so-so cast at first ended up giving us a fair number of breakouts: Michaela, Zeke, David, Adam, Jay. Even Hannah was entertaining with her neurosis. Even Ken was entertaining with his late-game cluelessness. Bret gave us a touching moment where he came out as gay to Zeke. Sunday outsmarted Adam and Hannah with a ruse at Tribal Council. Everyone contributed something.
12. Survivor: Blood vs. Water
(Winner: Tyson Apostol)
The returning contestants playing with/against their loved ones twist added new dimensions and forced players — and us — to think about the strategic elements of the game in an entirely new way. And for strategy nerds like myself, it was like opening a brand new Christmas present each and every week as new layers were revealed.
And although I am certainly no fan of the Redemption Island twist due to the fact that it neuters the show’s most dramatic moment (the vote-off), it is undeniable that the RI element is what led to many of the intriguing strategic decisions of whom to vote out and why. (However, I still can’t figure out why they went with three-person duels — a.k.a. truels — and they definitely should have stopped RI at the merge.) Yes, there was a bit of a lull just after the merge, but all in all, this was a super solid season from top to bottom and a nice change of pace.
13. Survivor: Philippines
(Winner: Denise Stapley)
When you look back on Survivor: Philippines, there were a lot of shake-ups with the voting, but not many jaw-on-the-floor shocking moments. So why is it so high? Because the casting and storylines that developed gave us people to root for and against — something every great Survivor season needs.
14. Survivor: Caramoan — Fans vs. Favorites
(Winner: John Cochran)
A tale of two seasons this was, and I can already hear people yelling that I am putting it too high. But hear me out first before you Russell any feathers. If I was grading this solely on pre-merge episodes, this would be waaaay down the list due to the emphasis on big personalities (Shamar, Brandon, Phillip) as opposed to big gameplay. It was flat-out grating. But everything post-merge was spectacular. There were moves and countermoves galore down the homestretch. The same way it is more important for a sports team to play well in the second half of a game as opposed to the first, a great season needs to build momentum, and Caramoan definitely did that with six fantastic episodes in a row.
It’s much more important to finish strong than to start strong, so I definitely put more weight and emphasis on post-merge episodes when doing the rankings, and this season made a remarkable comeback. Also, don’t overlook how great the bevy of water challenges was. Should I push it down in the rankings due to the lackluster reunion show that followed? Perhaps. Kind of not sure how much I should take that live show into consideration when ranking what happened out on the island.
15. Survivor: Samoa
(Winner: Natalie White)
I like this season a lot more than most people, but Russell’s controlling of the game (especially post-merge when his side was down 8-4) was truly a work of art. Evil genius art. He was denied in the end, though, in the most controversial jury decision ever.
16. Survivor: China
(Winner: Todd Herzog)
I’ve always loved this season. It featured a really good cast stuck in a really bad location. Todd completely owned that final Tribal Council. That’s how you win a million dollars.
17. Survivor: Marquesas
(Winner: Vecepia Towery)
An underrated season that saw the first totem pole shake-up: where people on the bottom got together to overthrow those on the top. Yes, it was a weak final two, but it also had a woman peeing on a guy’s hand. Plus: Purple rock!!!
18. Survivor: Cook Islands
(Winner: Yul Kwon)
What a difference a mutiny makes. It was listless until that fateful moment when Candice and Penner stepped off the mat. Then we finally had underdogs to root for. The Tribal Council fire-making tiebreaker between Sundra and Becky may be the funniest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Plus, just look at all the great first-time contestants (Parvati, Penner, Ozzy, Yul). Mutineers must die!
19. Survivor: Ghost Island
(Winner: Wendell Holland)
This was such a hard season to rank. I generally really liked this cast — but I do feel all the early tribe swaps made it difficult for viewers to connect with many of them. I also really liked the Ghost Island concept but felt there could have been more drama surrounding how someone was sent to GI and the games they played once they got there. (“Guess the Bamboo” was about as riveting as watching an Adam Sandler movie as part of a South Pacific reward. My suggestion was to have contestants have to win mini-challenges — like, say, solving a puzzle before all the sand poured out of a bottle, rather than just picking right or left.)
And then there is the ending, which also has plusses and minuses. I still do not like the fire-making final four twist because it is an arbitrary out-of-format rules change specifically designed to get perceived better players to the end. But without it, we don’t get that epic showdown between Dom and Wendell, which resulted in the first-ever tie vote for the million dollars — with third-place finisher Laurel breaking it for Wendell. So again, both good and bad. Like I said, a hard season to rank.
But the ending was fantastic, and I was engaged throughout, even with the noted weaknesses. I liked watching Kelly act like a super-spaz. I was fascinated with the Laurel and Donathan strategic push-and-pull. Wendell and Domenick were as great as we in the press thought they would be when we met them pre-game, and that merge war between Dom and Chris Noble made for one of my favorite Survivor episodes ever. Throw that all together and you end up in the middle of the pack.
20. Survivor: Game Changers
(Winner: Sarah Lacina)
What a weird season this was. On one hand, there were a bevy of huge, crazy Tribal Councils with last-second whispering and maneuvering leading to jaw-dropping exits. We were treated to two titans of the game (Tony and Sandra) going toe to toe. We saw one of the ugliest moments ever (Jeff Varner outing Zeke) turn into a shining instructive example of how to handle insensitive bullying via the reactions from Zeke and his tribemates. But something was missing. It’s hard to put your finger right on it, but it felt like this season lacked a consistent flow. Instead of a gradually building arc, we were instead presented with what could be best described as a random series of events. Said events were all exciting, but they failed to form a cohesive unit.
It didn’t help that most of the big players and personalities went out so early: Tony, Malcolm, Sandra, J.T. — all gone before the merge. Then Ozzy went home in the merge double-episode and we hardly saw Cirie until the merge because she never went to Tribal Council. That means we did not get a lot of bang for our buck when it came to the biggest players in the cast. No offense to someone like Sarah — who played a very strong game and deserves to be applauded for it — but she and most of the others we were left with at the end were simply not as dynamic as the personalities we lost early on.
That was always my big fear about this season — that as exciting as the early episodes were, those high-profile exits were diluting the cast and leaving us with players that we, as viewers, were not fully invested in. And despite the gameplay and unpredictability down the stretch, that is kind of what happened. And then there is what happened to Cirie in the finale. Some may have loved the insane drama of having five out of six people immune due to idols and advantages — but I found watching someone be “voted out” even when zero votes were cast against her to be a case of a season run amok by simply too many bells and whistles. (The fact that it happened to a true legend in Cirie made it even harder to swallow.)
And while I was prepared to drop the season ranking down a spot or two due to that Tribal, it held steady at the end thanks to the new final Tribal Council format in which there was more of a conversation than regimented Q&A, which had grown predictable and stale over the years. That’s a great example of natural show evolution that worked and the producers deserve to be commended for it.
21. Survivor: South Pacific
(Winner: Sophie Clarke)
Here’s another one that I like more than most people, which is curious considering how much it has in common with the season that aired directly before it, which I didn’t like: the same twist of two returning players, Redemption Island, the predictable vote-offs, no real water challenges, etc… But there is one thing I really did dig about this season, and that is the cast. I was invested in the players and their fates — the ones I wanted to do well, and not so well. Plus, this season gave us three signature moments: Ozzy volunteering to go to Redemption, Cochran flipping, and Brandon giving away his immunity.
22. Survivor: Tocantins
(Winner: J.T. Thomas)
Okay, you may roll your eyes at Coach 1.0. But imagine for a second this season without him. His unintentional comedy single-handedly lifts this into respectable territory for me. Seriously, other than Tyson getting blindsided, were there any memorable moments that didn’t involve the Dragonslayer? But the unlikely alliance between bookish northerner Fishbach and country boy J.T. made for a compelling thread throughout the season.
23. Survivor: Australian Outback
(Winner: Tina Wesson)
An overrated season in my book. Probst loves it. I didn’t. Solid but unspectacular. Pretty predictable boot order as well. Dude did burn his hands off, though.
24. Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers
(Winner: Ben Driebergen)
The good news is the season built momentum as it went, with a strong run of post-merge episodes after a truly underwhelming start to the season. Of course, I struggle with the fact that much of the drama came out of there being an overabundance of idols and advantages, but producers did something very smart with those advantages to make sure nobody else got Ciried: They limited most of them to a specific single Tribal Council. They also forced contestants to make decisions on those advantages — like whom to help or hurt from another tribe — that played dramatic dividends. And, outside of one mind-bogglingly boring loved ones reward contest, the challenges were strong.
But now comes the bad news. Like the majority of Survivor nation, I was not a fan of the new final four fire-making twist. While I do not believe it was a cheat put in place specifically to get Ben to the finals, Probst has openly admitted it was engineered to get a strong player like Ben there. To me, even though there was not any funny business at play to help Ben out, it still was not in the spirit of a game in which players are supposedly given the power to vote each other out. That was a bummer. Although, in the producers’ defense, we can’t ignore that it did pay huge dramatic dividends later on Ghost Island.
25. Survivor: Kaôh Rōng
(Winner: Michelle Fitzgerald)
Not one of the best seasons ever; not one of the worst. Working in this season’s favor was the sheer unpredictability from week to week in terms of who was aligned with whom and what would happen at Tribal Council. That’s always exciting. Working against this season is the fact that there simply were not enough transcendent players in the cast. Talking to fellow fans of the show, I did not find a lot of passion or hardcore rooting interest for any of the folks that made it far in the game (especially after Tai sabotaged the tribe by putting out the fire). That’s a problem. Another problem (for me) was the unsurprisingly bitter jury, whose egos simply couldn’t handle being bested by Aubry.
While the reward challenge that caused three players to collapse was certainly riveting (and scary as hell) to watch, it also robbed us of Beast Mode Cowboy, which was a shame. The other medical evacuations (Neal and Joe) meant we were denied chances to see how those pivotal votes would have gone down, and the challenges, in general, were at times too heavily reliant on balancing.
All that said, there were legitimate moments of glory — like when Tai turned on Scot and Jason — that elevated the proceedings and turned this season into a solid, if unspectacular, entry.
26. Survivor: All-Stars
(Winner: Amber Brkich)
Overall, a bit of a letdown, but man, were there some hate-fueled fireworks at those final few Tribal Councils. Plus: Best. Reunion Show. Ever. (Remember Jerri getting literally booed off the stage?)
27. Survivor: Panama — Exile Island
(Winner: Aras Baskauskas)
Ah, just writing the word Panama gets me daydreaming about Survivor Sally and her intoxicating knee socks. Terry was robbed on a final challenge that may or may not have been completely fair. Another unmemorable final two. Shane Powers should have been brought back for Heroes vs. Villains. And the Second Chance season, for that matter.
28. Survivor: Gabon
(Winner: Bob Crowley)
It got better near the end, but it was still a case of too little, too late. The fact that so many unworthy players went so far is simply too damning.
29. Survivor: Worlds Apart
(Winner: Mike Holloway)
The main problem, of course, was that there were not enough people to root for. Worlds Apart got somewhat hijacked by an assault of offensive comments to and about women by some of the male characters. It’s too bad because there was actually some interesting gameplay — mostly thanks to Mike. And there were some big moments at the last few Tribal Councils as well. This season moved around a bunch for me. It started off middle-of-the-pack, went WAY down during all that Dan and Will ugliness, but slowly crept back up after that.
30. Survivor: Edge of Extinction
(Winner: Chris Underwood)
Flat. That’s the best word I can think of to describe the season. Rick Devens was the only true breakout from the cast (unless you include Reem bitching everyone out at Extinction Island… and you probably should), but that may also be because so much of the attention early was spent on the four returning players. I’m not a fan of folks sticking around after being voted out, so clearly, the Edge of Extinction twist was not up my alley, especially since it mostly consisted of people just kind of staring off into the distance pensively for no apparent reason. And while the producers who make the show may consider having someone voted out on day 8 winning the game as proof of concept, it left a sour taste with viewers who could not help but overlook the massive advantages associated with befriending the jury in a non-game setting.
31. Survivor: Redemption Island
(Winner: Boston Rob Mariano)
The first three episodes were dynamite, but then the fuse blew out. It certainly was entertaining at times watching Rob strategize (the most dominant showing ever) and Phillip philosophize (the craziest showing ever), just not very dramatic. Most of the vote-offs were clearly telegraphed and the Redemption Island twist sucked the life out of Survivor’s signature moment — the vote-off.
32. Survivor: Africa
(Winner: Ethan Zohn)
Some great challenges. Not that much else was great.
33. Survivor: Guatemala
(Winner: Danni Boatwright)
One of the more unlikeable casts so far. (Remember Judd? Jamie? Stephenie’s evil twin?) Rafe was good for a few laughs, though. Especially on rope obstacles.
34. Survivor: Vanuatu
(Winner: Chris Daugherty)
I don’t blame producers: The battle of the sexes worked well the first time around.
35. Survivor: San Juan del Sur
(Winner: Natalie Anderson)
The cast was for the most part boring if not boorish, and when you look back on this season, does any one big moment even stand out? Anything? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? I will say there were a few strong post-merge episodes, and it definitely got better over the last few weeks thanks to Natalie’s strong play. That counts for something. This is not a season that inspires anger or rage, just apathy, which is maybe the worst indictment of all.
36. Survivor: One World
(Winner: Kim Spradlin)
Look, I have total respect for Kim’s game. Like Tom in Palau and Rob in Redemption Island, she excelled strategically, socially, and physically. Unfortunately, that is really the only good thing I can say about this season. And that’s too bad because I do think the “One World” concept was a solid one. But, man, what a thoroughly uninspiring cast. Colton was more a horrible human being than a classic villain, and the rest of the players were mostly either completely forgettable or people you wish you could forget. I worry I am being generous by putting it even this high, but out of respect for Kim, it goes here.
37. Survivor: Thailand
(Winner: Brian Heidik)
The fake merge and brutal last challenge — where the final three had to hold coins between their fingers in a crazy painful pose — keep this dud out of the bottom spot. Barely.
38. Survivor: Fiji
(Winner: Earl Cole)
With the exception of Yau-Man and Earl, a true bummer of a cast, and the “Haves vs. Have-Nots” twist was one of the worst creative decisions in Survivor history. Speaking of awful creative decisions…
39. Survivor: Nicaragua
(Winner: Jud “Fabio” Birza)
It’s way down here for a few reasons. 1) Splitting the tribes up by age and the Medallion of Power were both enormous flops. 2.) Like One World, Thailand, and Fiji, Nicaragua had just too many unlikable players. 3) Two people quitting with only 11 days left. 4) No big memorable moments. Even Thailand had the fake merge and Fiji had the big Yau-Man/Dreamz free car deal gone bad, but what was Nicaragua’s signature moment? Unfortunately, it was people quitting, and that was memorable for all the wrong reasons. Interestingly enough, Survivor viewers recently picked Fabio as the worst Survivor winner ever in our fan poll, so I’m apparently not alone in my lack of enthusiasm.
40. Survivor: Island of the Idols
(Winner: Tommy Sheehan)
I’m a guy who tends to be pretty analytical. But even I recognize that when it comes to ranking Survivor seasons, it ultimately comes down to a feeling. You can make pros and cons lists (as I have even done in a few of the entries above), but, in the end, it all boils down to how a season makes you feel. And, unfortunately, due to the events surrounding the inappropriate touching — and the way it was handled by both production and the other contestants — the ultimate feeling when it comes to this season is sadness. Watching Survivor should be fun! But nothing seemed fun in light of the far more serious issue that clearly outweighed the final game result. Quite simply: It made the rest of the season impossible to enjoy. And so even though there were several things and people worth celebrating at various points in the show’s 39th installment, the end result is that this felt like the least entertaining outing in the franchise’s history. And so here it sits.
And there you have it — Survivor season rankings sure to inflame and annoy. But instead of focusing your rage at the rankings, why not enjoy an exclusive deleted scene from this week’s episode above? And while you’re at it, take some time to read my weekly Q&A with Hostmaster General Jeff Probst. Of course, you can also follow me on Twitter and Instagram for more Survivor scoop, if that’s something you might be interested in.
But now it’s your turn. Where does Winners at War fall for you in the rankings? Whom are you rooting for to win? Can anyone beat Natalie in the battle back challenge? And can anyone from the Edge actually win the game? Hit the message boards to weigh in and I’ll be back next week with a super-sized finale scoop of the crispy!