By Dalton Ross
April 01, 2020 at 09:00 PM EDT
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S40 E8
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I have a beef. Not with a person, mind you. When you are sub-150 pounds without a muscle to speak of on your frame, it’s generally not wise to have beefs with people. Or else you’ll get your ass kicked. Somewhat surprisingly, I’ve never had my ass kicked. You know why? Because I try not to have beefs with people. It’s simple self-preservation.

So I have beefs — and plenty of them — but with things as opposed to people. I have beef with the entire Good Wife arc involving Kalinda’s creepy Canadian husband. (And I love Canada!) I have beef with the fact that the Campbell Soup Company discontinued the Franco-American brand name, because SpaghettiOs were never quite the same after that. I have beef with the top-hat Linda Perry wears in the 4 Non Blondes video for “What’s up?” (In fact, I have beef with that entire song.) And I have a beef with what happened in the battle-back competition on this week’s episode of Survivor.

First off, an acknowledgement. Back in week 1, I said I wasn’t going to harp all season on how much I loathe the Edge of Extinction concept. I did that back in season 38, and there really is no point in expending so much energy restating my same qualms over and over again. And I like to think I have held to that promise. In fact, I even talked about how much I enjoyed some of the individual scenes at the Edge this season. The log task was one of the best segments in the history of Survivor. I mean that. It was awesome. I may have almost cried, but that’s none of your business.

I also have been a big fan of the Fire Tokens addition. I have cheered the way they have added new layers of strategy into the game as players devise complex schemes in the hopes of liberating their fellow contestants from their tokens. While I wholeheartedly believe you do not need the Edge of Extinction to make Fire Tokens work, that’s how they have been incorporated this season, so by enthusiastically promoting the concept of the Tokens, I have by extension acknowledged how the Edge of Extinction has at least become more relevant in the grand scheme of the game.

But that has also created a problem. And, because of that problem, I have to press pause on my promise to not bitch and moan all season about the Edge. So back to my beef and to my problem, and to do that, we have to borrow Doc Brown’s time-traveling DeLorean and rewind 18 seasons to a little installment I like to call Survivor: Redemption Island. (I like to call it that because that is the name of the season.) This was the installment in which the Redemption Island twist was introduced. (Hence the name we just spoke about.)

I didn’t like that twist then for the same reason I don’t like Edge of Extinction twist now, which I will not bore you by repeating for the millionth time, but at least RI did something right. Once you were voted out, you had to win a series of duels to get back onto the merged tribe. That means if you were voted out first (Hi, Francesca Hogi!) you had to win six different duels to get back in the game. While if you were voted out the day before the merge (Sarita White, come on down!), you only had to win one duel to reenter. That made sense that the people who were voted out early would have to fight that much harder to get back, while the folks that lasted the longest would be rewarded for having survived as long as they did.

Robert Voets/CBS

Now let’s fast forward to season 40. Natalie Anderson was voted out first on day 2, had no competition for her first Fire Token, little competition for her second and third, and then was given a fourth for walking up and down a hill 20 times. That gave her four tokens — tokens that could be used in the challenge to get back onto the merged tribe. In fact, the first six people who went to the Edge of Extinction each got at least one Fire Token. Yet Parvati and Yul — who lasted longer than all of them — did not. Yul was voted out one day before the merge and then had to turn around and head straight back to the challenge to get on the merged tribe. He didn’t even have a single opportunity to earn a token and was, in essence, punished for lasting as long as he did.

So let me ask you a question: How in the world does this make any sense whatsoever? This season actually rewarded people for being voted out early in the game and punished them the longer they stayed. Frankly, that is ludicrous. You either have to make it a completely level playing field, or, if you give any advantage whatsoever, it should go to the people that lasted the longest pre-merge. (By the way, Jeff Probst has a counterpoint to this argument, and I will say, it has some merit. Go check it out in our weekly Q&A and see if you agree with him. You may!)

Of course, as you all know, I am not a fan of advantages in challenges in general. I like a level playing field. I want to know how legends match up against one another when they are all on equal footing. That’s where you get the real drama. When Rob and Tyson have advantages while Parvati and Yul do not, then where’s the fun in that? You’re not seeing a clash of the titans when some of the titans have arms tied behind the backs. Imagine watching a football game where one team gets to start at the 50-yard line every possession and the other one has to start at their own 20. You’ll never find out who’s the better team that way. Ugh, it drives me crazy. (By the way, will we ever have football again? I miss sports.)

But you know what drives me even more crazy? The way Rob and Natalie used — or, more precisely, did not use — their advantages. Because much in the way I hate the way people are allowed to copy off of each other’s puzzle but think you would be a fool not to do it if it is allowed, if you have enough Fire Tokens to gain three advantages in the challenge and do not use them, then the only thing you played is yourself.

To set the stage, Natalie had four tokens, and after Amber gave hers to Rob (because of course she did), he had four as well. There were options to take up to THREE advantages in the challenge, with each costing one token. There was also an immunity idol you could buy should you make it back onto the merged tribe, and that cost three tokens as well. So instead of buying all three advantages in the challenge, Rob and Natalie each only bought one and then spent three tokens on an idol they never even got to own. Not smart.

Look, I get it. I get they were worried about getting back on the tribe and immediately being voted right back out to the Edge of Extinction like they were living, breathing GIFs of Abe Simpson walking into a burlesque parlor, seeing his grandson working there, and walking right back out. But what’s the point of buying an idol if you can’t get back in to use it? I was flabbergasted to see Rob and Natalie not buying all three advantages at the challenge. Flabbergasted. You have to be in it to win it, so you spend whatever you need to just get in it, and then you worry about winning it.

But that’s not to say I have a beef with them, because remember: I don’t have beefs with people. I only have beefs with things that cannot beat me up, and last I checked, a deserted island in the South Pacific has no chance of beating me up. So I’ll let it continue to beat up the contestants living there instead.

Last thing I want to say, because sometimes this is a valuable reminder for all of us. Whenever over the past 20 years I have gone off on something I deem odorous, like the final 2 becoming a final 3, or the final 4 fire-making challenge, or the existence of the Edge of Extinction, it is all done while keeping in mind that SURVIVOR IS THE BEST TELEVISION SHOW ON THE FACE OF THE PLANET!I do honestly believe that. The combination of human drama, social dynamics, strategic thinking, expert hosting, and absolutely insane production values makes it the gold standard in terms of televised entertainment. So when I get on my high horse and start criticizing something, it’s all a matter of perspective. It’s just one person’s opinion. Nothing more. And it’s all from a place of love. It is because the show has forged such a deep and emotional bond with us that we care so much and start passionately arguing about seemingly trivial aspects like this. And that is ultimately a very good thing.

Which is why I love Survivor debates so much (as long as they are done in a respectful and healthy manner), whether they be debates about twists and format changes, or debates about who are the best winners and best seasons ever. Because they all come from a place of deep appreciation and respect. Survivor producers should be proud and happy when the fandom passionately argues one way or the other about facets of the game, because it shows how deeply they care. And that beats indifference any day of the week.

So I can sit here and tell you I don’t care for the Edge of Extinction and think the players who got sent there last got totally hosed. But I can also tell you that this season is, as a whole, fantastic and there remains no show I look forward to more on a weekly basis. That’s the big picture, folks! Okay, let’s now jump through the other big moments from this week’s episode of Survivor: Winners at War, while I try my best not to piss anyone off along the way.

Tyson’s back…and this time it’s personal

So Tyson won the battle-back challenge in what looked like a super-tight finish, not even letting the random introduction of that weird “You Better be Ready” song midway through the competition distract him from the task at hand. The victor celebrated by letting out a primal yell so loud and intense I wasn’t sure if he was transforming into a demon of the underworld before our very eyes, or by the power of Greyskull was about to hoist a sword in the air and scream “I HAVE THE POWER” at the top of his lungs. Either way, he looked excited.

Also noteworthy about the challenge is that however you felt about Sandra leaving the game, you had some ammunition to back you up. On one side, you had Rob talking about how Edge was “the worst place I’ve ever been to,” yet when speaking about the group who toughed it out to compete noted that “None of us are quitters.” And on the other side you had Tony somewhat validating Sandra’s decision by watching the physical competition and noting that “Now we know why Sandra went home. She wasn’t doing this.” Either way, people can keep debating if they really still have the energy for it, but why do that when there is a merge feast to get to?!

Binge and Merge

With the merge came the traditional merge feast, and lots of chatter. Now, on first blush nothing huge happened in these first days on the new Koru beach. [Side note: A Koru is a spiral shape based on the appearance of a new unfurling silver fern frond. It is an integral symbol in Maori art, carving, and tattooing, where it symbolizes new life, growth, strength and peace. Its shape "conveys the idea of perpetual movement," while the inner coil "suggests returning to the point of origin.” I know that because I just lifted this entire side note from a Wikipedia page, so do with that information what you will.]

Anyway, like I was saying, there were no huge lightning strikes on the island… other than the actual lightning strikes happening in a giant storm, but I found the dynamics of the merged tribe to be pretty fascinating. Because what we saw was some people being targeted for being a big threat, and other people targeted because they were not seen as big threats. We heard Denise’s name being floated because she was the newly-crowned Queenslayer. That was no surprise, because in recent seasons, the people seen as the biggest threats were therefore targeted and eliminated.

But you also had a contingent of Ben, Tyson, Tony, and Jeremy discussing the need to keep the big threats around as protection for each other. So that meant taking out the under-the-radar players. The sleepers. The “small targets.” Whom they identified as Nick and Wendell. So, if it’s dangerous to be seen as a big threat in the game, and it’s dangerous to be seen as a small threat in the game, how in the hell are you supposed to Goldilocks that situation and find the perfect middle ground? I would assume in this instance that the perceived middle ground consists of people like Kim and Sophie  — women who are actually HUGE threats but don’t have the ego to call themselves that like the men do.

You Keep Me Hanging On

Now that we are into the post-merge portion of Winners at War, I am really hoping we are not heading into a repeat of last season, when we were fed a steady diet of immunity challenges in which people were simply lined up side by side and told to do something for as long as they could until only one person remained. I absolutely LOVE endurance challenges, but all the balancing, holding on, or holding up at a single station started to feel like déjà vu all over again.

All that said, I’m a big fan of the wrap-your-legs-around-this-pole-and-try-not-to-drop contest, and not just because there is the chance anyone at any moment could fall from a great height and perhaps do serious bodily harm (paging Michele Fitzgerald!). Of course, this is the challenge where I used to complain about how unfair it was because the big burly dudes were at such a disadvantage because they could not get their big huge man feet into those tiny little footholds. Cut to this week’s competition, and the last three players? All men!

Jeremy, Nick, and Ben were the last three contestants standing… or squatting… or whatever they were doing clinging for life to those things. It actually made no difference because producers did something very smart by giving out immunity to both the last man and last woman standing… or squatting… or whatever. And the producers did something else very interesting — they said that the winner from each gender would also receive a Fire Token in addition to immunity.

Now I don’t know if that was a one-shot deal, or is for every immunity challenge from here on out, but you have to wonder how the distribution of Fire Tokens to players right out in the open will impact the game. Winning immunity raises your threat level as it is. But now that challenge winners Jeremy and Denise were given an extra token each, how does that change their position in the tribe? And if tokens are part of immunity in the future, do players that might normally sit back in a competition to not stand out try harder in the hopes of acquiring tokens, or do players that normally go for it worry that also winning a token may raise their threat level? And as previously discussed, while figuring all that out, they also need to calculate whether being a threat is a good or a bad thing in this game. Because I have no freakin’ idea!

The Mad Scramble

The first thing we saw after the challenge was Jeremy saying he wanted Nick out, but didn’t want to be seen as driving the vote. And one of the last things we saw before Tribal was Jeremy doing everything in his power to drive the vote. That’s because his brodown throwdown buddies Ben and Tony were targeting Wendell, who was emerging as a big ally for the J-Dog. (Note: I’m pretty sure he does not want to be called the J-Dog and I’m not sure why I just did that.) Anyway, as I was saying, the J-Dog had to protect his buddy, so put on his driving gloves, took the wheel, and pushed Ben, Sarah, Kim, Tony, Michele, and Denise to vote out Adam instead. This was a fantastic development, if for no other reason than it led to Adam’s somewhat bizarre impersonation of a bumbling, blustering Ben. Accurate? Didn’t necessarily seem so. Hilarious? Without a doubt.

Before we get to Tribal Council, I would be remiss in my duties if I did not draw attention to the fabulous montage of Nick barging in on other people’s conversations. The truth is, that edit was kind of unfair. Everyone walks into everyone’s conversations out there, so they could have easily edited together footage of pretty much anyone doing the exact same thing. Doesn’t matter. I still loved it. I’m also kind of obsessed with Nick’s blazer and no t-shirt look, especially when he buttoned the button on his blazer! What is this, a Survivor strip show? Is The Village People’s “Macho Man” about to start blaring out of nowhere while Nick performs a “sexy dance” — unbuttoning his blazer slowly and seductively before ripping it off and twirling it above his head like some sort of Chippendale in training?

The Tribe Breaks Up With Wendell

“This is the defining vote tonight,” said Denise at Tribal Council. She’s right in the sense that the first post-merge Tribal Council is always a huge one as the game completely resets and nobody is quite sure where they stand until that first vote. It’s so exciting and why I love merges. Another thing I loved about this Tribal Council was Tony.

It’s easy to get caught up in all of Tony’s wacky schemes and zany hijinks. So easy, in fact, that you can find yourself forgetting how smart the dude actually is. And, when he wants to be, articulate! Tony sounded downright sage-like as he explained to Probst how the argument for getting Tyson out earlier no longer held weight because the game and the players in it had changed so much since then. And dammit if the dude then didn’t go and make total sense again when he talked of the group of players as a body of water, and how sometimes you just need to go with the flow and not swim against the current. Tony Vlachos is a gift that just keeps on giving, sometimes in surprising ways.

As for the voting, Adam gave the best comment of the week while casting his vote for Wendell: “It’s either you are me tonight. I know that, but do you?” That’s taking a shot at Wendell’s self-awareness. I have no idea if it’s on the money or not — because we didn’t have many Wendell confessionals to go on — but it still made for good TV.  So, the good news for Wendell is that he came off much better in the edit this week then he did over the past month. The bad news is he got booted over to the Edge of Extinction. And if you have any questions about how Wendell feels about his edit this season and why he was treating Michele like that on the Sele 2.0 tribe, definitely check out my must-read interview with the Ghost Island champ.

I like Wendell. He didn’t come off looking great this season, but is far from the first good person to not get a good edit. It will be interesting to see how this new schooler gets along with all the old timers stewing over on the Edge and if they yell at him to GET OFF OF OUR LAWN! Or, you know, beach.

Okay, we’ve got some goodies for you this week. Goodies like an exclusive deleted scene where the members of Yara share many awkward hugs while celebrating news of the impending merge and battle-back challenge. Goodies like my weekly Q&A with Hostmaster General Jeff Probst. And goodies like the aforementioned interview with Wendell Holland. And for more Survivor scoop, you can always follow me on Twitter @DaltonRoss and Instagram @thedaltonross.

But now it’s your turn. What do you think about the Fire Token distribution at the Edge of Extinction? How do you feel about Tyson being back on the tribe? And about Wendell being off it? Hit the message boards to weigh in and I’ll be back next week with another disinfected scoop of the crispy!

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Jeff Probst leads adventures in the ultimate (and original) reality series.

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