The host talks about the epic, emotional end to the biggest season ever.
SURVIVOR: Island of the Idols

Each week, host Jeff Probst has been answering a few questions about the latest episode of Survivor: Winners at War. Here, he shares his take on the finale, including the winner, an emotional fire duel, a player sacrificing himself, the remote reading of the votes, and more.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: We always start these finale Q&As off by talking about the winner. But now we are talking about the winner of winners! Hit me up with your thoughts on Tony’s victory run, and does this second dominant win officially put him on the Survivor Mount Rushmore?

JEFF PROBST: Tony is such a delight to watch play Survivor. He seemed to have a general plan to lay low and see if he could get a footing with a solid alliance. He didn’t hunt for idols, in fact, he only found one the entire game. I was also really impressed with how malleable he tried to be with Sarah. You could tell that at times he did things he didn’t want to do, like have to play his idol, but he did them anyway to remain loyal. And his performance in challenges was really something given he had not won a single challenge in his previous two seasons. And, on top of everything else, he was so entertaining week after week with his giant ladders, sharks, and spy nests. I agree with what he said at final, that he didn’t really make many mistakes. I won’t get into the GOAT debate, but I will say we could not be happier with Tony as the winner of our biggest season of all time.

This has been a very emotional season with moments like the log carrying task and the full family loved ones visit, but the most impactful emotion of the season may have been what we saw from Tony and Sarah after the fire-making battle. Two best friends in the game, in their third season together — each one of them having already beaten the other —reacting as one had her dream dashed and the other his dream fulfilled. What was it like seeing that up close because someone was getting a bit misty on his couch in Montclair, N.J.?

I’m not sure I can adequately describe anything from this season in a way that will capture the overall spirit, let alone such a personal moment. This is what it was like every day. These 20 players went hard every minute of every day. And they did it, almost without exception, with class. By the time Sarah and Tony made it to the final four fire-making challenge, it was inevitable that it would end in emotion. I thought it was beautiful, powerful, and real.

Credit: CBS

In season 38, Chris Underwood said that he knew he had to give up immunity to take Rick Devens on in fire because it was the only way people from the Edge of Extinction would vote for him to win. Natalie was challenged a bit by the jury for not doing the same thing and giving up her immunity to take on Tony. Do you think that was a mistake on her part and that she should have gone for broke knowing she needed to pad her résumé?

Natalie was well aware that Chris had set the tone in season 38. I think it was clear that she didn’t feel confident enough in her fire-making skills to take out Tony. So she put someone up against her who she thought might be able to take him out. Had she been right, and she almost was, that would have been another move she could add to her résumé. Natalie played as hard as she could play on the Edge. She deserved her shot back in and the fact that she received four votes speaks to the respect she earned.

In a shocking move earlier in the finale, Ben gave Sarah permission to vote him out so she could build her résumé with the jury. Do you think this decision was born out of Ben’s belief that he had little-to-no-shot with the jury, especially after his comments to you that he was “not very popular”?

I can only comment on what I saw and what I saw was Ben being absolutely exhausted, both emotionally and physically. He also had a very tight bond with Sarah. It seemed to me that he knew he was fading and maybe in an emotional moment, he made the gesture to Sarah. He was clear in saying that if she didn’t do it, he’d keep fighting, but if she wanted to it would be okay. I’m gonna take it at face value that it was a gesture of love that came from this specific situation – “I’m tired… I am fading… if you can benefit from that… do so.  Take me out." And Sarah did.

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Credit: Robert Voets/CBS

Obviously, gender — like many other factors — plays a role in Survivor. I remember asking you after the Island of the Idols finale about the fact that men had won the last 5 seasons of Survivor and 11 out of the last 14, and you were genuinely surprised by those numbers. Now it’s up to six straight male winners and 12 out of the past 15. And you all had a fascinating conversation about gender at the first finale Tribal Council where you came right out and said, “Let me own my part. I am certain right now if I were to look back at all the comments I have made over 20 years, I would find the exact same bias in me. Who I call by last names. Guys have different relationships with each other, and I might not know how to have that relationship with a woman. So I’ll definitely own the fact that I definitely don’t think I saw it when Survivor started. And I don’t even think I know I was supposed to look for it. But I am very much aware of it now.” You didn’t have to say that, and you certainly didn’t have to include it in the episode — especially when every second of air-time is precious. Why did you feel that was important for you to say and to include?

I’ve been with Survivor for 20 years and I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way. I also hope that I’ve changed, grown, and matured throughout the years. I’m not the same person I was when I started with the show in 2000. I’ve learned so much from these players. These kinds of personal moments with the players come up from time to time where I feel it’s appropriate for me to inject my own story into the game. Gender bias is something that has become such an important topic that this one felt it was timely and relevant for many reasons. I’m grateful to Sarah for bringing up the topic. It gave me the opportunity to address my own life lessons!

Finally, tell me about putting together the plan to read the votes remotely and what it felt like to tell someone a few thousand miles away he just won $2 million dollars?

Building a Tribal Council in my garage took me back to my early production days. It was actually a lot of fun. We also shipped cameras and lights and everything else we needed to pull off the show. The Zoom call with the final three was very intimate because it was just the four of us and I had an iPad counting down how many seconds were left in the show. But I really felt for them because they could not feel the love that I know they would have felt if we had been live in Los Angeles.

I’m sure for Natalie and Michele it was more difficult to find out they lost and then have the show end so abruptly with them sitting with their loved ones in their home. I am really impressed with all three of them. They handled the vote read with total grace. As for Tony, I wish we had a bit more time because he’s so fun to talk to, but the main thing is that we had enough time to acknowledge him as a great representative of our show and see his wife and kids hugging on him as we ended the show. A great ending to a great season!

Enjoy an exclusive deleted scene from the finale above, and make sure to check out our interview with the winner, our full finale recap. For more behind the scenes Survivor scoop, photos, and videos, follow Dalton on both Twitter and Instagram.

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SURVIVOR: Island of the Idols

Strangers starve themselves on an island for our amusement in the hopes of winning a million dollars, as host Jeff Probst implores them to "DIG DEEP!"

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