Survivor: Winners at War recap: Battle of the exes
Pssst! Did you guys hear? Two of the players on Survivor’s 40th season are actually married! Crazy, right? But it’s true! Not only are Rob Mariano and Amber Brkich hitched, but they met while actually playing Survivor! And then, because they had not dominated enough screen time that season, got engaged at a Survivor finale! And then got married on CBS in a televised wedding special that we all like to pretend never happened but totally did! And now they are both competing on Survivor: Winners at War!
Of course, you already knew all that because it has been mentioned ad nauseam both on the show and by hack writers like myself. But while the relationship between Rob and Amber has dominated parts of the first third of the season, it was the bizarro upside-down version of that happily-ever-after relationship that was so notable in episode 5. While everyone was worried about Rob and Amber hooking up — not that type of hooking up! — at the merge, this week players had to deal with something far more cringeworthy: the super-duper awkwardness of former lovebirds Michele and Wendell ending up on the same tribe.
That awkwardness became clear pretty much on their first interaction when Michele asked if it was going to be awkward, and then Wendell essentially was all “Look, I am a very busy man with very busy things to do like put toothpicks in my mouth on a constant basis, so I can’t come up and just talk to you like a normal person.”
Michele was not really feeling that response, so put it in texting terms that millennials could understand: “New season, who dis?” But look, I’m here to say that I am neither Team Wendell nor Team Michele. I’m more Team Show As Much Of This Uncomfortableness As Possible. Why? Because it’s positively intoxicating. Throw in Nick’s high school crush on Parvati and I am pretty much fall-down drunk every moment I lay eyes on the new Sele tribe.
Wendell said the theme of the season is past relationships, and even if he wronged Michele somewhere in between Philadelphia and Hoboken, he could not be more right in that assessment. Even with 20 winners and Fire Tokens galore, that is arguably the biggest editorial distinction in this season of Survivor, because when it comes to out of game relationships, that is something the show has avoided showing in the past.
Pre-game alliances always happen in returning player seasons as contestants try to make deals before leaving the country, but producers used to edit the show in a way that made it seem like all those alliances were naturally formed on the beach. That's why it was so shocking to watch the Poker Alliance (whether real or imagined) become such a huge plot point in the first few weeks of Winners at War — to the point where they actually aired a clip of a poker tournament to illustrate where it all started. That never would have happened in the old days.
Similarly, in early returning player seasons like All-Stars and Heroes vs. Villains, there were several current or past romantic entanglements that were never mentioned on the show. Jenna Morasca and Ethan Zohn were full-on dating on All-Stars, but you never would have known it by watching. Sugar thought she and JT were a couple entering Heroes vs. Villains. He did not. Nor did viewers, because that dynamic was never explained or explored. Mark Burnett always wanted you to believe these people only ever interacted out on the island — even though they were all hanging out in bars, at charity events, and, sometimes, in bed.
But all of that is fair game now. And I like it. Because it adds a layer of transparency to everything. And while I love, love, love the original concept of 16 strangers stuck on an island together and having to make good first impressions and introduce themselves while voting each other out, returning player seasons never fit into that construct. It’s a different beast, and it can be just as fascinating to see how real-world bonds either strengthen or fracture once folks step onto the beach.
Remember how impactful that was when Francesca Hogi got voted out first on the Redemption Island season, came back for Caramoan, and then got voted out first again?! It would have been even more impactful had viewers known that Andrea Boehlke (who helped vote her out in both of those seasons) and Francesca had actually become friendly back in New York City before season 26, making that second first vote-off that much more brutal. But that was back when any talk about life between contestants outside the game was still a no-go.
Not anymore, and this deliciously tense social situation between Michele and Wendell was the latest example of a program that has freed itself to show new dynamics that have always been there, if never quite explained.
And now let’s explain some other things that went down in week 5 of Survivor: Winners at War, including the ousting of a legend. Once again, I am writing this from a hospital room as I take care of a loved one who does not happen to be Jonny Fairplay’s grandmother. Seeing as how a hospital full of every germ imaginable is clearly the one place everybody wants to be to avoid catching coronavirus, if I don’t make it to week 6, it’s been a pleasure serving you. (By the way, I broke a bit of news today about Survivor postponing filming on seasons 41 and 42 due to COVID-19. You can get all that intel and read the letter Jeff Probst sent to the crew about the delay.)
Bigger Than the Game
Yul Kwon is the man. I’ve talked about meeting him in the Cook Islands and our interview before that season began and how impressed I was by him. (He and I were the only members of the cast and press that figured out the twist that the tribes would be divided by ethnicity.) I was super excited he was finally back to play again, and even more excited when he told me how he was there to help raise awareness of ALS and pay tribute to the wife of the man he flipped with an immunity idol in the Cooks.
Yul and Jonathan Penner actually became good friends after that, and Yul has watched Penner’s wife Stacy Title (a former Survivor Loved One visitor!) cope with her ALS diagnosis; she had lost almost all motor function by the time season 40 started. Yul told me that if he won, he was considering donating his entire prize money to ALS research and was going to ask Jeff Probst to do a dollar-for-dollar match.
Yul has a reputation for being an analytical gamebot. Maybe that’s why I like him so much. But that’s why it was so striking to watch Mr. Facts and Figures get so emotional as he told Sarah and Wendell (and us) about how Stacy can’t even swallow and has 24-hour-care. Yul started crying to the camera while relaying that story to us, and then started crying in front of his competitors. Yul crying in front of other players? That’s something I never thought I would see… unless he was lamenting these simpletons for their complete and utter lack of comprehension when it comes to the Law of Quadratic Reciprocity. Yul said he was playing for something bigger than himself, and if enough people go right now to donate to help fund ALS research, then that mission will indeed come to fruition.
I also connected with Yul this week to talk more about him, Penner, Stacy, and his inspiration for coming back. Good stuff. Give it a read! And if you want to be part of Yul’s mission, you can donate at www.cbs.com/SurvivorALSInfo. Yul is matching dollar-for-dollar the first $50,000 in donations, so let’s force him to open that checkbook!
Three Is the Magic Number
As someone that cried bloody murder at the top of his lungs when the show did its first-ever tribe swap back in Survivor: Africa, I do get why producers like to mix things up and expand from two to three tribes. Tribe alliances can become a bit static, leaving players and viewers to go through the motions of obvious vote-offs. (Then again, with all the idols and advantages at play these days, is anything ever static?) In any event, I’m glad the show did not expand to three tribes at 18, waiting until 15 for the shake-up, and once the shake-up was done, here’s what we were left with:
So, the new Sele and Dakal each had two old Sele and three old Dakal while the new Yara had three old Sele, two old Dakal, three French hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree. Honestly, it seemed like a pretty even split in terms of challenge competitors. Although Yara had puzzle experts Rob and Sophie, guaranteeing the newly formed tribe would never, ever stumble in that portion of a competition. Never. Ever.
And as far as alliances go, how psyched were Yul, Nick, and Wendell on the new Sele? They were in a rock-solid alliance before the swap and all stuck together after, and had the numbers majority to boot. On new Dakal, Tony and Sandra were still together. Their evolution from bitter enemies into alliance partners has been fascinating, so I’m glad we can still monitor that situation.
And then you could not have asked for a wackier more disparate grouping than putting Rob, Ben, and Adam together, seeing as what happened to them at their last Tribal Council (where Rob turned on Adam and Ben turned on Rob). That provided a fantastic bit of editing this week as producers cut back and forth between all three men telling Sarah and Sophie their version of the Sele story.
The men may have had the numbers, but the women had the power of a stronger bond, not to mention Sarah’s steal-a-vote advantage. And then Sophie found an idol. It was one of those weird give-half-of-this-idol-to-someone-who-will-then-give-it-immediately-back idols. I like those split-idols in theory because they present possible complications, but in execution this season they have proved to be more confusing than anything else. Often we are not told until much later that one person returned one half to the other, but it seems that is exactly what has happened in every single case. Adam gave it back to Denise. Sophie gave it back to Kim. And now Sarah gave it back to Sophie. It may be time to rework the split idol concept. Much in the same way it may be time for me to stop praising something one week and then criticizing the same exact thing a few weeks later. Mr. Consistency, they call me!
What’s it All About?
Do I seriously have to answer that question? The puzzle! When it comes to challenges, it’s always about the puzzle. I know it. The players know it. And you know it, if only because I annoyingly remind you of that fact each and every week. Once again that point was proven in the latest immunity challenge. Yara raced through the obstacles and knocked their blocks off the ledge first, giving them a big lead as they went into the puzzle. All they had to do was not come in last to avoid Tribal Council.
In a surprise, Boston Rob (who led last week’s incredible comeback and has a five-season track record of puzzle dominance) was not on the puzzle, as Adam and Sophie took the lead. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t involved. That’s because Wendell and Parvati — who were on the puzzle for Sele — overtook them and gave their tribe the win. Rob then did what any smart (or maybe in this case not so smart) contestant in his position should do: He started cheating. Okay, maybe not cheating — since there is unfortunately no rule against it — but rather copying.
You all know it's always bugged me that teams are allowed to copy off each other’s puzzles. It shouldn’t be allowed, but it is, and therefore you would be a fool not to take advantage of it. Go back and watch this challenge again and you will see Boston Rob clearly looking over at Sele’s completed puzzle and then shouting directions to Sophie and Adam. It didn’t help. Jeremy and Sandra — who started way behind Yara — gave Dakal the second-place finish and immunity that went along with it. Because, ladies & gentlemen, it’s all about the puzzle.
The Robfather Gets Whacked
Even though Yara lost the challenge and had to head to Tribal Council, Boston Rob wasn’t that concerned about it. “It’s not that big deal, because we’ve got expendable members here,” he told us. “All we’ve got to do is decide which one of them is going home.” Or, you know, to Edge of Extinction… but I digress.
The point is, Rob still felt he had control of his tribe, and to maintain that control he ordered… I mean, suggested that none of the men go off for any conversations with the women. Classic Mariano. It was a mutation of the same buddy system he employed on Redemption Island, and also used to pressure people to empty their bags at Tribal Council earlier this season. And it appeared at first as if it was working again as Ben and Adam both agreed to the command… I mean, proposal.
Naturally, this frustrated the women, with Sarah noting that “Babysitter Rob” had “put all the kids in the playpen. And I’m sorry but you’re not putting me in a playpen.” However, unlike the sheep of Redemption Island, Ben and Adam at least had an inkling that they were being herded. “Rob this entire game has just wanted to control everything and every aspect of the game,” said the Marine.
The question was, would they mutiny against the ship’s captain, thereby tossing their numbers advantage overboard, or would they stay the course and deal with that threat later? We headed to Tribal Council to find out, where Sophie performed remarkably — taking issue with Jeff’s word choice in discussing exploiting a crack in the alliance while also taking great pains to point out that Rob had won before by corralling people and keeping them under his thumb. The rest of Tribal pretty much amounted to a discussion of Angie Layton’s favorite topic — cookies. (Speaking of which, have you tried the new Girl Scout “lemon-ups”? Those things are BALLER!)
In a super bold move, Sarah and Sophie used neither their vote steal nor their immunity idol, even though they were unable to have a real conversation with Ben and Adam before Tribal. They trusted their instincts and ended up voting out Rob unanimously — after Adam was able to figure out how to close the voting urn, that is. What is up with that guy and Tribal Council? First Tribal, he could not light his torch. Second Tribal, he could not find the hole to stick his torch in (not a euphemism, by the way). And now, he can’t even get the urn top back on. (Interesting how the camera did linger on Adam gazing around the voting area, however. I noted that Boston Rob full-on searched that area at the very first Tribal.)
So that’s it. Rob is out of the tribe, but not the game. In the end, his aggressiveness got him. This is a proud group, a group (as Sophie noted) that was not content to simply remain in the playpen. These are not only big players, but big fans as well. None of them want to face the prospect of coming back home and seeing themselves on television bending to every will and whim of a player that had already suckered so many others. These are contestants who clearly felt emasculated by the orders they were given and struck back as a result.
And it’s a typical result for Boston Rob, the ultimate boom or bust player. In his four times competing before this, he twice made it all 39 days and twice did not even make it to the jury. This would have made his third non-jury appearance, if not for the Edge of Extinction twist which automatically guarantees everyone is on the jury as long as they do not quit. It was interesting to note that the episode did not show us a snippet of Rob’s arrival at Edge as they have for every player. No doubt they are saving that emotional reunion for next week. As for me, I’ll just be waiting for more of the only reunion I care about: Michele and Wendell.
But I have a few things you should care about. Things like an exclusive deleted scene in which Ben’s face disappears! And things like my weekly Q&A with Hostmaster General Jeff Probst. And things like my interview with Yul Kwon, which I already told you about but am now telling you about again! And the letter Jeff Probst wrote the Survivor crew letting them know they were delaying production on season 41 due to coronavirus. And for more Survivor goodies, you can follow me on Twitter @DaltonRoss or Instagram @thedaltonross. I know, that’s supes annoying that my social media handles do not align, but what are you gonna do?
And now it’s your turn. What do you think of Boston Rob’s exit? Who has played the best game so far? And which tribe has the best shot moving forward? Hit the message boards to weigh in and I’ll be back next week with another scoop of the crispy!
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!"