Survivor: Winners at War recap: A legend is born
“Well, tonight’s Tribal shows that no matter how you categorize each other as threats, it only takes one move to become a high-profile player. Welcome to the club.” —Jeff Probst
Yes, welcome to the club, Denise Stapley! Come on down! You’re the next contestant on The Price Is Right! Wait, no… check that. There is no Price Is Right happening now with that whole social distancing thing. Speaking of which, I bet Michele and Wendell would like to practice a little social distancing right now, am I right? HEY-OH! Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, I’ll be here all week. Just a reminder that there is a two-drink minimum and don’t forget to tip your waiter.
Wait, no… there is no waiter because there is no comedy club because there is no audience because, yes, social distancing. Which, as far as I can tell, has already been perfected by our good buddy Tony Vlachos. How else to explain him hiding off by himself in a spy shack during the most important time to talk to people right before Tribal Council. STAY 6 FEET AWAY FROM TONY VLACHOS AT ALL TIMES!
By the by, I don’t want anyone mistakenly believing I am not taking this social distancing thing seriously. I can self-quarantine like a mofo. Hell, I’ve been self-quarantining for over 20 years. I just had a different term for it: being anti-social. But seriously, I am at my happiest when home on my couch, beer in hand, cats at side, TV in the on position. (If the wife and kids are around, that’s fine too. As long as they don’t talk.) The point is, I’m all about staying home and you should be too.
Okay, PSA over. Where were we anyway? Oh, right! Denise. DENISE! Let’s just get the bad stuff that has to be acknowledged out of the way first. Yes, she needlessly burned that second immunity idol by playing it for Jeremy. Too bad about that. However, now that that’s out of the way… ALL HAIL THE QUEENSLAYER!!! That was some Jamie Lannister type stuff right there.
To recap (because this is, after all, a recap): The Dakal tribe looked poised to vote out Denise, but Sandra had an idol that was about to expire and she thought she didn’t need, so approached Denise (who secretly already possessed an idol) and said she would sell it to her for two Fire Tokens. Not only did Denise take Sandra’s idol and then essentially vote her out with it, but she even haggled down the price to paying only one token before Tribal and another one after… which clearly then never had to be paid.
That is a straight-up baller move by Denise. She could have played it safe, taken the idol, voted out Jeremy or Tony, and then tried to build on an alliance with Sandra. But she correctly sensed that Sandra was not really interested in building any sort of long-term alliance with her. Sandra was just making a transaction: idol for tokens. So Denise went into transactional mode. And by playing two idols and ousting Sandra, she stamped her name on the season and got to keep her Fire Token, and may have solidified a bigger bond with Jeremy by using an idol on him and becoming more of a shield with her big game move. (Because Jeremy is all about the shields.)
And it was a move Sandra never saw coming because I don’t think Sandra believed Denise had it in her. Just minutes before it all went down, Sandra was openly talking at Tribal Council about how Nick, Michele, and Denise were not big threats like Rob, Tyson, Sandra, Kim, and Tony. She probably thought Denise was a nice lady who played a nice game and was liked by a nice jury in season 25 but was neither cunning nor cutthroat enough to even consider such a bodacious move. And that underestimation cost her.
But the most striking thing about the move was not Denise’s boldness, nor Sandra’s shortsightedness. It was the enormous impact Fire Tokens are having on this season. Let’s rewind a bit: There were a lot of people out there who bagged on the idea of Fire Tokens right off the bat. “Fire Tokens? That sounds so stupid!” they said. And they weren’t wrong. Fire Tokens do sound stupid. They sound like something conjured up by Sauron and forged in the flames of Mordor to repel all enemies in his attempt to reclaim the one true ring.
But I was intrigued by the Fire Token concept from the get-go. I equated it to some of the super-geeky board games I play, so the idea of incorporating a currency element seemed cool to me. In any sort of society building game, currency plays a huge role, so adding it to Survivor did not seem as crazy as it sounded. The question, of course, was how would it play out? And that answer was firmly delivered in this week’s episode.
Not only did you have Sandra taking this massive risk and making this massive error in the hopes of accumulating Fire Tokens, and not only did you have Denise negotiating how many tokens to give and when, but we had two other examples of their impact taking place on the very same day. Over on the Sele beach, we saw Michele telling Wendell she was going to write his name down at Tribal Council so she still appeared on Parvati’s side and could therefore still get her Fire Tokens. And we also twice saw Wendell offer to sell his vote at Tribal Council to Parvati in exchange for 2 Fire Tokens. No doubt, he was most assuredly bluffing, but still, it was a bluff made possible by the mere existence of the tokens.
Here’s the bottom line on the Fire Tokens and why everybody should be 100 percent on board with them by now if they are not already: Fire Tokens are creating more strategy in the game. Survivor has evolved and improved in so many ways over the years, but if there has been one main criticism, it is that the show has become a game more based on luck and foraging skills than actual strategy. When you add that many advantages and idols into play, it’s less about how you think and act and more about what you find. That’s unfortunate. But Fire Tokens are now adding new strategic wrinkles that also play into the importance of the social game in terms of getting tokens from the people that leave. And that’s exciting.
And here’s the other thing to like about Fire Tokens: While this season has seen tokens and idols/advantages travel back and forth between Edge of Extinction and the tribes, you don’t need Edge of Extinction to make Fire Tokens work. They could easily be incorporated in a non-Edge season (which will hopefully be every single season after this one). Maybe one tribe has to exchange idols/advantages to the other tribe for tokens. Maybe you shift tribe reward challenges to individual challenges for tokens. Maybe the Survivor auction returns, but instead of paying money for items, you pay in tokens.
There are so many ways it could work without having a twist that still allows voted-out players to get back in and win the game. This episode proved it. It proved that Fire Tokens have worked. We saw three different scenes in one day that all paid huge dramatic dividends. We all bitch and scream and yell when we see something we don’t like — and Lord knows I have done that aplenty — but we should also celebrate the successful twists and wrinkles just as loudly. The producers knew this could have gone horribly wrong and been horribly mocked by yours truly on a weekly basis. And they did it anyway. Kudos to them and kudos to what has so far turned out to be a stellar season.
Okay, before we continue on with the other things to note from this most recent episode, allow me to draw your attention to a super fun video starring the entire Winners at War cast. When I was out in Fiji before filming, I asked each of the returning champions to share a secret from their winning season that nobody knew, and they delivered with some real doozies. Do yourself a favor and check it out to learn some juicy intel. And then continue on with the rest of this here recap.
Oh, and one last thing about Denise taking out Sandra. We’re about to go full circle and end this section where we started, with that quote from Jeff Probst: “Well, tonight’s Tribal shows that no matter how you categorize each other as threats, it only takes one move to become a high-profile player. Welcome to the club.”
Yes! The Final Words of Wisdom were back in all their glory! You all can scream bloody murder all you want about the missing opening credits or “previously on…” segments. For me, it’s the lack of Final Words of Wisdom in Edge seasons that bums me out the most. I don’t care that they usually do little other than state the obvious. I don’t care that they are often filled with clichés and half-baked metaphors. I don’t care that Jeff Probst himself doesn’t care for them and advised Australian Survivor host Jonathan LaPaglia to not even bother. I find them soothing and comforting and miss them when they are not there, and I don’t need to explain myself to you anymore because I can already sense you judging me.
Deception by Urine
First off, rude of Survivor producers to deliver their latest message on Edge of Extinction via a log. After all the suffering from the first four occupants there in collecting 20 logs each during that will and body-breaking task, to rub their noses in it by introducing yet another log was simply uncalled for… and hilarious.
The attached message, however, said that something was hidden on the Edge offering a chance to procure a Fire Token. In the end, it was Tyson who found the package just sitting in low tide, then he had to pretend to go pee to afford himself the privacy to pick it up without being seen. It turned out to be an Idol Nullifier that Tyson then sent to Parvati. Interesting how Tyson gave his Fire Token to Nick yet sent the Idol Nullifier to Parvati. Maybe he’s just a crazy matchmaker hoping to make Nick’s high-school crush dreams come true by sending as many items to him and Parvati and seeing if that will help cement an island love connection between the two. Which, I suppose, would also make Tyson a homewrecker, but, you know, he wasn’t on the Villains tribe for nothing, people, and you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. (By the way, looking forward to eating eggs again in 2021 once supermarkets are safe and no longer a haven for hoarders.)
Speaking of food, that’s exactly what Tyson used his Fire Token for. Specifically, peanut butter. His reasoning was that the nutrition will help him perform in the challenge to get back in the game while his spirits would be boosted because “I’m doing something sneaky and hilarious.” Personally, I think purchasing an actual advantage in the return challenge would have been the way to go, but nobody ever accused me of being sneaky or hilarious, so what do I know?
Drones. It is only a matter of time before they become self-aware and turn on their masters, forcing the human race into indentured servitude groveling at the non-existent feet of our new technological overlords. But, in the meantime, let’s enjoy all the kick-ass shots and perspectives these flying cameras have provided us on our favorite TV shows!
We got one such shot at the very start of this week’s immunity challenge as the airborne camera sailed past the heads of the contestants as Jeff Probst bellowed “Survivors ready…” It’s these little moments that often got lost or overlooked. Go back and watch it — super cool.
Anyway, the competition this week forced the players to swim to a boat, retrieve three bags of rice, get those bags through a narrow hole in an obstacle, stab the bags like the way my wife wants to stab me every time I watch Big Brother, and then maneuver three balls through a table maze. And then, in a twist, both of the losing tribes would be going to Tribal Council. It was cool enough. The main thing I took away from it after watching is that I never ever ever want to upset Ben Driebergen if there is a knife around. Holy moly, did you see the rage and intensity with which he was stabbing those bags? I need to watch what I write about that dude from now on.
My other big takeaway is something I already knew, which is: It is never not hilarious to watch someone call their own shot…and then miss. This idea was reinforced when Wendell was primed to get his second ball in the second hole (which I realize sounds grosser than I intended) so he called out to Probst “Watch this, Jeff”… only to then lose his ball and get called out by the host for talking smack. Hey, you can’t blame the guy. He’s probably still shell-shocked from that time during his last season when he lost a challenge for not calling out to Jeff.
Wendell eventually did get his second ball in, but Sophie sealed the deal by sinking her third ball and getting all the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches her heart desired. It was a great result for Yara, and especially great for Ben Driebergen, who as we all know is my favorite Survivor player in the history of Survivor players and one whom I would never write a negative word about, and even if I did, I am sure he would be completely forgiving and would not feel the need to retaliate on any level, especially a physical one. Three cheers for Ben, everyone! Hip-hip-HOORAY! Hip-hip-HOORAY! Hip-hip-HOORAY! Sing it with me, people: For he’s a jolly good fellow, for he’s a jolly good fellow…
Breaking up Is Hard to Do
Breaking up sucks. If you break up with someone, you feel bad. And if you get broken up with, you feel like a loser. I’ve been on both sides of that equation, and they are equally sucky. But you know what sucks even more? Breaking up, and then having cameras follow you around while you have awkward conversations with your ex…WHILE IN YOUR UNDERWEAR!
I have all the sympathy in the world for Michele and Wendell right now. While at the same time I also want these awkward scenes of post-relationship drama to be directly injected into my veins. I seriously cannot get enough. The drama this week revolved around Wendell telling Michele not to vote for him in an attempt to gain Parvati’s continued trust and — more importantly — Fire Tokens. He wanted no part of it, explaining that “I’m not concerned with Fire Tokens. I’m concerned with numbers.” Of course, this would be contradicted later by his repeated attempts to liberate Fire Tokens from Parvati by pretending he would vote with her in exchange for two tokens, but that’s not what we’re going to concern ourselves with right now when there clearly is romance gossip to be had.
Things ended messily between Michele and Wendell, and it appears some of the relationship dynamics may still be playing out on the island, with Michele noting that she keeps giving and her ex keeps taking even though “I’m the one who got burned.” But Wendell is the one feeling the heat now. He cannot be thrilled with his edit over these past two weeks and his off-island break-up figuring so prominently on the show. He probably thought it wouldn’t be on the season at all, because as I mentioned last week, in the past, producers have gone to great pains to edit out anyone discussing any off-island interactions. That kind of stuff never made it to the air. Until now. It’s as if Jeff Probst sat in the editing bay, conjured up a sly grin, and whispered to himself quietly, “Watch this, Wendell…”
We’ve covered most of the big themes and moments but a few other quick hits before we wrap this up:
• My love for Tony Vlachos knows no bounds but I have ZERO IDEA what he was thinking with the spy bunker. All that did was exclude him from important conversations and make him seem super sketchy. Also, since everyone has already seen his previous spy shacks and bunkers by water wells, wouldn’t they be hip to that trip and not discuss him while there? Seemed pointless.
• Interesting that Jeremy felt safe enough not to use his safety without power advantage. Did he think Denise was a goner and felt sure it wasn’t him, or did Denise tell him prior to Tribal that she had two idols she was going to play on both of them? If he did not know the latter, then he took a hell of a risk staying put there.
• One thing you never want to hear from a tribemate before heading to Tribal Council: “Well, you are a very wonderful person.”
• As if Wendell didn’t have enough to worry about with the whole Michele thing, his Tribal Council was not a great look either as he bragged about stabbing people in the back and the front and then bristled when people took issue with that, responding with comments like “Some people should appreciate it when people keep it real with them” and “I thought people respected realness.” While Parvati and Michele and likely many viewers may not have appreciated or respected it, the question is: How did alliance members Nick and Yul feel about it? Because that’s ultimately what matters the most.
• Jeremy impersonating what a duck looks like underwater is now seared into my brain for all eternity. It will never leave. It’s like a burned-in image on an old plasma TV set that was left on pause for too long. Coincidentally, his impression of a duck’s underside bears a striking resemblance to what Stephen Fishbach’s brain looks like during the target-shooting portion of a challenge. And I know Jeremy is quite familiar with both of those things.
And you should make yourself familiar with some of the other goodies we have at your disposal. Goodies like an exclusive deleted scene of Yara opening their Tree Mail that you can watch in this here recap. Goodies like my weekly Q&A with Hostmaster General Jeff Probst. And goodies like the cast all sharing secrets from their winning season. And for even more Survivor-themed treats, follow me on Twitter @DaltonRoss and Instagram @thedaltonross.
But now it’s your turn. Are you digging the extra layers of strategy at play due to the Fire Tokens? Bummed to see Parvati and Sandra go on the same night! Questioning Tyson’s decision on the peanut butter? Hit the message boards to weigh in, and don’t worry if your supermarket is all out of food due to over-zealous panic purchasers because I will be back next week serving up 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!"