If you need evidence of how high the paranoia is this season, just look at Boston Rob making everyone empty their bags at Tribal Council as if he’s a TSA agent looking for a drug mule. A stop-and-frisk is certainly one of the more unusual ways to find out who owns a hidden immunity idol. “This is ridiculous,” Adam laments while pouring his possessions onto the floor simply because that’s what everyone else is doing. It’s a prime example of the mass hysteria that can quickly envelop a tribe on Survivor, and the dysfunctional Sele tribe is undoubtedly hysterical right now.
It’s easy to be consumed by Survivor mania, and if you let it take hold, it can tank your game. That’s what happens in this episode to Survivor: Guatemala champ Danni, who blows up her own spot because of unjustified yet understandable paranoia. It was almost 15 years ago when Danni last played Survivor, and despite Guatemala being the season that first introduced the hidden idol, it was an entirely different pace compared to today’s fast-moving, frenzied, idol-under-every-tree-branch style of gameplay. Back in those days, you made one alliance and stuck to it, and then maybe then maybe late into the merge cracks would appear. In modern Survivor, there can be a dozen different alliances made and broken before the first visit to Tribal Council. And so, with multiple conversations happening in every nook and cranny of the jungle, you can see why Danni might start to get the jitters about her position in the game.
“I feel left out of the old-school alliance,” Danni worries as she watches Ethan, Parvati, and Rob laughing it up on the beach. This incorrect assumption that her allies have abandoned her leads to her “doing a Ben” and blurting out secrets in earshot of everyone. Firstly, she mentions the “old-school alliance” in front of new-schooler Ben, who himself is a walking pile of neuroses this season. Then she tells Rob she wants to vote out Parvati — his closest ally. The worst thing is that before this meltdown, the old-schoolers had a firm grip on the tribe, with wildcard Ben in the crosshairs for the next vote. Danni’s frantic scrambling causes the old-school alliance to implode while empowering the newbies. “This is incredible,” Adam states in astonishment as he chats with Jeremy and Michele about the pros and cons of eliminating Danni or Parvati.
After all the division, bag-searching, and mudslinging at Tribal, the tribe surprisingly comes together as a unit to vote out Danni, who heads to the Edge of Extinction to join Amber and Natalie. It’s a shame to lose another old-schooler so soon, but given the alternative was Parvati, I’m okay with the result. Parvati is not only a far more engaging television presence than Danni, but she is a highly skilled player that is more accustomed to the modern-day Survivor. In a way, it was sad to see Danni — who played a really subtle but effective social game in Guatemala — so overwhelmed and desperately struggling to keep up with the current pace of gameplay. It was kind of like watching your grandma trying to do The Floss or listening to your dad butchering the words to the latest Migos single. Danni tried to adapt to a new style of play when the right move, for now, was sticking with the old ways that earned her a million back in 2005.
Danni’s elimination unquestionably gives an edge to the new-schoolers going forward. Ethan, Parvati, and Rob are outnumbered five to three by the post-Heroes vs. Villains winners. On top of that, Adam and Denise now have an idol — though only useful when both halves are played together. Not to mention, Rob has lost his wife Amber to the spirits of the Edge and is doing his best not to let his emotions show. “It’s tough, but that’s the game, I get it,” he tells Jeff before the Immunity Challenge. I wonder if the pain of seeing Amber voted out is what causes him to have a brainfart during the puzzle? I can’t think of why else he suddenly starts playing Jenga mid-challenge. Not since the nightmare of the fafaru (a raw fish dish) back in Survivor: Marquesas has Rob fumbled a challenge so abominably. You know you messed up when Ethan — the nicest guy in the world — tells you you sucked.
The atmosphere at the Dakal camp is a lot more jovial than the paranoia-infested Sele tribe. Other than Kim finding an idol, which she perhaps mistakenly shares with Sophie (“You shouldn’t tell the devil you found an idol,” Sophie confesses), the red tribe’s focus is less on gameplay and more on, well… feeding themselves. Tony, who is still trying to maintain a low profile, gets the bright idea to channel his pent-up energy into constructing a bamboo ladder. “We sign waivers, but I don’t think there is a ladder clause,” Tyson muses as the New Jersey cop climbs his rickety contraption in the pursuit of tree-top breadfruit. I’ve heard the phrase “chaos is a ladder,” but chaos on a ladder is a lot scarier. “Don’t worry, I designed it this way,” Tony assures his tribemates while pieces of wood snap and plummet to the ground below. “That is the guy enforcing the law,” says a bemused Tyson. Tony is an absolute gift from the Survivor gods, and I, for one, am going to cherish every second he’s on screen.
Don’t let this childlike Tony fool you, though; he’s as calculated a player as ever. These wacky antics are not just an efficient way of blowing off steam — they’re a smoke-screen. As he said in last week’s premiere, the more he hangs around at camp and acts the clown, the more everyone else’s guards come down. Yul is out there forming alliances, Kim is finding idols and sharing them with the enemy, Sandra is breaking up marriages. All of these people suddenly become more prominent targets than the fool who almost got himself medically evacuated for falling off a jungle ladder. Survivor: Game Changers winner Sarah knows exactly what Tony is capable of, having been burned by him back in Survivor: Cagayan. But rather than hold a grudge, Sarah is willing to work with her fellow blue blood. Now that she knows Tony and understands his personality, there’s a chance that the once short-lived Cops R Us alliance could actually work this time around.
Winners At War continues to intrigue and excite in its second week, even if the advantage/idol overload in the first 15 minutes had me slightly concerned. But between the old-school versus new-school dynamic on Sele, the emotion of Rob losing Amber, and the great ladder expedition of 2020, it’s hard to come away feeling anything less than fulfilled.
• I don’t want to spend too much time on the Edge because it’s my least favorite part of the show, and watching starving people perform scavenger hunts gets old fast. However, it should be noted that Natalie finds another advantage that she can barter with for fire tokens. The advantage allows a player to leave any Tribal before the votes are cast, basically making them safe from elimination. She sends it to Jeremy in exchange for one token. Oh, we also learn Amber and Natalie can’t do simple acrostic puzzles.
• Ben is with Denise when she finds her idol, and, to his credit, he doesn’t force her to share it with him. I feel like Ben is making a concerted effort to improve his social game, but I worry he’s overcompensating somewhat. He seems to have forgotten that his social game was pretty solid for the majority of his first season until he became the biggest threat to win. I think the hate towards his idol-assisted win has perhaps made him undersell his own social skills.
• I talked a lot about Tony’s ladder, but it should be said that Yul’s bamboo fruit-hook is a nifty bit of apparatus, too.
• “It looked like a hole,” says Adam after a prolonged sequence of trying to slot his torch into the right slot at Tribal. Phrasing!