There was really only one way Survivor could commemorate its milestone 40th season, and that was by staging its own version of The Hunger Games’ Quarter Quell. No, I don’t mean the show is finally forcing its players to fight to the death (yet!), although, if there was ever a cast willing to kill each other for the prize, it’s this one. Twenty previous Survivor winners are returning to the battlefield for a chance to be forever immortalized as the ultimate champion of champions. Oh, and the $2 million prize fund is a hell of an incentive, too.
This long-anticipated all-winners season comes at an opportune time for CBS, which will be hoping the anniversary celebrations help fans forget about last season’s inappropriate touching controversy. We won’t forget, and we will be keeping close watch to make sure the network upholds its promised changes in its misconduct policy. However, as an unabashed Survivor superfan, it’s hard not to get swept up in the excitement of an all-winners showdown. From the moment these 20 castaways disembark their boats and step foot on the sandspit (or stumble ass-first into the ocean, in some cases), there is a palpable energy that hits you right in the nostalgia bone. Parvati flashes her signature pearly whites at old-school icon and cancer survivor Ethan. “The Queen” Sandra looks quizzically across at married couple Rob and Amber. Human fidget-spinner Tony stands mere feet away from the cool and collected Yul. It’s a line-up of some of Survivor’s biggest legends, and also Ben.
Let’s be honest, it’s the cast and their histories that hold the appeal here. It’s not the excessive amount of advantages and twists that plague modern Survivor — which this season includes the return of the much-maligned Edge of Extinction (more on that later) and a new twist called “fire tokens,” which sounds like something from an ’80s arcade game. This group doesn’t need all the bells and whistles and whatever flight of fancy appears next on Jeff Probst’s dream board. The first hour of this double-feature premiere is all the proof you need that personalities trump twists every time. It fills the heart with joy to see a player like Ethan — who last played in 2004 and has beaten cancer (twice!) — embracing this opportunity. Likewise, hearing Parvati talk about how she’s grown from the flirty single chick to a married mom of a newborn or watching Yul bring his methodical strategy to the modern game. Or how about former foes Rob and Parvati burying the hatchet and successfully working together? I couldn’t help but watch all this with a big stupid grin on my face.
And with the most competitive cast ever, it’s no surprise that the gameplay is rapid-pace from the second Jeff pops a bottle of bubbly, does a bad British accent, and formally welcomes everyone to Winners At War. The title is appropriate; this is a war from the get-go, starting with an intense immunity challenge mere moments after landing on the beach. You might think that, having won before, these players would rest on their laurels or kick back and wait to collect their appearance fee, but everybody here has a point to prove — not only that they deserved to win the first time, but that they deserve to win again (or for a third time in Sandra’s case). Also, as Jeff so astutely puts it, nobody wants the cursed chalice of being the first winner voted off of the all-winners season.
Unfortunately, that title has to go to somebody, and it’s Survivor: San Juan del Sur champion Natalie who falls victim. It’s not easy to pinpoint what Natalie did wrong — if anything — to land in the same spot her twin sister Nadiya did back in season 29. While the action at both tribes is fast and heavy, there is an early cautiousness when it comes to throwing out a name at the Sele beach. That wariness is understandable after Danni is given a public grilling from Boston Rob after he finds out she tossed his name into the potential target pile. From that moment on, everyone has their guard up, including Natalie, who is afraid to commit to a target. And the two names floating around the most are Adam and Denise, but only because they make the rookie error of going off into the woods together, therefore becoming the natural scapegoats.
It appears Natalie becomes the target for two main reasons. The first is the formation of an old-school alliance, consisting of Rob, Parvati, Ethan, and Danni — an alliance which could have only come from a Survivor fanfiction before this season. The old-schoolers want to show the new kids how it’s done, and Natalie falls firmly into that new school camp. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the vote is about connections. These returning player seasons always bring with them past relationships and outside-the-game friendships. Those external elements become a huge factor in this episode, starting with Natalie and her close bond with Jeremy. Not only did those two play together in San Juan del Sur, but they were strong allies who remained friends after the show. The fact they wound up on the same tribe doesn’t help their cause and makes it that much easier for veterans like Rob and Parvati — who by their own admission can’t believe they aren’t prime targets (“Is everyone dumb or are they just scared?” Parv wonders) — to wrangle the votes against them.
Past connections have an even greater impact in the second elimination of the night, when the Dakal tribe heads to their first Tribal Council. The tribe essentially splits into three factions. There is the Sandra-Sarah-Tony trio, all of whom played on past seasons together and agree to put any bad blood behind them. Then there’s the “free agents” quartet of Sophie, Yul, Nick, and Wendell, all one-time players who lack overt connections and seem happy to work together — Sophie especially is thrilled to surround herself with “nerd-shields” like Yul. The last is the most fascinating grouping of the lot, particularly the way it shatters the fourth wall of Survivor gameplay. Amber, Kim, and Tyson are lumped together as members of the ominous “poker alliance.” You see, a year or so ago, Kim and Tyson played in a “Survivor Champions” poker game with Rob and Jeremy, which just so happened to be streamed live on YouTube. A year later, and this frivolous card game among friends has taken on a life of its own in a much higher stakes game.
What makes it so thrilling is the way the show incorporates this outside material into the story, going so far as to air a clip from the poker game in question (the first ever use of non-Survivor footage in an episode). For decades, Survivor has shied away from referencing pregame agreements and deals, even though they are rife in returning player seasons. Going all the way back to the infamous Rob and Lex betrayal in the first Survivor: All-Stars, the edit only alluded to their friendship and never referenced their pregame alliance. I guess it’s hard for producers to keep track of all the negotiations and even harder to contextualize for the viewers at home. That’s why it’s so wild to see the poker alliance not only mentioned here but featured as a significant part of the story and one of the reasons Amber is sent packing.
So is the poker alliance real? Not according to Kim, who for the first time in her Survivor career finds herself on the outs. “No one will tell me a name,” she worries. It’s both heartbreaking and riveting to see Kim in this position, at one point literally on her knees in the sand, begging to be part of the majority. The Survivor: One World champion played one of the most dominant winning games in the history of this show; she cut through the competition with a smile on her face. Here, Kim is blighted by a game of Texas Hold ‘Em she participated in for three hours back in 2018. It doesn’t matter if the poker alliance exists or not (and for the record, I don’t think it does in any real sense), because as is so often the case in Survivor, perception is reality. The big threats like Sandra and Tony are quick to jump on the opportunity, as are the uneasy outliers like Yul and Sophie, and in the end, Kim and Tyson have no choice but to fold their hands, sacrifice Amber, and wait on the deck to be reshuffled.
Amber being the patsy for the poker crew is a shame but also inevitable, even if I personally think Tony’s pitch to take out Tyson was the smarter play. Amber’s connection to Rob goes beyond any game, whether it’s cards, Survivor, or otherwise. After meeting on All-Stars and falling in love 16 years ago, Amber and Rob got married (on TV!) and have had four daughters together. They were obviously going to be massive targets coming back to Survivor, and it doesn’t matter if they started on separate tribes, their connection is always going to be stronger than anyone else on the island. And having not played Survivor since 2004, back when it was a much slower show than the highly caffeinated game of today, it was naturally going to be tougher for Amber to pick things up than her husband, who has at least played in the era of idols and quick-moving strategy.
And so Amber joins Natalie on the Edge of Extinction (EOE), which I suppose it’s time to talk about. To put it bluntly, I hate the EOE, as do many Survivor fans. I get why it’s here, especially in this season, because Jeff is scared about losing the fan favorites and wants a way to keep them on screen all season. But that doesn’t appeal to me. I want to see my favorites playing Survivor, not moping around on some other limbo island not playing Survivor. The loser’s bracket lessens the impact of a torch-snuffing when you know the eliminated player is still tangentially linked to the game. But it’s not so much the “second chance” aspect of the EOE that drives me crazy, it’s that eliminated players can still influence the active game. That’s an even larger concern this season with the introduction of fire tokens — an in-game currency that the players can use to purchase advantages and luxuries. I’m surprised they didn’t stick a vending machine in the middle of the jungle stuffed full of items.
The fire tokens could be an interesting wrinkle to the game, I just don’t think they were needed in this season, which is stimulating enough based on it being all winners. Seriously, this group didn’t require any extra incentive to play at a high level. And having the fire tokens directly linked to the EOE only fills me with further dread. Already we’ve seen Natalie gain a token by sending a hidden immunity idol to Sandra (who had to purchase it with one token). Now Natalie can use that token on the EOE to help buy an advantage for the impending “return” challenge or on several luxury items, including food. (Remember when the EOE was meant to be a desolate wasteland?) It’s just another example of the show’s continued insistence on inordinate amounts of idols and advantages, which only serve to chip away at the social game Survivor was built on. It won’t be long before the winner is determined not by who played the best socially strategic game, but whoever has the highest exchange rate in the Survivor stock market.
That said, no amount of ridiculous twists were enough to kill my enthusiasm — not yet anyway. This is a season two decades in the making and the thrill of watching these 20 champions interact, form alliances, share stories, build bridges, make new enemies, laugh, cry, fight, it is an absolute fantasy island for any hardcore Survivor lover.
• Sophie basically sums up my thoughts on modern Survivor when she mutters, “Stop, enough things” during Jeff’s non-stop conveyor belt of twist announcements.
• Tyson not wanting to cry about his kids on Day 1 is a nice bookend to his first season when he self-admittedly took pleasure in seeing others cry.
• I appreciate the willpower it took Tony not to immediately dart off into the jungle looking for an idol. “I’m on probation,” he jokes to his tribemates.
• What was up with Ben this episode? Even though I joked earlier about his spot on this season, I don’t really have an issue with him being here, but his gameplay seemed all over the place. First, he blabs to Rob about Danni throwing his name out. Then he tells Adam about his name being out there, seemingly switching the vote, and yet in the second hour, he blames Rob and Parv for changing the plan.
• “It’s good to be back,” says Ethan as he casts his first vote in 16 years, and I’ll confess, I got a little misty-eyed.
• I should note that when a player is voted out, they have to “bequeath” their tokens to a player still in the game. (I’m not sure what books Jeff has been reading between his use of “bequeath” and that odd British accent he did). Anyway, Natalie wills her token to Jeremy and Amber to, any guesses? Why her husband Rob, of course.
• Speaking of Jeff, his continual timestamping of how long ago certain castaways played by the release of various technology (mostly Apple products) really tickled me.
• Sandra calling orders from the sit-out bench during the second Immunity challenge is a mood. “Tony, pay attention!”
• “Everyone should be civilized about it,” says Yul of the first pre-Tribal strategy talk. “That’ll be a first,” Tony quips.