The old-school slaughter continues on Survivor: Winners At War with the lovable Ethan becoming the latest recipient of Jeff Probst’s torch-snuffing. This one stings. I mean, sure, losing Amber and Danni sucked too, and it hurt to see such a fiery gameplayer like Natalie voted out first, but this one is the first real gut-punch of the season. This was a 16-year journey back to Survivor for Ethan, who, in 2009, was diagnosed with a rare form of Hodgkin’s disease, which he fought and overcame twice! Boston Rob and Sandra might have two giant, ugly statues erected in their honor, but when it comes to the true definition of a survivor, Ethan stands tall above the rest.
“I remember dreaming and praying that I’d be alive long enough to play Survivor again, and so it’s a miracle that I’m sitting here today,” Ethan said in the premiere. That childlike joy in being back could be sensed in everything he did, whether it was collecting coconuts, scrambling through the jungle trying to keep up with the strategy, or telling Rob that he sucked in the challenges. Ethan was not only living a dream, but he was embracing life, and that was a pleasure to watch. And so, of course, it’s a crushing feeling to see the season three winner’s Survivor resurrection cut short, especially under such unfortunate circumstances. Let’s just say, the path to this elimination was paved with confusion and perplexing decisions.
It begins with the burgeoning battle between old school and new school on the ramshackle Sele tribe. Despite the unanimous vote for Danni in the last episode, the more recent winners still see Ethan, Parvati, and Rob as the old school trio calling the shots. Adam and Ben, in particular, are sick of being ordered around and are sulking like two children who have been told “no ice-cream until you’ve finished your homework.” In one of the more audacious things I’ve ever heard on Survivor, and this includes a man who once lied about his grandma being dead, Adam says that Rob needs to “adapt” and “play more like I am.” Now, don’t get me wrong, there are certainly ways Rob could modify his game this season, but I’m not sure taking lessons from the guy running around spilling secrets and playing both sides is the way to go. That said, I’m enjoying Adam’s anarchic energy this season and his willingness to shake things up and call people out, even if it’s not the smartest approach for his own game.
All the new-schoolers are on board with Adam’s plan to make a big move and “draw a line in the sand,” but in what is becoming a frustrating tradition, it’s the woman in the alliance who is targeted first. Even though it’s Rob who has been mob-bossing the tribe, including his Tribal Council stop-and-search last week, it’s Parvati in the firing line. Parvati going home is supposedly the best option because it will “weaken” Rob. Hey, you know what will really weaken Rob? Voting out Rob! Just an idea, guys! I’m not saying that Parvati isn’t a viable target; she is an incredibly dangerous player, but she can also be fiercely loyal — just think back to her double idol play for Jerri and Sandra in Heroes vs. Villains. On the flip side, Rob is known for one of the most infamous betrayals in Survivor history, and so I’m not sure what makes Adam think Rob would be devoted to him after he votes out his closest ally. And telling Rob about the Parvati plan in an attempt at forging trust is an even more bewildering decision from the Millenials vs. Gen-X winner.
“Is this kid crazy?” Rob laughs in confessional. “I don’t play like that. He’s seen my seasons. He’s seen everyone episode!” Adam’s divulging of information sets off a chain reaction of chaos around the camp, with Rob essentially ambushing Jeremy and Michele’s conversation and telling them he knows what’s up and that it’s not happening. This sends Michele into a tailspin as she now has to go and play the dreaded messenger by informing all the other new schoolers that Adam leaked the plan. This all-out pandemonium is brilliantly contrasted with a scene just moments earlier with everyone sitting silently around the campfire, each of them anxiously waiting to see who will make the first move. “Adam broke the cardinal rule of Survivor,” says Parvati, admonishing him for being foolish enough to tip off the enemy. “I’m ready to pounce and devour that guy and send his bones to the Edge of Extinction,” she says with a smirk — it’s good to know that the “black widow” still resides within new mom Parvati.
So, with Adam now firmly in the crosshairs, how did Ethan end up getting the boot, you may be wondering? Well, amid all this disorder, a new potential power couple appears to be rising from the ashes (more on ashes in a bit). Jeremy and Michele is a partnership formed in failure. They were both left out of the first vote and have since taken a backseat, quietly observing from the sidelines. While Rob rules the roost, Parvati sharpens her dagger, and Adam and Ben go stir crazy, Jeremy and Michele have stepped back and slowly become a powerful pair at the core of the Sele tribe. Here, they find themselves in a valuable swing-vote position, being able to join the old-schoolers in eliminating wildcard Adam or sticking with Adam’s suggestion of voting out Parvati. Or, maybe there is a third option? Michele suggests targeting Ethan, which would still weaken Rob (again, why not just vote Rob?), but also put Adam in his place, leaving him on an island of his own as the lone vote for Parvati. It’s a cunning and calculated move with enormous upside, even if it does rip my heart out to see Ethan pay the price for the blunders of others.
It’s not only Adam breaking cardinal rules of Survivor in this episode, though, as over on the Dakal tribe, Tyson is also feeling the pressure to make a move. Still recovering from the “poker alliance” hex, Tyson is desperately trying to find a way off the bottom and decides his best option is to target Sandra. If there is one cardinal rule more important than “don’t leak plans to the enemy,” it’s most definitely “thou shall not come for the Queen.” The Blood vs. Water winner takes his pitch to Sophie and Yul, reminding them of how Sandra operates, which is pitting people against each other and stirring things up. However, Tyson’s move couldn’t have come at a worse time, as Sandra isn’t splitting the tribe apart right now; in fact, she’s bringing everyone together. Not since her haul from a Panama market in Survivor: Pearl Islands has Sandra provided so much for her tribe. “I’m retiring after this season, so this time, I’m gonna prove my worth to the tribe,” she says before laying out a fishing net and catching a baby shark. “Sandra keeps the morale high, and she’s keeping us fed, so I don’t want to lose Sandra,” says Yul, essentially pooh-poohing Tyson’s plan.
Also, it needs to be mentioned, Sandra’s catch-of-the-day sees Tony flailing around with the shark in his hand while singing “Baby Shark.” Honestly, I’d be up for Tony performing renditions of different meme songs each episode. Maybe next week he’ll do Rick Astley… Never gonna vote me out! But almost getting bitten by a tiny shark is just the start of the Tony hilarity this episode. Now, the Edge of Extinction twist is still an unnecessary time-suck, and as happy as I am for Natalie’s continued rise from “peasant” to “fire-token billionaire,” the weekly scavenger hunts on the Edge are grating as all hell. However, the Edge inadvertently led to one of the funniest scenes Survivor has ever put to air this episode.
It starts when Natalie sends a Vote Steal advantage to Sarah, the catch being that to obtain it, not only does she have to pay one fire token, but she has to sneak into the other tribe’s camp at night and snatch it from one of their torches. I’m not sure why Sarah had to turn into Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible when all Sandra and Jeremy had to do to get their advantages was reach into their bags, but whatever, it gave us the best buddy cop comedy ever. As a police officer, Sarah knows all about recon work, but having to sneak out of camp in the middle of the night would require back-up. In steps her Cops ‘R’ Us partner, Tony, shark wrangler by day, undercover spy by night. In true Tony fashion, he piles on the ridiculousness by suggesting Sarah camouflage herself, which involves him smearing ash all over her face. But because the ash is so dusty, it doesn’t stick, and thus, TONY SPITS ON THE ASH and precedes to rub into Sarah’s forehead. (To top it off, in some kind of serendipitous universal joke, this episode aired on Ash Wednesday.) After a lot of stumbling in the dark, Sarah retrieved her Vote Steal, and the Cops ‘R’ Us have their first successful mission under their belt.
Winners At War has been consistently entertaining across its first three episodes, effortlessly blending humor, drama, and high-wire tension. Even when a fan favorite is eliminated, which is going to happen a lot this season given the caliber of the cast, it only adds to the emotional stakes — even if the looming presence of the Edge of Extinction somewhat undercuts the impact. And it really is only the Edge that is stopping this season from reaching maximum entertainment value. Every visit to the Edge is time away from one of the most compelling Survivor games of all time, and so it’s hard not to be frustrated, knowing how needless it was to include this ill-conceived twist. That said, if any season can succeed in spite of its twist, it’s this one, and so far, Winners At War is living up to the hype.
• Ethan wills his fire token to Parvati before he heads to the Edge to join his fellow old-schoolers plus Natalie.
• How impressive was Natalie working out the number for the combination lock and then subsequently smashing the evidence so Amber and Danni couldn’t solve it themselves?
• The puzzle showdown in this week’s Immunity Challenge was genuinely tense and perhaps one of the closest finishes in the show’s history.
• Speaking of the challenge, I’m not sure what that noise was that Ben made when he botched his throw, but I want it downloaded and turned into my alarm noise immediately.