One of the great things about this season is it has 20 years of Survivor history to play with. There are all these intertwining relationships, outside-the-game connections, and niche callbacks to seasons and strategies of yesteryear. It might be impenetrable to a new viewer, but after two decades on the air, Survivor is making this show for its core audience who relish in these references. This is easily the best episode of the season so far in large part because of those fan-pleasing callbacks — and no Edge of Extinction segment helps, too.
No one has had more history with Survivor than Boston Rob, a man who has played the game an unprecedented five times over 18 years, finishing as a pre-merge boot, a runner-up, and a winner. He met his wife on this show and got married on CBS’s dime. Last season they built a statue in his honor for God’s sake! But it’s not the happy memories Rob is flashing back to this week. Following a tribe swap that splits the group into three new tribes of five, Rob winds up in a precarious position. While old Sele holds a 3:2 majority over the former Dakal members, Sarah and Sophie, it’s possibly the worst combination of Sele that could have ended up together. Adam, Ben, and Rob have spent the past 12 days lying to and backstabbing one another and now have to put up a united front. “This is the part of the game I don’t like too much,” worries Rob as he recalls how a tribe swap curtailed his game back in his first season when he was a surly 20-something with a chip on his shoulder.
Rob’s worries are not unreasonable. As soon as they get to camp, the newly formed Yara tribe reveals itself to be a beautiful mess, and I’m not just talking about the condition of the beach. While Sarah and Sophie keep old tribe dynamics close to the chest, the three boys immediately start spilling all the bad blood of the Sele tribe. “There are cracks up the wazoo,” says Sophie, recognizing that she and Sarah might actually have a chance to survive their numbers deficit. Though, to be on the safe side, the two women waste little time in jungle snooping, knowing that an idol is likely to be hidden somewhere on the beach. This is another element of the game unfamiliar to Rob. He came from an era before idols, and though he’s played in seasons with them since (and found one himself), they didn’t come as frequently as they do nowadays. “I’m trying to adapt,” he says. “But I don’t have the answers, and I usually have the answers.”
This inability to adapt is essentially what causes Rob’s downfall, when, after losing the Immunity Challenge, he resorts to old tactics. “How do we get from now to Tribal Council without getting sketched with each other?” Rob asks after getting Adam and Ben to commit to voting out Sarah. His solution? A tried-and-tested strategy known as the “Buddy System,” which sounds like something Dennis Reynolds would invent on It’s Always Sunny. It was the strategy he employed in his winning season, where he basically made sure his alliance members always remained in pairs, so they couldn’t sneak off and make new plans. This time, Rob orders that Adam and Ben stick around the campfire with him for the rest of the afternoon, so that Sarah and Sophie can’t get in their ears. He’s like a chaperone watching over a bunch of fourth-graders on a field trip. “This is the Buddy System on steroids,” says a flabbergasted Sarah. “Babysitter Rob has put the kids in the playpen. Well, you ain’t putting me in a playpen.”
While Rob does his best impression of Garrett from Survivor: Cagayan, Sarah and Sophie are put in a tight spot. They feel like Adam and Ben want to flip on Rob, but it’s hard to know for sure when they can’t communicate without a Red Sox cap looming over their heads. Luckily, the two ladies have some backup ammunition. Sophie finds the idol, which she shares with Sarah after covertly sliding it into her pants and passing Rob’s stop and search. Meanwhile, Sarah still has the Vote Steal, which she is willing to use if need be, though she would ideally like to keep hold of it for when the game gets messier. “Our only assurance is a wink or a thumbs up when Rob isn’t looking,” says Sophie. “Sometimes, you’ve got to trust the wink.” And it turns out, the wink can be trusted, as Adam and Ben ultimately join Sarah and Sophie in eliminating The Robfather, whose dictatorial play-style just didn’t fly among a group of newer winners wanting a more fluid game.
The dynamics of the other two swapped tribes are equally gripping, bubbling with past tension and crisscrossed relationships. On the new red tribe, there is an old Dakal majority of Kim, Sandra, and Tony, but much like the aforementioned Sele trio, this isn’t the tightest of units. While Sandra and Tony have been aligned from the start, Kim was firmly on the outs on her previous tribe and hasn’t really had the chance to maneuver. Seizing the opportunity to ingratiate herself with Denise and Jeremy, Kim looks to form some deeper, everlasting bonds to carry her further into the game. But things aren’t clear cut. Having voted out Tyson last week, Tony is aware that losing any more big threats could leave himself and Sandra with nowhere to hide. “We need threats to protect us; otherwise, these hyenas are going to take out the lions,” he tells Sandra. Even though we haven’t really seen Kim in action yet this season, her previous win is regarded as one of the all-time best. She is someone Tony could use as a shield to stave off the hyena attack. Kim listens and seems to agree with Tony’s pitch, but she is still weighing her options, something she didn’t have a day ago.
It’s over on the new Sele tribe, though, where we have the most entertaining mix of players. There is a heartwarming reunion between Parvati and Yul, who played together back in Survivor: Cook Islands as part of opposing alliances. “We were never on the same side, but he told me I’m his wife’s favorite player, so that’s a bit of an in,” says Parvati, who, along with Michele, is outnumbered on this tribe by three former Dakals in Nick, Wendell, and Yul. Nick also confesses to having a high school crush on Parvati, which is a little awkward, but not as awkward as the cringe-tastic conversation between Michele and Wendell. We learn that these two recent winners briefly dated (or “kicked it” in Wendell’s words) out in the real world — and the breakup was not amicable. Suddenly, Survivor becomes Ex On The Beach, as Wendell “scolds” Michele, in her words. It’s funny but also fascinating. Once again, real life is affecting the season, and the show is not shying away from it. Michele’s perspective on how this relationship ties into her game is an example of how multilayered and meta this season is. “Wendell broke my trust in real life,” she states. “And I don’t want to get burned in the game like I did when we were dating.” Get that coconut popcorn popping, because this is going to get good!
There’s one other incredible scene from this episode I’ve yet to touch on. It’s another moment that pays tribute to Survivor’s past and exemplifies the kind of long-lasting and complex relationships that are made on this show. Yul opens up to his tribe mates about his reason for playing a second time. He talks about his relationship with Jonathan Penner, who he played with back in Cook Islands and formed a close friendship with outside of the game. In 2017, Jonathan’s wife, the film director Stacy Title, was diagnosed with ALS, a disease that affects the nervous system and is currently without a cure. An emotional Yul talks about the devastating nature of the disease and how Stacy has lost all muscle control, only able to move her eyes. He speaks proudly about how Jonathan looks after his wife and family around the clock. “I’m playing for something bigger,” says Yul. Not only does he want to use the money to help unburden some of the Penner family’s financial strain, but he wants to use this platform to raise awareness for this horrific disease.
It’s a heartbreaking scene but a powerful reminder that these players we see on TV are real people with real problems who form real relationships. There’s a unique bond between the almost 600 people who have played this crazy game over the years, whether they participated in the same season or not. Survivor is responsible for marriages, romantic flings, and lifelong friendships, and Winners At War is a celebration of it all, and that’s more entertaining than any convoluted twist could ever be.
For more information on Stacy’s story and to donate to ALS research, visit www.cbs.com/SurvivorALSInfo.
• “I feel like Wendell’s texting me, ‘You up?’ and I’m like, ‘New season, who dis?” I think Michele just topped her “Bro, I know” confessional.
• Before Rob left, he gifted his two fire tokens to Parvati, which brings her total up to four. That’s at least got to buy her a pizza, right?
• I know I briefly mentioned it up top, but it really was refreshing not to have to spend ten minutes of the episode at the Edge of Extinction this week. It just goes to show how much that twist eats up airtime and derails the momentum of an otherwise fantastic season.