If there is one way to summarize the first half of Winners At War, it would simply be an old schooler slaughter. Yul’s shock elimination in this final pre-merge episode of the season means that nobody remaining has played Heroes vs. Villains before. To put that into context, Sophie is now the most old-school castaway left in the game. She won Season 23, which was in 2011; Beyoncé announced her first pregnancy in 2011, and I refuse to categorize Blue Ivy Carter as old school!
At Tribal Council, Jeff Probst tries to explain this obliteration of the early season players as a failure to adapt to the modern game. He speaks as if Yul is a senile grandpa who just joined Facebook and keeps accidentally typing his search terms in his newsfeed. Yul humors Jeff, talking about the complexity of new-school Survivor and how twists like the fire tokens have added more layers of duplicity. But I don’t think Yul’s downfall was an inability to adapt his strategy. While it’s undeniable that the game has evolved over the years, and is certainly faster and more twist-heavy than Survivor pre-2010, it’s not as if players like Yul haven’t dealt with tribe swaps and idols and out-of-the-blue twists before. I mean, Yul came from a season that divided its tribes by race for God’s sake; if he can succeed in that environment, this is nothing.
People might point to Sandra’s decision to quit the Edge of Extinction at the start of the episode as evidence that old schoolers can’t hack modern Survivor. But Sandra’s exit has little bearing on her skills as a player. Like Yul, she’s played in seasons with idols and twists — in fact, her first season, Pearl Islands, included an early iteration of the Edge with the infamous Outcasts tribe. She won two seasons and dominated the majority of the pre-merge in Game Changers because she knows how to maneuver the game, find cracks, get into the numbers, and manipulate her competition. No matter what fancy dressing you put on a season, those facets of Survivor haven’t changed in 20 years. Sandra knows what she’s good at, and challenges are not it. “I’ll just be wasting my time for an opportunity to get back into a game I’m not gonna succeed at,” she says. That self-awareness should be applauded. Why starve for 23 more days for the near-impossible odds of returning? Out of some false sense of pride? As Sandra says herself, “I’ll always stay the Queen,” and this choice to bow out does not taint her title.
In my opinion, the old schoolers, for the most part, weren’t eliminated because they sucked at present-day Survivor. They were targeted because they are huge threats with massive reputations. Did they make mistakes? Of course. But so has everyone else. Adam and Ben have made blunders. Jeremy and Michele have been on the wrong side of a vote. But for a Boston Rob or a Parvati or a Sandra, any error is only going to be magnified because of their notoriety. The same goes for Yul. He might have only played once before, but he’s held in high esteem as one of Survivor’s smartest strategists. He’s a methodical, forward-planning, number-crunching whiz at this game, and so when he starts presenting his plans in the style of a Silicon Valley TED Talk, people get worried.
Recognizing that fire tokens are likely to gain more value come the merge, Yul comes up with a master plan. He tells Michele and Nick that they can blindside Wendell but in such a way that Wendell will still gift his tokens to Michele after the vote. While it’s a little too fancy for its own good, it shows that Yul is well equipped at adapting to new game elements. But in this conversation, Michele and Nick don’t see a potential ally staring back at them. They see the stone-cold Cook Islands legend that they watched from their couches at home when they were teenagers. So, despite the continuous — and increasingly irritating — ex-lovers’ quarrel between Michele and Wendell, and the fact Wendell essentially cost the tribe the Immunity Challenge, the fear of Yul’s ginormous brain looms much larger. “I would love revenge [on Wendell],” Michele states, “but Yul is super strategic and will probably win at the end.”
And so Yul is sent to the Edge, which is looking like a Survivor retirement home at this point. It’s a twist that is still, unfortunately, taking up far too much screen time, though the conversation between Ethan and Parvati is enlightening. Following Sandra’s exit, Ethan considers whether he should raise the white flag also. Life on the Edge is a battle, not just with the elements, but with your own mind. “I feel defeated … like there is no hope,” Ethan says. “I’ve gotta find hope.” As a two-time cancer survivor, Ethan has bigger health worries than the others. He confesses to Parvati that he’s scared about the effects the lack of food and sleep is having on his body, especially with the limited data on stem cell recipients. And even though Parv’s “just think positive” and “fasting is good for you” attitude is somewhat misguided, the way she’s there to comfort Ethan and lift him out of a dark place is a heartwarming moment. If the Edge was more of this and less fire token scavenger hunts, which we also spend time on this episode, I wouldn’t be so hard on it.
The merge is now upon us, and if the first half of the season has taught us anything, I expect the bloodbath to continue. The Dakal tribe was already preparing for war this episode, with Denise, Jeremy, Kim, and Tony putting their pieces in place for the post-merge game. While there are definitely different factions within the Dakal group, they appear to be somewhat of a united front heading into next week. The same can’t be said for the Yara tribe, which spends most of this episode bickering over who found the hidden immunity idol. Between Adam’s outsider status, Michele and Wendell’s relationship drama, Kim and Sophie’s idols, the return of an Edge inhabitant, and the unbelievable fact the llama-whisperer himself, Tony, has made the merge, there are a lot of combustible elements at play. And I, for one, can’t wait to see the explosion.
• I think we might need to start considering the theory that Michele and Wendell are exaggerating their beef. It’d be a hell of a play if they made it to Final Tribal and revealed to the jury that they were actually still dating.
• As much as I can do without the Edge of Extinction games, I do appreciate the out-of-sequence editing with the flashback to Rob finding the tokens earlier.
• “If I’m wrong, I’ll feel like a real idiot,” Adam says after confidently accusing Sarah of having the idol. Sophie has it, and she takes great pleasure in Adam’s pain.
• Before Yul leaves, he wills his tokens to Sarah and Sophie, one for each of them. I feel like between their idol and Vote Steal advantage, and now the tokens, Sarah and Sophie could be a real power duo post-merge — and I’m here for it.