There’s a moment in this week’s episode when Natalie and Parvati find a dumb advantage on the Edge of Extinction and have to decide who in the game to send it to. “Who is the person that will cause the most chaos?” Parvati wonders, thinking like a TV producer. Well, if it’s prime-time entertainment you want, you go to the guy whose initials literally spell out T.V. The one and only, Tony Vlachos.
To put it bluntly, there’s never been anyone quite like Tony on Survivor — there’s certainly no one like him who has won before. He plays the game like a shaven Tasmanian devil, spinning through the jungle, jumping out of trees, tripping, falling, and always on the move. He was known in his first season for never sleeping, his mind constantly active, cooking up his next scheme amongst the snores of his fellow tribemates. The genius of Tony’s game in Survivor: Cagayan was his ability to channel his paranoid energy and insomnia-inspired ideas into masterful, eye-popping blindsides. But that anarchic, mile-a-minute, flip-flopping, cutthroat gameplay does not win Survivor. Except for Tony, it did. Against all the odds, against everything we thought we knew about Survivor, Tony and his wild west gameplay came out on top. It was a feat so rare that it could surely never be repeated, especially now everyone has seen how it happened. And that proved to be the case when Tony bulldozed his way into Survivor: Game Changers, only to be swiftly voted out at the second Tribal Council.
But here we are, 11 episodes into Survivor: Winners At War, and not only is Tony still in the game, but Cagayan Tony is back in all his nutty glory, and it’s a thing of beauty. The transformation didn’t happen overnight, as Tony explains, he had to play patiently early on. That meant no disappearing into the jungle to look for idols or coming up with bonkers plans. “Doing that would jeopardize my game,” he explains, clearly having learned from his Game Changers mistakes. Instead, he focused on building relationships, and the odd bamboo ladder or two — but strictly for fruit retrieval purposes. Despite a couple of momentary relapses, a Spy Shack here, some flustered scrambling there, Tony kept his head down and resisted his inner urges, like a man on a diet passing a donut shop. And it worked! He made it to the merge — and with allies to boot. But now the probation period is over. “I’m now at that point where it’s time to go out and go to work,” he says before taking an early morning stroll in the woods to go idol searching. And even though Nick catches him looking, Tony plays it off as if it’s a joint venture, convincing Nick to widen the search and sending him off in the other direction. Meanwhile, Tony gets his hands on the idol and darts off like an excited child charging down the stairs on Christmas morning.
The Tony delights do not stop there, oh no, we are just getting started. This episode is essentially a Tony Vlachos special, and while that kind of lopsided editing can be frustrating, it’s hard to be mad here. It’s not as if Tony’s a stuffy “game-bot,” talking through plans and counter-plans with all the enthusiasm of a humorless accountant. The guy exudes charisma. Just look at the way he handles the Edge of Extinction advantage. The twist in itself is terrible — an “Extortion” advantage that blocks a player from competing in the next Immunity Challenge and voting at the next Tribal unless they spend Fire Tokens. It’s not so much the power itself that’s the problem, but more the fact that the eliminated players have this much influence on the game. But Tony can turn garbage into gold. “I don’t get to do this in real life,” explains the New Jersey cop, eagerly anticipating the idea of playing criminal for once. But his smile drops when he realizes the advantage is being used against him and is going to cost a whopping six tokens to invalidate. “This is illegal, man!” he exclaims.
What follows is a glorious bit of bartering as Tony approaches both friend and foe to lend him tokens (he currently only has three himself). The added brilliance of this whole sequence is that Tony is also playing double agent, attempting to infiltrate the opposing alliance to pull off his next blindside. That means he has to ask his fake alliance, including his main target, Jeremy, for tokens. Not seeing through Tony’s ruse, Jeremy hands over one token as a gesture of trust. He has less luck with Michele, who previously spent all four of her tokens on that silly 50/50 coin, something that she’d preferably like to keep secret. Michele ends up spinning some “cock and bull story” about how she bought an advantage for the next buyback challenge should she be voted out. “The price of milk just went up!” laughs Tony, flabbergasted at what he refers to as “Survivor inflation.” With time ticking, he has no choice but to ask a favor from his real allies, Ben and Nick, who both give up a token each for their friend in need. Honestly, I’m not sure anyone else could have made this endeavor as fun as Tony, bouncing from person to person like a desperate busker begging for change. And the story has a happy ending, as Tony’s token heist pays off, winning his second Immunity Challenge in what is a big middle finger to the Edge of Extinction and its stupid twists.
Perhaps an underreported story in all this is Tony’s social game. It’s something that his blue blood buddy, Sarah, throws doubt upon early in the episode when he refuses to take part in her impromptu Fiji fashion show. This is another delightful scene, an example of the goofy daily activity that goes on at camp during the downtime, moments that we don’t often get to see in the weekly episodes. It’s also refreshing to see another side of Sarah, who in the past has been edited as a one-note, stone-cold killer. She is still an impressively ruthless player, but she also has this wicked dry sense of humor. “People think I’m just smart, funny, and pretty, but I’m actually really creative,” she deadpans while putting the finishing touches to her rustic island clothing line. Kim, Michele, and Sarah strut their stuff (accompanied by backing rock-pop), showing off Sarah’s original designs in a catwalk that rivals anything you’ve seen on Project Runway. However, Tony has no time for such frivolities, he is itching to play the game and do damage, not judge a fashion competition.
“I love Tony to death, but we play two completely different ways,” Sarah says. “He is not playing a social game.” At first glance, that might appear to be accurate, especially with Tony being a spoilsport and not joining in with the fun. But I’m not so sure Sarah is right. If Tony had no social game, would he have convinced three separate people to share their tokens with him? And how many times this season have we seen players say they love Tony — even if it is accompanied with a side of, “but he’s crazy/paranoid/whatever?” Remember when Yul said he expected Tony to be an “asshole” and was surprised by how kind and thoughtful he is? Yes, Tony might be a mad man who is quick to turn on his allies, but he keeps things strictly game focused, never resorting to nastiness or personal attacks. I think people respect that about Tony, his enthusiasm for the game is infectious, and that makes others want to work with him.
That brings us to Tribal Council and the masterful 4-3-2 vote. With Tony immune, the tribe rallies around the plan to vote out Jeremy, including his allies Denise and Kim. It’s a tricky spot for Kim, who saw through Tony’s double-agent scheme, but she recognizes the numbers are not on her side, and so her best option is to sidle back up to her old alliance and cut Jeremy loose. Sarah and Sophie hash out the details, suggesting to put two votes on Michele in the event Jeremy plays an idol or just ups and walks out of Tribal like he did last week. Meanwhile, Denise and Kim tell Jeremy the move is to blindside Ben, regrettably having to lie to their old ally to keep him at ease for the rest of the afternoon. With everything set, a peaceful quiet falls over the camp. But you know by now there’s one person who doesn’t do peace and quiet. “Everyone is slowing down, not talking, but I’m always playing,” says Tony, as he decides that he’s played patient long enough. Now it’s time to get his flip-flop on, and I’m not talking fashion anymore.
Cleverly waiting until sundown, so as not to give people enough time to scramble, Tony approaches Jeremy with a different plan. He informs Jeremy that everyone is blindsiding him, but that they can switch it, if the two of them, plus Michele and Nick, all vote for Sophie. The sudden change of plan isn’t explained in detail, other than Tony recognizing Sophie as a threat, plus she’s tight with his Cops ‘R’ Us partner Sarah. But one must imagine Tony realized having Jeremy around is better for his game long-term. He needs a shield. Also, even though Jeremy is doubtful of this last-minute info-dump, he clearly has some trust in Tony to give him a token, and Tony needs people he can trust. Ultimately, the two guys come together to pull off the blindside of the season, sending Sophie to the Edge with an idol in her pocket! Don’t let that idol snafu undersell Sophie’s game, though. She was a force this season, corralling the numbers, finding idols, and taking charge when necessary. Her being the victim of this exquisite blindside is a testament to how feared she was as a player.
This episode is truly top-tier Survivor — funny, exciting, compelling. Not even that ridiculous Edge advantage could ruin things. In the end, there were no advantages, no tokens, no twists, just a stunning 4-3-2 vote brought together with social and strategic maneuvering and executed to perfection by one Tony Vlachos. Now, that’s good TV!
I guess the edit just wants to pretend Michele didn’t vote Tyson last week? There’s a real gap in the story there.
“I liked Ben at first, but now everything he does annoys me,” says Jeremy. First Rob, then Adam, now Jeremy. Ben is really rubbing people the wrong way, eh?
Not sure about you, but I can’t wait for the impending Cops ‘R’ Us war now that Tony blindsided Sarah’s closest ally.