Winners At War had a mammoth task ahead of itself coming into this merge episode, just in terms of the sheer amount of content it had to fit into a 42-minute runtime (excluding commercials). The merge is a bustling event at the best of times, as the opposing tribes and divergent strategies come together in the highly intense individual portion of the game. But add in the Edge of Extinction, the Battle Back competition, an Immunity Challenge, a Tribal Council, and all the usual plotting and scheming, there’s more going on here than a day at Joe Exotic’s animal park. There are certain pitfalls to this excess of content, in particular inconsistent storytelling and players shunted aside due to lack of time. This episode is definitely guilty of those things. Yet, for the most part, the Survivor editing team manages to take all those competing attractions and piece them together into a massively entertaining ride.
It kicks off with the Edge inhabitants competing to get back into the game. And as much as I despise the Edge of Extinction as a concept, I can’t deny getting caught up in the excitement. I think it helps that we know these players, especially with seven of the eight being old-school Survivor veterans. There is a nostalgic attachment to this group. We empathize with an unusually emotional Tyson, who lets his snarky defense shield drop for a moment as he chokes up talking about his two little girls back home and whether staying on the Edge is the right or wrong thing to do. We pump our fists to Rob’s rallying cry about how the old-schoolers don’t quit and are going to fight to return. It’s much easier to invest when you feel a connection to the characters, and that’s a benefit of 20 years of Survivor history, something that the castaways on Season 38 didn’t have when this twist was first introduced.
As thrilling as the Battle Back challenge is, though, there is a design flaw in the Edge as it pertains to the fire tokens. Those with coins are allowed to purchase a challenge advantage — which, of course, they all do. The issue is, those who have spent longer on the Edge have had more opportunities to earn tokens. Those who have just arrived, like Parvati and Yul, have barely had a chance to enter the fire token stock market. While this doesn’t deter Parvati and Yul, who both put in a stellar effort — Yul even comes close to winning — it does highlight the inherent fault in this whole system. Players are essentially punished for lasting longer in the game, while those who are voted out early are rewarded. I know Survivor isn’t necessarily a fair game, but surely this is something that should have been addressed in one of Jeff Probst’s brainstorm sessions.
Regardless, it’s Tyson who beats out Rob by mere seconds to earn his spot back in the game. Perhaps that jar of peanut butter gave him the edge he needed? While it’s a gutting blow to the other Edge dwellers, who slink back to limbo to await one final opportunity to return, it’s a huge confidence boost for the Blood vs. Water winner. “I wasn’t sure if I could do this anymore… I thought becoming a dad might have softened me,” he confesses, reflecting on his early elimination. The win here is certainly a boost to his morale, and he somehow miraculously isn’t even mentioned as a target for the rest of the episode. After seeing the run Rick Devens went on after his return from the Edge in Season 38, not to mention Chris Underwood coming back and winning the whole season, I expected there to be more urgency in quickly stamping out the Edge returnee. That’s not what happens, as Tyson effortlessly slips into the background while the rest of the tribe set their sights on each other.
Taking out Tyson straight away would be the simple move, especially for the often precarious first merge vote. But Survivor is anything but a simple game. I think Sophie explains it best when she says that Tyson has less baggage than everyone else. While he was stuffing his face with peanut butter on the Edge, the others were still playing the game, forming alliances, burning bridges, and making and breaking deals. As Tony puts it, what got Tyson voted out the first time is no longer relevant, the interpersonal dynamics have changed. The in-game relationships that have developed over the first 19 days are more immediately threatening than a lone-wolf Tyson, at least for the time being. For the likes of Ben and Tony, their current concern is keeping the big threats together, lest they get picked off by the lower-profile players such as Adam, Michele, Nick, and Wendell. And that’s a sweet sound to Tyson, who not only was preaching this strategy way back when, but comfortably slots into the “big threats” grouping.
Those big-name players certainly have reason to be worried. You only have to glance over to the Edge to see the direction this season has taken. Anyone with a top-tier Survivor resume is in danger. That goes for those building new resumes, too. Take Denise, for example, who has earned the nickname “The Queen Slayer” for her jaw-dropping double idol play that took out Sandra. As she — perhaps foolishly — regales the tribe with war stories of how she dethroned Survivor royalty, her stock begins to rise, and so does the price on her head. “I want to vote out people that are playing a winners’ game right now,” says Wendell, who is both impressed and threatened by Denise’s power play. As one of the more recent winners, Wendell doesn’t have the status of a Survivor legend, nor has he made a move this season worthy of fear and respect. Therefore, it’s understandable why he wants to stick with those players more on his level, like a Nick or a Michele.
However, while Wendell pushes for Denise to go, the big threats group aim their sights at Wendell and Nick. This puts Jeremy in a very interesting position. Jeremy is obviously one of the big threats — and he previously won by adopting the “meat-shield” strategy. Working with the likes of Ben, Tony, Denise, and Kim is clearly in his benefit. But he also has a pre-existing friendship with Wendell. It’s another instance of a relationship that transcends the game, and that is always going to complicate matters. So, emboldened by winning immunity (in the classic pole challenge), Jeremy tries to have it both ways by directing the target towards Nick. Not only does that keep him on solid terms with the big threats alliance, but it allows him to replace Nick as Wendell’s number one ally. Yet, despite Jeremy’s plan to “drive the vote without anyone knowing I’m driving,” he’s picked up on Sophie’s speed camera.
Sophie might have been feeling the cold as she shivered through the Immunity Challenge, but she is bringing the heat when it comes to gameplay this season. She isn’t a loud or flashy player, but she is a damn wizard when it comes to reading the tribe dynamics. She’s well aware of the big threats alliance and their jungle pow-wows, just as she’s cottoned onto Jeremy and Wendell constantly “bro-ing out.” If the options are between Nick or Wendell, she’d much rather see Wendell go, as him sticking around only serves to empower Jeremy’s game, not hers. Sophie isn’t forceful in her suggestion to target Nick, she makes her points subtly and confidently, and others listen. Compare that to Jeremy, who, when he finds out the vote is shifting from Nick to Wendell, goes on a wild campaign rally in an effort to save his friend.
With Denise completely off the table, as she also wins Immunity, the only other non-Nick or Wendell name floating around is Adam. It’s been a rough journey so far for Adam, who has sort of blundered from beach to beach, barely hanging on to his game. His failed attempts to play double agent early on caused him to lose trust with pretty much everyone on the island. That’s why he makes an easy, tribe-pleasing target for the Nick-Wendell-Michele trio to push for. Jeremy latches onto this plan, hoping to turn the vote away from Wendell. And even though he’s kind of desperate in his approach, it does seem people are listening to Jeremy and willing to change direction. After all, Adam leaving isn’t going to upset anyone; his only real ally is Denise, but even she seems open to cutting him loose. “I’ve gotta go with the tide,” she says. “I made an alliance with Adam on day one, but a day one alliance might not be a day 39 alliance.”
It turns out, though, that isn’t the way the current is flowing. While Adam enters Tribal Council scared for his Survivor life, it is Wendell who ends up with his torch snuffed. Ultimately, Jeremy acquiesces, voting alongside the majority to eliminate his buddy, leaving Michele and Nick completely in the lurch. As Tony explains at Tribal, at this stage of the game, it’s all about going with the flow, not swimming against the current. That’s the approach Tyson took upon his return, and it worked out perfectly. And while Jeremy tried to swim upstream, somewhere along the way, he must have realized he was going to drown and so turned back around. Right now, nobody wants to rock the boat, especially just entering the merge, but I expect choppy waters ahead. (That’s the end of these sea-based metaphors — blame Tony, he started it!)
• Wendell’s departure results in an odd conclusion to his story arc with Michele. The past three weeks built up this ex-lovers beef, which seemed destined to end in Michele enacting her revenge. And yet, here, Wendell calls Michele one of his closest allies, they vote together, and we barely hear from Michele. This is one of the narrative inconsistencies caused by crammed episode.
• I do appreciate the episode taking a brief moment to highlight the torrential downpour and its effect on the tribe’s psyche. It’s one of those old-school Survivor moments we rarely see in the modern, strategy-focused era.
• Adam growing more and more frustrated with Ben every week is becoming my favorite running gag.