A Journey Through “New School” Survivor — Season 40, Survivor: Winners at War
While there is no “official” start to the New School era, I consider its beginning to be after Heroes vs. Villains, the twentieth season of Survivor; often considered one of the best, if not the best season in Survivor history. This season has always seemed to be the “opening of the gates” to how everyone could play things strategically, even when odds are against you and numbers aren’t on your side. Nobody was simply “happy to be here” or “just wanted the experience”, everyone wanted to win and do it in a way that could put them in the pantheon of Survivor legend status. And with that, the old school survival and social experiences of the show took a back seat to hardcore and fast paced strategy that defines the new school era.
And with that, I conclude my journey with the 40th Season of Survivor: Winners at War. Since I took a break from watching Survivor when it aired pretty much after HvV, I’m coming into most of the seasons completely fresh without knowledge of what happens (with the exception that I do have knowledge of who the winner is already). I will start each article with a spoiler-free review of the season for people who stumble upon my little write-up here and haven’t seen the season yet and want to watch still. After that, I will go into an in-depth analysis of the season’s strategy and entertainment through the vessel of awards and superlatives.
Survivor: Winners at War — The Spoiler Free Review
It’s the big 4–0 for Survivor, and the show goes for scale that has never been reached before: make a full cast of only previous winners, and see who the best of the best truly is. Twenty former winners descend for a season of high stakes strategy, overly complicated twists, and for payoff that… mostly works for longtime fans of the show as Survivor puts a bow on a forty season legacy.
First off, this cast delivers the star power, bringing back just about every iconic winner from the show’s past, both new school and old school. You have recent strong champs like Jeremy, Natalie, Tony and Sarah, playing alongside old school legends like Parvati, Yul, Boston Rob, and Sandra. The cast spans from Season 37 in Nick all the way back to Season 3 in Ethan Zohn, and you are guaranteed to have a few favorite winners to root to win the season. There is a bit of a missed opportunity to split the beginning tribes between old and new school, allowing not only for the fan to observe two different eras playing in a bubble in the same season, but it would also help out fan favorites from older seasons who enter out-numbered, with bigger reputations, and less connections. But nitpicking the cast is a bit of a wild goose chase: Winners at War is essentially a fantasy cast come to life.
Winners at War brings back Edge of Extinction as a way to guarantee time for every winner to have a chance in the spotlight, and also so that you don’t end up having an iconic player sent home on the first episode and therefore not getting to see them play. Survivor combines Edge of Extinction, an already game shaping twist, with another brand new twist that would define just about any other season with the fire tokens. Winners at War adds a Survivor economy to the mix, where castaways can earn tokens from various tasks in the game and on Edge of Extinction, and use them primarily to trade in for supplies and (more importantly) advantages in the game. In fact, other than the typical hidden immunity idols, fire tokens are the only way to earn advantages throughout the season, like an extra vote, steal a vote, or other new advantages. It’s pretty tough to define if fire tokens were a success or not in their first implementation: at some points they felt incredibly important but also they sometimes felt like a sideshow. It probably would have worked better if this huge season wasn’t the first attempt at using them, if Island of the Idols used fire tokens then the show could have refined them to feel better in game. Introducing them in an all-Winners season just feels too extra, complex, and unnecessary, but with refinement there could be some potential.
One thing that you definitely feel in Winners at War is the amped up speed of strategy in this season: everyone has proven themselves and no one is an obvious pushover. The raised stakes of a two million dollar prize leads to intense strategic moments before tribal councils. The downside of the stakes is that it makes the flashier Survivor moves a less desirable strategy, since one “big move” makes you an immediate target. While there are plenty of great Survivor moves and strategies in play, there are times as a spectator that you wish players would take more risks rather than hide in alliance gameplay. If Live Tribal Councils irk you, then you also will experience a lot of frustration too: with the pressure so high in the game it became difficult for competitors to be too forthcoming with plans, and leads to some fairly unsatisfying tribal council whispering.
RATING: 4 OUT OF 5 STARS
A strong season to end twenty years of show, but there’s a lingering feeling that the full potential was not reached
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AWARDS AND SUPERLATIVES
(Here on out it’s spoilers)
Ten Best Moments from the Season
10. Tony’s Ladder Adventures
Some of the most enjoyable moments of these all-winner episodes were the times we just get to see the iconic players mess around on the beach, harkening back to the oldest seasons before strategy became king. One moment that shines above the others was Tony’s makeshift ladder that he created to climb up the large trees for food. It was incredibly dangerous but in the most Tony way possible, he has no issues living a little despite his whole tribe suggesting he not kill himself on national television.
9. The Castaways’ Families Show Up on the Beach
Different from all other seasons, the castaways all get to enjoy their family visit, which includes just about every important loved one you can find. Seeing all these players get to spend time with their families and their kids and make a core memory on the show that was a defining moment in each of their lives was really sweet to see. These loved oned visits I usually just glaze over because they are usually the same thing every season but this one had me in my feelings just a little bit.
8. The Two Cops Duel in Firemaking: Tony Beats Sarah
This is somehow the only moment where Tony’s fate in the game was truly threatened, and simultaneously the moment where Tony locked in the victory as the two best players and close allies from this season had to earn their spot in the final tribal council. While Sarah had started to make some headway with the jury for her performance in the late game, she needed to get her number one partner Tony out to have any real chance at winning, but Tony was able to get a stronger fire going and put the stamp on an incredibly played season.
7. Wendell and Michele: Ex-Lovers on the Same Tribe
No returner dynamic has had quite the baggage that Wendell and Michele had when they were placed on the same tribe after the pre-merge tribe swap, because we learn very quickly that there was a bit of “relationship history” between the two of them. The nature of the dating relationship is left a bit in the dark (Michele: “We previously dated and he ghosted me”, Wendell: “We kicked it”) the tension between the two is noticeably palpable within the tribe. At the end of the day they reconciled enough to align together but the curveball in the tribe dynamics was unique and welcome drama.
6. Boston Rob and Parvati Throw Adam Under the Bus, Everyone Dumps Their Bags at Tribal Council
Some of the early tribal councils in Winners at War were particularly entertaining as the lines felt a little vague and big players were forced to take big shots. Early in the season the old school players on Boston Rob’s tribe were placed in a minority position and had to do whatever they could to try to get themselves off the block. The crack was found in Adam, who while aligned with the new school players while trying to make inroads with old school players. Two iconic players in Boston Rob and Parvati used this opening to make an aggressive play and attempt to flip the new school numbers with theatrics at tribal council. They play big and everyone is flipping over their bags and it’s entertaining, and in the end Danni is voted out but Adam was left out of the plan.
5. The Extinctioners Are Pushed to the Brink By a Grueling Firewood Challenge
Winners at War leaned into the emotional beats of the show more than ever this season, and it’s most successful implementation was a brutal fire token challenge on Edge of Extinction, involving a marathon task of transporting twenty logs, one at a time, across the island. People who had been out of Survivor for many years are pushed to their emotional edge and forced to find another gear of strength to overcome a huge trial. Ethan’s trial is especially touching as a leukemia survivor who desperately wants to prove to himself that he can do it.
4. Jeremy’s Safety Without Power Throws Tribal Council into Chaos, Tyson Goes Home
All advantages come to a head in one tribal council with Jeremy’s Safety Without Power, Sarah’s Steal a Vote, and Kim’s Hidden Immunity Idol. The feeling around the upcoming tribal council was tense, as the vote was a shaky looking 5v5 deadlock where anything could happen, after tribal essentially goes live right from the start and the normal theatrics Q&A occur, Jeremy and Sarah have a standoff over who will play their advantage first. The staring contest ends with Jeremy folding first: he feels too unsafe tonight to stick around and leaves tribal council with his advantage. A second live tribal occurs, and now Kim has to take a shot in the dark and choose the right person to put her hidden idol on. Kim guesses wrong, playing her idol for Denise while the vote from Tony and Sarah went to Tyson. This vote officially shifted the power to Tony and Sarah’s alliance and setting the stage for the final third of the season.
3. Tony Goes Behind His Alliance’s Back to Blindside Sophie
The cleanest play of the season goes to this blindside by Tony, who goes behind the back of his two strongest allies Ben and Sarah to pick up the minority alliance for a vote against Sophie, who leaves shocked and with an idol in her pocket. What really made it a stroke of genius from Tony comes in two parts: Tony made the needed strategic conversation at the last second with the right people to guarantee the least confusion and possible counterplans. And after the vote, despite Sarah and Ben laying into him with unfettered rage at camp, it did not change his place on the totem pole within his own alliance. It was almost as if he became safer with Sarah and Ben after this. How did he pulled that off? I have no clue. That’s why he is one of the best.
2. Adam Tries To Play the Vote Urn Podium as a Hidden Idol
There’s a fine line to walk with the “So crazy it might work” type of plans. Adam saw the fleur-de-lis on Jeff’s tribal council podium and observed that it looked eerily similar to the hidden immunity idol Denise had showed him at the start of the game. So when Adam feels his game is coming to an end at tribal council, he gets up and attempts to call his shot on the idol in the podium. The podium is, in fact, not a hidden immunity idol, and Adam goes home trying to make one of the wildest hail mary plays in Survivor’s 40 season history. Thank you Adam.
1. Denise Becomes the Queenslayer, Blindsides Sandra With Her Own Idol
By far the craziest move of the season, and simultaneously the one most fitting to be on the biggest season of Survivor comes shortly before the merge after a tribe swap put Denise and Jeremy in the minority. Even with advantages in play it should be an easy vote, right? Not so, because Sandra is looking to shake up the game, especially with a tribe that had Tony and Sarah in it. Sandra’s big move is to secretly give Denise, who she believes she can trust, a temporary hidden immunity idol she received from Edge of Extinction. It would be one cool blindside if Denise pulls out an idol after getting all the votes on her and takes out a big threat, right? Little did Sandra know, Densie already had one idol in her pocket, and this second idol gave her one diabolical idea: let’s save both Jeremy and herself and take out a player in majority. And with a ting of poetic justice, Denise chooses to get Sandra out with her own idol and a solitary vote. Denise wanted to make an iconic play for herself and this was it: it was a shocking result ad made for TV and the stakes of an all-winners season.
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All-Survivor Teams: Outwit and Outplay
Similar to the All-NBA teams, the section awards five contestants who did the best in the season, separated by Outwit (for best strategic play) and Outplay (most entertaining to watch)
2 men, 2 women, and a wildcard spot for each team
Tony — Strategically Tony was the best player this season by a large margin, combining alliance based gameplay with a respectable social likability and an active strategic mindset towards victory. He was able to execute strong blindsides on players like Sophie while also having the trust of allies like Ben and Sarah to protect him when he was not immune due to a challenge win (which he was often this season). He had a hidden immunity idol in his back pocket just in case things were going south, and he had the social acumen to adapt when advantages go against him, like the extortion note he got sent to him from Edge of Extinction. He played the whole season without getting voted against which is a huge accomplishment for a player who is such an obvious threat, and was rewarded in kind by the jury for his nonstop efforts.
Sarah — While Tony was the strategic guru of the season, Sarah found success playing a solid alliance based social game. She often played at Tony’s right hand, and was a key piece in keeping the majority group together on votes. Outside of Tony she did the best to placate to the jury and if she beats Tony in firemaking then there’s a what-if scenario that has her taking the two million dollars over Natalie, but it’s difficult to predict if the jury would have rewarded Sarah for spending a lot of time placating to Tony’s wishes rather than attempting to get him out. This makes a final four exit perfect for Sarah because the most negative ending for her this season would only really play out in that FTC scenario, but instead we leave with Sarah coming just short despite her incredible success managing the dominant alliance.
Jeremy — For someone who ended up being targeted so early into the merge, it’s a real testament to Jeremy’s outlast ability to have nearly reached finale night. That’s probably the main reason he ends up in the all-outwit team, because strategically Jeremy often was not in a position of power. He worked on the outskirts and successfully used his Safety Without Power advantage in a scenario where he was at threat to go home, but it felt like he had a scarlet letter on his chest due to how shoehorned he was by players like Ben as the jury darling that’s too dangerous to be kept around. But if Jeremy does make it to the end of this season (especially if Tony isn’t sitting with him) his social game is plenty enough to win out over who was remaining in the game come final seven. Jeremy was at least able to find a few moments to collaborate with players on the outs like Michele, and with Tony on the Sophie blindside.
Sophie — Sophie’s ability to worm her way into an incredibly safe position while still feeling like a player with moves to make in her pocket has to be commended, especially as one who had few experiences playing with these former winners. Early in the game she made a strong alliance with Yul, then on a new beach tribe swap found a hidden immunity idol and made a strong alliance with Sarah. This kept her in a comfortable position post-merge until Tony got too threatened by her and backdoored her out of the game to keep Sarah tightly aligned with him.
Natalie — Only in an Edge of Extinction season can someone who got voted out first also be one of the five best strategic players of the season. But given Natalie’s Edge of Extinction dominance, she has to be recognized. Natalie dominated the EOE mini tasks, from finding advantages to sell for fire tokens to murdering to physically taxing firewood challenge. By the time the final EOE playback challenge rolled around, she had enough fire tokens (14!) to buy three challenge advantages and an idol for Tyson to pair nicely with the idol she already bought for herself. She won the EOE challenge and stayed safe with her already owned idol, the next idol she found at the tribe beach, and the final immunity challenge. A FTC without Tony would have given Natalie a legitimate chance to win, but her lack of time in the main game (and Tony’s general presence) wasn’t enough for the jury.
Michele — It was fun to cheer for Michele this season as the unexpected underdog fighting for her place in the game everyday, only to actually succeed and make the final tribal council once again in her second season of Survivor. It validated her journey as the “winner no one thought deserved it” and gave her a place in the Survivor history books. And personality wise, she was the best person to oppose the starchy majority alliance in the final third of the game. That doesn’t include the whole Wendell is my ex storyline that was an amusing sidequest in this winners season.
Tony — His gameplay was the most entertaining to watch among the players who held control in the game. But more generally from an entertainment standpoint Tony was being himself and not afraid to be a character. Building his ladder and being a goofball around camp, as well as bringing back the “spy shack” as the “spy nest” and consistently hiding in trees to gain information from players, rounded out his character beyond just a former winner doing what he can for two million dollars.
Adam — Adam’s first season was defined by a lot of pain that he had to unpack. Adam’s second season allowed for him to play freer and snarkier and with a lot more personality. While the results were an abject failure, the plucky confessionals and “creative” strategies were very fun to watch. The tribal council podium play will always be a highlight for me.
Parvati — I think there’s just something awesome about seeing a true OG legend return to the game after twenty seasons and still feel like she has the Survivor charisma. Just ignore all the stuff we get about her now ex-husband.
Boston Rob — Simiar to Parvati, he’s another true OG and legend of the game returning after many seasons away. While his strategy did not work out at all this season he at least came to play hard, and it was really cool to see him together with Amber on a Survivor season, after starting their relationship on the show 32 seasons prior.
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The Wallflower Award for Most Forgettable Player: Danni
Danni just doesn’t have the same presence as a winner when put alongside the rest of the cast, as a player who never returned to the Survivor landscape after winning a less popular old school season in Guatemala. On top of that, she didn’t play very well and was out early, which hurts her ability to stand out in the cast.
Foulest Move: New School Icing Out Old School
The beauty of this winners concept for a season is seeing how players from different eras come together. By the merge the players remaining in the main game were pretty much all the post Cagayan winners, which stamps out all the nostalgia I wanted to get out of Winners at War. Old school players felt destined to fail by the simple numbers game, which was pretty sad.
The Idiot Award: Nick
Talk about a missed opportunity. Because Nick skipped out on playing a true swing vote in the final seven to send home Ben instead of Jeremy, despite knowing he was at the bottom of Tony and Sarah’s alliance. He essentially marked himself for death in the next vote and handed the power in the endgame over to Tony and Sarah who he wouldn’t have beaten in the final three anyway. Probably the worst single move of the season.
The Andrea Boehlke Award (Most Improved Player): Sophie
She made my outwit team because she had advantage power and some strong allies, which was big for her legacy coming out as the winner of a season where she wasn’t the one really controlling anything (in South Pacific Coach was the one calling the shots). Winners at War is a big boon to her perception as a strong player, and changes the way you look at what could be considered a bottom tier win in Season 23. Sophie proved that she could develop her own game and make strong social moves.
Weirdest Production Decision: Contemporary Music in the Soundtrack
Nothing makes me more hype before an important challenge in Survivor than Royalty Free Imagine Dragons style pop music! Pog!
The Jedi Mind Trick Award: Tony Vlachos
I’m still shook that despite stabbing them in the back with the Sophie blindside, that Sarah and Ben never seemed to make an attempt to blindside him afterwards.
Biggest Unanswerable Question: How Would the Jury Have Judged Ben and Sarah’s Games?
Speaking of Sarah and Ben, what would the Jury have said to them if they made the final three, especially if the third person was Tony? Ben had done a lot of alienating of jury members throughout the season, and he at least was self-aware enough to realize he had no chance of winning when the final five rolled around. So he cops out of looking foolish for getting the goat treatment he may have gotten at FTC and lets Sarah vote him out. And Sarah was making a lot of passionate speeches about how women don’t get the same respect as men for making cutthroat plays in Survivor. Those are all good points and definitely true in seasons past, but what would the jury have to say to Sarah after theoretically making the FTC by avoiding the one cutthroat move she needed to make: voting out Tony?
The Tony Vlachos Award (for Overplaying): Survivor Production Creating an Economy
I must ask: were fire tokens really necessary? Just let the kids play!
Old-School Fan’s Wet Dream Award: A Boston Rob and Parvati Alliance Forms
Now this is what a winners season is for. The two former enemies from Heroes vs. Villains return to the game and decide to work together as two legends and two threats. Just imagine what the season would be like if they saw real success from this partnership.
Best What-if Scenario: Denise Goes with Sandra’s Plan Instead of Using it to Vote Her Out
If Denise chooses to leave Sandra in the game on this vote, it means Tony or Sarah is most likely going home and that changes all of the dynamics of the season going into the merge. It’s a real testament to how much the two cops had this season’s social game on lock. But if one of them goes home, Ben becomes a floater, Sandra sticks around for at least a little longer (though most likely gone at the merge), and more importantly the endgame of the season opens up a lot more. Whoever survives between Sarah and Tony also probably comes into the merge with a lot more strategic aggression than what actually occurred. Maybe there’s a lot more fireworks in the first few votes, other than the unanimous eliminations of Wendell and Adam.
Time Capsule Moment of the Season: Covid Production Finale in Jeff Probst’s Garage
It’s been two and a half years since the start of covid, and about a year and a half plus since TV figured out how to make an equally polished product, it was genuinely shocking to hear the finale of the ultimate conclusion to forty seasons of show begin with the incredible tinny acoustics of Jeff Probst’s garage. I had forgotten how chaotic the world was in peak stay-at-home covid times.
On a scale of one to ten, how much did the winner deserve the win?
There really isn’t much discussion here. Tony played quite possibly the most complete Survivor game in the show’s history. I don’t think you can really make a legitimate case for anyone else to win if sitting next to Tony. There is the hilarious scenario where if Tony isn’t sitting in the end or Tony’s social game was just atrocious, that Natalie would win the title of Sole Survivor despite being voted out in the first tribal council due to Edge of Extinction. Now that would be a hilarious way for the ultimate winners season to end. Survivor purists might have boycotted the show if that happened.
And with that, we’ve gone through the entire new school era! Thank you to anyone who has ever read any of my season reviews, and for sticking with me as I try to hone my writing ability and through the hiatuses I took to move across the country and write about the current seasons. I have one small Survivor 41 retrospective article coming soon, and I have a HUGE set of articles in the midst of preparation to complete my Survivor saga, so stay tuned!