When Survivor premiered 20 years ago, producers did not expect the show to still be around in 2020. Jeff Probst has recalled in interviews that he initially expected his little primetime documentary to showcase some interesting social dynamics over the course of a few months and then he’d land a quiet job as an NPR host.
That, of course, didn’t happen. Instead a naked Richard Hatch and his band of island misfits became a cultural phenomenon that prompted debates about integrity within my Utah suburban neighborhood.
I hear this sort of exasperated objection from friends every few months when new episodes air and I frantically start searching for someone to talk to about it.
“How is that show still on?!”
For super fans, it’s no surprise the game has outwitted, outplayed, and outlasted every reality competition that came before or after it (were there really any before it?). The strategic game has continued to highlight and test human dynamics in breathtaking and unforgiving environments while evolving and keeping pace with the ever increasing sophistication in the game-play and fan appetite for blindsides, displays of athleticism, and deeply human moments.
Survivor has worked because it has attempted to be authentic. While creative editing will intentionally hide the ball so audiences can be surprised by outcomes, producers don’t have to manipulate fans to get them to stick around. No feeding contestants barrels of alcohol so they’ll act like idiots. No casting actors and scripting scenes. The show doesn’t even need to use well-timed breaks right before results are revealed in order to force fans to suffer through car commercials and advertisements for Mom on CBS just to hear the underwhelming and producer-chosen outcome.
Survivor doesn’t need to rely on these gimmicks and facades because the content it actually reveals is compelling enough on its own. Each episode is packed with so much action—so much plotting—so much planning—so much playing, that there isn’t room for mindlessness.
With that backdrop, Season 40’s so-called Winners At War immediately had the potential to be the greatest among seasons of reality television. Its concept: what happens if we bring back twenty people who have won the game previously and have them all play against one another?
It was likely under these circumstances to have an exciting season. All twenty players–by definition, in the elite category of best ever competitors–would hit the ground at the same time.
But would this experiment look like an NBA All-Star game? Lots of fluff and fanfare but otherwise uninspired and much less interesting than any part of a regular playoff season? Twenty people playing because they’re getting paid and because being a part of this group secures their legacy in some way, but otherwise sitting on an island for forty days where stakes are low.
To the relief of many, including no doubt to Jeff Probst who called the season the show’s best in twenty years, Winners At War delivered and it delivered hard.
In the past few months I have been fully absorbed in the Survivor universe, consuming prior seasons and any piece of media I could get my hands on. I feel like I’ve taken an exhaustive course on a complex topic and have an urge I haven’t felt in a decade to take a final or something.
Instead, I’ll give you my analysis of all things Season 40, by breaking down each player in order of their final place in the game.
Amber was actually the second vote out (see Natalie, below). She came into the season with an inherent target on her back by virtue of her marriage to Boston Rob, whom competitors generally feared was a dangerous player on his own, let alone with the assistance of his actual spouse. Amber and Rob are dinosaurs of Survivor, playing together on Season 8 in which they got engaged in the final episode. As it turns out, cast members’ fears around Amber were not far-fetched; late in the season she explained that the only reason she came back on the show was to help Rob win, anticipating she would funnel every advantage and piece of information she received in his direction.
For viewers, Amber was a welcome and nostalgic presence on the show. We saw very little game play from her but her comments about what it was like to return and take a breath on Edge of Extinction were weirdly calming and relatable to hear after several months of social distancing had left most us feeling a special level of isolation.
Danni’s win in Guatemala in Season 11 was exciting. She was athletic and bright, while maintaining a likeability usually needed to get over the finish line in this game. Danni struggled in 40, seeming to unwind through a day of paranoia that caused other old-schoolers to put a target on her back and oust her, if for no other reason than to get rid of the chaotic energy that wasn’t going to do anyone any favors. Danni was moderately successful at finding advantages and getting food on Edge. And her gracious compliments of the final three in the last episode were humanizing. It would be great to see Danni back now that she’s warmed up and a little less rusty.
Similar to Danni, two-time cancer survivor Ethan struggled to keep up with the pace of the game. He showed up in Survivor world clear back in Season 3, back when the win often went to the nicest person and cutthroat gameplay was punished rather than rewarded. Ethan showed up in Season 40 with a strong ally in Parvati, a close personal friend at home, who adorably tried to coach Ethan into getting his mind in the game. He couldn’t quite do it, but he did provide us one of the best ever scenes in the show’s history when he spent an entire day racing up and down a mountain to retrieve logs in order to earn fire tokens. After collapsing and needing medical attention, he ventured on, ultimately making the final trek with a very emotional Amber, Natalie, and Danni who spent their own precious energy to encourage him to finish the grueling challenge.
Utah’s very own. I admit the Tyson charm didn’t work on me in prior seasons, but I’m caught up now. Tyson’s excellent physical game, witty commentary, and savvy game-play make this returnee an entertaining watch. While Tyson is not as ancient in the Survivor world as Ethan or Amber, he’s not a new player either, which may have been partly the reason he was targeted so early by the new-school players, who were the majority in this season. Even still, Tyson’s return from Edge after beating out a handful of legitimately good physical players was no small feat. He’s the only player this season to get voted out twice.
Look up any list of all-time best players and Rob will nearly always be in the top three, often number one. He’s a known favorite of producers and fans. He’s played more days of Survivor than nearly anyone else. Rob had possibly the biggest target on his back coming into this game (see Amber above) and so it was no big surprise he was ousted early. Even still, we saw quintessential Boston Rob while we had him.
I would argue his best move was diverting a target away from himself and Parvati by telling Adam he was going to throw him under the bus to Michele and Jeremy. Adam knew this meant Rob was going to lie about him, and he also knew there was nothing he could do about it. Rob’s poker face and reputation in the game meant that whatever he said to Michele and Jeremy would stick, no matter what kind of damage control Adam attempted. “Guys, what am I supposed to do about Adam?” Rob said to Michele and Jeremy in the next scene, going on to tell them (falsely) that Adam was trying to blindside them. It worked. Rob was ousted a few days later after a tribe swap played out poorly for him.
He came in and went out swinging and certainly gave something for his biggest fans to cheer.
Prior to Season 40 Sandra was the only ever two-time winner. The self-proclaimed Queen of Survivor, Sandra is another old-school player and may be the only ever successful contestant to employ an “anyone but me” strategy. Sandra notoriously sits back and lets the game unfold, aggressively shouting down anyone who tries to come for her. She has zero physical game, sitting out nearly every challenge in Season 40, to the point that Parvati hilariously coined the term “Sandra Bench” early on in this season.
Sandra possibly made the most foolish move of the season, selling an immunity idol to Denise for two fire tokens, which idol Denise used that very evening to knock Sandra out of the game with one single vote. Sandra immediately quit, the only player this season to leave the game early, admitting that she had no shot of succeeding on Edge which largely prefers strong physical players. Sandra said she was “retiring” as she pulled the white flag. We’ll see if that’s true. Even if it is, hate her or love her, you have to admit she’s got a hell of a scorecard.
Full disclosure, Parvati is far and away my favorite player of all 40 seasons. Jeff Probst earlier this year dubbed her the best ever winner in the show’s history. Topping most of the other lists of all-time best players, Parvati has something incredibly special about her. She showed up on her first season more than ten years ago as a very young woman with an infectious laugh and not a lot of upper-body strength. Parvati was summarily discounted by other competitors as a dingbat and a flirt who shouldn’t be taken seriously.
In a matter of just a couple years Parvati played two all-star seasons (and with two of the most strategically competitive casts) taking first and then (narrowly) second. Parvati is responsible for possibly the two most iconic strategic moves in the show’s history (leading the Black Widow Brigade to manipulate Erik into giving up immunity in Season 16 and playing two idols for Sandra and Jerry in Season 20, effectively flipping the entire game on its head). People say Parvati is on the Survivor Mount Rushmore because of her charm, which she weaponizes. But plenty of charming people have landed on the Survivor beaches. What makes Parvati different is she lacks ego and never takes things personally. Because of this, she is able to execute long-game moves without getting distracted. Couple this with her undeniable intelligence and likeability, she is a force to be reckoned with.
Like Rob, Parvati had a huge target on her back in Season 40. Parvati had been away from the game for a decade and had given birth to her first child only eight months before CBS started shooting Season 40. (She’s also been busy publishing an adorable children’s book called Om the Otter.) Despite getting ousted before the merge, her social game gave us plenty of reason to cheer this season. And she was a force on Edge, extorting Michele and Tony for fire tokens and (if you watch any of the deleted scenes from this season) seemingly acting as a spiritual or emotional leader for her fellow cast-mates who were stranded on the desolate island with her for those final weeks. Parvati helped legitimize a great season, and I hope we’ll see her again.
Who wasn’t thrilled to see this nerd come back? One of the most likeable (and probably smartest) winners in the show’s history, Yul showed up a little rusty, having spent more than a decade away from the game. He got all mathy on us when trying to talk Nick and Adam into making a risky and complex strategic move. This seemed to scare them away. Yul’s plan may have worked on a different kind of player, but he failed to read the room in Season 40 and was sent packing as a result. We didn’t get much of Yul in 40, but he did get CBS and his fellow cast-mates to give a lot of attention to his cause to raise money for research on Lou Gehrig’s Disease, which came to his attention when his friend and castmate from his inaugural season, John Penner, found out his wife had been diagnosed with the disease.
Wendell possibly got the biggest villain edit in Season 40. When the tribe swap happened after the first few episodes, it was revealed that he and Michele had some sort of prior romantic relationship together outside of the show. While this was teased repeatedly (mostly by Michele’s confessionals) we were never really given any detail about this. Wendell was ousted, apparently, after other tribe members started to notice that he was getting chummy with Jeremy. Wanting to nip that relationship in the bud, Jeremy’s allies successfully targeted Wendell, who was hardly heard from again once on Edge. (Side note, Wendell couldn’t give his vote to Michele in the final three??? After everything they probably went through together!?)
Oh Adam. Adam, Adam, Adam.
What to say. Adam got some of the most prolific narration airtime this season, and it’s no wonder why: he’s good at it. Love him or hate him, the dude knows how to talk about the game. His cast-mates (and most fans) found him a little obnoxious, if not untrustworthy. He never could seem to get anyone to really want to work with him in any meaningful way. If Adam could work on his social game (read: his personality), he really could become a Survivor great. He’s smart and cunning, as long as he doesn’t get in his own way.
That said, he gave us one of the most entertaining moments of the season when he tried to pull an object off of Jeff’s podium to play it as an idol. It didn’t work, of course, but it was thrilling to watch him try.
Sophie was one of the most surprising players of this season for me. She said she considers herself a bottom-tier winner, a label many fans would adamantly dispute. She certainly wasn’t a bottom-tier player in 40.
I think Sophie’s most memorable moment of 40 (besides when the producers Weekend at Bernie’s-ed her in the final episode when she was reportedly very sick) was corralling her squad in the middle of Tribal Council to huddle and plot the ousting of Tyson while Michele, Tyson, Denise, and Kim sat like lame ducks. Sophie was taken out in the very next episode through an outrageously impressive series of plays by Tony. It says something that it took an outrageously impressive series of plays to get rid of her.
Some have said that Kim’s incredibly dominant win in One World comes with an asterisk because she was playing against a bunch of nut jobs who never seemed to understand the basic beats of the game. Kim proved in 40 she belongs in the winners’ circle.
I think Kim’s most impressive moment of 40 was when she was the only person who read Tony correctly as he successfully convinced everyone else in the tribe that he was working with them. Kim was ultimately unable to persuade her manipulated castmates of what was going on with Tony, but she showed herself as someone who knows how to read people, one of the most underrated skills in Survivor.
Jeremy was one of the people I was most excited to see return to the game. His performance in Second Chance gave me the rare opportunity to enthusiastically cheer for the winner. We anticipated he would team up with Natalie, as he did in San Juan del Sur, but when Natalie was voted out on the first day, he lost the chance.
Jeremy’s performance in 40 was disappointing and sort of unmemorable. He just always seemed a step behind the game and couldn’t quite catch up. Maybe this was because he was so heavily targeted as a physical threat throughout the season. In any event, I hope we haven’t seen the last of him.
It’s hard to get a read on Nick. His game in David vs. Goliath was impressive and aggressive. In 40 he just always seemed mad. In a season where the game play is this good, you can hardly afford to get emotional about your decision-making. I think this is what ultimately did him in. Nick’s erratic and nonsensical decision to take out Jeremy, turning himself into the new bottom of the tribe was a wild miscalculation. Like Jeremy, Nick always seemed a step or two behind the game this season and although he lasted 34 days, his performance is one of the least memorable.
I think people underestimated Denise. If you read any pre-season articles about her, they nearly all started by explaining that at 48 years old she would be the oldest player in the game.
Denise delivered a top two or three strategic move of the season (and I’d say easily one of the top 10 best all-time plays) in buying an idol from Sandra and then playing it along with another idol she secretly had to knock out the Queen with one vote. She told no one about her plan and she blindsided everyone—a huge feat in a season with the best-ever players. Some people criticized her for giving up when she called an end to the tribal whispering as Jeremy tried to continue to strategize with her. I think she knew what she was doing and I’d love to see her back.
I did a 180 on Ben this season. He was one of the “controversial” winners in that many fans felt producers manipulated the game in the final days of Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers so he could stay in and keep finding idols. Even if that’s true, it’s not Ben’s fault.
Ben at times in 40 seemed to be the only player who was taking the game personally and where the rest appeared to fly largely above personal feelings, this was sort of jarring to watch. His feud with Jeremy, to the point that he wouldn’t even talk to Jeremy regardless of whether it might have been good for his game, was hard to understand.
That said, in his final days Ben made a few comments about how he couldn’t understand why it was so hard for him to make friends in this game. These comments put into context his final conversation with Sarah in which he offered himself up as a sacrificial lamb, telling Sarah she could “blindside” him that night so she would have a big move to tout to the jury and therefore have a chance to beat Tony in the end. People have criticized this, saying it was akin to giving up. I see it differently. It may not have been a good move for his personal game, but I think Ben knew he was going home that night, so he found a way to make his ousting matter for Sarah. When Ben’s eyes filled with tears and Sarah started crying upon realizing Ben wanted to do this for her “because friendship matters more than this game,” it was honestly top tier TV.
You could easily make an argument that Sarah played the second best game this season. Season 40 was the story of Tony. But it was also the story of Sarah and Tony. Besides instances where actual family members play together, you couldn’t find a closer bond between two players in twenty years, and this has been a very strange evolution to watch. Sarah and Tony have played three seasons together. In their first season Tony literally clapped and cheered when he successfully orchestrated a blindside of Sarah. In 40 he had her back for 38 days, at one point even telling her “I would lose this game for you, but not for anyone else” when she successfully got him to compromise with her over a disagreement.
Sarah and Tony building fire against one another on day 38 to decide who would go to the final three is a top five all-time TV moment for me. The players’ very long embrace after Tony beat her, and his apologetic and frankly hysterical tears said a lot about Tony—but I think they said more about Sarah. That she could conjure that type of loyalty in possibly the most conniving person to ever the play the game is fascinating.
Sarah struggled emotionally in 40, breaking down in a deleted scene with Kim and talking about how she felt like she was a bad person for manipulating and lying to people a few years before when she won Game Changers. Sarah’s evolution and growth as a person in this game has been one of the most interesting arcs to watch. In Game Changers she sobbed after a trans player, Zeke, was outed in one of the show’s ugliest moments, explaining that her experiences on the show had changed many of her world views. In 40, Sarah delivered one of the most important speeches of the season when she called out the Survivor universe for vilifying women when they play the game and celebrating men for the same actions. She was articulate and correct. I think Sarah’s (I mean, Lucina’s) contributions to the new-school game can’t be underestimated.
Oh, the Michele of it all. Michele perhaps came into 40 with the most “controversial” win under her belt, which she referenced repeatedly throughout the season. There was a great scene early in the season where she confided in Boston Rob that she had a lot to prove because so many people don’t think she deserved her prior win. Paraphrasing, Rob responded “Screw those people. If you won your season, you deserved to win. That’s the game.” There’s something to that, but when a player wins a season in a way most fans don’t celebrate, they don’t return with a lot of viewer excitement. So in that way, Michele did have something to prove.
Michele didn’t play the best game in 40, but she definitely proved herself as belonging in the winners’ circle. She’s charming and thoughtful. I thought her best moment of the season was when she called out Nick for nonsensically voting out Jeremy. By doing this, she caused Nick to take a series of steps over the next day that ended up ultimately protecting Michele for the remainder of the game. She’s played twice and she made it to the end twice. Dammit, she deserved at least one vote at the end. Wendell.
Natalie is obviously a power house in this game. Her second place finish will be controversial, but that’s not her fault. Edge is a stupid twist. The first person voted out in a season should never be able to return in the final couple of days and have a chance to win a game that claims to reward the person who “outlasts” the rest. That said, it was thrilling to watch Natalie absolutely dominate Edge for over a month.
By the end of her time on the desolate island, she had so many fire tokens that she literally ran out of things to buy. She bought a freaking immunity idol just to hand over to Tyson. When she won the Edge challenge and returned to the game, she single-handedly dismantled the Tony/Sarah/Ben alliance, which no one else had been able to do for 37 days. Her big mistake, of course, was not offering herself up to take on Tony in the fire challenge. Boston Rob was correct that Natalie’s only chance to win was to knock out Tony in fire-making. She didn’t do it. It’s honestly amazing she still got four of the final votes (Parvati, Ethan, Jeremy, and Tyson).
It would be hard to argue at this point that Tony is not the best player this game has ever seen. His Season 28 win was exceptional. He played against a stellar cast and he ran circles around them. Tony executed an absolutely perfect game in 40. His best episode was when he got multiple diametrically opposed alliances to empty their pockets for him so he could buy his way out of an extortion disadvantage sent to him by Parvati and Natalie, won the immunity challenge, and then orchestrated an extremely delicate and last-minute plurality ousting of Sophie after realizing she was getting too chummy with Sarah. And all of that in just a few hours.
Tony is outrageously good at this game. But the reason he’s able to get over the finish line in the final jury vote is that while he plays extremely aggressively and fools nearly everyone along the way, he is never nasty or personal about it. And he deeply cares about his friends in the game (see Sarah above). Tony charmed the final jury who literally could not think of a single point of criticism of his time in 40.
As an aside, Season 40 could not have aired at a better time. Final juries can be bitter and the attacks are often vicious and nasty (see Sue Hawk’s Season 1 iconic Snake/Rat speech in which she told Kelly if she saw her dying on the street she wouldn’t stop to help). This jury was genial and friendly and only interested in having a conversation about what this game looks like and means to the players sitting at the final three. Tony, Natalie, and Michele facilitated a positive conversation because of the kind of people they are, and it was honestly cathartic to watch during what has been a wildly unsettling few months for all of us.
Hopefully we’ll see another forty seasons before the show finally takes its bow and brings us its torch.
(Design: Joshua Fowlke) (Editor: Rachel Swan)