If you’d told me we’d lose Ethan, Tyson, Rob, Parvati, and Sandra all in a row in this season of Survivor, I would have assumed the worst. Winners at War, the highly anticipated all-champs season of Survivor, came with supersized expectations for all those players, legendary old-schoolers who hadn’t played in close to a decade each. If they were all off the show, something must have gone wrong.
But on the contrary, Winners at War is just shifting into fifth gear. While Parvati and Sandra, both skilled and entertaining players, were tragically voted out this past episode, the way they went out made for immensely satisfying television. Parvati tried everything she could to save herself from an obvious vote—she played great. Sandra, meanwhile, played hard, and sowed her own downfall.
The episode can be summed up in two Sandra looks. One when she offered to exchange her hidden immunity idol for Denise’s two fire tokens:
And the next, at tribal council, when Denise used Sandra’s immunity and voted out Sandra:
Sandra can be laid-back, friendly, and funny one minute—and a mafia boss the next. The only two-time winner in the show’s history had an idol that was good for only this upcoming tribal before it expired. Feeling safe, Sandra figured she could offer her idol to Denise and gain both fire tokens—the season’s new in-game currency—and an ally. She could also remove someone from her alliance, while keeping her hands clean. It could have been a brilliant move—instead it became an instant blunder.
In seasons past, Sandra’s gameplay has been defined by an “anyone but me” attitude. She typically hasn’t looked more than one vote down the line, and just does what she needs to do to make it through each tribal council. But in this episode, rather than just play it safe and use her idol on herself—or at least keep it with her in case anything wild happened—Sandra looked ahead and paid dearly. Denise used Sandra’s idol—plus another idol she’d already had to protect Jeremy—and wrote Sandra’s name down. The queen went home.
If Sandra had kept her idol, tribal likely would have played out like this: Denise would have used her own idol, since she knew she was on the chopping block. Once she did so, Sandra would have known she was vulnerable and would have used her idol on herself—she had virtually no reason to save it, after all. If Denise had targeted Sandra, it would have been a tie vote (with all votes negated) and on a revote, Jeremy would likely have been the target. If Denise had instead voted for Tony or Kim, one of them would have had their torch snuffed. (Though Kim, also in possession of an idol, may have played hers. I’m still not totally clear why she didn’t when Denise played two idols—Kim must have felt comfortable that the vote wasn’t on her.)
As Sandra said on Twitter, she tried to play a big game, and it cost her:
If I would have only known then what I Know now! Go Big or Go Home! I went Big and I went Home! pic.twitter.com/W5sWjqMmsF— Sandra Diaz-Twine (@SandraDTwine) March 19, 2020
It’s tragic to see a Survivor legend, who said in a previous episode that she believes this is the last season she’ll ever play, go home due to such a blunder. At the same time: what a moment! This is an iconic move from Denise that will live in Survivor lore. When you come at the queen, you best not miss—and Denise sure didn’t.
Speaking of queens, Parvati, another of Survivor’s all-time icons, was also sent home in this episode. Her boot was a little less theatrical—after having been swapped into a tribe of five with only Michele as her ally, Parvati was at a massive numbers disadvantage. Wendell, Nick, and Yul were always likely to vote for one of the women, and Parvati was by far the bigger threat and most obvious target.
But she managed to put up a fight; at one point, Parvati got Wendell to offer his vote in exchange for some of Parv’s fire tokens. Rather than accept that deal, she used it to sow discord with Nick, hoping to flip him to her side. It didn’t work in the end, but Parvati’s old ingenuity and charm shone through.
Finally, fire tokens are starting to affect the season’s gameplay. Every contestant started out with one token, which isn’t enough to buy much of anything. But as more contestants are voted out—and subsequently bequeath their tokens to players who are still in the game—some players now end up with multiple tokens and a chance to barter with them. Sandra wanted tokens from Denise because she’d already spent one; Wendell also saw an opportunity to add to his bank account, though he didn’t follow through.
It’s not yet clear what these tokens will be worth. So far, players have been able to spend their tokens on advantages that the eliminated contestants on the Edge of Extinction earn, but each of those advantages has been sold for just a single fire token. Each tribe has a menu that includes other things the players can buy, the most interesting of which is a challenge advantage that costs four tokens. Will the menu and prices change when the players hit the merge? It’s not clear—but the tokens are already having an impact, adding a layer of complexity to the game that these players are masters of. I’m intrigued to see how that will all unfold.
This episode featured a number of other highlights; Tyson had the most hilarious confessional of the season, unleashing a “sneaky and hilarious” plan to … buy peanut butter. He says only a fool wouldn’t know the nutritional benefits of peanut butter, and that eating it will help him win the challenge to re-enter the game. I’ll believe it when I see it.
Meanwhile Tony went into full Tony mode, which meant paranoid sprinting through the jungle and a “spy shack” situated by the water well to try to eavesdrop on other players’ conversations. Basically, he hid in a bush with his heart racing a mile a minute. It was a classic moment—but one that also may hurt Tony’s standing in the game.
There was also an intense challenge, some great trash talk, and plenty of suspense. That it all culminated in an all-time boot makes this an all-time episode.
Winners at War is delivering on everything we’d hoped for. Many of the icons may be out—but this season just keeps getting better.