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Tony Pitched a Perfect Game in the Best ‘Survivor’ Episode of the Season

In a master class of persistence, strategy, and negotiation, Tony Vlachos shocked the island—and injected ‘Winners at War’ with some needed new life

CBS/ Ringer illustration

There aren’t many players in Survivor history who could successfully orchestrate a blindsiding, but before actually following through on said blindsiding decide that actually, no, that’s not good enough and then orchestrate another, different blindsiding. Tony Vlachos just played one of the most stunning and dominant episodes of Survivor ever, in the best episode of Winners at War yet.

The amount of things Tony accomplished in the 11th episode of the season is mind-blowing—a master class in persistence, strategy, and negotiation. He begins by finding a hidden immunity idol (outhustling most of his tribemates and duping another to do so). Then he’s targeted with a disadvantage—but negotiates with other players in a series of moves that not only allow him to evade the advantage’s negative effects, but also advance his position in the game. Then he wins the immunity challenge, a back-to-back win after claiming victory for the first time last episode. Then he successfully puts the votes on his intended target in the game … and just as quickly reorients himself to take out a different opponent in a 4-3-2 plurality vote. It was classic, chaotic Tony, and also a magnum opus of an episode.

Let’s start with the idol, since it set up the rest of Tony’s marquee episode and could grant him power for the rest of the game. Kim Spradlin-Wolfe used an immunity idol in the previous episode, which typically means that a new one will be hidden on the island once the tribe returns. Tony wakes up early and, while the rest of his tribe snoozed, goes searching. As a player with a notorious reputation for idol hunting, Tony had played a patient game this season—but now was his chance. Nick eventually finds him searching, so in a stroke of brilliance, Tony asks him to help search … by looking in an area Tony has already covered. With Nick dispatched elsewhere, Tony finds the idol—and he didn’t need to tell a soul.

In a game littered with advantages, Tony finally has his first taste of real power … then comes the disadvantage, sent from Natalie and Parvati on the Edge of Extinction. A New Jersey congressional candidate once argued that Tony should be fired from his job as a police officer after he played like a “trickster” and a “liar” on Cagayan in 2014; in this episode Tony gleefully talks about breaking kneecaps when he thinks he’s been awarded a new twist called an extortion advantage that allows a player to rob another of their spot in the immunity challenge and their vote at tribal council unless they come up with a required sum of fire tokens, in this case six. Tony is delighted to unleash this advantage on someone … until he realizes it’s being played against him. “Extortion is illegal in the States, I don’t know why it’s not illegal in Fiji,” Tony grumbles.

This is when Tony’s negotiation skills kick in. Tony started the episode with only three tokens, but he’s able to make up the difference thanks to Ben, Nick, and Jeremy, incredibly securing donations from disparate factions of the tribe. To be able to pull off such a stunt without looking two-faced was masterful. And with the advantage paid off, Tony is able to compete in the immunity challenge—which he, of course, then wins.

The immunity victory nets Tony two more fire tokens, enough to pay off two of the three players who loaned him tokens. Who got stiffed, though? The episode didn’t show us—but it almost doesn’t matter, since Tony has built up enough trust with enough of his tribemates that his inability to repay didn’t affect his plan in the slightest.

Then, the vote. This gets a bit complicated. With tribal council looming, the tribe of nine sat divided: Tony, Sarah, Sophie, Ben, and Nick on one side; Kim, Denise, Jeremy, and Michele on the other. Kim and Denise, more loyal to each other than the other two in their alliance, flip to the majority in the hopes of blindsiding Jeremy, who erroneously believes that Tony is still on his side. (“I don’t have the numbers on the Jeremy side … my only option is to go back to this other group that I don’t really trust anyway,” Kim says.) That gives the majority alliance seven votes to divvy out, and they decide to put five on Jeremy, their intended target, and two on Michele just in case Jeremy has an idol or some other advantage.

Tony began this episode by saying he wanted to get Jeremy out—and that he was being a “double agent” by pretending to work with him. The security of immunity must have given him the confidence to become a triple agent. Despite calling the Sarah-Sophie-Ben-Nick group his “real alliance” all episode, Tony realizes that the 5-2 vote split gives him power: If he can keep Nick on his side and talk to Jeremy and Michele, he can corral four votes, more than the 3-2 split that would remain on the other side and enough to get anyone he wants out of the game.

Tony isn’t the same player who spun a web of lies into a victory on Cagayan or flamed out on Game Changers. He’s still wild and entertaining, but he’s learned from both experiences. Now he’s patient. Wednesday night, he waits until the sun is low and there are just minutes before tribal council to tell Jeremy that Denise and Kim have flipped, and that Jeremy’s only option is to vote out the player Tony really wants gone: Sophie.

The result is a blindsiding with only four out of nine votes, perhaps the most masterful plurality vote ever pulled. Sophie even had an immunity idol in her pocket—which no one other than Sarah knew about—and it didn’t matter. The move was so subtle that there was never even the slightest hint that Sophie was in danger; she never even considered playing the idol to save herself. Sophie came into Winners at War as one of the most underrated (and underedited) winners ever, and she quickly established herself as a strategic force on a season of champs. But not even she was ready for the tricks Tony pulled.

Winners at War needed this episode. The 40th, all-champion season of Survivor had lost some momentum since the merge three episodes ago. The Wendell boot episode was fine, and the Adam boot episode was enjoyable if only for Adam’s wild attempt to play Jeff Probst’s podium as an immunity idol. The last episode, which resulted in Tyson’s ouster, was a rushed and sloppily-edited mess that left the audience as confused as Michele was when she cast her vote:

With the Edge of Extinction twist in play and a cast of champions creating chaotic (and exhilarating) gameplay, this season hasn’t had time to breathe. There just hasn’t been enough time to show the strategy and the social bonds necessary for the audience to make sense of the season—even after the series has cut nearly every reward challenge, the traditional intro, tree mail, and most camp life scenes. Sometimes great individual episodes have failed to be truly satisfying thanks to an incoherent seasonlong narrative.

But this episode was gold. And it wasn’t just fun chaos—it was also satisfying storytelling. Typically it’s a bad sign if a player gets double-digit confessionals in an episode, much less the record-setting 18 Tony got in the episode’s 43 minutes of running time. The episode becomes too one-sided, and is reminiscent of seasons that are heavily edited toward a star player or two at the expense of everyone else. But it worked this time because Tony was the central character in literally everything, and the edit made the divisions on the tribe and the subsequent flip-flopping crystal clear.

With just three episodes left in this season, Tony’s move sets the stage for the endgame. How he deals with the fallout of this blindsiding could determine the season’s winner. Tony’s move was incredible—but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was smart. His stated reason for wanting Sophie out of the game was because Sophie was getting too close to Sarah, who is his “partner.” But the blindsiding of Sophie was also a blindsiding of Sarah, which leaves Tony to manage the fallout. “You just sunk my game! I’m done!” Sarah yells at Tony on the preview for next week. The three players who voted with Tony should trust him now, but it might be impossible for him to repair the damage to his “real alliance.”

He still has that idol in his pocket, though—and when Tony has a little bit of security, there is absolutely no telling what he might do.