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The ‘Survivor: Winners at War’ Exit Survey

Natalie, Michele, and Tony went into the final tribal council. After one emerged victorious, the Ringer staff wrote down their reactions.

Adam Villacin

After 39 days, 14 episodes, and a THREE-HOUR mega-finale, a winner was declared on Survivor: Winners at War, an all-star season that set out to crown the best player in the show’s history. With the tribal council votes revealed, it seems the season did just that. After the episode, Ringer staffers reacted to the winner, and the losers, while also looking ahead to future seasons.


1. What is your tweet-length review of the season finale of Survivor?

Riley McAtee: An up-and-down season that ultimately rounded into form in the final few weeks to crown the new king of Survivor.

Sean Yoo: A historic television moment capped off by a historic Survivor performance from unquestionably the greatest player ever.

Amelia Wedemeyer:

Katie Baker: Still thinking about Nick’s outfit.

2. What was the best moment of the episode?

McAtee: Not necessarily the best, but Boston Rob’s first stint as a jury member is worth highlighting. His incredible performance when voting for Tony showed once again that Rob is the king of the confessional.

Yoo: The final spy nest had to be up there both in terms of pure entertainment value and also in peak strategic performance. All season long, the spy nest proved to be a crucial tool for Tony’s gameplay and his final opportunity to use it proved to be immensely helpful in his victory. The evolution from spy shack, to spy bunker, to its final form, the spy nest, was just phenomenal television that culminated in the finale with an hourlong stakeout by Tony.

Juliet Litman: Sarah’s speech at the third-to-last tribal council was not a revelation. Anyone who has watched two or more seasons of Survivor is aware of the gender bias that frequently leads to a woman, especially a woman of color, getting voted out first. But rarely does a show in its 40th season have the interest or capability to acknowledge one of its most insidious flaws. I’ve never been a big Sarah fan, but I admire her, and hopefully she’ll have a long-term impact on the show. If nothing else, Jeff Probst will start calling more women by their last names. It may be small, but it matters.

Baker: Since it was a three-hour episode, I’ll pick three: (1) Tyson talking about how Survivor felt like the only thing in the world that his weird assortment of talents are suited for; (2) THAT FIREMAKING CHALLENGE; and (3) Tony in the spy nest, one last time.

Wedemeyer: There wasn’t a single moment that was less than exhilarating—maybe I’m just used to Bachelor franchise finales, which are usually full of tears, meaningless declarations of love, and, more often than not, bad decisions, but I digress. This finale of Survivor: Winners at War had everything, from the gameplay (Ben literally giving Sarah Lacina the OK to vote him off) to the immunity challenges (Michele’s iconic come-from-behind win on the puzzle) to the firemaking challenge (I had no idea who was going to pull off that win) to the final tribal council (I nearly cried). We’re not worthy!

3. What was your least favorite part?

Yoo: I’m sorry but Ben quit and we were robbed of having someone more deserving in that final five.

Litman: Ben. Also, why couldn’t Jeff Probst get a better microphone? He should have had better audio to match his very fancy garage set.

Wedemeyer: I apologize for this, but I do not ship Boston Rob and Amber. Does that make sense? No? OK, like I said, I apologize.

Baker: Again, I’ll list three: (1) I do not “get” Ben at all; (2) the final tribal council was almost too cheerful and respectful for my taste; I prefer more bitterness and accusations; and (3) I wish there had been just a little more postgame coverage. It all ended so abruptly!

McAtee: Jeff is asking 16-year-olds to send in audition tapes now? Absolutely not.

4. Is Tony the GOAT?

McAtee: Yes.

Yoo: Yes and it’s not close.

Baker: I have too many blind spots about the entire history of the show to make this proclamation with any confidence, but I mean: He’s the Winner’s Winner, and that right there has to give him a leg up. (Side note, but somehow, being the GOAT wouldn’t even be the coolest title bestowed this season; shout-out to Denise the Queenslayer!)

Wedemeyer: He’s one of the GOATs.

Litman: Yes. Rob’s question at final tribal homed in on something crucial about Tony: Despite his double-crossing and the blindsidings he has engineered, his fellow competitors genuinely like him. Moreover, he referred to the spy nest (and previously the spy shack and the spy bunker) as the key to his ability to maneuver so effectively. No one else has attempted this tactic because only Tony could pull it off. He is singular.

5. How would you have felt if Natalie had won?

Baker: Seeing Tony’s kids react to their dad losing would have ruined my life, but besides that, I would have been mostly fine with it. The Edge of Extinction might be a controversial part of the show, but it was still part of the game framework that Natalie had to work with, and she crushed it. (When she rattled off all her accomplishments in a row, it was a really wild résumé!) But ultimately, beating a player like Tony required a truly bold move, like throwing herself into the flames and entering the firemaking challenge.

Yoo: Natalie would be deserving of the win in any other season, as she built a more impressive résumé than Chris Underwood on his return from Extinction Island. But as Rob said after he wrote down Tony’s name, “You had to play perfect, you almost did, you should’ve taken this guy out.” That was her big mistake and it cost her $2 million. If she had somehow gotten more votes than Tony it would’ve been an unfortunate end to a perfect season from Tony.

Litman: Her physical dominance is so total that it would have been acceptable, but not preferred. The structural problem with the Edge of Extinction, or any purgatory gimmick, is that the storytelling isn’t as complete. There was no way for the viewer to know that Natalie had alienated many of the old-school players until Rob mentioned it at tribal council. She would have been rewarded for her athletic gifts and her ability to overcome unfavorable odds. Challenge champs often don’t fare well in the end, and it’s because it’s a less complete strategy.

Wedemeyer: As much as I kept saying I wanted Tony to win, I think I would’ve been OK with any of the final three prevailing—they each won me over with their performances at the final tribal council. Listen, I get that Natalie was on Extinction for nearly the entire game, but she was an absolute beast out there, winning fire tokens and bartering with (as well as extorting) players still in the game, which ultimately affected the game in many ways. I think she more than earned her spot, and I feel the same way about Tony and Michele.

McAtee: Edge of Extinction is broken. Natalie got to build bonds with the jury for weeks in a non-game setting, and then she came into the final six with an idol in her pocket. Shouts to her for making the final tribal council, but she was vulnerable at exactly one (1) tribal council all season, and she was voted out at it. This is not how Survivor is supposed to work.

6. Did Michele deserve votes?

Wedemeyer: Yes! She might not be the showiest, but damn it, she survived 39 days of being on the bottom, fighting her way back each time the group had it in for her. Plus, she kicked ass in the challenges she won.

Yoo: She didn’t, but that shouldn’t take anything away from her legitimacy as a strong Survivor competitor. She proved that her social game was top notch and continued to fight even though she was consistently on the bottom. Crucial immunity wins kept her in the game, and day in, day out she just kept surviving. Michele’s reputation heading into this season was defined by the lack of validation for her Survivor win, but she proved to the audience and herself that she can really play the game at a high level.

Baker: Poor Michele, forever left out of the conversation. I actually thought her tribal council speech was excellent, when she talked about getting so far without being in an iron-clad alliance. But she just got unlucky with her finale opponents: the Edge of Extinction cool girl and freakin’ Tony. Someone should have thrown her a pity vote, I guess, but would that really have felt better?

Litman: Michele deserved more votes than Natalie. Michele overcame a lack of alliance, being marooned with her ex-boyfriend, and, as she said, 15 of 19 trips to tribal council. She was strategic and effective when it mattered the most.

McAtee: I love Natalie, but I hate that she got four votes and Michele got zero. Natalie played for five days—Michele has played 78 straight days of Survivor without ever being voted out. She’s a legend.

7. Fire tokens: yea or nay?

Litman: No, too confusing.

Wedemeyer: They’re fine. I guess they added a little intrigue to the season, but I also felt like we had to wait a long time to really get their full effect.

McAtee: Let’s keep workshopping them. Even the first hidden immunity idol was a dud.

Baker: I could take them or leave them? I think in future seasons their use may be a little more interesting now that would-be contestants have seen how the market operates, but on the other hand, I feel like it takes away from the amount of time spent showing the interpersonal dynamics on the island, which is one of my favorite parts about the show.

Yoo: It only worked because this season featured 20 smart and savvy players who have played before. Adding fire tokens to a season full of newbies could be disastrous.

8. What should be the theme of Season 41?

McAtee: If they can’t leave the States, do an Old West theme set in America. Hell, even if they can leave, that theme would be fun as hell.

Baker: I’m with Rob Cesternino and Riley McAtee: Let’s do something in the ol’ U.S. of A.! Survivor: Manifest Destiny! Survivor: Badlands! Survivor: Homesteaders! Survivor: Department of the Interior! Something like that. It will be corny and dusty as hell, and someone will fall off a horse, but—after getting totally re-hooked on Survivor this season after years away from it—I’ll be watching.

Litman: Blue State vs. Red State to time with the 2020 election.

Yoo:

Wedemeyer: Survivor: No Pooping Island ... You can’t poop for 39 days.