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‘Survivor: Winners at War’ Is an All-Star Game That Actually Matters

The Season 40 premiere shows what happens when you put 20 ‘Survivor’ champs on an island: peak nostalgia, thrilling alliances, and elite gameplay

CBS/Ringer illustration

The scene that sticks out most from Survivor’s season premiere Wednesday night is when Rob, Ben, and Jeremy are walking on the beach before their tribe’s tribal council. Ben, trying to make inroads with one of the best players in history, tells Rob that his name has been thrown out there as a target. But then the conversation goes sideways for Ben.

Rob: Who said my name?

Ben:

Rob: You’re not going to tell me? That’s like getting off on the wrong foot, Ben.

Ben: I’m trying to remember who said it. It was one of the girls.

Rob: See this, right now? Where you’re not telling me? It’s kinda making me feel like I can’t trust you.

It’s uncomfortable and awkward, but an effective move for Rob: Ben finally does reveal that it was Danni. (“I shouldn’t have done that!” Ben says in a confessional.) And of course, Rob immediately goes to talk to Danni, confronting her about the rumor, but instead of denying it, she immediately owns up to it. “One of my concerns would be all the connections [you have],” she says. Rob isn’t upset—he tells her he respects her, understands that he’s a target, and that he even wants to work with her. What could have become a feud turns into an alliance. It was Rob at his absolute best: part mob boss, part friend, all Survivor legend.

From there, Rob aligns himself with Parvati—foes the last time they played together—and helps engineer a vote for Natalie. Parvati, who had been the flirt in previous seasons more than a decade in the past, has transitioned seamlessly into the role of a mom, disarming her tribemates by talking about kids and family life (though this didn’t stop her from making a joke about prom—classic Parv). At one point, before the tribal council, Parvati and Rob sit on the beach laughing about how, as two of the most iconic Survivor players ever, they should have the biggest targets on their back. Yet they felt comfortable, and received zero votes at tribal. Natalie, on the other hand, went home.

The 40th season of Survivor is the most anticipated in series history, an all-winners battle royal that for years seemed like it would never happen. And if the premiere episode is any indication, it should feature the highest level of gameplay ever seen—and be an all-time-great season.

Rob and Parvati weren’t the only players to impress in the premiere. The other tribe featured a similar scramble before their tribal council, in the second hour of the two-part episode. In that tribal, Yul and Sandra took the reins—though few noticed. Among the tribe there was talk about a “poker alliance” among three players—Kim, Tyson, and Rob—who had appeared on a televised poker program about a year before the show’s filming dates. Kim, Tyson, and Rob’s wife, Amber, were all on the same tribe, and fear of that connection put those three players on the outs for the first vote. Yul had been talking up the threat of this poker alliance, and when Sandra told Tyson that he was being targeted by Tony (which wasn’t true), Tyson went into “survival mode.” He was ready to work with Yul and throw Kim and Amber under the bus—even though it was Yul who was partially responsible for Tyson being on the block in the first place. After 14 years away from the game, Yul is as sharp as ever. And as the show’s only two-time winner, Sandra knows exactly how hard she needs to play to have a chance. In the end, Amber went home.

In the lead-up to this season, there was plenty of speculation that the new-school players may be better suited to the modern game than the old-school players. Yul, for example, hadn’t played in 14 years—when he won his season, it was with a single immunity idol that adhered to completely different rules. But all the players who excelled in the premiere—Yul, Rob, Parvati, and Sandra, primarily—were old-schoolers. Survivor has changed, but it hasn’t passed anyone by.

That’s not to say that those four were the only players worth highlighting. Kim, playing from the bottom for the first time in her Survivor career, relentlessly pursued conversations with her tribemates—and narrowly avoided going home. The usually erratic Tony played it cool, avoiding his temptation to idol-hunt. Natalie gifted Sandra an immunity idol from the Edge of Extinction (Queen stays the queen!). Jeremy realized that he and Natalie were on the outs just based on Rob and Parvati’s body language. Danni successfully wriggled her way out of a sticky situation. Wendell laid low despite his desire to make a move. Adam built a strong alliance with Denise immediately (and was able to avoid being targeted for it). Sophie used Yul as her nerd meat shield. Denise won her first tribal immunity ever.

There was subtle gameplay, loud gameplay, and everything in between—but very little bad gameplay. There’s just nothing else like this: Winners at War is like the NBA All-Star Game, only if the All-Star Game could include past legends and all the players actually cared. Even the quick exits of Natalie and Amber had little to do with their skill at the game. They played like former winners, but this season—quickly shaping up to be the most challenging season of Survivor ever—everyone’s a winner. And someone had to go home first.