Survivor: Winners at War is so good that it might turn me into an apologist for the Edge of Extinction.
That twist, first introduced two seasons ago, changes the game by putting eliminated players on a desolate island where they await a chance to win a challenge and return. In Season 38, the Edge allowed Chris Underwood, who was voted out third on his season, to return for the finale and win the entire game. It was immensely unsatisfying to watch a player who had the chance to pal around with the jury on the Edge win despite playing just 13 of Survivor’s 39 days. The end result was a messy, awkward season.
But Wednesday’s episode of Winners at War showed how the Edge can actually enhance a season’s story. Entering the episode, four Survivor winners were stuck on the Edge: Natalie Anderson, Amber Mariano, Danni Boatwright, and Ethan Zohn, who joined the first three after he was booted on last week’s episode. This season, castaways don’t just sit on the Edge and plot their revenge. With the introduction of fire tokens, Survivor’s attempt at a currency system, they’ve had the chance to navigate some sort of challenge in each episode. In this one, the Edge castaways were each tasked with retrieving 20 wooden logs from the top of a hill behind their camp … one at a time. They had to complete the task before sundown to earn a fire token.
It was a brutal chore for a group of people who had been starving for 10 days. As the group went up and down and up and down, Ethan started to falter. Cameras caught Ethan egging himself on. “Pick it up … Pick it up … Pick. It. Up,” he was heard whispering to himself. He pushed himself … and then he pushed too far. The two-time cancer survivor slowed down, felt weak, and nearly fainted before receiving medical attention.
“I wanted to set a good example for everyone who has been through a health challenge and think they can’t do it anymore,” Ethan explained. “You can do it. You can get through those hard moments.” With the help of a sugar pill and some rest, Ethan was able to get back on his feet and finish the task—with all three of his fellow castaways joining him for one final run up the mountain.
Ethan wasn’t the only player pushed to the proverbial edge. Amber and Natalie both broke down after delivering their last piece of wood. The task was so simple, yet it truly pushed every player (perhaps too far, considering Ethan’s need for medical attention). It created the type of emotional, moving moment that has periodically dotted Survivor over the course of its 20-year run. It was everything Survivor is at its best: character-driven storytelling that hits on themes that transcend the reality show.
All of that said, there are still fundamental problems with the Edge of Extinction twist. I’m philosophically opposed to anyone who was voted out coming back into the game—the finality of Jeff Probst’s torch snuffer is crucial to Survivor’s tension and drama. And I’m still deeply skeptical of the Edge in newbie seasons. The twist worked in Episode 4 this season in part because viewers are familiar with Ethan and the journey he’s been through to get back to Survivor after 16 years away from the game. That drama wasn’t possible in Season 38, when the castaways sent to the Edge—including the eventual winner—were mostly unknown to viewers. And this segment, as compelling as it was, ate up an incredibly long nine minutes of airtime—nearly a fourth of the time allotted to each episode. Every minute spent on the Edge is a minute that could have been used to show the strategies and stories of contestants who are still in the real game—and most weeks, the Edge won’t deliver anything even remotely this interesting. I’ll happily take this segment over a reward challenge, which we didn’t get this episode—but most weeks the trade-off won’t be so simple.
Right now, though, Winners at War is hitting all the right notes. The level of gameplay is high, the character moments are great, and the challenges have been wild. Every episode has been special. Rob Mariano, Parvati Shallow, and Sandra Diaz-Twine—three of the most iconic players ever—are somehow still in the game. That’s a sentence that I didn’t think I’d be able to type three weeks ago, much less one that I thought would end up as a footnote in an article written four episodes in. But that’s just how good this season has been. If this season can even deliver a compelling story about the Edge of Extinction, it’s on track to be one of the best in the show’s history.