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The Eight Biggest Story Lines of the ‘Survivor: Winners at War’ Season Finale

Can Tony ascend to GOAT level? Will Michele pull off an upset? And who’s coming back from the Edge?

Adam Villacin

With Survivor: Winners at War coming to an end and the series’ 20th anniversary (20th!) just weeks away, there’s no better time than now to honor the revolutionary reality TV competition. Welcome to Survivor Week, a celebration of the show’s best moments and characters.

Survivor fans have waited for an all-winners edition of the show for years, if not decades. Wednesday night, we’ll finally get a conclusion to that long-awaited season—in the three-hour finale (!) of Winners at War, Survivor will crown its champion of champions. Who will take home the $2 million prize—and the priceless bragging rights that come with it—is the question on everyone’s mind. But there’s more to look forward to in the finale than just who will win. Here are eight things to watch for in the conclusion to the most anticipated season of Survivor ever.

Will Tony Become the King of Survivor?

In the opening minutes of Winners at War, host Jeff Probst said that the player who wins this season would be “the greatest player of all time.” Jeff loves to play a bit fast and loose with the accolades—a compilation of every challenge he’s called the “biggest comeback in Survivor history!” would be hours long. There’s no reason that the champion of Winners at War should automatically be considered the GOAT, as someone had to join Sandra as a two-timer given this season’s theme (barring Sandra winning again, which now isn’t possible).

But then there is Tony. If he does win, he will absolutely be the GOAT—and it won’t even be close. His game in Cagayan was already one of the most impressive performances in Survivor history. His game in Game Changers was, well, not that—but his implosion that season led directly to the more subdued, laid-back Tony that was able to fly under the radar until the merge, and he has since dominated the game strategically, physically, and socially. He’s back to the old Tony again—and it’s hard to believe that he’s the only player going into the finale who has yet to have a single vote cast against him.

The knock against Sandra was always that neither of her two wins were individually that impressive. Her “anyone but me” strategy means she plays a quiet game—even if her personality is anything but quiet. Both wins together, though, made Sandra the GOAT. If Tony wins, he’ll have not only two rings—he’ll have two of the most incredible performances ever.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. Tony has an idol in his pocket and surprised competition with his challenge prowess this season, but Ben also has an idol, and whoever returns from the Edge of Extinction could also come back into the game with one. Tony is accustomed to chaos—but he could easily become the victim of it. The Edge returnee will also return to the game with something else: the knowledge of who is the front-runner with the jury. If whoever comes back into the game starts singing a song about Tony being the heavy favorite to win, it will put a target on Tony—and could sink his game. This is to say nothing about the fire-making challenge at the final four, which could also be an obstacle for Tony.

None of this will be easy. That’s also why, if Tony does manage to pull this off, he’ll have earned the title of best ever.

Will Sarah Cut Tony?

Michele was correct in the previous episode when she told Sarah that Tony would be Sarah’s biggest threat come the final tribal council. Sarah dismissed those concerns then, but perhaps the idea that Tony is the favorite will play a role in the finale. Sarah is a perceptive and strategic player, and she should realize that her path to a victory goes through Tony, not around him. The only question is what she’ll do about that.

I keep coming back to a line Tony said to Sarah in the very same episode: “I would lose the game for you, but nobody else.” The Cops-R-Us alliance is the strongest duo in this game, and the bond Sarah and Tony have—forged six years ago when the two played together on Cagayan—clearly transcends Survivor. It’s made me wonder if these two friends would actually prefer to sit next to the other at the final tribal council and lose than blindside the other and win. Recall the conversation Jeff had with the tribe at the final seven about the intense mental toll the game takes on players. Betraying an ally you’ve known for a month is one thing—betraying a friend of years is something else. Going dirty may simply not be worth it to Tony or Sarah, and right now that pact would seem to benefit Tony, who has played a flashier game.

But $2 million is $2 million, and if anyone could forgive getting blindsided, surely it must be Tony. Sarah is in position to make the biggest move of the game—one that could grant her the Winners at War crown. She just needs to decide what she’s willing to do to get it.

Don’t Sleep on Michele

I’m not the biggest believer in edgic, which is the practice of reading the Survivor edit to determine the winner of a given season, but the show has been planting seeds for a possible Michele win. That’s not to say that Michele will win, but if she does win, the audience will know why: Michele has more friends on the jury than anyone. Michele won Kaôh Rōng thanks to her strong social game, and that aspect of her game has paid literal dividends in Winners at War in the form of the many fire tokens she’s received when her allies have been voted out. She also hasn’t been responsible for sending many players to the Edge, which could make her the most-liked player left in the game in the eyes of the jury.

But likability shouldn’t be enough to propel Michele to a win—especially on an all-champions season—when she’s seemingly fallen ass-backwards into the finale. Michele has voted incorrectly six times this season, including the past three votes in a row. And that doesn’t include when she correctly voted for Tyson, which seemed like a shot in the dark from her. That poor track record makes it unlikely that Michele will win (to my dismay—she was my preseason pick), but if she does make the final tribal council, she has enough friends on the massive, 16-person jury to peel away some votes—and that could affect who does get crowned.

Natalie’s Odyssey

The queen of the Edge is the heavy favorite to return to the game. Natalie has three advantages in the challenge (the maximum allowed), an idol in her pocket, and a belly full of peanut butter. If she is able to win the challenge and return to the game more than a month since she was voted out, it’ll be a testament to her superhuman perseverance and will cement her as one of the best athletes to ever appear on the show.

Natalie will also make a ton of noise and affect the endgame if she returns. That aforementioned idol could protect her for one tribal council and blow up someone else’s game, and she’ll be in a prime position to work with anyone on the bottom that is looking for a leg up in the game (hello, Michele and Denise). And if Natalie is able to get to the final tribal council, she’ll be a force there, too. She’s had weeks, if not months, to get familiar with every member of the jury in a non-game setting, building solidarity with the players who shared in her misery on the Edge. Natalie could earn some votes just based on that. She’ll be able to argue that she outplayed her tribemates on the Edge by winning challenges that granted her fire tokens, outwitted her opponents by selling her advantages (and disadvantages) to the right players, and outlasted everyone by surviving the most hostile environment on Survivor for the longest time of anyone. Is that enough to be the winner of Survivor?

Who Else Could Return From the Edge?

At the same time, Natalie isn’t a lock to come back. How many challenges on Survivor have started out looking like a blowout, only to see the leading tribe or contestant fall short at the final (and, typically, the hardest) stage? There are 11 people on the Edge and any of them could rally in the challenge—particularly known threats like Tyson, Rob, Jeremy, Sophie, or Kim.

But one player outside that group stands out to me. Parvati began this season by saying she returned to Survivor to be “a phoenix rising from the ashes.” That could have just been a cool quote that had to be included in the show … or it could be the editors foreshadowing her eventual victory in the final Edge of Extinction challenge. Maybe I just want Parv back in the game again—please let me speak this into existence.

Don’t Forget the Wild Cards

Ben and Denise are the somewhat forgotten players in the (current) final five. Ben has played the sloppiest game on the island—he’s made enemies, blown up his own game, and doesn’t seem to have much respect. Though Tony called Michele a goat in the last episode, Ben is the player with the least chance of gaining jury votes. Denise, meanwhile, has been relatively quiet since her game-changing move to vote out Sandra. The queenslayer has been on the bottom and narrowly escaped elimination at the final six, when the tribe preferred to put the votes on Nick. The subdued edit she’s received makes it unlikely she’ll win.

But both can still affect the game. Ben has an idol in his pocket and is the best fire maker in the tribe. While anyone would want to sit next to him at the final tribal council, no one wants to sit next to him at the fire-making challenge at the final four. That makes determining when to get him out a real trick. Does it make sense to blindside him, or let him get to the end? And what to do about his idol? Ben won’t win—but he’ll have a big impact on who does.

Denise, meanwhile, should be a natural person for the Edge of Extinction returnee to work with. And she’s a pretty good challenge competitor, as well—an immunity run would set her up nicely and have massive ripple effects on the rest of the game.

Watch for Another Advantage-geddon

If the Edge returnee has an idol, that’ll put three idols into play. Those idols are good through the final five, which means that if none of them get played at the final six, four players could be immune at the final five (the final person via the immunity necklace). That could send someone home without any votes against them, which is exactly what happened to Cirie at the final six of Game Changers. I’m getting nauseous just thinking about this possibility.

What Will Come Next?

Usually, CBS starts hyping up the next season of the show around the finale of the current season, typically revealing the theme and cast. But the coronavirus pandemic has indefinitely delayed the production of Season 41, which was supposed to begin filming in March. Now the next season of Survivor is in limbo.

There likely won’t be much for CBS to say on Wednesday night. They could confirm that Season 41 will happen—but not when, where, or in what form. It may be time to start exploring radical alternatives:

The idea to eventually film an Old West–themed season set in the Southwest United States is the best idea I’ve heard yet.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that the votes were on Adam in the final six.