After 20 years of Survivor, the CBS network staple decided to do the long anticipated “All-Winners” season. Season 40, Winners at War, promised to be a 39 day epic brawl of 20 of the game’s best winners. It lived up to the hype.
Enigmatic characters, complex relationships and messy twists: Winners at War epitomizes everything Survivor has become over its historic run. Most of all though, Winners is a celebration of the landmark television show.
(Spoilers for Winners at War and, uh, the winners mentioned will also effectively spoil many other seasons.)
The Llama King
“BUKK ABAKKA BUKA AKK”
‒ Tony Vlachos impersonating llamas
Captivating, unique, unexplainable characters are what makes Survivor great. Tony Vlachos is one of the best characters the show has ever seen. After winning season 28 Cagayan by playing the craziest winning game ever, Tony came into Winners at War with a larger than life threat level. In separate preseason power rankings of the cast, Tony placed 14th, 17th and 18th out of 20. He was even the ‘Vegas’ least-favored to win.
Of course, Tony wins.
In Cagayan, Tony flipped on his allies or doubled back between groups at almost every vote. He lied on his family members and his badge (he’s a police officer), and he’d lie about anything. There was no reason anyone on Winners should’ve trusted him.
Tony’s second win might be the most impressive winning game ever, and it gives him a strong argument as the greatest of all time. Early in the season, Tony kept his aggressive strategy and fervid idol hunting on the down-low because he needed to appear less like the crazy wind-up toy (his words) that he was in Cagayan. After the merge, Tony turned the energy to a 15 (his words) and didn’t sleep. He rekindled his alliance with fellow Cagayan competitor Sarah Lacina (more on that later) and created key close connections with Nick Wilson and Jeremy Collins.
At the final nine, Tony orchestrated a last-minute 4-3-2 vote to blindside frontrunner Sophie Clarke. This move drastically limited options for Kim Spradlin-Wolfe and Denise Stapley who didn’t have the numbers to turn on Tony. He kept Jeremy in the game as a meat shield (a big threat to take the target off himself), a strategy most notably executed by Jeremy in his winning season.
The edge of extinction twist brought Natalie Anderson, the first boot of the season, back in the game at final six with an idol and the information that Tony was the biggest threat to win. Still, Tony dodged this obstacle by using the idol he found and then winning immunity at the final five. In the final three against Natalie and Michelle Fitzgerald, Tony won over the jury in a 12-4-0 vote.
On top of elite game play, Tony provided hilarious moments unrelated to the game: he built the world’s shakiest ladder, he caught a shark and completed his three season arc of building a spy shack, spy bunker and spy nest (where he climbs in a tree and spies on people meeting at the water well). He brought his love of Survivor to every moment he spent in the game.
Tony is the llama king.
Tony and Sarah are the most interesting and (probably) best alliance in Survivor. They’ve each played in the same three seasons, and collectively they’ve won all three.
In Cagayan (their first season), Sarah and Tony started on the same tribe. Tony told his tribe he was a construction worker, but Sarah using her (her words) “cop radar” knew he was a cop. Tony eventually fessed up and the two cops started the alliance named Cops-R-Us.
The alliance crumbled quickly, and Tony shockingly voted Sarah out at the merge. Tony dominated strategically the rest of the season and won handily. Three years later, they both returned for Game Changers. Tony flamed out early, but Sarah (this time playing like a criminal) dominated socially and also won handily.
Flash forward three more years and Cop-R-Us is back for Winners at War. In Dalton Ross’s pregame press, he asked each winner which castaway they wished to vote off the game first. Four people wanted Sarah to leave first, including Kim, who became an important ally post-merge, and Sophie Clarke, who was Sarah’s key ally pre-merge. Although Tony flipped on Sarah by taking out Sophie, they kept their alliance intact (even though it caused some serious tension) and pushed forward.
Cops-R-Us was one challenge win away from sitting together in the final three. Instead, Natalie won the final immunity challenge and sent Tony and Sarah to the fire-making competition (with the winner joining the final three and the loser becoming the last member of the jury). Sarah likely would have won if she made it to the end without Tony. Effectively, it was a fire making competition for $2,000,000 and the title of GOAT. If those stakes weren’t enough, there were 6 years of close friendship from outside the show complicating the situation. Perfect television.
After Tony’s narrow victory, the two players hugged, cried and took their (likely) final Survivor bow.
Gender Imbalances and Game Dynamics
Sarah was loyal to Tony, but she was still playing to beat him. After Natalie’s return to the game, Sarah became worried that the jury thought Tony was the mastermind behind their alliance. So at the final 6 tribal council, she brought it up to the jury. Sarah identified that because she is a woman, she is seen as the beta in the alliance even though she is just as crucial to it. This is not only a fantastic argument that makes the jury consider voting for her over Tony, but it also addresses an overall gender imbalance in Survivor.
The numbers prove it: Over the past 15 seasons, 25 men and 20 women have made the final 3 in their respective seasons. Men have received 116 final tribal council votes and women have received 30. Over the first 25 seasons, 12 were won by women and 13 by men.
Women on Survivor have also been shown on screen less than men. The Ringer writes “female winners are edited differently and tend to talk about half as much as male winners.” Reddit user georgiaphi1389 compiled data on confessionals (when a player speaks/narrates directly to the camera) from the first 36 seasons. They found that for every placement (from 20th through 1st) men had a higher median number of confessionals than women. Confessional counts are indicative of who the central characters a season are. The most confessionals received by a male winner was 97 while the most received by a female winner is 69. The least for a male winner is 31 while the least for a female winner is 15. Something doesn’t add up.
One theory for the increase in gender imbalances in recent Survivor is the transition to successful gameplay relying on immunity challenge wins, idols and advantages. There are many female ‘challenge beasts’ but the most dominant challenge performers tend to be men. Idols were only added in season 11, Guatemala, and only became so widespread since around season 20, Heroes vs. Villains. Advantages have only existed in their current versions since around season 30, Cambodia. Widespread idols and advantages also tend to benefit men.
Although female players can definitely benefit from idol and advantage heavy Survivor, they generally don't. The pendulum has swung so far that these twists are making the show near impossible to follow at times. They also take air time from some of the social dynamics that have always been the core of the game. The gendered issue in recent Survivor is entrenched with game dynamics.
Part of what makes Survivor such a fantastic show is that anyone can become a major character and anyone can win the game. In future seasons, Survivor needs to make the game more balanced.
“Fans of football wait all year to see the Super Bowl. Fans of Survivor have been waiting 20 years for Winners at War.” In the opening moments of the season, Tony summed up the significance of season 40: the ultimate celebration. It is a celebration of the best players, most iconic moments and Survivor family of fans and players. As host Jeff Probst put it in the season finale, “We are all sort of this giant weird family.”
Amber Mariano has gained more than money from the show, “I was a kid the first time I played the game. Little did I know that I was going to fall in love, meet my husband, get engaged at the finale, win the show!” Season 40 faces her off against her husband Rob Mariano who won the show years later. Much of the cast have close friendships from outside the show. These pregame relationships were an essential part of the narrative of Winners (for example, the ‘Poker Alliance’ and the couple that ‘kicked it’). New strong relationships were created as well.
Tyson Apostle has played Survivor four times and is one of the funniest, most memorable characters from the show. His winnings have allowed him to be a stay-at-home Dad with his daughters: “The first time I played I was like ‘this is the only job built for me.’ And then I had kids, and for me, that encompasses all my weird talents even more than Survivor does,” he told Entertainment Tonight.
For Ethan Zohn, Survivor is nothing compared to the challenges he’s faced outside of the show. “Not long ago I was battling a rare form of blood cancer… I just wanted to live one more day. I was thinking to myself ‘If I get out of this transplant alive, I want to play Survivor again.’” Ethan beat cancer twice after winning his first season. He created Grassroots Soccer, a charity he founded with his winnings that has helped millions of at-risk children in developing countries. Ethan said that his whole life has been based around being a ‘Survivor’ in many senses of the word but now he wants to be a ‘Thriver.’
For most of the cast, Survivor is a defining aspect of their life. They each won a million dollars and are etched into the show’s history. Some are treating season 40 as a victory lap while others are trying to reconcile or come to terms with the backlash they received in their previous win.
The established greats Sandra Diaze-Twine, Rob Mariano, Parvati Shallow all came to strut their stuff. Sandra wheeled and dealed up to the point when she was brutally blindsided with a single vote cast against her. Rob whipped the votes and made Natalie the first boot. He executed his domineering game play even though it failed him. Parvati got put into an unfortunate tribe swap but fought tooth and nail with a smile on her face and a dagger behind her back.
For other winners, their legacy has been complicated. A large part of Michelle Fitzgerald's story in season 40 was about how the fans didn’t respect he winning game in her first season. She wanted to prove that she deserved that win. Sophie said that after her first season she felt like a bottom tier winner and that Winners helped her realize that she is a good player. Although it may seem trivial, Survivor players (even winners) sometimes experience extreme online hate from the rabid fan base.
Most of this avid fan base expresses their love for the show in healthier ways than by berating the players. Survivor’s online community parallels that of sports fans. There are constant repetitive debates (Aubrey v. Michelle, did Russell Hantz deserve to win?, the greatest to never win) and an obsession with discovering the best player of all time.
In this Survivor family, players and fans have found a community unlike any other in television. No family is perfect (and Survivor is no exception). Through bad seasons and rough times, the Survivor family has made the show so much more than weekly escapism.
The Winners at War finale had to be altered due to COVID-19, and production for season 41 has been delayed, but hopefully the show will return ASAP in some form or another.
Winners at War is the best cast of players ever assembled. As the players conduct deep dives and extensive post-game interviews over the next few months, Winners will continue to spark intrigue. The season highlighted both the show’s strengths and some of its bigger problems. Even as a standalone season, it’s one of the show’s best ever and a testament to television’s greatest phenomenon.
Thumbnail image licensed by Wikimedia Commons. [[File:Tony Vlachos - Survivor.jpg|thumb|Tony Vlachos - Survivor]].