Survivor Winners at War episode 1 recap: Slings and arrows

Photo: Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment ©2020 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Photo: Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment ©2020 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved /

With two eliminations (including one on Day 1), Survivor: Winners at War episode 1 kicked off the 20th anniversary season with a bang.

There’s nothing quite as exciting as the best of the best coming together in a specific medium to test each others’ skills and see who comes out on top. The idea that 20 Survivor champions from classic, mid-era, and contemporary seasons will come together and compete against each other is one out of fantasies just as much as it is the ultimate test of a winner’s mettle.

Winners at War is 20 years of Survivor answering a seemingly impossible question; who is the best of the best? We won’t have a clear cut answer due to the fact that not every single winner is here, but there is no better a format to honor the show’s 20th anniversary as we inch closer to that May 31 date later this year. Let’s take a look at the premiere with our Winners at War episode 1 recap!

Opening Salvo

The first five minutes of the two-hour premiere repeated what we saw in the Survivor at 40 special, taking us right to the moment all 20 players arrived on the starting mat. It gave us a peek into each of the castaways’ personalities, with Adam continuing his superfan-like adoration, Tyson giving his smart-aleck comments, and Yul sincerely greeting everyone to the beach.

It very much felt like Jeff Probst and production knew the monumental importance of a season like this, catching everyone up on some of the more seasoned players. After a drink and a fake British accent later, we saw the men and women divide into their two tribes; red Dakal and blue Sele.

Amber, Kim, Nick, Sandra, Sarah, Sophie, Tony, Tyson, Wendell, and Yul make up the Dakal tribe, while Adam, Ben, Danni, Denise, Ethan, Jeremy, Michele, Natalie, Parvati, and Boston Rob make up the Sele tribe. Before even hitting their own beaches, fire tokens were introduced, Edge of Extinction was announced as the crowd goes mild, and immunity was put up for grabs. That’s one hell of a shot to the arm off the bat!

Teams of two needed to grab a ring in the water and bring it back to their post, with the first tribe to score three points winning immunity. Tyson and Yul lined up to take on Sele and scored the first point for Dakal. Sarah and Kim faced off against Parvati and Natalie, winning the second point thanks to Kim pulling everyone across the water to her side. Wendell and Tony against Boston Rob and Ben, with Sele holding off defeat. Amber and Sarah tried to grab the win against Denise and Natalie, eventually winning immunity 3-1.

Twist and Shout

If there’s something that favors the new school players, it’s the fact that there will be a currency that allows people to buy comfort items and advantages. Nick smartly pointed out that he has a leg up to balance out the fact everyone else has pre-existing connections, as those gifting currency to others after being voted out will eventually make those tokens exponentially more important.

That took into effect as soon as the first boot made their way to the Edge of Extinction, as they gifted their one fire token and learned about the opportunity to earn more on the Edge and use them to get back into the game later on. We even see them find an idol that was good for three tribals, but only to be sold to a player still in the game from the other tribe.

The idea that Edge of Extinction players are voted out, yet actively shift the balance of power to those that still are managing their own games is asinine to me. Sandra Diaz-Twine getting gifted an idol by someone who she’s never met in the game indicates Survivor turning into a board game, with her getting an especially powerful Chance card. Hard for the queen to not stay the queen when she gains the benefits of existing as Survivor royalty.

Additionally, it’s hard to sell the harshness of the Edge of Extinction when players can find advantages, sell them for tokens, and get luxuries such as a pizza, a six-pack of beer, a bottle of wine, or a hammock for just a single token each. With nothing to do but make friends with the jury and scavenge for a bit of rice each day, it turns a cruel mistress into a chill area to vent your frustrations to people who may vote for you to win $2 million.

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Survivor: Baby on Board

If there’s something that is remarkable about these winners, it’s just how much they’ve changed through parenthood. The fact we had Tyson cry about being a stay-at-home dad as his confessional introduction is mind-boggling, let alone hearing from Parvati about being a new mom of less than a year.

It’s a fundamental shift in the focus of the editing, as we’re taking a look at how these winners think and operate with a lot more at stake than before. Sure, we know who these people are, but to see how much they’ve changed is just as important. I mean, Tyson used to strictly be the class clown, but here he realized just how much he had to snap into focus (while also throwing in his Golden God-like cheek).

The perception of how people see each other, as much as they recognize the connections of others, means 4D chess is afoot. Those who see Adam and Denise walking off to find the well know it’s more than enough to paint a target on their back, just as much as they’re willing to keep their “jungle boy 2.0 + therapist” pairing as an effective strategy.

Those on the outs in terms of connections, in effect, have made the smart pivot to make it seem like the lack of a Survivor family as an effective strategy. Yul may have been the Godfather of Cook Islands, yet he’s willing to be the father of the misfit children on Dakal, connecting those without connections in the first place. It’s a brilliant way to gather those who might get steamrolled otherwise.

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Blood vs. Water (vs. Poker)

Ethan made a quick comment about the thick connection of Blood vs. Water, and it would become the focus of the two-hour episode. Natalie and Jeremy were notably close on San Juan del Sur, with Natalie going as far as to note their bond was as close to blood as possible. It was something of a late talking point for Sele compared to the “looked for the water well for too long” dynamic, which, ironically, was as thick as water.

Intriguingly, however, Yul brought to the forefront what has been a hidden determinant for most other all-returnee seasons; pre-game alliances. We actually got a throwback to Kim, Jeremy, Boston Rob, and Tyson’s appearance on Poker Night in America, with Tyson’s offhanded comment about them running the show being a real talking point for Yul as he galvanized a voting bloc to take out Tyson or Kim.

When the tribes arrived at the second Immunity Challenge, you could tell Sandra was surprised Boston Rob was still in the game. He turned out to be pivotal to Sele’s ability to compete in the challenge, which saw the tribe boat out to a bag filled with number tiles, overcome a series of aquatic obstacles, unlock a lock with those number tiles and throw three rings onto large targets.

Sele’s win and Boston Rob’s continued existence in the game meant that blood connection between Rob and Amber became more prominent and thicker than any other tangential group of castaways playing poker for a few hours a year before Winners at War. You even saw Tyson abandon that kind of group (leaving Kim high and dry, fending for herself) and dive full in with the voting bloc, as many felt like the division of family being more powerful than all.

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First Ones Out

The pace of play became the primary conversation heading into the first Tribal Council, as it felt more akin to the heart attack pace of Uncut Gems. With everyone dancing around the fact that Natalie and Jeremy (as well as Denise and Adam) were voting targets, everyone played as tight-lipped as possible. It wasn’t until Jeremy saw how chill Boston Rob and Parvati were acting that he caught onto the fact he was in danger.

Two Denise and one Adam vote were just a split vote distraction for Jeremy, Natalie, and Michele, as the remaining votes headed Natalie’s way. The “thick as blood” connection between Natalie and Jeremy proved to be a precursor for what would be the discussion at Dakal’s Tribal Council, as the meta-narrative discussion about the level of connections people had and what’s important to grasp in the grand scheme of things.

Kim Spradlin seemed out of sorts, downplaying the poker crew as a group of people who were there for a few hours and nothing more. Meanwhile, everyone else was pointing fingers at everyone else, reflecting the chaotic energy that highlights these winners at the height of their games. Everyone is running around like a chicken with their head cut off, yet it’s the people coming to others like Tony and Sandra naming others as threats that are dictating the course of action.

Three votes for Kim (tying her One World total against) and one against Nick were distraction votes against Amber, who suffered a fate due to the fact she was the wife of someone who was a huge threat. She followed in the footsteps of someone who was voted out because she was the “work wife” equivalent of another threat on the Sele tribe, showing that women still have a long way to go in modern Survivor if they don’t want to make up the majority of pre-merge boots.

Even the most egregious twists can’t outdo the outrageous, entertaining personalities coming back together once more to throw down and establish dominance. We have two proxy battles setting up for large-scale wars down the line, and I cannot imagine what will happen if we have Boston Rob and Sandra turning from mentors to war generals for <em>Survivor: Winners at War.</em>. Survivor: Winners at War. . Greatest of the Greats. A-

Key Observations

  • Even before the game begins, Tyson asks the women if they hate the ocean as they fell one by one into the water coming off the boat towards the marooning. His sarcastic wit takes no breaks!
  • Kim Spradlin getting the dodo edit sounds and awkward shots when people are around her is completely the opposite of what we predicted things going for her early on.
  • Everyone has an extremely nervous energy, especially when it comes to throwing out names. Nobody wants to be caught or labeled as saying, “X is saying to vote you out,” which means everyone looks like they’re passing out notes like it’s middle school.
  • So far, a fire token for Jeremy by Natalie and one for Boston Rob by Amber don’t tip the scales that much but think about when one of those players are voted out. Suddenly, someone could have three tokens by the end of the next episode.
  • Was Ethan glad to be back when he was in the voting booth at Tribal Council? Man, that would be the last place I’d want to be ahead of the first vote!

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Here’s hoping an hour of Survivor: Winners at War suffices next week!