Survivor’s 40th season ended this week. 40 seasons! Can you believe it? Now, I haven’t watched every single one and I in no way claim to be an expert, but as someone who watches the show week in and week out, I thought I’d chime in today and share my thoughts on the season and the winner.
First, my Survivor history: I watched Survivor season one twenty years ago, when it was new and different, when we all thought we were watching a show about actual survival that quickly became a show about alliances and social strategy. I know I watched at least one more season (Australia), but let it fade out of my life after that. I didn’t return to Survivor again until 2011, for season 24, “One World” — I was looking for something fun and different to watch with my 9-year-old son, and this worked for us! And I’m pretty sure I’ve seen every season since.
Back to season 40: With “Winners at War”, Survivor brought back 20 previous winners, some who’ve played multiple times, some who appeared only once but managed to win and make a big impression. Some of these players are Survivor gods by now — who hasn’t heard of Parvati or Tyson or Boston Rob? For a lot of Survivor winners — and even non-winners who are extremely popular with fans — Survivor celebrity can be a career all on its own.
It was, I thought, a pretty cool concept to bring back all these winners and let them battle it out. There were a bunch of old-school winners (Rob, Sandra, Parvati, Yul, etc), and plenty of newer winners too. I liked the idea, and I liked seeing these Survivor icons thrown together in new and different ways. And yes, I liked the awkwardness too, like when Nick confessed that Parvati was his Survivor crush way back when.
BUT… the game design itself this time around had serious flaws, and these came close to ruining the whole season for me.
For the 2nd time, Survivor included the ridiculous Edge of Extinction twist, only this time, it wasn’t a surprise. In normal seasons, when someone is voted out, that’s it — they’re gone. Well, unless they’re voted out post-merge, in which case they become a jury member. Still, there’s a very clear distinction. Either you’re in, or you’re out. The tribe has spoken.
With Edge of Extinction, voted-out players get sent to a different island, where they basically just sit around, occasionally compete for rewards, and wait for a chance to get back into the game. Mostly, they seem bored, and spend a lot of time talking about how tough they have it. These players all form the jury, so while they’re not playing with the remaining active players, they’re watching every Tribal Council and keeping up with the ins and outs of gameplay.
And then, the EoE players get two chances to return to the game — through challenges that happen about midway through (Tyson won, only to get voted out again pretty quickly), and three days before the end. And man, do I have a problem with this! More on that in a minute.
The other twist this season was the introduction of Fire Tokens, described as a “Survivor currency”. As players win rewards, they also earn these tokens, which can be spent on luxury items (like blankets or peanut butter) or saved to gain advantages down the road.
The fire tokens became a part of the interplay between EoE players and the players still in the game. Someone on EoE could sell an advantage to an active player, or extort them by demanding payment of tokens in order to avoid a disadvantage. The absolutely worst part of the fire tokens was being able to use them to gain advantages in the battle-back competition.
As the voted-out players spent time on EoE, there were numerous opportunities to gain tokens. The longer you’re there, the more chances there are. So a player who managed to last in the main game until day 30 had almost no chance to get any sort of advantage to re-enter the game, versus someone voted out early on, who spent weeks gathering tokens as rewards.
In season 38, a player who reentered from EoE ended up winning the game, and it was a controversial win for sure. This person may have lasted a long time, but did he actually play the game?
Here, in season 40, it was even worse. Natalie, voted out on day 2 of the game, the very first person voted out, spent 30+ days on Edge of Extinction. She won a ton of challenges over there and collected more fire tokens than any other player. She had all those weeks to bond with every other voted-out player, all of whom were jury members, to observe the main game from her own jury seat, and to never have to worry about getting removed from play permanently.
When it came time for the final battle-back challenge, Natalie used her token to buy herself three advantages in the challenge plus an immunity idol to bring back into the game with her if she won.
And if you ask me — that’s ridiculous! Having someone have major advantages like that at such a key moment is just out and out unfair. If I were any of the other players trying to get back in, I’d be frustrated and mad as hell. Naturally, Natalie won, and then tried to dominate the few days left by using her idol and spreading (possibly false) info that everyone on the Edge was saying Tony would absolutely win — hoping to use this as a lever to break up his alliance and get the others to turn against him.
Natalie’s reentry into the game was a disruption that didn’t seem fair or right. The other remaining players at that point had survived through challenges, social gameplay, and numerous tribal councils. I just really don’t like the concept of a voted-out player being able to re-enter so late in the game and stand a chance of winning — and especially being able to re-enter with an idol already in her pocket.
The final three ended up being Natalie, Michelle, and Tony. As I’ve said, I don’t think Natalie deserved a place there at all, and the fact that she lasted at EoE while hanging out with the rest of the jury didn’t seem like it could possibly justify handing her any votes to win.
I’ve never like Michelle as a player. I didn’t think she deserved her first win against Aubry, and I didn’t see her doing much of anything worthwhile in this game aside from lacking enough presence as a player to make anyone else want to target her. Yes, she lasted, but she didn’t actually do anything other than winning immunity at a couple of key times.
As for Tony — well, honestly, I’m delighted he won. I would have loved to see both him and Sarah at the final tribal, either with Ben or Denise. Now that would have been a showdown! This, by the way, is why I feel that the process is flawed when it comes to the end. There’s got to be a way that’s better than a fire-making challenge for determining the final three. Maybe when it’s down to four, you have one person win immunity, then let the remaining three battle it out for the next two spots? Otherwise, the one who wins that particular immunity challenge gets an outsized amount of power.
I hate seeing weak players at final tribal, with great players voted out (or eliminated by fire) in the 4th or 5th position. I get it — you want to win, so you try to make sure you’re sitting next to someone you can beat. But wouldn’t it be cool to have three amazing players at the end, each with a really strong argument to pitch to the jury?
I was sad to see Sarah out of the competition — but was practically in tears myself watching Tony and Sarah hug and share “I love you”s.
Tony was the right winner. He’s a delight to watch, no doubt about it. His crazy antics keep the show entertaining and surprising. How can you not love a guy who perches in a tree for hours? And actually, one of my favorite moments was earlier on when he helped Sarah infiltrate the other team’s camp to find an advantage. They were an amazing duo!
As for Edge of Extinction, I’ve seen a bunch of speculation that the producers basically had to do this in order to lure back the big-time former winners. I guess no one wants to come back with all the hoopla around this season and then get voted out right away. Still, I think it’s a weird and unnecessary addition to the game, it eats up airtime (and isn’t all that interesting), and it upsets the game dynamic, but in a negative (not creative) way. I’m hoping they do away with both EoE and fire tokens in future seasons!
Kudos, however, to Survivor production for going all-out with this season’s loved ones visit, which usually is super hokey. This time around, they brought not just one family member, but the entire family for each player. Yup, more waterworks as I watched all the various competitors dissolve into mom and dad tears as their kids ran out for hugs! So sweet, and I loved that unlike other seasons, everyone got to spend time with their families, not just the winners of a challenge.
Overall, it was a really fun season, and it was great to see some old-time players back in the game. Of course, I did feel like I was missing out by not knowing some of the “classic” winners… so maybe I should “challenge” myself to use my shelter-in-place time to watch some older seasons.
No matter how many seasons of Survivor I watch, I always end up hooked. Here’s to many more! Hopefully, next season’s final episode won’t be hosted out of Jeff Probst’s garage.
And hey, a question for my fellow Survivor fans out there: If I were going to go back and watch an old season for the first time, which do you recommend, and why?