Ask a longtime, hardcore Survivor fan — someone who knows the terms "Pagonging" and "3-2-1 vote split" — what the best season of the show is, and the real ones will tell you it was Season 20, Heroes vs. Villains. The show's second full-blown all-star season pulled 20 of its biggest personalities together and set them up in the most simplistic of terms: good guys and bad guys.
As subjective and debatable as those designations were, they helped to shape a season that featured bold strategy, epic ego clashes, and at least one moment of unfathomable hubris. And in the end, the Villains, the very people whose collective character was so maligned by the show from the outset, not only won the season but completely wiped the floor with the Heroes.
Survivor executive producer and host, Jeff Probst, who answered Primetimer’s questions via email, credits the concept of "Heroes vs. Villains" to casting producer Lynne Spillman, who took a look at the players who'd been cast and saw a clear opportunity for a Heroes vs. Villains concept. In casting this group of the show's biggest personalities, they'd pulled in the players that fans either rabidly loved (like smiling country boy J.T. Thomas), loved to hate (like self-styled Zen warrior Benjamin "Coach" Wade), or loved despite the myriad reasons given to hate them (like working-class backstabber Boston Rob Mariano).
Still, the labels of "hero" or "villain" are weighty terms to affix to real people, loaded with judgment of past deeds and expectations for the game to come. "I said 'what makes me a villain?'" recalls Sandra Diaz-Twine, who had won Survivor: Pearl Islands with a no-BS attitude and who at one point dumped the tribe's bucket of fish because they'd voted out her ally. "[Probst] said 'because you'd stab your mother in the back for $1,000,000,' and I was like 'oh okay, if that's the reason, you know, like, okay.'"
Immediately, both on the beach and at home with the audience, questions abounded as to why certain people were heroes and others were villains. Why was Candice Woodcock, who'd mutinied on her lovable underdog tribe on Cook Islands, a hero? Why were old allies like Sandra and Rupert Boneham on opposite tribes? "I get it," Courtney Yates tells us over Zoom. Courtney and Amanda Kimmel were thick as thieves when they made it to the finals of Survivor: China but were now on opposite sides, seemingly for temperamental reasons. "I'm aware of the world, and I'm a difficult woman, so that is villainized."
The most glaring instance of old allies on opposite sides of the hero/villain divide involved the Micronesia alliance of Parvati Shallow, Cirie Fields, and Amanda, who had led a group of five women that ran the table on Season 16, blindsiding athletic and charismatic fan faves like Ozzy Lusth and James Clement, en route to Parvati winning the season. In one notorious instance, the women convinced young Erik Reichenbach to give up his immunity only to immediately vote him out. It was an all-time sneaky move, one which the show's producers and fans likened to a Greek myth: An alliance of scheming women had lured Erik's ship into the rocks like sirens in show-sponsored buffs.
And yet only Parvati was placed on the Villains tribe, while Cirie and Amanda were placed with the Heroes. "I was like 'that doesn't make any sense,'" Parvati tells Primetimer, "because we were all part of the same evil deeds in Micronesia. The only thing that I saw that distinguished me from them was the fact that I won.'"
On the beach in Samoa, Probst seemed the most adamant about Parvati: "While you did a great job and were rewarded with a million dollars, you led one of the most notorious tribes of women ever in the history of the game. You betrayed people left and right. You guys were responsible for many, many blindsides. Great player? Yes, that's why you're here. Hero? No."
In hindsight, Probst stands by all the calls they made in casting, even if he allows more nuance for the way Parvati's gameplay could be received. "It was definitely a combination of how we saw the players and how we thought the audience saw the players," he says now. "But even then it was still with a sense of humor." He notes that Parvati was deemed a villain not only because of her game play but also "because of how she carried herself in interviews; she really leaned into the femme fatale persona. But to many young women she wasn’t a villain at all, she was a bonafide [sic] Hero!"
Probst is right about Parvati leaning into a persona. She was incredibly aware of the archetypes at play in reality television. "My archetype is like Eve," she now says of her time on the show. "It's original sin, the woman who makes Adam eat the apple. [...] I was seen as this woman who was the downfall of humanity." Her attitude back then was that you could waste a lot of effort swimming against the tide of these archetypes, or you could make them work for you.
All of the villains quickly leaned into their designated archetypes. In the premiere's opening voiceover, Sandra boasted "Last time I was mean, this time I'm meaner." (Sandra today: "You have to come in with good stuff to say or you won't be on TV!") Russell Hantz bragged that villains are smarter than heroes. Jerri Manthey, who was notorious in the show's second season for being an abrasive schemer and aggressive flirt, smiled ruefully as she recounted the names she was called in her initial run on the show ("devil in a blue bikini… Maneater Manthey").
The Villains wasted little time in setting the tone. In the game's first challenge, they played with such physical abandon that hero Stephenie LaGrossa dislocated her shoulder during a scrum, and Sandra unhooked Sugar Kiper's bra top to try to gain an advantage. (It was to no avail, as Sugar broke free and ran across the finish line bare-breasted.)
"We noticed the bigger personalities were on the Villains tribe," Parvati says, "so we knew we were going to have more fun."
The Villains tribe did seem to be having more fun, especially as they started winning challenges and sending an increasingly frustrated Heroes tribe to Tribal Council again and again. Yet there was a major undercurrent of distrust towards Parvati, whose reputation seemed to haunt her more than anyone else on the tribe. "She thinks she can bat her eyelashes and wiggle her hips and roll down a very short bathing suit already to make it even more skimpy and everybody will follow her around," said Coach in one of his many Parvati-focused reveries.
If the Villains tribe were leaning into their label, the Heroes were struggling to live up to theirs. Early losses led to extended, genuinely acidic arguments between the likes of James and Stephenie. Colby Donaldson became so humorlessly aggro before a reward challenge that he rudely rebuffed Probst's offer of a bite of chocolate. "It’s a game for villains; it's not a game for heroes," Parvati notes in retrospect. "So they're already working at a disadvantage."
"All it means if you're on the Heroes team is that you're good at camp," Courtney says. "And you're good at the challenges, and you're singing the song of 'Let's all collect firewood and, like, chop.'"
Players like J.T. and Rupert really seemed to buy into the whole Heroes myth, and as such, they were extra wary of what was possibly going on at the Villains tribe. The dread specter of the Black Widow Brigade played into J.T.'s decision to betray his ostensible ally, Cirie, for fear that she'd join up with Parvati after a merge. And every time the Villains tribe would show up to a new challenge with one fewer male (Tyson Apostol, Boston Rob, and Coach were voted out in quick succession at one point), Rupert would loudly muse that it sure looked like a "women's alliance" was at play.
This was in no way true, but there was no convincing the Heroes of this. And so J.T. made the most dunderheaded move in Survivor history, when he secretly slipped Russell his hidden immunity idol, along with a note instructing Russell to use the idol to topple Parvati and survive to the merge, where he could then join up with the Heroes. Russell and Parvati, thick as thieves, read the note together and giggled. Parvati had once again gotten a man to willingly give up immunity, only this time she hadn’t had to do anything. It wasn't her megawatt smile that sealed the deal, it was J.T.'s heroic hubris.
In the season's best episode, Parvati used J.T.'s hidden idol, plus one she'd found herself, to blindside J.T. and the Heroes. After the votes were cast, she handed her two idols out to Sandra and Jerri, betting that the Heroes would try to pick off someone least likely to have an immunity idol of their own. She guessed right (the Heroes voted for Jerri), and J.T. was voted out. Longtime Survivor fans tend to look back on this moment for Parvati's fearlessness, and they're right to. This was the quintessential Big Move that Survivor players long to make. But from a different angle, this was the most heroic move made by anyone all season. Parvati left herself open to votes and used her weapons to shield two of her more vulnerable tribemates. She'd even previously had bad blood with Jerri, but any such pettiness was brushed away.
Once J.T. was gone, the Villains picked off the Heroes one by one. The jury's vote came down to Parvati or Sandra in the finals. Parvati, having played the harder and arguably more overtly strategic game, lost to Sandra, who stayed low to the ground all season and made sure she did just enough to stay on the winning side. The Heroes on the jury tried their best to place a moral rubric on the Sandra vs. Parvati decision, but they were ultimately choosing between two villains who had made the Day 1 decision to play into the label the show had placed on them.
Certainly, the fact that the Villains triumphed in Survivor's best season contributes to the badge of honor some of the Villains carry today. "I sort of treasure that as my little place in the Survivor pantheon," Courtney says. "I got to be one of the five female villains of that chapter of Survivor. It’s really cool to be considered on the same level as legendary Jerri Manthey and Sandra and Danielle and Parvati. I was like 'Wow, me?! Me?!'"
Parvati takes a more holistic view of the hero-versus-villain divide, especially after returning to play the game in Season 40's Winners at War. "By the time I came back for 40, I was far more integrated and able to accept that I'm kind of all of this stuff. I'm not a villain, I'm all I am. I'm a hero and a villain, I'm actually all of that."
Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.