Survivor came very close to having its chickens come home to roost on Wednesday night's finale of Winners at War, their all-winners all-star season that has aired during the single strangest time to air a television show in its 20-year run. With the COVID-19 pandemic having shuttered the show's traditional live reading of the final votes and subsequent reunion episode, Survivor improvised by having Jeff Probst assemble a lookalike tribal council set in his own garage and then reading the votes to the final three over zoom. The portion of the finale that is traditionally given to a reunion was cut, giving the finale nearly three hours of actual Survivor. And that season finale nearly saw Natalie Anderson win the entire season, after having been the first person voted out of the game, only to cling to her life in the game via the show's fitfully unpopular Edge of Extinction twist. Natalie won her way back into the game in the night's first challenge, played two immunity idols to make it to the final four, and won the season's last immunity challenge to make it in front of the jury, where 16 of the people she spent time bonding with and impressing with her physical prowess decided the fate of the season.
Natalie ultimately lost a 12-4 vote to Tony Vlachos, the madman of Fiji, whose comedic antics and showy game play — hiding in his treetop "spy shack" to eavesdrop on his competitors' conversations — ended up endearing him to many of the very people he voted off the show. It was probably much better for Survivor to have ended that way, despite the fact that Natalie's re-introduction into the main game gave tonight's finale episode a jolt of energy, not to mention a genuine challenge to Tony and his allies, that had been missing from the game for several weeks. But having a player return from Edge of Extinction to win the game — for the second time in three seasons, no less — would have very much felt like Survivor getting hoisted by its own petard. Certainly it would have crystallized what many have criticized as the show's trends towards overcomplicating its own game and introducing ever more outlandish twists that warp the game's former simplicity.
At the end of the day, Survivor's enduring appeal is a rather simple one: a group of strangers compete to survive the elements together and earn each other's trust long enough to vote one another out of the game. The Edge of Extinction twist kept eliminated players in the game to starve and scrape by on a desolate spit of island, waiting for the chance to re-enter the game. When Chris Underwood won Survivor two seasons ago as an Edge of Extinction returnee, he exposed a flaw in the twist: that no matter how little a player had done on the season, spending all that time on the Edge of Extinction bonding with (and never voting out) the jury added up to a huge advantage. It certainly seemed like Natalie was going to reap that same advantage, and while her win would have undoubtedly been much more celebrated than Chris's, Tony's win did at least a little to re-assert Survivor's equilibrium. Evidently, the 12 jurors who voted for Tony, all former winners of the show, placed more importance on enduring the active portion of the game for the entire 39 days, despite how clearly hard Natalie had to work to make it back from EOE.
All told, for a season that had begun to circle the drain over the last few weeks, Wednesday night's finale was a phenomenal rebound, featuring exciting and suspenseful game play interwoven with the kinds of heavily emotional storytelling that Jeff Probst clearly wanted to feature in this season. The first half hour was spent on the EOE challenge, which Natalie won, followed by Probst giving the various eliminated players a moment to tearfully memorialize what their Survivor experiences have meant to them. This was followed by a post-production segment with voiceover recorded by the various players from their quarantined homes about, again, what Survivor has meant to them.
Once Natalie returned to the game, the show got the one thing it had been missing for a few weeks: the sense that anybody was targeting Tony. Natalie paired up with fellow finalist Michele Fitzgerald and through a thrilling string of immunity wins and idol plays, managed to cut down Tony's entire alliance of Sarah Lacina, Ben Driebergen, and Denise Stapley. On top of that, the endgame was livened up by a rather candid exchange between Lacina and Probst where she spelled out the double standard that women on Survivor often endure, in terms of their strategic actions being interpreted in a far more negative light than analogous moves by their male counterparts. Probst copped to his own gender bias over the years, a subject that has long been a point of contention among Probst's detractors. Then there was the fire-making challenge where Tony and Sarah, allies over the course of three seasons, competed against each other for the last spot in the finals. Tony won, and their tearful embrace put a cap on the kind of slow-burn storyline that makes these all-star seasons worth it.
Survivor might not be back for a little while. In his closing remarks, Probst said that while the coronavirus had shut down production on Survivor's 41st season, they're still intent on airing the new season this fall. (No elaboration on exactly how.) When it returns, the twists and turns will likely be back with it, but perhaps the resolution to Winners at War will serve as a reminder of the mileage that the show can get out of great characters playing an essentially simple game.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor 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.