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Survivor: Winners at War Has Officially Become 'The Tony Show'

As the show turns into its stretch run, an old producers' favorite emerges as the presumptive winner.
  • Tony Vlachos in Survivor. (CBS)
    Tony Vlachos in Survivor. (CBS)

    SPOILERS for the outcome of Wednesday night's episode of Survivor ahead.

    We all should've seen this coming. All the signs were there. Survivor: Cagayan winner Tony Vlachos, who played such a loud, showy game that was either mega-entertaining or obnoxious as all hell depending on who you ask, managed to make it through the pre-merge part of the season without a single vote cast against him. This, despite being one of the two or three most notorious players who all the other players seemed to identify in the pre-season press as a threat. Little by little, the signs began to emerge. The segments featuring Tony foolishly trying to climb a tree, or unnecessarily camouflaging Sarah for a nighttime raid, or last week's ironic foreshadowing as he bragged to his wife that he had finally learned to tone down his game, to his benefit.

    Yeah, all that went out the window this week. After last week's chaotic tribal council where two advantages and a hidden immunity idol were played, Tony took himself off the leash. We saw him sneaking out in the wee hours of the morning looking for immunity idols. We saw him sprinting into the woods to read the advantage he got sent. We saw him wheedle fire tokens out of his tribemates in order to buy his way out of an extortion twist. And we saw him U-turn his strategy at the last minute in order to take advantage of a split vote and eliminate someone who'd voted with him last week, South Pacific winner Sophie Clarke. And all the while, Tony appeared on screen for a whopping 18 confessionals, an all-time record according to Survivior Reddit.

    We've seen Survivor fall in love with Tony before. This is what it's like. His every antic treated like a madcap romp. His triumphs celebrated. The game steadily revolving around him. The triumphant swell of strings on the soundtrack when Tony found his idol pointed clearly towards an emerging narrative, leaving many to wonder: is Tony our winner? Survivor has definitely done this before, especially when they have an alpha-male winner in their sights: the edit becomes blazingly obvious that one particular player is going to win. Boston Rob in Redemption Island. Tyson in Blood vs. Water. That one time on Survivor: Fiji when they filmed a helicopter shot of Earl scaling an island hilltop like he'd just hit the summit on Everest. This kind of edit opts against telling a story of suspense ("Who will win??") and instead decides to follow a Hero's Journey path.

    The concept of a "winner's edit" is used a lot when assessing reality competition shows, and admittedly it's misapplied just as often as it's applied correctly. But if you've watched these shows long enough, the tea leaves in the editing get easier and easier to read. An episode like this week's, followed by a next-week preview that heavily features Tony in high-antic mode (including creating a treetop "spy nest"), rings a clear bell: with only a couple episodes to go before the finale, the endgame is upon us, and Survivor has placed its entire spotlight on Tony Vlachos.

    As for the rest of this week's happenings…

    Winner of the Week: Tony. It's pretty hard to deny that he made a great move, managed to snow Jeremy completely, pull Nick under his wing, and eliminate a shrewd player like Sophie. Whether this works out long term now that he's alienated exactly half the tribe remains to be seen, but he does have that immunity idol.

    Sub-Winner(s) of the Week: Jeremy, who majorly lucked after falling hook, line, and sinker for Tony's lies at the beginning of the episode, only to get bailed out by Tony's hyperactive game play in the final minutes.

    War of the Week: Tony versus stasis, perhaps? This is exactly how he operated in Cagayan, flipping on allies constantly until the very end. That time, he was bolstered by a super-charged immunity idol that could keep him safe even after the votes, so he was essentially untouchable. While he does have an idol this time, it's just a regular one, so it's hard to imagine the other players allowing him to stomp his way to the finale again.

    Alliance Report: Tony's flip this week seems to put his and Sarah's "Cops Are Us" alliance in jeopardy, although the preview leans on that angle so heavily that it feels like we'll see them patch things up. Jeremy and Michele remain tight. Kim and Denise have forged a kind of backs-against-the-wall alliance that could be intriguing. Kim was the only player to have seen Tony's game clearly.

    Dispatches from the Edge of Extinction: After several weeks of being barely visible, Natalie rebounded with a huge week, finding the clue to the Extortion advantage and selling it to Tony for a whopping six fire tokens, which you have to figure will be a big help to her in the next return-to-the-game competition.

    Advantage Report: Okay, let's see …

    • Sophie got voted out with an immunity idol in her pocket (or in her underwear, as she remarked on her way out).
    • Tony now has an immunity idol that will likely get him through one of the four remaining tribal councils between here and the final four.
    • Michele holds a dubiously helpful 50/50 advantage that she spent 4 fire tokens on even though it is a literal coin flip as to whether it will help her or not.

    Fire Token Report: After this week's wheelings and dealings …

    • Natalie is now the 1% of Survivor island, holding six fire tokens that she extorted from Tony.
    • Denise holds three tokens.
    • Sophie distributed her two fire tokens to Sarah and Kim, upping their totals to two apiece.
    • Nick gave two tokens to Tony, leaving him with one.
    • Jeremy gave up both his fire tokens to Tony, leaving him with none.
    • Ben holds one token.
    • Michele has zero tokens, as she had to explain to Tony.

    War of the Weeks Ahead: Tony, Tony, Tony. He's done it again.

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    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.

    TOPICS: Survivor, CBS, Jeremy Collins, Sophie Clarke, Tony Vlachos, Reality TV