SURVIVOR

The best of the best return for their chance to win $2 million in what will arguably be the show's most exciting season yet.

In its landmark 40th season, “Survivor: Winners at War” gives fans the biggest battle in the show’s history. For the first time in the series’ run, 20 former winners are competing for the title of “Sole Survivor” and, as host Jeff Probst reveals to them when they arrive, a $2 million prize.

The two-hour premiere is exciting, fast and never lets its audience take a breath. The season is off to a roaring start when the players are divided into two tribes and immediately head straight into a challenge for both immunity and reward. Though the premiere takes place over three days, which is the typical time span for a “Survivor” episode, there are two tribals. The first tribal council is on the second night, with the normal third-night tribal taking place after a second immunity challenge. The gameplay is electric, and it feels surreal watching some of these huge players that haven’t played in over a decade share the screen with other high-caliber “Survivor” legends.

In addition to the increased reward, Probst also informs players about the return of the Edge of Extinction twist. The Edge of Extinction allows voted-off players a chance to get back into the game. If going off the previous Edge of Extinction season, two players will return via winning a challenge –– one at the merge, and another at the final six. Those who lose become members of the jury. While many fans have expressed their dismay toward Edge of Extinction on Twitter, it at least lets popular players still receive airtime for a majority of the season.

Season 40 also introduces “fire tokens” into the game. Working as “Survivor” currency, fire tokens can be used to buy items such as advantages, a tarp and food. Each player starts with one fire token, and in the event that they’re voted out, they must bequeath their fire token to another player still in the game. This will surely add a great deal of conflict and strengthen potential alliances.

The cast this season is one of the best the show has ever had. The winners span the entire show’s history, covering seasons as early as the second and third and all the way up to season 37. The blue tribe, Sele, consists of Ethan Zohn, “Boston” Rob Mariano, Danni Boatwright, Parvati Shallow, Denise Stapley, Natalie Anderson, Jeremy Collins, Michele Fitzgerald, Adam Klein and Ben Driebergen. Dakal, the red tribe, includes Amber Mariano, Sandra Diaz-Twine, Yul Kwon, Tyson Apostol, Sophie Clarke, Kim Spradlin, Tony Vlachos, Sarah Lacina, Wendell Holland and Nick Wilson. Every player is given airtime and a confessional in the episode, with some scenes including brief flashbacks to a winner’s previous season.

For one-time players returning, it’s compelling to watch them find their groove. Recent winners like Nick, Wendell and Michele are used to the more advantage-heavy sides of the game, but in the premiere, they’re shown to be taken aback by the accelerated pace of a returnee season. Kim, who played one of the most dominant winning games in the show’s history, struggles when she discovers she could be an early target and helplessly falls to her knees and begs her tribe not to vote her out. On the other hand, Yul, who hasn’t played since 2006, has an amazing showing in the premiere and seamlessly works his way into a strong and safe position on his tribe.

One of the most interesting parts of the premiere is the show’s acknowledgment of cast connections. In every all-star season, there are instances where players begin with pre-game alliances, but the show rarely ever gives hints of this and keeps airtime focused solely on in-game content. This season, however, it’s almost impossible to avoid. Several of the players have played in the same season in the past. Sandra, Parvati, Rob and Tyson, for example, were all on the same tribe in season 20, “Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains.” 

The two biggest connections discussed in the premiere are Rob and Amber, who met in season 8 and have been married since 2005, and the “Poker Player Alliance,” which stems from a broadcast game of poker that Rob, Kim, Jeremy and Tyson played together in 2018. As both tribes go to tribal council in the premiere, these connections weigh heavily on the vote decisions. 

While it’s going to be hard to see such strong, fan-favorite players get voted out every week, if the season continues the energy it has in its premiere, “Winners at War” will surely stand out as one of the best, most epic seasons “Survivor” has ever had.

Contact Kira Baldau at baldaukb@dukes.jmu.edu. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.