The idea of “making it to the merge” is one of Survivor’s most universal narratives. No matter what season you’re in, and no matter what player you’re talking to, there’s never going to be a Survivor player who isn’t at least subconsciously gauging their performance on whether or not they can get to the mid-point of the game. If you’re eliminated before the merge, it’s a crushing disappointment: if you’re eliminated after the merge, you’ve at least earned yourself the right to decide who is the sole survivor.
It was as universal a narrative as Survivor had right up until Edge of Extinction reared its ugly head. Suddenly, the narrative of the season no longer pivots on the merge: any player who remains on the Edge gets to be a part of the jury, and the impact of the merge is muted by the idea that the game isn’t truly in its final stages until the second and final player returns to the game closer to the end. The merge is still a meaningful barometer of a player’s success, but it’s another in a long line of “Winners at War” moments that makes me wish it was all happening without the Edge to muddle things.
Let’s get it out of the way: there have been some really compelling moments on the Edge of Extinction in “Winners at War,” and I would trade absolutely all of them for it not to exist. I understand the tradeoff this represents if, as suggested, there were certain winners who refused to return unless they might have a chance to win their way back into the game. And I don’t begrudge those who feel that the chance to see players like Rob and Parvati play the game again was worth the way the segments on extinction pulled focus from the narrative of those still in the game. But the irony is that the impact of the old guard self-destructing in the face of playing a changed game has been struggling to push through the clutter of the fact all those players are still around, scrambling all over the Edge searching for fire tokens that may or may not change the course of the game.
In the end, the combination of returning players we care about—that Ethan scene really was a tearjerker—and the fall of the old guard probably created the best possible version of Edge of Extinction, but as soon as Jeff starts leaning into these emotional narratives I’m just reminded of how much it takes away from what the show should be focusing on. And yet you can see why the Edge is so attractive to Probst and the other producers, as it produces extremely clear narratives: Rob fighting to avenge Amber and Tyson fighting for his kids are not subtle stories, but the stakes of their duel in the final moments of the return challenge are unquestionable. And that’s really one of the only clear moments in an episode that otherwise forces the editors to sift through a whole bunch of players flailing in the wind as the game enters its next stage, a task that they don’t end up really having the time to do justice.
Once Tyson is returned to the game, and the episode makes a passing effort to underline the old school vs. new school narrative that the first half of the season left underdeveloped, there’s a moment where he wonders if the game has changed such that he can’t compete. But everything about the subsequent vote reinforces that the fact so many old school players went out had less to do with the gameplay of the newer winners and everything to do with the older players self-destructing their games. Yes, Denise was the “queenslayer” who brought down Sandra, but Sandra basically chopped off her own head so that Denise could serve it on a platter. The opening of the season was like the plot of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, with each of the old school players stumbling a trap, but instead of a good and earnest Charlie being left at the end it was a collection of people who had gotten lost on their way to the factory and showed up an hour late wondering what’s going on. And watching them try to figure out how to vote once Denise—the only player anyone can understand as a threat because she made the single biggest move—wins individual immunity is a reminder that just because they won Survivor doesn’t mean they’re capable of playing it well under different circumstances.
The player who has impressed me most in the early parts of the season has been—and this is not an original opinion—Sophie, who I honestly could not have identified out of a lineup even if we take the hair change out of the equation. And that’s because she is the one person whose talking heads have been consistently observant, and whose interactions with other players have been controlled yet never withholding. It’s the kind of edit where you get the sense that everyone who played with her is realizing just how much they were looking past someone who was able to pull the strings without them knowing. On that front, the result of tonight’s vote is the edit’s clearest statement yet that Sophie is doing what Jeremy hoped he would be able to do using the now departed Wendell: run the show without anyone realizing that she’s running the show. The moment where she tells Adam with confidence that she’s voting for Wendell, and that she believes Adam is safe, is affirmed by the vote, and marks the first time where it feels like an average viewer of the show will perceive her as a threat now that the old school have faded into the background.
But I still don’t really understand how this vote came down to Wendell and Adam in the first place. The argument in favor of voting out “sleepers” was already kind of suspect, both because all of Ben and Tony’s dumb ideas are suspect and because Adam’s only real action in this game was coming on way too strong early and nearly getting himself eliminated because of it. It was like everyone suddenly lost their gauge of the game once the merge happened: there was no talk of original tribe loyalty, and Sophie was right to note it was kind of insane that Tyson’s name was never thrown out. And while the vote did eventually turn on a more “threatening” player in Wendell, the idea it wasn’t a debate among the tribe’s multiple dangerous players shows a startling lack of awareness of what kind of threat someone like Tyson can play in this game if you let him sink his teeth into it.
Going into “Winners at War,” it might have been fair to expect that what would make the season exciting was seeing people who are good at Survivor play Survivor, but I’m going to say it: on average, these people aren’t playing a great season of Survivor. Those who made the merge stumbled their way into it, and those who survived this first vote revealed a ton of weaknesses in their games that are dying to be exploited. It’s a group that feels rife for a repeat of the truly awful result of the last Edge of Extinction season, where the player who returns at Day 35 (provided they stick with that game-breaking pattern) will waltz in with a jury sympathetic to their cause, some kind of advantage, and a bunch of players other than Sophie who don’t know what the hell their game plan is.
This was not an unentertaining episode of Survivor, and all told this season has been very watchable at a time when we needed it to be. Watching the old guard flame out was different than a typical Survivor season because we know these people so well, and lament their downfall in a way we wouldn’t a collection of randos or even a normal set of “all-stars.” And so I understand how someone could argue Edge of Extinction helping these people stick around made the season better, but the season has leaned too heavily on those stories and left us with an underdeveloped merge tribe, narratively speaking. Denise is the only player who has a strong narrative within the game, but there really aren’t any players who have a strong narrative within the show itself, either. Whereas it’s often felt like the game doesn’t really start until the merge because the stakes change so dramatically at that time, here it feels like Survivor just forgot that the “game” itself was going on while it was busy building to Rob and Tyson’s showdown, and they sure could have used that 5-10 minutes an episode on something other than fire tokens that mostly proved to be meaningless given that Yul (who had no advantage) was close to Rob and Tyson in the challenge.
My hope had been that the merge would feel like a fresh start, but I spent the whole episode reminding myself there is no fresh start in an Edge of Extinction season: Wendell’s departure is once again going to be only temporary, and he’s back to the torch table gifting his fire tokens to the only people who had his back, and we’re left with a tribe that’s been defined by chaos but not the kind of constructed chaos I would normally associate with this show. Instead, it feels like a chaos born out of a dumb twist that creates two moments of high-stakes Survivor with the trade-off being a huge amount of often evocative but never truly essential personal drama that damages the things that have allowed the show to survive this long to begin with.
- Okay, so I really went into this not planning on writing another essay about why Edge of Extinction sucks, but I honestly just had to write what I was feeling, and it cast a shadow over the rest of this episode in a significant way. I’m hopeful that by season’s end (when I’ll return with a review of the finale), we’ll be talking about something else, but something tells me that might not happen.
- Rob is a good Survivor player, but I was really not here for how much he was milking his experience on the Edge of Extinction in his bit with Probst. He and Tyson were pushing similar emotional buttons, but Rob doth protest too much, at least for me.
- I always embrace an opportunity for an immunity challenge to blow up a perceived easy vote like Denise did, but it really left the episode scrambling for story in a case where the opening re-entry stuff had eaten up too much time for the pre-tribal stuff to really register.
- Michele’s narrative was really strong up until this episode, as she fought against the idea she was an “undeserving winner,” but it really just fully disappeared here: all of her tension with Wendell was basically resolved offscreen after Yul’s exit, apparently, and she just becomes one of his pieces to work with as he negotiated with Jeremy. Not sure what happened there, exactly, and I’m curious if they try to resurface her narrative or if they’ve just decided it’s no longer useful with the “relationship baggage” story with Wendell being off the table.
- I am previously on the record that I do not like Ben, who has been an aloof presence throughout the season, but the way he snips “She’s going to go quick” as Sophie shivers before the immunity challenge is just so typical of his bullshit, and I need him to be held accountable by this game eventually if I am to feel any kind of resolution about this season.
- The choice to give away fire tokens along with the immunity necklace seems redundant to me: wouldn’t it be more interesting if they had offered fire tokens to anyone willing to sit out the challenge? Giving them to winners just feels like we’re deflating the value of the currency (albeit with the inflation of prices meaning that such deflation is combated a bit). Anyway, someone in the comments who’s an economist should do a full-scale currency analysis I am not qualified to complete.
- I hope whichever Survivor gamemaker came up with the “tie smaller sticks together to make one big stick” challenge gets royalties every time they use it, because it really was a stroke of genius.
- The “Old West Showdown” music got too much of a workout tonight, and the music actually having vocals in it was not something I support moving forward. In general, a lot of conspicuous sound/music work tonight.
- Who’s everybody rooting for? I know that the editors are actively pandering to the “Sophie-sticated Survivor fan” with her edit, but at this point she’s really the only player who I see playing the game in a way that makes sense to me.