We witnessed history on Wednesday, May 13. While most people reading this tuned in to watch Jenna Compano reclaim her “Barbie Beast” title on Total Madness in order to take out Tori Deal, Survivor was capping off its fortieth season. With COVID-19 putting a halt on production, fans will have to wait longer than usual for their next fix.

Winners at War pitted twenty past champions of Survivor against each other, and it worked for the most part . . . which was a good thing given the two seasons that proceeded it in 2019:

Edge of Extinction: Players that got voted off had the option to stay on the Edge of Extinction, a purgatory of sorts, where they awaited a shot to get back in the game. The winner of that season was Chris Underwood; he had been voted off on Day 8, reentered the game on Day 35, and wound up receiving nine votes from thirteen jurors, many of whom had been stuck on EoE and perhaps wanted to give the season the unlikeliest and/or most unpopular of endings. Chris’s main move was giving up the immunity he won on Day 38 and defeating Rick Devens (the first returnee from EoE) to a fire-making contest. That was definitely not enough to justify his win for most fans.

surivor edge of extinction final 3

Island of the Idols: The main hook had promise. Players would occasionally find themselves sent to a nearby island and receive advice (helpful or not) by two past winners: “Boston” Rob Mariano (veteran of four seasons, won Redemption Island thanks to rookie players that left him as unmarked as a child whose big wish was to score a touchdown against a pro team) and Sandra Diaz-Twine (winner of Pearl Islands and Heroes vs Villains). The season came to a screeching halt when Dan Spilo wound up getting removed from the game after multiple instances of inappropriate contact with female players and production staff. The show took action but unfortunately occurred far too late into the season for most fans’ liking.

As you can imagine, Survivor had nowhere to go but up. Sure, the overabundance of gimmicks was back. There were the usual hidden immunity idols. Edge of Extinction would also return (host Jeff Probst met fan demands and declared Winners at War would be the last time EoE would appear for the time being). New to the season was the introduction of Fire Tokens, which became the official currency of Survivor (not unlike cigarettes in prison if you think about it).

survivor winners at war

Winners at War turned out to be a decent season that looks better in comparison to what had come before it. Tony Vlachos wound up winning the $2 million grand prize, becoming only the second person on Survivor to win two separate seasons. And while his endless hustle, keen eye for finding hidden idols, and willingness to injure himself in exchange for an edge (going as far as climbing a tree to eavesdrop on other players; a new incarnation of his “Spy Shack” from Survivor: Cagayan) captivated us, I don’t believe he was the one that made Winners at War a memorable season. In my mind, that distinction goes to the runner-up. This is a woman who went from being the first person voted out, to crafting a comeback story that came up just short of winning it all. I am talking about Natalie Anderson.

Here is my reasoning.

The Gender Thing

During the finale, Sarah Lacina spoke about the gender inequality that looms over Survivor; that a male player can do whatever it takes to win the game but a woman would be labeled “bitch” or worse. Sexism has been prevalent on the show for a long time. Jeff Probst is a lot slower acknowledging female winners and he seems to have a weakness for alpha males. The obvious example of that is Ben Driebergen, winner of Heroes vs. Heroes vs. Hustlers. Some fans felt that the production staff all but gave him three hidden immunity idols to remain in the game when his position had become precarious. That is something I don’t believe happened but it is hard to dispute what would happen next.

natalie anderson parvati winners at war

On Day 38, Ben did not win the Immunity Challenge. It looked like the other three players would vote him out of the game. After winning the challenge, Chrissy Hofbeck was given a letter that touted a “twist” that didn’t really benefit her: she was to choose someone to join her at the Final Tribal Council the next day, while the remaining players competed in a fire-making contest (previously used to break 2-2 ties in the past). She did not take Ben with her (choosing Ryan Ulirch) and any hope she had of winning the season vanished when Ben defeated Devon Pinto and survived to Day 39. On that night, he would receive five of the jury’s eight votes to win, much to the chagrin of many fans. The fact that Ben looked like one of the alpha males Probst admired didn’t help. I kept imagining Probst daydreaming about being held by Ben in his strong arms, beard hairs scratching his cheeks, and Probst telling himself, “Don’t call him Colby, don’t call him Colby . . .”

colby survivor

Going into Winners at War, there had not been a female winner in the previous five seasons. In addition, no woman making it to Day 39 had received a vote in the prior four seasons. While Natalie came up short (getting four out of fourteen votes), she had managed to present a fine example of a strong woman. While Winners at War wasn’t short on women that could win the $2 million prize (most notably Michele Fitzgerald, Denise Stapley, and Sarah herself), the “Natalie vs. Edge of Extinction” story arc proved to be one of the more compelling arcs that season, especially when she worked so hard to get an edge on EoE.

The Amazing Race thing

Let me get this out of the way: I am a huge fan of The Amazing Race. While it might have suffered the same mutations as Survivor in terms of changing from the original version, I still consider it to be the superior reality show. Sadly, CBS doesn’t love TAR as much as Survivor and Big Brother. In fact, the thirty-second version of TAR (filmed last year) was supposed to take over the Wednesday 8 p.m. slot from Survivor after Winners at War . . . but then CBS elected to push it back. It is now scheduled for Wednesday nights at 9. This is only the latest move from the network to jerk The Amazing Race and its fans around, all but saying “We’ll air it when we air it.”

Natalie ran TAR21 with her twin sister, Nadiya. The self-proclaimed ”Twinees” ran a good race, representing themselves and their native Sri Lanka.. Natalie & Nadiya won two legs and were strong contenders until they were eliminated in the penultimate leg. They managed to rub some fans the wrong way; the most egregious example being when they picked up money dropped by another team and failed to inform them about it. They were invited to an all-star edition three seasons later but they were the first team eliminated.

Natalie and Nadiya Anderson Amazing Race

One year after TAR24, they became contestants on Survivor: San Juan del Sur. This was the first time TAR alumni had been cast on another of CBS’s big reality shows. This was the reverse of the usual status quo, where players from Big Brother and Survivor (most notably, Rob & Amber) were cast on TAR. In the “Blood vs. Water” themed Survivor season (featuring nine pairs of loved ones), Nadiya wound up getting voted out first. Natalie managed to stay in the game much longer, earning five out of eight votes on the final day en route to winning the season and the million dollar prize pot.

Natalie’s victory was not exactly a middle finger to the more-heralded reality franchise but it did feel good for me. In the thirtieth season, Cody & Jessica finally gave CBS what they probably wanted: a victory in TAR (albeit due to luck in the final leg). The couple wound up getting more love from the network post-season than most of the recent winners. After that, CBS was rumored to have a season of TAR featuring most or all Big Brother contestants, which would have all but wrecked the franchise. In the end, three teams of two from Big Brother would compete (including Victor Arroyo, who had a brief stint on The Challenge: Vendettas), along with three teams from Survivor. The final leg would come down to three sets of TAR alumni racing for the $1 million. Also, all legs were won by four of the TAR teams.

She Made Edge of Extinction Great . . . Period

When the Edge of Extinction “twist” was introduced in Survivor: Edge of Extinction, the general fan reaction was far from positive. When it was announced that it was returning for Winners at War, the response was not much better (and neither was the concept of Fire Tokens). While EoE was improved from the original version on season 38, Natalie did something thought to be impossible. No, it wasn’t that she went from being the first voted out to returning to the game in less than five weeks. It was that she helped make EoE and Fire Tokens interesting.

natalie anderson edge of extinction winners are war

In the new EoE, players that had been voted out had chances to win Fire Tokens. At the start of the season, each player was given one token. When they were voted off, they would drop their tokens in miniature treasure chests for other players to receive. On EoE, those cast off had opportunities to find advantages for the game. The bad news was that these advantages held no power on EoE. However, those that found them could sell them to players still in the game.

Natalie found advantages on her first three opportunities through clues. The third time, she sold a clue to Sarah that allowed her to raid the opposing tribe’s camp at night in order to earn a “steal a vote” advantage. This resulted in one of the funnier moments of the season as Tony (a fellow cop and alliance partner) smeared charcoal and saliva on her face in order to camouflage her. Aside from the hygienic problems, I’m guessing seeing someone with a blackened face made the production crew’s collective butthole pucker up. Soon after, Natalie and the other players at EoE would receive one token for walking to the mountaintop, picking up twenty logs, then returning them to camp . . . one at a time. While the quest did take a toll on Natalie (and a deeper one for cancer survivor Ethan Zohn), she managed to finish the task.

Although Natalie spent all her tokens on an advantage in a challenge to leave EoE, as well as an Immunity Idol that would only work in the main game, she came up short as Tyson managed to edge out Rob. However, the remaining players were able to stay on EoE for one more chance. Natalie missed out on opportunities to win fire tokens, though she did get a visit from twin sister Nadiya and her daughter. She and Parvati would find the Extortion Advantage. This led to another great scene involving Tony: watching him gleefully reading the note that came with the Advantage, thinking that he was going to shake down players for tokens . . . only to find out he was the one that he had to either pay six tokens or sit out the next immunity challenge and forfeit his vote in the next Tribal Council. He managed to make the fee, borrowing from Nick, Ben and Jeremy to add to the three tokens he had. Natalie’s time at EoE wound down, as she won two tokens by moving coconuts from one side of the island to the other, and she sold an advantage to Nick for eight tokens, allowing him to put another player at a disadvantage to the upcoming Immunity Challenge. Ben wound up the victim, but he overcame the handicap and almost defeated Michele.

Natalie Anderson and Tyson Apostol

Natalie geared up for the second and final Edge of Extinction Challenge. Having amassed up to sixteen fire tokens, she bought three advantages for that Challenge, as well as peanut butter for energy, and an idol she gifted to Tyson. While Natalie almost lost the challenge despite her acquired advantages, she prevailed and re-entered the game on Day 35. She played her idol that night, which negated four votes to boot her from the game. In addition, her play forced both Tony and Ben to blink, as they cashed in their idols. As it turned out, the other two votes had gone to Ben, and Denise was voted out unanimously. Although Tony had started hunting for one final hidden immunity idol early, Natalie managed to locate it. Her subsequent idol play did not negate any votes, as Ben was sent off.

On Day 38, with all hidden idols having been exhausted, Natalie had her work cut out for her in the final Immunity Challenge, as the players had to drop balls on a complex track and catch them. Natalie had several close calls, but she managed to win the challenge, clinching a berth for the final Tribal Council. She chose Michele to join her, forcing Sarah and Tony into a fire-making challenge. Tony won that, and he managed to persuade twelve of the sixteen jurors to give him the $2 million prize, as well as the distinction of being the second two-time winner of Survivor.

I am not taking away anything from neither Tony Vlachos nor his win. Yes, the editing for the season made it evident that he would emerge the winner, and he seems to be the type of man Jeff Probst adores. Just as his win in Survivor: Cagayan, he hustled from Day 1, often running through camp in search of hidden idols, brought back his patented “spy shack” (basically fixing a hiding place for himself for eavesdropping purposes), and he even evolved that into a “spy nest,” where he hung from a tree for about an hour and found out about the idol Natalie had picked up. He earned his win, which also served as redemption for his poor performance on Survivor: Game Changers (lasting a mere six days before getting voted off). He overcame many obstacles, including how his playing style was – in his own words – “fast and sloppy.” But in the end, Natalie Anderson walked away taking away the most Survivor: Winners at War had to offer, even if it was not $2 million.