It was an epic, emotional May 13, 2020 for Survivor fans.
The decades-old reality competition series, really one of the first to popularize the genre, capped off its 40th season on Thursday night with a three-hour episode. It was a unique season in Survivor history, with the roster of 20 competitors filled out entirely by past winners.
That’s right, Season 40 was the all star season to end all star seasons. Everyone who participated was at one point a master of the game. Survivor has seen many evolutions over the years, adding (and sometimes removing!) new twists on immunity idols, rewards, and how the people voted off are handled.
For example, this “Winners at War” season brought back Edge of Exinction – literally, a separate island where the ones voted out had the option of making do with sparser resources for the chance of fighting their way back into the main game. Edge was first introduced in Season 39, to mixed reactions. Many felt that someone voted out early on shouldn’t have a chance to come back in and win it all.
But Edge returned in Winners at War, and with the added twist of Fire Tokens, a form of currency that players could earn in various ways as they played. Those tokens gave Edge of Extinction castaways options for picking up advantages and influencing the main game. It definitely made Edge a more exciting place to focus on, especially since it let the show linger on fan favorite players who would have otherwise disappeared after being voted out.
Survivor has always leaned on twists like these to keep the 20-year-old competition series fresh. Sometimes they don’t work and disappear from view quickly. Other times, they introduce such refreshing layers of strategy that they stick around for the long haul. Secretly hidden immunity idols that offer protection for one Tribal Council vote weren’t a part of Survivor until Season 11, and they never went away after that. Now they’re just another layer of strategy for players to weigh in every new season.
The ever-changing nature of the game is exactly why it’s so entertaining to see all of these past champions face off in Winners at War. While it’s a safe bet that everyone’s kept up with the show since they won, many of them had never experienced the twists and turns of modern Survivor firsthand. Much of the season’s kinetic energy comes out of watching them adapt – or not!
It works especially well because of the trait that’s common to every past winner: a strong personality. Different types of people have won over the years, from physically imposing “challenge beasts” to more calculating masterminds to ruthless, lying “villains.” But all of them exude a powerful, somewhat indefinable charisma, an X-factor that makes them eminently watchable.
All of which is to say: Winners at War is a lean season of Survivor, with very little fluff getting in the way of the unfolding drama. There are plans-within-plans unfolding at a breakneck pace as competitors plot with and against one another. They’ve all been here before and done it successfully, and they know it. Watching those egos crash together makes for great TV.
Winners at War also opens the door if you’re a newcomer. Survivor has always been more about the journey than the result. You’re bound to zero in on favorite players as the season unfolds, and that could easily push you to dig into the archives and see exactly how different people managed to win their own games over the years. Hulu has most of the seasons available to stream and CBS All Access has them all.
Survivor has always been the greatest of reality TV escapes. The show shuttles viewers off to gorgeous natural locales that serve as the backdrop for a showcase of physical and strategic excellence. Winners at War is that, but on steroids. It’s perhaps the best single season of Survivor we’ve ever seen and the perfect place to start if you want to understand why the series remains so appealing 20 years in.