Survivor Season 40 Premiere Episode Recap: ‘Winners At War,’ Legacies On The Line

What an absolute dream come true. After 20 years on the air, and now into its 40th (!!!) Season, Survivor is back and is as good as ever. The nightmarish ugliness of Season 39 is but a distant memory, and all signs point to this season, “Survivor: Winners at War,” as being one of the best, most epic seasons of Survivor yet. It sure started off with a bang, and if you can’t keep up with the speed of the game, like Queen Sandra Diaz-Twine says, you need to just get out of the way.

Twenty previous winners have returned to compete in “Winners at War,” with a new Reality-TV record-prize of 2 million dollars waiting at the finish line. That’s a lot of money y’all. Perhaps of equal (or OK, lesser) overall importance, these winners are all placing their legacies on the line. Some that are thought of as the “greatest” may reveal – up against other winners – to be less than. While some “lesser” winners may end up truly being thought of as the greatest of all-time.

Some legacies have already began to shift, rise and slide following the first two-hour episode of Season 40, “Survivor: Winners at War.” And it’s a dream come true to be given the chance to continue to analyze and dissect this game that I love after all this time. So let’s do this, shall we?

As I do at the beginning of every recap, please heed the following: Remember that this recap assumes that you have already seen this week’s episode of Survivor: Winners at War. If you have not and don’t want to be spoiled, please come back later! It’s important to add that while we WILL hit on all of the important developments of the episode, this is not a linear “blow-by-blow” recap. It is more of a discussion and reaction of what we just witnessed together.


Survivor Season 40 Premiere Episode Recap: ‘Winners At War,’ Legacies On The Line

I am so stoked to be back covering Survivor for RealityTea!!! It’s truly an honor. While this is a landmark anniversary season for the show itself, it also is for me personally: This is my 20th season covering Survivor. Like many of you Survivor die-hards out there, I’ve spent countless hours over the years talking, discussing and debating this amazing game, and I’ve dreamed of how cool it would be to see an all-winners season take place. Moving past the disappointment that legends like Richard Hatch and John Cochran were not included (nor was my personal fave, Survivor: Thailand winner Brian “Ice Man” Heidik), this first two-hour episode couldn’t have gone any better.

Like, did everyone love this start as much as I did? I had absolute goose-bumps watching these former winners arrive (and fall) onto the beach at the beginning of the episode, and like a trained poker player I was trying to study their faces. Man, did Boston Rob look…nervous? Adam Klein might have fainted with giddy excitement for just having been there. Wendell of course looked calm and collected, as he does. You could see many of them eyeballing each other. Many of them looked like they couldn’t believe this was happening.  Myself and the viewers couldn’t either.

But it didn’t take long for this game to begin, did it? What used to be a 39-day marathon has now morphed into a 39-day all-out sprint, where if you are unsure of yourself or your place in this game, you were going to be gone. Yul – another personal favorite of mine – referred to himself as a dinosaur that was time-warped into the future, but man he showed he still had his teeth when it came to the first challenge. Natalie too (more on her in a bit of course) showed her physicality, one of her best traits during her winning season. Boston Rob‘s dad-bod was a bit glaring at first, but this dude showed in every way why he is one of the all-time greats of the game and why they built a big statue of him out in Fiji. And speaking of big statues, that other one, Sandra, showed to many of the young viewers just why she’s Queen.

Survivor Season 40 Premiere Episode Recap: ‘Winners At War,’ Legacies On The Line

I can’t quite find a fault in the first episode’s two-hours…it was pure fan-service in all the best possible ways. We as viewers are not used to watching a season of Survivor where there are no goats…where not one of these players will be “pulled through” to the end. There was an exciting, physical challenge right off the bat, followed by an incredible come-from-behind underdog victory at the second challenge. The first Tribal Council was so unpredictable, I think I had it narrowed down to seven of the ten players as to who would get their torch snuffed. The second vote-out will not only send ripple affects throughout the rest of the season, it will create a tsunami of epic proportions once Rob finds out what happened and who was responsible for voting out Amber. In-between, there were funny moments, intense strategy-talk, and every one of the 20 winners had at least some of the spotlight (some more than others) by the time it came to a close.

There’s so much to talk about that I’ll just pick one and go with it. I’m literally still shaking with excitement! But here’s one MAJOR theme I picked up on during this first two-hours that is sure to play out over the course of the season, and that is this idea of “new school” vs. “old school.” As we all know, the best Survivor players are those that have the ability to adapt. Nick Wilson during the episode eluded that he felt he had an advantage over the older players because the newer players are used to the new twists that get introduced in the game. He mentioned that the winner of this season might likely be the person who is able to correctly use the Fire Token currency. I think he may ultimately be right, and time will tell. But it was the old-school players who showed up much more than any of the new school players through these first two Tribal Councils.

Survivor Season 40 Premiere Episode Recap: ‘Winners At War,’ Legacies On The Line

Take Boston Rob and Parvati for example. Enemies the last time they played together, they instantly showed their ability not only to adapt, but to “reason.” Using reason and logic to influence the game? It’s the oldest of Survivor skills. By trying to work outside of what might be expected of them, they were able to forge a strong initial alliance, and most importantly, skirt past the first vote. Natalie on the other hand, fell back into an old alliance, the one she had with Jeremy during her winning season. Natalie felt comfortable with that old alliance, but that’s not forward-thinking enough to float, not on a season with such high-caliber players such as this.

As the game evolves, it seems like for every winning strategy, a counter-strategy eventually emerges. A few years back for example, during Game Changers, the idea of an “outside the game pre-alliance” was a big talking-point. As was pointed out, many of these Survivors have played the game together before. Not only that, they’ve forged friendships outside the game. They have done charity events together, celebrity appearances together. In the case of Rob, Amber, Tyson, Jeremy and Kim, they’ve played poker together. A few years back, a pre-game alliance might have been the leg-up that a player needed to really hit the ground running once the game started.

Survivor Season 40 Premiere Episode Recap: ‘Winners At War,’ Legacies On The Line

Not anymore. I too thought that players like Boston Rob would be at a great advantage to start this season, being not only that his wife is on the show too, but the fact that he is real friends with many of these contestants outside of the game. But as we learned with Yul and Sophie, it seems like it was way better to have come into this season NOT having any pre-existing friendships or alliances. The wild-card or the lone wolf might be the better equipped person to win this season. And for those that do have outside-of-the-game alliances, it seems like it’s going to be an almost impossible uphill battle to break-away from that stigma…even if they do have real intentions to forge new alliances within the game.

Legacies are on the line. Once of the most interesting aspects of this season to me was the legacies that each of these winners carried into the game with them, and how these legacies were set to change depending on what happens this season. If players like Boston Rob, or Sandra, or Parvati, were to be voted out first, I really don’t think it would have tainted their overall legacies. “They are way too big for the game,” people would say, or that they never stood a real chance to begin with. If a player like Sophie or Michele – both considered to be lower on the totem pole of overall winners – ended up winning “Winners at War,” they would not only become Survivor Legends in their own right, but depending on how they did it, might be catapulted into the “greatest of all-time” discussion, if not topping that list. It seems a bit unbelievable now, but in a few short months from now, that is exactly what might happen. And everyone in-between has something to prove as well.

Survivor Season 40 Premiere Episode Recap: ‘Winners At War,’ Legacies On The Line

That’s why – in Episode 1 – it’s a bit sad for both Natalie and for Amber. Natalie was not able to move outside of her existing alliance with Jeremy, and at the very least wasn’t able to persuade any of the others that it should be Jeremy – a member of that “poker alliance” – over her. Her original win will never be diminished nor would it be fair to take anything away from any of these players’ winning seasons, but her overall legacy AMONG winners is definitely tarnished. She couldn’t hang with the big dogs. For Amber, it’s even a bit more upsetting. Her winning season has always been overshadowed and marred by the idea that Boston Rob really won that season for the two of them. Nobody thinks of Amber as an all-time great player, and she probably even ranks near the bottom when it comes to overall impressive winning seasons. This time out, she really had a lot to prove in terms of owning her own game independent of her legendary husband. Had she dominated this season, we all would have had a deeper respect for her legacy. But the fact that she was first out of her tribe, and that the speed of this new game really appeared to be too much for her, it just feeds that theory that she was a coattail rider the first time. The good news for both Amber and for Natalie is, their games are not over…far from it. Because everybody’s favorite (or is it least favorite???) twist, the Edge of Extinction is back, and along with the Fire Token twist, this is truly a whole new ballgame.

What do people think of the Fire Token twist, and how it relates to Edge of Extinction? I for one am seriously intrigued and think it adds a fun new strategic element to the game…as with all twists, I’ll reserve final judgment for a few weeks from now, but it seems promising now.

Survivor Season 40 Premiere Episode Recap: ‘Winners At War,’ Legacies On The Line

I did find it very interesting that Sandra did decide to send Amber and not Kim or Tyson, to the Edge. Sandra in this episode receives the game’s first Immunity Idol, cashing in her one Fire Token for it after it was sent to her from the Edge by Natalie. Sandra guessed this to be true, but then might not have thought through her vote-out of Amber: If she knows that it is possible to gift advantages from the Edge to those still in the game, then why in the world would she send Amber there, knowing full-well that this will ultimately lead to Boston Rob being that much stronger in the game, with Amber potentially feeding him advantages? Further, she must know that Rob will seek revenge for those responsible, so in turn his power would be wielded against herself. It seemed like the better move to go for Kim, who carries a legacy coming into this season as perhaps the best female winner in the history of the game. Kim too, is showing that her overall legacy might take a hit…this amazing winner doesn’t seem to be able to get a foot-hold among these other players, and if she’s so good then why wasn’t she able to bend things in her favor, like Rob and Parvati did over at the other tribe? The good news for Kim is that she was not voted off, she’s every bit a part of this game, and she has just bought herself three more days to figure something else out.

It was also fascinating to see that last season’s “Island of the Idols” twist actually has a MAJOR impact on this season, in regards to the relationship between Sandra and Rob. Sandra says that Rob lied to her out there and didn’t reveal that he was actually going to be returning to play this season. As a result, Sandra felt bitter which in turn played into her decision to vote out Rob’s wife, Amber. What seemed like just an inconsequential – and forgettable, really – game twist, ends up completely shifting the landscape of this championship season of Survivor. Just stunning.

Survivor Season 40 Premiere Episode Recap: ‘Winners At War,’ Legacies On The Line

Aside from Rob and Sandra, what do these Fire Tokens ultimately mean for the game? Will people begin to pool them together for advantages? Will connections with players on the Edge impact who gets voted off in-game? My mind is spinning with all the possibilities.

There are so many factors, so many layers of game-play, and so many fascinating characters this season, I’ve never been more excited to cover this show. Ever. I was pumped up more than ever before going into this Premiere Episode and now that it’s over, I have to admit I’m even more stoked, now that it matched and surpassed my already high-expectations. Did everybody else feel the same as me?

Survivor Season 40 Premiere Episode Recap: ‘Winners At War,’ Legacies On The Line

Episode Take-Away: I think 2000+ words is good enough for now…I have SOOO much more I want to hit on and talk about, and each player brought something of value to this first episode. One stand-out to me was how Ben – who melted to Boston Rob‘s charisma – was in the middle of every conversation, and who had incredibly loose lips. But I’ll save what’s left for the comment section below. Please hit it up and let me know your take on Survivor’s 40th season! I read all the comments each and every week, and I look forward to making this an interactive and fun season.

I’m pleased once again to have the talented artist, Erik Reichenbach – who just so happens to be a two-time Survivor legend himself – contributing new, exclusive artwork to this column each and every week. You can view and even purchase his work at his website,, and I urge you to check it out! Here’s his first piece for this season:

Survivor Season 40 Premiere Episode Recap: ‘Winners At War,’ Legacies On The Line

“Calmly Counting Fire Tokens”


As a new feature to this column this season, I’ll try to keep track of how many Fire Tokens each player has, and what advantages are where. Here you go:


Boston Rob: 2 FT (Fire Tokens)

Jeremy: 2 FT

Everybody else: 1 FT

Sandra: 0 FT, 1 Immunity Idol (expires after 2 more Tribal Councils)

Amber: 0 FT

Voted Out This Week: Natalie, Amber

Won Immunity Challenge #1: Red Tribe

Won Immunity Challenge #2: Blue Tribe

Vote #1: No advantages or Idols played. 7 – Natalie (Adam, Denise, Ethan, Parvati, Ben, Danni, Rob), 2 – Denise (Natalie, Michele), 1 – Adam (Jeremy)

Vote #2: No advantages or Idols played. 6 – Amber (Nick, Sandra, Tyson, Wendell, Yul, Kim), 3 – Kim (Sophie, Tony, Sarah), 1 – Nick (Amber)

Survivor Season 40 Premiere Episode Recap: ‘Winners At War,’ Legacies On The Line

Next Week’s Episode: As anticipated, Boston Rob vows swift revenge. Ben seems to continue to have “loose lips” much to the chagrin of Adam, and Tony climbing up a tree on a makeshift bamboo ladder? Next Wednesday can’t get here fast enough.

Quick Note! I appreciate that you are reading this recap! Those that have followed me also know that I am also a RottenTomatoes-approved film critic, and I encourage you to check out my weekly movie reviews as I am the film critic and Executive Producer of the TV show, “Movie Show Plus,” the #1-rated local program in the Detroit-market (episodes are also available online at the website, As always, the easiest way to get all of my Survivor coverage and movie reviews is to follow me on Twitter – @tomsantilli – or on Facebook.


[Photo Credit: CBS/Monty Brinton/Robert Voets/Timothy Kuratek/Jeffrey Neira/Michele Crowe/David M. Russell]