Survivor: Winners At War Finale Recap: A Winner Is Crowned

It’s done. Survivor is now on the other side of 40 seasons, as “Winners at War” drew to a conclusion following Wednesday night’s three-hour Finale. There was no Reunion Show due to the pandemic. There was no screaming crowd, no familiar faces of past players out in the studio audience. Thankfully, there was no Sia.

What we did get was wall-to-wall excitement, as not a minute was spared during the entire three-hours. Jeff Probst was not joking when he said there was a lot of story left to be told, and now that it’s over, we have ourselves another two-time Sole Survivor – finally – who can sit alongside the only other two-time winner (and one time quitter), Sandra Diaz-Twine. There is so much to discuss, so much emotion flowing through my veins, and a glimmer of hope – coming at the very end in a message from Probst’s garage – that has me finally looking forward to something towards the end of this wretched year.

Strap in, we’re going to break it all down, and I’m not going to leave even one thought unexplored this time around, as this may be the very last Survivor Recap for a while, at least a few months. I plan on milking it. Survivor has been a powerful medicine during these trying times, and it sucks, plainly, knowing that at least for now, Survivor is over. And at the very least, the sadness is just starting to sink in that this was definitely the last chapter in the Survivor-lives of many of our favorite players, who rode off into the sunset tonight in epic fashion, never to be seen in this game again. Let’s ride.

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: Winners At War Finale Recap: A Winner Is Crowned

First and foremost: All Hail The King! “King” Tony Vlachos outwitted, outplayed and outlasted the other 19 former Survivor winners to become only the second-person (and first male) to ever win Survivor TWICE. And he did it in the most rewarding of ways, playing an absolutely masterful game this time around, way, way, way better than even his winning season back in Survivor: Cagayan (Season 28). In fact, Tony – Tony frickin’ Vlachos! – received a grand total of ZERO votes against him on his way to Final Tribal, and received 12 winning votes (most ever, mainly due to this being the largest jury ever) when all was said and done.

He was four votes shy of playing the coveted Survivor “Perfect Game” (defined as receiving no votes throughout and then winning unanimously) in an all-winners season! He also had four Immunity Challenge wins. And let us not forget, at 45-years-young, Tony was also the oldest male this season, and the only male contestant ever to win while being the oldest male player of their respective cast (Tina Wesson and Denise Stapley share this distinction on the female side of things).

Survivor: Winners At War Finale Recap: A Winner Is Crowned

So…is Tony Vlachos the “Greatest of All-Time”? It’s a discussion for another time…(shameless plug!)…and I invite you to read all about my thoughts on the matter when I release my latest, updated “All-Time Winners” rankings later on Thursday. And is “Winners at War” the best season ever, as Jeff Probst and many others tend to think? I’ll give you my opinion on that as well coming up in my “Most Memorable Seasons” updated ranking also on Thursday.

Last but not least, I’ll be Zoom-chatting with Tony Vlachos, Natalie Anderson and Michele Fitzgerald on the next installment of my FilmSurvivor Podcast…I urge you to check back here, follow me on Twitter (@tomsantilli), or subscribe to the podcast on Itunes or Podbean to watch/listen when it’s released Thursday afternoon as well!

Survivor: Winners At War Finale Recap: A Winner Is Crowned

So how did we get here? The first portion of the three-hour Finale was dedicated to those that have spent most of this season on The Edge of Extinction, as they battled in the second of two “come-back” challenges. Natalie was primed to be the one to return, but man did it look like she choked during the challenge! Her three advantages that she had bought quickly evaporated as she seemed to let her nerves get the best of her, but to her credit, she came out on top and – after being the first person voted-out this season – she re-entered the game, with an Idol in her pocket. She deserved it, for sure, having played the best game possible out of all of The Edge’s inhabitants.

Survivor: Winners At War Finale Recap: A Winner Is Crowned

While I was ecstatic for Natalie‘s return (she worked her ass off on The Edge!), it hit me like a ton of bricks when they started going through some final reactions from those less fortunate. We’re never going to see Boston Rob, or Parvati, or many of these legends of the game play again! Tyson‘s words hit home with me, when he said about coming back this season, “I needed it, to know that I didn’t need it.” Amber and Rob’s emotional exchange – and Amber’s raw honesty and selflessness about her place in the game – was also extremely moving. But as I got choked up, I lost it completely when the focus shifted to Ethan, the truest hero this game has ever seen and maybe ever will. His winning million from Survivor: Africa went to fund his charity, Grassroot Soccer, which he then revealed actually led to the development of a drug that ended up literally saving his life during his battle with cancer. “This show saved my life,” Ethan said, and through his actions in the real world, Ethan’s efforts have saved thousands more.

Survivor: Winners At War Finale Recap: A Winner Is Crowned

What more do these legends have to give this game? I really felt a sense of closure watching Winners at War come to an end. These players really have no reason to ever play again. And yes, I know they’ve all said that before, but seriously. Unless Rob comes back one day to play a Blood vs Water season as an old man, with one of his grown daughters, we’re not going to see him play. And using this current season as an example, we’re never going to see any of them operate as in their prime again, their reputations are too huge and they have nothing left to prove. In a way, that “goodbye” segment to these former winners was the greatest “Rites of Passage” segment the show has ever produced, and long-time fans will understand this reference.

Survivor: Winners At War Finale Recap: A Winner Is Crowned

Natalie‘s return to the game is once again controversial, but it’s not her fault. The Edge of Extinction has divided the Survivor fan-base from its inception, and especially when Chris Underwood came back from The Edge to win his season. Natalie was voted-out of the game first, in a season where there were clearly a lot of big targets and even bigger threats. But did she “deserve” to sit at the end of the game, even after battling her way back from Extinction? Let me be the first to put the word “deserve” to rest, as it has ugly implications, but before I do, let me unequivocally say that YES, she “deserved” a seat at Final Tribal. She did everything within the rules of the game and damn-near ended up being rewarded for her efforts with a win. Was her fatal flaw not taking on Tony in a fire-making challenge? That was the same exact move that Chris calculated for himself, taking out the fan-and-jury-favorite Rick Devens after giving up his own Immunity Necklace to do so, just to bolster his Survivor resumé. It worked for him. Natalie, I think, obviously felt like she had enough on her resumé to be able to convince a jury, or at the very least was just cognizant of the fact that she wasn’t going to work that hard to get back into the game only to go home on fire. It’s a calculated risk, that’s for sure. But would it have made a difference?

Survivor: Winners At War Finale Recap: A Winner Is Crowned

As much as I’m ecstatic that Tony was able to pull this win off, a part of me felt absolutely CRUSHED by how Michele‘s game ended…with ZERO winning votes from the jury. Say what you want about her, but Michele comes out of this season as the ONLY winner to never have had her torch snuffed through two seasons of play. Remember that Tony and Sarah had both lost in previous seasons, and Natalie had her torch snuffed earlier this season. Michele’s primary story-line this season was that she was under-appreciated and not given the proper amount of respect for having won her previous season.

So to go through all that, feel amazing, overcome all odds, play from the bottom, fight and scratch your way through and to get to the end, only to have ZERO of your peers – including your ex – not reward you with even one single vote? Ouch. That must have hurt, and I can only imagine that Michele is dealing with many of the same feelings she got after winning her first season and facing such terrible backlash.

I will say this though, a consolation prize that it may be, but Michele Fitzgerald absolutely earned respect this season. This was a big showing, and while it may not be the outcome that she wanted for herself, I think she absolutely is a rock-star and showed that she not only deserved to be out there this season, but showed that she’s an upper-tier player. One can only hope that the feedback Michele gets this time around is positive, as opposed to the hate she got her first time around.

Survivor: Winners At War Finale Recap: A Winner Is Crowned

And I’m not done heaping praise on Michele. How about this rarefied air? Michele not only has played the game for 78 days without being voted out, but she becomes just the EIGHTH player EVER, to even reach a Final Tribal Council for the second-time. The others on this list? Sandra Diaz-Twine. Tony Vlachos. Natalie Anderson. Boston Rob. Parvati. Amanda Kimmel. Russell Hantz. Not bad company.

And how about Sarah…er…Lacina? She too, is top-tier Survivor, and she left the game as fierce a competitor as you’ll ever witness. Is she the first to pretty much demand that Jeff Probst call her by her last name, something that Jeff admittedly had reserved for male players, unknowingly? She deserves the last-name moniker, as Lacina was every bit a part of the success that Tony now shares, and will carry with him as his legacy becomes larger-than-life as the years go by. “Cops-R-Us” was legit, and maybe one of the best one-two-punch alliances the game will ever see.

Yes, Tony and Lacina are both cops and share that strong bond, but more than that, people forget that ALL THREE of each of their seasons, they played with one another. I was happy to see Lacina go out on her own terms, earn the respect that she deserves, and for shining light on the pervasive sexism in the world and in this game (on that note, for those tallying, Tony was the sixth-straight male to win the game, and through 40 seasons, men have won the game 24 times…the last female to win? Sarah Lacina in Season 34).

Survivor: Winners At War Finale Recap: A Winner Is Crowned

However, it’s perhaps poor optics that had Lacina only listened to her male counter-part, this game might have shook out much differently for her! By far, the biggest strategic moment of the Finale was when both Lacina and Ben refused to listen to Tony, who suspected that Natalie might have an Idol. Their inability to listen (or his inability to persuade) led to the tie-vote scenario where not only was Denise sent home, but both Tony and Ben had their Idols flushed. Let’s work through what would have happened had they listened to Tony, and split the votes 2-2-2. Natalie would have still played her Idol, Denise still would have went home, but Tony and Ben would have both been able to hold on to their Idols. It’s unclear how it may have worked, but it is VERY unlikely that a new Idol would have been put into play, since the Idol Natalie used was one that was not in the game originally, but was purchased on The Edge.

Survivor: Winners At War Finale Recap: A Winner Is Crowned

What does that mean? Well, that means that Natalie would not have been able to find or acquire that second Idol, and then Tony wins Immunity…with Tony immune, he could have then played his Idol on Lacina, and Ben could have played his Idol, and the three of them would have been guaranteed Final 3…with Natalie likely the one being sent home next. At that point, who knows how the Final Immunity challenge would have played out? Michele did good, but how would Ben have done? And let’s just even say that Michele wins Immunity there…it would probably be in her best interest to take Lacina with her, right? Ben is a known fire-making beast, so he’d be best positioned to beat Tony in a fire-making challenge, and also the ideal person to sit next to at the end, right? Who wins this game if Michele, Lacina and Ben sit in Final Three? These are of course, all hypothetical, but the point being, it was a HUGE moment in the game that the alliance of Tony, Lacina and Ben weren’t able to do the smart thing that Tony was suggesting they do, at Final Six…it ultimately propelled Tony to the win, but it was not the right move for anyone else.

Survivor: Winners At War Finale Recap: A Winner Is Crowned

Speaking of Ben, I was at first super-disappointed in him “throwing in the towel,” until I thought a bit harder about it. And after doing so, I’m totally OK with it, and in fact commend him for going out on his own terms. I really think the game was taking a toll on Ben, clearly, especially when he stopped to consider all the rivalries and fights he’s had along the way. He may have realized that he had not, in fact, made the friendships on the jury that he had set out to make, and that by plowing his way to the end, he’d just be setting himself up to lose. Instead, he made an action that made him feel good, rewarding a fellow friend, Lacina, and securing himself in the eyes of the fans and the rest of these winners as a “good guy.” It’s difficult to process sometimes from the comfort of our couches at home, but there always seems to be a few journeys on each season of Survivor that ultimately end in self-reflection and inner-peace. It was sort of a fitting end to Ben’s arch to go out the way he did.

Survivor: Winners At War Finale Recap: A Winner Is Crowned

Episode Take-Away: I’ll once again urge you to check out my Podcast tomorrow…you will not want to miss my Zoom-chats with Michele, Natalie and two-time Sole Survivor Tony. And then check out my updated Winners and Seasons rankings.

Because I’m putting out those lists, I’ll reserve my thoughts on the season overall, other than to say it was the Survivor season we all needed right now. I know I did. Pandemic aside, on the heels of the ugliness that was Season 39, it was so amazing to see a season full of all winners…it’s a dream-theme that has been around for as long as there have been enough winners to make an all-winners season even feasible.

And while the pandemic robbed us of the usual Live Reunion Show, and there may be several unanswered questions from the contestants, I hope you all caught the very end of Jeff Probst‘s conclusion…as we’ve grown accustomed to seeing a teaser video of the upcoming season of Survivor at the end of every Finale night, that obviously wasn’t possible given the state of things this year.

However, I was elated to hear Jeff Probst tell us that he is “committed” not only to there being a Season 41, but that there will be one in the Fall still…this is not a sure thing, but man was it a message of hope and gives us all something small to look forward to. His comments are also generating buzz for when he encouraged viewers to apply for Survivor, even kids 16 or older…is there some sort of parent/child version of Survivor on the horizon? Survivor has been officially renewed by CBS for Seasons 41 and 42, and it was just a positive note to end on, knowing that Survivor – like the rest of this world – will return in the face of this “new normal” that we’re all a part of.

Survivor: Winners At War Finale Recap: A Winner Is Crowned

On that note, I sincerely thank you from the bottom of my heart for all of your support and for reading this column week-in and week-out. Covering Survivor for over a decade professionally, having voted in the Survivor Hall of Fame, having interviewed every single big name the game has ever had and having passionately dumped my soul into covering this game for more than 20 seasons now, I can relate to Michele in that I sometimes feel like an under-appreciated, “lower-tier” member of the Survivor press…but I can honestly say that the feedback I get from the readers here at RealityTea have made me feel like a million bucks, and a winner through-and-through.

I’d also like to give a huge, ginormous shout-out and thank you to the one-and-only Erik Reichenbach, a Survivor Legend in his own right, and one heck of a creative genius, for kindly contributing his Survivor artwork to this column once again this season. Erik is a talented guy, and if you didn’t know you can help support him and take home some of his amazing artwork on his site, I suggest you check it out. So thanks, Erik! For all of you, here is Erik’s final piece of the season:

Survivor: Winners At War Finale Recap: A Winner Is Crowned
“Zooming Through The Reunion”


So thanks again to all of you, and please comment…I can’t wait to hear what you all thought of the Finale and this season as a whole! And please stay safe and healthy, and be courteous to others. Until next time – and I sure hope there’s a next time! – please take care!

For posterity, here are all the stats from this episode, for those that like this sort of thing:

Come-back Challenge Winner:  Natalie

Immunity Challenge #1 Winner: Michele (2)

Vote #1: Natalie, Ben and Tony all play their Idols. 4 votes on Natalie do not count (Tony, Ben, Lacina, Denise), 2 votes on Ben do not count (Michele, Natalie).

Re-Vote: Only Sarah and Denise are eligible to be voted for. Denise voted out unanimously.

Survivor: Winners At War Finale Recap: A Winner Is Crowned

Immunity Challenge #2 Winner: Tony (4)

Vote #2: Natalie plays Idol for herself. Ben voted out. 3 – Ben (Natalie, Michele, Lacina), 2 – Michele (Tony, Ben).

Final Immunity Challenge Winner: Natalie (1). Natalie chooses Michele to take to the Final Three, forcing a fire-making challenge to take place between Lacina and Tony. In a very close challenge, Tony is victorious sealing his place in the Final Three and sending Sarah to jury.

FINAL VOTE (Winning Votes): 12 – Tony (Sarah, Ben, Danni, Yul, Boston Rob, Amber, Sophie, Kim, Adam, Nick, Wendell, Denise), 4 – Natalie (Parvati, Ethan, Jeremy, Tyson), 0 – Michele

Tony Vlachos crowned Sole Survivor of Season 40, Survivor: Winners at War.

Survivor: Winners At War Finale Recap: A Winner Is Crowned

RETURN OF THE FILMSURVIVOR PODCAST! Just one more plug for The FilmSurvivor Podcast, with a new episode Thursday featuring interviews with Tony, Michele and Natalie, the Final Three of “Survivor: Winners at War.” Please subscribe to the podcast, which you can find on iTunes as well as on Podbean.

Quick Note! Those that have followed me also know that I am also a RottenTomatoes-approved film critic, and I encourage you to check out my past 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]