Back in 1968, when Bob Dylan heard Jimi Hendrix’s cover of “All Along the Watchtower”, Dylan said this:
“It overwhelmed me, really. He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using.”
There is a genius to being able to take something we already know and allow us to see it anew, elevating it. Shakespeare did it (Hamlet was someone else’s story), Hendrix did it, and now Tony is doing it. Survivor is his canvas. He is replicating a game that everyone said couldn’t be replicated. It’s remarkable to watch.
There have been plenty of great players. Many of them are part of Season 40. But this war of winners has one four star general, and it’s the guy who speaks llama. He’s as charming as Jeremy without being as dangerously charismatic. He’s as calculating as Kim without seeming as self-interested. He’s as controlling as Boston Rob without being as domineering. He possesses the skills of the best players the game has ever seen, but combines them with a uniqueness that emerges from his personality. He is a unicorn. I believe in them now.
Did I just imply that Boston Rob is Bob Dylan and Tony is Jimi Hendrix? I guess I did. Feels right to me.
Given that this is Tony’s game and we’re all just watching it, let’s focus on how he’s going to win the game. Because he is. You know that, right? If not, perhaps I can convince you.
1) Tony’s gravitational pull on the edit
In 1988, Dylan talked about Hendrix, who had covered five of Dylan’s songs: “It’s not a wonder to me that he recorded my songs, but rather that he recorded so few of them because they were all his.”
This season is all Tony’s. It may not have seemed like it for the first half. But the game has been his from the outset.
The arc of Tony’s story: stay calm, but have moments of goofiness ... appear to be going off the rails, but getting back under control ... then take over after the merge by returning to his Cagayan roots (relentless gameplay, minimal sleep, controlling everything).
The edit has followed Tony’s lead. While the legends were being taken out, we kept checking in on Tony. Every ridiculous moment — remember the ladder? — was paired with a reminder that Tony was playing a self-aware strategic game (remaining in camp rather than going idol hunting; reassembling Cops R Us with Sarah; becoming part of the Lion Alliance). And then, when he decided to rip the lid off his game, Winners at War became TV TV.
The narrative is entirely his now. And, looking back, it always was. When his game was quiet, we were given moments to recall when our realization rippled backwards through time. And when his game got loud, he broke the confessional record and took over the story. The coronation began a couple of episodes ago, but the procession started long before that.
2) Don’t believe me? We knew this was coming.
From my episode two article, specifically about the ladder sequence:
“Tony sings out a marching cadence, and the players do as he says. Everyone stands around watching his antics. The confessionals from Tyson and Sophie make it clear that no one is taking Tony seriously ...
... and yet, there’s Tony talking with Sarah about reviving Cops ‘R’ Us. He’s playing the game. And a tribe full of winners has no idea.
Wouldn’t surprise me one bit to see Tony around after the merge, making some of his tribemates march, only this time they won’t be carrying a ladder on their way to get breadfruit. Instead, they’ll be carrying their torches over to Probst to get them snuffed.”
I share that not to make myself seem prescient — I’ve been wrong more than I’ve been right — but to prove a point: the edit told us that this was coming (and our benevolent overlord Jeff Pitman has suggested for weeks that this might be the metaphorical meaning of the ladder). There’s no need to include the ladder sequence other than for entertainment value — and heavy, heavy foreshadowing.
3) Building up of targets
We didn’t know it at the time, but production has been setting up the pins for Tony to knock down. Tyson got a winner’s premiere and Tony voted him out not once but twice. Sophie was built up as an endgame threat, and she’s gone. Kim was developed as a foil, and she was sent packing soon thereafter.
And Tony’s not done. There are five more players to get rid of before the F3. Let’s take a quick look at who’s left and how the edit has built them up:
Sarah: Tony told us that one member of the Cops R Us alliance — which has been a thing since the outset of the season — is going to punch the other. She’s the social counterpoint to Tony’s strategic game.
Jeremy: Lots of positive content throughout the season. He’s been repeatedly identified by other players as an endgame threat. Tony has said that he wants and needs Jeremy gone before Final Tribal. Taking out Jeremy will be central to any player’s case to the jury, and Tony will want that credit.
Michele/Nick/Denise: We were told that they’re all interested in sitting next to one another at FTC. Tony needs to make sure that one or more of them leaves before the finale to guarantee that one of the three stumps belongs to him.
Edge Player: They’ve been building up Natalie as a superhero. She’s going to have three advantages in the challenge (and presumably an idol in her pocket if she gets to keep the one she bought last time). She’s coming back (to be fair, it could be Tyson or Parvati, but I doubt it). I suspect that heading into the finale, we’ll see the Edge returner being showcased as a potential threat, and that after flushing the idol at F6, Tony gets everyone to unite against the Edger (and in the process, getting him one step closer to the Final 3).
Ben: We’ve been shown that he’s a pawn in Tony’s game. He joins the Lion Alliance even though he’s the “one of these things is not like the others” guy. (When you’re in a band with Tony, Tyson, and Jeremy, you’re Ringo.) He gives Tony a Fire Token. He repeatedly does things that aren’t in his best interest that serve Tony’s ends (in what world should Ben team up with Tony, Jeremy, and Sarah? There’s not a single F3 he can put together with them and Nick that he could win). And then we get a shot of Ben carrying Tony — is Ben going to help Tony get past the vast, dangerous expanse between F7 and F3? Probably. Could he win fire and “carry” Tony to the F3? Could be. It’s more likely, though, that Ben helps Tony in the near term, and then is booted before he can screw everything up by making fire at F4.
Side note: Tony is the only player left who has been on the right side of every vote since the merge. Jeremy is 4 for 4, too, but he peaced out of a Tribal where he would have either gone home or voted incorrectly (he told us that he didn’t want Tyson to leave). Tony is in complete control of the post-merge game.
4) Power of the necklace
It seems to me that the power of the immunity necklace has increased in modern Survivor. When alliances are fluid, they need something to rally around, something to anchor them. That is quite often the necklace.
Yes, winning three immunity challenges has put a bigger target on Tony. It also added line items to his resume. Not just because the jury puts value on challenge wins (which I understand, but I do think the importance is overstated, but a social-strategic player like me WOULD say something like that), but also because Tony was empowered to be more influential about the votes. Without the necklace, he participated in the Wendell and Adam votes. With it, he was increasingly involved, ultimately masterminding the Sophie and Kim boots.
The necklace emboldens strategists and is a polestar for other players. Tony either knows or intuits both of these truths. And he’s singularly capable of exploiting both sides of that equation.
Bottom line: Tony is a significantly better player with the necklace than without.
5) The same can be said about the idol
Tony’s game has another gear when he has an idol in his pocket. He leveraged idols in Cagayan. And he did it again last week, announcing to the other players and the jury that he was ready to protect Sarah.
Tony is going to call the shots until he’s forced to play his idol.
6) The power of knowing you can beat anybody
At this point, Tony knows he can win any Final 3 scenario. That’s a liberating mindset to have. He doesn’t have to worry about who he wants to sit next to; instead, he can focus on who the other players want to be with at the end and what they might do to make that happen.
That’s not to say that Tony doesn’t have preferences. He does. I imagine he sees the remaining players this way, from most dangerous to least:
Back to my larger point: Given the mental freedom that comes with being the frontrunner, Tony is going to anticipate the moves that the other players are trying to make and assemble his own counter-moves. He doesn’t have to worry about keeping preferred players in the game. He just needs to make sure the game doesn’t head in a direction where everyone agrees that Tony has to go. That’s a significant advantage.
This is particularly true given that he has avenues for information everywhere in the game. He’s connected to almost everyone:
Hmmmm. Seems to me that Tony will want Jeremy and Denise to leave in this week’s double-episode. And whatever Tony wants, Tony gets.
7) The ability to get people to go against their own self-interest
Obviously, the most compelling evidence that this is Tony’s superpower is convincing Woo to take him to the end. But this rare skill is a central part of Tony’s game. He’s a master of it.
This week’s example: There’s no way that Ben should think it’s better for him to work with Tony, Jeremy and Sarah when he could have joined forces with Denise, Michele, Nick and Kim. In that group, Kim is the obvious target at F5. At F4, the group could turn on Denise or Michele, and even if Ben were the target, he’s a solid bet to win the fire-making challenge.
Ben should know that he can’t beat Tony, Jeremy, or Sarah, and yet he was willing to advance their interests over his own.
That’s Tony for you.
Side note: Ben must think he can still get to the end with Nick and Michele. He’s wrong about that. At some point, he’s going to try and make a move to craft his own endgame, and Tony’s going to turn him into a target for it.
8) The ability to get people to forgive him
The title of the children’s book written about Tony’s post-merge games: Llama Llama Tribal Drama. He has a habit of getting people really pissed off. And yet, they forgive him. Sarah is Trish and Trish is Sarah.
This is a highly underrated skill. If you’re being the least bit strategically aggressive, you have to be able to smooth things over with the people you still want to work with and/or might need to work with somewhere down the line. Plus, many of them will be jury members. Can’t have them hating you, or you become another Russell.
Tony is effectively disarming. He’s manipulatively genuine and genuinely manipulative. And it allows him to build a resume while avoiding long-term antagonistic acrimony. No one seems to hold a grudge with Tony.
9) The ability to keep big targets around
Tony has kept Jeremy and Sarah around until the Final 7. They both won a returnee season. Kim was around until Final 8, and she’s a Mount Rushmore player. He did this in Cagayan, with Spencer. It’s effective.
He can’t keep Jeremy around much longer, because Jeremy is a threat to go on an immunity run right when Tony will need the necklace (and he’s getting used to wearing it). But Sarah remains an effective shield. The other players know she’s dangerous. And Tony knows they know that. And anything that Tony know, Tony uses.
10) The willingness to act when threatened
He shaped a four-person alliance to pull off a 4-3-2 split vote blindside ... in part to save someone he knows he will need to vote out sooner rather than later.
And then he pulls in Nick and Ben at Tribal to take out Kim and once again save Jeremy ... a shield that he will soon discard.
When he feels that his place in the game is in danger — either imminent or eventual — Tony is decisive and ruthless.
Some players hesitate before throwing this sort of punch, particularly this late in the game, but not Tony.
11) Understanding that being ridiculous lowers your threat level
One could argue that Tony’s antics are just a part of who he is. And there’s a lot of truth to that. He’s a balls to the wall kind of guy.
But he also understands that being nuts encourages players to not see you as dangerous and bootable. Why show us the Spy Nest this past — which didn’t help him spy on anyone — except to show how Sarah’s perception of Tony as a threat is impacted by his behavior? Why the ladder? Why the silly running on the beach moment from a handful of episodes back? Crazy like a fox.
When the remaining players think about Tony, sure, they’ll be worried about the moves he’s made and the challenges he’s won. But they’ll also remember how bonkers he can be. How the other players have talked about Tony. And they may delude themselves into thinking that the jury won’t take him seriously.
12) But of course, the jury DOES take Tony seriously
When Boston Rob says you’re the boss, you’re the boss.
Tony has played things up for the jury in the last two Tribals. Pulling off the move to take out Sophie. And then forming a makeshift majority to take out Kim, offering to protect Sarah, and assuring Jeremy with a hand to the shoulder.
Expect more of the same over the next half-dozen Tribals.
Tony knows how to play to the jury.
13) Tony is doing to this game what Hendrix did to a guitar at the Monterey Pop Festival…
… shredding it and then setting it on fire.
Looking over what I’ve just written, it looks like I’m saying that the boot order will be something like this:
6. Ben (the Edge player has an idol, so there’s a 3-2-1 split to flush it; need to keep Ben away from fire, and the Edge player will be the focus at F5)
5. Edge player (Tony unites everyone against a false threat)
4. Sarah (the punch: he forces her to make fire; she might win and come in second)
Get the crown ready.
Because Tony is the King.
Andy Baker swore he’d never play again, but the allure of an All Winners season brought him back..
Andy is no longer on twitter, but he's a regular guest at the Survivor Talk with D&D podcast.