Baker's Dozen - Andy Baker's Survivor: Winners at War analysis
Mixed messages
By Andy Baker | Published: February 23, 2020
Survivor: Winners at War Episode 2 recap/ analysis

Mixed messages


In the first draft of this column, I took a closer look at the editing math of Survivor episodes. How much footage the producers get, how many narrative threads they need to follow, how much time they have per episode, that sort of thing. It was boring and awful and I hated it. But the final number was, to some degree, enlightening:




That’s how much of the footage that they WANT to show us — footage that would tell the full story if they could include it all — that we’ll get by the time the season’s over. Which means that 93% of what we need to know to fully understand what’s going on ends up on the cutting room floor. It’s like listening to a political debate but you only get to hear the verbs; sure, you have a sense for what’s happening, but a lot of the substance is lost. 


* Truth be told, the percentage of the narrative that we see is likely much, much lower than 7%. I did a LOT of rounding. And benefit-of-the-doubt guesswork. And I’m not good at math. But you get my point, right? We see only a small slice of the lived reality. And sometimes they outright lie to us to make the pieces fit. They have a show to produce, and a limited amount of screen time to tell the story. 


The lack of substantive screen time inevitably leads to erratic edits. Players who seemed instrumental in the premiere all but disappeared this week (Nick and Wendell, we hardly knew ye). There are jarring inconsistencies in the stories (Kim, Denise, and Rob are all over the place). And if there’s a winner’s edit to be found, I’m not seeing it (Tyson had the money quote last week, but he was reduced to comedic commentary this time around).


The fact that we’re getting mixed messages about these players shouldn’t surprise us, though, right? These are winners, most of whom know what they’re doing. No one is pitching a perfect game against this line-up. Some of what they do will be right, but a lot of it will be wrong. Only one gets to win. And even that player — whoever he or she is — will make some mistakes along the way. Never mind the fact that the players will have edits unfamiliar to us since they ALL had winner’s edits the first time around.


Would it be nice for every player to get a nuanced portrayal so that we could fully appreciate their strategic brilliance? Of course. Can the producers give us that, given the narrative compression they’re forced to employ? Heck, no. We’ll get hints and clues. Red herrings and misdirects. Confessionals that could mean everything or nothing. We want Winners at War & Peace, but we’ll get the Instagram Story condensed version. 


What follows, then, is my attempt to understand the mixed messages the producers are giving us. My effort to pick up the footage from the floor and make sense of the story. My way of gathering the narrative threads and weaving them into something resembling the truth.


(If you’d like to hear David Jones and I talk for almost two hours about all of this, check out my appearance on Survivor Talk with D&D. That is, if you’re not already subscribed to their podcast. Which you should be; they’re great people with an awesome show.)


1) Tony



Sometimes I wish I could turn off my brain and simply enjoy sequences like Tony’s ladder climbing adventures. Instead, I look within the scenes for clues. And they’re there: 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.


2) Ben



To be clear, I think Ben is a train careening out of control. The wreck is coming, we just don’t know when. Frankly, pretty much everyone on Sele has a reason to get him gone (including Denise and Adam, who will want to keep the existence of their idol a secret).


And yet, much of what he says is accurate: he’s called out the Old School/New School split (and been welcomed into both sides of the conversation) ... he’s right that the idol should be used to build an alliance ... and he’s wise to realize that he needs to forge social bonds rather than rely on being an idol magnet (because there are too many other legend lodestones around). Plus, he effectively taught Denise how to find idols! 


Sadly, though, we get the Tribal Council performance where he’s edited to look like Parv’s plaything.


He’s doomed, but the edit is giving him at least a LITTLE credit.


3) Denise



I was reminded this week about how good Denise is about connecting with people. Ben helped her find an idol. Adam felt comfortable enough with her to shoot straight (it’s a sign of a strong relationship when you welcome critical feedback; Adam didn’t hesitate to give it, and Denise warmly accepted it). Danni bequeathed her Fire Token to Denise. When the other players want to help you, it means that you’ve forged some strong bonds.


But then the edit shows Denise thinking it would be smart to share half of her idol with Parvati. Both Adam and the soundtrack told us just how unwise that was. Here’s the thing: the edit doesn’t have to show us that. We could see Denise find the idol, give half of it to Adam, and then hear from both of them talking about how the idol cements their working relationship and how useful it will be as they head deeper into the game (there’s likely confessional footage in which they say precisely this). So as well-positioned and well-armed as Denise is right now, the edit is undercutting her performance. That doesn’t happen to winners, particularly the winner over winners. 


How’s this for a theory: This won’t be the last time that Denise wants to work with Parvati ... and it’s not going to end well for Denise. 


4) Kim

Kim and Sophie


I got precisely the confessional I wanted to see from my Winner Pick: Kim talking about how she’s been forced to change up her game now that she finds herself fighting from the bottom. Even better, she revealed a deep understanding of the game as it relates to how the other players perceive the actions of someone trying to crawl back into a position of power. She knows that she can’t be seen as trying too hard or she’ll never be able to shake her status as a social threat. 


But then Sophie tells us that Kim shouldn’t have trusted her with the other half of the idol. ARGH! Let the Phoenix Rise, SoFullOfYourself! (I REFUSE to call her SoFierce.)


Here’s the thing: Sophie is wrong. To put the idol together with Tyson could keep Kim safe for one Tribal. If Kim is in a spot where that makes the most sense, there’s no way she’s getting deep into the game. She HAS to shoot for the moon and try to make connections with the players in power. And when you walk through the options, Sophie is her best choice.


What Sophie IS right about, though, is that Kim is socially skilled and game aware. For a confessional that was all about pointing out that Kim made a mistake, Sophie sure did have a lot of nice things to say about the winner of One World. And note that she DIDN’T say that she would vote out Kim the first chance she got ... and she ALSO didn’t say that she was going to tell Yul about what Kim gave her. 


Here’s what I’m left to wonder: Will Sophie have to reconsider her stance on Kim somewhere down the line? Might they end up on a small tribe, say when we’re at 5/5/5, where they unite the halves of the idol to save themselves? I think the possibility that Sophie and Kim work together after the merge is just as likely as Sophie betraying Kim before it.


5) Parvati



On the one hand, I marvel at Parvati’s ability to take a power position on a Tribe full of people who should know better than to let her linger. It’s great fun to watch her work. I’m not sure how long the Black Widow can weave her web, but it’ll be fascinating to see her try to find her way to the end of the game.


That said, the Danni betrayal was ALL PARVATI’S FAULT. This is what I talked about back in the pre-season: when you’re in the warm glow of Parvati’s acceptance, you feel like you’re together to the end ... but when she turns away, you’re left with nothing but the arctic blasts of social rejection. Everyone in an alliance has specific jobs to do and roles to play, and Danni was PARVATI’S connection, her addition to the alliance. She needed to be aware of Danni’s emotional reality and make sure that Danni felt safe and seen and loved. (Yes, loved; that’s how the game works, people; one of the foundational pillars of Survivor is love.) She didn’t do it, and the Old Schoolers had to sacrifice one of their own as a result.


I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Parvati’s demise in this game will be connected to this sort of emotional oversight. Players who were once loyal to her will turn on her and betray her. Some of that will be Parvati’s status as a legend who would win at the end ... but most of it will be due to Parvati not giving the other players what they want and need from her.


6) Adam



Tribal council was AWFUL for Adam:


** He couldn’t find the hole.

** The sound cues at that moment mocked him.

** His facial expression in the aftermath was painfully awkward (and we got a long look at it).

** He then whined about Rob’s idol shakedown.


But his WORST moment of the episode came right before Tribal, when he told us that if he isn’t willing to take risks, he can’t win the game ...


... and then, instead of taking his shot at Parvati, he went with the unanimous Danni vote. 


It doesn’t matter that Adam has half of an idol ... and a loyal partner in Denise ... and other pieces on his tribe (Ben/Jeremy/Michele) that he can use to take out Rob, Parvati and Ethan.


Adam just told us that he can’t win the game… and I believe him.


7) Rob



An underrated positive moment for Rob: after getting the Fire Token from Amber, he sarcastically mentioned to Parvati that he’ll spend four of them on a tarp ... he’s clearly figured out that the Fire Tokens are far more valuable than the items they can purchase from the menu.


Of course, that positive moment came right after a horrible misread: he thought that he and Sandra were on good terms and that if she was voted out, she might have sent him her Fire Token. There’s no reason to show us that unless Rob is going to misread Sandra (and/or other players) at some point in the game and go home as a result. He’s already living on borrowed time — once everyone knows that Amber can send him idols and advantages from Edge, his threat level goes to DEFCON 1 — but we now have a sense of HOW it will happen, if not when. 


And then there’s the bag dumping move at Tribal Council. Sure, it’s memorable — and perhaps even effective when it comes to gathering information — but memorable in the pre-merge game is good almost exclusively for those of us watching. INSIDE the game, Rob has just flexed his power in an ostentatious and overbearing way. The players won’t forget that. That’s useful when you’re making your argument to the jury, but that’s over a month away right now.  Sooner or later, these winners are going to resent Rob for controlling them, and unlike the lemmings on Redemption Island, they won’t allow it to go on much longer.


8) Quick observations about the other players:

Quick observations



** Michele spoke to Jeremy about going with the majority vote. And that’s ultimately what happened. Feels like we’re getting small moments which explain why she’s around for awhile; why else put a moment like this in there? And if we agree that the arguments for each member of the Final 3 are established over the course of the season, might this be an early glimpse of her (likely losing) FTC appeal to the jury?


** Ethan was here, there, and everywhere, the fulcrum player between Old School and New School alliances. Yes, he’s as Old School as they come, but he’s clearly welcome in just about every conversation. The edit feels noncommittal about Ethan so far, other than to suggest that he’s in a decent spot. Jury’s out (other than my firm belief that he’s far more likely to be ON the jury than sitting in front of it at the end).



From top to bottom, they’re the more interesting — and complex — tribe, but we didn’t get a lot from them this week because they didn’t go to Tribal and lord knows we have to spend a ton of time watching players find idols and seeing booted castaways struggle with an obvious clue but find advantages anyway because that’s a lot more important than knowing what’s happening in a tribe of nine which has a four person alliance, a pair of cops, a tandem of outsiders who are also really good at the game, and a Queen who has already lasted longer than she should. Anyway ...


** Tyson provided confessional comedy, which serves two purposes; first, to make us laugh because Tyson is a funny dude, and second, to keep him on our TV screens because despite being in trouble right now, he may be sticking around for a long time.


** Sophie did little more than comment on Tony and Kim this week; we needed the latter, but not the former (that’s Tyson’s job), which seems to suggest that Sophie is going to be a long-term narrator, bloviating about anything and everything so that she doesn’t completely disappear from the edit.


** We didn’t need to see Yul’s contraption, did we? Especially in light of Tony’s ladder? So on the one hand, we got some footage of Yul, which bodes well for him at least in the short term, but he was also the set-up to Tony’s payoff, which leaves Yul in Tony’s shadow (just as he was in Sophie’s shadow at the end of the premiere). So, will both Tony AND Sophie outlast Yul? I’m saying yes.


** Lavender. Violet. Indigo. Grape. Lilac. Wendell’s Edit. Nick’s Edit. All are shades of purple.


** Assuming that Cops ‘R’ Us really becomes a thing — and we wouldn’t have heard about it if it wasn’t — Sarah will be around for awhile ... but this feels like Tony’s show, which means he turns on her before she turns on him.


** Given how little we saw of Sandra this week, it’s hard to know where she fits in ... is she with Sarah and by extension Tony? Can she keep everyone focused on Tyson and Kim as the targets? Or will she be seen as a challenge liability — both with Dakal and, more critically, on a smaller swapped tribe — who can and will become a significant threat after the merge? Hopefully, this week we’ll learn more.


9) The little things

The little things


** The whispering at Tribal — which made it look like Ben was the new target — made me realize something: If you wanted to throw someone off at Tribal and maybe convince them that they’re okay (and thus keep any of the 47 available advantages in their pocket), have them be the obvious target, then whisper like it’s a live tribal and you’re all changing your votes. If the Survivor gods are real — and we know that they are — then at some point they’ll give us a FAKE LIVE TRIBAL. Notice to Survivor casting: I’m available if you want to make sure that this happens.


** We’re heading into the swap zone, where players will seek out easier votes, because they’ll want to keep their options open (you never know who you’ll end up with on a small tribe). They’re probably not worried about swapping at 17, since that would require someone to be exiled, which feels like a step too far with Edge in play (although, what if an exiled player had to stay on Edge and perhaps compete with them for an advantage or Fire Tokens?). Anyway, they have to be braced for a swap at 16 (8/8) ... 15 (5/5/5) ... or 14 (7/7). Better to avoid making enemies now so that they can navigate through the rough waters between here and the merge.


** The fact that they got two-part idols feels like it should assure them that they’re not swapping immediately; production wanted those idols found and wants them used. It does them no good to have the idol halves stashed in bags after a swap, and to have someone voted out with half an idol just feels like a waste. 


** As you might imagine, it drove me nuts that Natalie and Amber did not instantly see the water well clue. I paused my TiVo — an annoying habit I have as I watch Survivor with my family — and looked over at my 13 year-old son, who immediately solved it. Bottom line: If the note production leaves you is long and cryptic, there’s a clue contained within it ... and not just any clue. It has to be a clue that VIEWERS AT HOME can easily understand.


** Personally, I love the “leave Tribal” power that Natalie sold to Jeremy. Imagine how powerful it would be in a swapped five-person tribe! Stir up trouble and then peace out. FUN.


** Three boots ... three women. Yes, it’s a problem. At risk of being an insensitive lout who simply doesn’t understand the world, shouldn’t that encourage the remaining women to work together, opportunity permitting? They WILL talk about it — as I’ve mentioned before, it happens almost every season — and they may well end up actually forming a women’s alliance given what’s happened so far (and the strength of the men in the game).


** Fire Token thought #1: You have to assume that the Fire Token economy will be subject to inflation. They’re not going to stick with 20 total tokens; others will be added. They’ll be on Edge ... or in a challenge (maybe you can opt out of a challenge for food or Fire Tokens; Probst will love using them as a temptation) ... or at the merge feast ... there are a ton of potential insertion points. 


** Fire Token thought #2: The price for Edge items has, up to this point, been set by production. But pre-season articles included commentary from Probst which heavily implied that players would be able to set their own prices. Might that be coming as players are in possession of more Fire Tokens? Personally, I find that vastly more interesting — there’s more strategy involved.


10) EoE update

EoE update


First, let’s take a look at the narratives provided by the first two players on Edge:


Amber: She’s there to help her husband

Natalie: She plans to get stronger and return to the game



Amber: She’s going to find something, send it to Rob, and he’ll use it to save himself

Natalie: She’s our leading candidate (even with Danni’s arrival) to win the merge challenge


A Natalie return to the game makes sense given that the first return challenge will likely be brutal (an obstacle course ending in a puzzle). If I’m right about that, I would rank the current inhabitants thusly:


  1. 1. Natalie
  2. 2. Danni
  3. 3. Amber


The second EoE challenge at Final 6 will probably be pure endurance, a “who wants it the most” challenge (although with some design elements that keep it from lasting more than a couple of hours because Probst doesn’t have the stamina he had in back in Palau). The early rankings for that challenge (to be updated as we move through the season):


  1. 1. Danni
  2. 2. Natalie
  3. 3. Amber


Of course, the wild card in all of this are the challenge advantages purchased with Fire Tokens. Early residents will have a far better chance than recent arrivals thanks to more opportunities and decreased competition in the early going. And Survivor doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to effective challenge advantages; more often than not, someone with an advantage ends up winning. The likelihood of that happening is exponentially higher with a stratified advantage system (A player can buy up to three advantages for the Edge challenges.)


11) Fortunes rising: Jeremy



At the beginning of the episode, this was Jeremy’s situation:


** He was left outside of the Natalie vote.

** His closest ally was sent to Edge Island.

** The only other player left out of the vote was Michele, leaving Jeremy as an obvious choice for next boot.


By the end of the episode:


** Jeremy purchases a “Walk Away From Tribal” advantage.

** He figures out how the Fire Token economy works.

** Jeremy tells us that he wants to call the shots… and then an Old School player goes home by unanimous vote.


We also get a lot of “intense Jeremy” shots, both when he is thinking about the Fire Tokens and at Tribal watching the action unfold.


My premature assumption: Jeremy is the player Nick was talking about, the one who uses the Fire Tokens to his advantage. He’ll tell key allies that Rob has to go because he has two tokens and an ally on Edge. He’ll find ways to get tokens from other players. And he’ll parlay his understanding of the system into a bag full of gifts from the Edge.


Whether or not any of that is true, one thing’s for certain: Jeremy had a hell of an episode.


12) Fortunes falling: Nick



Last week, Nick told us that new school players have an advantage this season, and that the Fire Token economy will play a pivotal part in the winner’s game. 


This week, he disappeared from the edit, and it’s older and more experienced players (Sandra, Jeremy, Kim and Denise) who have been bequeathed, sold, or found idols and advantages. 


Could he turn it around? Sure. But I wouldn’t bet on it.


BTW, my current “Players Who Can’t Win” list: Nick, Ben, Michele, Adam and Denise.


13) Prediction time

Prediction time


One of the previews shows Sandra doing what she does best: losing her damn mind. Apparently, someone is throwing her name around. Would she do this if someone like Kim or Tyson — whose backs are against the ropes — targeted her? Maybe, but she’d have to expect that a desperate player will go after anyone, and she’s an easy name to put out there (she’s the Queen and a two-time winner; not a hard sell). No, it feels more like a potential ally has turned on her; during the D&D podcast, David said it could have been Tony, and that felt right to me. 


One would assume that Sandra being targeted would happen after an immunity challenge loss; why risk throwing out a name that isn’t Kim or Tyson before you know you have to go to Tribal? Of course, this is Tony we’re talking about here; anything is possible. If he offered up Sandra BEFORE the challenge, though, then shame on him; you only break the eggs when it's time to cook the omelette.


Anyway, what’s interesting about Sandra’s angry confessional outburst is that the idea of a Sandra boot may have gotten some traction ... which means that Dakal is interested in something other than an easy vote. That’s intriguing. If Kim and Tyson can somehow convince Tony, Sarah, and Yul that they need to preserve challenge strength, then Sandra could indeed be in a lot of trouble.


It’s probably unwise to go after anyone other than Kim or Tyson, but a Sandra boot would be more interesting and fun, so that’s my prediction ... even if I don’t feel all that good about it.


Speaking of interesting and fun, let’s play out what could possibly happen on Sele if they go to Tribal. The narrative elements in play:


** With the Danni boot, the New Schoolers outnumber the Old Schoolers 5-3.

** Adam and Jeremy have both talked about taking out big targets.

** They don’t get much bigger than Rob.


Conspiracy-fueled scenario:


** Rob gets targeted.

** Amber somehow outduels Natalie and Danni for an advantage.

** Amber sells the advantage to Rob for one Fire Token.


What sort of advantage would Rob need? A vote steal would do the trick, right? That would turn a 3-5 loss into a 4-4 tie. There’s no way this group is willing to go to rocks, right? So what happens?


First, there’s the question of who Rob would target. Not Jeremy; if Rob gets something from Amber, he’ll be forced to assume that Jeremy got something from Natalie. Probably not Michele, either, in case Jeremy would save her with whatever advantage he got. Adam could be an option, but given how he reacted to the bag dumping at Tribal, Rob might worry that Adam or Denise has an idol. That leaves him with only one option: Ben.


Would Adam, Denise, Jeremy, and Michele be willing to go to rocks for Ben? On the flip side, would Parvati and Ethan risk their games to save Rob? The odds — and the fact that one group is more desperate than the other — favor the Old Schoolers.


So if Sele goes to Tribal, Ben is going home. 


Andy BakerAndy 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.