It's Kind of a Funny Story - Dan Otsuki's Survivor: Winners at War analysis
Winners at War cast assessment
By Dan Otsuki | Published: January 9, 2020
Survivor: Winners at War Pre-season analysis

Winners at War cast assessment


Well, dearest readers, here we are. It’s been truly two decades in the making, but something that many have wanted for a while now is finally coming to fruition: an all-winners cast. While I think this isn’t a perfect cast (notable absences including Westman, Earl, Todd, and most importantly, Tina), more on that later. A quick note on how I’m going to attack this ... the list of names you see is the likelihood of them winning, in my opinion, 1-20. There will be a separate paragraph and rank, however, regarding my excitement to have them back, 1-20, in parentheticals. With that in mind, let’s get to my winner pick, and lemme tell ya, it was a close call between one and two.


Very Likely

Very likely - Parvati


1. Parvati (2)

Yes, I know, this is a risky one. To be fair, if I didn’t put Parv one or two she likely would’ve been clustered together with Rob and Sandra near the bottom, not because she’s bad at the game by any means, clearly she’s a legend, but her threat level is likely going to be very, very high. That being said, in my opinion, Parvati is the best person to ever play, and while Rob, Sandra, Cirie, and even Russell deserve nods, I don’t think this award is even close (yes, I’m firmly in the camp of Parvati should’ve won HvV). If the best is out there, and if it’s been literally 10 years since she’s played, ostensibly lowering her profile at least somewhat, I’d be in the wrong to not pick her to go all the way. May she win and win thoroughly and not fade early like she probably should if the other players know what’s good for them.


As for my excitement level — Parvati is number two overall. She’s the best player, her confessionals are fun, and my oh my is she charming. I don’t have much more to say about this other than I never thought she’d play again, and now that she is after all this time ... dearest readers, I cannot wait.


2. Denise (6)

Denise, along with Danni, has to be one of the most underrated winners in this cast. Let’s look at one of her contemporary winners in Kim. Kim, despite also only playing once and playing a season before Denise, has her name lauded in Survivor lore as this unstoppable force. Denise, on the other hand, isn’t spoken about in quite so bright of a light, but there is a lot to like about Denise. Not only did she play with two very good players in Malcolm and Penner, she has played in an era when idols are a prevalent concern, relative to anyone who hasn’t played since HvV, but she won without ever having one. Oh, also, she survived every Tribal her season. People might not think much of her going in, but Denise will be around for the long haul, I think.


Denise, further, is another player I really had given up hope of ever seeing again. Her jaunt in the Philippines served to get the show back on track after the largely abysmal showing of seasons 21-24, but she seemed like just a one-off winner. I’m very glad she’s back, and I hope this season puts her in the conversation along with Kim.


3. Natalie (7)

Natalie is lower than Denise because she largely played with morons. I don’t want to rob Natalie of credit — she and Keith Nale were bright spots in one of the most frustrating seasons of all time thanks to the Missy-Baylor-Jacyln-Jon monstrosity that ran so much of the Merge — but come on ... she played with the Christys! Still, she was an absolute ball to watch, found an idol, and played it at five to solidify her placement going forward. Her relationship with Jeremy, I think, will be of great benefit for them both, and like Denise, people may not realize how scary she is until she’s smiling at the FTC.


As for my fandom, like I said, Natalie was one of two watchable people for me in SJdS post Jeremy, Josh, and Reed all leaving fairly early post-Merge. I also love to see any and all Asian-American representation. She’s only 7th on my excitement list because I always figured she’d be back at some point whereas virtually everyone above her did not hold such certainty to me.



Likely - Jeremy


4. Jeremy (10)

The first in the likely category, I really like Jeremy’s chances. Unlike the others above, however, Jeremy will have to deal with some recency bias given how big of a deal Cambodia was, not to mention he was the star of the whole thing, really. That being said, Jeremy’s meat-shield strategy should work very well here if he can keep it going. Jeremy is undoubtedly a threat, but is he the biggest one out there, at least based purely on popular perception? Probably not. If he can keep his head down and build the relationships he did in 31, he’ll become the first two-time male winner.


I really like that he’s back, as well. Putting aside the lack of people of color who have won Survivor, Jeremy played in a way few have had the guts: keep threats around, cutting nominal goats before anything else. He found idols, won immunity, and like many folks here, he’s just so damn likable. I have seen him fairly recently, however, and twice, so if I was hypothetically told Jeremy had been cut to make room for Todd or Earl, I’d be sad, but I’d get over it fast.


5. Wendell (12)

Wendell was the first person in a very long time to win without making any massive moves and just subtly dominating the game for the vast majority of his 39-day stay. Although Tommy just won like this, I’d argue Tommy was helped by the fact that Wendell had so recently won, setting the tone for not needing the #BigMove to win. While Ghost Island felt about as exciting as a graveyard post-Merge, Wendell earned his razor-thin victory over Dom. Recency bias will hurt him, as his victory is so fresh, but I think Wendell is low-key enough to escape immediate notice. That could be all he needs.


For as solid a game as Wendell played, he did play very recently. While I’m happy to see him back, relative to other selections as mentioned for Jeremy, I would’ve been fine if he wasn’t here. Still, I think Wendell has the opportunity here to really make a Survivor name for himself. He just needs to find his Dom in this game, and he’ll do some damage.


6. Nick (13)

Nick and Wendell have a lot of similarities with one another, namely that they’ve played recently, won challenges at the right time, and had enough advantages to work their way farther in the game. Unlike Wendell, however, Nick is likely to be seen as a more aggressive, bigger-moves player, given his track record in DvG. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I think Nick, in a given game, probably has a higher ceiling but lower floor than Wendell. I think people will be more concerned with him coming in, especially given as he is very young for this cast and might be a threat come the Merge. Additionally, I remember thinking he was somewhat petty when Christian went behind his back a few seasons ago. Vindictive is not a good look for someone who wants to win, but Nick is adept enough that he can keep it from hurting him.


Nick, while playing a solid game, is again not one of the male winners I was most itching to see. I’m all right that he’s back, but I think his invitation might have largely been predicated on the fact that he won what was easily the best season in season memory. But hey, I think he’ll do well given his season being flush with advantages and being able to navigate with and around them. And he has only played once, unlike ...


7. Tyson (17)

Older and (theoretically) wiser, Tyson proved in BvW he knows what he’s doing and he can make relationships that can last throughout the game, given the opportunity. His age will make him less of an outward threat, but I’m confident he can still win immunities if pressed. He’s also likely pretty low on the threat list, relative to many others, not just because it’s been a bit since he’s played, but he won against largely lackluster competition (for the record, I still think Ciera is a decent player, but who else on 27 was good? Tina, for sure, but who else? Hayden ... ?). I could very well see Tyson coming off as just the funny guy and navigating his way to another finale before anyone realizes it.


All that being said, if you told me twelve years ago that Tyson would play four times, I would’ve laughed, not just because no one had even been on the show three times to that point, but he just isn’t one of the all time interesting characters to me. He had his time in the sun, but I just really don’t need to see him again. He's here, and that’s fine — I’m sure his confessionals will still be gold — but I’d rather have seen basically any male winner who isn’t here, including Fabio.


8. Danni (4)

Is there a more under-the-radar player on 40 than Danni Boatwright? Even in Guatemala, she was hardly the focus when the likes of Judd, Rafe, and the return of Bobby Jon and (Darth) Steph crowded the airwaves. In fact, no one who was an original cast member from Guatemala has ever come back before now. Why do I have Danni so high, then? Well, she played an outrageously underrated game, navigating through a toxic cast from the very bottom to achieve victory, cutting Rafe at the bitter end to seal her win. It should also be noted, Danni is one of only a very, very small number of winners to be on the wrong side of the Merge vote, showing just how important it is to know where the numbers are off the bat and how hard it is to recover when you’re not a part of them. The reason she and some others below her on this list aren’t higher, however, is that she played in an era where there weren’t idols and advantages behind every tree. Yeah, yeah, Gary in her season found the first HII ever, but it also held very little power relative to idols now, needing to be played before the votes were even cast. I think Danni can adapt, but the jury’s still out.


I’m thrilled Danni is back. I never thought I’d see her again, and I cannot wait to see people overlook her. She’s the darkest of horses to win this thing, but damn ... if she does ... she might be one of the all-time greats. Wow, I’m excited she’s back.



Possible - Kim


9. Kim (3)

The woman, the myth, the legend, Kim is returning to grace us with her presence. Her win speaks for itself, but in that vein, she’s gotta be one of the biggest initial threats. She’s a challenge beast, her social game is awesome, she can find idols, and she’s smart — the whole cast is very aware of these facts. For playing only once, her win is legendary, but it bears keeping in mind who exactly she played with — no one. Monica, Colton (*cringes*), Kat, and Troyzan are the other returnees from One World, and while Monica and Troyzan both have FTC appearances, they have a combined single vote between them. If Troyzan and Monica are the best competition Kim had to beat ... maybe Kim isn’t as good as we all think? Maybe others this season will say her utter dominance was just a fluke? For the record, I don’t believe either of these things. It’s Kim. Still, she may well be so good at the game, none of that matters and she crushes her way to end.


It’s Kim. She’s back and with a cast of more than just idiots and assholes. Of course I’m here for that shit.


10. Yul (1)

Way back in Cook Islands, Yul played arguably the best strategic game of the show until that point. I’d argue that moniker has held up pretty well more than ten years later. While Yul was undoubtedly helped by his then “Super Idol,” he schmoozed the Jury incredibly, he kept his alliance in check, and he managed to be threatening and controlling while always being cool, calm, collected, and even kind. I worry about him not playing in this contemporary era and the fact that everyone knows he’s incredibly smart, but intelligence isn’t defined by eras of the game. Smart is smart, and if Yul gets traction, he’ll will be around for the long haul.


Yul was the very first player I remember who was very successful at the game who looked like my father’s family. Yeah, he’s Korean and I’m Japanese, but Asian representation is often very lacking on the show. While the Cooks initial tribal division was questionable to say the least, it brought us Yul. I never thought he’d come back after all this time, and I want him so badly to do well. He’s just kind of a crap shoot for me given how long it’s been since he’s played and what others may think of his threat level going out.


11. Ethan (5)

Speaking of crap shoots, Ethan is back. Ethan, along with Amber, is one of two people to not have played since things like idols became things, let alone vote-based bullshit, idol nullifiers, or even removing a Jury member on Day 38 (classic Michele, am I right?). In that respect, I doubt Ethan is prepared relative to many of his cohorts. Still, it’s Ethan. I remember child-Dan staring wide-eyed as Ethan heroed his way to a win and being so happy a dude like that could win. Ethan’s likability, like Yul’s intelligence, is not bound by things like the era he’s playing in. It remains to be seen if Ethan can hang with a by-and-large strategically savvy cast (not classic Michele, am I right?), but if he’s there at the end, I have a very hard time seeing him lose.


Who has a better story than Ethan out there? It’s amazing he’s alive, let alone playing again, and for any who didn’t watch Africa back in the day, I’d recommend doing so before 40 premieres (as an added bonus, the whole Final Five that season is bomb). The only thing that would’ve made his return better would be if Jenna was out there with him, but I’m sure as shit not complaining. As a side note, if there’s a go-play-with-kids reward again this season, I hope Ethan gets to go and plays soccer with them. The heart melts at the thought.



Unlikely - Sophie


12. Sophie (11)

Wow, I guess I just did not realize how young Sophie was when she won. If not for that, I’d probably have her lower, but her biggest failing in the game appeared to be her social game — too arrogant and even callous at some points. Looking back at myself at 21, I don’t think it’s super fair to judge who I was then versus who I am now. If Sophie is a little more self-aware this time, she could be highly successful. Maybe, however, she’ll be the same person she was in South Pacific, and while that surely does not preclude her from winning, she’ll not only have to battle the rest of the cast but herself as well. Frankly, I’d be really down to see her do either very well or very not simply because I’m still on the fence about whether she or Coach would’ve been a better winner. A triumphant victory or a crushing loss might help quell my own uncertainty. I lean more toward the latter than the former.


Honestly, I’m happy Sophie is back. If production didn’t do a season of all winners, I don’t think Sophie would’ve ever come back, but I enjoyed seeing her journey in South Pacific from somewhat bratty to realizing late-game how she came across. It felt real, natural, and supremely human — characteristics editing has not traditionally given women. Also, if we can get another moment akin to Sophie screaming at Albert to give her his wooden cards so she could beat Ozzy at Final Five ... that’d be a real delight.


13. Sarah (15)

I believe it was the good Andrea Boehlke who said that the Jury in “Game Changers” (note the intentional scare quotes) felt slimy voting for Sarah to win. While Sarah positively deserved to win (and not just because she was my winner pick), I fully understand why. Sarah did precisely what she needed to in order to get to the end and win, and she didn’t seem to care whatsoever what carnage she left in her wake. Great! She’s a scary player. That scariness, however, paired with how recently she won is going to work against her. Sarah surely has the chops to win, but I just think she’ll be targeted very early and get the boot. Her chances are probably not helped that she’s on the same tribe as Tony (also love that they’ve played on the same seasons every time).


Look, I don’t dislike Sarah by any means, but did I need to see her again so soon? No, especially when any of the excluded women would’ve been great to see in her place — namely Tina and Vecepia. I’m fine with Sarah being here, but her third effort surely isn’t as exciting for me as her second.


14. Amber (9)

Missus Mariano, welcome! I could basically repeat what I said about Ethan for Amber, namely she’s hurt by never playing with advantages, she’s very likeable, and her likability will likely help her quite a bit. Why is she teetering on the cusp of “Very Unlikely” then? Easy. She’s playing with her husband. I don’t understand the choice to bring both of them back at once. Amber, who likely could’ve skated under the radar until the Merge, might be cut well before her time for no other reason than to hurt Rob. That’s not fair to her, and I’m sad that that seems like the most likely scenario.


I’m very pleased to see Amber back. Again, too bad it had to be alongside Rob and not on her own accolades, but who really thought Amber would ever play again? I sure as hell didn’t, so it’s a pleasant surprise to see such an old school name getting called back. I’d love to see Rob get cut early, taking a lot of heat off Amber, and having Amber around for the long haul, but I’m not optimistic.


Very Unlikely

Very unlikely - Michele


15. Michele (18)

Oh Michele. Michele, to me, is the winning, darker-haired version of Sierra Dawn Thomas who isn’t married to Joe. By this I mainly mean, I’m not overly impressed with her game. Yeah, she’s a challenge monster — maybe even the single biggest challenge threat going into the season (Wendell, Jeremy, and Nick definitely deserve to be in the conversation, too) — and she seems pretty likable, but she never struck me as a strategist. Maybe the edit really downplayed it, but Cydney and Aubry seemed to be pretty clearly controlling things by the end. I think she’ll easily make the Merge, but I have a hard time seeing her win. I only put her above the others because I think might be the most likely person to be at the FTC, but as a goat, not a champ.


Michele is the woman I’m least excited to see in this cast. She’s just so boring to me. I don’t have much to say other than Tina, Vee, Jenna, and Natalie White (yes, I’m serious) would’ve all been better substitutions, in my opinion.


16. Ben (20)

I have to remind myself of Ben’s strong suits in the game. He’s great at finding idols (suspiciously placed right next to the place he sleeps every night), and to his credit, he did thoroughly trick Chrissy and Ryan into thinking he was also on the bottom with them, causing Ryan to waste an idol. That being said, he was rude and abrasive much of the end-game, winning on idol accolades alone rather any social, strategic, or challenge-based chops. There’s something to be said for solo-ing a healthy chunk of the end game to victory, but that’s not a strategy that’s sustainable for multiple runs. If Ben wants to win, he’s gotta mix things up.


For anyone who read my musing on HvHvH, y’all know my thoughts on Ben. I don’t like him, and I’d rather have any other winner instead of him. I am so thankful to him for his service to our country, but his FTC performance still feels like he was leveraging his PTSD to win. I wholehearted believe Ben when he says he suffers from that, but I am very uncomfortable with using something like that to win. I also am on the whole conspiracy train with his idol finds. I also still hate that Chrissy didn’t win, because I would adore seeing her in this cast. Man, I loved Chrissy.


17. Rob (16)

This one’s gonna be quick. While I do think Boston Rob is overrated as a player (note his performances in Marquesas and HvV, as well as his win coming over perhaps the weakest newbie cast in the show’s history), he is a legend and arguably the face of the show behind Probst. But everyone is aware of his clout. I know he’s a got a load of friends in the cast, but who in their right mind is going to let Rob anywhere near the finale?


Also, a quick one here: I like Rob fine, but he’s been overused. Yeah, I totally get why he’s here, but including his large cameo in IotI last season, this will be his sixth appearance. It is sixth for a reason, but I didn’t really need it.


18. Sandra (14)

Repeat most of what I said for Rob, barring that I don’t think Sandra is overrated — plus she’s the only two-time winner, so how could she not be here? Yeah, I think Parv should’ve won HvV, but Sandra showed just how masterful she is at the game in her brief stint in “Game Changers” (sarcastic scare quote again). Also, unlike Rob, Sandra is not exactly very helpful in challenges and she’s already won twice. I could see her gone very early as I think no one there wants to see her get a third win and there’s no strength reason to keep her.


Sandra had to be here. I’m nowhere near as worn out of her as I am Rob, but I’d still rather have had Tina. Still, Sandra and Tony round two will quickly be upon us, and I’m there for that shit. Side note with Sandra, her tribe seems set up well for her to survive the early game better than she should: I believe she and Tyson are friends, she and Amber have massive incentive to work together, Tony and Sarah could be easy early boots before her, Kim’s best play is to keep women in the game, and Yul might be looking for an old school alliance to latch onto. I still don’t foresee any tribe keeping her too long, but hey, weirder shit has happened.


19. Tony (8)

No one will ever win like Tony did, and Tony won’t either ... at least not twice. If Tony wants to have any chance, he needs to calm the fuck down and be all right with not calling the shots for a bit. I don’t think this is super likely, but it could happen. Furthermore, while I think Tony’s shot at winning is supremely low, I could easily see a reality where, in the incredibly unlikely scenario that he does make it to the end, he wins. He’s 19th and not 20th because of that. Tony has a better shot to win than Adam, even though I think Adam will likely outlast him.


Tony is the only reason I’m 0.000001% okay with Edge of Extinction returning. When Tony gets an early boot, we still get to see him for a full season. I love Tony, and the only reason he’s not higher on my excitement list is I doubt his longevity in the actual game (not the Edge), and he did play not too long ago. Fingers crossed for comeback showing!


20. Adam (19)

Sweet, sweet Adam. Adam deserved his unanimous win over Ken and Hannah, but I still think he may be one of the weakest players out there. He’s not socially good enough to get by on being likeable, he’s not strong enough in challenges to win out, and he’s not quite strategically savvy enough that he can manipulate well enough to take out enough threats. I also think, with fire-making now a foregone conclusion, Adam almost certainly cannot win. He played well enough in MvGX to keep just enough threats to shield him late game, but he needed a Final Four vote and the help of two goats to do it. There aren’t really any goats here (maybe Michele and maybe actually Adam), and there’s no vote at Four. Sorry, bud.


Certainly not as big of a bummer casting as Ben, in my eyes, but I just don’t care about Adam being here. He’s a filler piece of casting to me whereas, again, Todd or Earl would not be. Hope he proves me wrong.


In summation ...


Win likelihood

Very Likely
1. Parvati
2. Denise
3. Natalie
4. Jeremy
5. Wendell
6. Nick
7. Tyson
8. Danni
9. Kim
10. Yul
11. Ethan
12. Sophie
13. Sarah
14. Amber
Very unlikely
15. Michele
16. Ben
17. Rob
18. Sandra
19. Tony
20. Adam

Enthusiasm level

Love it
1. Yul
2. Parvati
3. Kim
4. Danni
5. Ethan
6. Denise
7. Natalie
8. Tony
Like it
9. Amber
10. Jeremy
11. Sophie
12. Wendell
Fine with it
13. Nick
14. Sandra
15. Sarah
16. Rob
Didn't need it
17. Tyson
18. Michele
19. Adam
20. Ben


A Note on Those Not There

Those not here - Tina


Let’s be perfectly honest, dearest readers, fans who have been with the show for its run, those who constantly think about it, and probably those who choose to take time to read articles like this in the first place, could easily go winner by and winner and expound on why they should or should not be here. I am one such person, but don’t despair, I won’t do that (don’t have the time, frankly, and come on — who wants to read that for the eighteen who aren’t even playing). I’ll merely say that I wish some combination of Tom Westman, Todd, Bob, Earl, and Mike were here instead of Tyson, Adam, and Ben, but hey, there are a lot of men to choose from.


Further, as much as I, as a fan of the show, would love to see Richard Hatch and Brian Heidik back from a player standpoint, I understand why they are not from a personal one. Hatch’s last-minute exclusion is likely due to the whole still-fresh Dan scandal and how his last appearance in the game involved the whole Sue Hawk situation. Brian’s snub is because ... well ... he shot a dog with an arrow and having a former porn star back on the show might not be the look production and CBS are going for ... but mostly the dog and arrow thing.


I do, however, want to take a slightly longer moment to engage with two women who aren’t here and in every respect deserve to be: Tina and Vecepia. They were the first two female winners, after all. Tina is iconic in every sense of the word, taking a starring role in the most-watched season the show’s ever seen, and while Vecepia hasn’t played in nearly twenty years, she is the first person of color to ever win and one of only two in the show’s first twelve seasons. I’m confident Parvati, Sandra, and Kim were on the short list for women to come back, but there’s no reason in my mind that Tina and Vee shouldn’t have been there with them. Maybe production was worried about their longevity in the game, the whole mindset of why cast someone if they’re an obvious first boot? In another season, I could see that, but this is a cast of winners whose first goal is probably not “keep the tribe strong.” Besides, while Tina and Vee were never the challenge threats, their social games are timeless, and their threat levels relatively low for this cast. I think they would’ve done a lot better than production might’ve thought, should this have been a reason for them not to be here.


Okay, I’m just ranting at this point, but it’s just a pity to me that production would rather have someone like Michele over them. Hell, even though I’m down with Sarah and happy or even ecstatic to see Sophie, Amber, Denise, and Danni ... it’s Vee ... it’s Tina! Just my opinion, but not having either of them seems wrong to me.


Thank you, dearest readers, for parsing through this monster. I hope y’all’re as excited for this season as I am, and let us hope the Edge doesn’t put too much of a damper on it. Honestly, I’ll be at least okay with the season so long as the winner actually played all 39 days. Please, please, please don’t let an Edge returnee make it to the end, and for the love of all that’s good, don’t let such a person win.


Until the draft, cheers.



Dan Otsuki - It's Kind of a Funny StoryDan Otsuki has been watching Survivor religiously since season two, and is a recent graduate of the University of Puget Sound, where he double majored in English and Religious Studies. He's also applied to play on the show every time he's been able to do so.

Follow him on twitter: @DanOtsuki