Survivor: Winners at War
Season Preview - Part 1
By Jim Van Nest
January 14, 2020
Hello good people and welcome to Part 1 of BOP’s Survivor, Season 40 Winners at War Preview. For those of you who wisely checked out of Season 39: Island of Inappropriate Touching – you may not be aware that the long clamored for All Winners Season is finally happening.
When Survivor comes back to the airwaves on Feb 12, they’re bringing 20 winners of the game back for the end all-be all Season to determine who is the best of the best of the best. Despite hate watching last season, BOP is back to cover this long awaited all winners season.
Over the next 4 weeks, I’m going to be previewing the season and refreshing your memory (and mine, for that matter) on the 20 people who’ll be vying for the ultimate title and the increased ultimate prize of $2 million!!
I’ll be doing this, not in alphabetical order this time, but in chronological order by the season they won. So, this week we’ll be talking Old School Survivor with Ethan Zohn, Queen Sandra Diaz-Twine, Amber (Brkich) Mariano, Danni Boatwright and Yul Kwon.
Let me take you back, if I may, to 2001. Survivor: The Australian Outback is the number 1 show on television with nearly 30 million viewers per episode. It premiered after the Super Bowl and rode the coattails of Richard Hatch’s season 1 win to become a phenomenon that would spawn a gazillion knock off reality shows in the early part of the 2000’s. So, looks like we have a lot of things to “thank” Survivor for. Anyway, Season 3 kicked off with much hullabaloo and quickly lost a lot of buzz (and ratings) due to the awful conditions the players were forced to endure on the Shaba National Reserve in Kenya. Without a watery backdrop to film against and with the legit dangers inherent to the area, the players were confined to very small, pre-constructed fenced-in camps to protect them from the wildlife you could literally hear growling right outside their living areas. Africa is largely considered a bottom tier season of Survivor and might have fallen completely off the list if not for one thing.
If you were to poll fans of the show, you’d be hard pressed to find a more well-loved winner than Ethan Zohn. The former pro soccer player won the hearts of Survivor fans by playing a hard but relatively honest, clean game and he took home the million dollar prize for his efforts. Ethan was solid in challenges, but not spectacular and Lex handled the heavy strategic lifting that season. What Ethan had, though, is an amazing social game. Everyone wanted to play with Ethan and no one wanted to vote him out. So much so, that his name was not written down until the final Tribal when 6 people voted him the winner of Survivor: Africa. Interestingly enough, Ethan is exactly the type of player who’s been super successful in the 30’s. The likeable, super social player that never does too much offending – see Tommy just last season.
Now, Ethan did come back for the All Stars in season 8 and while the winners were automatically targeted that season, he did manage to make it to day 21 and was the last winner standing. This was, in large part, to his likability and willingness to work with other players. Since his time on Survivor, Ethan has had a well-publicized relationship come and go with Jenna Morasca, the winner of Survivor: The Amazon and he’s gone through 2 major bouts with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and announced back in 2013 that he’s cancer free thanks to 2 rounds of stem cell transplants from his brother. The big question for Ethan is what it will be like for him some 16 years after he last played Survivor. This game has evolved SO much since he last saw the island. Has it passed him by or will he be able to adapt to the new faster paced version of the game – chock full of idols and advantages and players who move at light speeds compared to the slower version of the game he’s used to.
Will the Queen stay Queen? Again? I don’t know about that! Our next player is the only 2 time winner of Survivor and really needs no introduction – Sandra Diaz-Twine. Sandra won Season 7 in what a lot of people deemed a fluke season. She went against someone who had already been voted out of the game in Lil Morris and likely would have lost to Jonny Fairplay if he wasn’t voted out at the final 3. In a season dominated by Fairplay and good guy pirate wannabe Rupert Boneham, Sandra was largely overlooked as the big personality and huge game threat that she is. She employed an “as long as it isn’t me” strategy and carried it all the way to the end.
To most, that strategy didn’t seem to have much of a shelf-life until she was brought back on the Villains tribe for Season 20’s epic Heroes Vs Villains. Once again, lost amongst the big personalities like Boston Rob, Coach, Parvati and Russell Hantz, Sandra was able to employ her strategy while stepping up her game behind the scenes. She stirred the pot early and often creating feuds where none existed and watched as all-star after all-star fell by the wayside. Riding all the way to the final 3 with Russell and Parvati (whom many people considered one of the best to ever play the game) – Sandra went tip top toes with them and pretty solidly won the Final Tribal Council and ultimately the game, by besting Parvati 6-3.
With 2 seasons, 78 days and $2million under her belt, Sandra put her crown on the line in 2016-17 by participating in the show’s 34th season, Game Changers. Chanting out her mantra, “The Queen Stays Queen” early and often, somehow Sandra was able to survive until the 6th Tribal Council – despite going to EVERY SINGLE ONE up to that point. I’ll say that a different way: the only 2 time winner in the history of the game went to 6 Tribal Councils before she was finally voted off. To me, despite having her torch snuffed for the first time in 3 seasons, Game Changers was Sandra’s best season and showed that she has the chops to evolve with the game and play at whatever speed she needs to win. She took out Ciera Eastin, Tony Vlachos and JT Thomas en route to her 15th place finish that season. Impressive, indeed.
What will prove interesting to me is how she will do when put together with Rob Mariano. Sandra and Rob served as mentors during the just ended Island of the Idols season. With 30+ days together on the island with little to do but build a massive shelter and hang out – both with the knowledge that they were getting ready to play season 40 together – you have to wonder what kind of plan could have been cooked up by 2 of the smartest and most savvy players to ever be stranded on Survivor Island. I’ll go ahead and say it right here – a 3rd win for Sandra is not out of the realm of possibility and I would NEVER bet against her.
Up next is one of the most surprising inclusions of the season, in my opinion. Amber Mariano (formerly Brkich) was a surprise inclusion in the original All Stars, back in 2004. And let’s be honest, if either Elizabeth Hasselbeck or Colleen Haskell had said yes, Amber would not have been included and who knows what the show would look like. But, they did and she was and the rest is reality TV history. No, seriously. Survivor: All Stars led to a string of reality TV appearances like no other. 2 stints on the Amazing Race, 3 more Survivor seasons (not including 40), a live TV wedding, a reality poker show and several guest hosting appearances were to follow for Amber’s husband. Of course, I’m talking about Rob Mariano. I’ve gotten a bit off track, let’s bring it back…
Rob and Amber’s romance began during All Stars and was the center piece of the season. Not remembered fondly by Jeff Probst, Production or most fans, the All Star season focused heavily on the alliance turned romance. And, they were the final 2, so why wouldn’t it? What’s hard to do, though, is really dissect Amber’s game in All Stars. Everything she and Rob did, they did together. However, Rob has become a staple of the game, appearing in 3 more seasons prior to 40. Thus, he gets credit for being the brains of the All Stars alliance that ran the game. It was hard to tell where Rob’s game ended and Amber’s began and vice versa. Couple that with one of the bitterest juries in the show’s history and many people will tell you that All Stars was really Rob’s first win, but the bitter jury awarded it to Amber.
Going back to the Australian Outback season, people forget that Amber showed flashes of her own cutthroat game as she was part of the group that ousted Jerri Manthey on Day 27, despite having a ride or die alliance with her from the very beginning of the game. She also won some rewards and an immunity or two along the way. As one of the least likely winners to show up on Winners at War, if you sleep on Amber, you’re doing so at your own risk. She has a quiet, under-the-radar type game about her and with people like Rob, Sandra, Tony and Tyson out there –why would ANYone target Amber any time before the end game? And that might be exactly the way she’s hoping it will go.
Next up is the winner of season 11, Survivor: Guatemala – Danni Boatwright. This season stood out for a couple reasons. First, was the return of 2 previous players, Bobby Jon Drinkard and Stephenie LaGrossa. Second, this season was the first to feature a hidden immunity idol, a staple of every season to come after. We’re in a time of Survivor where the seasons kind of blend together for a lot of people, myself included. What I remember most about Danni is that she’s a sports nut (and was a sportscaster at the time) and she was able to call out Gary Hogeboom as a former NFL quarterback when no one else could even pick him out of a lineup. She won some immunities, bought a challenge advantage at the now-defunct Survivor auction and turned on her #1 alliance-mate, Rafe, at the final 3 taking the infinitely less likeable Stephenie to the end with her, where she prevailed 6-1.
Add Danni to the list of Survivor winners I never expected to come back to the game. Also add her to the list of players that could be completely underestimated or maybe even forgotten about until they find her at the end with a tight alliance and have no way to send her home. A loyal player and fierce competitor, she might be perfectly suited to go far in an all winner season. Much like Amber, because there will just always be bigger threats to get out of the game before her.
One of the players I expect to be viewed as a huge threat in the game also falls onto the list of people I never thought would play again, Survivor: Cook Islands’ winner, Yul Kwon. Full disclosure here, Yul might be my favorite player of all time. Definitely top 5. So, should I come back to do the recaps for this season, you can expect a lot of Yul fan-boy material for however long he manages to stay in the game.
Let’s go back to season 13, though, one of the most important seasons in Survivor history, if you ask me. If you look at the final 8 of this season, they have combined for 14 appearances on Survivor (not including Yul and Parvati returning for season 40). Candice Woodcock- Cody, Parvati and Jonathan Penner played 3 times each and Ozzie Lusth played 4 times. Oh yeah, they also decided to split the tribes up by race to begin the season. NOT one of the finer moments for Survivor Production. But we’re not here to re-litigate one of Survivor’s greatest blunders; we’re here to talk about the brilliance of one Yul Kwon.
Early in the game, on a trip to Exile Island, Yul found the hidden immunity idol. At this time, there was still only one per season AND this was an idol that could be used after the votes were read, making it supremely powerful. This season, also featured “the mutiny.” With the tribes even at 6-6, Jonathan and Candice decided to mutiny away from Yul, Ozzy, Becky and Sundra to form an 8 person stacked tribe against them. All this did was light a fire under the remainder of the tribe. With Ozzy dominating challenges and Yul dominating strategy, this 4 wiped out all 8 of the remaining players and Yul, Ozzy and Becky made up the unlikely final 3. At this point, it became a decision for the jury. Do they appreciate Ozzy’s dominant physical game? Or Yul’s masterful strategic and social game? In the end, the vote went 5-4 in favor of Yul.
First off, Yul may well be the smartest player on the island (props to Sophie Clark as well.) The brilliance of Yul’s game was in his handling of the hidden idol. He let his alliance know about it right away and then actually told the entire cast about it during the auction. He then leveraged that idol, most egregiously against Jonathan, to keep himself and his alliance safe. His line to individuals was basically, “Sure, you can vote against me if you want, but I will play the idol and I will write your name down. You wanna take that chance?” And no one did. Yul is super smart, is a master manipulator and he’s just a really likeable guy. Like you see with so many of these winners; Nick Wilson, Adam Klein and Jeremy Collins as examples, people want to play with Yul. They want to be his friend and they want to align with him. Unlike players like Amber and Danni and even Denise Stapley or the aforementioned Adam Klein – Yul’s game will not be forgotten by the other players, especially Parvati who got to see it up close (she voted for Ozzy, by the way.) I’m absolutely thrilled to see Yul back out playing Survivor, but I worry that the legend of Yul and the all-around excellence of his game will make him an early season target. I sure hope I’m wrong about that, because I’m down for a Yul win in 40!
Something you also have to wonder about 80% of this crew – how invested in Survivor are they after all these years? Obviously, Sandra is supremely connected to Survivor and probably knows the life stories and financial backgrounds of everyone playing this season (AND the winners NOT playing), but the rest of them have been in Survivor obscurity for years.
Ethan has kinda had more important things to tackle over the years. But he does show up at events here and there, so he’s not completely out of the circuit. You have to hope he doesn’t fall into Old Man Colby Season 20 territory where he compares this new faster paced game to “back in my day”. He has, in the past, complained about the “easy” living conditions modern day Survivors play in. Of course, compared to Africa, you could probably say that about every season.
Amber. Clearly, Rob and Survivor have gone hand in hand since the moment he got off the boat in Marquesas. But Amber? I mean, I’m sure she watches when Rob is on. But otherwise, do you think Amber cares? I’m asking honestly, because you NEVER hear from her. She could be every bit as plugged in as Rob and know everything about everybody or she could get out there and have no idea what a Ben Bomb or a spy shack is. Also, and this has nothing to do with gameplay but, how is it she looks exactly the same as she did 15 years ago and Rob looks so old? Also, their kids are absolutely adorable and with that kind of cuteness in the house, there is NO WAY Rob will ever write down Amber’s name as he suggests in the preview for the season. She’ll boot his ass long before he writes her name down.
Yul has been around a little bit. And by around, I mean he’s showed up on Rob Has a Podcast here and there, most recently during season 25 (Denise Stapley’s season, coincidentally) to talk about Jonathan Penner. But other than that, Yul has had his hands full with security issues as the self-described “privacy Sherpa” at Facebook. I would wager that other than the season he came to talk to Rob about, he has watched very little of Survivor since he played. While he mastered the old school “God” immunity idol, how will he adapt to potentially a metric ton of idols being in the game?
On this entire cast, the person I expect has paid the least amount of attention to Survivor is Danni. She dropped off the face of the earth as far as Survivor is concerned after her win in Season 11. I’d wager she knows the least amount of people on this season and likely hadn’t heard of more than half of them until she binged their seasons to get ready (if she did that). It’ll be very interesting to watch how she navigates through a crew of people, many of which are very ingrained in the Survivor world still and will likely be moving about 90 miles per hour around her.
And with that - part 1 of the Winners at War Preview is in the books. Lemme know what you think on the Tweet-box at @vannestjc. I'm really curious to see what people are thinking about this season, especially these old school players. I'll be back next week with refreshers on Parvati Shallow, Rob Mariano, Sophie Clark, Kim Spradlin and Denise Stapley. Until then kids, take care!