Warning: Contains spoilers for Survivor: Winners at War.
Denise Stapley, a five-foot-tall, 49-year-old sex therapist, knew it might be her only chance to take down the greatest player in Survivor history. To do so, she’d have to make an exceptionally risky move — one that could end her shot at a $2 million prize and leave her ostracized and humiliated if it backfired. This was the show’s first all-winners season; the stakes had never been higher.
Denise had spent the episode building trust and a tentative partnership with Sandra Diaz-Twine, Survivor’s only two-time winner — an infamous villain whose legend status is so solidified in Survivor lore she’s known simply as the “Queen.” The two women had agreed to a trade that would give Denise an immunity idol — protection from a sure vote-out — in exchange for some currency in the game.
With a poker face on, Denise accepted Sandra’s idol. Then, at tribal council, where a player is voted out, Denise revealed she’d been hiding a second idol. She played both: one for her closest ally and one for herself, nullifying the votes against her. As a coup de grâce, she put a single vote on a stunned Sandra — blindsiding her, betraying her and voting her out. The Queen got dethroned.
I still can’t believe what I just watched. It was one of the best moves I’ve ever seen on the show. A new legend was born. It was Survivor history in the making.
Oh yeah, and this all aired a few hours ago.
We’re in the 40th season of Survivor, arguably its best season ever, and no, “40th” is not a typo. The reality juggernaut has been around for 20 years — so long many people are surprised it’s still on. Even more surprising, though, is the way the game that invented the genre continues to reinvent itself.
Survivor began in 2000 as a game simply about survival: catchin’ fish, winning island mini-games and creating strong enough personal bonds that no one wanted you gone. After the first few seasons, many people forgot it was there; reality TV itself evolved and gave us flashier casts in the Kardashians and Jersey Shore. Survivor kept going, bringing in new twists, iconic characters and a steady 6 million viewers a week.
Looking back, it’s kinda hard to watch the older seasons now. I’ll say it: Except for the wild ride of Pearl Islands, Seasons One through 10 are boring. The pace is slower and there’s very little strategy to be found (though, personally, I think the challenges were more creative and fun to watch in the mid-2000s). The game got strategic around Season 13 (a questionable experiment in racial segregation, but an excellent cast), gave us delicious villains to root for in 16 and 20, and made us appreciate tender bro friendships in Season 18. Around Seasons 23 through 29, something delightful happened: A new generation of Survivor superfans grew up, got cast on the show and injected steroids into the game. Survivor turned into a fast-paced puzzle of shifting alliances, strategies and Big Moves™ that felt a lot more fun. Even in gimmicky seasons like Millennials vs. Gen X (33), the new players were vicious but the vibes were chill. Each contestant was beyond stoked to be there, to get a chance to play. The sheer joy of the game was palpable.
In season 40, Winners at War, the game is better than ever. In an all-winners season, you expect the players to operate at the game’s highest level, constantly playing 4-D chess and betraying one another in flashy high-wire stunts like the one Denise seamlessly executed. But it’s also an amalgamation of everything that made the previous 39 seasons great, and it feels like a passing-of-the-torch from the old school to the new school, which is currently kicking the old school’s old ass. One by one, the modern winners send the legends packing.
What I’m saying is you should watch Season 40. It’s fantastic. And if you have more time on your hands — I know you all do — go to CBS All Access, Prime Video or Hulu and watch a couple other seasons at the same time. There is so much delight* waiting there for you. It’s a riveting show. And when it’s not grabbing your attention, you sick freak, Survivor is also a great show just to “have on.”
Survivor: What to Watch, No Spoilers
If you’ve never seen the show before, here’s where to start.
The Best New Survivor Season: David vs. Goliath, Season 37. It’s a back-to-basics season with a truly memorable and likable cast, including a surprising performance by a famous person and a gleefully watchable villain. There are no real gimmicks here, just pure fun.
- Runner-up: Millennials vs. Gen X (33). It could have been so dumb, but it was a wholesome joy to watch, with real bonds formed and tender moments. The chemistry in this cast shone through even as they battled it out. Also, cast member Hannah Shapiro’s Survivor coverage at Men’s Health is a joy to read.
The Best Semi-Recent Survivor Season: Cagayan, Season 28. Who could skip a season called “Brawn vs. Brains vs. Beauty”? Your jaw will drop several times watching it. Again, great cast, no bullshit.
- Runners-up: Blood vs. Water (27) and Blood vs. Water 2 (29). Families! Betrayal! Backstabbing!
The Best Midpoint Survivor Season: Micronesia — Fans vs. Favorites, Season 16. Fresh-faced fans show up to an island to face off against their favorite players. Every moment of this is delicious. It just gets better and better. A perfect winner, too.
- Runners-up: Cook Islands, Season 13: A clumsy, misguided mid-aughts racial experiment ended up giving us the best cast in years. I also love China, Season 15, a unique marvel of a season with challenges you’ll probably never see again.
The Best Classic Survivor Season: The Australian Outback, Season Two. Before Elisabeth Hasselbeck was Elisabeth Hasselbeck, she was Elisabeth Filarski, an unknown 24-year-old reality show contestant.
- Runners-up: Pearl Islands, Season Seven. Also, Season Six (The Amazon) is a problematic time capsule with a fun and influential cast.
The Best All-Star Season: Definitely, definitely Season 20, the phenomenal Heroes vs. Villains. It might be the best season of all time, or tied with Micronesia for No. 1. But watch a few other seasons first before rewarding yourself with this one. I thought All-Stars (Season Eight) was pretty boring, but it’s cute to see Boston Rob and Amber fall in love on the island. Spoiler: They have four kids now.
Should I Watch Season 40 if I’ve Never Seen the Show? Sure, if you don’t care about spoiling who wins those classic seasons. Knowing who wins is hard to avoid if you Google the show, anyway — but hey, it’s about the journey, not the destination. Besides, Season 40 is a great entryway to some of Survivor’s greatest characters: Sandra, Parvati, Tony, Denise, Adam, Michele, Jeremy, Natalie, Yul and Nick all have action-packed seasons worth watching ASAP.
What About That Famous GIF? Right. This one’s from Gabon, Season 17.
As my savings burn and the world suffers through this pandemic, Survivor is one of the few things I look forward to every week. Like any strategy game, Survivor shifts my brain away from dark stuff, except this game has a very high production budget and 20 actual human beings to root for.
If the show isn’t geeky enough for you, then the fandom likely will be. The subreddit r/survivor is filled with strategy discussion, predictions and decent memes, and there’s even a separate subreddit, r/edgic, where people use a complex formula to break down every detail of an episode’s edit to try to predict the winner. There are podcasts, too, with Survivor alumni talking to other alumni and breaking down each player’s strategy with behind-the-scenes details.
On these forums and Twitter, the other main #Survivor hub, the reaction to Sandra’s blindside was an all-caps barrage. Fans were stunned.
The best part? As a few people noticed, Sandra actually looked like she loved it. When Jeff Probst snuffed her torch, she smiled like Logan Roy, betrayed by his own son in Succession’s Season Two finale. And after the episode aired, Sandra posted a jovial message on Instagram: “If I would have only known then what I know now!” Sandra had misjudged Denise to be a nice little lady, not a killer. She’d specifically called out Denise as a non-threat this season. Put simply, she didn’t think Denise had it in her. But loving Survivor means loving a good blindside, even when it’s you on the receiving end.
* Except for Season 39. That was awful.