The best 'Survivor' finale of all time brings tears, struggle, and three very different journeys to the end -- who battled back from the Edge and who just became $2 million richer?
Jeff Probst is known for getting a little over-excited about each season of "Survivor," but after soaking in the heart-pounding three-hour finale of "Winners at War," we're going to have to give him this one.
The 40th installment was the best season ever of the venerable reality series.
At the very least, this was the best finale we've ever seen, even with the dreaded "Edge of Extinction" twist in full play. In fact, there was so much going on that the finale -- which has encroached into the reunion hour more and more in recent seasons -- swallowed it whole. There was just that much going on.
There's so much to unpack on our journey to the Final Three and the second-ever two-time winner of "Survivor" that we need to just get to it. But first, we'd like to argue that no matter who wins this season, they do not unthrone the queen, or even get to sit next to her.
In a season of all winners, it was inevitable that the show would crown a two-time winner. And while that's an achievement, it's not as impressive as Sandra's second win in a season that wasn't filled with winners. She had to earn it whereas it's a two-time win by default here.
This is an altogether different achievement though, and one just as worthy, because this is the first and only person to win a season comprised entirely of winners. That's an incredible achievement in itself. On top of that, they can tout having won $3 million from the series, which is just crazy!
The first thing that needed to be done before we could get into the meat of the episode was figure out which of the Edge of Extinction inhabitants would be joining the Final Five to make it a Final Six.
As we learned last week, the challenge was just stacked with advantages. Natalie had three of them, while Parvati, Yul and Wendell each had one. And yet, Natalie immediately fumbled in the first leg of the challenge, allowing Wendell to take a commanding lead and even letting Rob (with no advantages) surpass her.
But all that hard work on the Edge began to quickly pay off as she had two more advantages than anyone else and was able to quickly make up that lost ground. Wendell hit the maze section first, but Natalie was able to make up enough ground to secure the victory.
As much as this doesn't redeem Edge as a good twist in the game, there is no one worthier of contending back in the game than Natalie. The first one voted out on Night 2, she has dominated Edge of Extinction from the beginning, lapping everyone multiple times in securing advantages and disadvantages to feed back into the game.
In other words, no one can deny how hard she worked on the Edge, which makes her returning to the game on Day 35 somehow less controversial than when Chris went out on Day 8 only to return Day 35 and win the game. This Edge had a lot more going on and we saw that Natalie was playing every bit as hard as those in the game, just in a very different way.
It's very rare to see Sarah make a mistake during any season she plays "Survivor," but one mistake she's made this season is underestimating her Cops-R-Us partner, Tony. She so often paints herself as the level-headed one who sees all, but the Tony we got this season is so much more present in the game.
He's also playing a very respectful and gentle game, deferring to his partners Ben and Sarah as needed. And yet, he laid out exactly how this whole situation played out after Natalie returned and painted a picture of the Edge ready to reward Tony the $2 million.
This was genius strategy on her part, as no one could fact-check her image. Quite simply, she saw Tony as a threat and wanted him gone. And he saw every bit of it. On top of that, he could tell by her body language and her growing closeness with Michele that she had brought an idol back into the game with her.
His biggest fear was that she would play her idol, forcing both him and Ben to flush theirs in order to keep their alliance safe. And yet, neither Ben nor Sarah believed it -- or him -- until Natalie did just that.
After Michele scored a much-needed and impressive come-from-behind victory in the first immunity challenge (which she won her first season), Natalie indeed pulled out her idol and everything Tony feared transpired.
In the end, four votes for Natalie and two votes for Ben didn't count at all, forcing a re-vote with only Sarah and Denise as possible candidates. And it was Denise who paid for Sarah's arrogance. She was Tony's backup plan anyway, but it was still a glaring flaw in Sarah's game.
Denise -- who you'll note we haven't mentioned at all so far -- went out as quietly as she played most of her season. But she will always be the Queenslayer and one of the game's best stealth assassins. This time, though, she was outwitted by a plethora of advantages and being on the wrong side of a power trio.
One of the moments that we're certain is part of the reason we got no real reunion tonight is Sarah's incredibly passionate speech during that first tribal council. Hearing from Natalie that the jury thought Tony was running the show back at camp lit a fire under her.
But it also gave her a realization and understanding about how gender bias influences perception that proved cathartic for her. Concerned about being ruthless and cut-throat in her winning season (which she totally was, backstabbing her friends and allies), Sarah noted how this would be perceived differently for a man.
"If a woman in this game lies or cheats or steals, she's fake, phony or a bitch," she said. "If a guy does it, it's good gameplay. If a guy does it, they're a stud."
"What it is is it's a gender bais and it holds me back. It holds other women back from playing the game the way we should be allowed to play the game," she said, emphasizing that Natalie's comments "made me realize that I, for two years, have been so hard on myself from 'Game Changers' that I felt like I was such a bad person and I'm not. And I can finally-- I really feel like I can let that go."
It was a powerful moment, with Jeff admitting that if he were to go back and look at footage from 20 years of "Survivor," he'd surely see plenty of uncomfortable instances of gender bias coming from his mouth, right down to the seemingly small thing of choosing which players to refer to by their last names.
At this, Sarah hilariously insisted he could start calling her Lacina, and even stuck to it through the rest of the night.
The bottom line, though, is that this is yet another moment of "Survivor" reflecting our changing times and attempting to grow and evolve emotionally and socially. It's not always pretty (last season was particularly ugly and a huge fail for production), but real change always comes in fits and starts and setbacks.
"Survivor" has always reflected the best and worst of us right back at us, so it's encouraging to see moments like this emphasized and given the spotlight they deserve. Sarah did nothing wrong in her winning season and doesn't deserve to be villainized any more than Michele or Ben do for theirs (more on that later).
A controversial winner in his season, Ben has been emotional and erratic this season, but he's also grown tremendously at times. We're still irritated that he decided to ignore Jeremy for no good reason, but his bond with Sarah and Tony was real and the fact that he began to value real relationships and open himself up to trust again was an incredibly powerful huge stop for his personal growth.
Ben came into his first season a broken man, suffering PTSD from his time in the military. This second run has been incredibly therapeutic for him, and it's been inspiring to watch him clawing his way from the darkness.
After Tony won the second immunity challenge of the night, he was again a keen observer of the game. He had spent the night of the last tribal council searching for an idol and was joined by everyone in the morning.
Suddenly, he noticed that neither Natalie nor Michele were really scrambling or looking anymore, and so he deduced that one of them (likely Natalie) had found the immunity idol. And he was right, as Natalie had it.
Natalie's plan was to try and get Sarah to flip to vote out Ben, but suspecting she had the idol sent Tony back into his spy shack to confirm it. And when Natalie foolishly carried her necklace in her buff around her wrist, Sarah quickly noticed it.
That was all Tony needed to know that it was time to break up Natalie and Michele, who'd suddenly become a power duo. It was the trio that had been dominating the latter half of the season against the underdog and Edge returnee, an unlikely duo forged from desperation.
But it was Ben who had an emotional moment with Sarah where he volunteered to effectively fall on his sword for her game. He knew he was being targeted and clearly didn't think he could save himself, so he wanted Sarah to get the kill.
He gave her permission to write his name down to help her build a resume against Tony so the jury would have no doubt that she was playing her own game and willing to make big moves. And that's just what happened, with Sarah joining the women in blindsiding Tony and taking Ben out.
Speaking of building a resume, Natalie was a beast from the moment she got back in the game, doing everything Sarah worried about and pulling it off. And in her last desperate moment of need, she pulled off an epic immunity win ... the last immunity win of the season.
This is the one that guaranteed her a spot in the Final Three and gave her all the power as to who was going to sit by her and who was going to face off in fire. Would she go the route of Chris Underwood in 'David vs. Goliath' and take on that battle herself?
Everyone seemed to agree that Tony needed to go if any of the other three wanted a real shot at winning, but rather than take on that challenge herself, Natalie opted to have Sarah do it. Her reasoning, which was sound in its way, was that she wanted to completely dismantle that dominant alliance of Ben, Sarah and Tony.
With Ben gone, this was a surefire way to ensure that only one of them made it to the finale. It also secured Michele a spot without having to fight at all. Probably a big part of that decision was that she felt pretty confident she had a better story than Michele. Did she, though?
In the tightest fire-making challenge we've seen since this was introduced into the game, Tony barely edged out Sarah to secure that third and final spot, denying Natalie her dream scenario of an all-woman Final Three. Would it deny her the win?
At this point, the final three was set and we have to give credit to all three former winners for one of the best final tribal councils as well. All three of them argued intelligently and compellingly for their game and by the end of it, we realized we'd be satisfied with any of them as the winner.
That's the beauty of the game. They took such drastically different journeys to the end, but each one was valid and each one worked. There is no wrong way to play the game of "Survivor," no matter what armchair players -- or even fellow players -- may want to say.
But only one way earns the respect of the jury enough to win the prize. So how did these three do it?
Always one of the most entertaining players in the history of the game, Tony brought a very different version of himself to this game. This was a Tony far more present in the game, far more engaged with his fellow players on a personal level.
He toned down his crazy antics and tried to rein in his paranoia -- though it proved right more often than not -- and made genuine connections with everyone. He played a game that was both compassionate and strategic.
He was also dominant almost throughout, steering votes the way he wanted, working closely with Sarah in a power duo we can't believe worked so well for so long for the third time in a row. It was a season-long tour de force.
And yet, despite his dominance, he never got a single vote against him throughout his journey. That's a testament to his social game, which is a whole new arena for him.
Natalie was going to have an uphill battle convincing a jury of winners to reward her $2 million dollars after spending exactly seven days in the game. The rest of the time she was on Edge.
At the same time, the last time a player from the Edge made it to the finale, he won. But Chris did it with a ballsy move wherein he gave up final immunity to take out his biggest competition in fire personally. Natalie opted not to do that.
Nevertheless, she was absolutely dominant while on Edge, securing way more fire tokens than anyone else, winning the majority of challenges out there and forging real bonds and relationships with everyone there... who also happen to be the same people voting.
Once back in the game, she quickly got to work and survived three tribal councils with one immunity win and two hidden immunity idols. We've had winners who defied the will of their tribe by winning their way to the end rewarded with $2 million.
Dismissed from Day One as an undeserving winner and someone who was simply going to get picked off whenever everyone else tired of her, Michele defied the odds again and again and again.
Yet again, with her back to the wall, Michele seized upon the arrival of Natalie and took advantage of her advantages to work closely with her to ensure both of their survivals in the game.
Michele spent basically the entire game losing those closest to her, and yet never getting lost herself. She was on the outs with almost every vote and was the target herself several times. She scored key immunities when needed and forged the right alliance with Natalie at the right time.
It wasn't a pretty way to play the game, and it must have been exhausting, but it worked. It got her into the finale and that's a huge testament. Michele has played this game twice and made it to the final both times. She's never been voted out of this game.
Say what you will about the way she plays the game, but perhaps being underestimated over and over again is an effective strategy. Very few people can say they've played this game more than once and never gotten voted out. Michele was the only one to join that elite group tonight.
We were a little surprised that the votes played out exactly as they did. We fully expected all three of the finalists to get votes, but alas that wasn't the case. Poor Michele will probably struggle again with her story this season as she got completely shut out by her fellow winners.
Hopefully, fans and those players will be a little more supportive of her, because she really did manage to pull of something remarkable both times that she played. And it's something no one on the jury can say, considering they all got voted out this very game.
That left it down to Natalie and Tony. And perhaps there was only one result that we could have truly expected. With a jury full of legends and old-school players who know the grind of playing the game, could they truly reward the top prize to someone who spent so much of the season out of the game?
Natalie got four votes, but that's all she could muster. Tony grinded it out and he worked all season long. While a lot of it probably has to do with him getting such an obvious winner's edit throughout the season, there's no denying that he earned this victory, the $2 million and the title of sole survivor.
And he can proudly sit next to Sandra as the only two-time winner (even with an asterisk next to it). While we're not ready to declare him the greatest player of all time, he's definitely one of the game's absolute best ... and one of its most entertaining.