— The 20th season of “Survivor” and its epic battle between the Heroes and Villains ends on Sunday. What's been most interesting, though, is not good versus evil, but what happened when 20 people who know the game came back to play again.
This season, Tribal Council has hosted blindside after blindside, especially for viewers, as we were shocked by moments such as Parvati giving up both immunity idols or Tyson switching his vote and causing his own elimination.
Now, two people from the once-dominant Heroes tribe remain along with four Villains, although with last week's alliance switching, that distinction matters less than it did before. It seems like it's anyone's game. Even people who've already won in previous seasons could win again.
The last all-star edition, "Survivor All-Stars," wasn't kind to former winners, who were all voted out before the merge. Now, two previous winners remain in the final six (Sandra and Parvati), as does previous million-dollar fan-favorite Rupert. There are also two people who were runners-up during their previous seasons: Russell in Samoa and Colby in Australia.
In other words, five of the six have won $1 million or had the chance to because they made it to the final Tribal Council. But this is a different game, and the six players remaining all have varying chances of success.
Only recently has Rupert woken up from his tie-died, fan-favorite slumber, effectively fooling Russell with a fake hidden immunity idol (which was really just a rock in his pocket). Russell seems to be motivation for Rupert to do some good — or at least to just play. In the first half of the season, Rupert was more annoying than jovial, making irrational decisions along with the Heroes' dominant alliance.
His actions have gotten him to the final six, but now he's going to either have to win immunity or actually join forces with Russell to survive the former Villain alliance. Otherwise, it's the jury for Rupert.
Colby is basically headed for the jury, too, unless he can do something spectacular, which may or may not involve aligning with Russell. In his first season (Australia), he won the last five individual immunity challenges in a row. This time, it's more notable that he's shown up to five challenges in a row. His performance has been poor, to say the least, and he's even given up sometimes.
Ever since he narrowly escaped being voted off, he seems resigned to going home, so unless he picks up the pace and wins immunity, he'll be joining Rupert on the jury, leaving an all-Villains alliance remaining in the game.
Jerri is perhaps the most unlikely person to make it this far in the game. Although she was one of the show's early villains in Australia, next to new villains such as Russell and Parvati, Jerri looks like she's out of her league.
Her game has basically been to do what other people want to do, but instead of making that look like a strategic choice as Sandra does, Jerri often seems to be lost. Last week, she even seemed to change her vote based on what Russell whispered to her at Tribal Council. It's hard to trust someone who swings back and forth, but so far, it's worked for Jerri.
Russell returned to play the game just weeks after "Survivor: Samoa" concluded production, and since it didn't start airing until after "Heroes vs. Villains" began production, no one knew him. That had the potential to work in his favor or against him, but it seems that he is positioned to again make it to the end. But is he just a pawn again, considering his fellow Villains don't think he can win?
As usual, Russell's game play has been both bold and smart, and insecure and stupid. Last week, he got in huge trouble and resorted to threatening his closest allies after they realized he was pitting them against one another. It worked for him, but it might not work out in the long run. As he likes to say, he's not playing against the dummies he did last season. So if he makes it to the end, it's likely they played him, using him because they know no one would vote for him, just like last time.
Sandra has, remarkably, played nearly the exact same game that she did in the Pearl Islands, when she easily won. As she told me before the game started, "The same thing I did before, it'll work, because they're dummies." That may just be true.
Her strategy is to deflect attention from herself and do whatever works best for her in the moment. She's also played Russell easily, convincing him that Coach was after him.
Last week, however, she found herself in the minority alliance, as Russell and Jerri switched sides to vote with the Heroes. That's less of a problem for Sandra than it is for Parvati, because if there's anything Sandra knows how to do, it's to figure out which dummies she needs to play in order to get herself farther in the game.
Having won "Survivor: Micronesia: Fans vs. Favorites," nevermind having a reputation for being simultaneously strategic and flirty, Parvati should have been an early target. And she has been, with Jerri saying, "Parvati is like a virus," and Coach actively resisting her flirting.
But Parvati survived, in part due to some brilliant moves — playing both hidden immunity idols by giving them to the people most likely to have received votes from the Heroes alliance — and in part due to her alliances. One of those, curiously, is with Russell, and that may have started when Parvati was told about Russell before the game began.
But whether she's acting on prior knowledge or not, Parvati isn't Russell's plaything, and last week their alliance fell apart as he joined with the Heroes and Jerri to get rid of Danielle, who was also aligned with Parvati. That means Parvati is at crossroads: Does she try to repair her relationship with Russell? Or seek a new kind of alliance with someone else?
One variable that might impact how all of this plays out is whether there's a final two or three. With five people going into the two-hour finale on Sunday, it's likely we'll see two eliminations and a final three, but especially with an all-star season, it's always possible to have a twist.
Then again, there have been few twists this season. And incredibly, it's still been pretty great television from week to week. The finale probably won't disappoint, either, whether there's a surprising or a predictable winner — for instance, if Russell loses again and bursts into tears and/or tries to buy the title one more time.