Before the evaluation, though, let me first state how refreshing it was to see a season that both had all new players AND had a final two, which is by far my preferred method of Survivor gameplay. I'm pretty bummed out that they're immediately switching back to the Blood vs. Water format for the next season (and, presumably, more Redemption Island) since by this point, it's absolutely clear that one of the eight or nine returning players will absolutely win that game. Every single season that has featured a half-and-half mix of newbies and veterans has featured a veteran winning and the newbies all being used as pawns, so I'd be gobsmacked if that pattern changed in the fall. So for moment, allow me to bask in S28's semi-return to "old school" Survivor, though the season was also a little soured by another old-school element (you can probably guess what I'm going to say). Anyway, to Tony Vlachos.
How He Won: In many respects, Tony's win further validates the point that Russell Hantz is terrible at playing Survivor. Tony proved that you can, indeed, play this game like a wrecking ball and still win just as long as you're not an enormous jerk about it in the process. In a way, Tony's habit of lying to everyone actually worked in his favour --- since he broke his word to EVERYONE, his lies didn't become betrayals, it was just how he was playing the game. Had Tony been sitting next to someone other than Woo or Kass at the final two, he might've had to pay for his lies more, though he was wise enough to anticipate that problem early and thus gun for Spencer & Tasha (both of whom would've won easily) and even let Trish get voted out rather than use an idol to save her. I would've been fascinated to see how a Tony/Trish final two would've gone. Would Trish have Ambered her way to a win as the nicer half of her alliance, or would the jury have seen Trish just as Tony's pawn like they did with Woo?
As it played out, however, various jury members aired their grievances to Tony and seemingly got it out of their system before voting him to an easy 8-1 win. Let's be clear here; Woo absolutely made a boneheaded move by keeping Tony around rather than Kass in the F2, yet while that was Woo's error, Tony gets the assist. He cultivated such a partnership with Woo and, as he put it, "planted those seeds" that Woo couldn't bring himself to write Tony's name down. Had the situation been reversed, there is not a doubt in my mind that Tony would've voted Woo out, since Tony had his eyes on the prize the entire time.
Tony benefited from a strong 'brawn' tribe that dominated challenges while the other two teams picked themselves apart, then once the field was narrowed to two tribes, made the shrewd move of going with Trish/Jefra/LJ to oust Cliff Robinsonn rather than stick with Cliff/Woo/Lindsey. He was further helped by Lindsey inexplicably quitting after Cliff was eliminated due to her feud with Trish, and then when the merge hit, he ended up on the right side of the numbers due to the Kass flip. This is where Trish deserved all the credit, as from the way it was presented to us, she was the one who convinced Kass to switch sides (kinda ironic given how the two ended up hating each other). Even if Kass hadn't flipped and Jefra had been voted out 11th, however, Tony likely still would've lasted a while given his propensity for finding idols at the drop of a hat. It's possible he lasts long enough to be the one who inevitably suggests to Sarah/Morgan/Jeremiah that they need to break up the three-Brain alliance, and then the game gets flipped again.
Once Tony had the numbers at the merge, though, he kept sticking to his plan and eliminating threats before they could truly arise, a la LJ and Jefra. He caught another lucky break when he won that rock-drawing tiebreaker with Spencer at the auction, but still, it was more skill that luck that eventually got him the win. Tony didn't win any immunity challenges, remember, so he was hustling all the way.
Skillset: Okay, so the elephant in the room is obviously the "special" idol. We last saw this type of "use it after you've been voted out" idol in S12 and S13 and it led to Terry finishing third and Yul winning the game, respectively. The long and short of it is, that idol is too powerful and (like Redemption Island) antithetical to what Survivor is all about. Once you're voted out, you're gone. No do-overs, no second chances, boom, that's it. The tribe has spoken.
Thanks to Probst's desire to suck up to Tyler Perry, though, we got the super idol back this season and it sucked. As Perry and Probst noted during the reunion show, the fact that Tony (who already had a normal HII) found it was overkill, yet I would've been just as browned off had Spencer or Kass or anyone else got one. It just runs counter to what I think Survivor is all about. While it's not Tony's fault this was an element in his season and it certainly isn't his fault for finding it and using it*, it plays a factor in how I rank him compared to other winners who didn't have that built-in advantage.
* = the argument could be made that the super-idol wasn't really a factor since Tony didn't use it and he had other idols anyway, yet obviously, just its existence helped Tony's game. His lie about the idol's "special power" being that it could be used at final four was pretty clever and it worked, as nobody seemed to seriously raise the notion of voting Tony out then.
That said, good lord, could Tony ever find an idol. While I hate the super-idols, I have no issue in general with the idea of immunity idols in the game. First you have to find it, and then more importantly, you need to decipher the right time to play it. This begets another layer of strategy from your opponents in terms of splitting votes and whatnot, and it generally makes the game more fun. I have no problem with adding *some* kind of protective element within Survivor since it does serve as a lifeline to some players who can get unfairly screwed by one of the game's twists of fate. Just giving someone an idol that straight-up saves you from a vote no matter what is too much, though.
As noted earlier, Tony was more than just a walking immunity idol. He played the game hard, he protected himself with a wall of goats and stayed just friendly and non-obnoxious enough to keep from becoming a Russell-esque goat himself. Midway through the season, it seemed like Tony was playing the game WAY too hard and WAY too overtly, and I thought he was being set up for comeuppance. (Plus, the 'spy shack' was hilarious nonsense.) When he pulled that trick with Jeremiah during the tribal raid, for instance, his clever move was undermined by going back to his tribe and bragging about it; as LJ pointed out, why would you want everyone to know you're that sneaky? Since Tony ended up with the million bucks, however, I guess his plate-spinning act worked out in the end….
Could He Do It Again?: ….though here's the rub, there's not a chance in hell Tony would last long in another game of Survivor unless he busted out an idol to save himself every round. Everyone is too wise to his tricks now. I kind of doubt we'll ever get a chance to see him back, however, given how he discussed his health issues in recovering from the show and the sheer length of time it took for him to readjust to normal life. My suspicion is that Tony takes his money, goes back to Jersey, buys a chandelier for each of his kids and lives happily ever after.
I'll tell you right now, I'd rank Tony around the middle of the show's all-time winners, and finally, you'll get a chance to see just where in the middle that is. Yes, that's right, the LONG-AWAITED UPDATE to my original ranking of Survivor's champions is coming within the next month at the absolute month. It will be worth it, I promise you….or not, who knows. It'll actually be a lot of cut-and-pasting from my original ranking, so like a Survivor player who's been out in the woods for five weeks, freshness is at a minimum.