by Ian Walker
Survivor exits come in many varieties. When a player gets voted out, it’s the show’s job to craft the definitive end to their time in the game, while servicing the overall narrative of the season. Many factors go into each castaway’s ending: Were they a bit player in the story or one of the driving forces of the narrative? Did they get blindsided or were they voted out in a more predictable manner? How were they connected to the other players and who were their friends and enemies?
With over 400 people and counting, a lot of castaways have lost the game, and each of those losses is (hopefully) catered to that player’s story and their personality in their sendoff episode, as their quest to win a million dollars is ultimately snuffed out by Jeff Probst.
Coach Ben Wade’s exit episode in Survivor: Tocantins is a magnificent piece of television because the entire hour is one big love letter to one of the most larger than life characters the show had ever seen. Over the course of the season, Coach had developed a screen presence, unlike any player that had come before him. He crafted his own personal mythology built on all of the things he holds important. Honor. Integrity. Loyalty. All virtues befitting of a noble Dragon Slayer.
Now, as his final chapter approaches at the final five, the show embraces Coach’s utter ridiculousness in a spectacular fashion, crafting an epic ending for an epic character.
It all starts with Coach’s trip to Exile Island. There had been rumblings of sending Coach to Exile before the reward challenge, as JT Thomas and Stephen Fishbach were eager to see if Coach could back up all of the bravadoes he had boasted throughout the game. Coach, aware of the chatter, pleads with JT and Stephen not to send him, citing a litany of ailments ranging from asthma, a bad back, a stubbed toe, a paper cut, all of which would preclude him from an excursion to Exile.
When JT wins the reward challenge, however, the decision is made. Coach was going to Exile Island. Upon being delivered the news, Coach declares his intention to take the “monastic approach,” willingly denying himself of food. The other player’s reactions range from the slight smirks of JT and Stephen to over-the-top eye rolls of Taj Johnson-George and Erinn Lobdell; the latter calls him out for taking the martyr approach instead of the monastic approach. Coach scoffs at the allegation that he would try to diminish anybody else’s time on Exile and sets off for a truly transformative experience, for both himself and the viewers alike.
When Coach arrives at Exile Island, he relishes the opportunity to test himself as he had during his other world travels. He fashions himself a dragon cane, the perfect accessory for some Coach-Chi atop the dunes of Exile. All of the camerawork and the music is played for maximum dramatic effect as Coach communes with the heavens, asking God to help him forgive Erinn for the slight she made against him back at the challenge. This bit of television rests entirely on Coach’s shoulders as he narrates the action, and it all works so wonderfully because Coach speaks with such conviction.
“Coach Wade’s foundation is built on a rock,” he opines to the camera. “Unbreakable, unbending, unyielding, immeasurable, immovable, invincible.”
Fast forward to the end of the stay, and Coach is wrecked. He held true to the promise of no food, which was, in his words, “friggin’ awesome.” Now in a physically weakened state, he heads to the immunity challenge, motivated by his rough experience to come back to camp with the necklace.
The challenge was simple enough, requiring the castaways to prop themselves up between two walls while standing on very narrow footholds. Despite the fact that he’s clearly in pain, Coach manages to hold his own, for a time, lasting all the way until it’s just him and JT left. He even lets out a primal yell, pushing himself to his breaking point. Eventually, Coach not only drops out but collapses to the ground, Stephen and JT rushing to his aid while Taj and Erinn casually walk over, skeptical of Coach’s throes of back spasms. His voice hoarse from pain, Coach manages to get back up on his feet and takes a melodramatic old man walk back to the bench. Probst inquires if Coach would like a check in from medical, which Coach adamantly denies, asserting that he’s in so much pain that medical would automatically take him out of the game, a fate he will not succumb to.
Coach returns to camp without the necklace, nervous for both his health and his safety in the game. His buddies JT and Stephen have kept him around for awhile now, so he’s hoping they can extend his stay a little more. He plays up the bond the three of them have as warriors, stressing his philosophy of wanting to go to the end with the strongest of competitors. Unfortunately, they don’t see it the same way, as Coach is ultimately voted out, but not without some parting thoughts on his departure. Probably anticipating this would be his tribal council swan song, he debuts an original poem that goes like this:
With friend and foe we march to the battle plain.
Some to seek success, others to seek fame.
We play with honor, for the love of this game.
And with armor or without, we will toil in vain.
So that someday, someone, somewhere, will remember our name.
The poem is the perfect note to end Coach’s story on, full of over-the-top philosophical nonsense and grand posturing for the viewers at home. It’s the conclusion to one of the most memorable stories in Survivor history, one that will be enshrined in the annals of Survivor history for years to come, just like Coach would want it.