by Ian Walker
One of thing that makes Survivor so thrilling and fascinating to watch is the arena in which the show takes place. Throwing a group of people into a highly complex game based on trust and deception would be stressful enough, but putting it in the backdrop of a deserted island only increases the difficulty. While the dialogue surrounding the current, modern game tends to involve blindsides and big moves, it’s easy to forget the huge physical toll the game takes on the castaways in addition to the mental fatigue that stems from the social and strategic parts of the game.
Needless to say, the environment is all too real, requiring the players to take care of their bodies just as much as the bonds they form with their fellow competitors. Players need to take care of themselves while out in the wilderness, or they could face grave danger, not just to their own games, but to their lives themselves, as evidenced by one of the scariest moments in the show’s history.
Mike Skupin falling in the fire in Survivor: The Australian Outback proved once and for all that Survivor was the real deal. The first season introduced viewers to how rough the game could be, but ended without any real significant health scares or injuries, helping to quell the audience’s concerns about any potential risks the players would face. Then, to have not just an accident, but an accident of this magnitude, in the very next season proved the realness and harshness of the environment that the survivors were playing in.
If anybody had any questions about the authenticity of Survivor, those queries were put to rest after witnessing the skin dripping off of Mike’s hands as he cried out in agony. At this point in the show’s history, Survivor was the most popular show on television, with an average 30 million people watching week to week, making this moment not just one of the most iconic moments in the history of Survivor, but in the history of television as a whole. It was a huge, huge moment, capturing the intensity of Survivor when it was at its most raw and real.
At the center of it all was not just Mike, but the whole Kucha tribe. The Kucha tribe had been dominating throughout most of the pre-merge game and had seemed to have gelled together nicely. They were certainly the audience’s favorite; while the opposing Ogakor tribe had more of the perceived negative personalities, like Keith Famie and Jerri Manthey. The audience gravitated toward the sweet father/daughter relationship of Rodger Bingham and Elizabeth Filarski, the snarkiness of Jeff Varner and the alpha-maleness of Mike Skupin.
While Mike’s reputation has considerably worsened, to put it nicely, since his time on this season due to his oafish return appearance in Survivor: Philippines and the unfortunate felony charges brought against him a few years later, there’s no question that he was a commanding presence during his time in the Outback. Seemingly wanting to be the leader from the get-go he took charge in many aspects of camp life, most notably the food situation, famously killing a boar for tribe consumption. Mike was a big part of Kucha’s success and a big reason why they had gotten off to such a great start in the game.
Side-note: This is also the episode where Amber Brkich (Mariano) and Jerri fantasize about various sweets and desserts much to the annoyance of Colby who is suddenly brought into Jerri’s chocolate fantasies, leading him to declare “I may be a lot of things but I ain’t no Hershey bar.”
Good things continue to happen for Kucha during the first part of the hour when they win this episode’s reward challenge. It’s the very first blindfold challenge in Survivor history, and just like many challenges in the early seasons of Survivor, it’s pretty basic. No crotch-level obstacles or giant puzzle pieces, just a caller guiding their tribemates through a series of blindfolded tasks, and the execution is thrilling.
The race is close all throughout the challenge, with both tribes exchanging the lead multiple times, truly creating some edge-of-your-seat excitement, complete with a photo finish. Kucha snatches the victory away from Okagor at the very last second, scoring them a nice picnic lunch of Doritos and Mountain Dew. With another win under their belt, they had the momentum going into the merge and did not look to be slowing down anytime soon.
Then comes that scream, a yell that immediately says that something has gone wrong. At first, the audience isn’t sure what has happened, as people are crowding around Mike, unsure themselves what the problem is. All of a sudden, Mike runs down the beach and dives in the water, as chatter amongst the other tribe members slowly fills the audience in on what happened as we hear Nick Brown tell a production crew member “He’s burnt. He’s burnt pretty bad, Terry.”
Eventually, the camera gets a close-up on Mike, first on his face writhing in pain, then his hands as he brings them up from the water, where we see for the first time just how severe and horrific an injury it is. Mike immediately submerges his hands again and cries out in more pain as his tribemates watch helplessly, unable to do anything but give words of encouragement.
After a while the medical team shows up to take Mike out of the game, resulting in a hugely emotional scene. As the medics load up Mike into the helicopter to airlift him out of the game, all of his tribemates gather around him for one final goodbye. Despite all of the friction that had existed between Mike and his tribe, they have nothing but love and adoration for him now. Mike tells them all how special they are to him, and with smiles on their faces and tears in their eyes, the Kucha tribe bids Mike farewell as he becomes the first ever person officially pulled from the game.
The episode ends with a very somber Kucha tribe sitting down for a meal and saying a prayer for their fallen leader. This situation is undoubtedly a huge blow to this group because now they’re even with Ogakor at five members each, and the merge is only a few days away.
While spirits are at an all-time low, they vow to keep on fighting in honor of Mike. Jeff gives the perfect confessional to summarize Kucha’s mood during this trying time by saying “we’re going to eat them up and spit them out, and that’s the way Mike would want it to be.” It’s a very sweet and optimistic note for the episode to finish on, creating this great inspirational storyline that Kucha will go on to dominate the game again, all in the name of Mike.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen that way. Kucha loses out at the crucial merge vote the next episode and gets wiped out, none of them coming close to winning. So while none of them get to avenge Mike’s gruesome exit from the game, they all got to be a part of a truly iconic moment in Survivor history at the center of one of the best episodes the show’s ever had.