The 50 Best Survivor Episodes (No. 5)


“Swimming With Sharks”

Pearl Islands, Episode 10 (Air Date: November 20 2003)
by Ian Walker

A lot has already been said on this list about the great “obvious blindside” episodes there have been throughout history. From the “basically, I’m a badass” swagger of Drew Christy to the “it’s too good to be true” oafishness of Roger Sexton. Survivor has done a great job over the years in crafting the exits of players who unknowingly march towards their demise, while letting the viewers in on the secret rather than mask it in suspense for maximum dramatic effect.

The obvious blindside braces the audience for the fall because most of the time the fall happens to one of the prominent characters of the season. Rather than making the people at home sweat out their favorite player’s fate, the Survivor storytellers show their hand a bit more, so that player’s story can have the most impact when their torch is eventually snuffed.

There’s no better obvious blindside, with no bigger impact than Rupert Boneham’s boot episode in Survivor: Pearl Islands.

By this point in Survivor history, Rupert was the most popular player the show had ever seen; largely because there just hadn’t been anyone like him before. Nobody had roared (literally) onto the Survivor scene like he had, with his big black beard and tie-dye shirts. A tough-as-nails competitor on the outside, sweet and sensitive on the inside, Rupert was larger-than-life and had enjoyed success in the game up to this point. However, his pirate adventure is about to be cut much shorter than he anticipated, as he’s dealt a blindside he never sees coming.

What makes this episode one of the very best is how expertly the show depicts Rupert’s downfall, giving the end of Rupert’s story the dedication a character of his caliber deserves, and it all plays spectacularly throughout.

The episode begins with a beautiful nighttime sequence that focuses solely on Rupert, as he laments the struggles he has getting through the nights of the game. It’s the time of day when he misses his family the most, the one time he allows himself to be vulnerable as he communicates his innermost feelings with his wife back home.

“I tell Laura, my wife, all my woes, and sorrows, all my triumphs. I tell Laura everything. And I want for everyone to see I am the best damn survivor that has ever been,” he tells the camera as he stares longingly at the ocean.

Rupert’s desire to be the best may seem a little self-important in retrospect, but a confessional like this, and many others like it, played so well at the time, during the height of Rupertmania. Rupert speaks to the camera with such utter conviction and determination, drawing the viewer in with every word he growls. All of the emotion that Rupert puts into his quest to be the Sole Survivor only makes his exit from the game even more powerful, and this scene illustrates just why he takes the game so seriously.


For as large as Rupert’s presence looms in the game, ironically, it doesn’t take that much scheming to take him out. By this point, at the final eight, Rupert was a huge threat, having the strength to win challenges and the personality to win just enough jury votes. It would take a cunning, devious player to have the guts to pull the trigger on a target that big.

Jonny Fairplay was that player. A member of the original Drake tribe, like Rupert, Fairplay had already tried to take a shot at the tie-dye pirate before and almost got blown out of the game because of it. Since then, he’d been biding his time, waiting for the right moment to take another shot, and in this round of the game, he finally had the numbers to pull it off.

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Since the merge, Fairplay had found a partner in crime in Burton Roberts, somebody who had reentered the game thanks to the Outcasts twist and was bent on revenge against the Drakes that had voted him out. Along with Burton came Lillian Morris, who wanted to exact similar revenge on her former Morgan tribe, and had gotten the opportunity to do so by voting out their leader, Andrew Savage, at the first vote after the merge.

Lil was solidly in Burton and Fairplay’s pocket by this point, giving them three, so the dastardly duo turns to the last remaining Morgan tribe members, Tijuana Bradley and Darrah Johnson, as the final two votes they need in their plot against Rupert. The five of them convene in the shelter, while Rupert’s off on one of his many fishing expeditions, and they lock down the plan, and that’s it. Rupert’s fate is sealed right then and there, all of this happening before the reward challenge.

Speaking of the reward challenge, the result should be Rupert’s first clue that the game is starting not to go his way. He and Fairplay narrowly lose in a tag-team obstacle course race to Burton and Lil, the pair winning a fishing trip on a fancy yacht. Burton ends up giving away his spot on the reward to Fairplay, after already promising his spot to Rupert. This upsets Rupert immensely, and upon his return to camp he takes his frustration out on some local fruit. In another great scene, Rupert hacks away at all of the dead parts of a coconut, talking aloud about all of the “rot and death” of said coconut, setting up the excellent foreshadowing of the death Rupert himself will experience by episode’s end.


If the reward challenge didn’t clue Rupert in that his game might be ending, then the immunity challenge is, even more, cause for alarm.

Playing a Survivor version of darts called killer, Burton knocks Rupert out of the game, definitively exposing his non-allegiance to him. While this makes Rupert nervous, he believes he has a safety net in Lil. Along with his two closest allies, Christa Hastie and Sandra Diaz-Twine, Rupert expects Lil to vote on his side, forming a bloc against whatever plan Burton and Fairplay have in store.

Lil, one of the most notoriously wishy-washy people to ever play the game, moans back and forth about how much she likes Rupert versus the need to get such a big threat like him out of the game. For all of Rupert’s pleading to Lil’s sad face, it’s all for naught, as the story makes it clear that Rupert’s time on Survivor is about to come to an end.

That night at tribal council, the hit is executed. Fairplay, in his professional wrestling flair, delivers the great voting confessional of “to be the man, you gotta beat the man. Woo!” And beat him he did, as Rupert is voted out, breaking the hearts of millions of Survivor fans everywhere.

Upon being declared voted out, Rupert takes a moment to visibly collect himself, emanating vibes of immense sadness as he takes his torch to be snuffed. It’s the fall of the mightiest hero in Survivor history, giving a hugely memorable end to the definitive Rupert stint on Survivor. It may not be the most vicious blindside in Survivor history, but it’s the most expertly crafted, one that completes the legacy of Rupert and helps make Survivor: Pearl Islands one of the greatest seasons of all time.

[Credit to Charles Paolo Amado for GIFS]



Ian, from Chicago, Illinois, graduated with a Communications major and an English minor and is now navigating adult life the best he can. He has been a fan of Survivor since Pearl Islands aired when he was 11 years old, back when liking Rupert was actually cool.

  • Daniel

    I don’t think this should have been top ten. There have been (by my count) seven incredible episodes (not just by my standards, but ones which have pretty much gained universal acclaim) which haven’t been mentioned yet, and you have space for only four more. It’s outrageous to think that three out of these iconic episodes (Ozzy’s blindside, James being voted out with two idols, Steph’s one man tribe scenario, Heroes vs Villains merge, dead grandmother, Borneo rat and snake finale, and the outcasts) will not make your list. I think I would have approached this poll from a ‘which episodes have been most iconically and unforgettably brilliant’ standpoint rather than the storytelling capabilities of the editors for certain overhyped characters.

    • Sean

      Agreed. I didn’t even really remember this episode.

    • Darren

      Agreed, I know these lists can be difficult to make, but there have been some questionable inclusions. I would guess that the Outcast episode won’t be making an appearance, which makes sense. It does not belong in the top 3 and was one of the least popular twists. It should be noted that this list didn’t include anything Redemption Island heavy, so I think there was some agreement among those behind it that people being voted out and later returning in the same season don’t really have place on the ranking.

      As far as the other six episodes you mentioned, they absolutely should have/should be included. I see that 4th place has already been revealed as the HvV merge, deservedly so <3 My guesses for the top 3 would be dead grandma lie, James blindside in China (which I really don't think is top 3 material but it'd be surprising to not see it on this list at all), and the Borneo finale. This list did have quite a few inclusions that seemed to be more about nostalgia than being that great of an episode. It wouldn't be too surprising to see the first finale since the first premiere and first merge are on here as well.

      All that said, this isn't me trying to bash the ranking, I know this was a very tough project. Much more so than ranking the 50 best Tribal Councils or something like that.

    • Erin

      100% completely agree!!!!!!!!

  • Zachary

    Great choice. Love Rupert, but his boot was glorious

  • Logan

    I’m guessing that the top 4 are going to be from these episodes :
    The Final Four
    Trial by fire
    The Great Lie
    Ready to Bite The Apple
    Going down in flames

  • Dutch

    I loved this episode back when it first aired. Rupert was the biggest character and hero at the time and I just couldn’t understand the hype. I was a Darrah fan and since he wanted her out I was pissed. Still though, a very memorable episode.

  • Mohammed Dakhil

    This episode shouldn’t even be in the top 10… Pearl islands is so overrated