by Ian Walker
With over 15 years on the air, Survivor has such a rich and varied history that, when tackling the idea of “best episodes ever,” it’s an arduous task, simply because there’s a lot of friggin’ episodes to sort through. A lot of the episodes fans tend to consider the best episodes come from the earlier eras of the show, having been burned into their minds as instant classics from the day they aired.
It’s easy to say that there’s some nostalgia bias in play there. While that’s most likely correct, a big reason why those early episodes are looked at so fondly is that they are really good. They helped build the foundation for the show’s history as it slowly made the transition from cultural phenomenon to television institution. So, for an episode from the modern era of the show to make its mark as a classic, it has a high pedigree to live up to and has to work hard to be put on the same level as all of the iconic episodes that came before it.
Now, comparing classic Survivor to new Survivor, like Cagayan, is a little bit apples and oranges, as the focus of the show has shifted. In the olden days, the show was more interested in diving into the personalities of the players while exploring the romantic adventure of the Survivor game. While the game at its core hasn’t changed over the years, it’s become faster and more complex, and the personalities are filtered through a lens of strategy rather than adventure.
This episode of Cagayan is the ultimate realization of just how exciting and gripping the modern-day, hyper-strategic game of Survivor can be when there are smart and engaging people playing the game, especially when it involves the birth of Chaos Kass.
Kass McQuillen was nervous heading into the upcoming merge. She was seemingly in a good position, with her Aparri tribe’s six merging with the opposing Solana tribe’s five, but she had her doubts about one specific member of that six. Sarah Lacina was separated from the entire rest of her tribe when she and Kass met. So, Kass was concerned that Sarah would flip back to her former tribemates, and not-so-subtly hinted the very notion to Sarah at the beginning of the episode. Sarah professed her loyalty to the alliance, but Kass was still skeptical, a feeling that would come to bear delicious fruit by episode’s end.
When the two tribes came together on one beach, the Solanas quickly realized what the score was and that they needed to do some work. Luckily, they got the high-speed bullet train of Survivor, Tony Vlachos, on their side, ready to put some plans into action. Almost all of those plans involved trying to woo (no, not that Woo) Sarah back over to his side. However, after Tony’s manic screaming of “Top Five, Baby!” at the previous immunity challenge, Sarah was not too keen on rejoining with her former Cops-R-Us buddy. That didn’t stop Tony from trying, however, as he knew that Sarah was the key swing vote.
Sarah knew she was the swing vote as well, a position she relished a little too much. “I can do whatever I want, y’know. You want to pick a fight with me, I’ll flip over with those other guys, so don’t test me because I will put you in your place and send you packing,” she said in a confessional, and even went as far as calling herself the “president” later in the episode. Unfortunately for her, Kass was also well aware of her position, which made her even more wary of her.
Some people in the Aparri alliance, like Tasha Fox, tried to mollify Kass’ concern, but the incessant desire to show deference to Sarah only increased the growing agitation Kass had with her group. Kass felt that Sarah was carelessly throwing her weight around, as strategy conversations were dominated with Sarah pushing her preferred targets of Tony and LJ McKanas, both of whom were suspected of having idols. Rather than go down that dangerous path, Kass would much rather employ the safer strategy of targeting people least likely to have idols, a plan she felt was falling on deaf ears.
“She thinks she’s running the show. Does nobody see this? Am I the only one? I know she’s about to destroy the game. If she’s going to destroy the game, I want to have the preemptive strike. I want to destroy it,” she told us at home.
Fortunately for Kass, she got her chance to “destroy” the game, all thanks to Trish Hegarty. Tony’s right-hand woman, Trish saw the growing discontent Kass had with her alliance, so she pounced on the opportunity to make her move. She offered Kass room in her alliance and even the chance to decide who the Solana group would vote for. After stating her desire to see Sarah gone, Trish said she could make it happen, thus making the move of jumping alliances a really enticing offer for Kass to consider.
“I love that Sarah thinks she’s running the show. New Aparri is voting for Tony at the bequest of Queen Sarah; Solana is voting for Sarah. I truly believe I’m the one in the middle. I think I have usurped Sarah’s throne tonight, and once again, Chaos Kass will show up at Tribal.”
Kass’ desire to throw the game into chaos led to one of the most explosive and competitive tribal councils of all time. Tony, who did indeed have a hidden immunity idol, publically revealed it to everybody. In a sign of things to come in Tony’s game, what was seemingly an impulsive move turned out to have some shrewdness behind it, as the other side immediately began conferring with one another, hurriedly shifting the target off of Tony and on to someone else.
Active scrambling at tribal council is indicative of the new era of Survivor, where the game moves so fast that plans are changed up until the final minute. It makes thrilling viewing both for the viewers at home and even Jeff Probst, who told these players “I love it when a vote is this alive.”
The votes were cast, and what followed was one of the wildest sea-saws of emotion ever experienced at tribal council. Tony got up and played his idol for LJ, believing he was Aparri’s backup target. Then, LJ decided to reveal his idol as he played it for Tony, wanting to repay his buddy on the spot. With fellow alliance member Woo Hwang having immunity, three out of the five Solanas now had safety from the vote, with only Trish and Jefra Bland being vulnerable, and the Aparris reacted accordingly, showing signs of shock and dismay that their plan was about to unravel.
Jeff flipped over the first vote, and it read Jefra. Now, it was Solana’s turn to be dismayed, while several Aparri members began to smile as they sweated out the rest of the votes. Fast forward a little bit, and it was five votes Jefra, five votes Sarah, one vote left. The final vote was flipped over, and it said, Sarah. The Solanas visibly showed relief; Tony broke out into raucous applause, and the Aparris looked on with utter disbelief as Sarah had her torch snuffed and the legend of Chaos Kass was born.
It was an exhilarating series of events that perfectly encapsulated the impact of what this show can deliver when it’s firing on all cylinders. It established Survivor: Cagayan’s legacy as one of the best seasons of all time and cemented this episode as an all time classic.