Over the coming months, Inside Survivor is undertaking its biggest list ranking yet, as we count down the 100 best episodes of Survivor ever. As always with these kinds of lists, it’s entirely subjective, and we’re sure many fans will have different opinions. This is simply Inside Survivor’s ranking. Join us each weekday for a new entry.
Season: The Australian Outback
Episode: “Trial By Fire” (Episode 6)
Original Air Date: March 1, 2001
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One of the things that makes Survivor so fascinating to watch is the arena in which the show takes place. The complex game of trust and deception is stressful enough, but putting it in the backdrop of a deserted island, or, in this case, the Australian Outback, only increases the difficulty. While the modern game revolves around blindsides and big moves, it’s easy to forget the huge physical toll the game takes on the castaways.
Stripped of all the amenities of their everyday lives, the castaways live in a ramshackle shelter and subsist on minimal food, withstanding starvation and sleep deprivation, all in their quest to win. The environment is all too real, requiring players to take care of their bodies just as much as the bonds they form with their fellow competitors. Players need to look after 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.
Michael Skupin passing out and falling in the fire in 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 there were no significant health scares or injuries, helping to quell the audience’s concerns about any potential risks the players would face. So, to have an accident of this magnitude in the very next season proved the realness and harshness of Survivor.
If anybody had any questions about the show’s authenticity, those queries are put to rest here after witnessing the skin dripping off of Skupin’s hands as he cries out in agony. Remember, Survivor was the most popular show on television at this point in time, with 30+ million people watching it every week. That means that this isn’t just one of the most iconic moments in the history of Survivor but in the history of television as a whole.
At the center of it all is not just Skupin, but the whole Kucha tribe. Kucha had dominated most of the pre-merge and 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 Elisabeth Filarski, Jeff Varner’s snarkiness, and the alpha leadership Skupin.
While Skupin’s reputation has considerably worsened (to put it mildly) since his time on this season, there’s no question that he is a commanding presence during the Outback. Seemingly wanting to be the leader from the get-go, he takes charge in many aspects of camp life, most notably the food situation, famously killing a boar for tribe consumption. Skupin is a big part of Kucha’s success and a key reason they had gotten off to such a great start.
Good things continue to happen for Kucha during the first part of the episode when they win the latest Reward challenge. It’s the very first blindfold challenge in Survivor history, and just like many challenges in the early seasons of the show, it’s pretty basic. There are 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 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 lovely picnic lunch of Doritos and Mountain Dew.
Side note: On the topic of food, this is also the episode where Amber Brkich and Jerri fantasize about various sweets and desserts. This worries Colby Donaldson, who is suddenly brought into Jerri’s chocolate fantasies. “I may be a lot of things, but I ain’t no Hershey bar,” Colby says in a funny little capper to the scene.
With another win under their belt, Kucha has all the momentum going into the merge. Then comes that scream… a yell that immediately says that something is wrong. At first, the audience isn’t sure what has happened, as people crowd around Skupin, unsure themselves what the problem is. Suddenly, Skupin runs down the beach and dives into the water, as chatter amongst the other tribemates 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.”
The camera gets a close-up on Skupin, first on his face, the pain etched upon it, then to his hands, as he brings them up from the water. This is where we see for the first time just how severe and horrific an injury it is as the skin peels off into the water. Skupin immediately submerges his hands again and lets out a primal scream. All his tribemates can do is watch on helplessly, unable to do anything but give words of encouragement.
Eventually, the medical team shows up to evacuate Skupin from the game, resulting in a hugely emotional scene. As the medics load Skupin into a helicopter to airlift him to a nearby hospital, the Kucha tribemates gather around for one final goodbye. Despite previous friction between Skupin and his tribe, there is nothing but love and adoration here. There are many tears as the Kucha tribe bids Skupin farewell as he becomes the first-ever person to be medically evacuated from the game.
The episode ends with an extremely somber Kucha tribe sitting down for a meal and saying a prayer for their fallen leader. This situation is undoubtedly a massive blow to the group because now they’re even with the Ogakor tribe at five members each, and the merge is only a few days away. But even though spirits are at an all-time low, the Kuchas vow to keep on fighting in Skupin’s honor.
Varner 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 heartfelt and optimistic note for the episode to finish on, creating this tremendous inspirational storyline that Kucha will go on to dominate the game again, all in the name of Skupin.
However, it doesn’t happen that way—and looking back now at the various trajectories of the Kucha tribe members, perhaps that was for the best (Ogakor were the real heroes all along). Kucha loses out at the crucial merge vote in the next episode and gets wiped out, none of them coming close to winning. But they were all part of a truly iconic Survivor moment at the center of one of the best episodes the show has ever produced.
Check back tomorrow when we reveal which episode placed at number 9. You can check out the previous entries here.