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.
Episode: “Dead Man Walking” (Episode 8)
Original Air Date: November 7, 2012
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After Heroes vs. Villains, Survivor was in a bit of a slump. Having experienced one of the highest highs in its history, the show struggled to follow up a season of that magnitude, and it showed. The next four seasons are regarded as some of the weakest ever, afflicted with questionable twists (Medallion of Power, Redemption Island) and many castaways whose presence on the show left a lot to be desired.
Then comes Philippines, which rights the ship in a much more promising direction. While the show continues the trend of throwing in a handful of returning players amongst a majority of newbies, the selection of returnees here is refreshing. Rather than familiar faces that the fanbase was sick of seeing, the show selects some more deep-cut returnees, putting them in there with some exciting new players. Add in the revival of the 3-tribe format, and the result is a truly resurgent season of Survivor.
The season had already been entertaining until this point, but this episode kicks things into an even higher, crazier gear. And it all starts with Jonathan Penner, who, once again in his Survivor career, finds himself on the bottom without a whole lot of friends. After saving himself with an idol at the previous Tribal Council, Penner is now the “dead man walking” of the episode’s title. He knows his only real shot at surviving the vote is to win Immunity, something he’s never done in his three times on Survivor.
Despite this less than stellar track record, it doesn’t hurt Penner’s confidence. He walks around camp, calling his shot as the Immunity winner before the challenge, all with his signature Penner charm. All of his fellow tribemates ignore his boastfulness and focus on delivering the final knockout punch to send Penner packing. It’s simply a done deal, and there is nothing Penner can do about it. But wait… Penner does the unthinkable and actually wins Immunity! Then all hell breaks loose.
What follows after Penner’s Immunity victory is one of the most electric and head-spinning sequences of pre-vote scrambling ever. Penner was the locked-in boot of the episode, and him suddenly becoming untouchable sends the other nine players loopy as they all posture for their position. What’s remarkable is how many times the target changes in the span of six or seven minutes of show-time, as a different voting majority is seemingly formed with every new conversation.
Initially, it seems like the crosshairs are on the only other returning player still in the game, Michael Skupin. However, sweet and unassuming Lisa Whelchel has other plans. Viewing Skupin as one of her closest allies, Lisa attempts to shift the target onto Malcolm Freberg. Lisa had innocently discovered Malcolm’s hidden idol in the previous episode, but now, armed with that knowledge, she sees Malcolm as the biggest and most immediate threat in the game.
Lisa approaches Pete Yurkowski with her idol intel, and this is where things go into hyper-speed. Pete confronts his best buddy Malcolm to get to the bottom of this idol issue. Malcolm, consumed by nervous energy, vigorously denies ownership of said idol and reaffirms the bromance, which is apparently good enough for Pete. However, spooked by the fact Lisa is gunning for him, Malcolm quickly locks down a plan to vote out Jeff Kent, somebody not part of the Tandang alliance he’d been rolling with.
That’s all fine and dandy, well, except for Jeff overhearing the scheming going on against him, which prompts him to go on the offensive. Jeff rapidly pulls together a majority of his own, consisting of his good friend Carter Williams, Penner, Skupin, Denise Stapley, and the man who was trying to vote him out, Malcolm. The intention is to take out Pete, further crippling the Tandang alliance. There’s a funny moment during all this scrambling where naive Carter tells Jeff, “I thought the vote was for you?”
Malcolm now finds himself caught in the middle of both sides but decides his best move is to seize the opportunity to strike at Tandang and so sides with Jeff and his group. As he grabs his idol and prepares for the dreaded trek to Tribal, Malcolm tells us, “This has been the most crazy, last-minute thing I’ve ever been part of in my life,” perfectly describing all of the break-neck strategizing that just went down.
The chaos continues into Tribal Council. Firstly, Lisa admits to playing both sides while expressing her desire to keep the original Tandang alliance strong and take out a big threat like Malcolm. In response, Malcolm brings up how Lisa threw him under the bus by revealing he has an idol. And, with the idol now public knowledge, Malcolm decides to confirm the suspicions and flashes the idol to the entire tribe, threatening to pull the trigger and play it if anybody attempts to make a move on him.
Then, just to add to the insanity, Abi-Maria Gomes, who had somehow managed to stay out of all the game talk during the afternoon, is coaxed into revealing her idol for no real logical reason. Jeff declares how much fun he’s having, while Probst looks on in awe at how fast the game is being played right in front of his eyes at Tribal. It’s the best kind of Tribal chaos and doesn’t feel as manufactured as some of the more recent season “live Tribals.”
Right before the vote, Penner tries to corral the votes one last time, making sure everybody is on the same page. But apparently, Penner himself didn’t get the correct memo. He casts his vote for Abi-Maria, while Jeff, Carter, Denise, and Malcolm stick to the Pete plan. This gives the other five players (including Skupin), all original Tandang, the majority to send home Jeff, which is precisely what happens.
Jeff may walk out of the game feeling pissed off (his infamous final words are proof of that), but the viewers leave feeling elated. “Dead Man Walking” is one of those instant classic episodes, the kind where you immediately know that you’ve just witnessed one of the most thrilling hours of Survivor in history.
Check back tomorrow when we reveal which episode placed at number 15. You can check out the previous entries here.