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: Pearl Islands
Episode: “Beg, Barter, Steal” (Episode 1)
Original Air Date: September 18, 2003
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In what is one of the best Survivor premieres ever, Pearl Islands starts out with a thrilling opening on the high seas. Wanting to catch this group of castaways off guard, Jeff Probst opens the season by revealing that the game is starting right then and there, days before the cast was anticipating it to begin—they instead were expecting this to be a press day.
After dividing into two tribes, Morgan and Drake, the castaways are forced to jump off a boat with only the clothes on their backs, some of them in, let’s just say, less than ideal island-wear, from Armani suits to a scout leader uniform. From there, they swim ashore to a local Panamanian fishing village to start off their adventure, having to trade for goods they’re going to need on their journey ahead.
“Beg, Barter, Steal” stands out from all other premieres in large part due to this opening sequence. Never before or since have we seen a group of castaways haggle for supplies with local civilians, and it yields fantastic results. Sandra Diaz-Twine is the MVP of the Drake tribe, using her Spanish-speaking skills to swindle a boatload of treasure and saving Trish Dunn from a questionable amorous shopkeeper in the process.
The Morgan tribe is a lot more hapless, with Osten Taylor absent-mindedly leading the group’s bartering efforts by unwisely trading what little clothes he had, and leaving their shoes unattended, thus allowing a Survivor legend to be born. While the rest of the Drake tribe begs and barters with the villagers, Rupert Boneham decides to steal the abandoned shoes of the Morgan tribe and instantly captures the hearts of Survivor fans everywhere.
While many fans today feel Rupert’s character is tired and worn out after multiple appearances on the show, there’s no denying that his presence lights up the screen in Pearl Islands. Just his look alone is both stand-out and serendipitous: the big, tie-dye-wearing, black-bearded guy with the deep, growly voice is perfectly cast for the pirate-themed season, and he immediately runs with the theme by stealing the shoes, thus making for a truly iconic moment.
The action continues when the players hit the beach, with everyone quickly proving why this is considered one of the all-time great Survivor casts. Rupert still gets a lot of airtime, becoming the provider he always wanted to become. Still, many other fun characters also begin to emerge, like the aforementioned Sandra, and Jonny Fairplay, who is determined to become the most notorious villain Survivor has ever seen.
Despite Fairplay’s intentions to become the most dastardly player of all-time, he’s not quite his devious self yet in this opening episode. He does, however, immediately start working his Fairplay charm with his tribemates, spending his first night getting drunk on Panamanian wine and telling debaucherous stories of his past. It’s a funny, character-based scene that foreshadows the troublemaker Fairplay will later become.
Side-Note: Let it not be forgotten that Fairplay actually says something nice about his arch-nemesis Sandra in this episode, paying her a compliment in a confessional about how helpful her Spanish was in securing all of the tribe’s supplies. Sandra doesn’t take too kindly to Jon right away, but at least she isn’t screaming “WHAT THE F***!” in his face… yet.
There’s also Andrew Savage on the Morgan tribe, who quickly establishes himself as the group’s leader with an undying devotion and desire to see his tribe succeed. While Savage can get a little pissy at times and takes a more devious turn in Survivor: Cambodia, in Pearl Islands, he’s all heart and determination. But that commitment and devotion is put to the test early on, as the Morgans begin a six-challenge losing streak with their first loss in this episode, and it’s a close one.
A race through the jungle while transporting a large rustic cannon, the Morgans keep pace with the Drakes throughout the challenge, despite a sartorial mishap. Osten had already experienced trouble keeping his boxer briefs at waist level and, unfortunately, experiences similar problems during the challenge. In a show of solidarity, Savage and Ryan Opray drop trou’ as well, so when they lose the challenge, they lose both Immunity and a little bit of their dignity as well.
The Morgan tribe heads to Tribal Council later that night, but the vote ends up being one of the most low-key parts of the episode. Eventual bootee, Nicole Delma, does cause a bit of ruckus, attempting to play multiple people against each other and getting caught in the process. When she tries to target Tijuana Bradley, Lillian Morris, who is considered a target for being the oldest, uses the info to get Tijuana on side, and the vote falls pretty easily on Nicole.
Despite this first vote’s relatively standard nature, all of the action beforehand, from the marooning to the village bartering, the camp life scenes to the intense Immunity challenge, more than makes up for the simple boot. This episode kicks off Peal Islands in a massive way and sets the tone for one of the most thrilling and memorable seasons in Survivor history.
Check back tomorrow when we reveal which episode placed at number 17. You can check out the previous entries here.