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: “The Final Four” (Episode 13)
Original Air Date: August 23, 2000
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When Survivor premiered in the summer of 2000, it changed television, pure and simple. There had never been a show like this before, and a lot of people were intrigued enough to check it out—a lot of people! Throughout the summer, Survivor evolved from some new curiosity to a cultural phenomenon. The players themselves became household names as viewers were glued to their TV screens, hoping that their favorites wouldn’t be voted out that week.
It all culminated with this, the season finale, the pinnacle of the Survivormania that swept the nation, with over 51 million people tuned in to watch how it would all play out. Audiences were eager with anticipation to see who in the Tagi alliance would ultimately prevail: Kelly Wiglesworth, the rebellious river rafting guide, Sue Hawk, the brash yet sensitive truck driver, Rudy Boesch, the cantankerous yet lovable retired Navy SEAL, or Richard Hatch, the cocky and cunning corporate trainer.
While all 16 castaways were a big deal, whoever won would forever etch their names in the history books as the first-ever Survivor champion. For 12 previous episodes, we’d watched these first castaways have their torches snuffed one-by-one, their quest to win a million dollars gone up in literal smoke. This final part of the journey to crown the winner had to stick the landing to make sure Survivor would have longevity as a franchise rather than be a one-season wonder.
Survivor: Borneo doesn’t just stick the landing; it sticks it spectacularly, creating some of the most riveting hours of television to ever be broadcast. There are just so many fantastic, iconic moments in this episode, providing the basis for so many things the show regularly relies on to this day, and it all starts with the crucial Final 4 vote.
The big storyline developing in the lead-up to the final was the gradual movement of Kelly away from the Tagi alliance, as she became upset with the conniving nature of her allies. This resulted in an explosive argument with Sue in the previous episode. Before the fight, Sue and Kelly had developed a close, almost sister-like bond, but this fight was a huge hit to their relationship.
Despite the bust-up, it doesn’t prevent Sue and Kelly from voting together here at the Final 4 in an attempt to split up Richard and Rudy. This results in the first Survivor tie, leaving both the players and the audience on the edge of their seats, wondering what happens next. Jeff Probst declares a revote, upon which Kelly switches and sends Sue home. This shows just how far players are willing to go to save their own position and avoid the unknown, as Kelly secures her spot in the Final 3 by sending her friend Sue out of the game.
Following Sue’s elimination, the Final 3 castaways head to the final Immunity challenge, where some true Survivor magic is about to unfold. Up until this point, Richard had been calling all of the shots. He put the Tagi alliance together and had dictated all of the vote-outs since the merge, yet there is one more obstacle he has to overcome if he wishes to sit at the Final Tribal Council and plead his case to the jury.
For a while now, Richard has had a Final 2 agreement with Rudy, which is a problem. While Rudy, a man of honor, will stick by his word, Richard knows he can’t beat the 72-year-old Navy vet in jury votes and thus has to think of a way to get to the end without Rudy. Fortunately, an opportunity presents itself during the last challenge, the famous Hands on a Hard Idol, where players must simply keep one hand on an immunity idol while standing on a stump.
All three competitors last for two-and-a-half hours, upon which Richard makes his shocking move. After giving a short speech, telling the other two players that he hopes that “either one of you has just recognized what I have done to get here,” he then removes his hand from the idol, thereby eliminating himself from the challenge.
Kelly and Rudy, and the audience watching at home, are stunned that Richard would take himself out of the running like that. However, what nobody but Richard seems to realize is that he just secured himself an almost guaranteed spot in the Final 2 without having to get the blood on his hands. Now, no matter who wins this final challenge, it would be in both Kelly and Rudy’s best interests to take Richard to the end.
For Rudy, he would just be upholding his end of the bargain and showing his loyalty to the bitter end. For Kelly, she knows that Rudy is a more significant jury threat than Richard, who had pissed people off with his cockiness; therefore, it would be unwise of her to sit next to Rudy. It’s a brilliant move that speaks to just how deeply Richard is thinking about this game, more than anybody else he’s competing with.
Of course, there is one outcome Richard wants more than the other, and it’s the one he ends up getting. Kelly wins the final Immunity challenge, capping off an impressive streak of four Immunity wins in a row (still a record for female castaways), and what Richard expects to happen does happen. At the penultimate Tribal Council, Kelly chooses to vote out Rudy, fulfilling Richard’s desires but squashing the wishes of the majority of fans watching at home.
Going into the finale, Rudy is the audience’s overwhelming favorite; his blunt one-liners and gruff, no-nonsense personality had won over the viewers throughout the season. When it comes to the much-hated Tagi alliance, Rudy is by far the preferred option. Alas, it isn’t meant to be, as Rudy becomes the final member of the jury, setting up one last battle between Richard and Kelly, one that leaves its mark, not just on Survivor but pop culture at large.
The Final Tribal of Borneo features not just the single most iconic moment in the history of Survivor but a defining moment in the last two decades of television. Sue’s infamous “snakes and rats” speech is the culmination of all the season’s drama and intrigue. It encapsulates the conniving, devious nature of this game and how the castaways had learned (or failed) to play it, and why Richard deserved to come out on top. Richard was the snake who not only knowingly went after his prey, but he relished it, thoroughly enjoying the social politics and strategy of Survivor.
But Sue’s speech is best remembered for the vitriol she spews towards Kelly, the one person she considered a friend on the island before their big falling out. Referring to her as the “rat,” Sue states she wouldn’t give Kelly a drink of water if she was dying of thirst. “I would let the vultures take you and do whatever they want with you,” she continues before making her final declaration on how she thinks this game should play out.
“I feel we owe it to the island’s spirits that we have learned to come to know to let it be in the end the way that Mother Nature intended it to be. For the snake to eat the rat.”
By the time Sue returns to her seat on the jury bench, it is clear that television history has just been made. The “snakes and rats” speech is just as incredible, compelling television today as it was back when it first aired in 2000, and it totally set the bar for emotional jury speeches in future seasons of Survivor.
Side-note: Greg Buis, who had turned his Survivor experience into a sort of meta art project on the artifice of television, has one final rebellious moment at the Final Tribal. He claims to be deciding his vote based on which of the Final 2 guesses closest to the number he’s thinking of between 1 and 10. He also humorously sniffs the marker pen before he casts his vote (for Richard).
After Sue’s epic speech, the votes for the winner are cast, and for the only time in Survivor history, the winner is revealed on location rather than on live TV back in the United States. By a vote of 4-3, Richard becomes the first winner of Survivor. The look of shock and relief on his face is the final iconic image from this episode, as the first season of Survivor officially comes to an end.
What started out as a strange, new oddity of a show on May 31, 2000, ends as a game-changing phenomenon on August 23, single-handedly launching a new genre of television into the mainstream and kickstarting a franchise that’s as durable and engaging today as it was when it first started out over 20 years ago.
Check back tomorrow when we reveal which episode placed at number 1. You can check out the previous entries here.