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 Amazon
Episode: “Q and A” (Episode 11)
Original Air Date: April 24, 2003
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Of all of the great examples of game progression scattered throughout this countdown, this episode of The Amazon features some of the most significant moments in the evolution of Survivor strategy. It’s an episode that shows us that sometimes all it takes is just one person to flip the entire game in a brand new direction.
Rob Cesternino was Survivor‘s first superfan-turned-castaway. Sure, there were others in seasons before him who professed their love for the game. But during the first three or four seasons, Survivor was one of the biggest shows in America—everybody who came on the show was a fan to some degree. Rob was more than just a fan; he had studied and obsessed over this game and had plenty of ideas of how he wanted to play if given the opportunity.
By the time Rob steps into the jungle in The Amazon, the show had built up a sizable history showing variations on how the game could be played. Things had moved beyond the simple “make an alliance, stick to an alliance” strategy that dominated the first two seasons. Rob came into this season with all that knowledge of the past and was not only willing to embrace all that came before him but take it a step further.
Rob gets his chance to do that here at the Final 7, delivering one of the most shocking blindsides in Survivor history. Initially, though, it doesn’t seem like there is much of a reason for Rob to rock the boat. Everything is going pretty well in his world. He’s in a solid four-way alliance comprised of Alex Bell, Heidi Strobel, Jenna Morasca, and himself. As long as they stay true to one another, they believe they should have no problem riding it out until the end.
The foursome certainly doesn’t lack confidence. The episode opens with them sunbathing in the middle of camp while the other three members of the tribe do the daily chores. These other three members, Matthew von Ertfelda, Butch Lockley, and Christy Smith, are aware of their position and are put off by the dominant four’s behavior. But there’s nothing they can do about it as long as those four stay tight.
All of that is about to change during a nighttime chat between Alex and Rob. During this conversation, Alex floats out a hypothetical: when they reach the Final 4, Alex will probably cast his vote for Rob, considering the unbreakable bond the two girls have, thus suggesting Rob’s departure from the game. While this is a seemingly innocent heads-up from Alex, it gets Rob’s gears turning in a major way.
“Alex’s decision to tell me that he was gonna vote me out at the final four is really kinda curious,” Rob says in a confessional. “I realize that I’ve been coming off as very sensitive with this group, talking about how much I love them and how much I’m gonna be friends with them after the game. But I have never stopped playing Survivor, and over my dead body will I turn over and let somebody just pass me by.”
Side-note: This episode also features the Survivor Auction and the tense moment when Christy out-bids Jenna for a letter from home. Jenna had been hoping for an update on her sick mother’s health and is visibly upset, thinking she has missed the opportunity. That is until Jeff Probst eventually puts another letter up for auction.
Having obtained this new info, Rob is now on a mission to change his fate, and he knows just the right people to help him do it. Firstly, he goes to Matthew, who he has been stringing along, feeding him false promises about how all the men were going to the end together. Rob sits Matthew down for “the most important conversation in the game” and comes clean about all his lies. During this whole exchange, Rob remains calm and measured, believing that he can further gain Matthew’s trust by opening up.
Matthew comes away feeling better about his relationship with Rob and is now totally amenable to Rob’s next suggestion—for the two of them to team up with Butch and Christy to vote out Alex. In a confessional, Matthew best sums up the dynamic between himself and Rob by saying, “I do have a lot of survival skills, but I am very ignorant when it comes to the game and how it’s played. Rob has zero survival skills but knows the game inside and out.”
Rob’s plan only gets better when he wins the Immunity challenge—the introduction of “Touchy Subjects,” where players have to answer questions about themselves and their fellow tribemates. Questions include things like “Who could never survive on their own?” (the tribe all answer Jenna, who, ironically, becomes the Sole Survivor). It’s a fun challenge that relies on being in tune with the tribe and knowing the personalities, something Rob is especially good at.
With the Immunity necklace around his neck, Rob proceeds to put his plan into action. He knows the play he’s about to make is a big one. “Tonight’s Tribal Council could signal one of the most important power swings in this game,” he says. Rob has the entire game in his hands, unlike any other player that had come before him. He knows that whatever HE decides will dictate the rest of the game. Never had one sole player had so much power.
In the end, Rob opts for the big move, siding with Christy, Butch, and Matthew to take out an unsuspecting Alex. For the first time in Survivor history, Rob’s move emphasizes the importance of developing interpersonal relationships with EVERYBODY in the game. You never know when you’re going to need someone to pull off a spectacular blindside like the one Rob delivers to Alex in this episode.
While he doesn’t ultimately win the game, Rob does earn the moniker of “smartest player to never win” by the end of the season—a title that he’s helped used to build his current podcast empire, all of which has brought him a lot of praise and success, and it’s all well deserved. Rob changed the game, and this episode stands out as one of the defining moments of Rob’s gameplay and of Survivor as a whole.
Check back tomorrow when we reveal which episode placed at number 25. You can check out the previous entries here.