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: “The Great Lie” (Episode 11)
Original Air Date: November 26, 2003
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Survivor is a game based on social politics and strategic manipulation, requiring the players to form relationships with their competitors for their own personal gain. The good players are the ones that can best exploit those relationships, most often by building a deep camaraderie that can either be honest and truthful or built on deceit and duplicity. Many Survivor players view lying as a necessary evil, which helps navigate a difficult game, but not something they necessarily enjoy doing.
Jonny Fairplay is different. The curly-haired, pro-wrestling aficionado came into the game relishing the opportunity to tell lie after lie, openly embracing the role of the bad guy. In fact, coming into Survivor: Pearl Islands, Fairplay aspired to be the biggest villain reality television had ever seen, and up through this point in the season, he was doing a pretty damn good job of achieving that goal.
Right from the beginning of the season, Fairplay used his devilish charm and cunning strategy to slip out of some pretty tight spots, all while seeming to have the time of his life. In the previous episode, he even got to live out the classic villain dream. He took out the good guy, voting out the tie-dye pirate, Rupert Boneham, one of the biggest heroes in the history of Survivor, in an epic blindside.
At this point in the season, things are going about as well as they can for Fairplay in his quest to be the biggest bad Survivor will ever know. However, he isn’t done stirring the pot just yet. He has one more trick up his sleeve, which he deploys in this episode, resulting in the most creative and sinister lie ever. You all know the moment I’m talking about—the dead grandma lie.
Fairplay’s dead grandma lie changes the game of Survivor. Before this, nobody had ever thought to build a lie based on something outside of the game for their own personal gain within the game. Not only is it an external lie, but it’s a lie based on family, the thing most people in their own lives hold the most sacred, allowing Fairplay to exploit some of the most powerful emotions that people have.
By using this lie, Fairplay isn’t just deceiving his fellow competitors but also the people at home, thereby accomplishing his ultimate goal on two fronts. He’ll be able to use this lie to his advantage by gaining the players’ sympathy and trust in the game while also stirring up the hatred of the viewers at home, who would be appalled that someone would stoop so low just to win a game. It’s all Fairplay had ever wanted, and it works spectacularly.
The episode isn’t all Fairplay greatness, though, as it starts with a superb moment starring another iconic Survivor, who also finds herself labeled with the “villain” tag 13 seasons later. As previously mentioned, Rupert was blindsided at the previous Tribal Council, and this made Sandra Diaz-Twine mad. “Where’s that snake motherf*****, Jon,” she calls out to the tribe upon returning to camp. “I’ve never trusted you from Day 1, and you can’t be trusted,” she continues, speaking her mind in the way only Sandra can get away with.
However, Sandra’s verbal assault towards Fairplay quickly gets derailed by a bigger issue when it’s discovered that the tribe’s bucket of fish has been dumped all over the ground. Fingers eventually point to Christa Hastie, Sandra’s closest ally, who denies having done it and gets very upset over the situation. No matter how much she tearfully denies doing it, however, the other members of the tribe adamantly assert that Christa dumped the fish.
Turns out, Christa is telling the truth as the audience learns the role her friend Sandra played in this whole debacle. “When we got back to camp, I kept thinking, you know what, they’re not gonna enjoy Rupert’s fish, screw that,” Sandra explains. “So, I got to camp first, and I grabbed the bucket full of fish, and it was so damn heavy, and I trip on a vine, and I spill all the fish, and I started arguing with Jon to the point where it saved me because they never pointed the finger at me as to being the one dumping the fish.”
Sandra’s sneaky ways here fall in line with her signature game philosophy of “as long as it ain’t me,” allowing her to avoid blame and suspicion (and, more importantly, the votes,) all the way to the first of her two Survivor wins.
All of this tension is soon alleviated when the castaways arrive at the next Reward challenge: the loved ones’ visit. This news elicits tears from the entire group, including Fairplay, albeit for an entirely different reason. This is the moment he’d been waiting for, his plan that he had in place for weeks finally coming to fruition. One by one, the loved ones come out for the typical feel-good reunions until we eventually get to Fairplay’s friend Dan, aka Thunder D.
Both men are exuberant upon being reunited until Fairplay asks a personal question that changes the mood entirely. “How’s Grandma?” he inquires. “She died, dude,” responds Thunder D, creating reality television history in the process. Fairplay slowly walks back to his spot amongst his tribemates, seemingly overcome with grief as he explains why his friend is here on the island and not his grandma.
All of the other players are sympathetic towards Fairplay, with one major exception. Sandra isn’t buying it; her expression throughout this whole sequence says as much. But it doesn’t matter. The rest of the tribe lets Fairplay win the challenge, allowing him and Dan to have the Balboa camp to themselves for 24 hours to catch up while the rest of the tribe goes to live at another camp during the interim.
“We all kind of agreed, ‘Hey, let’s let Jon take this. Our mothers, husbands, wives, boyfriends, whatever, will be there when we get home,” Burton Roberts explains. In her own teary confessional, Lillian Morris says, “Jon got the news about his grandmother. I’ve gotten to know Jon; he hurts just as much as anyone. My husband has to understand that this is what we had to do, for him to have some time to talk over his grandmother’s death with his friend.”
While the group somberly copes with the devastating news, Fairplay and Thunder D have a much different reaction over at Balboa. As they strut down the beach, Fairplay turns to his buddy and says, “That was a brilliant performance, sir,” as the two of them begin to hug and congratulate each other. Then, in a confessional, Fairplay pulls back the mask. “My grandmother is sitting at home watching Jerry Springer right now,” he laughs, causing the audience’s collective jaws to drop.
The biggest scam in Survivor history has just been pulled off, and now Fairplay gets the chance to revel in it. “This is a game for a million dollars. I have one chance in my life at this. You should take every single advantage possible. If you don’t, you’re a fool,” he tells the people at home, planning on taking full advantage of the lie he’s created from himself.
And the lie comes in handy as soon as later in this episode when Tijuana Bradley and Darrah Johnson, accessory votes in the Rupert blindside, try to make their own big move by getting together with Sandra and Christa to take out Fairplay or Burton. However, Fairplay sees this retaliation forming against him, so he takes a page out of the Rob Cesternino playbook and goes to Sandra and Christa about teaming up with him and Burton to take out Tijuana or Darrah.
Even though he just betrayed Sandra and Christa at the previous Tribal Council, Fairplay now has the trump card he didn’t have before, being able to swear on his dead grandmother’s grave. The fact that the play works and Tijuana is voted out is crazy in itself. But even more shocking is the tool that Fairplay has in his arsenal to make the move happen, all because of the dead grandma lie.
It’s an utterly transformative moment in reality television history, creating one of the most iconic Survivor moments and cementing Fairplay’s legacy as the most remarkable villain the show has ever seen. In other words, everything Jonny Fairplay had ever wanted.
Check back on Monday when we reveal which episode placed at number 2. You can check out the previous entries here.