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 Ultimate Shock” (Episode 14)
Original Air Date: May 15, 2005
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In previous entries, we’ve talked about the hit-and-miss nature of Survivor finales. Sometimes they deliver high drama and unpredictability. Other times the writing is on the wall well before Jeff Probst starts reading the final votes. Survivor: Palau, though, is an all-time classic finale, with one of the most shocking finishes to any season ever.
Heading into the finale, it looks like the one-on-one battle that had been brewing the entire season is finally about to take place. Tom Westman and Ian Rosenberger, allies since Day 1, had dominated the game, firmly establishing themselves as one of the greatest duos in Survivor history. Now, they’re almost at their goal of reaching the Final 3, where they can fight it out for the right to sit in the Final Tribal Council and take jury goat, Katie Gallagher, along with them. That’s what eventually happens, but not exactly in the way either man had planned it.
Usually, the finale is devoted to the story of why the winner eventually won, and that’s certainly the case here for Tom. However, Ian’s story takes on just as much importance, as his endgame is defined by the emotional struggles he endures over the last couple of days. There’s no doubt that Ian has one of the most memorable finishes of any castaway ever, as his story is filled with both tragedy and triumph.
Ian had already experienced some emotional turbulence during the Final 5 after breaking a promise to Katie that he would take her on a reward. That did not sit well with Katie, so much so that she contemplated joining up with Caryn Groedel and Jenn Lyon to go against Ian and Tom. While Katie eventually forgave him, after he apologized profusely, it showed how difficult the game had become for Ian. He was having a tough time balancing playing a strong, strategic game with the deep personal relationships he’d formed.
That struggle only intensifies heading into the Final 4. Fully realizing that Tom is a huge threat to win, Ian spends the day emotionally preparing himself for the possibility of having to vote Tom out that night, an idea he shares with Katie and Jenn. However, Tom wins the next Immunity challenge, lifting a huge weight off of Ian’s shoulders. But the damage is already done. Jenn, who is on the outs, lets it slip to Tom that Ian would have been ready to vote him out had he lost Immunity.
Now it’s Tom’s turn to be unhappy with Ian, and he lets him know it by way of word and parchment. Tom voices his displeasure with Ian at Tribal Council, raking him over the coals in front of the entire jury for even considering breaking their Final 3 pact. In an act of revenge/tough love, Tom forces a tie between Ian and Jenn, sending Ian into a fire-making challenge tiebreaker. Ian comes out on top, but not without a massive rift between himself and Tom.
All of the tension comes to a head in the final Immunity challenge. In what becomes the longest challenge in Survivor history, the Final 3 hang onto bobbing buoys in the water in an epic final battle. Having felt betrayed by Ian, Tom competes with Terminator-like intensity, upholding his end of their agreement to fight it out as hard as he can. While Ian hangs with Tom, it’s easy to see the emotional turmoil he’s grappling with as he thinks about the best way to rectify the situation he’s in.
Katie drops after five hours, leaving Ian and Tom to fight it out between themselves. After nearly 12 hours (!), Ian comes up with a now-famous solution. He offers to voluntarily step down from the challenge with the condition that Tom would take Katie to the Final 2 over him, giving up his own chance to win the game but gaining the friendships with Tom and Katie, and his personal integrity, back in the process. A man of his word, Tom upholds the agreement and votes Ian out of the game.
While Ian’s move is sometimes regarded as one of the “dumbest” moves ever, it doesn’t really belong in that category. Sure, Ian knew full well that he was taking himself out of contention to win, but at that moment, he valued his integrity and friendships more. Ian’s decision makes for an interesting case study on what people will do to win this game and shows the kind of effect Survivor can have even on the nicest of people, serving as an important benchmark in the show’s history.
Check back tomorrow when we reveal which episode placed at number 30. You can check out the previous entries here.