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 Martyr Approach” (Episode 13)
Original Air Date: May 14, 2009
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When a player is voted out, it’s Survivor‘s job to craft the definitive end to their time in the game while servicing the season’s overall narrative. Many factors go into each castaway’s ending. Were they a bit player in the story or one of the driving forces of the season? Did they get blindsided or voted out in a more predictable manner? How were they connected to the other players, and who were their friends and enemies?
With almost 600 people and counting who have played Survivor, A LOT of castaways have lost the game. Each of those losses (in an ideal world) cater to that player’s story and personality in their sendoff episode, as their quest to win a million dollars is ultimately snuffed out by Jeff Probst. Throughout all of the stories in Survivor history, nobody has ever had a sendoff quite like Coach Benjamin Wade.
Coach’s exit in Tocantins is a magnificent piece of TV because the entire hour is a giant love letter to one of the most larger-than-life characters the show has ever seen. Throughout the season, Coach develops a screen presence unlike any player that had come before him. He crafts his own personal mythology built on all of the things he holds important: honor, integrity, loyalty—all virtues befitting a noble Dragon Slayer.
Now, as his final chapter approaches here at the Final 5, the show embraces Coach’s eccentricities in spectacular fashion, creating a legendary ending for one of the most memorable Survivor characters ever. And it all begins with an epic trip to Exile Island, the likes of which haven’t been seen before or since.
There are rumblings of sending Coach to Exile before the Reward challenge, as James “JT” Thomas and Stephen Fishbach are eager to see if Coach can back up the bravado he’s boasted throughout the game. Being aware of the chatter, Coach pleads with JT and Stephen not to send him, citing a litany of ailments ranging from asthma, a bad back, a stubbed toe, a paper cut, all of which would preclude him from an excursion to Exile.
When JT wins the challenge, however, the decision is made—Coach is going to Exile. Upon hearing this, Coach declares his intention to take the “monastic approach,” willingly denying himself of food. The reactions range from JT and Stephen’s slight smirks to the eye rolls of Taj Johnson-George and Erinn Lobdell; the latter calls him out for taking the “martyr approach.” Coach scoffs at the thought he would try to diminish anybody else’s time on Exile and sets off for a truly transformative experience.
When Coach arrives at Exile, he relishes the opportunity to test himself as he had during his other world travels. He fashions himself a dragon cane, the perfect accessory for some Coach-Chi atop the dunes of Exile. The camerawork and music here are played for maximum dramatic effect as Coach communes with the heavens, asking God to help him forgive Erinn for the slight she made against him back at the challenge.
This bit of television rests entirely on Coach’s shoulders as he narrates all of the action, and it all works so wonderfully because Coach speaks with such conviction. “Coach Wade’s foundation is built on a rock,” he opines to the camera. “Unbreakable, unbending, unyielding, immeasurable, immovable, invincible.”
Fast forward to the end of the stay, and Coach is wrecked. He held true to the promise of no food, which was, in his words, “friggin’ awesome.” Now, in a physically weakened state, he heads to the Immunity challenge, motivated by his rough experience to come back to camp with the necklace and continue his journey to the end of the game.
The Immunity challenge is simple enough, requiring the castaways to prop themselves up between two walls while standing on very narrow footholds. Despite the fact that he’s clearly in pain, Coach manages to hold his own, for a time, lasting all the way until it’s just him and JT left. He even lets out a primal yell, pushing himself to his breaking point. Eventually, though, Coach not only drops out but collapses to the ground in a heap, giving JT the win.
Stephen and JT rush to his aid while Taj and Erinn casually walk over, skeptical of Coach’s throes of back spasms. His voice hoarse from pain, Coach manages to get back up on his feet and takes a melodramatic old man walk back to the bench. Jeff inquires if Coach would like a check-in from medical, which Coach adamantly refuses, asserting that he’s in so much pain that medical would automatically take him out of the game, a fate he will not succumb to.
Coach returns to camp without the necklace, nervous for both his health and his safety in the game. His buddies JT and Stephen have kept him around for a while now, so he’s hoping they can extend his stay a little longer. Coach plays up the bond the three of them have as warriors, stressing his philosophy of wanting to go to the end with the strongest of competitors and battle it out for the ultimate prize.
Unfortunately, JT and Stephen don’t see the game in the light, as Coach is ultimately voted out later that night, though JT is shrewd and casts his vote for Erinn, keeping in Coach’s good books for a potential jury vote. Before Coach departs, however, he leaves us some parting thoughts. Probably anticipating this would be his Tribal Council swan song, Coach debuts an original poem that goes like this:
“With friend and foe, we march to the battle plain.
Some to seek success, others to seek fame.
We play with honor for the love of this game.
And with armor or without, we will toil in vain.
So that someday, someone, somewhere, will remember our name.”
The poem is the perfect note for Coach’s story to end on, full of over-the-top philosophical nonsense and grand posturing for the viewers at home. Whether Coach played up to the Dragon Slayer persona or it was 100% all him, it doesn’t really matter. This is the conclusion to one of the most memorable stories in Survivor history, one that will be enshrined in the annals of Survivor for years to come, just the way Coach would want it.
Check back tomorrow when we reveal which episode placed at number 5. You can check out the previous entries here.