Best Episode Rankings – No. 6 – “The Martyr Approach”

The 100 Best Episodes countdown continues.

Photo: CBS

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: Tocantins
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.

Photo: CBS

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.

Written by

Ian Walker

Ian, from Chicago, Illinois, graduated with a Communications major and an English minor and is now navigating adult life the best he can. He has been a fan of Survivor since Pearl Islands aired when he was 11 years old, back when liking Rupert was actually cool.

9 responses to “Best Episode Rankings – No. 6 – “The Martyr Approach””

  1. I don’t understand why this episode is so high up in this list when the Wentworth blindside on Savage was so much more satisfying in my opinion and is placed so low. Really surprises me.

    I have never understood the fuss around Coach. It just looked like he was on another planet which is not great to watch.

    Number 6? I really don’t get it. The only time he played well was when he came in second in survivor 23.

    • The Savage blindside is great. But this as a whole episode is put together so beautifully from top to bottom, from the editing to the narrative to the music. It’s not about who played well or not.

    • Disagree. For me, Martyr Approach is a top 5 episode, and maybe the best one. The Wentworth idol is the most overrated move in Survivor history, she just played an idol on herself and nullified a big of votes. There’s no character drama in it, it’s empty calories.

  2. Never a Coach fan……ever …….an over the top egotistical double standard overtly religious blowhard. I’d rather deal with Rupert or Russell and that is saying a lot

  3. Yeah I guess if you don’t like Coach as a character or player you don’t appreciate it as much, even for a superfan of 20 years like me.

    I’ll watch “the Martyr Approach again”. Most seasons I have watched twice or more, just never really felt the need to rewatch Tocantins as a whole, just some tribals. I know this list is about the episodes and not just the second half of the episode.

    I am very curious about the top 5. Hope my number 1 is in there.

    • With the full list being 100 episodes long, I think we can be pretty confident in the five episodes that remain, it is just a question of the order. My guess:

      5. Banana Etiquette (HvV James/Tyson Boot)
      4. If It Smells Like A Rat, Give It Cheese (Micronesia Erik Boot)
      3. Going Down In Flames (HvV JT Boot)
      2. The Great Lie (Pearl Islands Dead Grandma Lie)
      1. The Final Four (Borneo finale)

      If a non-Survivor fan knows something about Survivor, it is likely something from The Final Four (or Fairplay’s dead grandma lie) – it was a landmark event not just for survivor, but television in general, and the episode absolutely knocked it out of the park. It deserves number 1.

      The Great Lie contains the other iconic Survivor moment known beyond the fandom, and the JT and Erik boots are the two most memorable torch snuffings ever. Really hard to call between these three – they really could go in any order between 2-4.

      Banana Etiquette is the main outlier, at least for me. I see it as more of a Top 25 episode than a top 5 – it’s certainly chaotic and shocking (and hilarious – the James/Bananas storyline is underrated), but edit is incomplete at best, and downright misleading at worst. We never really understand what Tyson is thinking, and it gives credit to Russell for a idol misplay (IMO) that just happened to work for bonkers reasons. But it hasn’t been listed yet, and I have a hard time imagining it not being judged in the top 100.

  4. I am in the camp of those who did not care for “Coach.” He has always come across as the actor “Benjamin Wade” who made the character of “Coach” just for Survivor. And, this “character” is just not nearly as intesting or entertaining as other “characters” like Rupert or Phillip (both of whom I do not like, but they did it better).

    I don’t think this episode should be ranked so high. But, it’s not my website, so….

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