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: “A Tale of Two Cities” (Episode 13)
Originally Aired: May 16, 2002
Get exclusive content and features by supporting Inside Survivor on Patreon.
The gameplay of Marquesas paved the way for the fast-paced, cutthroat strategy that we more commonly associate with modern Survivor. It’s the first season to see a vote flip that topples the majority alliance—a move that opened up the possibilities for future game players. For this, and many other reasons, Marquesas is considered a top tier season, but much of it is owed to the season’s two Black contestants, Sean Rector and Vecepia Towery.
Sean and Vecepia form a brother/sister-type bond early in the game and manage to survive from the bottom of the pecking order on multiple occasions. They are also the two players to push for the flip to happen that causes the epic downfall of the Rotu 4. But, perhaps most meaningful of all, Sean and Vecepia both share with us several confessionals about the hard reality of being one of the few Black contestants on the show. And nowhere is this truth more evident than in “A Tale of Two Cities.”
With Robert “The General” DeCanio voted out in the previous episode, the Rotu 4 have been completely decimated. The remaining five players are more divided than ever now that their alliance of convenience is no more. On one side, we have Sean and Vecepia, and on the other, there is Neleh Dennis and Paschal English. Sitting pretty in the middle of it all is Kathy Vavrick-O’Brien, the swing vote that both pairs are trying to convince to side with them as the game heads into the final stretch.
Kathy is well aware of her position and is thinking over every scenario to ensure she makes the right choice. Of course, making the “right” choice is difficult when both sides are telling you exactly what you want to hear. There are pros and cons to both options. Everyone knows Neleh and Paschal are a duo who have openly declared they would never vote against the other. Kathy even previously said that they need splitting up. However, Kathy is closer to Neleh and Paschal, having started the game with them.
On the other hand, Sean and Vecepia didn’t share a tribe with Kathy until the merge. However, Sean and Vecepia’s games have often differed. They do have a close bond but not an unwavering loyalty to one another that would forsake their individual games. Strategically, it seems Kathy should go with Sean & Vecepia to increase her chances of getting to the end. But, just like in life, this decision is further complicated by social dynamics that go far beyond the game of Survivor.
Vecepia and Sean tell Kathy that they believe they’re grouped together strategically in part because they’re both African-American, a scenario we’ve seen play out repeatedly in Survivor. Kathy says the issue of race never crossed her mind (a privilege that comes with not having to think about your race). While Kathy has a more relaxed reaction, Neleh and Paschal are appalled by this notion, spewing attacks on Sean and Vecepia’s games. Of course, this all while accusing them of “playing the race card,” instead of what it actually was, an explanation to Kathy about why people may assume they’re an unbreakable pair.
The Reward challenge offers players a bit of a reprieve, and everyone seems to be in higher spirits after Sean wins a car. For Sean, the win is about so much more than the reward itself. It’s a win for anyone that can look at him and feel represented. This confessional once again reminds us that while many moves in Survivor can be dismissed as just being part of the game, these moments of triumph can have a real positive impact on viewers, particularly viewers who come from underrepresented populations that rarely see themselves on screen.
Reward aside, the tensions building at camp are not solely due to conflicting interests. Something often lost in new school Survivor is the mental and physical toll of the game, especially in a season like Marquesas, notoriously one of the most difficult locations. Now that they’re in the end stages, the days are going by slower, and game fatigue is setting in. Everyone just wants to make it through the day and wait for the Immunity challenges. To top it all off, they have to plot and scheme against the people they’ve formed emotional attachments with.
When the tribe has a group meeting to clear the air, Paschal and Neleh are offended that they’re being accused of being in an alliance—except they’ve both claimed that they’d never vote each other out, which sounds an awful lot like an alliance. Things escalate further when Neleh tries to divert attention to Vecepia and Sean, which Sean throws right back to her. As Sean points out, there are several reasons why the type of bond that Sean and Vecepia have is nothing like Neleh and Paschal’s.
Sean and Vecepia never had a formal agreement like Neleh and Paschal did, and they often differed in their game decisions. More than anything, Sean and Vecepia have a bond as the only Black contestants in the game, and that is a bond that Neleh, Paschal, Kathy, or the other eleven white contestants could never understand. That does not mean that they will sacrifice their games for one another (like Paschal effectively does for Neleh one episode later).
The meeting doesn’t resolve much. No one changes their minds on anything, and the plan for each pair is still to convince Kathy to vote with them. Despite Neleh and Paschal’s attempts to paint Sean and Vecepia as the duplicitous ones, Kathy believes she’ll be voted out if she goes to Final 3 with them. She tries to work something out with Vecepia and Sean, telling Sean that she just wants a fair shot if she went to the end with them. Sean likes this plan and hints that he and Vecepia are not as tight game wise as everyone thinks, opening the door for possibilities between him and Kathy.
In what can only be described as peak irony, Kathy ends up winning Immunity as the one person that doesn’t need it. This fact is echoed at Tribal Council, where it is made perfectly obvious that Kathy’s making the final decision. When Jeff Probst asks if anyone wants to negotiate for Immunity (because that was a new thing this season), Sean immediately raises his hand and explains that if Neleh and Paschal have a pact, then the remaining three also need to have a pact.
Sean’s logic makes sense, but his rivals are not going down without a fight. They accuse him of being disingenuous, while Sean argues that it’s not disingenuous for him to throw out an idea and play the game. He also asks Paschal & Neleh that if they’re so genuine, how come Kathy didn’t know about their promise to each other? A fair question in a game all about deceit, but it appears not even that can sway Kathy from her original tribemates. After all that’s transpired, Kathy still sides with Neleh and Paschal, and Sean is voted out 3-2.
Sean Rector is without a doubt a formidable Survivor player, and it’s no surprise that he remains memorable almost 20 years later. While the penultimate episode of Marquesas is Sean’s swan song, it is also a cultivation of his greatness and legacy as a Black Survivor player.
“A Tale of Two Cities” doesn’t just show the game obstacles unique to Black contestants; it magnifies them. In true fashion of the microcosm of society that Survivor often boasts itself to be, racial dynamics are often ignored or dismissed to the detriment of BIPOC contestants. With CBS’ recent announcement of its new set of diversity goals for its reality TV programs, this episode is more important than ever in discussing the social intricacies of the game.
Check back tomorrow when we reveal which episode placed at number 61. You can check out the previous entries here.