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: “Head of the Snake” (Episode 7)
Original Air Date: April 2, 2014
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With 20 years on the air, Survivor has such a rich and varied history that, when tackling the idea of “best episodes ever,” it’s an arduous task simply because there’s a lot of friggin’ episodes to sort through. Many of the episodes fans tend to consider the best come from the earlier eras of the show, having been burned into their minds as instant classics from the day they aired.
While there’s obviously some nostalgia bias at play there, a big reason why those early episodes are looked at so fondly is that they are really damn good. They helped build the show’s foundation as it made the transition from cultural phenomenon to television institution. So, for an episode from the modern era to make its mark as a classic, it has a high pedigree to live up to to be put on the same level as all of the iconic episodes that came before it.
The merge of Survivor: Cagayan is one of those episodes.
Now, comparing classic Survivor to new Survivor is a little bit apples and oranges, as the show’s focus has shifted. In the olden days, the show was more interested in diving into the players’ personalities while exploring the romantic adventure of the game. While the game at its core hasn’t changed much over the years, it has become faster and more complex. The personalities are now filtered through a lens of strategy rather than adventure.
This episode, “Head of the Snake,” is the ultimate realization of just how exciting and gripping the modern-day, hyper-strategic game of Survivor can be when there are smart and engaging people playing the game. It’s Survivor at its wildest and most chaotic, culminating in one of the most thrilling Tribal Councils in the show’s history.
Kass McQuillen is nervous heading into the upcoming merge, even though she’s seemingly in a good position, with her Aparri tribe’s six merging with the opposing Solana tribe’s five. But she has her doubts about one specific member of that six, Sarah Lacina, who was separated from the entire rest of her tribe when she and Kass met at the tribe swap.
As the merge looms, Kass is concerned that Sarah will flip back to her former tribemates, and she not-so-subtly hints the very notion to Sarah at the beginning of the episode. Sarah professes her loyalty to the alliance, but Kass is still skeptical, a feeling that will come to bear delicious fruit by the episode’s end.
When the two tribes come together on one beach, the Solanas quickly realize the score and that they need to do some work. Luckily, they have the high-speed bullet train that is Tony Vlachos on their side, ready to put some plans into action. Almost all of those plans involve trying to woo Sarah back over to his side. However, after Tony’s manic screaming of “Top Five, Baby!” at the previous Immunity challenge, Sarah is not too keen on rejoining her former Cops-R-Us buddy.
Sarah realizes she’s the swing vote, a position she relishes a little too much. “I can do whatever I want, y’know. You want to pick a fight with me, I’ll flip over with those other guys, so don’t test me because I will put you in your place and send you packing,” she says in a confessional, and even goes as far as calling herself the “president” later in the episode. Unfortunately, Kass is also well aware of Sarah’s position, which makes her even warier.
Some people within the Aparri alliance, like Tasha Fox, try to mollify Kass’s concerns. But the incessant desire to show deference to Sarah only increases the growing agitation Kass has with her group. Kass feels that Sarah is carelessly throwing her weight around, as strategy conversations are dominated with Sarah pushing her preferred targets of Tony and LJ McKanas, both of whom are suspected of having idols.
Rather than go down that dangerous path, Kass would much rather employ the safer strategy of targeting the people least likely to have idols, a suggestion she feels is falling on deaf ears. “[Sarah] thinks she’s running the show. Does nobody see this? Am I the only one?” says Kass. “I know she’s about to destroy the game. If she’s going to destroy the game, I want to have the preemptive strike. I want to destroy it.”
Luckily for Kass, she gets her chance to “destroy” the game, all thanks to Trish Hegarty, who recognizes the growing discontent Kass has with her alliance and pounces on the opportunity. Trish offers Kass room in her alliance and even the chance to decide who the Solana group should vote for. After Kass states her desire to see Sarah gone, Trish says she can make it happen, thus making the move of jumping alliances a really enticing offer to consider.
“I love that Sarah thinks she’s running the show,” Kass says in a confessional, a smile growing on her face. “New Aparri is voting for Tony at the bequest of Queen Sarah. Solana is voting for Sarah. I truly believe I’m the one in the middle. I think I have usurped Sarah’s throne tonight, and once again, Chaos Kass will show up at Tribal.”
Kass’s desire to throw the game into chaos leads to one of the most explosive and competitive Tribals ever. Tony publically reveals his hidden idol, claiming it to be a “community idol” that he’s willing to play on anyone in his alliance. In a sign of things to come for Tony, what is seemingly an impulsive move turns out to have some shrewdness behind it, as the other side immediately begins conferring with one another, hurriedly shifting the target off of Tony and on to “the other one.”
Active scrambling at Tribal is indicative of the new era of Survivor, where the game moves so fast that plans are changed up until the final minute. While the Tribal whispering has perhaps jumped the shark in recent seasons and is now more forced via various twists, here it feels fresh and exciting. It makes compelling viewing both for the viewers at home and even Jeff Probst, who tells these players, “I love it when a vote is this alive.”
What follows is one of the wildest sea-saws of emotion ever experienced at Tribal. Tony plays his idol for LJ, believing he is Aparri’s backup target. Then, LJ decides to reveal his idol as he plays it for Tony, wanting to repay his buddy on the spot. With fellow alliance member Woo Hwang having Immunity, three out of the five Solanas are now safe, with only Trish and Jefra Bland being vulnerable. The Aparris react accordingly, showing signs of shock and dismay that their plan is about to unravel.
But as Jeff flips over the first vote, it reads Jefra. Now, it’s Solana’s turn to be dismayed while several Aparri members start to smile. Fast forward, and it’s five votes Jefra, five votes Sarah, with one vote left. The final vote is flipped over, and it reads Sarah. The Solanas show relief, Tony breaks out into raucous applause, and the Aparris look on with utter disbelief as Sarah has her torch snuffed and Spencer utters the immortal words, “Kass, zero chance of winning the game.”
It’s an exhilarating series of events that perfectly encapsulates the impact of what this show can deliver when it’s firing on all cylinders. It establishes Cagayan‘s legacy as one of the best seasons ever and cements this episode as an all-time classic.
Check back tomorrow when we reveal which episode placed at number 6. You can check out the previous entries here.