Best Episode Rankings – No. 8 – “Swimming With Sharks”

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: Pearl Islands
Episode: “Swimming With Sharks” (Episode 10)
Original Air Date: November 20, 2003


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A lot has already been said on this countdown about the great “obvious blindside” episodes, from the “basically, I’m a badass” swagger of Drew Christy to the “it’s too good to be true” oafishness of Roger Sexton. Survivor has done a superb job over the years in crafting the exits of players who unknowingly march towards their demise while letting the viewers in on the secret.

The obvious blindside braces the audience for the fall because most of the time, the fall happens to one of the season’s prominent characters. Rather than making the people at home sweat out their favorite player’s fate, the Survivor storytellers show their hand a bit more, so that player’s story can have the most impact when their torch is eventually snuffed at the episode’s close.

There’s no better obvious blindside, with no bigger impact, than Rupert Boneham‘s boot episode in Pearl Islands. At this point in time, Rupert was the most popular player Survivor had ever seen. Nobody had roared onto the Survivor scene like he had, with his big black beard and tie-dye shirts. A tough-as-nails competitor on the outside, sweet and sensitive on the inside, Rupert was a larger-than-life personality. However, his pirate adventure is about to be cut much shorter than he anticipated.

What makes this episode one of the all-time greatest is how expertly the show depicts Rupert’s downfall. The episode essentially dedicates itself to Rupert, which is what a character of his caliber deserves, and the whole thing plays out spectacularly from start to finish.

The episode begins with a beautiful nighttime sequence that focuses solely on Rupert, as he laments the struggles he has getting through the hard, cold nights out on the island. It’s the time of day when he misses his family the most, the one time he allows himself to be vulnerable as he communicates his innermost feelings with his wife back home.

“I tell Laura, my wife, all my woes, and sorrows, all my triumphs. I tell Laura everything,” Rupert explains in a heartfelt confessional as he stares longingly at the ocean. “And I want for everyone to see I am the best damn Survivor that has ever been.”

Rupert’s desire to be the best may seem a little self-important in retrospect, but a confessional like this, and many others like it, play so well at the height of Rupertmania. Rupert speaks with such conviction and determination, drawing the viewer in with every word he growls. All of the emotion that Rupert puts into his quest to be the Sole Survivor only makes his exit from the game even more powerful, and this scene illustrates just why he takes the game so seriously.

For as large as Rupert’s presence looms in the game, ironically, it doesn’t take that much scheming to take him out. By this point, at the Final 8, Rupert is a massive threat, having the strength to win challenges and the personality to win just enough jury votes to seal the victory. It is going to take a cunning, devious player to have the guts to pull the trigger on a target that big.

Jonny Fairplay is that player. A member of the original Drake tribe, just like Rupert, Fairplay had already tried to take a shot at the tie-dye pirate earlier in the game and got verbally berated by an irate Rupert afterward. Since then, Fairplay had been biding his time, waiting for the right moment to strike again, and in this round of the game, he finally has the numbers to pull it off.

Since the merge, Fairplay had found a partner in crime in Burton Roberts, somebody who had reentered the game thanks to the Outcasts twist and was hellbent on revenge against the Drakes that had voted him out. Along with Burton came Lillian Morris, who wanted to exact similar revenge on her former Morgan tribe and had gotten the opportunity to do so by voting out their leader, Andrew Savage, at the first vote after the merge.

Lill is solidly in Burton and Fairplay’s pocket by this point, giving them three, so the dastardly duo turns to the last remaining Morgan tribe members, Tijuana Bradley and Darrah Johnson, as the final two votes they need in their plot against Rupert. The five of them convene in the shelter while Rupert’s off on one of his many fishing expeditions, and they lock down the plan, and that’s it. Rupert’s fate is sealed right then and there, all of this happening before the Reward challenge.

Speaking of the Reward challenge, the result should be Rupert’s first clue that the game is starting to slip away from him. He and Fairplay narrowly lose in a tag-team obstacle course race to Burton and Lill, the pair winning a fishing trip on a fancy yacht. But Burton ends up giving away his spot on the reward to Fairplay, despite already promising his spot to Rupert earlier in the day.

This upsets Rupert immensely, and upon his return to camp, he takes his frustration out on some local fruit. In another great scene, Rupert hacks away at all of the dead parts of a coconut, talking aloud about all of the “rot and death” of said coconut, setting up the excellent foreshadowing of the “death” Rupert himself will experience by episode’s end.

If the Reward didn’t clue Rupert in that his game might be ending, then the Immunity challenge is even more cause for alarm. Playing a Survivor version of darts called “Killer,” Burton knocks Rupert out, definitively exposing his non-allegiance to him. While this makes Rupert nervous, he believes he has a safety net in Lill, along with his two closest allies, Christa Hastie and Sandra Diaz-Twine. Rupert expects Lill to vote on his side, forming a bloc against whatever Burton and Fairplay have in store.

Lill, one of the most notoriously wishy-washy people to ever play the game, moans back and forth about how much she likes Rupert versus the need to get such a significant threat like him out of the game. For all of Rupert’s pleading to Lill’s sad face, it’s all for naught, as the story makes it clear that Rupert’s time on Survivor is about to come to a devastating end.

That night at Tribal Council, the hit is executed. Fairplay, in all his professional wrestling bravado, delivers the memorable, Ric Flair-inspired voting confessional of “To be the man, you gotta beat the man. Woo!”. And beat him he did, as Rupert is voted out, breaking the hearts of millions of Survivor fans everywhere.

Rupert takes a moment to visibly collect himself, emanating vibes of immense sadness as he takes his torch to be snuffed. It’s the fall of the mightiest hero in Survivor history, giving a hugely memorable end to the definitive Rupert stint on Survivor. It may not be the most vicious blindside ever, but it’s the most expertly crafted, one that completes Rupert’s legacy and helps make Pearl Islands one of the greatest seasons of all time.

Check back on Monday when we reveal which episode placed at number 7. 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.

2 responses to “Best Episode Rankings – No. 8 – “Swimming With Sharks””

  1. This is Survivor at its most excellent. I’m glad it’s inside the Top 10 on this long list. It encapsulates how devastating the game can be to players and to the audience as well. It also teaches that you should never feel comfortable in the game, because you have a group of people around you playing as well.

  2. My favorite part of this episode is the shots of the wildlife. Survivor has included these establishing shots of the local animals doing their thing to establish a scene over the years, and you usually forget about them about five seconds (if that) after the shot ends. Not here.

    The entire post-immunity challenge, pre-tribal council segment, where Fairplay and Burton are finalizing their plans, are interspersed with with a sequence of a snake opening its jaws wide than you think is possible and devouring a much larger lizard whole. They keep cutting back to it in various stages of digestion. It is long, drawn out, held MUCH longer than your average wildlife shot, and absolutely unnerving. I have no idea how they were able to get that shot and stick with it (it must have taken that snake hours to finish its meal), but it’s the perfect metaphor for the overall theme of the episode, and really drives home the finality of “this is Rupert’s downfall”.

    Great, great episode.

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