Over the next few weeks, Inside Survivor is counting down all forty Survivor seasons from worst to first. 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 No: 10
Broadcast Date: February 17 – May 15, 2005
Location: Koror, Palau
No. of Castaways: 20
Get exclusive content and features by supporting Inside Survivor on Patreon.
For any show that has run for 40 seasons, especially a reality show, you’re bound to get seasons that blend into one another. In Survivor, there are familiar tropes and gameplay methods that play out repeatedly, which can make certain seasons very same-y. That is not an accusation that can be leveled at Survivor: Palau. As the last of the pre-Hidden Immunity Idol seasons, Palau has all the classic old school Survivor hallmarks with an interesting group of characters and some solid social gameplay. But what makes Palau standout is its wholly unique story—a story unlike any other season that came before or after.
I’m talking, of course, about the utter decimation of Ulong, the only tribe in Survivor history to lose every single Immunity challenge until whittled down to one lone member. While you might think the one-sided destruction could become boring, the fact it hadn’t happened before makes for fascinating viewing. It also creates a superb underdog story, particularly for fan-faves Bobby Jon Drinkard and Stephenie LaGrossa, the last two Ulong members who battle it out in a fire-making challenge to survive. The fall of Ulong is, at times, humorous (James Miller’s failed gut predictions), sometimes frustrating, and definitely heartbreaking. But it’s also uplifting to see the tribe’s perseverance, particularly from Stephenie, whose perspective we follow closely through the pre-merge.
It’s not just Ulong’s downfall that makes the season, though. The dominant Koror tribe also features its fair share of intriguing characters and intricate gameplay. Led by powerful firefighter Tom Westman, the Koror tribe purports values of respect and integrity, but under the surface are some cunning gameplayers. Tom and Ian Rosenberger control the majority of the game as a duo, becoming fast friends and even better allies. They’re able to sniff out potential uprisings and plot counter-attacks against the likes of Coby Archa and Gregg Carey. But there is a strong emotional tie to Tom & Ian’s journey too. Their relationship becomes strained over the season, as Ian finds himself pulled between friendships with Tom and Katie Gallagher, leading to some really compelling end-game back and forth.
The season culminates in one of the most dramatic final Immunity challenges ever when, after almost 12 hours atop a pole, Ian decides to give up, handing victory to Tom. However, this isn’t a Richard Hatch move of deception; this is Ian trying to make amends for betraying Tom and Katie, offering them his spot in the final in order to earn back their trust and friendship. It’s a memorable moment, one equally heartbreaking and frustrating. Heartbreaking because you sympathize with Ian, but also frustrating because it feels like he was guilt-tripped by Tom, who wasn’t exactly a saint himself when it came to lies and betrayals. Tom is called out for his hypocrisy by the jury, but his overall strength in challenges, camp life, and strategy, give him the victory over Katie, who, while perhaps underestimated for her gameplay, isn’t as respected by her tribemates.
Palau, like all seasons, has its faults. The opening twist of a pre-Tribal elimination, which deprives us of the eccentric Wanda Shirk, is highly questionable. And some of the show’s under-editing problems begin to creep in here. But Palau is a completely original season that offers something a little different from the usual Survivor template.
Jonathan & Wanda — The opening to Palau is unique in that the castaways arrive at the same beach and are not initially broken into tribes. However, the next day, Jeff Probst announces a schoolyard pick, with the two unchosen castaways being instantly eliminated. It’s a cruel and controversial twist that sees Wanda and Jonathan Libby take a premature exit.
The Sumo challenge — This is a classic pre-merge challenge with some funny moments. It once again sees one of James’s premonitions failing to come to reality when Coby defeats him… twice. It also sees Angie Jakusz accidentally screaming, “We’re not going back to Immunity,” which, you know, turns out to be true in a way.
Ulong destroyed — As mentioned, the utter destruction of the Ulong tribe makes for compelling viewing, especially when it gets down to just two members. Bobby Jon and Stephenie are forced to face off in a fire-making challenge—the first occurrence of such a twist. Stephenie wins and returns to camp alone.
Tribe of One — Following her victory over Bobby Jon, Stephenie has to spend the night by herself back at the Ulong camp. Again, this is another first and becomes the inspiration for the Exile twist.
Janu at Exile — Likely inspired by Steph’s tribe-of-one, Janu Tornell is sent to Exile after being the first to drop out of the Immunity challenge. While initially seeming like a scary prospect, Janu actually finds clarity in her time away from camp. Again, this was Survivor testing the waters for what would become a staple twist in future seasons.
“Caryn sucks” — This is a quick a quote from Katie but one that his very memorable and funny. At the Final 7, the women outnumber the men 4-3, and Katie sees this as a perfect opportunity to usurp control from Tom. The only issue is, Caryn isn’t on board, and she immediately spills the plan to Tom. This frustrates Katie, who, in confessional, bluntly says: “We can’t get a female alliance together, because Caryn sucks.”
Ian gives up Immunity — In one of the most iconic Survivor challenges ever, Ian and Tom spend 11 hours and 55 minutes clutched to a pole in the water. It’s not just an incredible feat of endurance, but the emotional toll of this challenge, culminating in Ian dropping out and asking Tom to take Katie to the Final 2, is jawdropping too.
Check back tomorrow when we reveal which season placed at number 16. You can check out the previous entries here.