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: 9
Broadcast Date: September 16 – December 12, 2004
Location: Efate, Vanuatu
No. of Castaways: 18
Get exclusive content and features by supporting Inside Survivor on Patreon.
As the first post-All-Stars season, Vanuatu was the beginning of a new era for Survivor. While still massively popular, Survivor‘s glory days were certainly over, and the seasons following All-Stars marked a critical transitional period for the show. Survivor had evolved significantly since the show first set foot on the beaches of Borneo but still hadn’t yet entered the era of blindside and idol-driven gameplay that Micronesia would eventually usher in.
There were, as to be expected, some growing pains. Vanuatu often gets written off as a less interesting Amazon clone, utilizing the same Men vs. Women twist with an overall weaker cast and less dynamic gameplay. While it’s true that there are a few casting duds on Vanuatu, and the early merge suffers from a predictable Pagonging against the men, there’s still a lot to love in this season thanks to its characters, unexpected moments, and a fantastic endgame. There is the savvy Ami Cusack leading the first real dominant all-women’s alliance, the complex and conflicted game of Twila Tanner, the scrappy Eliza Orlins, and, of course, the ultimate underdog winner in Chris Daugherty.
Even the season’s weakest moments—the first three post-merge boots—make the endgame all the more satisfying. The boots of Rory Freeman, Lea “Sarge” Masters, and Chad Crittenden aren’t exciting by themselves, but those episodes are just the calm before the storm. Every major storyline in the season builds to the Leann Slaby blindside at the Final 7, which is arguably one of the greatest blindsides in Survivor history. You couldn’t write a better vote-out if you tried—just look at the glances Ami and Eliza exchange as the votes are being read, before and after Ami realizes that she’s suddenly on the bottom. It’s poetry in motion.
The seismic shift in the game caused by the Leann blindside opens the door for Chris to make his unlikely run to the end and win it all. Chris is far from one of Survivor‘s most dominant winners, but considering he was almost the first boot and then outnumbered 6-1 at the Final 7 and still went on to win, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better underdog story. Chris’s ability to hang on makes for an exciting endgame with big betrayals and emotional vote-outs, in particular, that of Julie Berry and Eliza. Plus, the back-half of the season is propped up by the compelling Eliza vs. Twila rivalry—made all the more fascinating when the two are forced to work together.
Vanuatu isn’t as thrilling moment-to-moment as other seasons of Survivor. Taken as a whole, though, the season tells a fascinating story: the story of the complex women of the Yasur alliance, the rise of the Ice Queen, the unlikely group of four who take her down, and the ultimate underdog Chris who somehow manages to win it all.
Dolly in the middle — In the second episode, two factions emerge on Yasur. On one side, we have Eliza, Julie, Mia Galeotalanza, and Lisa Keiffer. On the other, we have Ami, Leann, Twila, and Scout Cloud-Lee. Sheep farmer Dolly Neely is initially more closely aligned with the Julie-Mia-Lisa-Eliza faction, but she’s still reluctant to pick a side. She ultimately decides to stick with the younger women and vote out Leann, but Leann and Ami approach Eliza and tell her about Dolly’s attempt to play the middle. Eliza’s newfound doubts about Dolly’s loyalty lead her to flip on her own alliance and side with Leann and Ami’s group, blindsiding Dolly in a 5-4 vote.
The volcanic earthquake — This is a small but really cool moment when an earthquake rattles both tribe camps. It’s made especially effective because Leann is in the middle of giving a confessional when the ground begins to rumble.
The reign of the Ice Queen — Ami is easily one of Survivor‘s greatest and most complex villains of all time. Strategically, she’s a stone-cold killer, gaining control of the original Yasur tribe after the Dolly vote, ruthlessly cutting Lisa after the swap, and maintaining a stranglehold on the game for most of the early merge. What makes Ami such a great villain is that she’s villainous without ever being over-the-top. She’s intelligent, confident, and above all, human, which makes her ultimate downfall all the more compelling.
Leann’s blindside — The defining vote of Vanuatu comes at the Final 7. After sending three men out of the game in a row after the merge, it seems like nothing can stop Ami and Leann’s dominant Yasur Alliance. Chris is the last man standing, and when he loses Immunity, it looks like he’s toast. But Leann and Ami decide to spare him and take out Eliza instead. Twila brings Chris the opportunity to turn the game around by telling him to talk to Eliza, opening the door for Chris, Eliza, Scout, and Twila to blindside Leann and control the game with a new majority.
The Final Tribal — The Chris vs. Twila showdown is one of the most engaging and emotional Final Tribal performances. Both finalists face a grilling from the jury. Twila is called out for swearing on her son’s life, and Chris also faces the music for his betrayal of Julie and Eliza. Both players defend their position, but it’s Chris who gives a winning performance, putting across his case perfectly and earning the majority of the votes.
Check back tomorrow when we reveal which season placed at number 21. You can check out the previous entries here.