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: 28
Broadcast Date: February 26 – May 21, 2014
Location: Cagayan, Philippines
Number of Castaways: 18
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Cagayan can be viewed as the renaissance that has led to modern Survivor as we know it. Similar to Samoa, it introduces the audience to a new era of the show—while also being the root of the critiques of seasons to come. While Samoa brought about the idol-heavy Hantz era of Survivor, Cagayan kick-starts the BIG MOVES era. Many of the seasons in the 30s attempt to recreate the magic of Cagayan but by often missing what made this season so special. Cagayan isn’t a great season just because of its idol plays and huge blindsides; those are just the cherry on top of a season full of incredible characters and moments.
Following the returnee-heavy streak of the 20s seasons, Cagayan proves that Survivor can still be carried by all new players. Almost every single player this season brings something to the table, thereby creating one of the most dynamic and explosive seasons ever. It’s no wonder that this season birthed most of the modern legends of Survivor. Tony Vlachos, Sarah Lacina, Spencer Bledsoe, and “Chaos Kass” McQuillen all get their starts here, not to mention a plethora of other characters that make the season pop. Tasha Fox and Trish Hegarty bring a lot to the post-merge, while standouts like Brice Izyah and J’Tia Taylor make for a fun pre-merge. Each episode these characters keep us gripped, and the antics of the season only increase as the story progresses.
The premiere of Cagayan instantly draws you in as Jeff Probst explains the thematic division for the season. What now seems commonplace, the Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty division was the first time a theme was more symbolic and less straightforward, such as men vs. women or old vs. young. The Brains tribe’s complete self-destruction in the first two episodes, with two blindsides right off the bat, starts the season off on the right foot, making for one of the most chaotic but entertaining premieres of all-time. Already, the audience has underdogs to root for. Meanwhile, interesting storylines are being set up on the Brawn and Beauty tribes as well, with tensions between Morgan McLeod and Jeremiah Wood and the Cops R Us formation between Tony and Sarah.
Things only heat up more in the second half of the season, with the merge episode, in particular, being one of the show’s best. All these fantastic characters and alliances come together in a massive power struggle. There is the disintegration of the Cops R Us alliance, the rise and fall of President Lacina, the double (but unnecessary) idol play of Tony and LJ McKanas, and the cementing of Chaos Kass with an epic vote flip. The game never slows down from there as the dynamics are always shifting, usually due to Tony turning on his allies, like his blindsides of LJ and Trish. Tony having the Super Idol is a common criticism of the season, and it’s understandable, but having this power is what emboldens Tony to play as wildly as he does. And let’s remember, even with all the crazy moves, there is still a ton of other stuff going on, like the Tony & Kass fights, Tasha’s amazing Immunity streak, and the Woo Hwang and Spencer idol chase.
Cagayan is regarded as a real return to form while also bringing something fresh to the table. Similar to other top-ranked seasons, Cagayan succeeds in telling a cohesive story. Everything this season feels earned from start to finish because the characters’ motivations are clear at each step of the way. From the beginning, Kass is shown not being afraid to flip, Spencer can never catch a break, Tony is making big moves, Trish is putting out Tony’s fires, Woo is lost and confused and looking for guidance. There is consistency and pay-off to these character arcs, giving Cagayan a satisfying quality that not a lot of seasons can achieve. In particular, this is due to the season’s winner being incredibly unexpected (in terms of their playstyle) and yet deserving.
Tony is one of the greatest Survivor characters ever because of his unique blend of personality and strategy. Most of the best Survivor characters are either strategic or wacky; very few are both. Watching the season live, it felt like Tony’s time was coming eventually, but it never does. When Woo wins the Final Immunity Challenge, certainly, it’s time for Tony to go, right? After all, the show makes it appear that Woo would sweep Kass in a jury vote. This is a story Survivor viewers are all too familiar with—when the odds-on favorite gets cut right at the end (such as Rob Cesternino or Cirie Fields). When that doesn’t happen, and Woo takes Tony to the Final 2, it is jawdropping. But then, surely, this must be a Russell Hantz situation? Tony burned nearly everyone to get to the end. But that isn’t the case either. While Tony faces some backlash from the jury, he is respected for his tenacity and gameplay, making his win feel well-earned.
Cagayan never takes its foot off the gas and is chock full of memorable characters, exciting gameplay, and iconic moments. It’s a season that shows that all-new casts can still deliver and that the show doesn’t have to constantly rely on returning players. Compared to some of the darkness surrounding preceding seasons like South Pacific, One World, and Caramoan, Cagayan is a shining light.
J’Tia dumps out the rice — This moment will always be remembered in Survivor history for the sheer ridiculousness of it. When Garrett Adelstein decides that the tribe should just “discuss the vote openly,” with J’Tia being his target, the Brains tribe really starts to crumble. When J’Tia is left alone at camp, she dumps out the tribe’s rice supply as retribution for her inevitable elimination that night. Except, she doesn’t get voted out. Garrett’s arrogance and brashness are so off-putting that the Brains choose to keep the person that ruined their food supply instead.
The Cliff blindside — In the first sign of Tony’s “big moves” style gameplay, he and Trish join forces with Jefra Bland and LJ to blindside the highly likable NBA legend, Cliff Robinson. It’s a shocking move that leaves Woo stunned and effectively leads to Lindsey Ogle quitting.
Tony’s Spy Shacks — The Spy Shack is one of Tony’s trademarks, but Cagayan is where it all started. It’s the perfect example of Tony’s out-of-the-box thinking that makes him such a captivating Survivor player.
Chaos Kass flips — As mentioned, the merge vote is incredibly dynamic and sets the tone for the rest of the season. Sarah is being courted by both sides and finds herself in the swing position, but she gets drunk on the power and seems unwilling to commit. Instead, Trish pulls in Kass to target Sarah, eliminating the swing vote. The fireworks at Tribal when Sarah is voted out are insane, and Spencer’s line, “Kass, zero chance of winning the game,” has gone down in infamy.
Tony’s Bag of Tricks — One of the reasons for Tony’s success in Cagayan is his ability to find idols. In particular, he’s able to find the Super Idol and ascertain what its powers are. Like many others, though, Tony finds the real power to be the knowledge of where the idols are and what they can do, information that the others do not have. Tony is able to bluff with his bag of tricks and make up the specific rules about his Super Idol to keep himself around.
Talking Llama — In a moment of frustration between Tony and Kass, Tony decides he needs to speak like an animal to Kass. His llama noises may not be accurate, but they are incredibly entertaining. This moment does a great job of illustrating Kass and Tony’s relationship, specifically his loud blabbering paired with her unchanging grin.
Kass’s comeback Immunity win — Jeff likes to call things the greatest comeback in Survivor history, but this is actually a contender for it. Kass’s struggle with the first part of the Final 4 challenge puts her so far behind the other three that it seems like it’s time to count her out. While Tony, Woo, and Spencer work on the puzzle, Kass slowly but surely makes it through the initial stages and then breezes through the puzzle to clinch herself a spot in the Final 3. This is not only a remarkable comeback but the moment where the underdog Spencer’s game comes to an end.
Trish’s jury speech — The raw emotion in this speech from Trish is something that we just don’t see anymore with the new open forum jury format. Trish lambasts Tony for betraying her after she spent the entire game keeping him calm and putting out his fires. She calls out him swearing on his family and going back on it. It’s powerful stuff, but even after this, Trish still gives Tony her vote.
Check back tomorrow when we reveal which season placed at number 2. You can check out the previous entries here.