The 50 Best Survivor Episodes (No. 1)


“The Final Four”

Borneo, Episode 13 (Air Date: August 23 2000)
by Ian Walker

When Survivor premiered in the summer of 2000, it changed television, pure and simple. There had never been a show like this before, a lot of people were interested enough to check it out. A lot of people. Over the course of the summer, Survivor evolved from some new curiosity to a cultural phenomenon, with the show gaining momentum, and viewership, with each passing week. The players themselves became household names as everybody became glued to their TV screens, hoping that their favorites wouldn’t be voted out that week.

It all culminated with this, the season finale, the pinnacle of the Survivormania that swept the nation, with over 51 million people tuned in to watch how the show would turn out. Audiences were eager with anticipation to see who in the Tagi alliance would ultimately prevail: Kelly Wiglesworth, the rebellious river rafting guide, Sue Hawk, the brash yet sensitive truck driver, Rudy Boesch, the gruff yet lovable retired Navy SEAL, or Richard Hatch, the pompous and cunning corporate trainer.

While all of the 16 castaways were a big deal, whoever would be the winner would forever be known as the first champion of Survivor, a big deal in its own right. For 12 previous episodes, people had watched these first Survivor castaways, one by one, get their torch snuffed, their quest to win a million dollars come to an end; now, one of these final four people would achieve their goal by episode’s end. This final part of the journey to crown the winner had to stick the landing to make sure this show would have some longevity as a viable franchise, rather than a one-season wonder.

The show didn’t just stick the landing, it stuck it spectacularly. There are just so many great, iconic moments in this episode, providing the basis for so many things the show regularly relies on to this day, and it all starts with the final four vote.

Leading up to the finale, the biggest storyline developing the last few episodes was the gradual movement of Kelly away from the alliance, upset with the conniving nature of the people she had aligned with. That dissatisfaction resulted in an explosive argument with Sue the previous episode. Prior to the fight, Sue and Kelly had developed an extremely close, almost sister-like bond, but this fight was a huge hit to their relationship. It wasn’t enough, however, to prevent them from voting together here at the final four, both of them wanting to break up the other tight pair in Rich and Rudy.

When it comes time to cast their votes, it ends in the first Survivor tie, leaving both the players and the audience on the edge of their seats, wondering what happens next. Jeff Probst declares a revote, upon which Kelly switches her vote and sends Sue home. This first tie vote shows just how far players are willing to go save their own position and avoid the unknown, as Kelly secured her position in the final three by sending Sue out of the game.

With Sue gone, the final three head to the final immunity challenge, where some true Survivor magic happens. Up until this point, Richard had been calling all of the shots. He put the alliance together and had dictated all of the vote-outs since the merge, yet there was one more obstacle he had to overcome if he wished to sit at the final tribal council. For awhile now, he has had a final two agreement with Rudy, which was a problem for Richard. While Rudy, a man of honor, would stick by his word and take Richard, Richard knew he couldn’t beat Rudy in a potential final two situation, and thus had to think of a way to get to the end without Rudy. Fortunately, an opportunity presented itself during the last challenge, the famous Hands on a Hard Idol challenge, where players must simply touch the immunity idol while standing on a stump for as long as they can without removing their hand.

All three competitors last for 2-½ hours, upon which Richard then makes his move. After giving a short speech, telling the other two players he hopes that “either one of you have just recognized what I have done to get here,” and then removes his hand from the idol, eliminating himself from the challenge. Kelly and Rudy, as well as the audience, are shocked that Richard would take himself out like that, but what nobody but Richard seems to realize is that he just secured himself a spot in the final two.

Now, no matter who wins this last challenge, it would be in both Kelly and Rudy’s best interest to take Richard to the end. For Rudy, he would just be upholding his end of the bargain; for Kelly, she knows that Rudy is the bigger jury threat than Richard, and thus would be unwise to take him over Richard. It’s a brilliant move that speaks to just how deeply Richard was thinking about this game, more than anybody else he was competing with, and provided a defining moment in the evolution of the game.


Of course, there was one outcome Richard wanted more than the other, and it’s the one he ended up getting. Kelly won the final immunity challenge, capping off an impressive streak of four immunity wins in a row, and what Richard expected to happen did happen. At the penultimate tribal council, Kelly chose to vote out Rudy, realizing Richard’s desires but squashing the desires of everybody watching at home.

Going into the finale, Rudy was the audience’s overwhelming favorite, his blunt one-liners and gruff personality having won over the viewers over the course of the season. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be, as Rudy became the final member of the jury, setting up one last battle between Richard and Kelly that left its mark, not just on the show, put pop culture at large.

The final tribal council of Survivor: Borneo has the single most iconic moment, not just in the history of Survivor, but in the last 20 years of television as a whole. Sue’s snakes and rats speech is the culmination of all the drama and intrigue the show had been building up to this point. It succinctly encapsulates the conniving, devious nature of the game they all learned how to play, and why Richard was the best player sitting at the end. He was the snake who not only knowingly went after prey but relished in it, thoroughly enjoying the social politics and the strategy of Survivor. Her blasting of Kelly, the one person she considered a friend on the island before their falling out, was enough to give anybody watching chills.

By the end of it, it was clear that television history had been made; the speech is just as incredible television today as it was back then and it totally set the bar for emotional jury speeches in future seasons of Survivor.

Side-note: Greg Buis, who had turned his Survivor experience into a sort of meta art project on the fallacy of television, has one final rebellious moment as he claims to be deciding his vote based on which of the final two come closest to the number he’s thinking of between 1 and 10. He also famously sniffs the marker pen before he casts his vote (for Richard).


After Sue’s epic speech, the votes for the winner are cast, and for the only time in Survivor history the winner is revealed on location rather than on live TV back in the states. By a vote of 4-3, Richard Hatch is the first winner of Survivor. The look of shock and relief on Richard’s face is the final iconic image from this episode, as the first season of Survivor officially comes to an end.

What started out as a strange, new oddity of a show on May 31, 2000 ends as a game-changing phenomenon on August 23, single-handedly creating a new genre of television launching a franchise that’s as durable and engaging today as it was when it first started out, all those years ago.

[Credit to for GIFS]

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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.

15 responses to “The 50 Best Survivor Episodes (No. 1)”

  1. I knew this episode would make it.

    What surprises me Is that there are no episodes from Thailand, Nicaragua and Redemption Island on the whole list.

    I also thought Pascel being rocked out would make the list

  2. What a great ending to an amazing feature! Although there were certainly some really strange choices among this top, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this every day and counting the days until Kaoh Rong! 😛

  3. First off, I want to thank Ian Walker for this tremendous effort. My wife & I have had a blast working our way up the list, reliving favorites moments and re-watching so many of our favorite survivors, both revered & reviled. I hope that Mr. Walker reads this because I have a question: I know that 3 seasons missed the list (Thailand, Nicaragua & Redemption Island). I can understand how a stellar season like Heroes vs Villains could have four better episodes than any from the missing seasons (hell, all 14 episodes might be more enjoyable), but I would also like to know this: What is the best episode from each of those three seasons and where would they be theoretically placed in a Top 437 (give or take)? I’d like my fellow followers of this list to contribute their thoughts as well. Hoping for a fun Season 32!

    • Thailand – either the fake merge episode or the “you’re not in the attack zone!” one.

      Redemption – Russell Hantz goes bye-bye

      Nicaragua – no idea

  4. And I’m even more bummed that Ozzy’s blindside (possibly the greatest blindside of all time) was rated lower than drew christy’s boot. But this was a great episode

  5. Cannot believe “What The….?” (Part 1) from Pearl Islands didn’t make it. That episode had:

    1. Rupert’s atomic blowout on Jonny Fairplay for voting for him the previous night.

    2. The Outcasts return with a determined Burton leading the way, along with the most spirited challenge victory celebration by a winning tribe in Survivor history.

    3. Somehow, Jonny Fairplay avoiding being voted out by Drake and his one word voting confessional for Shawn.

    4. The first Survivor quitter, along with a uber-polite dressing down by Probst that ended with “go home” instead of “the tribe has spoken” and laying the torch on the ground.

    How’s that not a top 50 episode?

  6. This episode also let 50 million learn how big of a loser-hating-b*tch Sue was! It even makes me relish in watching her pathetic AllStars fake-assault.

  7. Meh. I don’t want to seem like I don’t enjoy the early seasons, but I really don’t see how this can be considered the best episode of the series. The ranking seemed to put too much emphasis on “firsts,” even if they weren’t necessarily “bests,” if that makes sense. The premiere, merge, and finale episodes of Borneo all made it, and the justifications all put at least a little emphasis on them being the first or part of the first season. I don’t remember for sure and can’t be bothered to look, but I think those are the only three episodes from Borneo that were in this ranking, which only makes me feel more like they were included as milestones of “Survivor’s first ______ episode.”
    I mean, calling Sue’s rats and snakes speech (which, don’t get me wrong, it was an epic moment) the most iconic moment in in the last 20 years of television as a whole is ridiculously over-the-top. I think not really caring for the writing style (sorry, Ian) might have contributed to my feelings toward the ranking as a whole.
    Anyway, the fact that other commenters on this post have already agreed with the number one choice does at least validate it a little in my book, and goes to show that there are just differing opinions out there.

  8. I’m utterly shocked that Ozzys blindside in Micronesia didn’t make the list. I firmly believe it’s one of the best, if not the best, blindsides in Survivor history, and I actually expected it to be #1 only to find out it didn’t even make the top 50. I mean, even Jason going was out above it, Ozzys blindside was clearly better, and is a huge part of Cirie and Parvatis legacy. It honestly changed the game forever and is a staple in Survivor history. Also, shocked that James’ blindside in China didn’t make the list either, those are two huge monumental episodes that missed the list. If there was ever any explanation to why they didn’t make it I’d really appreciate it cuz I’m thoroughly confused. Still, this list was a blast to read and you guys did a great job and put tons of effort in, so well done.

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