The 50 Best Survivor Episodes (No. 31)

Photo: CBS

“The Ultimate Shock”

Palau, Episode 14 (Air Date: May 15 2005)
by Ian Walker

Coming into the finale of Survivor: Palau, it looked the one on one battle that had been brewing for the entire season was finally about to take place. Tom Westman and Ian Rosenberger, allies since Day 1, had spent the season dominating all aspects of the game, firmly establishing themselves as one of the greatest tandems in Survivor history. They were almost at their goal of reaching the Final Three, where they would fight it out for the right to sit in the Final Two and take jury goat Katie Gallagher along with them.

That’s what eventually happened, but not exactly the way they had planned it.

Usually, the finale is devoted to the story of why the winner eventually won, and that’s certainly the case here for Tom. Ian’s story, however, takes on just as much importance, as his endgame is defined by the emotional struggles he endures the last couple of days; making it one of the most memorable finishes to any castaway ever.

Ian had already experienced some emotional turbulence during the Final Five after he broke a promise to Katie that he would take her on a reward. That did not sit well with Katie, so much so that she seriously contemplated joining up with the other two people in the game to go against him and Tom. Ian apologized profusely, displaying genuine emotion while explaining how badly he felt that he made Katie upset. Katie eventually forgave him, but at that moment Ian showed how difficult the game had become for him, having a tough time balancing between playing a strong, winning game and managing the deep personal relationships he had formed with his fellow competitors.

That struggle only intensifies heading into the Final Four. Fully realizing that Tom is a huge threat to win, Ian spends the day emotionally preparing himself for the possibility of having to vote Tom out that night, an idea he shares with Katie and Jenn Lyon. However, Tom wins the next immunity challenge, lifting a huge weight off of Ian’s shoulders, but the damage was done. Jenn, on the outs, lets it slip to Tom that Ian would have been ready to vote him out had he lost immunity.

Now it’s Tom’s turn to be unhappy with Ian, and he lets him know it by way of word and parchment. He voices his displeasure with Ian at tribal council, raking him over the coals for the entire jury to see for even alleging to break their Final Three pact, and then forces a tie between Ian and Jenn and sends Ian into the fire-making tiebreaker. Ian comes out on top of that, but not without a huge rift between Tom and himself.


All of the tension comes to a head in the final immunity challenge. In what would become the longest challenge in Survivor history, Tom and Ian hang onto bobbing buoys in the water in an epic final immunity challenge. Tom, having felt betrayed by Ian, competes with Terminator-like intensity, upholding his end of their agreement to fight it out as hard as he can. While Ian hangs with Tom, it’s easy to see the emotional turmoil he’s grappling with as he thinks about the best way to rectify the situation he’s in.

After nearly 12 hours(!), Ian comes up with the now famous solution. Voluntarily stepping down from the challenge with the condition that Tom would take Katie to the Final Two over him, giving up his own chance to win the game but gaining the friendships with Tom and Katie, and his personal integrity, back in the process. A man of his word, Tom upholds the agreement and votes Ian out of the game.

While Ian’s move has sometimes been regarded as one of the “dumbest” moves in Survivor history, it doesn’t really belong in that category. Sure, Ian knew full well that he was taking himself out of contention to win, but at that moment, he valued his personal integrity and friendships more.

Ian’s decision makes for an interesting case study on what people will do to win this game and shows the kind of effect the deviousness of Survivor can have even on the nicest of people, serving as an important benchmark in the history of the show.

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Written by

Martin Holmes

Martin is a freelance writer from England. He’s represented by Berlin Associates for comedy writing and writes about TV and entertainment, currently for TV Insider and Vulture, previously Digital Spy, ET Canada, and Yahoo. A finalist for the Shortlist Sitcom Search in 2012 for “Siblings,” Martin received his BA in English with Creative Writing from The University of Hull. Martin is the owner and editor-in-chief of Insider Survivor.

9 responses to “The 50 Best Survivor Episodes (No. 31)”

  1. I hated having to watch this episode because Ian is such a nice guy but Survivor isn’t his kind of game. It was so brutal towards him.

  2. I think about this moment often. If I were to ever play Survivor, I’d want to do this challenge and challenge anyone to break the 12 hour record with me. I’d also tell them that they’d lose, and that I’d vote them out next if they gave up, because I’d stay on that buoy til day 43 if I had to. I would beg them to not quit. I would keep encouraging them to stay on the buoy or be sent home… and I’d still beat them. I would eventually find their breaking point, but hopefully only after we broke the record. And then I’d vote them out of the game, leaving them wondering how they gave up $1 million.

  3. Can we just talk about how AWFUL Katie was to Ian about the reward?! That annoyed me so much. She guilt tripped him. Had both Ian and Tom made it to FTC together, it would have been a jury showdown because they were both deserving.

  4. Way too low. Top 10 easily, there’s so much emotion in this episode, especially for Ian, this finale cements him as an all time amazing character, and that final challenge was awesome.

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