30 from 30: #18 – Tom and Ian’s 12-Hour Challenge

The Moment:

Ian Rosenberger and Tom Westman hang on for nearly twelve hours during the final immunity challenge in Survivor: Palau.

We’re counting down the 30 Moments That Shaped Survivor, events that happened on the show that helped create and evolve the game and the series that we know and love. Go here to view the criteria we are using to determine what qualifies for the list. And since these posts are covering the first thirty seasons of Survivor, there will be spoilers for various Survivor seasons.


The Impact:

For the entire season of Survivor: Palau, the Koror tribe dominated challenges. They dwindled their opponents to nil, led by the daunting duo of Tom and Ian—two strong competitors who agreed to let the best man win in the end when they got to the finals.

So long as that man wasn’t a shark. Sharks get killed because testosterone.

It’s Day 37, and the final four are competing in the immunity challenge. Naturally, Tom and Ian are battling in the last stage of the challenge, having beaten out Jenn Lyon (RIP) and some blonde goat. After Tom pulls out the win, the alliance of Tom, Ian, and Goatie Katie agree that Jenn has to go. But during the discussion Ian lets slip that, had Tom lost, it would have been a tough decision whether to cut him loose and cruise to the final tribal council.

This greatly concerns Tom, who holds up Tribal Council past dusk and then tears into Ian in front of the jury. So much so that Tom forces a tie between Ian and Jenn. (It should be noted that much of this sequence is filled with a shocked and desperate Ian tripping over his words in anguish, while rightly maintaining that this is a game, not the Boy Scouts). When neither he nor Katie budge in their votes, a fire-making tiebreaker results in Ian squeaking by to the final three as Jenn flames out.

All of this is to set the stage for a twelve hour buoy-off between the final three, Survivor‘s longest-ever challenge. (And no, I’m not counting having to deal with Russel Hantz for 39 days). Each player had to hold onto a narrow buoy for as long as possible, braving wind, rain, and snark. The last one standing wins immunity.

Adam Scott bababooey
The actual name of this challege was Bob-a-buoy. Well played, Survivor.

Endurance challenges, a staple of the final immunity battle for ten seasons, were long affairs, but none lasted more than a couple of hours. This was different. Nightfall forced production to haul lights out into the water. It took five whole hours for the first shoe to drop, as Katie jumped off and accepted her fate. After eight hours, Probst was basically napping on the dock, with nary a word spoken between Tom and Ian.


Ian—desperate to earn his way into the finals after betraying his two closest friends in the previous days—refused an offer by Tom to jump and get taken to the final Tribal Council.

“I’ll give up immunity for a gold star and a LinkedIn recommendation.”

Finally, after 11 hours and 55 minutes, a new deal emerges: Ian will surrender if Tom takes Katie to the finals in exchange for regaining Tom’s friendship and respect.* Tom agrees- because why would you not?- and with that, the challenge is over. Ian falls on his sword and is voted off right there on the dock.

*I sympathize with Ian, but that was close to an Erik Reichenbach-level fail. He probably could have beat Tom in the end as the nicer Soprano between them, and would have been at least $50,000 richer.

Why It Matters:

Before alliances and idols, Survivor was loosely imagined as a physical game, a test of strength and will to brave the elements. Accordingly, in all but one of the first ten seasons, the final immunity challenge was a test of endurance. Stand on this thing as long as possible. Hold this pose. How bad do you really want it?

Tree mail told me this was going to be a spa day…

After Tom and Ian showed that they both wanted it REALLY badly and made production test their own willpower, this went out the window. At first, the final immunity challenge was changed subtly: stand here as long as you can, but every so often we’ll mix it up by adding an extra gimmick. (Platforms that got smaller or carnival games with an endurance element.) This sped things up and created more compelling TV than two guys silently standing for half a day.

The only finale in Survivor history where the beaches are the whitest thing on the show.

Eventually, the final immunity challenge morphed into something grander. In the past few seasons, final immunities have been elaborate sets full of mazes, puzzles, and obstacle courses. While amazing viewers with their flashiness and intricacy, they don’t feel all that different from other challenges on a large set (and sometimes even reuse parts).

Katie would have won this one, right?

It’s been ten years and we still haven’t gotten “back to basics”. The game has evolved. As impressive as Tom and Ian’s performance was, it also showed the limitations of that kind of challenge. Without a defined end point and active interaction, Survivor can only do so much to make two stationary people work onscreen. (Plus, when you inconvenience the crew and deny Jeff Probst a pillow, it doesn’t help the cause). Between this challenge and the grueling trek to camp in the opening of Guatemala next season, the hardcore “survival” era of Survivor was coming to a close.

If you’d like to wait for its return, go right ahead. But you might be sitting there a while. There’s no shark tooth necklace waiting for you in the end of this one.

Look at that face. Even Tom is like “dumbass”.

What Else Made the List?

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A Survivor fan since the end of season one, Mark hasn’t finished One World, but still thinks Kim is overhyped.

Top 5, Baby: Cambodia, Cagayan, Heroes vs. Villains, Pearl Islands, and Palau.
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22 thoughts on “30 from 30: #18 – Tom and Ian’s 12-Hour Challenge

  1. Disagree wholeheartedly that Ian “probably” could’ve beaten Tom. He may have been able to put up more of a fight than Katie, but I still don’t think he had a chance. He was already flailing about the tribal council before that, taking all the heat for the “betrayals” of Greg and Jenn. As it was, Tom was still able to throw him under the bus in the final TC. I can only imagine how bad it would’ve gone for him if he was there. He would’ve been in tears and tripping over his own tongue.

    Plus, look at the jury and tell me who found Ian to be the nicer of the two. Tom was undoubtedly closer to Caryn (Ian was completely dismissive of her and possibly hostile at the end). He also seemed closer to Janu and Stephenie (neither of whom had much of a relationship with Ian). Tom didn’t even vote Jenn out, he fought to keep her. And Katie had been pissed at Ian for days. So Ian probably gets the Coby vote Tom never got, and maybe has a shot at Gregg’s (although Tom seemed to appease Gregg quite a bit when he put the heat on Ian. Not sure how that goes better for Ian head to head).

    I just don’t see an argument for Ian that isn’t a better argument for Tom.

  2. Great entry, I thought the whole “let’s make endurance challenges shorter” might have been a small influence, but you made a really good point about how it started to more Survivor into the carnival games era.

    OK, Ian defense number 324:
    It’s easy to play this game from our couch, not knowing any of the people involved. It’s easy to be cut-throat and sociopathic and look at things from a completely strategic and self-interested vantage point. But you form really important relationships in the month or so you’re out there, especially with a team and an alliance as functional as the one Tom, Ian (and Katie) had. So when Katie and Tom both start to turn on Ian at the end of Palau, that really hurts. Because Ian is a person, not Brian Heidik. And you feel like you’ve lost your friends, and the people you formed those close bonds with. And you can tell just by seeing Ian on screen for the 14 episodes we did that stuff is really important to him.

    So when we get to the buoy challenge, first off, I don’t believe Ian gave up his chance at 1 million dollars. I think part of the reason for the deal was he knew at that point he wasn’t beating Tom in that challenge. Really, you don’t last 11 hours and screw over your feet for years then just give up because of “friendship.” So really we are talking about second vs third, if that. (Remember Tom had just voted against Ian in the last TC, so he may have claimed he was holding onto those hard feelings and vote Ian out of the game in third. In fact, he probably would have.) And really, Ian saw a chance to repair things that had gone so very wrong in the past couple of days. And from interviews I’ve heard, they’re all still friends to this day. And maybe to Ian that’s more important than 2nd vs 3rd place prize money. Maybe it’s even more important than winning, because we’ve seen how fast that money can run out.

    So yes, from a game perspective, don’t make the deal, hope Tom takes you to the end. Or if you believe Ian could have stayed on the buoy longer, then see if he could outlast Tom. But for these people, Survivor isn’t just a game. This is how they lived their life for the past 39 days. These are the only people they had as social support in one of the most difficult experiences of their life. And if you don’t want to burn those bridges, and if continuing to be close with these people is more important to you than money than so be it. That’s not dumb, that’s a decision made on your values. And honestly, I applaud Ian for making it, no matter what the circumstances were on how much longer he could last or how much of a chance he had.

    1. Agreed. I personally can’t judge a guy looking for an out after 12 hours. He was going to lose, so he looked for a way to get some kind of win out of it. If he would’ve kept fighting (and who knows how much fight he had left. 12 fucking hours!) and lost, Tom would NOT have taken him to the final two. He said as much then and he’s confirmed it since. If he had taken Tom’s deal and willingly stepped down, then, yes, Tom would’ve taken him to the final two to fulfill his end of the bargain. And Ian would’ve lost to Tom, especially since he can’t even argue that he got himself to the end.

      I’ve never seen this as a quit and I never will. If this is a quit, then every single person who has lost an endurance challenge that forces you to eventually give up is a quitter. Basically, Ian was going to be third place anyway. This way, he was able to frame it as though it was his choice.

      1. To be fair, I never said it was a quit. And you make a good point below about counting jury votes. Having only re-watched the penultimate ep and the finale for this post, I thought he would have had three (Katie, Coby, Janu) and could fight for the fourth. It would have been closer, regardless.

        Also, it seemed like both were about to fall (which would have been cool to watch), and if Tom falls first, it’s already been established that Ian would think about keeping Katie over him. So it’s not wholly unrealistic to think he could have gone further.

        Still think Scott makes some great points about the interpersonal aspects, which I agree with 100%. I would have probably acted the exact same way.

        1. I should clarify that I wasn’t taking it to mean you were calling him a quitter. I just know others do. And I’ve never thought about it in terms of “if he hadn’t he would’ve beaten Tom in the challenge”, because I just never believed Tom was going to lose that challenge. It may have looked they were both about to fall, but I bet it looked that way for the four hours previous as well (at least).

          But, yes, if Ian could’ve beaten Tom there, he would’ve won the game.

    2. I agree with pretty much everything you said, and to add I think between Ian being an emotional/compassionate person and his youth by the end he was just losing it out there. Don’t forget a few days prior and the episode before when Ian and Katie had a big blow up after he didn’t take her on reward after promising he would he offer to quit then to repair friendship. I think he was just losing it and at the end it was as much about reclaiming his sanity as it was anything else.

    3. That’s a very well thought out and intelligent defense of Ian’s decision. I couldn’t disagree more.

    4. Were you the one that originally made the “Ian just gave up because he wasn’t going to win” argument here? Because I was convinced back then, and this just seals it. I used to be one of the people that categorized Ian jumping off as a quit.

      1. It may have been me when we did a segment on quitters on our first season of podcasting, but probably not since that would require you listening to me when I talk.

        1. Right. That definitely wasn’t it.

          Also, while you did dispute the idea that Ian had quit, I don’t think you’d made the claim that he was giving up only because he knew he was going to lose.

          1. But whatever we do, let’s not go back and listen to find out. If we ever listened to what our show used to be, we might have to just give up altogether.

      2. I think it was me, though it took me a while to find where. From the preview of the ultimate bracket showdown:

        “I don’t think I ever posted my theory about Ian quitting:

        I don’t believe Ian actually quit the game. He could not stand on the buoy any longer, and he knew he wasn’t beating Tom in the final tribal even if Tom did take him. So he does what he can to try and recover his relationship with Tom that had been shattered in the few days previous.

        What’s more likely, Ian standing on the buoy for 11 hours and thinking, “Eh, I didn’t want to win this anyways,” or him actually not being able to stand on the buoy any longer? It sort of drives me nuts when people want to call Ian a quitter and group him in with the Na’Onka’s of the world. Or say he made one of the stupidest moves in Survivor history”

        A little less eloquent, I think, so let’s just let the argument I made this time replace it.

  3. Some Probst trivia: He’s a huge Howard Stern and he has co-hosted several episodes of the Howard Stern Superfan Round Table. He also used to have people record Stern on cassettes and send them too him when he was on location.

    1. I think I recall hearing Probst on Stern back when I used to listen, which was probably the early seasons of Survivor (which Howard was very into).

  4. I fucking loved this challenge. It was a fantastic finish to an underrated season, which told two stories so well. And I hate the new-style final immunity challenges, though … when did they finally get rid of all the native ritual/paint yourself first bullshit?

    1. I also really liked this challenge, but I kinda feel like it left there nowhere else to go after. Ian and Tom pushed the endurance challenge to it’s limits. It was time for something new.

      Interesting note: production was NOT ready for this to go so long. They weren’t even set up with lighting for the night. Which speaks to the idea that they did away with these challenges for their own sake even more than viewers. It’s also pretty poor planning if they assumed this one would only take a couple of hours. Even Katie lasted almost five (which isn’t meant to be shade on Katie. That’s pretty impressive. But when the person who does the WORST in the challenge exceeds your intended max by a few hours, you clearly hadn’t thought everything through.

      1. Well, do the challenge testers test out how long a challenge should take to complete, or just to make sure it’s all well-functioning?

        1. Hard to say with endurance challenges. But the flaw is always that challenge testers aren’t competing for a million dollars. They never push things as hard or far as Survivors do.

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