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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