Survivor has been in my life for nearly 20 years – that still blows my mind! I’ve lived almost three times as long with this show on TV than I’ve lived without it. Survivor has had plenty of ups and down, but hitting season 40 is an amazing accomplishment, so to celebrate that high honor even more, I thought it’d be fun revisit and write a tribute to my favorite moment of Survivor’s (almost) 40 seasons.
I have plenty of favorites, but this one is always first on my mind whenever I’m asked to name some Survivor personal highlights. The moment, of course, is the #ChaosKass flip at the Survivor: Cagayan merge vote. It’s the climax of one of my favorite episodes too, but specifically that tribal council alone is what stands out as the best of the best for me.
We’ve had tribal councils with incredible idol plays, and while this one had some fireworks from that for added effect, the beauty of this blindside was that it didn’t happen because of idols or advantages but because of some good, old-fashioned social dynamics, making the many faces of shock and betrayal all the more satisfying. It also conveniently featured two faces coming back for Winners at War, so how could I go into Survivor’s big 4-0 week without a throwback to an unforgettable moment in the show’s history? Time to take it back to 2014 ....
For those that want to relive the experience, I’ll re-set the stage for the big flip episode titled “Head of the Snake.” It’s one worth reliving to appreciate some of the show’s most masterful editing and storytelling to date – a perfect exposition and execution of the ending.
At the top of the hour, we were reminded that the Aparri tribe of 6 had just voted out Alexis as to eliminate the person they felt was most likely to flip at the merge ( ... ha). Returning to camp, Spencer confidently proclaimed “everyone is buying into the six.” The tribe rah-rah’d around the fire with the idea of Final 6 being within their hands, “as long as no one flips,” Sarah added – famous last words.
The editors were driving home the point that this episode was going to be 100% about who, if anyone, was going to flip from this Aparri alliance, a seemingly silly idea given that the Solana tribe had just chanted after their challenge win all about how they were going to the end.
Kass sniffed something was awry with Aparri, however, stating “this group is allegedly a solid six.” That’s lawyer language for “I’m about to prove that’s complete bullshit.” Aparri going all the way to the end sounded too good to be true as Kass also explained, “the best laid plans often end up sprawled out on a murder scene floor,” and baby, what a kill was Kass about to make.
One of the many reasons I love Kass is because she isn’t afraid to push people’s buttons and make them squirm to either make a point or to extract the information she needs. The morning before the merge, Kass took a walk with Sarah and on that walk told Sarah point-blank that she was the one Kass felt was most likely to flip, an accusation that Sarah firmly denied. Sarah was offended by Kass implying her loyalty was illegitimate – in fact, Kass (or anyone) questioning Sarah’s commitment to Aparri actually pushed her to consider a flip.
The early story of the episode was looking to be how Aparrai, or possibly just Kass, was going to push Sarah over the edge. Kass wasn’t letting go of Sarah being a liability and in confessional, she stated that she wanted to see the blood of a former tribemate on Sarah’s hands before she’d believe her Aparri allegiance was the real deal and not just a move of desperation. This Kass vs. Sarah cold war was about to get heated, with even literal fire in their eyes.
I remember sitting on my couch thinking this was going to blow up and it was going to be big. With Kass being my favorite of the season, I was really nervous that what she was doing to Sarah was going to cause her own immediate demise. If Sarah was going to flip, she was probably going to vote for the person that made her do it, and that person was clearly Kass.
The Aparri and Solana tribes merged and what came next was the expected “Sarah sandwich.” Tony knew the only way he could save his top five alliance was to get someone to flip, and his best “in” was with his Cops-R-Us alliance with Officer Sarah. She swore on her badge before that she wanted to work with Tony, but when he asked her to swear on her badge again that she’d vote with him and vote out a Brain, a “no-brainer” move in his own brain, Sarah said she couldn’t yet make that promise.
Sarah saw herself in the best spot in the game with two sides of five and her sitting in the middle – so to Kass’s argument earlier, Sarah wasn’t 100% committed to the Aparri alliance, otherwise she’d have just said there was a side of five and a side of six. Hm, funny…
Sarah declared, “I will decide the fate of this game” and at this point, I believed it. We’d seen the swing vote become the victim of the vote before with Dolly in Survivor: Vanuatu, but with both sides of the Solarrion tribe seeming so stuck on getting the numbers advantage, it appeared that Sarah did hold all the cards here and that no one would suggest taking those cards out of her hand. We all know, though, that that wasn’t exactly going to hold.
In the first strategy we saw on the Aparri side, Kass and Jeremiah sounded in agreement that the vote needed to be for Trish or Jefra, fearing that LJ or Tony had idols. Sarah shut down that plan immediately and said they needed to go for the guys. Sarah had no interest in listening to any but her own agenda at this point, knowing she was the person in power. She even laughed in confessional about how no one should want to piss the “princess” off – Sarah knew she was the pivotal vote and was determined to be the only one making the decisions.
I think Kass correctly pegged Sarah’s game with the assessment, “She’s not in the six – she’s in the one.” Sarah wanted to target LJ or Tony which makes me wonder if in her mind, she didn’t fear that vote because if either did play an idol, she still wouldn’t have been the one to go, knowing that Tony was targeting one of the Brains. “No one in this game should have that much power,” Kass protested, adding that sometimes she just wanted to punch Sarah in the face.
The next day, Trish witnessed some “reeer” noises from the “cat fight” that was still taking place between Kass and Sarah. Tasha walked up on them and took them away from camp to hopefully put out the flames and move forward with Aparri’s original plan, but Tasha didn’t ultimately care who they voted for just so long as everyone in that alliance was on the same page. With that sentiment, Kass felt that Tasha took Sarah’s side, essentially letting Sarah still call the shots rather than defend Kass’s (safer and sounder) argument.
Sarah expressed that she didn’t think Kass even liked her to which Tasha responded, “Does it even matter if Kass likes you? If you don’t like Kass, vote Kass out.” This literally happened all in front Kass, rightfully raising a few eyebrows.
If that didn’t make Kass feel invisible, then I don’t know what would have. To me, that sounded like Tasha telling Sarah not to worry about Kass yet because they would vote her out later when they had more secure of the numbers. If I was Kass, I’d immediately have been thinking “get me the fuck out of this ‘solid six’ ASAP” after hearing those words.
A lot of criticism that came Kass’s way after her infamous flip was that she jumped to the bottom of an alliance, but when you watch back this scene, how was Kass not supposed to already feel on the bottom of an alliance? Tasha was practically telling Sarah they’d do whatever she wanted, up to and including voting out Kass who was sitting five feet away from them. I do not believe Kass was better off staying with Aparri. It may have been a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” decision for her, but with the way she was treated here, I still 100% support the flip, even knowing the outcome for Kass.
Sarah, probably after asking herself, “Why should I care about how Kass feels?”
Woo won immunity which didn’t impact Aparri’s plans since they were already split between Tony and LJ, the threats, and Trish and Jefra in order to avoid hidden immunity idol damage. Again, Sarah described the tribe make-up as, “a solid five, a solid five, and me” so her committal to either camp still seemed undecided. “I’m the president right now,” Sarah proclaimed.
Sarah’s Aparri supporters rallied around her in the hours leading up to the vote, voicing their opinions on why Jefra was the smartest move to make. Sarah rebutted with her belief that no one on the other side had idols so they needed to get rid of a bigger threat to the game, also suddenly sharing that she could “guarantee” that Tony didn’t have an idol. I know what Kass was thinking:
The “Top Five” alliance observed the Aparri alliance from afar as Trish pointed out that Sarah was right in the middle of them all, calling the shots.
It certainly looked that way to me.
If Kass takes the cake for making this episode so memorable, Trish deserves several slices herself. I could write a whole other blog about why Trish is one of Survivor’s most underrated players, at least to the masses, but this call was one of the reasons why. Woo agreed that Sarah was no longer someone whose vote they could count on, and having seen a small smackdown earlier that day, Trish suggested that Kass may be that new person for them.
As Sarah kept drinking her own Kool-Aid, Kass started to seriously consider the idea of taking away Sarah’s power. “She’s about to destroy the game,” Kass said, and before letting Sarah have that opportunity, Kass added, “I want to destroy it.”
In her last talk with Tony, Sarah still said her mind wasn’t made up and that she wouldn’t be making her final decision until tribal council. That lit off a big “Bing!” in Tony’s mind that let him know it was time for Trish’s bag of tricks to flip Kass.
Trish knew exactly what to do. Kass’s frustration had stemmed from not feeling heard and being bossed around by Sarah, so what did Trish do? She presented all the power to Kass, letting her decide who Trish’s alliance should vote for, offering a spot on that side if Kass voted with them. Kass didn’t like Sarah sitting on the throne, and what Trish was presenting was the opportunity for Kass to usurp it. That was speaking Kass’s language – one of her languages, the other being Llama, of course.
The offer certainly sounded juicy. Being a Brain, Kass valued smart decisions, and she was impressed that the other side would vote for Sarah – the smart decision in Kass’s mind. No longer did she feel that Sarah was the one with all the power – it had become Kass, and she promised, “Chaos Kass will show up at tribal.”
The whole episode was a flip on itself at this point. Up until just a few minutes before going to tribal council, I was thinking that we were being played and that all of this talk of Sarah being in the middle was going to be a bland ending with her and Aparri voting out Jefra (whose last named just happened to be Bland also). After seeing Trish talk to Kass and Kass make the comment about usurping Sarah’s throne, I was back on the edge of my seat. Was Kass actually going to do this? Was the feared flipper about to be flipped on first?
This story seemed too perfect, the cocky cop getting outsmarted by the ace attorney, but I was texting my friend Mel during the episode, as we did and still do “live” almost every episode, and my final message before tribal was, “I think it really could be Sarah” as if I was in disbelief those words were coming out of my mouth – or through text, rather. It was just that simple thought of, “Huh ... this might just end up being quite something after all!”
Sarah was appropriately seated in the middle of the two supposed sides, the show still selling us a false narrative that Sarah was the one who might flip. In those initial moments of tribal, I had no idea I was about to witness one of legends, but I wish I could go back to that night and watch it live all over again, not knowing what was about to happen.
After LJ talked about not knowing whether or not there were idols in the game (a thought that would make all of us laugh today), Tony confirmed there were indeed idols and pulled out his own, proudly putting it around his neck for all to admire and threatening Aparri that he was ready to play it for anyone in his alliance.
This set Aparri into a scramble before they eventually landed on a different vote decision which they called “the other one.” It’s probably published somewhere who “the first one” was, but given their reaction, it must have been Tony, or if not him then LJ, guessing that Tony would play his idol on one of them. Still, as a viewer, it could have been a mere switch from Tony to LJ because what psychopath would play an idol on anyone but himself when he knew he was in the hot seat?
Kass, meanwhile, sat there with her famously smug smirk knowing that Tony could pull out four more idols from his bag and this would still be her tribal council with the stunt she was about to pull. At the same time, Spencer in his mind was thinking this would be his tribal council after being the mastermind behind the new vote, “the other one”, thus flushing an idol and securing his “solid six” total control of the game.
As always, Kass patiently waited to be the Lucy to his Charlie Brown.
Something we’ll never see again – Jeff actually cut off all the whispering that was going on after Tony took out his idol, asking if everyone was ready to vote so as to end the suspense. The votes were then cast, but before they were read, Tony stood up to ask Jeff to verify his immunity idol, and after Jeff did so, Tony played the idol for LJ. To return the favor, LJ shocked everyone by pulling out his idol and playing it for Tony.
Kass – still entirely unfazed but now knowing she had flushed not one but two idols out of the game.
After all this I was convinced, “OH SHIT! THEY GOT ‘EM!” thinking the story was that Aparri correctly anticipated Tony playing his idol for LJ, so they switched votes to Tony but weren’t expecting two idols to be played. The last we heard, “Top Five” was voting for Sarah, but planning to play their idols, maybe they had come up with a different target. Regardless, someone from the Aparri side was about to get got.
“First vote ... Jefra.”
Oh my god, my heart sank. By this point, I was sick of Spencer all season and lost all rootable interest in Sarah from her behavior in this episode, so to see Aparri’s self-congratulatory looks as Jefra’s eyes filled with tears was absolutely tragic. All feelings of high and excitement from the last three-and-a-half minutes – gone!
Sarah, Jefra, Sarah, Jefra ... the count went on until it was finally 5 to 5. “I don’t know, maybe there’s still a small chance Kass saves this episode(/season) with a flip,” I hopelessly thought. Then, it happened.
I think I screamed. I was in my final semester of college, and my roommates at the time were typically at the school library every night, so I had the apartment to myself on Survivor Wednesdays, but had they been home, they’d have likely thought I had just been stabbed or shot – after seeing me, maybe a stroke.
My immediate words to Mel were, “That was fucking hot as fuck” as I pulled myself off of the floor back onto the couch to watch the rest of the chaos ensue. As Sarah grabbed her torch and walked over to Jeff, she asked who flipped, and Aparri quickly determined that the flipper was Kass.
The one time I ever supported the Twitter hashtags on-screen was in this moment when #ChaosKass flashed in gold letters. Jefra thanked Kass through a tearful smile as Woo and Tony gave their kudos to Kass as well. Spencer the prophet then made his famous prediction:
“It’s a long way to go,” Kass replied with a small shrug. This is when I still believed Kass was going to win Cagayan (i.e. literally every second up until Jeff turned around Woo’s vote on Day 38), so I felt in my blood that Kass was going to defy the odds Spencer had given her and instead become the greatest Survivor winner of all time.
Sadly, history would have this story end differently, but what a time to be alive that night was. This vote with the rise of #ChaosKass is hands-down my favorite Survivor moment, and I’d be surprised if something happens in Survivor 40 that tops it, so I’m going to say this is without a doubt my favorite moment of Survivor’s 20 years and 40 seasons.
^Everyone’s face when I don’t say it’s “Erik giving up immunity”
This moment would not have been possible without big players like Tony and Sarah, who would both go on to make big names for themselves in Survivor, Trish of course for quite possibly being the catalyst for this series of events, LJ for being a man of honor and adding to the idol madness, even Spencer too with his unique, douchebaggy charm and holier-than-thou, mouth-agape head-bobbing – but for me, the show-stealer was obviously Kass.
Kass has remained one of my all-time favorites since the moment I met her on-screen, arguably even my #1 (I try not to name that, but she’s a top contender) and I wish more people would play the game like Kass – no-holds-back, not afraid of confrontation, and sometimes with just a little bit of wanting to watch the world burn. As I mentioned earlier (as if I needed to), Kass faced some serious backlash from this move – a lot of it from the Tasha- and Spencer-spoonfeds who believed this was the dumbest move anyone could ever make, Kass moving from one alliance to the bottom of another. They conveniently forget that Kass had less than zero chance of winning the game had she stayed with Aparri.
This episode was proof enough that she had fallen out of the alliance’s core, and if they were going to dump anyone before final six – because few alliances ever go “all the way” – then I think there was a 99.9% chance of Kass being the one to be tossed in the trash. Even if she didn’t end up winning with this move, I’m glad she made it because we ended up with a wilder finish and a more fantastic winner than could have come out of the season otherwise. Cagayan was already off to a strong first half, but the flip of Chaos Kass set the season on the trajectory that now makes it highly regarded as one of the best if not the best season of all time. It’s certainly the best of the latter half of Survivor’s twenty years – we’ll see what Winners at War has to say about that, starting in just a few days.
That shit-eating grin never gets old.
Again, a special thank you to the iconic Kass McQuillen for making this moment everything it was. You are truly a top Survivor legend and someone who I could, without question, watch play in every season. On top of that, you inspire me to practice my own signature snark every single day of my life, so not only do I thank you, but my friends do too. At least, I’m pretty sure they do. To those that don’t:
I rest my case.
Ryan Kaiser has been a lifelong fan of Survivor since the show first aired during his days in elementary school, and he plans to one day put his money where his mouth is by competing in the greatest game on Earth. Until that day comes, however, he'll stick to running his mouth here and on Twitter: @Ryan__Kaiser