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Survivor’s first medevac: Michael Skupin falls in the fire during Survivor: The Australian Outback

This spring, I’m recapping Survivor’s second season week by week, roughly 20 years after each episode premiered. Today, Survivor: The Australian Outback, episode 5, “Gloves Come Off,” which originally aired Thursday, Feb. 22, 2001, and episode 6, “Trial By Fire,” which originally aired Thursday, March 1, 2001.

Survivor’s first-ever emergency medical evacuation—and reality TV’s too, I think—takes place in episode six. This is major real-life drama, the first reminder that there are real stakes beyond $1 million, and even camp life can be extremely dangerous.

Before we get to that, there’s a lot of foreshadowing and lead-up. And honestly, both episodes five and six really kind of dragged for me. Perhaps that’s just my impatience or exhaustion after almost one year of our new way of life.

The pacing in early Survivor certainly is different, but there’s something about Survivor: The Australian Outback so far that feels even slower than Survivor: Borneo. There is far more talk about game play and strategy than in season one, yet the episodes haven’t had the same pull and excitement that season one did for me—both 20 years ago and last summer when I re-watched it.

In episode five, there’s literal smoke in the air at Ogakor’s camp during this episode, and it is “strangling,” Tina tells us. Not to minimize the wildfires or the threat that may have been present—especially after last year’s wildfires, which hurt 3 billion animals and blocked sunlight for months—but it kind of fades away, and I wonder how much of that was included for foreshadowing.

There are several fire references in that episode, and one omen: Jeff Varner’s sweatshirt gets literally burned by an ember, causing them to move the fire pit away from the camp.

The other drama concerns Kimmi, who’s upset about the death of another chicken. Mike Skupin insists she’s being “theatrical”—and then insists he has the “need to shed some blood” by decapitating a chicken, and having previously smeared pigs blood on his face. We know who’s theatrical here.

Both the editing and her tribemates pile on, and it just feels gross, especially when the critique moves to her cleanliness. Skupin says he is excited about the reward challenge win of shampoo from Target “so we can bathe Kimmi.” Maybe focus on things you’re good at, Mike, like fire tending.

But it’s not just him. This episode contains the Alicia/Kimmi argument where Kimmi says, “Don’t wag your finger in my face” and Alicia replies, “I will always wag my finger in your face” while doing just that.

(Probst’s “previously-on” narration for episode six references this and alludes to Skupin’s disaster: “Sparks flew between Kimmi and Alicia….”)

Clearly, everyone is just being driven crazy by Kimmi, who is voted off unanimously once Kucha loses the immunity challenge.

As successful as Kucha had been at challenges, including winning the reward challenge and a box of convenience items from Target, I imagine they were thrilled to lose the immunity challenge—perhaps even more relieved than Ogakor was to finally win a challenge, considering that the reward challenge left some of them in tears.

“I’m just so tired of losing,” Amber cried, and Tina implored her, “don’t let it break your spirit.” Knowing the way the season plays out, I found it particularly interesting that Tina also commented that their continued losing “takes such a psychological hit,” while Colby said that if they were unable to “turn this runaway train around it may be a meltdown for the Colbster.”

The immunity challenge itself was a maze, and although the tribes are imbalanced—7 to 5—Jeff Probst says those numbers don’t create an advantage or disadvantage. Really? Isn’t it a lot harder to get seven people through a maze than five?

With Kimmi gone, “11 remain,” Jeff Probst says at the start of episode six. “Who will be voted out tonight?” The answer, of course, is no one.

Skupin medevaced, Jerri outshouted

Jerri and Nick took opposite approaches to guiding their tribes during the Survivor: The Australian Outback episode 6 Mountain Dew and Doritos reward challenge
Jerri and Nick took opposite approaches to guiding their tribes during the Survivor: The Australian Outback episode 6 Mountain Dew and Doritos reward challenge

The merge is approaching at the start of Survivor: The Australian Outback episode six, which opens with both strategy and foreshadowing.

The contestants are 100 know when it will occur because there have yet to be any tribe swaps or twists or changes.

Alicia and Jeff and Nick are ready to merge with a 6 to 4 advantage and then have Kucha Pagong the other tribe: “we can basically pick them off one by one,” Nick says. And over on Ogakor, they’re ready to be picked off one by one. Well, except for Colby: “that’s not happening.”

Meanwhile, Skupin starts with a speech that might as well be his final words:

“….eight city people can come out here and live off the land—it’s amazing Not only food-wise, but shelter-wise and safety-wise, and heat-wise and startin’ fire this morning with wet wood. It’s just amazing to me. My outlook on life has changed 180 degrees, and I’m this kind of guy.

… This should be nothing for me. I’m a changed man already after 16 days—very changed.

… If I last another 16 days, who knows what’s going to happen to me.”

Just wait a few minutes.

Everyone is obsessed with food, an editing choice that leads to the reward challenge.

Jerri tells us about the connection between chocolate and sex, and delivers what might be her best confessional to date. She starts by explaining that no one is having sex so “that’s probably why we keep reverting to the chocolate discussions,” and then she details wanting to pour hot chocolate on “some hot dude’s bod” and lick it off, which has become her “ultimate fantasy.”

Cue Colby: “I may be a lot of things, but I ain’t no Hershey bar.”

Food is also at the subject of conflict, again between Jerri and Keith. Colby thinks Jerri is “disrespectful and rude” for daring to suggest she knows anything about cooking, and to, you know, actually succeed at it while Keith fails.

I could do without that, but clearly, Jerri and Keith’s bickering must be Ogakor’s version of Kimmi. Tina actually yells at them to stop, and says “one of the problems needs to go.”

Everyone is very, very excited to learn that reward is going to be food, and fantasize about the food. And then they get: only Mountain Dew and Doritos. LOL.

Probst gives them a Dorito to share and a sip of Mountain Dew, and then introduces the challenge: the soon-to-be-iconic challenge where one player guides the others, who are blindfolded, around a course.

They don’t really have to navigate obstacles placed at crotch level, like in future seasons, but instead have to complete complicated tasks that are spread around the challenge areas.

Jerri and Nick are chosen as the callers for their tribes, and it is Nick who is immediately and clearly better. He gives precise and clear directions and movements. Jerri does not.

I love Jerri and she can absolutely scream loudly, but she’s not screaming coherently. Primarily, she keeps referring to things as if her tribemates could actually could see them. “There’s a silo back there and you fill your bucket with water.” That is not a direction! Later she says, “fill the wheelbarrow” when they are pouring water not into something that is not a wheelbarrow.

The ultimate failure, though, is in the final seconds, when Jerri’s team is miraculously ahead, and all that has to happen is Amber needs to place a basket on a table. But Jerri cannot do that, even with Amber right in front of her, so Amber wanders off and the other tribe wins.

That’s frustrating, but it is no excuse for what happens next: Colby slings a bucket of water toward Jerri, drenching her. Did we think of behavior like this as charming 20 years ago?

After the reward loss, Ogakor is even more anxious about the impending immunity challenge and the merge. But then we cut to Kucha, where there’s ominous music and Skupin eating, flies eating dead fish.

The Kucha tribe waves goodbye to Michael Skupin, as he was evacuated by helicopter after falling in the camp fire.
The Kucha tribe waves goodbye to Michael Skupin, as he was evacuated by helicopter after falling in the camp fire.

Remarkably, the moment when Mike Skupin falls in the fire is not captured on tape. We hear him scream, and we see a bird fly away. Considering that Mark Burnett and CBS showed us Skupin stabbing a pig, and also the skin dripping from Skupin’s hands, I imagine they would have shown us the actual fall, had it been filmed.

Skupin runs for the water, and explains what happened: “The smoke was right in my face, and I inhaled it, and I passed out. Look at these things,” he says, holding his burned hands, which are bright red and have skin falling off them.

It feels like a real-time wait for the medic to arrive while Skupin is screaming in agony and everyone is standing around and can do basically nothing until the medical team arrives. It’s excruciating.

Eventually, they arrive and give him some kind of drug in a plastic tube that he sucks on, and wrap his hands.

Then he’s taken to the Camera Camp, which was even identified on screen. The camera camp is basically a base camp outpost used by the crew that films on the tribe beaches. They’re not far from the tribe’s space, but are off-limits to the tribe, and have snacks, cots, and electricity for charging batteries and that sort of thing. I don’t ever recall seeing a camera camp on screen again—and the first time I visited a Survivor set, for season 17 in Gabon, I was super-fascinated by the camera camps and forgot I’d already seen one on screen.

While this is very dramatic, it is not actually played for drama in the way that later Survivor medevacs are.

I’m not quite sure how any of this happened without Jeff Probst there to stage manage it. Who called for medics? Who called in the chopper? Who was there to interrupt the doctor and while they were giving treatment in order to grandstand?

Ogakor didn’t even get a visit from Jeff Probst—just a letter! “There has been an accident at the Kucha camp,” it said, and told them the immunity challenge was cancelled and they’d all made it to the merge.

After Mike leaves in a chopper—it’s emotional, and he’s saying really kind things to them—the episode still has a full five minutes to go.

“Evacuated. That’s hard-core,” Jerri says at Ogakor. At Kucha, Jeff Varner says, “Ogakor will be relieved. We had ’em.” Then he adds: “We’re going to kill ’em. We’re gonna eat ’em up and spit them out, and that’s the way Mike would want it to be.”

There’s more, too, including Rodger praying for Mike, and later Mike’s final words—which were clearly filmed before he fell into the fire and had to be removed from the game to get medical treatment, and which are somewhat similar to the words he speaks at the beginning of the episode.

I appreciate hearing how this affected those who were there, but it was also a lot. There’s also something about watching everyone be sad with the knowledge of what was to come for Mike Skupin.

The actual accident is, of course, brutal, real-life drama and is also not sensationalized. While the emergencies are very different, it’s fascinating to compare the way Survivor handled this very first chopper medevac to one that aired almost exactly 15 years later.

All of my Survivor: The Australian Outback episode recaps

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  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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