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The ultimate blindside: An oral history of the greatest Survivor moment ever

May 08, 2019 at 08:00 AM EDT

PROLOGUE

“It’s one of the few seasons, still to this day, where there was one person in the game that looked like they could beat the remaining players in every single challenge. Our feeling was this ice-cream scooper, this young kid, was going to win Survivor. When he won the last challenge, I remember saying, “Guaranteed a spot in the final four. And one of the four women, Parvati, Natalie, Cirie, and Amanda — you’ll be going home tonight.” And in terms of going into that Tribal Council, despite it ending up being one of the most historic Tribals, it started out as a very ordinary Tribal where Erik was safe. Nobody on the production side believed he was ever going to buy this plan to give up immunity. Natalie was going home, and you were gonna have a final four of Erik, Parvati, Amanda and Cirie. From a producing standpoint, that’s an amazing final four. So we were excited for what was to come, and thought Erik was probably going to win Survivor.” —Jeff Probst

It didn’t turn out that way.

For its 16th season, Survivor staged a brand-new concept: one tribe made up entirely of fans, and another of favorite returning players. Survivor: Micronesia — Fans vs. Favorites quickly established itself as one of the best seasons of Survivor ever with a bevy of blindsides the likes of which the show had never seen. The installment really kicked into high-gear post-merge with a slew of instantly iconic moments. A quintet of women — Parvati Shallow, Amanda Kimmel, Cirie Fields, Natalie Bolton, and Alexis Jones — formed what would become known as the Black Widow Brigade, mowing down unsuspecting male victims such as Ozzy Lusth (voted out with a hidden immunity idol), Jason Siska (also voted out with a hidden immunity idol), and James Clement (ultimately taken out of the game due to an infected finger) along the way.

But the defining moment — and one which would go down as the series’ most jaw-dropping of all-time — occurred in the season’s penultimate episode, airing on May 8, 2008. It centered around a naïve 22-year-old from Pinckney, Michigan named Erik Reichenbach. On day 36 of the game, Reichenbach made a seemingly inexplicable decision that would change his life, and the show, forever. Why did it happen? What was he thinking? And how were four women able to pull off the impossible?

Eleven years later, we spoke to the people who were there to get the full inside story on everything that led up to and beyond that fateful decision — including lots of juicy tidbits that never made it in the actual episode. It’s a story of cunning, of deceit, of desperation, and of miracles. It’s also a story on the illusion of redemption, the danger of gullibility, and power of peer pressure. This is the story of the greatest Survivor moment ever.

PART I: THE BACKSTORY

In the previous episode, Erik won his second straight immunity challenge after hitting sake bottles of paint with a BB gun. He ultimately decided to side with Natalie and Alexis at the final six to take out Amanda. Amanda then tore into Erik at Tribal Council, pointing out that when he needed her help before the merge, she kept him safe earlier by instead voting out Ami, yet he was now turning his back on her in her time of need. Erik did not budge, but what he and the others (including Cirie, who voted against Amanda because she did not want to go rocks in a tie and then possibly be eliminated herself) did not know was that Amanda actually had a hidden immunity idol from Exile Island. She played it, Alexis was voted out instead, and those left — Amanda, Parvati, Cirie, Natalie, and Erik — returned back to their tribe camp.

ERIK REICHENBACH: I was pretty pissed that Amanda lied about her idol under her hat or whatever it was hidden. When we got back to camp after Tribal Council, we were grilling her about it. I was pretty pissed about that, but I was just happy that I had won immunity.

NATALIE BOLTON: I was devastated that Alexis went home. I slept on the boat for two or three nights after. I didn’t sleep in the cave with the girls, I slept by myself on the boat. I just needed to process because my ride or die was gone. No pun intended, but it was like survivor’s guilt in a sense. I’m still there, and I’m stoked and excited to be there. But at the same time, I would have chosen any other scenario. So it was just conflict for me. I wanted to be mad at them, but I couldn’t. However, I needed to put my feelings somewhere, so I slept on the boat.

CIRIE FIELDS: After that Tribal, I was kind of exposed, because I had to tell Amanda that I was going to vote for her. At the time, though, it must’ve been a lack of food, because I was actually considering taking rocks, which would’ve been crazier than Erik giving up his necklace, but I was thinking about it. I don’t know why. Maybe I was just blinded by Amanda’s beauty or something, but I remember considering maybe picking rocks, and then, “No, we’re not gonna do that, so let me just tell her.”

PARVATI SHALLOW: All the women were in agreement that Erik needed to be voted out if he didn’t win immunity. Because we thought that he could go on an immunity tear, and get into the final three, and Amanda, Cirie, and I wanted to go there together.

CIRIE FIELDS: I did feel a little sketch with Amanda, because she just realized that I would be willing to vote against her, when it was supposed to be me, her, and Parvati to the end. I was a little nervous about that, but then it seemed like everybody, including Natalie, was onboard to get rid of Erik, because he was becoming a beast in challenges. After I talked to a few people, and I saw they were okay to get Erik, then we had to come up with a plan, because, up to that point, nobody could beat him.

ERIK REICHENBACH: I knew that I could keep winning immunity because the challenges were more physical back then. I thought I was really in a good place. Generally, I was on good terms with everybody even at that point just because I hadn’t screwed anybody over strategically. I felt on top of the world, really, and especially whenever you win immunity, you kind of have this boost of confidence. I was kind of riding on that too. So I felt really, really great at the start of that episode. I felt it was just going to keep happening, and I was going to keep going.

PART II: THE GENESIS

The morning after Alexis was voted out, Erik and Natalie had a talk down by the boat where the two spoke about aligning because they were the two people left most on the outs.

NATALIE BOLTON: He completely teamed up with me. I don’t do well with wishy-washy. Like, I may talk out of my rear end and make a complete fool of myself, but there won’t be any hemming and hawing on where I stand. So I thought we were solid. And with us both being on the outs with them being the Favorites, to me it was a logical choice. And I had the girls on my side because I had a good relationship with them. And he had the physical athleticism and winning of the challenges on his side. It was a perfect storm for us to really move forward together, so it was common sense for me.

ERIK REICHENBACH: She wanted to make a pact with me that we had to stick together as Fans. I really wanted to honor that. She was my friend and we had stuck together out there. It was really crappy that Alexis left and I think Natalie was feeling vulnerable because of that as well.

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NATALIE BOLTON: He was going to either take me on the next reward if he won the challenge, or he was going to send me to Exile Island so I could find the immunity idol.

ERIK REICHENBACH: Yeah, she told me to do that and that she wanted to go to Exile. I told her I absolutely didn’t want to go to Exile if she won. I really like going on the rewards. It kind of lowers my target, like, “Erik, all he wants is a sandwich, he just wants food. He doesn’t care about strategic elements.” Also, I just didn’t really want to go to Exile. It sounded unpleasant and I didn’t want to go to look for idols. I actually don’t like idols. So she was like, “Send me there if you can.” I’m like, “Fine. It doesn’t matter to me. I would gladly do that.” In the most strategic sense, it made sense at that point, which is why it’s so incredible that the next events occurred surrounding the reward challenge.

Meanwhile, Cirie was plotting a course of revenge through redemption. She spoke to Amanda and Parvati about the dangers of either Erik or Natalie going to Exile Island to save themselves with a hidden immunity idol. Knowing the winner of the next reward challenge would have the power to send someone there, Cirie hatched a plan to keep the idol out of Erik or Natalie’s hands: “If Amanda could get in his head that she forgives him, he’ll do whatever she says.”

PARVATI SHALLOW: We’d talked about it beforehand that the best thing to do would be for me to go to Exile Island. We were like, “If Erik wins, then he has to take Amanda because then she can get into his head. And he cannot send Natalie to Exile. He has to send me because if Natalie comes back with an idol, then that throws all of our final three plans for a loop, because she could play the idol and she would have a guaranteed spot in the final four.”

CIRIE FIELDS: Amanda, Parvati, and I had stuck together for the whole time, and that was the whole plan, to just pick them off until it had to come down to the final three.

ERIK REICHENBACH: Amanda comes over and she apologizes. She apologized quite a bit about hiding from me the fact that she had an idol. I honestly didn’t care at that point, which is really stupid of me because I should’ve at least pretended like I cared to get some favor points. But I really didn’t have that mindset to think about that at all. I just forgave her. After she profusely settled that, she wanted to start cutting deals. It’s such a difference between talking to Natalie and then talking to Cirie or Amanda or Parvati. Cirie, Amanda, Parvati run all kinds of plans in a span of a couple of minutes, whereas Natalie and other fans are like, “We’ll do one plan.”

Amanda tried to say something along the lines of “Natalie is next, she’s gone. You don’t want to side with her. We played before, we will carry you. You deserve to be a Favorite” — those kinds of things. She pitched that and I don’t think I gave her a solid answer there. I don’t think I said, “Yeah, I’ll take you to reward or I’ll send you to Exile or whatever.” I don’t think I said anything or gave her a solid answer. She then pitched sending Parvati to Exile instead of Natalie. She was really wheeling and dealing.

The reward challenge was a Survivor trivia competition, with the winner getting to choose one person to join him/her on an overnight resort spa getaway while also sending another person to Exile Island, where another immunity idol awaited. Erik won by getting the final question right that Survivor: Panama — Exile Island was the first season to separate players into four tribes. When asked whom he wanted to send to Exile Island, he chose… Parvati. And then when asked whom he wanted to bring on the spa reward with him, he chose… Amanda.

NATALIE BOLTON: As soon as he picked Amanda to go on the reward, everything changed for me. I was angry, first of all.  And then a bit threatened, obviously, because it’s not aligning the way that it was either told to me or the way that I was foreseeing it panning out. So now I’m in my mind shuffling and trying to figure out actually what’s shaking down now. I was mad.

CIRIE FIELDS: I was thinking, “Yes! Amanda got him right where we need to have him!” I was tap-dancing in my mind, because Amanda had him wrapped around his finger, just like I thought she would. We knew he had eyes for Amanda. Who doesn’t? However, he was telling Natalie she was his number one, and he blew his shot when he took Amanda on the reward, because anybody that’s trying to get you voted out, they’re definitely not gonna feed you and fatten you up for the next challenge. He just played into everybody’s hand by not taking Natalie. Had he taken Natalie, it’d have been status quo, but for him to take Amanda and go against his only true ally from his other beach, that just set him up for the kill for us.

AMANDA KIMMEL: I remember thinking, “Oh my gosh. He totally bought it!”  Because I was testing him at that point. I was testing him to see if he would flip and how easily swayed he would be. And when he picked me for that, in my head I was like: “Oh my gosh, he really bought it! He believed everything.” At that point we knew he would kind of do whatever we want. I remember Parvati and I looking at each other and knowing that there was one point where we had him in the bag. Before that, we were just kind of wondering. And then after this little test we’d thrown at him, we looked at each other and were like, “Okay, I think we can make a major move here if we want to.”

ERIK REICHENBACH: The decision at that point was totally peer pressure. Parvati, Cirie, and Amanda knew they could leverage that. It was in their best interest for me to screw over Natalie too. They didn’t want the two of us getting along, which in hindsight, makes more sense. After Jeff asked, “Who do you want to send to Exile?” I looked over at Amanda and she whispered, “Parvati, Parvati.” It was literally a puppet situation of Amanda sending me the line and I did it. It was zero strategic thought on my part. She threw a name out and I took it.

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PARVATI SHALLOW: Our plan came to fruition when he listened to Amanda, who told him to send me to Exile instead of Natalie. And then he decides to take Amanda on reward with him. So I’m pumped because I’m thinking: “Our plan is working. Amanda’s going to be able to work her magic with Erik on this reward. I trust her completely because she’s my number 1. And I get to go to Exile.” Which I’m thinking is going to be a really good thing because now I don’t have to go back to camp and be with Natalie, because Natalie is going to want me to help her somehow stay in the game. I wanted to stay a little bit more distant and so it was perfect for me to go to Exile.

NATALIE BOLTON: And he didn’t even send me to Exile! It’s like, “Dude, we just talked about this literally right before this competition!” Erik was all over the place. And that’s what made me very nervous. So then at that point when he chose Amanda, I’m like “Oh, I can’t. This is slippery. This is way too slippery for what’s comfortable for me. The two scenarios that we came up with, he’s doing neither of the two. So what is happening here? What’s going on? We just talked about this!”

ERIK REICHENBACH: Amanda’s sales pitch for Parvati was, “Parvati will use it for us. If Parvati got control of the idol and was able to find the idol, she would use it for us,” meaning me and her and Parvati. Amanda trusted Cirie to some point but said that Cirie might not be able to find it. She definitely did not want Natalie to go because she thought Natalie was desperate and would do anything. But Natalie probably should’ve had it. We could’ve done more with it and obviously, I would have never given her immunity at that point.

While the episode showed Parvati basically having a relaxing vacation at Exile Island and not even bothering to look for the hidden immunity idol, that isn’t what actually happened. In what might be Parvati’s boldest Survivor move ever — and one that viewers and even the other players never knew about — here’s what really went down on Exile.

PARVATI SHALLOW: I knew there was an immunity idol out there and I wanted to find it, because that’s a badge of honor to be able to find an immunity idol. They gave you the first clue — and this was back before people just went searching for idol without clues. So I had the first clue, and I read it and it was like, “Go to some other neighboring island and dig.” So I was like, “Oh man, this is going to be a lot of work.” But I went for it. I start swimming around and swimming trying to find an island. And I found a different island. I’m looking, looking, looking, and I don’t find anything, but as I’m swimming, I find another clue. I skipped the second clue and I made it to the third clue, which was great because I don’t think I would have had the stamina to just go clue after clue and dig around.

So I found the third clue and the third clue led me towards these two rock formations. I was swimming around those rock formations and I remember there being a little small shark underneath me. It wasn’t a scary shark, but it was really pretty and so I was following the shark around. Literally, that shark led me to the immunity idol! So I found it, and then I pulled it out. It was like a little voodoo doll looking man, if I remember correctly. It wasn’t an effing stick.

I was so pumped because I found an immunity idol. But I was also like, “Well, I can’t bring this back with me because then my tribe members will make me open my bag and show that I didn’t find the idol.” And if I did bring it back with me, then Natalie would want me to give it to her and then that could be a big problem for me and my plan to get to the end with Cirie and Amanda. So I was like, “Alright, I’m just going to bury this little guy here on Exile Island and he’ll have to fend for himself.” So I left him next to my camp, got in the boat to go reunite with my tribe members, and waved goodbye to my buddy.

AMANDA KIMMEL: Really? I have a hard time believing that. Because when you’re in the game you don’t have to tell anyone you have it, but everyone already assumes you have it when you come back from Exile, so you might as well have it. And the whole point of us sending her out there was to get it! That is so weird. She never told me that.

CIRIE FIELDS: What?! Wow, I would give my left arm for an idol. You passing up idols? I’m glad she didn’t tell me that. I probably would’ve beat her up. Oh my God, are you kidding me?!

ERIK REICHENBACH: I didn’t know that. That’s the kind of confidence that in a post-Game Changers season would get you voted out. You’d get hit with a Ben Bomb or something.

PARVATI SHALLOW: I just wanted to find it for me, and I knew if I brought it back it would cause havoc. And, as it was, the plan was already moving forward so well, I didn’t want to throw in another variable. There was no point. The way I was positioned in the game, Natalie thought that she was really close me and she was my number one, so if I would have brought that back, she would have wanted it because her name was on the block.

CIRIE FIELDS: That’s why Parvati won. That’s a winner’s thinking, because I would’ve brought it. I wouldn’t have told nobody, but I damn sure would’ve had it in my back pocket.

While Parvati was off finding (and then burying) a hidden immunity idol at Exile Island, Erik had a strategic pow-wow with Cirie in the shelter in which he talked about how Natalie and Amanda could not go to the end because they were the biggest jury threats. Unbeknownst to him, however, Natalie was on the other side of the shelter listening, which led to all the women finally comparing notes.

NATALIE BOLTON: I had almost a visceral reaction. I was like, “Excuse me?” I was miffed because I didn’t do a lot of reneging on my word. I tried to keep as much of a tight lip as possible because I didn’t want to say something that I would have to retract. So when I heard Erik now politicking against me behind my back, I’m like, “Okay, he is dangerous. He is a loose cannon and he’s extremely dangerous.” And then my panic sets in more because if he gets in the ear of anyone else, then it’s all going to be craziness between all of us because we’re all going to go into hyper-panic mode because nobody’s going to know what the heck’s going on. So yeah, panic and anger.

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CIRIE FIELDS: I did not know Natalie was there. I was prying to see where Erik was, because he had told us all a different thing, and once Natalie started looking at him sideways, that opened a door for us to have conversations about, “What did he tell you? ‘Cause it’s clear, Natalie, you ain’t his number one, ’cause you would’ve been on the reward with him, eating, right? You’re not the number one, but he’s telling you you’re number one. Let me tell you what he’s telling me.”

AMANDA KIMMEL: Now Natalie didn’t trust him anymore and completely sided with us. And that’s the point where I was like, “Wait a minute, this isn’t okay,” and I didn’t trust Erik anymore either.

NATALIE BOLTON: Amanda and I really didn’t have the most trust between the two of us during this whole time. I think we both felt threatened with who had Parvati more in their pocket, so our level of trust and communication was very fragmented. But sitting in a group of girls having that conversation, I felt safe talking to them about the truth and what was happening. I didn’t really feel like they were being dishonest with me. We were putting it on the table, like, this guy’s all over the place.

CIRIE FIELDS: You know I’m always stirring the pot. But I’m doing it from the backseat. I’m a backseat driver. I can’t ever be the Uber driver, but I can sit in the backseat and do a lot of talking.

With the women now united, all they had to do was beat Erik in an immunity competition that involved solving three puzzles using a set of coordinates, crossing two ropes, and then digging up puzzle pieces. The first person to solve the third puzzle which read “Guaranteed final 4” was guaranteed to make the final four… or so everyone thought.

ERIK REICHENBACH: I had to win that challenge. Otherwise, I was out. I remember warming up before it. I ran down the beach and I ran up back the beach. Everybody else was kind of standing around and I was stretching. I’m like, why aren’t they stretching? I said that to them and they just kind of looked at me funny. When Jeff said go, I’m rushing and running and I’m repeating the name of the characters because they had these little icons like a bird, a palm tree, and a flower, but you had to memorize to find the coordinates. I remember just saying those over and over because my short-term memory could be pretty terrible sometimes.

PARVATI SHALLOW: I remember that being one of the hardest immunity challenges I have ever done. Digging in the sand, it was so exhausting. Digging is the hardest thing to do in immunity challenge. I don’t care how long I have to stand somewhere with my arm over my head, or my feet digging into some splintery wood — digging is the hardest thing. It was like my heart was about to explode.

NATALIE BOLTON: There was lot of digging and I was really starting to lose my strength. I was so frail and skinny, and it was so unbearably hot on that white sand and the sun was reflecting. And I don’t remember at that point how long it had been since we had all had water, but I was losing my gusto and became extremely frustrated that I wasn’t getting my coordinates with my bundles as quickly as I wanted to.

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AMANDA KIMMEL: I hated that challenge. And I remember feeling a lot of pressure because I wanted to make sure that Erik didn’t get it. All of us were on the same page. All of us were trying to win this. I think that’s why we did so bad, because we knew we had to get it or else Erik would stay.

PARVATI SHALLOW: Jeff was taunting me in that challenge, saying, like, “Oh, Shallow, nowhere even close,” or something. I was like, “Just save it, Jeff. No one needs your taunting right now.” And so I knew I wasn’t even anywhere near to winning that challenge. And there was nothing I could do as I watched Erik progress farther and farther. And I’m like, “Ah, damn. He’s got this.”

CIRIE FIELDS: I remember being not too far behind Erik. Erik was fast, and digging faster than me, but because it’s a puzzle at the end, it always gives you some time, so I remember being close behind him. But once I got to that third piece, and I couldn’t find it, and he was back there solving the puzzle, it was just, “Damn, Erik’s gonna win again. How are we gonna get him?” I think everybody’s mind, during that challenge, was like, “We’ve got to beat him. We’ve got to beat him. Damn, we didn’t beat him. Now what?”

ERIK REICHENBACH: It really was a runaway. I just remember every time I kind of looked over, they were way behind or they were confused or they were running all over each other. I just destroyed it and I was like, “Wow, if this continues, I’m in the finals. I’m going to be at the finals!”

PART III: THE PLAN

With Erik having won immunity, the four women went back to camp dejected. They all sat down by the water, confirming that Natalie would now be the next to go and commiserating about what could have been. “If he didn’t have that necklace, he’d be gone,” said Parvati wistfully, imagining an alternate universe in which the Black Widow alliance was able to send the last remaining man out of the game. After a long pause, Cirie posed a question, almost offhandedly. It was perhaps the most audacious question in the history of Survivor: “I wonder if he would give Nat his necklace. Probably not, huh? You think you could talk him into giving you the necklace?”

NATALIE BOLTON: My initial reaction was to look at Cirie and be like, “Are they punking me right now? Like, are they f—ing with me?” My first go-to was, “Wait, I love these girls. We have a bond. I know I’m on the bottom of the totem pole. I get that I’m going home. But, like, they don’t have to go about it like this. They don’t have to punk me out!” So that was my initial reaction, like, “Okay, now you’re taking it to a whole different level that I’m not comfortable with.” So I actually started to get pissy with them.

CIRIE FIELDS: Honestly, it was the fact that Parvati said the necklace was the only thing keeping him there that made me think of it. Because everybody there all agreed he should go. But for this one thing, he would be gone. I’m thinking ahead and thinking, “He wins this one, Natalie goes. He wins the next one, I go. Now what are we gonna do?” Honestly, it was just a whimsical, “Y’all think we can talk him into giving it up?” It was just a passing thought, and then everybody’s like, “Wait a minute, he might.” It just turned into a bonfire from a few sparks.

PARVATI SHALLOW: Cirie saying that, I was like, “I mean, it’s a long shot. It’s a really long shot because no one’s going to give up the necklace — especially someone who’s not in control of the game or in a position of leadership. Why would he do that?” But I did think there was a tiny sliver of, “What if? It might be possible and it’s certainly worth trying.” Because we were a powerful force. The four of us together, we were very powerful. Each one of us had an incredible skill set that complemented the others.

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Following up on the idea, Amanda and Cirie began formulating a plan for Natalie to tell Erik that everyone was mad at him and would not vote for him to win the million-dollar prize unless he redeemed himself. And the only way to do that was to give Natalie his necklace, and if he did that, then they would vote to oust Amanda. Natalie’s reaction on the show upon hearing the scheme? “Who would fall for that? Like, I feel stupid listening to you guys right now”

NATALIE BOLTON: I was like, “Okay, I still have to play it cool because I still need these girls on my side. But I’m getting a little bit angered that they think that I’m stupid enough to even pick up what they’re putting down right now.” I felt like my intelligence was being put in question. I had to say it in kind of a nice funny way, but I was angry. Like, who do they think I am? I remember sitting there thinking, “They’re insulting my intelligence and I can barely stomach it right now but I’m going to laugh and maybe go along with it because what are my other options?”

CIRIE FIELDS: Natalie was insulted, because she felt like we were playing her and were trying to make a fool out of her. But then everybody started chiming in, and it just took on life after that.

AMANDA KIMMEL: One of the things on the show that I was really good at — and it’s awful and a terrible quality — is picking up on people’s feelings really easily and then using that to manipulate them. I knew that it would really benefit us if Erik knew that everyone didn’t like him because he really wanted people to like him on the show. He was young and just really wanted to be liked and wanted to be part of the group. He didn’t wanna be out the outs, ever.

So it just popped into my head when Cirie said that about the immunity necklace. I was like, “Oh my gosh, maybe we can manipulate this situation to our benefit, make him believe that everyone is really upset, and this is the only way he’s gonna get everyone to like him again and trust him and feel like he is trustworthy because he’s just flipping so much. This is a way to prove that you’re going be loyal to the main group and make it to the end with us.”

PARVATI SHALLOW: The plan is starting to form, and Amanda and Cirie are cruising forward. They have a much closer relationship with Erik than I did. We didn’t really get along very well, Erik and I. When everyone was on the family reward and James had left because of a medical emergency, it was just Erik and I back at camp. I was trying to talk with him, and he just not interested in having a conversation. And then I realized, “Oh, I voted out his best friend Ozzy.” So he felt like we were rivals. I don’t think he liked me, and then I was just, like, whatever.

AMANDA KIMMEL: Cirie is so smart. She had a huge part of that plan. At that point, we were just excited that we might have an opportunity to still get Erik out, even though he won. In the back of our heads, we thought it was a long shot because who would be dumb enough to do that? Like, really? But at the same time, we knew this insecurity with Erik wanting to be in that core group was so strong that we’re like, “Maybe we can actually do this.”

MATT VAN WAGENEN [producer on the beach]: I was there right when it happened. I was actually hiding in the bushes with another producer, thinking that this seemed like a long shot. We were expecting a pretty straightforward vote. It just seemed like a bit of a scheme, and we didn’t think it was really going to go anywhere.

PART IV: The Implementation

The first phase of the plan’s execution — no pun intended — involved Natalie pitching to Erik him giving her his necklace because he needed a big pivotal move if had any hopes of capturing jury votes. While chewing on a cornmeal coconut paste in the cave, she began innocently enough with a simple comment: “I had the most harebrained idea.”

NATALIE BOLTON: I’m like, okay, I’m not going to throw too much energy at this because if I go ham on him and I’m like, “Hey, let’s do this” and I come across desperate or aggressive or way too assertive, I’m going to tip him off. So we’re sitting there, we’re talking, and I thought, “Just plant the seed. Just go into his brain a little bit with your fingers and muddle some stuff up really gently. And then just walk away.”

ERIK REICHENBACH: My immediate reaction when she pitched me giving her my necklace was just, no. Just unpalatable. Everything about that statement just made no sense. It was not rational, and it was not reasonable. It was 180 degrees from what we had talked about on the vote in terms of reasonability. When that came up, I was so not prepared to hear that. I was like, this is a joke!

NATALIE BOLTON: When he shot it down at first and said, “I’m not even going to consider it,” I could have taken that as fact on his word, but he’s already proven that he kind of doesn’t really stand behind his word. And he was very emotional in his decision making.

ERIK REICHENBACH: Natalie’s heart was bleeding. She knew she was next. Other people told me she was next. Amanda and Parvati said absolutely, she’s next. Natalie was dying, she had to tell me this, she had to get it out. I was like, “Fine, I will give you the respect of you talking and explaining this a little bit more. You’re out there with nothing else better to do.” So I just let her kind of talk.

NATALIE BOLTON: So even though he was saying no, there was part of me thinking, “Well, he’s saying this right now, but let’s let this germinate and grow. I’m going to walk away and then anybody else that needs to come in and pepper it a little bit and season it a little bit and just lightly caress it, let’s see how this goes.” And we know how that ended.

CBS

Part of the plan to pry the immunity necklace from Erik was for Cirie to say that she would only agree to vote out Amanda if Erik gave his immunity to Natalie to prove he could really be trusted. So after Natalie first pitched Erik on doing it, he went and spoke to Cirie to ask why giving up immunity had to be part of the plan.

CIRIE FIELDS: After Erik talked to Natalie, my job was just to have consistency with what Natalie was saying. I had to follow up with, “Natalie’s right, Erik. I don’t believe anything you’re saying, so I’m not gonna go with any plan that you and Natalie talked about, unless you do something monumental to show me you can be counted on. You’re asking me to expose myself against my alliance, on your word that I already know that I can’t trust? No, you have to do something.”

ERIK REICHENBACH: The reasoning Cirie gave of why I needed to do this was because nobody could trust me and I was all over the place. She basically had the argument of “Nobody can trust you, we don’t know what you’re saying or what you’re doing,” which I really don’t think was true in hindsight. I think it was just them trying to rattle me up and get at me. But the essential argument was that they could not trust me and that I was an untrustworthy person.

CIRIE FIELDS: Erik was young, but he wasn’t an idiot, so we had to have something tangible and something that made sense for him to even consider something so outlandish. “You want me to believe that you really want one of these other girls, Amanda or Parvati, out? You already showed that you can’t be trusted, you already showed that you’re going around lying, so how can I believe that we’re on the same page? Your word is mud now. I don’t believe anything you say. There’s nothing else out there that you can do to make me believe that you are truly gonna follow through with this plan, besides saving Natalie and making our numbers stronger, like we discussed.”

ERIK REICHENBACH: Cirie talked to me about endgame and how I would be perceived as not a strategic player, and how the jury will value the people who played the game and made big moves and all those types of things. So that was talk with Cirie. Then my next talk [which never made it on air] was with Amanda and Parvati, which was all essentially emotional torture. They were saying, “We don’t trust you anymore, we don’t like you. You’re such a likable guy, but we don’t think you’re likable at all. We think you betray people, that you’ve lied to people, and the jury will see that.”

AMANDA KIMMEL: Parvati and I kind of made it our job to make sure that this was going to work, and we were going to do everything we could to make him feel so bad. We both knew to make this happen we had to really make him feel as bad as we could about the whole situation so he’d actually do it.

PARVATI SHALLOW: Amanda was like, “Erik you’ve made everyone upset. Everyone’s mad at you. And what are you going to do to redeem yourself?” And I’m like, “Yeah, Erik!” [Laughs] I was backing up whatever Amanda was saying and then going, “There’s no chance of you winning because everybody thinks that you’re a liar. You’ve gone back on your word. You’ve deceived people.” Certainly, we laid the pressure on really thick. And he was between us. Amanda was to his left and I was to his right. He was caught in the web.

While the original idea was to set Amanda as the fake target, at some point Erik decided that he wanted the vote to go on Parvati instead if he were to even consider giving up his necklace.

ERIK REICHENBACH: When I went back to Natalie and Cirie, they said, “If you give immunity to Natalie to show you’re loyal, we will help you vote out Amanda and totally blindside her.” That’s when I said, “What if Parvati found the idol and she gets wind of this and she uses it for Amanda?” Cirie and Natalie thought that was odd that I even brought that up.

CIRIE FIELDS: When he said Parvati, I’m just wanting him to give up the necklace. He could’ve said it was Ronald McDonald. “Sure, I’ll vote Ronald!”

ERIK REICHENBACH: They were like, “Okay, if you want to vote for Parvati, that’s fine, we can vote for Parvati.” I started to feel it out, but I didn’t give them a yes or no then. It still sounded insane, but I was definitely closer.

MATT VAN WAGENEN: Whether this plan had worked or not, it was going to be fun story to follow either way. But, for me, when I thought that he might actually go for this is when he said he was afraid that Parvati was going to play an idol for Amanda and then asked to switch the vote. As soon as he said that, it was, “Oh, this is real. This could happen. He’s really considering it.” That was when we had to start taking it seriously.

CBS

CIRIE FIELDS: Erik was kind of teeter-tottering. He knew it was crazy to give up your necklace, but at the same time, he felt so strongly about the redemption thing, and the fact that he could probably make it to the end if we were to get rid of Parvati and Amanda, so he said he would think about it if we got rid of Parvati. For some reason, he didn’t want to get rid of Amanda, which is smart, because I think he felt like he had kind of an ally in Amanda. If you think about it, he’s setting himself up. He’s got Natalie, and he’s got Amanda. The next person to lose this next immunity challenge, who’s going home? Not him, not Amanda, and not Natalie. Then I would be next, so this was all beneficial to him. It had to add up in his mind. We left it at, “Let’s see what happens at Tribal.”

ERIK RIECHENBACH: By the end of this day, as we’re on a way to Tribal, my emotional side has essentially taken over. It became much more important that I cared about how I was perceived and how people were seeing me. I felt quite a bit of pressure on me to do something. My strategic mindset was not in the forefront, especially because I’d won immunity. So I’m not thinking and I’m not even aware of it. Really, what they did was change it from a strategic conversation to an emotional conversation. That was really one of the big turning points in that day is that it went from me thinking about strategic placement of myself in a game versus social placement within a structure of people. They put me in a very bad emotional place.

AMANDA KIMMEL: I don’t think any of us really knew if he was actually going to do it or not. All we could do is the best we could beforehand and then just wait and see what happened.

PARVATI SHALLOW: As the day progressed, I started to think less of, “Wow, this is a long shot,” and more of, “Wow, this could actually happen and this could be insane!” I was so excited about the chance that this plan was actually maybe going to happen, because it seemed so impossible when it first started. But as it progressed over time and throughout the day with all of the pressure that was being put on him independently and from different women at different angles, he was sitting in a very vulnerable place once we got to Tribal Council. I thought maybe we’d brainwashed him enough.

CIRIE FIELDS: Honestly, I thought it was a 50-50 chance. I thought it was a 50 percent chance he might do it, but he’s smart and if he’s watched the show, he’s not going to do it. Things happen out there that aren’t normal. I don’t know if it’s because our lack of food, and resources, and sleep, but things happen. If you turned on me in real life, you think I’m gonna talk to you tomorrow? No, I’m probably never going to talk to you again! But out there, you go against my vote, you blindside my ally, and next thing you know, we’re bosom buddies. So that was my other 50 percent chance, thinking: anything is possible.

NATALIE BOLTON: I had such a sense of peace and calm over me, strangely. That’s what I remember heading to Tribal Council. Everything just quieted in my mind and everything became very surreal and slow motion. I had resigned myself at that point to whatever’s going to happen at Tribal is going to happen. We spun our wheels all day, throwing so much energy at not trying to look like we’re throwing energy. We did all this masterminding, so let’s just see how this beautiful little thing plays out.

PART V: THE PAYOFF

The insidious plan was in motion. The Tribal Council stage was set. All that remained was the final act and to see if Erik would actually go ahead and hand over his immunity necklace. Each of the women had assigned roles to play to ensure that he did.

ELIZA ORLINS [juror]: I walked into Tribal Council with the jury thinking that Erik was definitely going to be voted out unless he won immunity. So we walk in and we see that he has immunity, and that means one of the girls is going to get voted out. So now I’m thinking that it was definitely going to be Natalie, and feeling kind of disappointed because the girls had really been playing a great game. But I looked over and there was a twinkle in Cirie’s eye, and she kind of gave me a wink. I was like, “Cirie has something up her sleeve.”

CIRIE FIELDS: I wanted Amanda and Parvati to just lambast Erik. I wanted them to say, in front of the jury, how terrible he was, and how he seems innocent but he’s running around trying to play all of us, telling all of us the same thing, how he turned on Natalie, how he didn’t take her on reward. I wanted Erik to think that he was mud in the jury’s eyes, because that would play right into what I’ve been telling him the whole time. That would just validate everything that we were saying, and push him further to my side of the redemption thought process in giving up the necklace and saving Natalie. “Look, everybody hates you! Amanda can’t stand you. Parvati’s telling the jury how terrible you are. You’re never gonna win this thing, not like this. You’ve got mud all over you. You’ve got to clean yourself up.”

JEFF PROBST [host, executive producer]: The conversations that happened on the beach before Tribal and then carried through into Tribal, if you watch them together, that is a master class in persuasion. It’s one of the most fundamental skills required to play Survivor, the ability to persuade somebody to do something. There are two big categories of persuasion: You can charm, or you can put the fear of consequence in somebody, and they did both.

AMANDA KIMMEL: We had to really play this out until the very end because even though you’ve done all this work before, it’s so different when you get Tribal Council. So I really wanted to carry the energy into Tribal, because if I don’t, there’s a slim chance that this was maybe going to happen.

PARVATI SHALLOW: My role was to be the bully. I took on that role because that’s already what Erik expected of me. He didn’t like me very much. And I thought, “You know, he thinks I’ve already betrayed a bunch of people, so he’s going to anticipate me being a bad guy. And I’m going to do that. I’m going to just bully him and then see how that works.” Amanda was good cop, I was bad cop, Natalie was the one who was the underdog who needed Erik’s help, and then Cirie was this motherly, nurturing, you-can-trust-me figure.

JEFF PROBST: It’s one of the most remarkable team efforts. Everyone had a role, and everyone delivered. It was like a bank heist. Everybody has to be on point. If one person is off, it’s over. If the getaway driver forgets to put gas in the car, you’re screwed. But everybody was right. And it truly is one of the greatest displays ever, because you watch what a beautiful combination of charm and consequence can do.

NATALIE BOLTON: I’ve got to say, those girls stepped up. I was kind of shocked with the attack by Amanda and Parv. They just went at him, and it was so good. And he was receptive and tender enough at that point for that to really, unfortunately, make an impact on him. And then Cirie peppered in the talk about needing redemption and it became this whole like murky what’s happening right now?! But I got to say, those three girls really showed up for me in that Tribal Council. And my job was to just sit back and let it all unfold the way it was supposed to unfold.

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JEFF PROBST: First, Parvati said, “Nobody can trust him. He’s all over the map.” Then Amanda kind of said the same thing. That was predictable. They were gonna give it a shot. But there was a moment where Erik said, “They’re not wrong. I have been doing that.” And that admission in that moment caught my ear in the sense that Erik was actually listening. You didn’t know if he was gonna do it, but he was listening.

ERIK REICHENBACH: Parvati and Amanda had resting b—- face towards me. Tribal Council is almost always jovial, like an awkward jovial atmosphere. This one was cold. It was frozen over with ice, at least for me.

MATT VAN WAGENEN: Truthfully, it felt like they were piling on pretty hard. I was feeling bad for him because he was really looking to clear his name and they were piling on. For lack of a better word, they were mind-f—ing him.

ELIZA ORLINS: I remember that they were being really hard on him, and it did seem kind of performative, but a lot of the things that they did were very calculated, and so I figured this was a show for the jury to potentially earn votes later.

OZZY LUSTH [juror]: I didn’t really get it. It didn’t seem like he had done anything that bad, but for some reason he’s super vulnerable. I think there was a little bit of a delirium happening for him, because his body was eating itself and his mental state was affected by that, and they were able to see that weakness, and really exploit it. And they did a damn good job at it.

ERIK REICHENBACH: I was just playing Survivor, the same as them. It came down to me wanting to feel good. I am influenced by other people. I’m influenced by what other people think of me and especially people that I consider friends. They knew that, and they leveraged that. I really don’t think I did anything outside the norm that would be like a Russell Hantz or a Randy Bailey. There are other people that have done much worse things than me.

CIRIE FIELDS: I’ve done worse than that.

PARVATI SHALLOW: Erik did not do anything wrong. Let’s be 100 percent clear about that. I do not believe that Erik ever did anything wrong. All of it was totally made up.

AMANDA KIMMEL: We’re awful people. I don’t know what to say. It was awful! The stuff you have to do on the show is awful. We basically used the sweet parts of Erik and threw it back at him. He’s such a sweet guy and we just manipulated that part. The stuff you’re capable of, it’s pretty bad.

PARVATI SHALLOW: I could care less if Erik was breaking his word with everyone. It didn’t bother me. What really mattered to me was advancing my game and getting the people that I wanted to get to the end. And I realized the only way for us to do this was for everyone to step into their role that we had all agreed to play and play it to the best of our ability.

ELIZA ORLINS: Watching from the jury, I felt sorry for him. He seemed kind of in over his head with these very adept women. He was the kid from a tiny town in Michigan who had never even left the country before, let alone maybe even the state of Michigan, and he just seemed so in over his head. I just sat there shaking my head, feeling bad for him.

The last question Jeff Probst posed before going to voting was to ask Cirie if it matters if you redeem yourself in this game. It could not have been teed up any better.

CIRIE FIELDS: I remember saying, “Of course, it’s important for redemption!” which, one, I needed Erik to hear. And two, I needed Erik to hear. Because it just validated everything that was going on earlier in the day. Jeff just put so much value into my plan, by saying, “Redemption.” It just so happens you’re talking about redemption, and this is what I’m telling this kid he needs in order to make it to the end and win a million dollars. It was perfect for me.

ERIK REICHENBACH: They were putting a wall on each side of me. The only wiggle way out for me emotionally is to redeem myself by the path they want. So emotionally, they boxed me in. They’ve realized strategically, we might not be able to beat Erik, or in skill challenges, we might not be able to beat Erik. But we can box him emotionally in this way, which I wasn’t aware of until it was too late. It’s like throwing out a line, here’s what you grab on. I think the title of the episode is very apt: “If it Smells Like a Rat, Give it Cheese.” Redemption was the cheese.

CIRIE FIELDS: He didn’t quite understand that the necessity for redemption isn’t really a factor in this game. You redeem yourself when you get a chance to talk at the end. That’s when you do your redeeming. Right now, you just get to the end. When he opened himself to the conversation about redemption, that let me know that there was some wiggle room in there, and some mind games to be played, because, if not, he would’ve just been like, “Yeah, I’ll redeem myself when I talk at the end. No, I’m never gonna give up my necklace.” By him not just shutting it down, it let us know that there was an opening there.

ERIK REICHENBACH: It really is just them ganging up and hammering the iron, hammering the iron until I’m so malleable.

CIRIE FIELDS: Erik is a nice guy, and he didn’t really wanna upset anybody or anything, but by just merely playing the game, you’re gonna upset somebody. I guess his view of the game is go to the end with as many people that like you and support you to win, but it’s not really that all the time. That comes from experience. That comes from being older, living a little more, and playing the game a little more, ’cause things happen. People will cut your throat and attempt to blindside you, and the next thing you know, you’ll be saving them with your idol.

It was finally time to vote and Probst, as was customary, asked Erik if he would like to keep his necklace or hand his hard-won immunity over to someone else.

ERIK REICHENBACH: When Jeff says, “What do you want to do?” I feel I need to do something at that point. I feel like I need a release. I’m not thinking that there’s only three more days to put up with this; I’m thinking that I’m trapped in this moment. The decision was made right then. That was the moment. And I did it. I gave it to Natalie.

CBS

JEFF PROBST: As a producer, all you’re thinking is, “I cannot believe this is happening. This is the greatest moment that’s ever happened on Survivor!” And I stood up to start the voting and all I’m thinking is “Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God. This is happening. This is happening. He’s going to be voted out. He has no idea. How does he not see this?!”

NATALIE BOLTON: It was an out-of-body experience, because he’s taking the necklace off and in no way shape or form should this have ever gone down like this. So he’s taking it off and handing it over to me and I’m putting it on. And I can’t throw too much energy at it because he could have retracted it had I had some sideways reaction. Then I could have tipped him off within that moment of saying, “You know what? Actually, I’m changing my mind.” Because you know how they say not until the ink’s dry on a contract do you believe anything? That’s kind of how it was. I needed it around my neck, latched, and then Jeff to continue talking and say, “We’re starting the voting process. So and so, you’re up.” I needed that segment to close out.

CIRIE FIELDS: Oh my God, when Erik said he was gonna give Natalie the necklace, I didn’t wanna turn around. I wanted to stay laser-focused on whichever direction I was looking, ’cause I didn’t wanna give him any reason to think, or to look at me, or catch a glance, or anything to make him change his mind, and I almost wanted to stay invisible until the act was over, until she actually had it around her neck, because people say things and change their minds in seconds at Tribal. I’m sitting there. I hear him saying this, but I can’t even breathe until the necklace is firmly placed around Natalie’s neck. I’m just sitting there, like, “Don’t look at me. Don’t ask me no questions, Jeff. I’m not even here. Let the exchange take place.”

CBS

PARVATI SHALLOW: Oh my God. Oh my God. I don’t even hear the words, but I see him taking the necklace off of his neck. And I’m like, “No. No way. No. He can’t … It’s not … No way! Oh, my God! Is he for real?” I was just in complete disbelief and shock. And then I watched him hand it over to Natalie and I’m like, “Woooow.” I was overwhelmed with the intensity of shock and disbelief and just like sheer… What?!

AMANDA KIMMEL: I was completely shocked. I couldn’t believe that he actually did it. Because there’s still that part of you that’s like, “No one’s actually going to do this.” But after the shock I was like, “Oh, my gosh! We still have to play this off.”

CIRIE FIELDS: Inside, there’s a party going on, like, “Oh, hell no!” But outside, I’m just trying to remain calm, because I wanted Erik to at least think maybe he didn’t just make the biggest mistake of his life. I had a good angel–bad angel on my shoulder. The good angel is like, “Damn, he actually gave her his immunity. Now, you’re gonna vote him? Shame on you!” But then the other side was like, “Yes, we got him!” I had to contain all of that and just try to look straight ahead so we could get on with the vote. But the jurors are over there already passing out and gasping.

PARVATI SHALLOW: They’re all in total shock. I think Eliza’s mouth is the widest I’ve ever seen her mouth get, and she’s known for large facial expressions. Watching the jury’s reaction, I’m like, “Oh man. We got a live one. We did real good.”

OZZY LUSTH: I just was thinking: You’re a f—ing idiot!

ELIZA ORLINS: My mouth just dropped open at that point. I completely cannot believe that he has just gotten himself voted out of the game.

CBS

OZZY LUSTH: My expression was sort of the flip side of Eliza’s expression. She was flabbergasted, and I was just like, I can’t believe this is happening. Somebody that potentially could win the game is basically surrendering the game right now. So odd.

ELIZA ORLINS: We’re all cracking up. I’ve got my hands on my head. We’re all like, “James, holy s—! You’re not the dumbest Survivor ever anymore!” It was just unbelievable.

NATALIE BOLTON: Oh, Eliza is all over the place. All over the place! James is like, “Are you kidding me?” They’re all just going nuts. But Erik didn’t see any of that. Or it didn’t register, or it didn’t resonate with him. it was almost as if he was blind to all of it.

ERIK REICHENBACH: I kind of knew that the jury was making faces and doing stuff, but I did not look at the jury on purpose as I was giving immunity away because I did not want them to influence my decision. For whatever reason, I thought at that moment that had I looked at the jury — especially Eliza and James — I would’ve been cued to it, but I didn’t want to. I did that on purpose. I don’t know what possessed me to not look over at the jury, but that cue would’ve have helped me, obviously.

OZZY LUSTH: I was trying to will him to actually change his mind and not do it, because it’s the biggest mistake that anyone will have ever made in that game.

ELIZA ORLINS: Had he just looked at us, he probably wouldn’t have done it, because we were having big reactions.

ERIK REICHENBACH: After I gave up the necklace and we all started to vote, I remember finally looking at the jury at that point. People were laughing. James could not contain himself, Eliza is making really weird faces, Alexis is holding in a laugh. Things are starting to be different now. At that point I knew, “S—, this is either going to be really good or really bad.”

JEFF PROBST: The jury is laughing at him. They were guffawing at Erik. And he goes up to vote. I think what Erik was thinking was, “But you guys don’t know the deal I made. I think I actually just made a really good deal, and I think you’re gonna be super impressed with me and maybe that will make you want to vote for me.” But they’re thinking, “You’re an idiot to give up immunity against those four women. Those are four of the smartest women to ever play Survivor. You really think they’re trustworthy? They just played their game on you. They’re the ones that aren’t trustworthy! That’s the con.”

CBS

In a Survivor rarity, producers did not even make an attempt to present a red herring or fool the audience, showing every single vote as it happened along with the comments of the elated/flabbergasted women casting them, including Parvati’s now iconic “You’re crazy. You officially go down as the dumbest Survivor ever. In the history of Survivor. Ever.”

PARVATI SHALLOW: There is a backstory to what I said. James and I became very close in the course of the game and he told me how he got voted out in China with two immunity idols in his pocket. And he’s like, “I’m the dumbest Survivor ever. I’ll go down in history as the dumbest Survivor ever to play the game of Survivor ever.” So I took that title away from James and anointed Erik with it.

CIRIE FIELDS: I’ll never forget what I said while voting. My mother always taught me that. She said, “You may not be able to beat him with these,” and she’s talking about strength and muscles, “but if you use your mind, you can always beat him with your brain.” She told me that, and I’ll never forget it.

MATT VAN WAGENEN: I really liked Amanda’s where she was kind of speechless. I don’t think we’ve ever done something where we show all the votes, and we showed all the votes because it was a historic moment. There was no red herring. It was just, this is what’s happening and this is it.

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At this point, everyone at Tribal Council — players, jurors, host, producers — were all in on it except for one person, and it was time for the big reveal.

ERIK REICHENBACH: The first vote was for me, but I expected that. I was like, “That’s probably Amanda’s vote.” But at that point my strategic was coming back online. I was like, “This is either going to be bad or good.” Then my vote for Parv come up and it’s still a tie at this point so I was like, “Okay, maybe I’ll pull it off and it would be the most amazing move Survivor‘s ever seen!”

It was not. After two more votes were shown for Erik, Probst made it official: “13th person out and the 6th member of our jury. Erik. That’s enough. You need to bring me your torch”

Monty Brinton/CBS

ERIK REICHENBACH: I was like, s—. The whole day was just the day from hell. I was actually kind of relieved when that happened, but at the same time I was still sad I didn’t make it. I didn’t go all the way. It wasn’t this amazing fun experience the entire time. That day really proved to me that to go to the end, it’s going to be really hard. It’s gets really hard, really fast.

NATALIE BOLTON: You know, it’s interesting because that’s probably the only time I ever smiled in that whole season. It was such a euphoric feeling, just pure elation and otherworldly joy and happiness. And I think all of us felt it, because we pulled that off.

AMANDA KIMMEL: I was in shock and I was ecstatically happy. I couldn’t believe that he did it. And that it worked.

PARVATI SHALLOW: This might sound totally callous and really mean, but for me it was like Christmas morning. I was so happy that our plan actually worked, because I really liked being a part of a winning team. I think it’s awesome when the team is greater than the sum of its parts. And it’s one of the best feelings in the world to be a part of an effective team that is that skilled to pull off something that’s so impossible. So when he is getting voted out, I’m thrilled. Also, I knew he was putting my name down, so it always feels good to get someone instead of them getting you. I was pumped.

NATALIE BOLTON: This is a little side note, but when I was preparing to play the game, I wrote out the Webster’s Dictionary definition of manipulation. It’s a very benign definition: doing things to receive a certain outcome, basically. And so I had to really wrap my brain around the concept of having to manipulate people and I had to become okay with that. And also as I was prepping for the show, I wrote “Final Four” across my wall. Just final four. Why I didn’t think I wanted to win the million, that’s another conversation. But I put final four. So that moment was such a real powerful experience for me because I’m like, “Wow, I manifested what I came here to do. The whole thing I came for was to be final four and here I am.” And that overshadowed everything in that moment and I think you can see it on my face.

CBS

ERIK REICHENBACH: I sprinted off after Jeff snuffed my torch because everybody walks off all depressed and I just wanted to be different. I had an interview shortly after being snuffed and production was terrified that I was going to be suicidal and crying and blown away at how devastated I was. But I was ecstatic! I was like, this is incredible! I was relieved to be out of that day from hell with them just emotionally destroying me. So it was a mix of emotions. I really didn’t process it for probably the entire time we were still on location and then all the way back home. The real understanding that I lost it all didn’t hit until much later.

PART VI: THE AFTERMATH

As if going through the event was not horrifying enough for Erik, he then had to relive the entire thing five months later on TV. Survivor: Micronesia — Fans vs. Favorites (in which Parvati would ultimately beat Amanda at the end after Natalie and Cirie were voted out) was an instant hit with fans. But when the Erik immunity episode was broadcast on national television May 8, 2008, it proved to be a reckoning for all parties involved.

ERIK REICHENBACH: Leading up to that moment airing, I had a lot of support at Eastern Michigan University and from friends and family. Everybody thought I was going to win it. I won the first immunity, I won the second immunity. I actually flew to New York for the episode, and I remember on the plane somebody in first class who looked like the Monopoly Man gave me his card and said, “I will help you invest your million dollars.” I thought that was kind of funny knowing the results ahead of time. I had told my parents too what had happened and they didn’t believe me. They did not believe that I would make it to the final five and then give up immunity. They just thought I was pulling their leg or hoaxing them.

So I get to New York and I’m hanging out with James and Eliza, and then Alexis and Natalie were there. The night of that episode, we watched it from the hotel. When the episode was airing, Eliza was watching Twitter as people came in with all their commentary. A lot of people were talking about it online and James just kept giving me drinks. A lot of that night turned into a blur afterwards.

AMANDA KIMMEL: Watching it back, I was kind of like, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe I did some of this stuff and said some of this stuff to him.” I remember a conversation with him after watching it, and I was like, “I wonder if there’s a different way we could’ve done that.” I felt really bad about it right after watching it, and I still feel bad about it to this day. I don’t think I ever told him that, either.

CIRIE FIELDS: Oh, it was exciting, but it was a little bit cringeworthy too because I felt like I was taking candy from a baby. It’s a game, and this is the only way I can get this candy right now, so I had to take it from this baby. But I felt kind of conflicted. I felt sorry for Erik.

PARVATI SHALLOW: I remember watching that entire season play back and having a really hard time with it because I had said some mean things about Jason in some of the episodes and I’d made up some lies that Eliza said all this stuff and wanted to vote out Alexis and she never did. And I’d been part of this notorious blindside and Ozzy was so mad at me, so I had a lot of people pretty upset with me for how I had acted throughout the course of the game. I remember definitely being more compassionate in watching it back and seeing Erik as a human being and then seeing that, “Oh wow, I was pretty brutal.” And nobody got the context of what I said at the end because nobody knew that I was taking that title from James and giving it to Erik. It was funny when James was saying it, but when I said it about Erik, I’m sure it was really hurtful.

NATALIE BOLTON: You know what’s funny is I had no idea that I was even going to seem evil, to be honest with you. I was a deer in headlights on that, because all my connections and all my real alliances were legitimate. So I didn’t think that I was being pegged as some evil person. I think I was so in the moment of making it to final four that that overshadowed, “Oh what are these people going to think about me?” So when it did start to air and I was a “villain,” I was like, “Oh, wow. Okay, interesting.”

PARVATI SHALLOW: In that moment, my role wasn’t to be kind at all. And I needed to be the bully in order for the plan to work out as well as it did. So I had to do what I had to do to get that plan moved forward in the game. But I feel like there is an opportunity for kindness after one leaves the game. Now I see Erik as a sweet little puppy who was totally out of his element and overwhelmed by, I would say, more effective performers.

ERIK REICHENBACH: In the days right after it aired, I started being approached by Survivor fans, and everybody was pretty nice. They would say, “That was a really dumb move,” but they didn’t say it to my face or anything terrible. To me, they just said, “You’re a really good kid, but you got played.” The support of Survivor fans and people really helped my dad, because my dad’s super competitive, and when he finally found out that I had given up immunity, he just punched a punching back for two hours straight. He was blown away that I would do something so stupid, so it really hit him hard that I did that. But I think once he started to realize people supported what I did, even though it was monumentally stupid, it made it less of a blow.

CBS

The first time Erik handing over his immunity aired on TV was certainly not the last. Whenever any sort of Survivor montage pops up on the show looking at the famous moments, biggest blindsides, or egregious errors over the years, Erik’s immunity giveaway is always there. At this point, it is likely the most-aired Survivor moment ever, meaning Erik has to relive it constantly. But in doing so, it has changed his perspective of the event and his infamous decision.

ERIK REICHENBACH: It’s really funny because my mom always calls me or texts me and she’s like, “Are you on next season? They just showed you.” And I have to be like, “No mom, they’re just showing it.” It’s this moment that just keeps on coming back, and it’s really interesting of how much of a lightning rod it is for so many people who watch it. It’s a universal thing people can relate to as an every-man moment, because people try to do good things and they get screwed. This happens all the time. You try to do the right thing, and instead you fall in the mud.

MATT VAN WAGENEN: He was a super fan and he became a part of the Survivor history. In a way, he was looking for that, and he got it.

ERIK REICHENBACH: The crazy thing too, which I realized over the years, is that I don’t regret the moment. I really don’t, even now looking back on it. I can’t really take it back or fix it or do anything about it. It’s in the past. So it’s been really surprising, the after-effect of something that normally you would be ridiculed to the end of your days about. And I am ridiculed, but it’s almost okay at the same time just because of how it played out.

The jaw-dropping event did not just transform the lives of the people on that season, it transformed the show as well, ushering in a new age of outlandishly bold and aggressive gameplay that has made the seasons that came before it seem positively quant and kumbaya by comparison.

JEFF PROBST: This was a turning point in the game, and it was a turning point for me. Because what I started to really understand is how sophisticated Survivor is, from a game point of view. I don’t think I appreciated at the time what those four women did. I think we labeled it a really good move, and then everybody called Erik the dumbest Survivor player ever. And I don’t think that does either of the parties justice. I don’t think Erik was a dumb player. I think Erik played a great game, and he got outplayed. And I don’t think anybody fully appreciated how well those women played that. When you go back and look at it now, if that happened today, people would label all four of them instant hall of famers. These four powerful, smart women pulled off the greatest heist in the history of Survivor. And they did it live, in front of the jury, with a willing accomplice who had no idea he was the fall guy.

MATT VAN WAGENEN: I feel like that was the beginning. People talk about different eras of Survivor and I feel like that really ushered in a different kind of gameplay where people thought anything was possible. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a group dynamic like that before, where you got an entire tribe running around behind the scenes, checking in with each other, setting everything up perfectly. It was like a sting — everyone was playing their parts. It was impressive to watch. I don’t know if I’ve seen anything quite like that before.

ELIZA ORLINS: It’s a thing of beauty to watch. I mean, how that didn’t win the Emmy, I don’t know. It’s just so epic. It’s one of those iconic moments that shows what a phenomenal concept they have and why this show has been on for 20 years. You always assume people will act in their own best self-interest and do the thing that is best for them, and you just forget that there are human elements and that people are susceptible to pressure of beautiful, older women, and are going to make these colossal mistakes. That’s what makes the show so much fun to watch.

JEFF PROBST: I don’t really think I understood then that the game was really, at its core, only social. And that showed this game is about nothing other than social relationships. That’s it. Case in point: That young athletic blond-headed kid can kick our ass in every challenge they put at us. But if we can persuade him to do something unthinkable, we can beat him. Social. This was when everybody woke up and realized Survivor is a social game. Now we all say, “It’s the ultimate social game. Blah, blah, blah.” But up until then, there’d been lots of ways people had won. Lots of different winners. Those four women cemented one thing: If you don’t have a social game, you can’t win.

MATT VAN WAGENEN: I’ve gone back a couple of times here and there and watched that season and it still is one of my favorites. There are other seasons where stuff happened: Heroes vs. Villains there was all sorts of twists and turns, Russell Hantz finding idols without clues was a big change, Tony Vlachos did all sorts of crazy stuff, and David vs. Goliath had so many moves in it. But I feel like that moment was the end of innocence. Suddenly the gloves were off and there was no going back from season 16.

Monty Brinton/CBS

At every Tribal Council, it is tradition after each torch snuffing for Jeff Probst to offer his quick take or words of wisdom to the remaining players. After Erik gave up his immunity and was promptly voted out, Probst’s sign-off to the final four was: “I think that is what you call a life lesson.” So, in the end, what was that life lesson?

CIRIE FIELDS: I think, for Erik, the life lesson should’ve been: Go with whatever you think first and what your heart tells you. I don’t care who else is telling you what. If it ain’t Jesus Christ himself, don’t go with what other people plan. Life plans, work plans, party plan, whatever their plan is, do what you wanna do, because, in the end, you’re gonna be the only one paying for it. That gut feeling that you get when you’re walking down the street, and you see somebody shady, and something tells you to hold your pocketbook a little tighter and walk a little faster, listen to that. That gut instinct, when it says, “Don’t give up your necklace. That’s the craziest thing ever. Who cares about redemption?” Listen to that before you listen to other people.

AMANDA KIMMEL: For Erik, it must be: Don’t believe everything you hear, especially from a bunch of girls. He was just a young kid that was a huge Survivor fan and had never really been anywhere before. All the sudden you put him on a show and he’s left with all these girls? The guy had no chance.

NATALIE BOLTON: I think there are life lessons all over the place with that episode and all over the place for each individual person in their individual way from their vantage point. The life lesson for me is that any time I start to struggle, like, “I don’t know. Can I pull this off? Can I do this?” I can always draw on this situation to think, “I can do it.”

PARVATI SHALLOW: For me the life lesson is, anything is possible. Even if it seems impossible and it seems like it’s long shot, if I really want it, then I should definitely do my very best to try.

OZZY LUSTH: The life lesson is to always question people’s motives. When you have so much at stake, make sure that you’re trying to see beyond what people are saying, and really hear what their motives really are.

ELIZA ORLINS: I think that it was a life lesson to not be so trusting. The first time I played Survivor, I was 21-years-old and I felt like I learned some life lessons, too. You go in there as a sheltered 21-year-old and think that people are inherently good, and they won’t lie to you, and they aren’t really that manipulative and won’t do things that are truly dark. I don’t think Erik has a dark side.

MATT VAN WAGENEN: The lesson was that life is real and Survivor is real and if you come into either one with a pie in the sky attitude, you better wear your seatbelt. It’s also a life lesson that if you’ve got four women working for a common cause, they can pull off something crazy.

JEFF PROBST: At the time, what I think I was implying to Erik was, “Beware the charm of a woman.” That’s what I think I meant at the time, because he was a young guy and that was the feeling. But the life lesson that I take from that now, especially in regards to Survivor, is always ask yourself, “What’s in it for the other person? What is their motive? Why did they want me to do this?” When somebody’s trying to sell you on an idea or trying to persuade you to do something, ask yourself, “Why are they trying to get me to do this?” And if you can find that answer, then you’ll have the clarity you seek.

ERIK REICHENBACH: If any life lesson came out of this, it was that failure is human. Failure is what we do. You’re going to fail. And you’re going to fail hard sometimes. The lesson is not, don’t do that again, or be weary. I’m not going to stop trusting people. I’m not going to stop believing that people have good intentions. You have to be flexible. You have to bounce back from it. I think a lot of people go on Survivor and they get screwed or they get voted off and they’re bitter about it for years. And they hold it in themselves for years.

I feel like I failed monumentally, and I’ve had people tell me all kinds of horrible things, as well as good things. This is what happens. You have to bounce back from it. You have to realize, you will make mistakes. You will look like a buffoon. You will look ridiculous sometimes, but it’s going to be okay. Maybe other people learned different lessons. Maybe other people would have something happen and they’d be like, “I’m never going to let that happen again.” Or they’d get really bitter and dark about it. But I can’t live like that, and I don’t think that’s the lesson that I’m supposed to learn.

Illustration by Erik Reichenbach for EW

Related content:
Ranking every season of Survivor
All hands on deck: Behind the scenes of a Survivor marooning
What happened to Jeff Probst’s final words of wisdom on Survivor?
Survivor: Edge of Extinction newbies on returning players they wanted to see

Jeff Probst leads adventures in the ultimate (and original) reality series.
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  • 05/31/00
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