There’s a tale we like to tell to novice or late-to-the-party Survivor fans. It’s a story – feels more like myth now – about a tribe called Kucha in a harsh landscape called the Outback. This is pre-Russell Hantz, pre-Boston Rob, even pre-Tom Westman. This is back in the second season of Survivor, when they had no idea that their initial success would continue nearly unabated for twenty-four seasons, that Richard Hatch and his flabby, hairy, naked figure strolling the beach in Borneo had changed the face of television forever. In season two the show was still in unknown territory, not yet a cultural institution with enough memorable moments to fill a double DVD and enough beloved (and reviled) players to field a competitive softball league. This was a long time ago. But all that time we’ve never forgotten about Michael Skupin. And never gave up hope – despite how unlikely it seemed – that he would return.
We often relate how this season featured a tribe that we found to be as formidable and as likable (save for Kimmi) as any tribe in Survivor’s prodigious history. It featured a pretty young face that we’d come to later know as Elisabeth Hasslebeck, football wife and The View co-host/conservative punching bag, then going by the surname Filarski. And while Kucha lacked the statistical dominance of Tom Westman’s Koror tribe in Palau, the team felt as strong and cohesive as any tribe, and it was getting stronger and more cohesive after each challenge and Tribal Council. There was Jeff Varner, the good-looking, drawling Tar Heel, and his partner-in-crime Alicia Calaway, who could have easily parlayed her Survivor appearance into a berth in the WWE. There was Old Man Rodger, who had formed such a sweet, good-natured, grandfather-granddaughter relationship with Elisabeth. And there was Nick Brown, the bright, young Harvard Law student. And they were all led by Michael Skupin, a midwest father whose receding hairline was more Bruce Willis than Ron Howard. Skupin served as heart and soul of the team, his intelligence and survival skills keeping Kucha focused and united at camp, his athletic ability pacing them in challenges, and his hunting prowess keeping them energized. With his guidance Kucha was poised to decimate the Ogakor Tribe, which featured such bickering, unlikable players as Jerri “the Black Widow” Manthey, arrogant chef Keith Famie, mama’s boy himbo Colby Donaldson, mama surrogate Tina Wesson, and another pretty face named Amber (yep, that Amber); it was a tribe that fell out of favor with us the moment they voted out Maralyn “Mad Dog” Hershey. Ogakor featured several future All-Stars and a couple million dollar winners, but after five tribal councils they were faltering, fractured and frustrated (Colby dousing Jerri with a bucket of water following a Reward Challenge loss, for example), and with one more Immunity Challenge defeat they were in danger of going into the merge down 6-4 to a Kucha Tribe operating with extreme confidence and bellies full of chickens and popcorn and, thanks to Mike, a pig.
And then, in the blink of an eye, it all came crashing down.
While stoking the fire Michael inadvertently inhaled some smoke, an amount so great that he passed out and fell into the fire, the immediate pain so immense that he immediately came back to consciousness to find his skin seared, the anguish unbearable. He let out a guttural, primal, chilling scream, the kind of scream that leaves no doubt as to its urgency, and the rest of Kucha raced over to find their leader, their provider, in impossible agony, burnt flesh literally dripping off his hands. It’s an image – no pun intended – that is burnt into our memory, the scariest, most haunting moment of Survivor, of any Survivor, the minute when it became clear that sometimes this game can become incredibly, frighteningly, real.
After what seemed like hours, the medics finally arrived and soon Skupin was airlifted out of camp, his Survivor experience over. Later Ogakor received a note that there would be no Immunity Challenge that night, and the next day the tribes merged 5-5. Without their numerical advantage, and without Mike’s stewardship, Kucha soon fell apart, with Ogakor wisely going after the strongest remaining players, Jeff and Alicia. After that Kucha was gutted, and the dream was over. What looked like a tribe that was going to run the table, that was going to go six strong to the end with plates overflowing with chickens and pigs and fish, was a distant memory, a pipe-dream perhaps. And it all started with Mike falling into the fire. Instead of Skupin (or others from Kucha) making it to the final Tribal Council, we had Colby making one of the dumbest moves the game has ever seen, essentially handing a million dollars to Tina. And Kucha’s demise gave more time to Jerri and Amber, who would then go on to play the game a combined four more times (plus appearances on a handful of other reality-game shows, including Amber and husband Boston Rob’s two stints on the The Amazing Race). Had Skupin not breathed in those flames, everything could have been different.
And we’ve never forgotten that; we’ve never stopped wondering if there was a different page in the choose-your-own-adventure book that we could turn to, or if there was some kind of Sliding Doors alternate reality where Michael positioned himself two inches further from the fire and instead of passing out continued to kill pigs and win challenges. And we never stopped hoping – how unlikely it seemed – that he would return to the game, to prove – maybe more to us than to himself – that he was ripped away too early, he was robbed of victory. Every few years another season of All-Stars or Fans vs. Favorites would come around, and we’d be subjected to another appearance from Jerri or Coach, or – disturbingly – another million dollar win by Sandra, but still no Skupin. He was happy, fulfilled back at home in Michigan he said, content touring the country as a motivation speaker, being a good Christian, and wholly at peace with his exit from Survivor, nothing left to prove (or so we thought).
But now, after eleven years, Mike is finally returning. Along with two other players who were medically evacuated from the game – Russell Swan and Jonathan Penner – Skupin will be competing in Survivor: Philippines. He’s a little grayer now with a little less hair, more grandfather than father, but still, no doubt, a provider, a leader, and a fierce competitor. And we hope, this time around, a winner.
He could be a disappointment, or worse, a colossal failure. The whole illusion that we’ve built up this last decade could come collapse with a shattering thud, the myth of Michael Skupin as the ultimate warrior completely busted. But then, at least, we’ll never again have to wonder “what if?” Michael’s scars have long since faded. Our wounds , however, remain. Let the healing begin.