December 20th, 2009
When Survivor started its nineteenth season, there was a man named Russell. Pot-bellied and stubborn, Russell emerged as if pre-fabricated to play the role of villain in Mark Burnett’s game. He came in with no desire to make friends, and started emptying out canteens and burning socks. It was the most aggressive villain edit the show had ever seen, which meant one of two things to me: either Russell was going to be leaving very quickly (hence the show maximizing his villainy time) or else there was more to Russell’s game than this villainy would seem to indicate.
Russell proved inherently divisive in those early weeks: some people hated him, and felt as if he was ruining the season with his heartless ways. But something changed in the game that made Russell seem less villainous. His tribe, Foa Foa, started getting clobbered in challenges, which meant that Russell’s victims were becoming victims of the game itself. And so Russell didn’t have to be a villain anymore, just watching as his tribe lost every challenge and revelling in his ability to manipulate his tribe into voting how he wanted them to vote. And suddenly instead of someone who was operating against the game (burning socks, disrupting daily life), Russell was simply a puppetmaster enjoying as the rest of his tribe stopped thinking for themselves.
And then the game became Russell’s, to the point where behaviour that before felt obnoxious (like finding the immunity idol without a clue) suddenly became genius, and where his manipulations went from an unnecessary force in the game to a brilliant strategic advantage that took the four remaining Foa Foa members from a severe disadvantage to standing as four members of the final five heading into the show’s finale. And somewhere along the way, the game went from being Russell’s to ruin to being Russell’s to win, and in many ways this finale has come down less to who wins and more to whether or not that person is Russell.
That’s the joy of Survivor, really: if you had told me that at the beginning of the season, I never would have believed you.
The most amazing part of Russell’s journey this season is that we have known from the very beginning every part of Russell’s strategy, and yet we haven’t seen any of the other players pick up on it. He had an alliance with every single player, and yet no one seems to have figured this out. If I had any emotional attachment to these people, I would have lost my voice screaming at the television weeks ago, but the fact that Mick, Jaison and Natalie have all gone along with his plan has become a sort of perverse entertainment. Jaison has convinced himself that Russell is actually his frontman (which is by far the most delusional response), Natalie is honest about choosing to ride Russell’s coattails, and Mick seems to know that Russell is a snake but in his passive leadership tradition has decided to just let it slide and hope it sorts itself out.
Perhaps some of it is editing, where the focus has been more on Foa Foa’s strength in uprooting the old Galu as opposed to their underlying tension, but we just haven’t seen these people acting intelligently. And in most seasons this would have led to frustration over the players simply being too stupid to see what is happening around them, but Russell has made it all feel like a marvellous side show. It’s been proof positive that this game is unpredictable, and that some magic with immunity idols (which was admittedly manipulated by producers) could turn this game around so easily. And sometimes we forget that Russell wasted one of his idols at the merge, so it’s not like he’s played a flawless game. That moment proved he was human, which made his fellow players all the more stupid for not trying to make a move against him earlier.
And they pay for it, because the one time Russell was in a position where eliminating him would have made sense he pulls off an absolutely stunning Immunity victory in a nailbiter of an immunity challenge. That tiny little statue meant that Russell was going to the Final Three, and with that his goal was achieved: all of his immunity idols, and all of his manipulations, were for this moment. But what we see of Russell heading into that Final Four vote is someone who isn’t as cocky as he acts, who is concerned about jury votes even while acting as if he has the game in hand to his fellow competitors. And even when we know that Russell’s sudden streak of meritocracy is a play for votes, an act to make it seem as if it is a hard decision to eliminate Brett from the game. But yet what we see behind the scenes is not some evil mastermind, but a strategic player whose bravado doesn’t hold up under scrutiny, who seemed like he was more unsure than his cockiness seemed to indicate.
And what’s fascinating is how Russell expects everyone to choose him over Natalie and Mick, to the point where he basically tries to serve as judge by telling them the kinds of questions that will keep them from winning a million dollars. And perhaps he forgot that people eventually learned what he does for a living, and perhaps he forgot how no one in the game ended up trusting him in any capacity. Russell makes the jury out to be Dominos in his opening address, and even when we as the audience know he is unquestionably objectively correct (Mick was a leader who never led and Natalie was a wallflower who never made a move) there’s still that chance that the jury (made up of finicky Galu members who have found this game as perversely entertaining as we have) could work against him. And there’s a certainty to Russell that seems like hubris, that feels like it would turn out to bite him in the ass before things are over.
And then it did. Russell’s confidence was read as cockiness, and Erik’s impassioned speech upended his gameplay in a way that reminded the jury that they, and not Russell or Natalie or Mick, define what it means to be the sole Survivor. And just because Russell believes that Outlast, Outwit and Outplay means being a strategic player who cheats and lies to everyone, that doesn’t mean that the jury has to agree with them. This is a highly subjective game, and the sheer power of definition found in the jury is more powerful than Russell’s belief that he played the game “right” or “better” at the end of the day. And because the jury didn’t have the narrative that we had, where Russell went from a lousy snake to a grand serpent, they had only a man who was proud of having eliminated all of them by outlying, outcheating and outboasting.
So no, I don’t agree that Natalie deserves the title of the Sole Survivor over Russell, but that’s not my decision to make nor is it as objective as Russell wants it to be. What’s so funny about Russell is that he came into this game in a way which defied the expectations, burning socks and emptying canteens and ignoring clues that the game was supposed to provide. And yet, he argued in the reunion show that he actually took the game more seriously than anyone else, implying that taking the game seriously means playing the game with absolutely no moral compass. And that’s just too subjective a statement to make in a game that has such social ramifications, and it was a gameplay strategy that won over producers and the audience (who awarded him the title of Player of the Season) in a way that it would never win over those people who are sitting on the sidelines.
As to whether the vote is a travesty, I would argue that nothing in the world of Survivor could possibly be a travesty, as I simply don’t agree with Russell that this is a game to be taken seriously. It is, in fact, a game, and I think that all you can count on is taking yourself seriously and viewing your experience through your own perspective. Russell can be proud of how he played the game, but he can’t expect for his fellow players with venom coursing through their veins to feel the same way. And in the end, that is what cost him a million dollars.
But it didn’t cost us a really entertaining finale, both in terms of the challenges (two close immunity fights that came down to heated battles, especially the enormously tension-filled statue challenge) and in terms of that final jury. There wasn’t a definitive jury address outside of Erik’s efforts to sway the jury (which I was surprised didn’t come up in the Reunion Show in terms of whether it changed anyone’s minds), and Mick was as useless then as he was before, but it really all came down to the reunion show, which is perhaps the finest the show has ever seen. Russell was in fine form, looking emotionally distraught at some points but then turning on the bitterness through the rest, and between the sock burning and his efforts to buy the title of Sole Survivor for the cool sum of $100,000 (up from his initial offer of $10,000) he was everything you hoped he would be. And the discussion was some of the best we’ve seen, involving a lot of different people and demonstrating how differently they saw the game and getting actual insight into how it changed them. Heck, even Brett had something useful to contribute, even if Jeff never asked him whether he was in a waking coma for the first three quarters of the season.
And that’s really the problem here. Russell feels as if the game has been tarnished by his loss, and he’s right that it doesn’t reflect kindly on the jury’s objectivity. However, the producers are happy to have had an amazing season, and we as an audience have to be pleased that we got a pretty great finale irregardless of its winner. And so while everyone else is celebrating a banner year for a show in its 19th season (unheard of), Russell is licking his wounds, left to wallow in his own self-pity with only his oil money and his loving family to get him through his days as the Almost Sole Survivor.
- In terms of Russell’s sadness, we now know that Russell is going to be back in February as part of Heroes vs. Villains (actually, we’ve known it for a while); as a result, do we presume his disappointment was perhaps magnified by the knowledge that in the season he finished filming this fall he doesn’t get far enough to be in a position to win the top prize? I think Russell’s attitude would have been different if he had.
- Speaking of Heroes vs. Villains, the full cast lists are kicking around the net, but the interesting thing is how much they featured Richard Hatch despite the fact that he is the one contestant anyone reading the news should know isn’t attending, as he asked the courts to allow him to travel in order to take part and his request was denied (he’s serving under house arrest for tax evasion charges).
- Feckless, in case you were wondering, is a synonym for incompetent. Shambo’s jury speech, like her exit speech, was far more cogent than I would have expected considering her gameplay, so I’ll give her props for that.
- Interesting on the Jury how John, after Natalie finally plays the rat card, pretty much tells her “That’s what we wanted to hear more of earlier” as if they were making sure their eventual votes for Natalie made sense as opposed to actually being open to changing their decision.
- Best jury question: Kelly, hands down. Her question to Russell about how his gameplay reflects in his real life wasn’t framed as an attack, but rather as a legitimate question that I’m sure some members of the audience were asking as well. It might not be entirely relevant to the decision in my mind, but it was a well-put question that got to the core of the jury’s problems with Russell’s gameplay strategy.