April 8th, 2010
After the recent exit of Boston Rob Mariano, I was convinced that Survivor’s twentieth season was headed off the rails. Rob was basically single-handedly keeping the fairly over-matched Villains tribe in this game, and his exit signaled that Russell Hantz, a good Survivor player who is unfortunately convinced that he is the greatest of all time, now had control of that side of the game. And while I respected Rob, and enjoyed seeing him try to bring together a rag tag group, I don’t really want to see Russell’s ego run roughshod over the game from this point forward.
So when everyone on the Villains tribe is desperate for a merge at the start of this week’s episode, I’m right there with them: it’s not that I want them to be protected from the inevitably challenge defeats in their future due (partially) to Rob’s absence, but rather that I want the game to shift into a new form of gameplay that regains a sense of unpredictability and shuffles around alliances and the like. And so when that merge doesn’t happen, and the teams are back to competing against one another, I felt like this episode was going to be a complete chore.
Instead, it turns out that even though the merge proved to be wishful thinking, the merge nonetheless remained so on the mind of every single player that decisions, conversations, and strategies were all designed with it in mind. So while the merge will have to wait until next week, it already shook things up enough to keep me interested in this game even with Rob sitting on the sidelines.
I’ve always been a pretty big fan of Courtney, although I don’t really know why. She’s weak, sure, but she’s the kind of player who isn’t going to apologize for that, and who doesn’t have an ego about it – she is unquestionably disadvantaged in some parts of this game, but she makes up with it by being the kind of person who will speak honestly about her opinion of other people and offer some entertaining quips to the camera men. The problem all season has been that the Villains were winning, and when they eventually stopped winning all we learned was that Courtney had aligned with Boston Rob. So when it appeared that she was headed home before she got to do anything, it was an unfortunate circumstance for me.
But this week Sandra was finally able to prove why she actually managed to win this game, and Russell showed that while his ego may be his downfall he rarely makes decisions that only play to that ego. In Sandra’s case, she knew that placing Coach on Russell’s radar would get the new “leader” worked up, and sure enough Russell immediately starts to question Coach’s loyalty. However, to Russell’s credit, he doesn’t just vote for Coach because he is concerned about him voting him out: he votes for Coach because it will confirm the Heroes’ misguided idea that Tyson and Rob’s exits are the result of an “all-girls” alliance on the Villains side.
This is really fascinating to me, and it’s not something we see that often: the merge is so in everyone’s minds in this game filled with previous players (which we haven’t had since the original All-Stars) that the Heroes don’t even bother hiding their observation that of course the girls must have united. Russell chooses to organize Coach’s ouster because he knows that, if a merge comes next week (which it is, based on Coach joining the jury), his position as the only man left standing will have the Heroes at his doorstep within minutes of the teams coming together. At that point, Russell suddenly holds all of the power in the game – if he chooses to align with some of the Heroes (we presume with Parvati, who still has ties with Amanda) then he can do so, and if he chooses to stick with some of the Villains he still has that ability to blindside them. Basically, Russell eliminating Coach makes him the perfect Swing vote should everything go his way, and so he chooses optics.
A lot of people like to claim that Russell’s “amazing” gameplay is in the organization of big moves or the “ballsiness” of his overall gameplay, but I think Russell’s finest moments are subtle (and, accordingly, fairly rare). Here, we were all wondering how the vote situation could have gone down that Courtney would have received three votes, but then I remembered: Russell actually signed his ballot, and he had voted for Courtney. He gave his little speech about trust, and he cast his vote for Courtney, all so that if he is standing in front of the Jury in a month or so he will be able to say to Coach that he never put his name down. And Coach is dumb enough to fall for that, ignoring that nothing would have happened on that tribe without Russell knowing about it, and that Russell clearly organize for Parvati and Danielle to provide the votes necessary to get rid of Coach in order for that part of his plan to unfold.
Coach’s problem is that he’s actively unwilling to play the game of Survivor, always shocked when the people around him make strategy-based gameplay decisions and always entirely convinced that there is a single, logical way to make these decisions. He’s pissed off at Russell, for example, for playing strategy and getting rid of Boston Rob, but his own choice to vote for Courtney instead of Russell at the last tribal council was what kept that vote from being tied and which sent Rob home. He’s angry when people strategize, but he’s not willing to actually utilize any strategy of his own. He’s a perfect jury member, taking everything personally and carrying grudges (as his “I’m not vindictive, but I hope they all fail miserably”-like comment in his exit speech indicates), but he’s never going to be sitting there at the end because he could never live with himself to make the decisions necessary.
It’s rare that you see an episode of Survivor that’s quite so forward-thinking, but this one worked wonders on that front: while Coach’s exit was played as a surprise (in that we saw Russell “changing his mind” right before we went to Tribal), this is really all about foreshadowing. You have J.T. finding the Idol and everyone on the Heroes tribe noting that the kid is mighty slippery, and you have Danielle and Russell have a tiff which could place her on the outs should Russell choose to switch to a different alliance. Combine with Sandra finally playing the game, and Courtney pretty effectively calling Coach out on pushing his own view of the game as the only view of the game (complete with a fist bump), and you’ve got a lot of interesting elements that are all going to explode during the merge.
That J.T. might make things even more interesting by actually giving Russell a hidden Immunity Idol next week wasn’t even really necessary to get me excited, especially since I’d tend to think that if anyone makes a bone-headed mistake next week it’s going to be Russell, not one of the Heroes (I always presumed misdirection with those promos). While I miss Rob, the game kept going without him, and every part of the game that seemed like it was an inevitability completely turned around once the merge got into everyone’s heads and a misreading of the Villains tribe by the Heroes put some ideas into Russell’s head and Sandra stoked the flames. The game is still being played, and with Coach gone everyone (except one, see below) is willing and able to play it.
Accordingly, my expectations for next week are quite high, and I’m hopeful the show lives up to them.
- Jerry Manthey does not seem like she wants to play this game anymore: she felt like she made a mistake voting out Rob, and now her one ally in the game is leaving just at the time when the teams are about to merge. She doesn’t want to play this game with Russell, and yet that’s really her only option as she has no friends on the other side…except for Colby. How their Australia connection may play into things will be the one problem that Russell has to deal with if he intends to try to blindside the Heroes, and I’m hopeful that Jerry takes this as her time to shine as opposed to her time to crawl into a ball and die.
- The two challenges were fairly dull – only playing to three and two in each case made for some fairly short and uninteresting challenges, especially with the Heroes logically dominating. Rupert was a liability in the mud challenge due to his toe, but he threw himself over and under the obstacles to stay in it until the footrace, so the Heroes remained strong across the board.
- As everyone expected, the two most questionable All-Stars selections (Danielle and Candice) remained in the game until the merge over some far more interesting players based solely on a lack of expectations and a willingness to hang onto coattails. Interesting, though, that Candice is really trying to play the game hard on the other side, and she simply got lucky that James got injured when he did (and that she won immunity that week so that she was never really an option anyways).
- My favourite thing about All-Stars in this game is their willingness to talk back to Probst – accordingly, Courtney questioning Probst so clearly attacking her ability to play the game was a highlight.
- I am going to presume that Boston Rob was sitting at home watching the Villains tribe pack up all of their stuff in preparation of a merge that never happened grinning to himself – it was ridiculously silly of them, and I’m glad that we’re done with the tribe situation so that hero and villain can mingle.