This current season of Survivor is shaping up to be one of the best in a long time, and it is mostly because of the presence of Russell. Russell is a bit of a sociopath – he secretly tortures other tribe members in the hopes that they will get emotionally insecure, and has absolutely zero loyalty to anybody in the game at all. Despite this, he seems like a good sort of a guy: he’s just taken the “I’m here to win, not to make friends” idea seriously.
But the reason Russell makes this season so good is that he’s illustrating a simple fact: most of the people who go on Survivor fall into two camps, namely wannabe actors/models looking to raise their profile and become the next Elizabeth Hasselbeck,1 and fans of the show who want to experience Survivor and play the game, and generally speaking none of them are any good at the game. Watching Survivor is often an exercise in frustration: it’s like watching a game of football where two members of one team are resolute in the belief that in order to score they must run backwards, and another who thinks that the opponent’s 10 is actually where they score the touchdown.
Russell isn’t like that. Russell realized right from the start that the rules of Survivor are largely in people’s heads.
Consider the immunity idols. Russell has been portrayed by the show as some sort of devious genius for finding two immunity idols without so much as a single clue. But it’s not rocket science. Russell himself explained the thought process: the immunity idols are usually around camp and within spitting distance of something that can serve as a landmark for people looking for the idol.2 Russell applied this theory, looked around camp, found visually noteworthy elements of the camp (first a craggy tree, and then a bridge), and searched, and found the idols. Granted, the magic of editing made what probably took a few hours look instead like the snap of fingers, but the principle is solid.
But why is Russell the first to do this? Because nobody else thought to do it. It doesn’t matter that the immunity idols are arguably the biggest asset anyone can have in this game, because everybody playing prior to Russell had internalized a rule which didn’t exist: You’re Not Allowed To Look For An Immunity Idol Without A Clue. Russell understood what nobody else did: not having a clue didn’t mean you couldn’t search for a hidden immunity idol. It just meant you’d have a harder time of it. Of course, that nobody would think of this before isn’t surprising, because as said: most people who play Survivor aren’t any good at it.
Witness Dave, the hairy ponytailed guy whose smug grin as his tribe of Galu won challenge after challenge was wholly undeserved, because Dave A) wasn’t actually helping anybody win anything, because he’s not a very physically skilled guy, and B) because Dave, like most of his tribe, is an idiot. Dave’s sense of Survivor gameplay is borderline disabled: after the merge, at one point he was suggesting that in order to avoid an immunity idol countering their elimination, they should divide up their votes equally and vote for two people so that they’d be sure to eliminate somebody.3 John, the only player on Galu who actually knows how to play the game,4 had to point out to Dave that they had six people, and if they divided their votes three and three to prevent immunity idol use, the four remaining members of the old Foa Foa tribe would simply all vote in a bloc as planned and Galu would win easily. (For this bit of obviousness, Dave now calls John, with absolutely no irony whatsoever, “the numbers guy.”)
But it gets better. Dave’s plan to keep Russell from getting another immunity idol this week? Follow him everywhere! (How this would stop Russell from getting the idol is beyond me. I suppose this way, at least Dave would know about it.) Now, obviously this is the wrong plan. The right plan – given that Dave knew exactly as much as Russell did about where the next immunity idol was – would be to search for the immunity idol himself, which would give him at least 50:50 odds of finding it versus Russell. But Dave instead relied on his “follow Russell” plan, which backfired because Russell, despite looking like a fat cabbie, is actually in good shape and went for a run, winding Dave and losing him. Then Russell went back to somewhere Dave had searched, but not very carefully, and found his third immunity idol.
Of course, Russell’s problem now isn’t that he’s good at the game, but that he’s visibly good at it. People who are visibly good at Survivor have to be very careful, or stupid players will start considering them “threats,” not realizing that somebody has to go with you to final tribal council. The previews for next week’s episode seem to hint that Jaison (a below-average player who thinks he’s smarter than he is) and Shambo (an above-average backstabber) are going to turn on Russell and try to blindside him. This is stupid – there is nobody you want at final tribal council more than Russell, because Russell has thus far engineered the elimination of every single member of the jury and has only the “you have to respect a great player” argument to try and win the million dollars, which historically does not work that well when compared to “hey, I might have voted you out, but you really hate this other guy more than me, huh?”
I hold out hope that Russell survives to the end. Good play is so rare in Survivor that it’s really a treat when it comes along: being able to watch this show and not feel chagrin at players’ horrible strategy is a nice change of pace.
- Now, in fairness, Elizabeth Hasselbeck is a horrible, horrible person. But she is rich. [↩]
- To this I would add: “and sometimes they’re buried, and those are the hardest immunity idols to find – but there’s no beach this season for Survivors to dig in, so the odds that they are buried are very low.” [↩]
- Rather obviously copying the strategy of Yul back in Survivor: Cook Islands, except that in that case Yul A) had the numbers and B) was not a dumbass, but rather a brilliant player in the Russell mold. Additional fun fact about Yul: he is now a Deputy Chief at the FCC. [↩]
- He’s sort of a proto-Russell, in that he recognizes the hard realities of vote numbers and basic strategy, but has yet to go beyond to disobey the “unwritten rules.” He also isn’t quite confident enough yet: witness this week, where he tried to play chicken with a potential tie and bailed. [↩]