A friend of mine who has not watched Survivor since All-Stars has gotten back into it this season. He asked me this, of Russell: “So is this guy all talk? Or is he really that good?” I responded, no, he really is that good.
But I’ve had my doubts. I’ve been picking him every week to win, but I haven’t been basing that on the game he’s playing, which has been sloppy in places. He’s up against better players now. He’s making strange moves. But I had faith that the Russell I know and love — my boy — would juke when everyone figured he’d jive.
I knew this cat still knew how to play this game.
This was a double elimination episode, so the tribes played for individual immunity. The challenge they ran was a throwback to Tocantins, where the players were hooked to a rope and forced to navigate a maze of wooden planks. Probst was sure to point out that J.T. and Tyson had run this gauntlet before, with Tyson emerging victorious. I remember thinking in Tocantins that the slender little girls would have an advantage in this challenge, and being surprised when two burly macho dudes ended up winning. This time around it was Candice and Boston Rob in the winner’s circle, now immune, with Rob taking the grand prize of hot dogs and the chance to spy on the opposing tribe’s council.
Colby, on the outs, expained to his tribe that he knew he was going home, that they should just enjoy a relaxing day together, and that they shouldn’t give the Villains a big show when they went to tribal council. He then went and laid down and waited to die. James would later be heard to remark, about Colby, that it was like finding out Superman sucks. Here’s this top-shelf A-list Survivor icon who not only can’t perform, but also isn’t willing to fight to stay in the game. Watching Colby play this season… I share James’s disappointment.
Shift focus to the Villains, because that’s where the real game is being played.
A refresher: Russell has the hidden immunity idol, and has Parvati on his side. Parvati, being a previous winner and a particularly devilish player, is seen as the biggest threat. They have Danielle, who barely exists, as well. (Hey Editors: devoting sixty seconds to why Danielle is with Russell and Parvati would have been a better use of screen-time than Coach’s water-dancing or Amanda’s is-James-okay? baww-fest in the previous episode. Just sayin’.)
The question is: who is the better player? Russell or Boston Rob?
Russell’s obvious move: Rob’s alliance is going to vote for him. He can play the idol and save himself.
Except Rob knows Russell will do that. So Rob decides to just vote for Parvati instead, flushing Russell’s idol and getting rid of his closest ally.
Except Russell knows Rob will do that. So Russell decides to give Parvati the idol, let her eat all the votes, and save the both of them.
Except Rob knows Russell wll do that. So Rob decides to split his alliance down the middle, three votes Russell, three votes Parvati. This flushes the idol and forces a re-vote, where they can then focus fire and eliminate Parvati.
That should have been it. That should have been the masterstroke. That’s about as complicated as things have gotten around the hidden immunity idol to date. Split the vote, weed out the idol, eliminate the idol-holder’s ally. Like Rob said, it can’t fail. It’s bulletproof.
It wasn’t bulletproof.
Russell knew Rob would split the vote, and he knew how a re-vote would fall out. Saving himself does him no good if he can’t save his ally as well. So he pulled what is probably the single most spectacular strategic move I’ve seen to date.
With Rob immune, Tyson knows he’s going to see his name three times tonight. Rob’s plan is to force a tie between Tyson and whichever of Russell or Parvati isn’t immune, then save Tyson from the re-vote. It’s a great plan, unless you’re Tyson. He’s watching, waiting for Russell to flip anyone against him. If anything upsets the three/three/three balance, he could fall out of the game on a technicality.
So when Russell comes to him and says, “I know it’s Parvati tonight. I can’t save her, so I’m voting for her,” Tyson sees his way out. He flips the vote to Parvati, no need for a tie, no need for Russell to play his idol, everything’s gravy. Plus it puts him in a better position to take on Boston Rob down the road, when such a conflict becomes inevitable. No need for Tyson to tell anyone what he and Russell talked about, right? He must have felt like the badass he keeps telling everyone he is.
When Russell gave his idol to Parvati to play, even Parvati looked surprised. The smugness of Rob and Sandra and the rest of the Villain alliance was palpable. Except, right there, Tyson had to know how bad he had just been screwed. Three votes Tyson, as expected. Four votes Parvati, including Tyson’s. They don’t count.
Two votes Russell. Tyson becomes the sixth person to leave the game.
I hooped and hollared. I’m always happy to see people get outplayed. Blindsides are what make this game great, to me. But to see that play, to see the risk involved pay off… breathtaking. I’ve seen votes flipped before, but I’ve never see someone flip the very person they intended to remove to the plan that was orchestrated to remove them. Russell may as well have persuaded Tyson to vote against himself!
And that’s how great players often get removed from this game, isn’t it? They think they’re such hot shit. They think they’re invincible. They know they’re the best player out there, so who can touch them? That’s been Rob’s attitude the whole game. “Watch your back, man.” “He’s playing with the big leagues now.” “He’s a marked man. He dug his own grave. We can’t lose.”
Russell is a great Survivor player because he never ever underestimates his opponents. Rob took the game three steps then stopped, sure he was on top. Russell found a fourth step. Rob’s face when he realized how badly his alliance had just been played was… priceless. But for the immunity around his neck it would have been Rob snuffed out tonight. He tangled with Russell and came within inches of losing, right there, without ever knowing.
That’s how Russell plays. That’s why he’s the best.
The Heroes’ council was less stunning. Rupert made an observation that “The Villains are showing us how to play this game.” I know what he meant: they’re winning challenges, they’re using teamwork, they’ve got morale and momentum and comraderie. Yadda yadda. If he only knew. If he only knew how the Villains were playing. They’re Villains because they can stab backs and cut throats. I am now more convinced than ever that a Villain will win this game; they’re already waist-deep in the fire, while the Heroes are still agonizing over “who deserves to be here”.
They kept Crybaby Colby and voted off Limp-Legged James. A sound decision, but they needed to have made it last time around. They kept James last time out of loyalty to their alliance, and voted him off this time because it turns out a dude with a broken leg can’t run after all. Heroes, it doesn’t matter how fast or how far you run. You’re too far behind. You’ll never catch up.
Who’s gonna win? J.T. has the qualities it will take to win this, but I don’t know if he’ll have the resources. If his tribe comes into the merge with any kind of numbers their only hope is to be manipulated by Russell and Parvati into dismantling Rob and the rest of them. It’s Russell all the way. He’s going to the finals again, just like last season, and whether or not he wins will be determined by how butthurt the jury ends up being.