The second pair of Survivor: Samoa episodes are an exercise in contrasts. The first (Episode 3, "It's Called a Russell Seed") continues the season's agonizing canonization of Russell Hantz, even when the action in no way warrants that. There's a clear narrative that doesn't involve (and in fact runs counter to) Russell, but the show still insists on presenting everything as an exploration of his (self-) alleged powers of mind control, all to avoid focusing on an important boot that raises uncomfortable questions about the show's casting priorities.
The second episode of the pair (Episode 4, "Hungry for a Win"), however, is a breath of fresh air, as the audience is finally given its long-awaited introduction to Galu. This one-episode reprieve almost makes up for the previous three's propaganda excesses.
Still, there are plenty of worthwhile stories in both episodes, including a spectacular piece of foreshadowing for the endgame, tucked away in Episode 4. Together, there's the kind of balance we wish we could see in the season as a whole: There *are* people other than Hantz playing this season. Some of them have good ideas, and are playing hard, even! It's just something that tends to get lost in the constant "greatest of all tiiiiimmmme" refrain of the season as a whole, which is unfortunate.
Episode three: Repetitive Hantzwashing
The sins of Episode 3 begin with the title ("It's Called a Russell Seed"), and snowball downhill from there. The central narrative is all about how Russell Hantz is manipulating people by instigating interpersonal conflicts. We get incessant confessionals from Hantz about how he's running the show, how he's a genius, how everyone else may be the worst players ever and he's the best, and how they're all "a bunch of zombies."
The problem is, that's not at all what actually happens.
Instead, the central action is Jaison finally putting his foot down, and insisting that Foa Foa rid themselves of Ben and his racist, misogynist, combative, generally toxic presence in camp. Russell, for his part, insists that the boot should be Ashley. The titular "Russell seed" is him telling Ben that Ashley was gunning for him. That seed grows into ... one vote, from Ben against Ashley.
The focus on Russell is also a cop-out by Survivor. The *producers* decided Ben needed to be on this season, and on this tribe with Jaison. They knew perfectly well what Ben was like, how unlikely it was that he would get along with people of color, or anyone educated, or anyone female ... basically anyone who wasn't a male redneck like Ben (so ... Russell Hantz and nobody else).
This would have been a good episode for a clean boot narrative, with everyone giving their reasons to oust Ben, as was done with the Roger boot in The Amazon. This should have been an episode that centered Jaison's righteous indignation, his attempts to fix the problem (we do get this, but only in the context of extensive pushback from others, like Russell and Mick), and maybe acknowledging a bit of culpability for putting Ben there in the first place.
For his part, Probst offers nothing more than a shrug and an admonishment that Foa Foa's not looking very unified after Ben's ouster. Oh, but it gets worse: Some guy named Jeff Probst was also writing recaps for EW.com this season (h/t to @MUK734 for the reminder), and he *thanks* Ben for appearing on the show: "Ben delivered exactly what he promised he would in casting. For that we owe him a thank you .... He is who he is and he wasn't embarrassed about it." Awesome.
To Probst, all conflict is good TV, apparently, even if it's deeply hurtful to multiple contestants and/or audience members, and also if it's (*checks notes*) promoting racist views as straight-talking "outlaw" behavior, which the host then props up after the fact with praise for forthrightness. Sure, Ben's bullying of and sneering at Yasmin and Jaison is "fascinating" when you're a rich white guy who is unlikely to ever experience it directly. Jaison and Yasmin probably felt differently. As Jaison said, maybe Probst's failure to recognize this disparity in how this is perceived is ... well, maybe it's just ignorance.
Jaison essentially risked his entire game here by standing up, speaking out, and demanding action. It was a huge move. It's the kind of ultimatum the audience wished someone would have made with respect to Dan Spilo in Island of the Idols. But instead of giving Jaison credit for that, Survivor spent the entire episode in full obfuscation mode, first raising Ashley as the likely boot, and then as the calculus changes, distracting with the sleight of hand move of "Ooh, look! Here's Russell Hantz saying insulting stuff!"
Let's put this into numbers: There were 30 confessionals in Episode 3. Ten — one third of ALL the confessionals — were by Russell, including the title quote. The entire focus of the episode, again, was his allegedly playing circles around everyone, even though his chosen target did not get booted. Jaison, who actually was the driving force in the ultimate outcome? He had two confessionals. Episode 4's "Previously On..." segment even gives credit for the boot to ... Russell Hantz! For changing his mind at Tribal Council, because Ben wouldn't back down! Some guy named Jeff Probst gave the credit to Russell in his recap, too! It's just maddening.
Frankly, this is also pretty insulting to the audience, too. It was a blowout vote, 6-1, and was clearly decided well before Tribal, no matter what the host tries to claim after the fact. So instead of a feel-good obvious boot, we're left thinking that this wasn't a group decision made for tribal unity, but rather Russell feeling benevolent and granting a favor to Jaison. That's a bunch of bullshit.
Russell does some impressive things this season, and pushes the meta-gameplay forward with his aggressiveness. But it's so unnecessary to slather on additional credit like this when it's unwarranted, especially in this particular instance.
Side note: For what it's worth, Jaison's contention that Ben was useless in challenges was supported pretty well by the evidence in these episodes. Foa Foa's only win was the opening RC hero challenge, in which Ben didn't participate. He directly cost them at least one point in Ep2's "Schmergen Brawl" RC/IC and he was completely ineffective as a blocker in his final episode's "Sea Crates" RC/IC, whereas Ashley perfomed well in both. The drive to oust Ashley to maintain "challenge strength" or whatever is 99% misogyny, a refusal to consider the actual results over expectations. But since Saint Russell Hantz is behind that very push, one that would have removed 2/3 of his vaunted "dumbass girl alliance" in just three episodes, that can't be acknowledged.
Episode 4: Actually, this tribe doesn't suck, Erik
Episode 4 is the eye of the storm. After three full episodes of all Foa Foa, all the time (and most of that Russell Hantz), we finally get a glimpse of the purple tribe in Episode 4. It turns out their name is Galu. And they are as glorious as Shambo's flowing mane.
There are a lot of interesting personalities on Galu. Erik, Dave Ball, Shambo, Russ Swan, and Laura Morett all provide great commentary, and Shambo's various bumblings and eccentricities keep things lively. What we later see of John Fincher and Brett are also good. That's part of the frustration of this season. Episode 4 is this brief oasis where we finally learn there's this whole other tribe, and they're doing a ton of fun things: Dave wins chickens! (And has to humbly accept that "the tribe" won them.) Erik finds an idol! Shambo loses a chicken! Erik gets clotheslined by the clothes line!
Obviously, this sudden burst of attention is almost entirely because Galu finally has to attend Tribal Council this episode (well, there was also the idol find), but it's so demoralizing to know that after this, we now have to revert back to all Foa Foa, all the time. Who knows how much more fun this season could have been had there been just a teensy bit more balance?
The Shambo enigma
Episode 3 also features Shambo having a season rebirth, as she gets to spend close to two days over at Foa Foa camp. There, she finds like-minded folks who want to work hard, then relax (not relax, then work hard, which is completely unacceptable).
With Shambo, it's hard to know how much of her "Woe is me! They're ostracizing me!" routine is legitimate, and how much is self-inflicted. For example, in the premiere, the entire Galu tribe happily goes swimming together at their beach on Day 1. The entire tribe except Shambo, that is, who's allegedly mad that they're not working. Does Shambo continue working? Nope. She sits on the beach, looking forlornly out at the entire rest of her tribe giddily interacting in the water without her. Nothing's stopping her from joining them. Nothing except Shambo. And it started so well! Three Galus voted for Shambo to be chief on Day 1! (Fincher, Monica, and Russ Swan.)
In Episode 2, Galu wins fishing gear, and in an homage to Rupert Boneham, Shambo immediately commandeers the Hawaiian sling, fins, mask, and snorkel, and heads off into the ocean in search of fish to catch. She's gone so long that Galu starts to worry if she's okay. It turns out that, having failed to catch anything, she's decided to relax — by herself — in a nearby lagoon. While doing so, she somehow loses the mouthpiece to the snorkel (how?!), rendering it virtually useless. When she returns to camp, she more or less shrugs this all off with an "It is what it is" attitude, taking no responsibility for returning to camp carrying less than she departed with. (And again in Episode 4, when she somehow "accidentally" releases a chicken.)
These are both violations of one of the most basic rules of Survivor: Don't go off by yourself (especially for too long, especially early in the game). It's bizarre that Shambo doesn't realize this 19 seasons in, but here we are. Is it possible there were extenuating circumstances, and that people were actually rude and unwelcoming to her at Galu, and she just needed a break? Sure, it's possible. We don't really have any evidence of that, though, and what we do see seems to contradict it.
This all continues as we move into these two episodes: In Episode 3, four people from Galu (not even the majority!) are doing yoga in the morning. Shambo harrumphs nearby and in confessional about how they're supposed to be doing work, not yoga. The nerve! Even though there are probably more than enough hours in the day to do both. She talks in confessional about how they're all a "90210 clique," and this apparently goes over so well with the producers that she repeats the same complaint to Foa Foa when she visits.
It's a common theme: Time and again, Shambo sees the group doing something, reacts negatively to it and refuses to participate, then complains loudly to the cameras that she's not being included. Who excluded whom? It's impossible to know for sure, because this is heavily edited (especially on Galu), but it sure looks like Shambo didn't make much effort to join in.
Certainly, later on in the game, Galu actually does seem so fed up with Shambo that they do actively exclude her. When she's elected "chief" after Russell Swan's medevac, she's pretty clearly only there as a figurehead, with the men electing her solely to annoy the women, and neither side has any interest in actually working with her.
It's confusing where it all falls apart, because when she visits Foa Foa in Episode 3, she gives a confessional about wanting to build relationships with people in this game. And she appears to do a pretty good job of that! At Foa Foa, everyone is all smiles and happy to have her there. Why didn't it work on Galu? Who's to blame?
It's possible we're just being shown all this as a counter-narrative to Russell Hantz. He's being presented as a social/strategic mastermind, a (self-described) genius. Everything he does magically influences this underachieving Foa Foa tribe to do his bidding. Meanwhile, poor Shambo is trying her mightiest to win friends and influence people over at the overachieving Galu tribe, and she just can't catch a break. Both stories seem like at least partial fictions. But at least they're developed in parallel?
Natalie vs. Russell, the preview
Also comfortably tucked away in Episode 4, nestled in between the reward and immunity challenges, is a chilling vision of things to come — Russell and Natalie's contrasting views on their plans to go to the end with each other. Russell kicks it off, with the bulk of his confessional clearly coming from much earlier in the game, when his hair and beard were nearly clean-shaven. "I would have to take someone like Natalie with me, because she's gonna ride my coattails the whole way. She's too stupid to do it by herself!"
Natalie's confessional comes from some time after they receive their swimsuits (so at least Ep3), and says "I definitely think people underestimate me, and I want them to think that, hey, it's really smart for them to take me to the end, because they can beat me. You know, use that to my advantage. ... If it comes down to me or him, I would say I can beat Russell, because a lot of people in the tribe have been rubbed the wrong way by him. So, I'm just trying to not ruffle feathers, steer clear, build good relationships, which is what I'm good at."
Guess who ends up being right? (Hint: The segment ends with Russell telling Natalie, "You've got it made, I'm telling you.")
Why were people so surprised about the end, again?
This was supposed to be a rhetorical question, but it's also a serious one that recent events can readily answer: repetition. Russell gets the opportunity at least once an episode to talk about how he's running the game, and he's the greatest player of all time. And when the only countervailing evidence is this cheeky little bit of foreshadowing, followed 10 episodes later by the jury vote ... well, which outcome are people realistically supposed to expect? If you keep saying "this election was stolen from me" over and over again, despite having zero actual evidence of it, eventually a number of people are going to believe it. Same with "I'm the greatest player of alllll tiiiimmmme."
- The Bocce in a Box experiment: Whether or not this was a budget-related cut, the absence of Probst from the Ep4 Reward Challenge was near perfection in its execution. The initial confusion about what everyone was supposed to do was high comedy, and the editing decision to just let the silent standoff play out in real time, like a high noon staredown in a western, added to the amusement. (Obviously, this only works once, you won't get the same general befuddlement when it's done again in a future season.) The challenge itself played out fine once it got started, though, as Dave, Russ Swan, and Mick did a fine job narrating the action via after-the-fact play-by-play in confessionals. Mick's feeling of being crushed by the last-second loss was one of the more authentic, heartfelt confessionals this season, even. Obviously the risk for this format is that future results may vary greatly, depending on the quality of the narrators, so maybe that's why the show gave up on this experiment. But Probst really wasn't missed here. (Only minor complaint: Why were the chiefs forced to participate in a hero challenge?)
- Tail wagging the dog: As a counterexample, where Probst's presence actively interferes in a challenge/the game: in that same episode's IC, "Well-Stacked," Probst's live play-by-play asserts that "Foa Foa made up a lot of time" on the rope bridge segment, even though both tribes were neck-and-neck throughout the challenge. Galu entered the rope bridge with a five-second lead, and finished it with ... a little more than a five-second lead. So while Foa Foa did indeed "make up a lot of time" at one point in that segment, they also gave up a lot of it. Yasmin in particular propelled Galu to a short-lived lead on the rope bridge, which Monica gives back, sure. But Probst's railing on Monica's slowness really finds an audience with the four Galu people sitting out, especially Russ Swan and Shambo, who gun for Monica after the loss. In reality, Galu had a huge lead as they started building their final stack, because Foa Foa couldn't untie their bags for some reason. During the stacking, Galu gave a lot of that lead back again. But they still would have won, had the final two blocks not slipped off, clonking Kelly in the head on the way down. Despite all this, it was Probst's exhortations that Monica cost them the challenge that sticks with the tribe. (File also under: This season's rampant misogyny, below.)
- The pervasive misogyny of this season: The premiere had Hantz's throwaway, joking-but-not-really male supremacist statement that he had forged his "dumbass girls alliance." (Note: he also has an alliance with Ben, who's clearly plenty stupid on his own, but that doesn't merit a demeaning nickname.) Every episode has women being considered for the boot because they're "the weakest," even while Mike Borassi is also around, barely mobile. Episode 3 has Ben telling Liz (to her face!) that as a woman, she's too weak and her hands are too small to make fire with a flint. Episode 3 also has the bizarre men-vs-women division on Galu where the women (according to the men) are all flighty, short-term-thinking princesses, who gush in giddy delight over swimsuits, and can't live without comfort items like pillows and towels, while the smart, sober-minded men — to a person — all think a tarp would be a better choice. It's exhausting. This was peak Survivor having men in just about every behind-the-camera position, but after watching this, why would any woman want to participate in this show?
- When chickens fly: How is it that Shambo and Natalie completely ripped the entire roof off the chicken coop at the Probst-free reward challenge, while everyone's running around frantically trying to grab everything before they figure out there's a note ... and nothing bad happens? Yet when Shambo is just talking to the chickens back at Galu camp, one of the chickens somehow gets out and flies away? Something doesn't add up here.
- The revisionist history of the Galu idol find: Erik claimed in his Quarantine Questionnaire with Dalton Ross that he also found his idol without a clue, and has claimed at various times that the find was much earlier than shown. But if that's true, why would he be congratulating himself in confessional about getting Shambo to recite the contents of her clue, after he's allegedly already found it? Importantly, Shambo didn't get back to Galu camp until night 8, he finds it (as shown) on Day 9. Why would he enlist the crew to help him stage a fake surreptitious hunt while Russ Swan, Shambo, and Dave Ball are away? None of this makes sense, unless — Occam's razor here — he actually found it during the Bocce in a Box hero challenge, using Shambo's clue, exactly as seen on TV.
Jeff Pitman is the founder of the True Dork Times, and probably should find better things to write about than Survivor. So far he hasn't, though. He's also responsible for the Survivometer, calendar, boxscores, and contestant pages, so if you want to complain about those, do so in the comments, or on twitter: @truedorktimes