We're halfway through Survivor: Samoa, and things are finally starting to turn around for Foa Foa. Perhaps because Foa Foa no longer exists, and everyone is now Aiga. Maybe because it finally stopped raining (for a bit). But apart from that, things did finally break the ex-Foa Foas way at the merge, in that someone not originally from Foa Foa was voted out. Although Russell Hantz burned an idol, and was out of the loop on the merge vote planning. So ... good for Foa Foa, but a surprisingly flaccid pair of episodes for Russell. As you would expect, though, he still gets both title quotes and the majority of the screen time (13 confessionals in the merge episode, vs. 23 for the rest of the cast).
On the plus side, we're finally done with the chiefs twist, at least, as we go from the final pre-merge episode to the merge episode. Remember back when Russell boldly predicted back in Episode 6 that "I really think the tide is about to turn"? Well, Foa Foa followed that up by losing another member. But they were saved by the merge, so half-credit, maybe?
The merge episode also marks just the second time ever that the Galus have voted, and predictably, pandemonium ensues, as pent-up frustrations spill over into multiple plots to take each other out, given the Galus' 8-4 advantage over Foa Foa. The guys want Laura or Monica out. The women (mostly Laura) want Shambo out. Shambo's sick of everyone. All plans with some logical basis, all plans that never had a chance to be tested before the merge. All because Foa Foa was such a catastrophic failure of a tribe.
But the lesson of Survivor is this: Things can change, and quickly. Foa Foa starts to bounce back at the merge, despite a lack of contributions from Russell himself, led instead by the guy he almost voted out in Episode 7, and the woman he calls "the even dumber long-haired blonde." Good times. Too bad the editors were too busy fluffing Captain Villain's résumé to notice.
Please merge us now, Mr. Probst, sir?
There is potentially one key Russell contribution here, though. When Foa Foa attends what's ultimately the final pre-merge Tribal Council in Ep.7, Russell spends a lot of time talking directly (and broadly) at both Jeff Probst and the producers behind the curtains. It's hard to interpret Russell's comments as anything other than calculated pandering in hopes of a mercy merge. That's not a criticism: It may actually be one of his best, most outside-the-box moves he pulls off this season: Using production's obvious preferences against them, wielding it as a lever to convince them to shake things up in a way that will help Foa Foa (and Russell himself).
As it sits after Ep.7, Foa Foa will be down 8-4 to Galu when the voting's done, and there's no reason for Foa Foa to think the merge is guaranteed, since it's only Day 18. So Russell basically cranks the bombast and hubris up to 11, and asserts, "One thing I promise you, them kids over there [at Galu], there's no way in hell that they can outwit me!" And later there's, "It almost seems hopeless, but if we can just keep that four together, then ... you'll see, you'll see exactly, 'cuz the whole thing's gonna change!"
So did Russell actually cause an early merge? Eh ... probably not. Production was most likely going to do this anyway. The alternative would have been to have half the Galu tribe sitting out of each challenge in the next episode. But still, rather than leave it to chance, it's kind of a brilliant tactic for Russell to subtly apply pressure in this way. Classic Russell self-congratulation, which he must by now recognize the producers love, coupled with the promise of fireworks ahead ... but not if you don't merge us, because we're gonna keep losing. Pull the trigger! You know you want to!
If Foa Foa had straight-up begged for a merge, the producers would just say, "Ha ha! No" then continued on. But by doing it this way, Russell's dangling raw steak in front of a pack of starving wolves. His bristlingly overconfident statements at Tribal are editing gold, because they will work no matter what happens — either he'll be successful, and it'll look prophetic, or Foa Foa will get crushed, and he'll look like a clown — but the key is, it can't pay off if they don't merge immediately. That's the real "Houdini Magic" in this episode.
(Something future contestants should remember if they're in a similar situation where production could conceivably call an audible and shift things in your pathetic tribe's favor.)
The chaotic, surprisingly Hantz-free merge vote
Historically, the fanbase has attributed Natalie's swinging the Galu women (particularly Laura) to vote for Erik at the merge as perhaps her biggest move of the game. It's definitely a key part of the play. On rewatch, however, another unsung hero also emerges: Jaison. (Although we can't overlook just how much Erik's own actions led to his boot.)
The Foa Foas planned before the merge to divide and conquer Galu once the merge came — they were to each approach multiple Galus, and try to work enough angles to peel off enough votes (at minimum three) to flip the merge vote against someone on Galu. The editors briefly make a tepid attempt to show that plan going into action (Natalie talking with Dave Ball, Jaison chatting with John about school, Mick sitting by himself doing nothing) then promptly return to their old tricks: a long series of scenes of Russell, approaching just about every Galu member individually, showing each of them his idol (in secret, of course).
It's important we see all that, because, of course, this doesn't work. First, Russell seems completely oblivious to the idea that the Galus might talk amongst themselves. But it gets worse. Laura rejects him outright, despite his previous alleged masterwork of "planting a Russell seed" when she visited Foa Foa, based on his supernatural ability to spot a "good Christian woman." That's the problem with Russell's game this season. He's very active — making alliances, making threats, doing various pointless things — but he's not very effective. He chews the scenery and fills the screen with bombast and egotism, sure, but a lot of it is empty blather. That's why he ultimately loses, not because of a "bitter jury". Most of the pre-merge Foa Foa boots were group decisions. Apart from Marisa, just about every one fell under the standard "keep the tribe strong" rubric. The only other one was explicitly demanded by Jaison. Russell, aided by the editors, just took the credit for them.
Here, Russell's plans all fall flat in the short term. Then he gets outmaneuvered into playing his idol unnecessarily. He does find potentially receptive ears in Shambo, John, and Monica, but word quickly spreads among the other Galus that he has an idol. Still, he does stumble on a tentative plan: making use of open-source Shambo's disdain for Laura, to target Laura. Conveniently, other Galus (mainly John) were already thinking along those lines.
But that all falls apart when Laura wins immunity. Russell approaches Shambo again, trying to get her to vote Monica instead, and Shambo refuses, and also hasn't talked to anyone else on Galu about voting. Russell's flipped Shambo, sure. But she doesn't bring anyone else with her, and she's also resistant to his plan. So at this point, Russell's scheming is pretty much done. Everyone knows he has an idol (except maybe Mick), his chosen target is immune, and he's not getting anywhere with a plan B.
Meanwhile, John is also plotting to take out Monica. He persuades Erik that it's the next best plan after Laura, and that Foa Foa will 100% be on board. Erik then gets the Galu guys together and gives them marching orders: Vote Monica (also using Foa Foa votes), while also flushing Russell's idol. He gathers Jaison, Natalie, and Mick, and condescendingly tells them it's in their "best interest" to vote Monica, while convincing Russell the Galus are all voting for him, so that he plays his idol, or Erik "can't guarantee the four of you will be here tomorrow."
Jaison, whose name has also been floated, takes this about as well as the Foa Foas took Yasmin's "strategy" tutorial: As soon as Erik leaves, he tells Natalie and Mick: screw that guy, let's vote Erik instead. That's what sends Natalie to work Laura and Kelly, using the Monica plan that Erik just told them as the wedge issue. Mick continues to do nothing, apart from enjoying not being chief of Foa Foa anymore.
The plan comes together in seemingly minutes. Kelly and Laura are on board, as is Monica, naturally. Laura tells Dave Ball, who's not particularly thrilled at being bossed around by Erik, so Dave's a yes as well. Dave tells Shambo (who, being Shambo, ends up voting for Monica anyway). Laura and Kelly fill in Brett. Kelly tells John. When Natalie tells Russell what's going on, he sneers at her, telling her "I don't think you talked them into it. I think you think you did." He repeats the same doubts in confessional. What? A vote was put in motion without Russell playing any role in it whatsoever? That's impossible!
Best of all, Jaison circles back to Russell as well, and warns him the plan may all be a ruse, and he should consider playing his idol, just in case. So Jaison kicks off both the counter-strike against Erik AND Russell burning his idol. Not bad for the Stanford grad. Naturally, the next episode's "Previously On..." segment assigns 100% of the credit to Natalie, which is fine, her rapport with Laura was critical to swinging the Galus. But Jaison got the ball rolling.
Erik also deserves partial credit for his own boot. His approach and tone when talking to Jaison, Natalie, and Mick combined a dictator's implicit threat of bodily harm with the smug superiority of a movie prison warden. John had already told him Foa Foa would be on board. He just had to deliver the news of the plan. Surprisingly ham-fisted execution for a guy who otherwise seemed to grasp the rest of the game pretty intuitively — when the rest of the tribe is rolling their eyes at Shambo, he's one of the few who will at least pretend to get along with her. Still, when you combine his vague anti-Foa Foa threats with his publicly scoffing during Tribal Council at the idea that the four Foa Foas might have any power whatsoever, it's really not a good look. (The Tribal bit was partially theater, since he was intending to use them to boot Monica. Even so, he still managed to piss off Jaison even more in the process.)
Erik maybe deserves a little slack, because again, Galu had only been to one Tribal Council at that point. He just makes the benefit of the doubt difficult when he also dramatically misperceives Foa Foa at the merge, with "Foa Foa has nothing going for them ... they're on Day 2, I'm on Day 19." Obviously, the reverse is true. Foa Foa's been to Tribal five times, he's been there just once. Also, it goes without saying that failing to play his idol right after Hantz played his shows a spectacular level of overconfidence. Something he might have realized he needed to question more, had Galu been to Tribal more than once. But they hadn't, and he didn't. Oh well.
- The Galu chief vote: It's too bad we didn't get a better view of what happened, since Galu voted inside their shelter. We know the four guys all voted for Shambo (choice #3) but we only saw Monica and Shambo's votes apart from that. And here's the best part: They both voted for Erik (choice #1)! Shambo did not vote for herself! Had Monica and Kelly joined her, Shambo might have screwed up her own rigged snap election!
Still, the best part of Episode 7 is how after this vote, any time Shambo says *anything*, anything at all, there's an immediate cut to Laura Morett, silently seething, while valiantly trying to force a smile. And the longer Shambo talks, the more times they cut to Laura. It just never stops being funny.
- The useless Russell: Hantz is livid at Jaison after the Ep7 IC, for the crime of (*checks notes*) being tired after pushing the damn canoe several hundred yards in the water, all the way out and all the way back, while Russell mostly relaxed his lazy butt in the canoe (that Jaison was pushing), to perform the very important job of ... collecting the puzzle pieces Liz and Natalie fished up. Russell repeatedly complains, in confessional and to others, that Jaison "gave up." Did Russell step up to help? Offer to work the puzzle in place of the clearly spent Jaison? Nope and nope. Great job dispelling the notion that White dudes from the South expect Black people and women to do all their work for them, Russell.
- Stereotype updates, part 2: Liz and Jaison both got to speak to racial stereotypes (based on first impressions) in the premiere. Jaison talked about surprising people with his elite swimming skills, and Liz worried that "There are negative 'attributes' [to being Asian-American], like being sneaky, conniving ... I just don't want people attributing all the negative attributes to me." So, fast-forward half the game, and while it was unshown in Ep.7 itself, the merge episode's "Previously On..." segment contains Russell's commentary as he votes out Liz: "You're the weakest link when it comes to trust." (Following a three-episode arc of Russell That's a bang-up job there, Survivor. You allowed Liz 10 confessionals in the first 7 episodes, while giving Russell 44. Whose viewpoint is the audience more likely to identify with here?
- Upon further review: At the time it was airing, people seemed to buy that Russell was making a great move in trying to recruit Laura Morett at Foa Foa in Ep.7, and after the merge when he shows Laura the idol. Watching these episodes back-to-back (and with the benefit of knowing how it turns out), though, it's obvious that Laura's actual level of interest was much more ... "Eh, maybe?" and far less trusting of Russell than it first seemed. Worst of all, he originally told Laura there was no idol at Foa Foa, because Ben had found it and was voted out while holding it. Then, three days later at the merge camp, Russell's revealing that he had the idol after all. Hard to believe that didn't pay off!
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