The final two Survivor: Samoa episodes, going from Shambo's boot through to Final Tribal Council and the reunion show, are mostly an exercise in building up false expectations, dashing them, and then claiming an unearned victory. Can this previously invisible guy Brett — someone we haven't previously bothered to show you — pull off an improbable immunity streak and win the million? He's almost there! He's even closer! He's ... ah, guess not. Russell's guaranteed to win the million now! Everyone's saying it! Especially Russell! Ah ... guess not. This was one of the greatest seasons of all ti... ah, guess not.
Rather than a balanced, engaging story, Samoa feels more like one long, excruciating "Next time on ... Survivor" preview, filled with hype and bombast, only to ultimately fall flat when the actual product is revealed. There's a metric ton of Russell Hantz, a fair amount of Shambo, occasional glimpses of others ... and then Natalie wins. (As she should have, it just was never really presented as a possibility.)
On paper, the actual product should have been an easy sell: A ragtag band of underdogs topples an all-powerful alliance, aided by a turncoat mulleted misfit. A good time is had by all! Instead, it felt like a dreary, clock-watching grind. One tribe slowly, methodically, getting picked off by the other. It was fun and novel in Borneo. But that was a season that had close to 16 stars. In this one, 18 seasons later, there are maybe two (?), and the gameplay ruts are now well-worn and wearisome. Apart from that one idol play.
On rewatch, a lot of of the discomfort rests with the decision to make the season all about Russell. He has a colorful, larger-than-life presence on the screen, to be sure. But by making almost no attempt to let the audience feel any kind of connection to the actual winner, by actively mocking the third-place finisher, and by leaving only enough room in the edit for the fourth-place finisher to make his first appearance in the penultimate episode, the season is pretty much Hantz or bust. And like every other "or bust" this season, well ... you know what happens.
Furthermore, despite his incessant self-praise, Hantz's game is so loaded with obvious faults — the casual misogyny, the open arrogance, the cavalier viciousness against anyone who opposes him, the dismissive dearth of empathy for anyone that isn't Russell Hantz — that it's unsettling watching the show fall all over itself to canonize the guy. The finale takes pains to showcase Russell's claim that he's "not like this in real life." Oh really? He listens to, respects, and uplifts women? He doesn't constantly talk up his alleged expertise in everything? Interesting.
It's a season-long effort to pound a square peg into a round hole. The peg never fits, the hole never yields, and in the end, the show gives up hammering on Samoa and says, oh hey, look! There's another round hole, over there! Russell's in Heroes vs. Villains next season! Maybe it'll all work out this next ime! And then the pounding continues.
"I accomplished the impossible out here, aaallll by myself" - Russell Hantz.
"Russell has good points, but he needs to reminded that he couldn't have done this without us" - Mick Trimming.
Foa Foa's run to the end involved a lot of choices, but it really wasn't until after the 5-5 (5-3 on revote) tie that sent Laura Morett to the jury that the decisions were really made by Russell. He was clearly in control of part of the endgame. Were those choices outstanding feats of strategic brilliance? Not really. Did he control the game all by himself? Also not really: Shambo played a huge supporting role.
His first choice was to target John Fincher, whose post-tie flip had just secured Foa Foa the numbers advantage. This made very little sense. John was young, smart, and athletic, sure. But he was also not particularly well-liked by the Galu women (nor by Dave Ball, for that matter). Especially after he'd just betrayed them, sending Laura to the jury. The best target there, in hindsight, was obviously Brett, whom *everybody* liked. But no, Russell chose Fincher, allegedly because Fincher knew about his idol (even though everybody else did, too, since he'd made such a public display of racing around the jungle immediately after returning from reward, then completely stopped looking an hour later).
The next round, the best target was again Brett, who had already almost won immunity the round Laura went out. He didn't succeed at bowling (yet another random number generator immunity challenge), and was about to go on his immunity streak. But for some reason Dave Ball was picked instead. Mainly to placate Shambo, who had wanted Dave out the previous round.
Then Brett starts winning immunities, so the only logical choice was Monica, who would probably win vs. Russell if she somehow slipped through to the finals. Still it was logical to leave her until last, because she was consistently underwhelming in challenges (40.3% Mean % finish).This is one of the few good choices Russell made, but also one of the most obvious ones. Why boot a Foa Foa or Shambo over Monica?
The next round is final six. Brett again wins immunity, forcing the Foa Foa/Shambo alliance to cut one of their own. After the Russell/Jaison/Shambo reward team had expressed concern that Natalie and Brett were too close, and that maybe Mick was with them ... neither is targeted, because Jaison insists on Shambo. Russell is thinking maybe Mick, because that's what Shambo wants. But Jaison explains that they need Mick to have a better chance to beat Brett for immunity, and that's the logic Russell ends up using.
That leaves just two rounds: Final five and final four. Brett is the obvious choice for both, but he wins another immunity at F5, so Russell boots Jaison (it's presented as a toss-up between Jaison and Mick, with Russell and Natalie casting the deciding votes). Russell's read on this is hilariously backwards. He thinks he can easily beat Jaison with the jury, but he might lose to Mick. But Jaison has a fantastic backstory which has the benefit of also being true (unlike, say, lying about being a firefighter from New Orleans), and Jaison has a solid case for having guided Foa Foa to make multiple difficult and/or key votes (Ben, Erik, Shambo). Jaison could conceivably win in a final three with Natalie and Russell. He gets a lot of post-game disdain from the likes of Dave Ball, but that's partially because he didn't do what Dave wanted, yet still didn't get to the end. Had Jaison reached the finals, Dave probably shows a bit more respect. Mick, in contrast, has little to show for his time in the game, beyond a disdain for his Chief necklace, and consistently earning Shambo's "feckless" tag. Mick also, of course, goes on to receive zero jury votes.
So for all Russell's showboating about controlling the game, the few non-obvious decisions he actually made (Fincher, Dave Ball) weren't great ones. They did end up working out, and he did reach the finals without any of his allies ever voting against him, which is impressive. But his claim to be the greatest player of all time isn't really supported by much evidence. He was an aggressive, strong-man type of leader in the Boston Rob mold, just with a different accent and more idols. His strengths were an ability to lie at the blink of an eye (especially to Shambo), and a blizzard of early game final two agreements. Still, he was playing against a pool of competitors who may have been some of the weakest ever, outside of Redemption Island and One World. And he still lost.
As Monica demonstrated, he's also relatively easily prodded, and prone to angry retaliatory responses. Laura spoke extensively about his bullying of her after she declined to work with him at the merge. That's clear-cut jury mismanagement, completely counter-productive behavior. So was his approach with Brett at final four. Natalie and Mick told Brett straight-up they were voting him out, because they couldn't beat him in front of the jury. Russell, in contrast, floats the possibility of a tie vote, and even hints at that throughout Tribal Council, only to yank it away and make it a 3-1 vote instead. Why lead a juror on with false hopes, only to double-cross them at the last second? Just unnecessarily creating bad feelings.
Then he appeared to spend the entirety of Day 39 browbeating Mick and Natalie, telling them he'd already won the million and threatening them not to give him a reason to make them look stupid in front of the jury. Mick complains about it in confessional. Natalie is shown in the moment, cringing and telling him (quietly) to ease up. It's awful.
There's a fine line between aggressive play and abusive play. Russell crossed that line. It's not hard to see why so many jurors were turned off by his antics.
The vote not taken: nobody targets Russell at final five
The truth of the final five vote has to be dissected away pretty extensively from its pro-Russell propaganda framing. After a five-minute finale recap intro of Jeff Probst essentially annointing Russell as the Lord and Saviour of Survivor, the finale starts off with an interesting revelation: Jaison had been up all night with diarrhea. Later that day, we learn from Natalie that Jaison has in fact been sick for a couple of days (basically since the time he finally won a food reward, after going 33 days without one), and hadn't even been able to drink any water. Physically, Jaison is running on fumes.
Naturally, all of this is presented in the show as "Jaison has checked out" or "Jaison doesn't even want to be here." We initially see that story through the Hantz-centric lens of early-riser Russell fetching treemail at the crack of dawn, then mocking Jaison as a whiner/baby for trying to sleep in and for not feeling well.
As they begin to stir, every one of the Foa Foas recognizes the threat Brett poses that day, they all know they have to keep him from winning immunity. Russell even tells Natalie she'll be the boot if Brett wins again. She meekly accepts. (Perhaps because she knows that the surest way to incur Russell's wrath is to oppose him to his face ... a great, uplifiting lesson Survivor sells to America this season: If your man's abusive, just keep quiet and hope for the best.)
So what happens when Brett does win? Russell convinces Jaison he's safe, then tells Mick and Natalie they need to boot Jaison, because he's "checked out" and too weak to continue. (Medically, this may be close to true, but instead of the Borassi/Swan sympathetic lens, the editors insist here that Russell is right, and Jaison is in fact a lazy crybaby. Great work, editors.) Somehow, this works. Mick and Jaison obediently vote against each other, Natalie does what Russell tells her, and Brett, just happy to finally vote a Foa Foa out, tags along on the Jaison boot.
What on earth were Brett, Mick, and Jaison thinking here? (If Jaison were healthy, at least.) The *obvious* move is for the three of them to target Russell. All of their chances of winning go up tremendously with Russell out of the game. And it's not like they're not aware of this: Mick worries in confessional that Russell will beat him in jury voting (he will). He and Jaison worry that Russell could easily target them, just as he did with Shambo (he does). Just a couple of days earlier, Russell was worried that Mick was getting too close to Brett. (Was he? It didn't involve Russell so we will never know.) Brett had previously approached Mick and Jaison about turning on Foa Foa. The ingredients were all there, but none of them were apparently willing to start cooking.
Maybe that's the Hantz "magic." He did, after all, make F2 deals with everyone left on Days 1-2, and to a person they all thought this was some exclusive arrangement they each had with Russell. That's a strike against them for being naïve and not cross-checking. And it's what Brian Heidik did seven years earlier in Thailand, so it's not like it's something they couldn't have anticipated. Maybe it's that the one guy who might have spearheaded a countermove (Jaison) is shambling around, half-dead. Or maybe it's just that a bunch of non-Survivor-watching recruits turned out to not be particularly aggressive, creative, or good at the gameplay.
That's the biggest frustration of Samoa. While Russell is problematic as the person to build the entire season around, he's at least a solid character/contestant. He's a standout narrator, and he's an above-average modern strategist, albeit one with demonstrably poor jury management skills. But on balance, he's a definite plus. The problem with Samoa is that just about everyone else is so bad. And there are so many bad players that they just kind of stand around, clogging up the system for the entire post-merge, until finally, mercifully, it ends.
But at least it eventually does.
Yawning to the finals
The flaccid endgame narrative (Brett or bust!) is not helped by the absolutely phoned-in final set of challenges. The "epic build" for the final 5 IC is a dramatically scaled-back version of the F4 immunity challenge from the immediately preceding season (Tocantins). There, contestants had to race across a series of obstacles, scrambling through net tunnels that resembled the legs of a giant tarantula, collect a number of puzzle bags, go back, and finally assemble a complex puzzle. Here, contestants run across a single obstacle set, fetch one bag, then complete the most basic puzzle possible (a Survivor logo).
On the one hand, it does give us the shot above, of Russell Hantz just not quite being able to put Survivor together, which is quite prophetic. On the other hand, it's profoundly underwhelming as "epic" challenges go, and it's over in a couple of minutes. The final IC ("Keep It Up") is fine as challenges go, but it's essentially a four-person duel. Maybe this was a downstream result of the massive storm earlier in the game? The constant rain two to three weeks earlier might have forced the challenge department to scrap plans for a more extensive construction project? Who knows.
Oh well, at least there's no real gameplay to distract us from the lack of visual interest.
- Psychic Shambo vs. the Prayer warriors: The final reward challenge (basically Jenga with coconuts and ropes, in teams of three) isn't much as challenges go. (It's not the most telegenic design for the winning move to be determined several minutes after the action ends, when Probst finishes counting coconuts.) But the non-challenge parts are pretty hilarious. The editors pick this spot to unmask Natalie as a full-blown Believer in a God who rewards whoever prays the most. (She prays a *lot* during this challenge.) Meanwhile, Shambo calmly calls out a random number of coconuts that will drop during Natalie's turn (58), and ends up being ... exactly right. Natalie prays for God to steady Brett's hand, and for God to bless their team (Brett, Natalie, and Mick), but it seems like God is totally blown away by Shambo's prognosticatory powers and says, "Eh, screw it, I'll let the yellow team win, just this once." And it was good.
- Speaking of coincidences: The yellow team winning there is the first time in the post-merge ... and Foa Foa goes on to sweep the final three. As team captains before picking teams, Natalie and beats Russell in rock-paper-scissors. (This is almost never shown, so maybe it was actually there as foreshadowing? Then again, very little else going on this episode.) And then Brett wins immunity at the yellow station in the IC. Brett and Russell seem like threats to win, but everything's coming up yellow (and Natalie).
- The Cardona clip? Has the streaming version of Erik Cardona's jury performance been pared down? I remembered it as much more him directly addressing his fellow jurors, but in this version, his comments are almost entirely directed at and supportive of Natalie, then he's done. Am I mixing it up with David Murphy's vote-whipping in South Pacific?
- The host slights back: What hasn't been pared back is Jeff Probst's unabashed evangelism for Russell at the reunion. After briefly giving lip service acknowledgement to Natalie's approach having actually won her a million dollars, he launches into: "Russell's argument is 'Nobody played like I played this season,' which I would agree: Nobody. Russell *dominated* the game with big, bold moves, found idols where there weren't clues, all sorts of things!"
Again, where were these "Big, bold moves"? He was completely out of the loop on the merge vote, which was Jaison's idea, albeit one that was later credited to Natalie (who did a lot of the footwork). He did play an idol correctly (an idol of extremely suspect provenance), one Tribal after playing one when he didn't need to. And let's be real: Shambo probably told him the votes were coming his way, since she was one of the people who voted for him, and she gleefully confessed the next episode that she was the only Galu who knew what was going to happen.
He did get John Fincher to flip on that tie vote, but Shambo had already suggested that to John, and John absolutely did not want to draw rocks, especially for Laura. So Russell's BIG MOVE of getting him to flip was essentially "talking him into" something he was already considering. John even extracted a concession in exchange — a promise from Russell to boot a Foa Foa next — although that was a deal on which Hantz immediately reneged.
Marisa and Betsy were absolutely Russell's moves, but just about everything else was a group effort. Russell's game was roughly 95% talk, 5% actual moves. But hey, Probst is also there to sell Heroes vs. Villains, so ... part of the job, apparently.
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