Episodes 5 and 6 of Survivor: Samoa span the nearly week-long torrential downpour that made Survivor re-think Samoa as a preferred location, and briefly induced production to seek out somewhere with more reliable weather. Survivor is hard enough on its own, with the physical deprivation from starving and not sleeping, and the constant mental torment of a complicated social-strategic game where you can never be sure who, if anyone, you can trust. Adding in five straight days where it never stops raining — where you're completely soaked, freezing cold, and you can't have a fire for warmth, or to cook rice, or to boil water — just turns it into a brutal, dismal experience for everyone involved.
There are lessons here: Russ Swan's medevac happened primarily because he was dehydrated, from not being able to boil water. Several people, including Mick, looked close to hypothermia. Worst of all for the game itself, as the show itself makes clear in Episode 5, while you can still run challenges in the rain, it's nearly impossible for people to strategize. Not when everyone is constantly huddled in the leaky shelter, desperately hoping to retain what little warmth they can generate. (Survivor re-learned this lesson in Cambodia, then promptly forgot it again.)
So when Ashley performs poorly in two consecutive challenges in Episode 5, and Foa Foa can't talk amongst themselves, she's the obvious consensus target, even as the show makes the case that Liz — who Russell recognizes as a smart, independent thinker who sees through his bullshit — poses a much bigger threat to him.
It's not fun for the contestants. It's not particularly
exciting for the audience either, to watch people just shiver
for two straight hours. Obviously, Survivor can't
control the weather, so you think: "Okay, that was a learning
experience. Survivor is real, this is a demonstration
of that. Lesson learned, let's move on and make better choices
in the future. Maybe make tarps more readily available, or
Yet as soon as Survivor parked itself permanently in Fiji, they immediately set about unlearning the lessons of Samoa. Faced with an unprecedented cast evacuation at the start of Millennials vs. Gen X due to a deadly cyclone, because their back-to-back filming schedule had forced the first season to start at the tail end of cyclone season, Survivor's response was to ... film two weeks earlier the next year, *increasing* the amount of time with potential cyclone exposure. Why?
Well, for one thing, it's hard to overlook the host's enthusiasm every time it rains during a challenge or Tribal Council, because he feels it makes him look robust and rugged. (As he spends a couple of hours getting damp, then returns to his resort accommodations.)
During this season of rewatches, there have been a lot of "learning experiences" for production. Marquesas featured starved people in the endgame just laying in the dirt all day, and one of them passed out due to malnutrition *after reaching Ponderosa*. The show responded by revising its "we're not giving you any food whatsoever" decision to re-include rice. A good move! Fiji saw the cruel decision to not give the first challenge-losing tribe a flint — not when they visited Tribal Council, not ever, not unless or until they won it in a challenge. That resulted in starved people laying in the dirt all day in the pre-merge.
So what's the lesson of Samoa? Well, they haven't repeated the dumb chiefs twist, so that's certainly a good thing. Tarps are more readily available, so that's good. But apart from that, the only change seems to be that Tribal Council sets don't have a roof any more, so that the robust, rugged host can get soaked occasionally.
The editors play fast and loose with confessionals and chronological order this season, but nowhere is this more obvious than with the many, many utterances of Russell Hantz. He entered the game with a fully shaved head and a goatee, and because his hair grows in fairly quickly, it's fairly jarring when the editors gleefully string together clips from obviously disparate times in the pre-merge, because his beard/hair goes through multiple cycles of growth and recession, all in one episode.
This is especially obvious with Russell's argument with Liz in Episode 5 (used as a distraction away from Ashley's boot). A suddenly-less-hairy Russell and Liz are arguing, with Shambo in the background, while wearing what look like sparkling clean new swimsuits. Neither of them were wearing their swimsuits earlier in the actual Ep5 RC, nor during the immediately prior scene where Shambo reads the third idol clue to all of Foa Foa. But Liz is accusing Russell of lying about not having the idol, so the scene had to go somewhere, apparently. And they have to build the case for why Liz is the next boot after Ashley. So Russell tells her she's "walking on thin ice," which is immortalized as the title quote.
Too bad it's obviously a sequence from right after "Sea Crates" in Episode 3 (when they had just received their swimsuits), which happened a good five days earlier. This reveals a lot about Foa Foa dynamics: the bloom was already somewhat off the Russell rose for the Foa Foas when Jaison was pushing for Ben's boot in Episode 4, and Russell's claim off controlling everyone like zombies becomes even more suspect.
But hey, at least he got a chronologically inaccurate title quote! That's probably more rare in Survivor history — even to this day — than finding an idol without a clue!
Down one Russell
Then there's Episode 6. Eleven years later, even knowing that he eventually got a chance to finish what he started, to complete the dream he'd had since Borneo of competing on Survivor, Russ Swan's departure is still hard to watch. The episode does a great job of demonstrating how hard he pushed himself, and how detrimental that effort was to him physically.
The lingering impression left by Russ's collapse in the Ep6 RC is mostly that it just seems so unfair. He was trying so hard, and that effort was what took him out. Really though, it was a large combination of factors: (1) this was the fifth day of the storm, and Galu as a tribe was hungry, cold, and dehydrated because they couldn't keep their fire going to boil water. (2) Russ had pushed himself *extra* hard as the chief, because he felt he needed to make up for the tarp decision. But he'd also internalized all the grumbling from the other decisions he'd been forced to make. (3) And this is hard to overstate: Russ really didn't have anyone like him on Galu, and he'd also had to overperform to stay in everyone's good graces.
To the second point, the chiefs twist was a particularly dumb experiment, one that basically punished two people right off the bat, based solely on first impressions. Survivor knew perfectly well that the role would be a signficant handicap for whoever was chosen. Nobody wants to be seen as the leader on a normal season! Reinforcing that every episode with the dumb necklace, then piling on additional critical decisions (rewards, sending an ambassador to the other tribe) was too much. Russ overplayed the role, sure. He took it too seriously, and he paid the price. Mick took the exact opposite approach, deferring all decisions to the group (although this was hugely assisted by Foa Foa never having to make any decisions because they always lost), and was eventually punished by the jury for his non-leadership. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.
Russ's isolation is the compounding factor for all this. Even if he hadn't been chief, Russ was a 42-year-old Black man from Philly, a longtime Survivor fan who had applied multiple times, and he found himself stranded on a tribe of mostly white, mostly young, people from (mostly) Los Angeles, almost all of whom were recruits. The only other Black person on his tribe was Yasmin, who was solely there to be on TV, loudly complained about the conditions, and was his tribe's first boot (against his wishes). He was the only dad on the tribe (and would be the only parent, if not for Laura Morett). He really only got along well with Erik, but Erik gets along with everyone. Even Shambo!
Russ does, of course, get to come back in Philippines, and largely plays himself out of the game again, as Matsing quickly becomes that season's Foa Foa. He seizes the chief reins again, perhaps because it's now expected because he's the returning player/mentor for his tribe, ala what they'd just seen Coach and Ozzy do in South Pacific. Or perhaps because he was the chief in Samoa. Or perhaps because he just can't help himself, and insisting on being the leader is his default state.
Regardless, he comes across as a good dude, maybe not the best Survivor player ever, but at least someone who deeply appreciated his opportunity to play, then got burned by it, twice. You always root for the fans to succeed, and it's especially painful to see someone who loves the game so much suffer from their experience. Oh well. At least the fall of Matsing was epic and memorable.
The what-if game: Russ Swan's exit and post-merge Galu dynamics
Showing the strategic maneuvering in each camp leading up to the Vote That Never Happened in Ep.6 was a decent way to fill the last half-hour of the episode. We finally get to see the actual alliance lines within Galu, for one thing. Had Galu voted at Tribal, Monica was clearly done. (Liz was likely out on Foa Foa, which doesn't change much, since she's out next anyway.)
So let's game this out: What would have happened if there had been a vote? Let's say Russ passed out *after* the challenge, as Mike Borassi did. What does Survivor do then? If Foa Foa had won, there's a decent chance Probst cancels the double-vote, but still forces Galu to vote someone out, since they lost. (The incentive there being evening up the numbers as much as possible, similar to trying to give the Aitu Four a fighting chance in Cook Islands.) Foa Foa then gets pizza and watches the Galu fireworks.
Foa Foa seeing the divisions on Galu first-hand probably changes the merge vote. Shambo probably still gets elected chief of Galu next episode. Russell Hantz probably still tries to recruit Laura Morett when she's sent there by Shambo. Galu probably still wins IC, and Foa Foa boots Liz. No big changes there, except Monica's gone. But at the merge, the Galu cracks are obvious to everyone, so there's much more incentive for them all to stick together, since they'd only be up 7-4 now. Most likely, it would be a boring Pagonging, and there's never an incentive for Fincher and Shambo to flip, unless Galu guesses wrong/ Hantz plays an idol correctly multiple times.
Alternatively, Laura and Kelly could flip to Foa Foa at the merge, to avenge Monica. That would give them a 6-5 advantage, but their choice of boot would be problematic. Erik's the most viscerally anti-Foa Foa, so he's a likely target. But he has an idol, which none of them know about. (Shambo is probably Laura's choice, but she's too valuable to Foa Foa to lose.) It's quite possible Hantz and Erik *both* play their idols, and whoever the Galu men plus Shambo target is the merge boot, evening things up (Laura?). Or maybe Shambo bridges the divide between the Galu men and Foa Foa, and they unite to vote out Laura, with no idols played. Either would be a much more exciting, fluid post-merge.
These events also could significantly impact future returnee seasons. Monica's probably not even in the Cambodia voting pool if she leaves in Ep6. (Doesn't change much about Cambodia.) If Laura goes along with a Pagonging, she's probably not brought back for Blood vs. Water, which means no Ciera, which is a big shift in that season and in Cambodia. Possibly no witches coven. (Not much effect on Game Changers.)
The biggest potential impact is obvious, though: If Russell Hantz is out early post-merge in a Pagonging, Shane Powers probably keeps his spot in Heroes vs. Villains, there's a Shane-Coach alliance on the Villains tribe, and Parvati may be their first boot, instead of Randy. Or at worst, their boot instead of Tyson. Sandra probably still wins, just with Boston Rob serving as the Russell Hantz of the season. Maybe no Redemption Island necessary? (This is the future Survivor fans want.)
All of these changes cascading forth, just from Russ Swan passing out post-challenge, rather than mid-challenge. Survivor is a crazy game of chance.
- Hiding the winner's failures: Ashley made clear recently, in her Quarantine Questionnaire with Dalton Ross, that her inability to hold down her "sea slug gut" smoothie in the Ep5 reward challenge was not the only Foa Foa fail. In fact, future winner Natalie White *also* couldn't finish her drink, which explains why in a challenge with just six participants per tribe, Ashley was somehow in the final round (as aired) of a match tied 4-4, even though neither Natalie nor Erik had been shown taking their turns. (This context also changes the later scene where Natalie comforts Ashley for her feelings of despair over not finishing.) It's not out of the ordinary for Survivor to remove unexciting rounds in multi-bout challenges like this, but it *is* weird for them to remove one where a team scores a point, while leaving in all four rounds that resulted in ties. Guess there are some perks to being the winner.
- The lost portent of the decoy vote: It's far less prevalent nowadays due to idol-dodging vote splits, but Samoa is an excellent example of the old truism that if you're the decoy vote for your tribe — the tribe member who the person who's actually booted votes against — there's a really good chance you're next to go. Betsy voted for Ben in Ep2 (he's out the next episode). Ben voted for Ashley in Ep3 (she's out at their next Tribal). Ashley voted for Liz in Ep5 (she's out at their next Tribal). Simply put, if writing down your name sounds plausible and logical to the person who's leaving, your status in the tribe is probably not too high. This is why it's so impressive that someone like JT or Tina can go the entire game without having their name written down: They were never even considered as possibly expendable.
- Bad Survivor fan confessional time: Streaming versions of the show are the perfect format in which to have each season's intro. Yes, it's inconsequential in the larger scheme of things, but it's a tradition, it's part of the glue that ties each season together with its predecessors and followers, and most importantly, it's a critical recognition/ memorial of each contestant's participation in the season. Even if they get voted off first, every contestant at least gets two heroic, slow-motion shots in the intro. So it's disappointing that the show has trotted out excuses ranging from "oh, there's no room in the episode" to "it's too expensive to make" as reasons for cutting it. (Island of the Idols never had one. Probably because the show knew it was going to get blowback for its mishandling of Dan Spilo, and said "Eh, let's punish the fans ahead of time.") It's great to have the intro back in these old seasons when watching on Netflix or Amazon Prime or Hulu. Having said all that: Know what else is great? Being able to hit the "skip intro" button on every episode after the premiere. Survivor: Samoa is all about choices!
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