Outgun Outrun Outgrabe!

I’ve had something of a love/hate relationship with Survivor over the years. I watched a goodly chunk of the first season — most of it after the first few episodes, a little bit of the second, an episode or two here and there of most seasons after that. Then they did a “Pirate” themed season about five or six years back which sucked me in almost instantly.

I liked that season right off the bat because they gave the two teams some money and sent them into a town in the first episode to buy provisions that they would take with them to “the island” or wherever it was they were, and one team actually stole some of the other team’s stuff. And then, the contestants were taken on a boat and they were all dressed up for what they were told was a publicity photo shoot — and then, when the boat they were on anchored about a hundred yards off the coast of “the island”, our erstwhile host and emcee Jeff Probst announced, “There’s no photo shoot. The game starts right now. That’s your island. Over the side, as you are!” And they had to do it. One guy was in a shirt and tie, and the women were in dresses and had to “play the game” without that most important of female garments on Survivor: sports bras. That was cool. That season had a lot of memorable folks in it: a villain named Jon who dubbed himself “Jonny Rotten”; a backstabbing Boy Scouts den mother named Lil; a giant lummox hippie named Rupert; and the eventual winner, a Puerto Rican woman named Sandra.

I think the next season started off interestingly as well, but what got involving there was the play of a single contestant, a guy named Terry, who saw his entire tribe cut down, one by one, until it was just himself remaining against the rest of the other tribe. He was screwed, and the only hope he had was to literally win every single immunity challenge the rest of the way out, from something like ten people left all the way down to three. He fell one challenge short, and the winner ended up being some kid whom I couldn’t stand.

I swore off Survivor after Terry’s elimination, but I would still catch an occasional episode here and there, until the 20th season, which concluded last night. (Ever since 2001, Survivor has aired two complete editions each teevee season, so since 2000 they’ve had 20 editions, or seasons, of the show. Odd terminology.) This was the much ballyhooed “Heroes versus Villains” edition, which pitted players who had been popular and who had played, I don’t know, “above board” games against a bunch of players who had been sneaky, mean, deceitful, and downright dishonest. Of course, Survivor by its nature blurs the line between “hero” and “villain” quite a bit; as Rupert noted in last night’s reunion episode in which the winner (Sandra again, whom I loved the first time and loved again this time), in the the three seasons of Survivor on which he has appeared, he has lied and stolen and backstabbed, and yet he was labeled a “hero”.

But anyway, on to this particular season, which was basically dominated almost from pillar to post by a guy named Russell, who was billed as possibly the best player in Survivor history. I didn’t see much at all of the first season he was on, which immediately preceded this one, but apparently his gameplay the first time was basically to manipulate the hell out of people, lie and deceive at will, put the knife in the back of people he had allied himself with before (sometimes earlier the same day). Russell was a force to be reckoned with…and yet, he didn’t win his first regular season of Survivor.

So he was immediately brought back for “Heroes versus Villains”, and he started the same style of gameplay again, and damned if it didn’t work again as he manipulated the hell out of people, lied and deceived at will, put the knife in the back of people he had previously allied himself with, and at times literally seemed to be dictating the terms of “the game” (as Survivor is always referred to by those playing it) to the other contestants. Somehow he always seemed to get his way, until the end, when he once again saw someone else walk away with the million dollar prize and the title of “Ultimate Survivor”, as Sandra became the first person to ever win Survivor twice. There have been several editions of Survivor that brought back previous contestants and even previous winners, but until now, no previous winner had won it all again.

I’ve seen Sandra’s victory denigrated in various places by people who admired the openly “evil” way Russell approached the game, but I seriously don’t get this notion. Sandra is a lesser player because she never, in either season she played, won a single individual Immunity Challenge; she never put together a dominant alliance; she never dictated the course of the game. “She never had a strategy,” the refrain goes; “Sandra just rode others’ coattails, she just flew under the radar, et cetera et cetera et cetera.” These complaints seem silly to me: why isn’t flying under the radar a strategy? Why isn’t just letting a more dominant player focus on everyone else a strategy? The notion seems to be that Sandra didn’t deserve to win because she didn’t play Survivor in the manner that lots of people like to see people play Survivor — this despite the fact, evident in twenty seasons of the show, that people who play that way simply don’t win. They don’t.

Have deceitful, sneaky and manipulative people won in the past? Sure. Richard Hatch won the very first time out by being that kind of player, and one reason why it’s taken me so long to really warm up to the show is that so often it turns out that people with the skill set necessary to do well on Survivor are people I wouldn’t want anywhere near me, much less winning a show. But what Richard did was something Russell not only didn’t do, but didn’t even realize he should have done: Richard managed to cast someone else as the villain and therefore was able to win when the jury voted against her.

The argument for Russell winning always seems to be phrased the exact same way: “He played the game.” He played the game, all right, but…so what? Am I to believe that Sandra did not play the game? Of course she did, and what’s more, she did it without an alliance to back her up (despite her best efforts to forge one), she did it without ever winning Inidividual Immunity, and she did it with only finding one of the hidden Immunity Idols. Sandra won by demonstrating a much greater understanding of the psychological aspect of the game, about which Russell was simply clueless.

“But Russell played the game!”

Russell himself kept saying it, over and over and over. “I shoulda won because I played the game!” And Russell’s defenders have picked up the same chorus, which leads me to conclude that a lot of folks simply don’t understand something fundamental about games: by definition they have more than one way to be played. There are poker players who can win by being so good at bluffing that they can make you fold on a full house when they’re sitting on a pair of threes, and there are other poker players who can win by being average bluffers at best but are instead able to keep careful mental track of cards played and probabilities confronting them. There are chess players who play a wide-open, attacking style, and there are chess players who play stalwart defense to allow their offensive-minded opponents to break their own forces against. The point is pretty clear: Sandra played the game too. She just played it in a different style than Russell. Maybe you prefer a player of Russell’s style to win, but that’s not the same thing as implying that Sandra just went on autopilot and wound up right there at the end.

Sandra’s strategy has been extremely effective both times she’s played: she sneaks about and listens carefully to gain information, and she is able to make herself seem as though she simply isn’t a threat. It was glaringly obvious during the last couple episodes of this season that Russell was making a colossal error in the way he kept saying that he didn’t care if Sandra went to the final three, because there was no way the jury would award someone who “didn’t play the game”. As in, the jury would never award someone who didn’t play with the same approach that he did. I thought Sandra’s strategy was pretty brilliant, especially in her first season, when she was able to look the jury in the eye at the very end and say, “Every one of who that’s on the jury instead of sitting here is there because of something Lil [her Final Two opponent] did.” And damned if she wasn’t able to get the same point across again.

And that, ultimately, brings me to why I now consider Russell to be a very overrated player of Survivor. Oddly, I was trying to crystallize my thoughts on Russell’s gameplay errors when, in the reunion show, it was Boston Rob — of all people! — who laid it out nicely by pointing out that Russell didn’t play to win the game, he merely played to get to the final three. In Russell’s mind, “winning Survivor” is exactly the same thing as “getting to the final three”. And we’ve seen, time and time and time again that on Survivor, that simply isn’t the case.

So, what was wrong with Russell? Why was he overrated?

Point the first: Russell was often very lucky, and yet, in the jury questioning, he openly denied the role luck had to play in his success.

This is a bigger point than many people suppose. Lots of folks, Americans in particular I’ve noticed, underrate luck as a crucial role in whatever success they attain in life (or lack thereof). Russell genuinely thought that he got to the final three solely by virtue of his own efforts. This simply isn’t the case. First off, he had a built-in structural advantage in that “Heroes versus Villains” was filmed just a couple of weeks after the previous season — Russell’s first — had ended, which meant that Russell’s first edition of Survivor had not even aired when he started playing “Heroes versus Villains”. Thus, none of the “H v. V” contestants knew anything about him. I have to believe that the next time Russell gets a shot at Survivor, he will have a bullseye on his back very early on, because everyone will know about him.

Second, his Villains tribe had a good early run, with the Villains only losing two of the first seven Immunity Challenges, and it wasn’t until the third episode — Day 8 of the show, realtime — that the Villains had to vote someone out. That gave Russell eight days, which were followed by seven more, to start putting together an alliance to first protect him and, later, conspire with him. That was a lucky break.

Third, Russell found a hidden Immunity Idol, which helped him to get a player on another alliance knocked off.

Fourth, in that very episode when he played the Idol by giving it to Parvati — thus cementing his alliance — he could not have had any idea that Tyson would change his vote.

Fifth, he couldn’t have predicted that the Hero tribe would do something do stupid as to give him another Immunity Idol.

Sixth, the final Immunity Challenge came down to him and Jerri. Had Parvati won it, who knows?

Russell was often quite lucky. Now, he did possess the skill to make the most of that luck, but when he denied that luck was a factor at all, it made clear that Russell had fallen in love with the power of his own personality.

Point the second: Russell had no end-game.

When you play a game, if you want to be good at it, you have to be able to put together an end-game. The end-game is when one’s attention switches from reaching a certain point in the game with a certain position of strength to securing the victory. Russell had no idea how to do this, because as Boston Rob pointed out, Russell thought that reaching the end-game was the end-game. Anyone who’s really paid attention to Survivor over the years knows otherwise. This brings me to:

Point the third: Russell simply does not understand the game.

Remember the end of Shawshank Redemption, when Red says, in voiceover, “I like to think that the last thing to go through the Warden’s head, other than that bullet, was to think, how in the hell Andy Dufresne ever got the best of him.” The look on Russell’s face last night when he lost was very similar to that — it was as though he couldn’t process it. His inner Vezzini had to be screaming “Inconceivable!” And yet, it was.

Sure, it’s easy for viewers at home to get a kick out of watching Russell strut around the island, bullying people into voting the way he wants them to, but imagine that you’re not sitting in your living room watching a carefully edited 43 minutes of what happened, but you’re living it. Imagine you’re Jerri, and all of a sudden one day, you’ve got Russell in your face saying, “Vote with me or you’re out of this game.” I tend to think that’s the exact moment when he lost Jerri’s jury vote, and he did that stuff constantly, and then still expected to get the million dollar reward. Russell simply did not understand that at its heart, Survivor is the most psychological of reality teevee games. He showed no understanding of the psychology of the game; all Russell saw was blunt force. He was the human embodiment of the old adage that when your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Put simply: Survivor by its very nature doesn’t reward the nicest person, but it does reward the person who is the lesser dick, or douche, or asshole, or whatever word you like. What makes Survivor so oddly compelling is that it sets up a game where you need to screw people to win, and then in the end, final victory is decided by the people who have been screwed. That’s why the game requires that such a fine line be walked by those who would win it, and Russell not only refused to walk the fine line, he ignored its existence altogether.

In the end, Russell felt entitled to win, and people have a funny tendency to look down on people who feel entitled. He showed his sense of entitlement in his shock at having lost, and in his bizarre notion that viewers should get to vote on the ultimate winner.

In conclusion, Russell did not deserve to win; he is not the greatest player in Survivor history; Sandra did deserve to win because she did play the game. She outwitted Russell, she outplayed him, and she outlasted him.

A few random notes:

:: Colby said that they weren’t allowed to swim or go anywhere while on the set. What was that about?

:: I was rooting for Russell just to get rid of Boston Rob, whom I consider to be one of the most irritating people on teevee anywhere. Why Rob is considered such a great player is beyond me; he’s 0-3 on Survivor and 0-2 on The Amazing Race. He’s nowhere near as potent a force as he thinks he is.

:: I like Rupert a lot, but man, is he a clueless lummox or what?

:: I thought the women on the show were, without exception, better looking in their no-makeup, unbathed states on the show than all dolled up in the finale! I suppose I find dirty women appealing.

:: Coach is a very, very odd man. He kept giving speeches that were incoherent at best.

:: The next edition of Survivor goes to Nicaragua. I’d love to see a non-tropical locale at some point, huh? They’ve done the Australian Outback and they’ve done China, but that’s it. I’m not saying they should do Survivor: Himalayans, but how about a desert environment? Or a mountain forest in the Pacific Northwest?

We’ll see next year, but for now, Yay Sandra!

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1 Response to Outgun Outrun Outgrabe!

  1. Roger Owen Green says:

    I gave up on Survivor a long time ago. (Watched season 1 & the boring season 2, bits of the next several seasons, generally only the 1st and last shows – there is so much recapitulation in that last episode…) Then not at all.

    Wouldn't recognize Sandra or Russell, yet I follow the blogs re the show. I agree about pretty much everything you wrote re: them (esp Russell's advantage of his season not having aired), Boston Rob (stop bringing this guy back!), and Rupert (who I did like the first time out).

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