by Linda Holmes
The entirety of the 19th season of CBS's Survivor, which concluded Sunday night, was essentially given over to one player, from the first episode to the finale: Russell, the missing-toothed "oil company owner" who was, depending on your perspective, either the show's greatest evil mastermind or a product of preposterous network hype who couldn't come close to backing up his endless speeches about his own genius.
The entire season was this question: Would Russell win? No one else was really given adequate screen time for any viewer to have a strong opinion about him or her as a potential winner, once the show committed to Russell for the entire season, so that was the way it had to be framed. Would Russell win?
Whether Russell won, and more, after the jump.
(I just want to warn you: you are just about to see my inner Survivor nerd in full flower. It's a slow week, people. I used to have to write about this show every week for years. I have to use all that useless knowledge for something.)
The way Survivor works is that a final "jury" made up of everyone booted in the second half (or so) of the game votes on the winner out of the last two or three (this year, it was three) people standing. Everyone knows it works this way. Everyone knows that it is meaningless, in terms of winning, to be one of the final people being voted on if you can't get people to vote for you.
There are no rules about how jurors are supposed to vote. There is no requirement that they vote for the nicest person, the person who needs the money most, the person who helped them out personally, the person who helped everyone be fed and hydrated, or the person who played the hardest (which, in the show's parlance, usually means "loudest and least subtly"). There is no rule that you're supposed to vote for a person who played one way versus another way.
There are also no rules about how they can decide who not to vote for. You can not vote for someone because he's a jerk, because he got you voted out and you're still mad, or simply because you like the other guy better. You can follow promises you made earlier, or not. All of this is just as much a part of the rules as people being voted off.
In the end, out of nine jurors, Russell managed to snag a total of two votes, and was trounced by Natalie, his alliance-mate, who played a much quieter and more respectful game in which, compared to Russell, she thought a lot more about winning the money and a lot less about getting the most camera time.
Throughout the season, CBS, which seemed to have suffered a massive casting failure in which the vast majority of the 20 people competing this season simply had very little to say that was interesting, struggled to make more out of Russell than was really there. If a group of people decided to do something, even if Russell was not the first person to suggest it, it would somehow later be reported in one of the increasingly delusional Jeff Probst "Previously on Survivor" summaries (which became the funniest part of the season for me and many people with whom I discussed the show) that it was all his idea.
What Russell did the most was talk about himself. If you excised Russell's confessionals in which he told the camera what a genius he was, and you excised Probst's rooting openly for Russell (as he always does for whatever man he deems the most manly), the perception that Russell did more than everyone else would largely disappear. (Yes, you would be left with the fact that he found a couple of immunity idols, now that the show has stopped burying them or really hiding them and has started hiding them in near-plain-sight. This is not "mastermind" play. This is being good at scavenger hunts.)
It was Natalie, in fact, who pulled off the single most difficult and significant maneuver of the season: getting a much larger eight-person alliance that was facing her four-person alliance to turn on one of its own, which ultimately fractured it permanently. She had an absolutely unassailable claim to the title. She made the single most important move of the game.
Much of Russell's bragging, on the other hand, was about the two most meaningless, obvious boots of the season: the first two. The first person sent home was an aggressive young woman perceived as physically weak and disliked by several members of her team. The second was a 48-year-old female police officer, also perceived as physically weak and not very comfortable socially with a bunch of young bartender types. These are the same two kinds of people -- annoying young women and older women -- who go first in every other season. They'd have gone anyway. But because neither of them believed anything Russell said, he put this toward his legacy: "They were onto me, so they're gone now!"
Here's the problem: Just about everybody was onto him. There are perhaps two people all season (Shambo and Ashley) who thought Russell was telling them the truth. Everyone else knew the entire time when he was lying and when he wasn't. Despite his conviction that everyone was under his mind control, there is strong evidence that he fooled absolutely nobody. The people who believed he was going to stick with them were, by and large, the people he stuck with: Natalie, Jaison, and Mick, his alliance-mates. He didn't manipulate them into anything. They correctly ascertained that he was, indeed, intending to go forward with them. Everybody else he approached with handshakes and secret deals expressed frequently their belief that those secret deals probably meant nothing. Whoever went, whenever they went, it was easy for Russell to say, "That person was a threat to me, because he didn't believe me, so I had to get rid of him!" When everybody thinks you're full of it, it's pretty easy to argue that there's a perfect record of eliminated players being the ones who think you're full of it.
In retrospect, it's fairly obvious what happened: Russell hooked himself to three people -- Natalie, who won; Mick, who's a doctor; and Jaison, who's a Fulbright Scholar -- all of whom knew that he would run around all season acting like a jerk, but figured if they remained in a nice, solid four-person alliance with him, they had a decent chance of getting to the end, and when they got there, the jury would probably dislike him and vote for someone they liked better. This is basically exactly what happened. This is how smart people play if they're confronted with an attention-hogging personality eager to align with them. And, in fact, the best way of all to do it is to be the person the attention hog feels least threatened by, because he'll be trying to make sure it's you he's up against at the end. Natalie, in short, played Russell perfectly, as it turned out, and understood how their alliance would be perceived.
Russell, on the other hand, thought that when he sat in front of a bunch of people who didn't like him, he would be able to say, "I was in charge and made the most noise, so you should vote for me." He was completely, utterly, totally mistaken.
And somehow, despite the fact that the rest of his alliance correctly understood the social dynamics and Russell massively misread them, there are cries that this is -- wait, what was it Dalton Ross said at Entertainment Weekly? -- yes, there it is. A travesty.
You may have been rooting for Natalie because you liked her better (And that's fine. I get that.) but if you are voting, and you take that job seriously, you have to put that aside and vote for the best player. Any way you slice it, Natalie was not the best player.
First of all, if you are voting and you take that job seriously, you have lost your grip on reality, because voting on Survivor is not a "job" to "take seriously."
Second of all, there is no such thing as a "best player" other than the player who gets people to vote for him or her. It is an intrinsic part of Survivor to play to a jury in a way that gets them to vote for you. It's the hardest, most mysterious part of the game. Winning challenges is easy; understanding what somebody will do with his or her vote is hard. If she hadn't been trying to make sure she would do well in the final vote, Natalie would have played entirely differently. Everybody else in Russell's alliance tailored their performance to that final vote. He didn't. He forgot, or mishandled, the entire last step of winning the game. Natalie both played in such a way that she got to the end and played in such a way that people voted for her. Russell played in such a way that he got to the end and then got two votes. Like it or not, for all players, this game ends with a final challenge called Get The Most Votes. If you stink at that challenge, you deserve not to win.
Third of all: If you're a juror, you don't have to put aside anything! You have the ultimate power of your own reckless, irrational whimsy! That is the absolute essence of the game. The essence of being a juror on Survivor is that you can do whatever you want. The fact that some jurors vote out of a twisted sense of "respect," some vote out of resentment, some vote out of loyalty, and some vote because they think one person needs the money more? That's the game. Those are the rules, and everybody knows them, and everybody has the same opportunity to take them into account and play accordingly.
Interestingly, this season has been compared to the eighth season, which was an "All-Star" season, where the final two were Rob and Amber, a couple who fell into a pattern that was in some ways similar: he was far more aggressive and mouthy; she was quieter and more passive. The difference between Rob and Russell (other than that Rob got four votes and almost won, while Russell got two votes and didn't) is that Rob knew the entire time what he was doing. He never believed he was going to walk in there, say "I did all the work," and be handed a bag of money. He thought that might work on some people, but he knew other people would never vote for him. He played in the only way he could, with a pretty solid understanding of the gamble he was making, and hoped for the best. He lost the gamble, but he wasn't deluded. (Furthermore, everybody acknowledged that Rob genuinely did make most of the decisions, which Russell didn't; some of the votes for Amber seemed to be spite votes against Rob because he ran the show. The votes for Natalie seemed more based on a personal dislike of Russell's obnoxious, sexist, bullying behavior and a genuine affection for Natalie.)
Russell, on the other hand, lectured and taunted Natalie and Mick before the final tribal council about how everyone was going to vote for him, how he would make them look like fools if they even tried to defend themselves. He insisted that he had it in the bag. In short, he had no idea how he was perceived. His social skills are, despite the "manipulative mastermind" narrative the show tried so hard to present, very, very poor. That's why he sat at the reunion show almost in tears over not winning. He was stunned and shocked that his plan didn't work, because it never occurred to him that other people didn't think he was as great as he thought he was. It never occurred to him that other people correctly read his bluster as bluster; that his alliance was saying, "Oh, yeah, buddy, you're the big genius, I'm sure you'll win" and then turning around and rolling their eyes when he walked away.
It never occurred to him that he was being simultaneously used by three other people, all of whom had the same plan to let him bluster and brag and make himself someone nobody wanted to give money, and then to grab the money right out from under him, taking advantage of his enormous blind spot when it comes to social relationships. Ultimately, one of those three people had the game go precisely as she planned.
How, exactly, is this not deserving to win?