Once More Into The Breach: 'Survivor' A Brief Note About 'Survivor'
NPR logo Once More Into The Breach: 'Survivor'

Once More Into The Breach: 'Survivor'

Russell Hantz, during the twelfth episode of Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains. CBS ENTERTAINMENT hide caption

toggle caption
CBS ENTERTAINMENT

As I've said, I've been mostly checked out of this season of Survivor, but I watched it off and on, and I tuned in for last night's two-hour finale and one-hour reunion. I have a few thoughts, but for those of you who might not have watched it yet, stop reading now if you don't want to hear about the ending.

Now, as you may know, I was not a fan of Russell Hantz in his first season, and I found some of the outrage expressed over his failure to win to be kind of ridiculous, considering that he had absolutely no end game other than "you have to vote for me because I say so." Of course, the fact that he's been through all this before and easily could have learned enough from it to avoid repeating precisely the same mistakes didn't stop Russell from repeating all his complaints from last season last night -- he played the best, he was entitled to win, a vote that isn't for him is simply incorrect -- last night.

Specifically, and hilariously, when asked whether Sandra Diaz-Twine, who has now won twice and is the first person to do so, is the best player ever, Russell insisted that her victory means not that she is good at Survivor, but that the game is flawed. This is basically the equivalent of losing at Scrabble and writing a letter to the manufacturer requesting that they stop allowing blank tiles, because you keep losing based on blank tiles, and the way you see it, blank tiles corrupt the game, and therefore, blank tiles should not be allowed.

It was actually a little pitiful hearing him say that the only way the game can be fixed is to let "America" -- that is, the viewing audience -- have a vote. Now, in this case, given that he received zero votes out of nine, giving America a vote wouldn't have helped. Giving America two votes wouldn't have helped. Giving America three votes wouldn't have helped. I think you know where I'm going with this. It's got to be really humbling for a guy to admit that he can't actually win the game he's signed up to play; he can only get people watching a heavily edited TV show about the game to say the show sure made him seem entertaining.

As for his general discontent, let me tell you a story. When I was out in Pasadena in January for the Television Critics Association press tour, we attended CBS's Survivor reunion event, where there were all kinds of people from all 20 seasons milling around. (I stood there for a long time listening to Richard Hatch explain that he still didn't do anything wrong regarding his taxes. That was also the night I found out that the delightful Jonathan Penner almost was on this season, in which case I would have watched more of it.)

At one point, I was talking to a couple of people and was explaining my theory that juries generally vote for people they like -- at the very least, they won't vote for someone they dislike over someone they like, no matter how anyone played. To me, there was nothing new about this in Russell's season, despite the fact that it had become a highly celebrated example of it. And then I noticed that there were actually two former jury members standing right behind me: Alex Bell, who was on the jury in the sixth season, in the Amazon, and Kim Powers, who was on the jury in the third season, in Africa. (That night was the first time I learned that they were now married to each other, by the way.)

So I asked them, "Do you think it's true that jurors basically just vote for the person they like more?" They both not only agreed, but they treated this as the most obvious thing on the planet. They both sat on juries. They both know that people do not sit there and think, for instance, "Sure, Russell is a bullying jerk and Sandra seems like kind of a rad, funny lady, but I'm voting for him -- you know, out of respect for his game play."

Doesn't happen. Hasn't ever happened. It is a million dollars. Think about whether you'd give a McDonalds coupon to someone you didn't like if your other choice was someone you did like, then think about how many McDonalds coupons are in a million dollars.

People vote for people they don't like, yes, but only when the other choice is someone they also dislike, and usually someone they dislike (or resent) more. That's why, if you aren't likable and you want to win, you'd better make sure the other choice is someone who also isn't likable. Game play -- and all kinds of other wackadoodle factors drawn from psychology, sociology, and sleep deprivation -- will enter into it if people are picking between two people they like, or two people they don't. But none of those factors will make people give a million dollars to someone they can't stand over someone they like.

Remarkably, once again, Russell had no idea how the jury perceived him. He carefully preserved Sandra as a member of the final three, telling her flat-out it was because there was absolutely no way the jury would give her any votes; she got six out of nine. His entire reason for eliminating Jerri in fourth place was that he was so sure that if he put her on the jury, she would vote for him. She voted for Parvati.

(And let us pause here and pay tribute to Parvati, who is a fairly keen student of people and knew that it would be a good move to tell Jerri that Russell assumed he had her vote. Jerri does not like being taken for granted. Jerri does not like presumption or anything she perceives as disrespect, and Parvati knew it, and she knew that calmly telling Jerri that Russell assumed he could count on her vote would go a long way toward alienating Jerri from Russell, which it did.)

For once, host Jeff Probst was firmly on his game last night, putting Russell's feet to the fire and asking him to (1) shut up; (2) calm down; and (3) explain whether he does or does not understand that the way he treats people makes it impossible for him to win. Probst has been far too accommodating of various theses under which Russell is a genius; it was satisfying to see him shift gears in favor of the emerging narrative forced by Russell's failure to get a single vote, which is: "Russell plays a very, very flawed game, in terms of, you know, actually winning."

It was Rob Mariano -- yes, the famous Boston Rob -- who put it most simply: Russell doesn't play to win. He plays to get to the final tribal council, and then he argues that he deserves to win. Russell responded defensively, pointing out that Rob hasn't won either. Which is true, but in the eighth season, Rob lost to his now-wife Amber 5-4. People will vote for him. Not everybody, and he understands that, and he usually understands the approximate likelihood of different people voting for him. But he doesn't inspire the sort of across-the-board personal vitriol that Russell does. He's cocky, but he's almost never mean. (Not never, but almost never.) It's the difference between "hasn't won" and "really couldn't ever win."

I should also mention that even though I've never liked Parvati very much, she seemed far less insufferable in what I saw of this season than in what I saw of her previous seasons, and she does indeed play people very, very well -- certain men, in particular. I don't think that's strictly flirtation-related, and I think it undersells her somewhat when the show keeps saying it is. I think it has to do with steering into the skid. She specifically does well in alliances with guys who expect her to be a lightweight, because she's small and pretty and at least used to do "foxy boxing." So she goes right ahead and lets that go. She doesn't care that Russell incessantly talks down to her (it was hilarious seeing him offer her his "coattails," an offer at which she almost snorted out loud); she stands up for herself, but it doesn't change how she plays. She doesn't take it personally. It's just business, baby. And that's why she won once and came reasonably close to winning a second time.

But in the end, Sandra has two million bucks, and it's partly because she found the best possible argument for herself, which was basically, "If you had listened to me, you'd have done better, and I tried to tell you not to trust Russell, and I'm frustrated you wouldn't listen to me." All of which was true. Yes, she benefited from making the argument that she wasn't responsible for booting any of them out of the game; on the contrary, she tried to help them. But was that why she won? I doubt it. I think she won because jurors, on the whole, like her; they want to vote for her. She doesn't tend to make enemies.

It really doesn't matter how many times people who aren't playing declare that the jury is somehow supposed to decide who the "best player" is, or who played the hardest. There's no "supposed to." There's "write down the name of the person you want to get a million dollars."

Sandra doesn't lack aggressiveness; she doesn't lack a strategic mind, either. But she has no desire, especially early in the game, to look like she's running anything. Staying out of the line of fire sometimes causes you to get votes -- or at least avoid losing them; that's been proved over the course of 20 seasons. You can't fault a lady for noticing.