When the ship is sinking, people panic. We haven't seen many total freak-outs on Survivor this season, mostly because the players are all vets (emo Coach, you left too soon!). But this week the show gave us two immunity challenges, two eliminations, and a handful of monster meltdowns. There was a rumble in the jungle, and tears at tribal council! And, of course, one endlessly conniving mastermind at the center of it all: Russell Hantz. It didn't always seem like Russell had both hands on the wheel, but by the end of the episode he'd steadied his own ship long enough to jerk the game around once again.
Marveling at the depth of Russell's black heart, Rupert declares him "worse than Jonny Fairplay," mostly because of Russell's bad habit of swearing lies on his own children's lives, which evidently trumps fibbing about dead grandmothers. But lying is only one facet of Russell's game — and one he fumbles in the fourth quarter (see below). Here's how one of the best made the magic happen this week:
Russell quits the first challenge immediately on just the chance that something yummy is on Jeff Probst's mysterious covered tray (score! milk and cookies!), knowing his alliance will protect him; taunting the remaining Heroes is worth far more than the immunity necklace. The challenge — holding up one arm tethered to a bucket of colored water — shows off Danielle's impressive armpit hair and Parvati's formidable triceps (she wins the challenge here, as she did in Fans vs. Favorites). It also shows off most of the players' weakness at this late stage of the game: Sandra and Russell bow out instantly for an unknown prize; Colby ditches for doughnuts and iced coffee; Candice, Danielle, and Jerri cave for a PB&J. You're a week from a million bucks people, suck it up!
A giant part of Russell's strategy has always been finding and unleashing immunity idols. He's been less adept at that this season than in Samoa, unnecessarily handing one over to Parvati and using another prematurely. After Jeff Probst reads all the players an idol clue at the first challenge, the tribe scampers off to find a "burning bush" back at camp and Sandra — Sandra! — beats Russell to the punch. Rupert even fools Russell into thinking he's found the idol by sticking a rock in his pocket.
Russell is also a clever strategist at tribal, instructing his team when and how to split their vote to maximize the effects of a hidden idol. But he fails during the first council when he guesses that Rupert's nonexistent idol will come into play. Riding the wave of bad vibes around Candice — who flipped to help the Villains last week only to earn their immediate distrust for that very switcheroo — Rupert and Colby piggyback the Villains' votes and oust their traitor.
Now we get to see Russell furious. He knows he got played hard at tribal (Rupert even feinted grabbing the idol from his shorts) and fights like mad at the second immunity challenge to score the necklace. He rips through the three-part game of puzzles and a wall climb, beating Rupert by a hair. Having immunity, however, is not enough; Russell wants to send a message to his own alliance that he's the boss, so he tries to screw with the Danielle-Parvati friendship. That's when things get really interesting.
Russell tries to play Parvati and Danielle off each other by telling each one the other is going to vote her off. However, Russell thinks like a guy: He assumes the two ladies will get angry and act decisively, but they want to talk it out. Parvati tells Russell she's going to confront Danielle, and Russell straight-up panics, knowing he's about to get caught in a lie. Realizing he has to scramble, Russell decides Danielle has to go and secures Rupert's and Colby's votes (not hard to win over the two guys about to get chopped) and intimidates Jerri by warning her she'll be the next to go.
At tribal, the Villain power alliance officially falls apart. Probst asks who's in control of the game, then lets Danielle talk herself into her own grave. Danielle cries. She's exhausted. But mostly, she's been played. Russell eggs her into admitting, "I'm closer to Parvati than you think" which is all he needs to know. He shoots a wicked glance at the nervous (but strategy-free) Jerri, and when it's time to vote Jerri admits, "I have absolutely no idea what just happened, but with this vote I'm sealing my fate." Danielle? Gone. "That's messed up," Parv says to Russell. Yes it is, Parvati.
But the real question is what does the jury think? Last season Russell maneuvered his way to the final two and the jury refused to admit their own failings and give him the votes. Will this group of all-stars put aside their hatred for the guy who played dirty and give him the cash? We're only two episodes away from the answer. Next week: Russell tries to befriend the Heroes!
EW's Dalton Ross examines Colby's sudden bursts of seeming to give a damn: "He's kinda like a guy waking up out of coma, mumbling a few incoherent sentences, and then drifting back off to sleep."
E!'s Drusilla Moorhouse marvels at Sandra's ability to keep her good immunity idol news to herself.
The National Post's Michael Bolen compares Russell to other paranoid leaders including Napoleon, Hitler, and Stalin: People seriously hate this guy.