In the historic battle of Heroes vs. Villains, evil ultimately triumphed over good — but not the really bad evil, just the kinda sneaky evil. Russell once again bullied his way into the finals with brute force, and once again his technique was not rewarded. And at the live reunion show, he once again stood by his plan, arguing Survivor itself is flawed because he did not win. Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” So is Russell totally nuts, or the biggest victim in Survivor history?
The final episode (which I watched the way Jonny Fairplay does it: live at the Ed Sullivan Theater!) begins with five Survivors left, but sole remaining Hero Colby falls to Parvati at the first immunity challenge — balancing dishes on a precarious lever — and seemingly concedes defeat, delivering a farewell speech vowing he won’t hustle to change the vote. Then he gets teary-eyed at the prospect of being a quitter and lobbies Russell to vote out Sandra. It’s Colby’s first bold move — okay, first move — of the game, but Russell already has a plan, insisting his best route to a million bucks is “Me, Sandra, and Jerri in the top.” Talking to Jerri, he bitches that he’s been Parvati’s meal ticket the whole game — a wickedly inaccurate statement (exhibit A: the double-hidden-idol whammy). Last season, Russell easily manipulated tribemate Natalie until the bitter end, but nobody puts Parvati in the corner. In fact, Parv’s hardheadedness nearly screws her over at the second tribal council, when Jerri and Sandra are kissing Russell’s ass and she risks pissing him off by insisting, “We’ve been protecting each other” rather than going along with his labeling of her as a coattail rider.
But before the last tribal council, the final four perform Rites of Passage — the ceremonial burning of masks representing the game’s fallen players — which was a revealing exercise at the Ed Sullivan Theater, where the live studio audience cheered the loudest for Cirie, Tom, James, Boston Rob, J.T., and Rupert (that’s five Heroes and one Villain who played mostly like a Hero, for those of you keeping score at home). And the crowd went ballistic at the photo-finish end of the crucial second immunity challenge, as the players blindly navigated a giant maze in search of necklaces. Sandra’s technique: hilariously waving her arms around, trying to strip a necklace off Parvati’s neck, and listening for the sound of successful players’ voices. Meanwhile, Jerri, Russell, and Parvati push each other around and stumble to the finish line mind-blowingly close to each other. Just as fans at the Theater were literally jumping out of their seats and screaming, Russell nabs the immunity necklace by one extremely dramatically edited step. One of the most exciting challenges in the game’s history? No question.
As the ladies jockey for a spot in the final three (yes, three — definitely less dramatic than two: Shame on you, Survivor), Parv makes the most compelling (and ultimately accurate) argument about jury votes — that Sandra automatically has Amanda, Candice, and Courtney. Russell says he’d rather put Jerri on the jury because he’ll get her vote and says Parvati “surely can’t beat me.” He also theorizes Sandra won’t get a single vote. Wrong, wrong, and wrong again. But he does honor his longest-held alliance and votes off Jerri, bringing Parvati and Sandra along to compete for the grand prize.
So what’s Russell’s problem here? A combination of cockiness, lack of subtlety, inability to read other people, and a wrongheaded insistence on Machiavellianism. He’s a great divider, but not a good uniter. He’s gifted at making brash, game-changing moves (hiding the machete to cause chaos, orchestrating the ouster of his biggest competition Boston Rob), but awful at smaller social manipulations that would bond him to the other players. He expects the other players to completely detach emotions from actions and reward him for playing tough, but makes half of his own moves out of anger over perceived slights to his dominance.
By contrast, Parvati is a social genius, winning over the competition with charm and by earning their respect with success at the challenges (Jerri and Rupert both marvel at her physical prowess in the end). Parvati is ultimately better at giving off the appearance that she is playing a well-rounded game. Sandra cannot make the same claim: Everyone knows her physical game blows. And her strategic game is so understated it’s kind of like a magic-eye poster — you have to know how to look at it to even know it’s there.
When the final three argue their cases, Sandra appeals to the Heroes by emphasizing how much she wanted Russell out, Russell argues he’s simply the best and Parvati says she outgamed Russell and endured the most enemies. As soon as the jury begins their questions, one thing is crystal clear: Russell is screwed. Ever since Sue’s famous “Rat and Snake” speech in Survivor 1.0, this stage of the game is a chance for some tell-me-how-you-really-feel fun. Here’s how the questions rank on the zinger scale:
10. Amanda: “Sandra, tell me how your strategy was better in the game than Russell and Parvati.” (Yawn! This girl really does have no killer instinct. Boring!)
9. Jerri: “You know what they say about assuming … ” (It makes an ass out of anyone who utters this saying?)
8. J.T.: “Getting to the end of the game is half of it. Lay in your bed like I’m laying in mine.” (Props to him for never shirking the stupidity of his big move, even at the reunion show.)
7. Colby: “Russell, did you really just say there wasn’t any luck involved with you getting here? I was just double-checking, because you are delusional if you think you can make it all the way to the end of this game without any luck.” (Harsh words from the nice guy, but still kind of a softball.)
6. Candice: “Russell, you know you have to tell lies in this game, but you can go too far. You told dirty lies, lies you didn’t need to tell, and you hurt people doing that. Parvati, you kind of played this game under Russell’s thumb, like a spouse in a bad, abusive relationship. I wanted you to get out, but you never did.” (Disingenuous, since she spent her last day in Samoa feeding Russell info and trying to join his alliance.)
5. Courtney: “There’s my girl, Sandra. I love you, girl!” (It was even cuter when they fist-bumped onstage before the live show began.)
4. Rupert: “Russell, to be honest in this game is a very hard thing. To be a manipulative, deceiving, lying person is very easy. You took the easy way out. And if you think you should be proud of how you got here, you’re sadly mistaken. Sandra, sitting here listening to your answers make me feel even worse about my game play. I wish you and I had talked more, but I had been swayed by what I considered a disgusting human being. You opened the door up for us and we kept slamming it in your face. I want to say thank you for all the Heroes.” (Good mix of righteous and indignant; more poignant because it was delivered with a cold death stare.)
3. Coach: “Russell, you can be a very little man in stature and also in word. And the example you set here should have only been, ‘Only the penitent man shall pass.’ … As a Christian man, I give you my word that I came in here tonight without any preconceived notions of who I was going to vote for. And I will be watching, listening, and I will be voting … for a million dollars.” (Below average on the Coach Scale of Crazy, but he makes a good point: Had Russell acknowledged he played ruthlessly and apologized, he would have gotten votes.)
2. Danielle: “Russell, it’s clear that there’s been a lack of skill in your jury management. You’re not going to get any votes, nobody respects the way you played the game.” (The only person who went for the jugular.)
1. But ultimately, the fiercest burn of tribal came from Parvati: “[Russell] was the dragon and instead of slaying him, I kept him as my pet.” (Double points for zinging Coach with the dragon bit.)
The final tally: six votes for Sandra, three for Parvati, none for Russell, who went out of his way to slam the show’s first two-time winner at the reunion: “Maybe the worst physical player to ever play the game. Let’s award her for her failures. If she can win the game twice, there is a flaw in the game.” (The audience thoroughly booed him for this.) The stats are even more interesting: Sandra has never won a challenge. Parvati has won the most challenges. And J.T.’s love letter to Russell was voted the most boneheaded move in the game’s history (Russell showed up to reunion with the note laminated).
Russell’s suggestion for improving Survivor: give America a share of the vote. Well, that’s called crowd-sourcing, Russell, and this game isn’t about impressing strangers, but being savvy enough to be rewarded for your actions by the small group of people who have to live with you and your smelly hat in the jungle for 39 days. Russell did win the $100,000 audience-voted prize, but his petty tantrums at the reunion show are case in point why he’s not the best to ever play the game: His social blind spot knocks him out of contention — Parvati deserves that crown for playing the most days with the most success and the strongest strategy. Sandra gave herself a tiara and her own title: “Queen.” To honor season twenty’s mouthy winner, here’s a rundown of her greatest hits from the finale:
• “[Russell] wants to micromanage the whole tribe, and, unfortunately, I’m not the kind of person you can micromanage” — dramatic pause — “Sorry.”
• “Well, that’s news to me. Then I should be smiling. I shouldn’t have packed, huh?” (After Colby reveals at tribal council that everyone wants to go up against her at the finals.)
• “No, it wasn’t, it sucked.” (After Jerri proclaims the maze challenge was “very fun.”)
• “Russell’s keeping me around because I’ll never get a single vote … but I don’t know about that!”
• “Russell is obnoxious, so I took his hat and I threw it in the fire. I don’t care! He could take his bald head to tribal council.”
EW.com’s Dalton Ross rightfully points out how the awesome Boston Rob–Russell feud had a killer moment at the reunion, when Rob offered to “go back and kick your ass all over the island.”
The AV Club’s Noel Murray recognizes Russell learned one thing from last season: He didn’t tell a soul he’s a rich oilman who doesn’t need the cash.
The National Post’s Michael Bolen praises Sandra’s performance at the final tribal council, where she managed to distance herself from Russell despite the fact that she voted with him 99 percent of the time. That’s why she’s the queen!