Saturday, 5 March 2011

Episode 3: Know When to Fold Em

So we'll have to start with an apology for not blogging before now- we've had a couple of fairly shocking episodes of Survivor in a row. I think we're still reeling in the wake of what can only be described as big moves. Probst must be thrilled.

*Ahem* I can has Emmy now?
(...We're sorry.)

Okay, back to the good stuff. Let's talk about the dynamics in this episode, particularly those surrounding Russell. I suppose it's worth saying that if you mind spoilers, you probably don't want to read any further.

Russell and the Overplayed Hand

Nobody should be surprised by the fact that Russell Hantz was targeted for elimination by his team. For all his talk of playing a new game, it's been obvious to the viewer that Russell has fallen back into his old habits. Unfortunately for Russell, his teammates have also been quick to catch on.

But...who wouldn't trust this face?
Russell's problem was immediate, and it was this: his reputation preceded him. Clearly, enough of his tribe are aware of his previous two runs on Survivor to recognize him as an individual with a propensity for deception and trickery. Unlike those previous appearances on Survivor (as Heroes vs. Villains was filmed before Samoa aired), Russell's tribemates know the danger that he represents.

To Russell's credit, he did seem to recognize that he had a problem. In episode 1, we see Russell give his (now infamous) speech, stating "if he was here to play the same game, [he'd] be stupid." We were inclined to believe him, believing that if he started playing his old game, his teammates would notice and get rid of him.

With things off to an apparently good start, what happened? We would suggest that old habits die hard, especially when you have someone around to enable you. And Russell found a ready enabler in Stephanie.
Truthfully: This little person scares us.

Where Russell would have benefited from a strategy of restraint, he finds his first ally in a female mini-me. Now, we're not about to blame Russell's actions on Stephanie, but her cutthroat mentality must have appealed to Russell's old Survivor instincts. With Stephanie on board, eagerly dreaming of playing Pavarti in Russell's bloody march to the finale, Russell may have been nudged away from his commitment to play a nicer game of Survivor.

Or perhaps Russell never intended to play differently. In either case, his commitment to a different kind of Survivor was short-lived.

We have no illusions that Survivor is a nice game, but we do believe it's a smart one. And this is while Russell's decision to raise the old flag is a fine one, we think he made a critical mistake in letting others know about it.

His first (and frankly most unlikely) rival was Ralph. Dismissing Ralph as stupid and harmless, Russell made the mistake of not adequately disguising his efforts to find the Hidden Immunity Idol in front of his tribemate. Russell got completely outplayed in this interaction by Ralph, proving once again that playing dumb can be an excellent social and gaming strategy.

Outplayed by a grown man in overalls. Ouch.
While Ralph's later confrontations with Russell appeared and may have been foolish, one thing they did do was push Russell further into poor habits. In true Machiavellian fashion, Russell embraces intimidation as he responds to Ralph, and seems to carry that attitude from that point onward. Additionally, he abandons any pretense that he's not running his own alliance, flanking himself with a second female ally, Krista.

Not pictured: any semblance of turning over a new leaf.
And at this point, all of the pieces of Russell's downfall have fallen into place. Russell came into the game as the biggest apparent threat, not only because of his experience, but because of his reputation. After realizing this, not only does Russell abandon efforts to reduce his visibility as a threat, he actively amplifies it by recruiting a squad of allies almost identical in characteristics to his allies on previous seasons. And critically, his Russell Hantz luck fails to secure him a hidden immunity idol.

Russell seals his fate when he switches to intimidation of his tribe. No longer is he ignorable; he's a direct threat and is actively trying to exert an influence over the behavior on his tribe.

His tribe responds as many people do when faced with intimidation- they react somewhat irrationally. His tribemates take his threats so seriously that they discount the potential long-term costs of losing a tribe member in the tribe vs tribe phase of the game. They take his threats so seriously that they ignore the costs of losing one of the strongest physical competitors on their team.

They're so afraid of Russell that they metaphorically choose to smother him in his sleep. Russell's game of brinksmanship gets him thrown right on to Redemption Island.

It's fascinating that Zapatera was pushed so hard that they felt the need to get Russell out of their tribe immediately, and equally interesting how badly Russell misjudged the likely response from his tribemates. Overall, it's clear that Russell seriously overplayed his hand. He overestimated his ability to ingratiate himself to the tribe on arrival and underestimated the risk-taking behaviors his tribe would be willing to adopt in order to see him go.

In the end, last episode's turn of events shouldn't be shocking. It's just that despite Russell's habit of pushing the envelope we've seen him escape tribal after tribal due to luck and guile. Tonight, his luck finally ran out.

Don't smile too much, Boston Rob. Time will tell if you've also overplayed your hand.

- The Strategist