Last night’s season finale of “Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains,” ended up being something of a surprise and something of a slight letdown. Going into the two-hour episode, I’d assumed that the game was either Parvati’s or Russell’s to lose, depending on which of the two made it into the final tribal council. They both made it. And for the second season in a row, I completely underestimated the hatred that the jury would have for Russell. And for the second season in a row, it was not the best player, but the player that the jury hated the least who won the million dollars.
There were five going into last night’s episode: Colby, Jerry, Sandra, Parvati, and Russell. The first immunity challenge — holding up a stack of plates on a lever — seemed tailor made for Parvati, who has been killing in challenges (it was revealed at last night’s reunion that Parvati hold the record for second all time in challenge wins, behind only Colby, who couldn’t hit his ass with both hands this season). Parvati pulled out the win, and while there was the tiniest bit of last minute hustling on Colby’s part, he was ultimately ousted, as all three villains knew — despite his poor gameplay this season — that Colby would’ve won the million dollars had he made it to the jury because he’d made enemies of no one. But then again, to make it to the jury, you really have to make a few enemies, unless you’re Tom Westen, and unless it’s the most boring season of “Survivor” of all time.
It seemed like the next immunity challenge would be crucial to Parvati, as it appeared that the other three villains were aligning against her, under the belief that she’d take home the prize if she made it into the final three (that was certainly my belief, too). In probably the closest immunity challenge ever, three of the players — Russell, Parvati, and Jerri — came within seconds of pulling off the immunity necklace during the blindfold challenge. It was Russell who managed the victory, which meant that he had control of who would make it to the final three. It wouldn’t have mattered who he brought, however. Despite the fact that he’d not been voted out in two consecutive seasons of “Survivor” (and really, had never even amassed more than a handful of votes over that period), there wasn’t a member on the jury that would vote for him. In something of a surprise, however, he kept his alliance with Parvati and brought her to the final three, ousting Jerri — who had ridden coattails all season — into the final three.
So, with Parvati, Russell, and Sandra in the final three, Parvati seemed all but a foregone conclusion to me. But I’d forgotten something crucial: The nine remaining members of the jury hadn’t watched the show at home, so they weren’t privy to the fact that — more times than not — it was Parvati who was pulling Russell’s puppet strings, and not the other way around. In the end, too many members of the jury were under the misconception that Parvati had been riding Russell’s coattails, and too many members of the jury associated Parvati with the loathed Russell that it was Sandra, now a two-time winner, who pulled out the victory, 6-3.
I was disappointed. I was disappointed because, like last season’s “Survivor,” the title of sole survivor didn’t go to the best player but to the least offensive one. Sandra flew under the radar for almost the entire game. She never won a challenge. She never had to play strategically. And her social game wasn’t really that great, either: She was abrasive and mean most of the game. She made it to the final three, essentially, because she never posed enough of a challenge for anyone to care enough to vote her off. That was also the mistake in the end: Russell arrogantly believed that Sandra wouldn’t collect any votes. Had Parvati won the final immunity challenge, Russell still would’ve walked away with no votes in the final tribal, but Parvati was smart enough to have taken Jerri, and there’s no way the jury would’ve voted for her, as she had demonstrated even less gameplaying skills than had Sandra.
Nevertheless, the last two cycles of “Survivor” were two of the best overall, if not the best in the show’s 20 season run, and that was thanks mostly to Russell. He deserves the title as the most vile villain in “Survivor” history. But unlike most of the other villains, Russell actually is a terrible person, in real life as in the game (as he demonstrated during the reunion show). As Candace noted during the final tribal council, some of the female players — specifically Parvati — fell under the abusive wife syndrome with Russell, which is something that was apparent for much of the season (ironically, Candace fell under the same spell for two episodes). I beg to differ as it concerns Parvati — she played Russell for much of the game, instead of the other way around — but that was nevertheless Russell’s strategy: Verbally abuse other players into submission and then apologize afterwards. It was only after they were voted off that some of the jury members recognized Russell for what he is: A despicable, vile, and loathsome human being (I was surprised, and disheartened, that the audience voted him Player of the Season). I certainly believe that lying and manipulation is crucial to outlast the other players, but there’s one way to do it, and then there’s Russell’s way. And my guess is that, had the other 19 players had been able to see last season’s “Survivor” before this cycle began, that Russell would’ve been voted out very early. He survived for a very long time because he was an unknown, while everyone else — many of whom had already played twice — were familiar quantities.
Going ahead, “Survivor” faces a few challenges: 1) It’s going to be difficult to top this season and last, 2) Michael Bay has a competing show in the works, which is being described as a more intense version of “Survivor” crossed with “The Amazing Race,” and most importantly, 3) I think Russell has really altered the dynamics of the game. Players now have to better understand the social component: Blindsides will not curry you favor with the jury. Richard Hatch set the initial tone in the first season: You could play ugly, but the jury would respect the player who made the boldest moves and who outwitted the most people. Pride is now an even bigger factor, and maybe we should’ve expected that from 20 of the best players in the history of the game. Players don’t respect the blindside, and they will vote against you if you screw them, even if it’s the only way to get to the end.
The best strategy going ahead, it seems, is to be a worthless enough player not to attract attention, but not so worthless that you get voted out before the merge. It seems like the least effective player to make it to the merge are almost guaranteed to make it to the final tribal (see also: Cirie). Maybe that was Sandra’s strategy, but it seems disingenuous for her to say so, considering just how hard she tried — and failed — to get Russell booted. And I don’t care what Sandra says, Parvati has to be considered the best player in “Survivor” history. She was probably the most physically strong female outside of Stephanie, and she knew how to manipulate. But unlike Russell, who manipulated with abuse, Parvati manipulated with charm. She might have had an unfair advantage in being able to manipulate with her sexual appeal, but at least she did it without making threats that seemed to border on the sociopathic, like Russell. It’s probably too much to hope for, but I hope “Survivor” doesn’t reward Russell by bringing him back for another All-Star cycle, not unless Boston Rob is there, and not unless Boston Rob is allowed to physically beat his ass. And speaking of which: I hope the next one is Winners vs. Also Rans (aka, only losing members of the final tribal council).