Feature articles are back after our brief break due to the Ozcars and we bring you one today that we know will get you talking. Our Kiwi Ozlet Nick Chester today discusses by far the most talked about contestant in the history of the show, Russell Hantz. Russell has gone through many phases in the Survivor fan world and for the most part a large portion of fans utterly despise him. But for all those who despise him, there is also a large portion of fans who adore him. The question remains: was Russell Hantz good or bad for Survivor? Click below to read and find out and have your Monday morning online ranting fingers ready to go.
No player is more divisive amongst fans than Russell Hantz. In fact, in a Voldemort-type way, just the uttering of his name will have elicited a strong response from most readers who have entrenched views about him one way or another. And it’s easy to see why. For his admirers, Russell is a great player who made it to day 39 twice in a row, producing very entertaining TV and big moves along the way. To those who dislike him, he is a terrible social player with no ability to ever win the game and has a level of arrogance rarely seen, even on reality TV. I have never heard a player described as both the best player of all time and the worst player of all time so often. How can there be such a difference of opinion on one person? Which view is right, and which is wrong? Or is it possible both sides have a strong case? And does his legacy impact survivor for better or for worse?
Russell the Player
It’s hard to separate Russell’s gameplay from the hype around it and putting some kind of perspective on it helps. Russell frequently claimed that he is the greatest player ever and was denied a rightful win due to a bitter jury. This has led those who don’t like him to react just as strongly and claim Russell is the worst player of all time and that he can make it to the end, but never has a chance of winning. Regardless on your views of Russell, absolute terms don’t help. For obvious reasons I think it’s very hard to claim anyone as either the best or worst player ever. But even if I were to do so, Russell wouldn’t be in any top ten or bottom ten of players in my opinion.
Some context is needed, especially in Russell’s case. He played 2 seasons back to back, meaning that the rest of the Heroes vs Villains cast had not seen his game. You can argue if this is an advantage or disadvantage but it remains that it is hard to look at the result without factoring this in. Russell had no chance in Redemption Island when the cast had seen him play, so the result there was no surprise. So there are complicating factors for two of Russell’s three seasons, and this does need to be considered by both his admirers and his haters.
So for those who claim Russell to be the worst player of all time, I think you need to look at the facts. For the most part, Russell is a very good strategic player. He developed an alliance in Samoa and managed to get this group to the end, even though they were outnumbered two to one at the merge. He found out quickly that Shambo was unhappy with the Galu tribe, and turned her into a loyal number for him. Shambo’s loyalty was certainly stronger for Russell than anyone else in Foa Foa. He was able to correctly identify he was a target and use his hidden immunity idol to save himself. Russell managed to turn John around in a tie breaker, and then vote him out straight away, giving his alliance control for the rest of the game. And when Brett threatened to destroy his plans completely by going on a late immunity run, it was Russell that ended it, winning the last immunity challenge. It’s also easy to forget that Russell also made decent moves early in the game, even as Foa Foa were destroyed in challenges. When Marissa threatened Russell, he ensured she was the first to go. Betsy followed for the same reason. A move that is often forgotten was the vote that eliminated Ben early in the game. Russell was reluctant to vote him out, because he was a strong competitor, but also because he was both loyal to Russell and unlikeable, making him a good option to keep around for a potential goat at the end of the game. But Russell saw how upset his tribe were getting with Ben, and agreed to vote him out for the betterment of the tribe, even if it wasn’t something he wanted to do himself.
Russell Turned John to his side in Survivor: Samoa, the move that put Foa Foa in control.
Russell is often considered deceptive and a turncoat who would vote out his allies in an instant, but even in Heroes vs Villains, he remains true to Parvati throughout the game. The issue of Tyson’s elimination is still unclear – who really deserves the credit between Russell and Parvati, as well as Tyson’s poor decision making is still up for debate. But Russell’s move to play the idol for Parvati certainly took some guts. Russell then also has to get some credit for turning Jerri into an ally to eliminate his biggest competition in Boston Rob. Similarly, he convinces Candice to jump to his side following the merge, and is seen to be unhappy with the decision to vote her out at the next tribal council. These are not the actions of the “worst player ever”. Russell had a clear strategy and made a lot of moves that made sense. His big moves and idol plays take all the attention, but as Shambo, John, Jerri and Candice can attest to, Russell also was able to convince people to join him as well.
But the best player of all time? Not quite. Russell may have made a lot of good moves, but he was also playing so hard that he forgot that Survivor is at its core, a social situation and winning a popularity contest at the end is very difficult when you ruthlessly vote people out and laugh in their face about it later. Tipping out water and burning socks was fun to watch, but deliberately weakening your own tribe so they are easy to manipulate has massive potential to backfire and Foa Foa went into the merge horribly outnumbered, which in many cases would be fatal to their chances of winning. Russell made big promises to too many people, leaving most of them unhappy when they were voted out, and blaming him for this. Not only that, but had these players compared notes they would have realised Russell was promising the same thing to everyone. Overpromising and under-delivering is a sure way to lose respect, and ultimately jury votes in the end.
One of Russell’s biggest attributes in making great TV also is one of his biggest flaws as a Survivor player, and this is his inability to keep his emotions in check and his thoughts to himself. Russell showed in several situations that he was incapable of calmly enjoying the moment when his plans at Tribal Council worked, and had to rub his opponent’s noses in it. Candice makes a note of this in her jury speech, saying Russell just got too dirty and revelled in doing so. Although not shown on screen, many players talked about how Russell would continuously read JT’s letter over and over again, laughing at how stupid he was whilst JT’s allies were still in the game and in earshot. Russell rises to the bait when other players want to get under his skin – calling Rupert a “dumbass” and telling Natalie exactly what he plans to say in his final speech are signs of a player unable to always keep his feelings in check. Russell’s blindside of Danielle was completely unnecessary in a season with a final three, and was simply done to exert his own control, other than any real fear that the women would turn on him. The desire to maintain and proudly show he was in control was a continual problem for Russell in Survivor.
Voting off Danielle was unnecessary and made people hate Russell even more.
On Survivor, anyone can make a big move, but doing so without damaging relationships is much harder. Russell’s belief was that everyone would respect his strategic game in a dispassionate way, leaving aside their own feelings and experiences. This is why taking people to the end who “did nothing” seemed a good idea to him. He didn’t understand that ultimately the jury will vote for someone who they can feel comfortable awarding a million dollars to and their vote is also their last move in the game, and they want to feel they made the right one. Russell was not a fan of the show before appearing on it, and so didn’t really understand how the jury worked. Whilst a cursory glance of Survivor history might indicate that cut-throat strategic players had won before, this has always coincided with them being the most well liked (or least hated) finalist as well (see: Hatch, Brian, Todd etc). Russell not only took likeable people to the end, he actively went out of his way to ensure he took them, believing they would not be respected by the jury. The graph shows that in terms of the number of jury votes won by two time finalists, Russell trails all others, even Amanda who has often been criticised for her inability to make a convincing case at final tribal council. This basic misunderstanding of how a jury thinks is a major flaw in Russell’s game.
So fantastic or terrible player? The answer is almost certainly somewhere in the middle. Russell has a clear understanding of how to work his way through the game and make the moves required to stay alive. He also has a much underrated ability to turn players to his side, telling them exactly what they want to hear and reassuring them along the way. But unfortunately his desire for control and to outwardly show he is in power costs him precious social capital, which is the ultimate currency when it comes time to win a jury over.
Worshipping False Idols
Russell’s critics often argue that his success is overly reliant on his finding and playing of hidden immunity idols. This is a point I would argue very strongly. I have heard many people say that Russell isn’t a good Survivor player, simply the best “Treasure Hunt” player and good at finding idols which he uses as a cover for his bad strategic decisions.
OK. So Russell goes looking for idols. Big deal, its time to accept that after 18 seasons, hidden immunity idols are part of the game. They can help and hurt you, and everyone will react to them in different ways. In Samoa, Russell was able to use his first idol as a way of gaining trust from his allies. After finding it with no clues, he showed it in turn to each ally, telling them that he was showing them because he trusts them. Forget finding it without a clue – this was an ingenious way to use the idol. This galvanised the core Foa Foa group, and it was a tactic Russell used later in Heroes vs. Villains too. Back in season 19, Russell had a big advantage that no one else was really looking for idols, which enabled him a clear run to find them on multiple occasions. Yes, he only used one of them successfully, but it was a massive success and a turning point in the game. After this success, its no real surprise that Russell went looking for idols again in season 20. Although the rest of the cast were more wary of him this time, there is no doubt he used his first idol to great advantage. Essentially, Russell can’t be blamed for finding and using idols – he didn’t put them there, and who can blame him for wanting to take advantage of them if no one else did? Claiming his success is just down to the use of idols is a very simplistic and unfair way to assess his game.
Don’t blame Russell for using the idols to his advantage
Russell’s Impact on the Franchise
An even bigger factor than his gameplay itself has been Russell’s impact on Survivor as a franchise. For me, there is no debate over his influence – it has been huge. Russell has claimed in some interviews that CBS executives told him he “saved” Survivor. I can’t say if they were being honest with him, or if it was just hyperbole. Lynda Phoa’s excellent article on Survivor ratings show that Russell’s seasons didn’t have a huge increase, nor has his presence on the show ensured the ratings picked up. So if this how Russell supposedly saved Survivor, I don’t think it’s accurate.
What is more likely the case is that Russell’s arrival clarified a new direction for the show. Arguably, Survivor started out as a show very much about characters, social interaction and showing the difficulties of living in the wilderness. Jeff Probst always used to describe Survivor as a “social experiment”. But as the novelty of the concept wore off, Survivor lost some of its identity, especially amongst the sea of other reality shows that sprung up in its wake. Seasons 11-18 in some ways portray Survivor as a show not really sure what it is. There were some good seasons, and some bad but there was a certain level of uncertainty about what the show was about during this time. Russell perhaps refocused producers and realigned Survivor as a show no longer about social interactions and more about strategy. There is no doubt that since Russell’s arrival, Survivor is a show about big, strategic moves and finding idols. This has upset many old school fans, who have turned their anger on Russell. But for a show that has had as many seasons as Survivor, it is inevitable that things change. I love the old seasons for what they are, but also embrace modern Survivor. They are the same show, but producers are now focussed on very different things. Perhaps without Russell, Survivor may have continued listlessly, and may even have been cancelled by now. Or perhaps another character would come along that help define what producers wanted the show to be in another way. Russell was simply the right man at the right time (or the wrong man, depending on your point of view).
However, there is certainly a downside to the Russell factor. As much as I am pleased that producers seem much clearer on what they want the show to be, there are some issues that have existed since Samoa that are unsatisfying from a viewer’s perspective. It is disappointing that we now have larger and larger numbers of players getting “invisible” edits. It seems that unless players are prepared to make bold, crazy moves, they just won’t be shown. Survivor: Samoa showed so much of Russell, but it came at a cost. As viewers, we really didn’t get to see a lot from other players, including the eventual winner of the season, Natalie. This makes for an overall disappointing experience for viewers. Producers seem to be combating this in more recent seasons, but it is an issue that still exists. Big players are being shown at the expense of others and this creates a very uneven picture of the season as a whole.
The other concern that really began with Russell was bringing returning players back frequently, simply because they made good TV last time. Russell was on 3 of the 4 seasons between Samoa and Redemption Island. His nephew was on season 23 and 26. His brother was on Big Brother. Audiences simply became so tired of seeing a Hantz on TV and any redeeming qualities Russell may have had have been lost to many. It now feels like many people play survivor the first time in such an outlandish way that they are almost fishing to be invited back for a future season, rather than playing to win. The overuse of Hantzes no doubt made this seem like a good idea to many players.
The other issue is the overuse of the hidden immunity idol. Many people blame Russell for the way the idol is now re-hidden every time it is played, reappearing like a many headed hydra. It’s worth pointing out that in Micronesia and even Fiji, the same thing happened. If someone is willing to play idols, they will be re-hidden. Don’t blame Russell – the tool is there to be used. The producers could easily state that once it’s played, it doesn’t come back. This may make players like Russell more cautious, but of course this isn’t great TV, so would never happen.
The focus on Russell in Survivor: Samoa came at the expense of many other characters, even the eventual winner, Natalie.
So is Russell a Survivor Saviour or Survivor Assassin? The sad and boring answer is he is probably neither. Survivor existed for 18 seasons without him, and the show has survived afterwards without him too. Russell is a hugely influential figure in Survivor, there is no doubting that. But he doesn’t have the resume to be lauded as an all-time great player or vilified as a survivor idiot either. Russell’s real story lies in the impact he has had on the franchise. A man at the right place at the right time, he has shaped the thinking of Survivor producers for good or bad going forward. If Survivor lasts long enough, he will be replaced by another figure sooner or later. So whether you have embraced the Russell era or endured it grudgingly, it has had an impact. Who knows when the next Russell will emerge and further shape the show into something new.
Do you agree or disagree with Nick? Do you think Russell is a Survivor Saviour or Survivor Assassin? Comment below to let us know!