Parvati’s True Manipulation (and other tales from a Survivor obsession)

Published on May 22nd, 2020

Alex shares a collection of observations from four months spent obsessing over Survivor.

In Survivor: Winners at War, a lot of things remain unclear on a week-to-week basis. After being hit with an extortion disadvantage that requires him to pay six fire tokens, Tony has to borrow three tokens from three different tribe mates to make the payment. In the following segment, Tony immediately wins two tokens at the immunity challenge. Which of the two people did he pay back? The show doesn’t mention it. When Parvati and Natalie get their six tokens from Tony, the show doesn’t tell us if they split them evenly, or what their strategy was for using them. This is one of the many times this season when the game is overrun by information, and the show simply doesn’t have time to tell us everything that’s going on.

Well that’s exactly what happened in my head while writing this. These are extra pieces of information that I think are interesting and important to the history of Survivor, but that I simply didn’t have room for in what was already an 8000 word piece that ended up in my book. I don’t know why you’re reading this, but thank you for sharing my obsession.

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Parvati’s True Manipulation

Survivor is, to put it mildly, an extremely conservative show. It is aired on the most conservative broadcast network, and often plays into outdated historical binaries (like Heroes vs. Villains) that make little sense in the modern age. After twelve seasons of being criticized for a lack of minority representation throughout the casts, Survivor’s response was to start its Cook Islands season by splitting up its four tribes by ethnicity, a decision that was lambasted in the press and questioned by its own contestants, including eventual winner Yul Kwon in his first confessional interview, and Parvati Shallow in hers.

“Different ethnic groups,” Parvati says. “I mean is that… kosher? I don’t know.”

Cook Islands is Parvati Shallow’s first season, and it is not her best-played season by any means. Her strategy is initially to play on her charms, and use her flirtatious personality to build an alliance to protect her that she can then turn on later in the game. When her alliance loses its dominance, Parv’s fate is cemented, and she comes in sixth place. Like so many skilled Survivors before her, she gets unlucky.

But the show also does her a disservice, and the way she is edited feels like it views her as a one-dimensional flirt. Since Parv is a traditionally attractive woman, the show tends to hone in on moments when she is cuddling up to fellow contestants, and features multiple slow close-up pans of her body as she lies in the sun. Later seasons would prove this was all a part of a larger, more skilled plan from Parv that the Survivor producers simply couldn’t see at the time. To them, she’s simply there to fall in line as one of the season’s “hot chicks.”

When women are bathing in Survivor, particularly early seasons, the way the camera lingers on their bodies is (obviously, this is a reality show) pretty gross. Most traditionally attractive women on the show are treated as little more than that, and that includes the winner of season six, Jenna Morasca. Sometimes these women play into the roles the producers throw them into, as Jenna and Heidi do when they strip naked in return for chocolate and peanut butter, but they only do so because Jeff Probst is able to turn their jokes into a real offer in the middle of a challenge, and egg them on to get them to accept it.

In the after show of Survivor: Australian Outback, Bryant Gumbel questions Amber Brkich and Elisabeth Filarski’s decision to wear bikinis that cover (slightly) more of their bodies than predecessor Colleen Haskell did. Both Amber and Elisabeth say that yes, they did choose to do that because they saw the way Colleen was captured and hoped to change it, if only a bit. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t really work, and the show kept filming women this way, and in the thirteenth season the producers chose Parv as one of the bodies they wanted to linger on with no regard for her mind.

In Parv’s second appearance, in the show’s sixteenth season Survivor: Micronesia, the gimmick is that a tribe of the show’s fans will be competing against a tribe of favourites. Allegedly, Parvati was not included in the collection of favourites initially, only being given an offer to appear on the season after fellow Cook Islands participant Candice Woodcock declined. As the tribe of favourites is introduced one by one in front of the fans in the premiere episode, Parv gets almost no response when she walks out, leading her to turn to Jeff Probst and sarcastically say, “Thank you, Jeff.”

The show’s alleged preference of Candice over Parvati is indicative of how the show views women. Candice is maybe one of the most boring, uninteresting contestants in the history of Survivor, but since she looks like somebody who could compete in a Miss America pageant and isn’t aggressively annoying, Survivor views her as a favourite. Candice never shows a real strategy, and the strategy she does choose is so weak that she doesn’t make it far after the merge. When she did return for Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains, Candice’s performance is similarly uninspiring. But she is a woman who falls in line and chooses the path of least resistance, so Survivor loves her. Parv is viewed as less of a favourite because her style of gameplay was viewed as one-dimensional in Cook Islands, again though only because of a combination of luck and the show’s edit of her.

Is Parv open about her strategy? Yes. She says that she is trying to flirt her way to a certain point, and in Survivors: Heroes vs Villains the way she rolls down her already very small bikini to make it even smaller can only be a further strategic move to help her continue to be underestimated. In Survivor, being flirtatious only gets you so far, and Parv knows this. At some point, you have to be able to operate as an individual to win Survivor, and Parv is more than capable of doing so if the necessary elements break right.

In Micronesia, Parv once again begins her alliance by flirting with James Clement, and the two team up to form an alliance with Amanda Kimmel and Ozzy Lusth. This carries them to the merge, where Parv initiates the blindside of presumptive finalist Ozzy almost immediately, beginning a run of four consecutive blindsides.

  • Ozzy Lusth: the de facto leader of the merged tribe, holding a hidden immunity idol (that everybody on the tribe knows he holds) and the biggest immunity challenge threat in the history of Survivor in his peak physical condition, believes he has control over the alliance, and that Jason will be going home. Parvati Shallow leads the Black Widow alliance to vote for Ozzy, without telling her friends Amanda Kimmel and James Clement. Ozzy does not play the idol, and is visibly stunned and hurt when he is voted out.
  • Jason Siska: After being sent to Exile Island by Natalie, Jason finds the hidden immunity idol that is replaced once Ozzy gets eliminated. Natalie then convinces Jason that James will be voted out at the next tribal council, even though Natalie knows the whole alliance is aiming at Jason. Again, the person with the hidden immunity idol doesn’t play it, and again they are voted out.
  • Alexis Jones: Amanda volunteers to be sent to Exile Island, with reward challenge winner Alexis choosing her to go. Amanda uses the clues to discover that the new hidden immunity idol is buried under the tribe’s flag back at camp. Returning from Exile, she allows her tribe mates to search her belongings so they know she doesn’t have it, before enlisting Parv to help her distract others while digging under the flag. Parv succeeds, Amanda finds the idol, and when every vote gets directed Amanda’s way, Amanda plays the idol and her and Parv vote out Alexis. It’s rad.
  • Erik Reichenbach: This one is painful to watch. Natalie convinces Erik to give up his individual immunity to protect her, and he is immediately voted out as the jury openly laughs at him from the side.

Parv is not the central figure in all of these blindsides, but she is prominently involved in each of them, and she knocks over the first, most important domino. The Black Widow alliance is a group of five women that becomes four once Amanda and Parv turn on Alexis, and eventually three for Parv, Cirie, and Amanda as was always Parv’s plan from day one in the Favourites tribe. When Amanda wins the final immunity challenge, she brings her friend Parv with her to the final two, viewing Cirie as a bigger threat to win.

At the final tribal council, Parv gives a great performance answering the jury’s questions, a skill Amanda simply does not have. Parv has shattered Ozzy too much to ever get his vote (he also confesses his love for Amanda at the same tribal council) and similarly insulted James, but it seems like she wins the votes of the people who are on the fence. Parvati is crowned the winner with a vote of 5-3, being rewarded for gameplay as opposed to Amanda’s focus on remaining likeable.

One thing that hasn’t been touched on here, and what helped her in this jury vote, is that Parv is a truly charming television personality. She is more engaging than most, possibly all of, Survivor’s contestants. When discussing her in Heroes vs. Villains, Coach says “She’s got the charm, she’s got the smile, and for some reason when she pays attention to you, you feel like you light up. It’s not that people don’t see it, it’s just that they are allured by her charm. And they’re taken by it. They’re smitten by it. It’s unbelievable.”

Randy Bailey says something similar in an interview, saying that “Survivor in so many ways is like the real world. You don’t get ahead by being smart, clever, hard-working. You get ahead unfortunately with a pretty smile and being able to schmooze people. And Parvati is the queen.”

In Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains, Parv aligns with Russell Hantz on day one. As opposed to the other contestants, nobody has any information about how Russell will play the game as his previous season hadn’t aired when production on Heroes vs. Villains begins. Opposed to the other alliances formed in this season, Parv is flying blind. But the people around her are also somehow still flying blind to her own skills.

Later in the season, JT gives Russell the hidden immunity idol he found, as a way to build trust and form an alliance with Russell, who seems to be controlling (and definitely believes he is controlling) the game. At the first individual immunity challenge, Parv and another player she is in an alliance with, Danielle, are the last two standing in an endurance contest. Parv steps down voluntarily, knowing Danielle needs to win to stay alive. Russell believes Parv is in trouble, so he gives his hidden immunity idol to Parvati to protect her (and protect Russell’s own alliance), totally unaware that Parv has found a hidden immunity idol of her own.

Even though Parv is told by Amanda, a member of the Heroes alliance, that the Heroes are going to vote her out, Parvati believes a lie is afoot. At tribal council, the Heroes direct their votes at Jerri, but Parv plays both immunity idols to protect Jerri Manthey and Sandra Diaz-Twine while making the gamble of leaving herself exposed. Russell is visibly surprised that Parv both has a second idol, and isn’t playing either for herself.

Parv guesses right, and nullifies the Heroes votes, sending JT home. As he realizes he’s going home, JT shakes Russell’s hand, believing Russell to have been the mastermind of his elimination. Incorrect. Parv manipulated Russell into giving her an idol, she found one of her own, she (by being good enough in the challenge to be one of the final two standing) allowed Danielle to win immunity, and then gave immunity to two other tribe mates to strengthen her alliance. It’s a truly epic Survivor move, and it is indicative of Parv’s mis-categorization that JT shakes the wrong person’s hand on his way out the door. Parv ends up being the runner-up in this season, losing to the person who became the first two-time winner of Survivor, Sandra Diaz-Twine.

Even though Sandra has an additional win on Parvati, I believe Parv is the greatest Survivor player of all time. Her skills in challenges are underrated, she is cunning, and she is able to adapt to the new gimmicks Survivor throws at her. Sandra should be considered the runner-up as greatest player ever, but the combination of Parv’s adaptability to new gimmicks, manipulation as the game changes around her, and physicality (as the game has gotten more physical with time) make her a true threat in any era of Survivor’s history, be it the past, present, or future. When Sandra and Parv are eliminated on the same episode of Winners at War, it’s worth noting that Sandra quits the game while Parv chooses to keep fighting from Extinction Island. Randy might have meant it derisively, but Parvati Shallow is indeed the queen.

At the beginning of Heroes vs. Villains, when the Heroes and Villains see who their opposition is after helicopters drop them on their beach, Jeff drops some interview questions that reflect the show’s further disrespect of the greatest player of all-time. As he is interviewing Tom Westman, and complimenting him on being a winner people rooted for, Jeff says “which isn’t always the case with some of our winners” as the image cuts to a shot of Parv. When Jeff asks if anybody on the beach believes they’re on the wrong tribe, multiple villains’ hands shoot up, and Parv speaks up.

“What did we do? What did we do that was so bad, Jeff?”

“Parvati, let’s be clear.” Jeff responds. “While you did a great job and were awarded with a million dollars, you lead one of the most notorious tribe of women ever in the history of the game. You betrayed people left and right. You guys were responsible for many, many blindsides. Great player? Yes, that’s why you’re here. Hero? No.”

Jeff asks the muscular James, who was betrayed by Parv in Micronesia, if Parv is a hero or villain. James, naturally, chooses the latter. Jeff says “James is bigger than me, James is right.”

Parvati’s response? “I will fight him… I’m not scared of him. I don’t care how big you are.”

You can throw whatever gimmicks, challenges, villains, heroes, idols, judgment, misclassification, and institutional sexism you want at Parvati Shallow. She will use it all against you, seemingly without your knowledge. No matter what, she will fight back.

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Probstian Smarminess

Survivor is hosted by Jeff Probst, who is good at his job. When the Emmy for Outstanding Host for a Reality or Competition Program was created, Probst won each of its first four years. (He hasn’t been nominated since his last win in 2011, not that he was undeserving.)

There are many things that make Probst good at his job: he is funny when he needs to be, engaging when he needs to deliver the drier rules and explanations involved in Survivor, and because he is good at prying information and confessions out of contestants at Tribal Council. He also looks like somebody who could be good at playing Survivor, which for some reason strikes me as a positive.

One can criticize Probst for many things, most of which are criticisms of the show itself. He often falls into an old school sort of sexism; he often doesn’t seem to realize (again, this goes for the show as well) when he’s counting out women or talking about their physical abilities (or lack thereof) too much. There are moments where he has acted in a way I would describe as repulsive, specifically in handling the moment when Sue Hawk quit All-Stars. Probst missed what Richard Hatch did to her in the previous day’s challenge, and when Hawk was emotionally breaking down and decided to leave the show, Probst was combative instead of supportive.

Perhaps most impressively, in Game Changers, there’s a truly shocking moment where Jeff Varner outs Zeke Smith as transgender at a tribal council, with Varner’s implication being that since he hasn’t told other tribemates Zeke should be seen as deceptive. Debates about whether or not this should have been broadcast at all are valid, and I have no objection to those who think it shouldn’t have been but, as aired, it’s a pretty remarkable conversation that Probst navigates deftly. Given his past history I never would have anticipated Probst would manage this well, let alone manage it well as it happened.

More recently, Probst has stepped up his skills when dealing with situations that are not easy to deal with. The mishandling of season 39 notwithstanding, Probst’s skills have grown. In a Winners at War tribal, when Sarah Lacina gave a speech about feeling discounted as a Survivor winner for being a woman, Probst admirably called himself out on his treatment of women throughout the twenty years he has held the job. Coming on the heels of seasons 39 I’m sure Probst was looking for a way to do this anyway, and elements of it do feel forced, but handling the moment well when it is given to you still deserves commendation. The show may not have really grown all that much in twenty years, but it’s good to see that at least Jeff can.

Survivor as a Comedy

Perhaps the most underrated aspect of the production of Survivor is its ability to make the viewers laugh. A big part of this, of course, happens in casting charming, funny contestants, but the show itself has to manufacture time for these personalities to shine through. In 39 days, with a collection of strangers, there are going to be moments of boredom that people fill with things that end up being funny, and it’s up to the show’s producers and editors to build these into funny segments.

In the first season, the cast often spends time looking for tapioca, which was planted around the camp before production. In Sue Hawk’s Wisconsin accent, the word “tapioca” is humorous, and when Sue Hawk is cut together saying “tapioca” eleven times in rapid succession, it’s even funnier. Survivor 40 has had a couple similar moments as well, with Sarah’s deadpan explanation of her career as a Survivor clothing designer followed by a brief fashion show at camp which she and Michele Fitzgerald performed humourously in. Earlier in the season, possibly the funniest thing I have ever seen on Survivor happened, as the editors pieced together instances of Nick Wilson walking into conversations with a dead-eyed stare, all of which happened during a pre-tribal council period of paranoia.

In Survivor: Redemption Island, Phillip Sheppard’s credentials as a former federal agent were questioned every time his name key appeared on screen, as he was credited as “Former Federal Agent?” question mark and all. In that same season, as David Murphy details Boston Rob’s control over the game at the final tribal council, the producers add a piece of music that is clearly meant to evoke the feeling of a Survivor equivalent to the theme from The Godfather. It’s hilarious.

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The Stacey Stillman Story

In Survivor: Borneo, there was a contestant named Stacey Stillman on the Tagi tribe, and she was the third person voted out in the game. After the season ended, Stillman filed a lawsuit against CBS, alleging that Mark Burnett had engineered her exit out of fears that the vote would otherwise go against the 72-year-old Rudy Boesch (who, after the elimination of Sonja Christopher and BB Andersen, was the only contestant remaining who was over the age of 40). Stillman alleged that Burnett spoke to her tribemates Sean Kenniff and Dirk Been to steer their votes away from Rudy. Been would later testify in support of Stillman, and the case was settled out of court. Should you be interested in the whole rundown, Ianic Roy Richard wrote this comprehensive breakdown back in 2017.

Do I believe Burnett would have done this? Of course. A reality program is constantly being manipulated by its producers, and it’s not hard to imagine Burnett being fearful that his new show was eliminating all the members of a particular age demographic in its early episodes. I believe Stacey Stillman, and I hope she was paid well by CBS for exposing this. It seems likely that Burnett could have done this again throughout the show, and the Stillman case simply lead CBS to write even more detailed non-disclosure agreements for its future casts to sign. I choose to believe the producers tend to hang in the background post-Borneo, influencing the outcome more by selecting which challenges to use depending on the remaining contestants, but logically I know better.

In 2011, Survivor: Redemption Island introduced its first Edge of Extinction-style location, where eliminated players would have an opportunity to get back in the game. After one person is eliminated, they are sent to Redemption Island, where they await the next eliminated player. Upon the second player’s arrival, there is what Survivor calls a “duel” but is essentially like any other individual immunity challenge. The winner of that duel gets to stay on Redemption Island with the chance to return to the main game, and the loser is officially eliminated from the game.

The two tribes were made up of all new faces, with one returning player on each tribe: Russell Hantz and Boston Rob. Watching this season, it’s pretty hard to ignore a sneaking suspicion that it is being rigged by the producers to ensure that Boston Rob is finally able to win Survivor. (According to Richard Hatch, it was Hatch who was supposed to have Boston Rob’s spot.) As one of the game’s best players, and likely its most famous player, it’s not hard to see the show wanting to make sure their icon would go down a winner of the game. So, they engineer a gimmick that brings back two past non-winners, one of whom is charismatic and generally well-liked and skilled in Boston Rob, and the other is the infamous villain Russell Hantz. Whichever tribe Russell is on would immediately be fearful of him because they have seen him play a sociopathic game in two recent, consecutive seasons, and know he cannot be trusted at all. Unsurprisingly, Russell is voted out almost immediately, and loses his duel, causing him to be eliminated.

The rest of the cast is stacked with duds of contestants: on day one it’s clear that this is Boston Rob’s game to win, as long as he makes a few right decisions. “But what if he’s eliminated?” the producers asked themselves. Well, few are better at individual challenges than Boston Rob, so if he gets sent to Redemption Island the odds are still in his favour.

Boston Rob gets eliminated, dominates on Redemption Island, gets back in the game, and wins the million dollars.

Do I believe Survivor is always rigged by its producers? No. Do I believe Survivor has been rigged by its producers on multiple occasions? To think otherwise would be foolish.

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The Ballad of Colby Donaldson

In the Australia-set second season of Survivor, Colby Donaldson is the runner-up. For years, he was considered one of the best contestants in Survivor history for his dominance in challenges, strong alliance with Tina Wesson, being charismatic in his confessionals, and looking like goddamn Captain America. One of the more fascinating facts* in Survivor’s history is that, in the year 2000 (the year of Survivor: Borneo), there were 1464 babies born named Colby. In 2001 (the year of Survivor: Australian Outback), that number jumped up to 3859.

*This information comes from the source of the Baby Name Institute, which is legitimately difficult to find information about as an institution today. So, take it with a grain of salt.

In an early season two confessional, Colby delivers one of the most comical lines in the show’s history. Explaining that he brought a giant Texas flag as his luxury item to use as a makeshift tarp for the camp (which is a very smart move), Colby follows his explanation with “But don’t get me wrong. When I wake up in the morning, I’m thankful for two things. I’m thankful I’m alive and I’m thankful I’m a Texan.”

At the beginning, the show tries its damnedest to sell the idea that there might be some sort of relationship forming between Colby and Jerri Manthey, but after a very small amount of time together it becomes clear Colby actively dislikes Jerri. He does, however, take a liking to Tina, and they work together to eliminate all their real competition (Elisabeth Filarski and Rodger Bingham particularly, both of whom would have been significant threats in a jury vote) until the final three is whittled down to them and the deeply unlikable Keith.

Unsurprisingly, Colby wins the final immunity challenge, meaning he gets to choose his partner in the final two. Somewhat surprisingly, he brings Tina. He would rather see himself lose than even give Keith a chance at winning. For the remaining duration of the final two format*, this decision is one of a kind. Tina eventually wins the final vote 4-3, and Colby leaps out of his seat in excitement for her. When questioned about his decision, Colby remains steadfast: he has no regrets, and would do it again. For a long time, I didn’t believe him.

*Survivor moved to a final three format in season 13, only periodically returning to a final two. This is because a final two scenario gives the winner of the final immunity challenge so much power – they essentially get to select who they would prefer to face in a jury vote. Had Colby taken Keith with him to the final two and won in a landslide, I suspect the show would have moved to a three finalist format earlier.

Colby makes two return appearances in Survivor: in All-Stars, where his elimination is arranged quickly by Lex van den Berghe as Colby is seen as a challenge threat, and in Heroes vs. Villains six years later, where he ends up in fifth place specifically because he is no longer seen as a physical threat. In Heroes vs. Villains, Colby’s performance in challenges isn’t impressive in the least, to the point where Jeff Probst actually questions him about it. This leads the famously competitive Colby to admit that maybe he just doesn’t have it anymore.

The most fascinating aspect of Colby’s run this season is that he doesn’t attempt to play the social game at all. He is on the Heroes tribe, with the literal white hat to prove it, and he forms a quick alliance with Candice Woodcock and Rupert Boneham, but beyond that he doesn’t do much. When his tribe loses an immunity challenge in episode six, Colby gathers the tribe when they return to camp and says he knows it’s his time to be voted out, and he’s at peace with it. He doesn’t want a day of scrambling and bickering, so he tells everybody to simply enjoy the day. That said, James Clement’s knee injury leads the tribe to vote for James instead, and Colby lives to fight another day.

Eventually, a bit of the old Colby flashes through, and he plays a key role in helping the Heroes tribe win challenges. After the merge, he even makes the winning shot in a shuffleboard-style reward challenge, sending him, Amanda Kimmel, and Danielle DiLorenzo to the home of Robert Louis Stevenson for a history lesson, meal, and screening of Treasure Island.

At this reward, Amanda is hellbent on finding a clue to the hidden immunity idol’s location, as she believes she will soon be voted out. However, Danielle finds it in a bowl of popcorn, and drops it next to the bed the three contestants were sharing while watching the film. Amanda gets up, grabs the note, which results in her and Danielle physically fighting over a tiny piece of paper while Colby remains hilariously unmoved on the bed, eating popcorn and watching a film. After an argument between Amanda and Danielle, they put it to Colby to decide, and he immediately says the note should be Danielle’s because she found it first. Amanda having the immunity idol would help Colby infinitely more than Danielle having it, and yet Colby knows who the clue belongs to.

This combined with Colby’s constant facial expressions, growls, and general grumpiness leads me to believe he’s the heir apparent to Rudy Boesch, and we simply couldn’t see it because physically they’re nothing alike. Colby is going to do what he says he’s going to do, and he believes in a steadfast right and wrong. There are no real examples of Colby being conniving; in the second season he doesn’t need to be because he’s almost always winning immunity, and in the twentieth he just happens to sneak by because he’s not seen as a true threat. But Colby remains himself. He is unchanged by Survivor. In the show’s history, there are not a lot of people as successful as Colby who do so without bending to the show’s whims and, even when given the opportunity to bend slightly in order to come out as the winner, Colby did not take it.

I now believe Colby would make the same decision if faced with the Tina/Keith choice again, and I believe Survivor as a game would be more interesting if it had more characters in its history like Colby Donaldson.

Heroes vs. Villains

Before Winners at War, the last time Survivor did a proper celebration of itself, it was in its twentieth season, commemorating the tenth anniversary of the show’s debut, with Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains splitting two tribes of return contestants into a tribe of heroes, and a tribe of villains. The moral grey area on Survivor exists no more, apparently, and the show begins to look at its contestants in a binary sort of way. Colby “Captain America” Donaldson and Jerri “the original black widow” Manthey even wear similar hats, with Colby’s white and Jerri’s being black, because of course.

Some of the divisions don’t make perfect sense, though, because Survivor as a game illustrates that you need to be a villain with heroic attributes, or vice-versa. Boston Rob is classified as a villain, even though he’s a hero to many of his former All-Stars who he protected through to the final five. Two of the Black Widow Alliance from Micronesia (Cirie and Amanda) are classified as heroes, while fellow Black Widow Parvati* is classified as a villain. But where the division matters comes in the butting heads of Russell Hantz and Rupert Boneham.

*Interestingly, in contrast to All-Stars when past winners were eliminated immediately, winners participating in Heroes vs. Villains are not viewed as threats. The final three for this season ends up featuring two previous winners.

Rupert, a veteran from Pearl Islands and All-Stars, views himself as a heroic figure and the show positions him in a similar fashion. His tie-dye tank tops and shaggy beard, combined with his tendency toward pontificating about honour turned him into a fan favourite, and his ability to remain true to himself seemed to keep him there.

Russell, on the other hand, was a tried and true villain. Coming right from the previous season of Samoa, Russell built his game on lying to everybody pretty much all the time, and never being able to see why people might view that as a problem. In short, Russell is an out and out sociopath. In Samoa he would burn people’s socks without their knowledge, and dump water out of canteens, and in Heroes vs. Villains he continued the act by burying his tribe’s machete.

The majority of Heroes vs. Villains is controlled by Russell and Parvati, each alternating periods of being the most threatening villain, as some post-merge in-fighting leads heroes like Colby and Rupert to stick around longer than they might have felt they could. Eventually, Rupert’s luck runs out, and Colby’s does soon after, leading to a final three of Russell, Parvati, and Sandra.

Going into the final jury vote, Russell seems convinced that he is going to win. Like in Samoa, he feels his other two competitors will be seen as coattail riders, and doesn’t see how they could be considered to get the jury votes needed to win. Watching this season from the outside, however, the opposite seems to be true: I couldn’t figure out how Russell was going to get a single vote. Parvati made the most aggressive move of the season, playing two idols (neither for herself) at one tribal council, maintaining the villains’ control of the numbers and eliminating JT. Sandra played a solid game as well, making moves when she needed to and consistently pushing herself as the underdog of the villain alliance. Russell, on the other hand, aggressively lied to everybody, swore on his children’s lives and didn’t keep his word, and in general was a deeply unlikable human being to be around even to members of his own alliance.

When faced with questions from the jury, Russell refused to backtrack on his actions, and did not even appear capable of grasping why people felt wronged by him. Meanwhile, Parvati and Sandra answer questions thoughtfully, as they explain their gameplay and do nothing but make themselves appear worthy of winning the jury vote. In retrospect, this jury vote is a competition between likely the two greatest Survivor of contestants of all time, and then also Russell Hantz.

To get to the final three, Russell had one key advantage going into the season, an advantage that is everything on Survivor. Given the compressed production timeline between seasons, Survivor’s nineteenth season (and Russell’s first appearance) hadn’t aired before the contestants on Heroes vs. Villains went off for the production of season twenty. All players knew about Russell was that producers told the contestants that Russell was one of the biggest villains in Survivor history. So Russell had seen the game tape on all his opponents, yet they hadn’t seen the tape on him. If this season had been played six months later, I have every confidence that Boston Rob would have engineered Russell’s demise very early in the game. But that’s not how it played out.

The jury vote came back with a decision of 6-3-0 in favour of Sandra, and Russell receiving no votes. As Jeff Probst reads the votes aloud, alternating a vote between Parv and Sandra, you can essentially view Russell melting down as he realizes he is not going to win. During the reunion show, Russell aggressively talks over Probst, trying to make his points as to why he should have won, and once again refusing to grasp any other person’s perspective on any given situation.

In the reunion show, Probst announces that there was a vote conducted, where the fans vote on their favourite player of the season. The two finalists are Rupert and Russell, and for the second season in a row, Russell wins this vote, collecting $100 000 for his successes. The jury of his peers might not like him, but those watching from afar can’t get enough.

At the Survivor: All-Stars reunion six years earlier, the first time a similar fan favourite award was given out, Rupert came out victorious, winning a controversial sum of $1 000 000. The difference between the votes Russell won and the vote Rupert won? About ten million viewers. The finale of All-Stars garnered almost 25 million viewers, while by 2010 the Survivor finale only brings in 13 million people (and Russell’s previous season was even less). It is in the period between All-Stars and Heroes vs. Villains where Survivor’s cultural imprint dwindles, both through the formula growing tired and the expansion of home entertainment options. When we all still watched, Rupert was the favourite. But the people who stuck around with Survivor tend to favour Russell.

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