Episodes 9 and 10 of Survivor: Samoa veer wildly back and forth between horrible, head-scratchingly bad decision making (Episode 9) and surprisingly fluid, interesting gameplay (Episode 10). Both feature Russell Hantz finding an idol. While everyone remembers the idol play better, the less-interesting episode is the one that involves him actually playing one. Still, this is the crux, the point where Galu's dominance finally crumbles. And that's at least partly due to idols.
From a historical perspective, it's also a battle for the modern Survivor metagame's soul. It's a memorable demonstration that idols can grease the gameplaying wheels. Because despite the Erik blindside, the voting of Episode 9 (despite Shambo having flipped to Foa Foa in all but name) was still along original tribal lines, and those deep-seated enmities have had a death grip on how the contestants have approached Tribal Council. Russell's idol play in Episode 9 finally breaks that.
Shambo reveals her flip the next day. John Fincher tries to play both sides, ends up disillusioned with Galu and unwilling to risk a rock draw, and also flips. The tribal game finally becomes individual (sort of, since the Foa Foas never consider wavering). So let's call it a half-break then. But it's at least a step in the right direction.
Dumb vs. interesting
In Episode 9, we're still mired in Galu vs. Foa Foa posturing. Galu still has a 7-4 advantage after blindsiding Erik, and they're intent on pressing that advantage. The remedy of course is Russell playing his idol for himself, voiding all seven (!) votes against him, and taking out the previously virtually unseen Kelly in the process.
What's maddening about this episode, beyond the rigid original-tribe alliances, is Galu's (mostly Dave Ball's) approach to the Ep9 Tribal Council. For some unknown, idiotic reason, they assume that Russell *doesn't* have an idol, because he played one at the previous Tribal Council. This is just absolutely, mystifyingly dumb. They've all no doubt heard at length, repeatedly, about how Russell found his first idol without a clue, how that's never been done before in Survivor history. Why wouldn't he be able to find another one?
Five seasons earlier, in Fiji, an idol was re-hidden immediately after Yau-Man played his. (In fact, as Probst dismisses everyone after Russell plays his idol this episode, we see Probst announce that a new one will be re-hidden. It's unclear if he did that after Erik's blindside, but it's reasonable to assume he did.) So *someone* on Galu should have assumed an idol was back in play.
Furthermore, as John Fincher points out, Galu was working on the assumption that (1) the Galu idol hadn't been found, since nobody knew Erik had found theirs then left the game without playing it, and (2) Russell probably knew there was an idol in a similar spot at Galu, which he could have found. So for all they knew, Russell could have had *two* idols. So there was a really good chance he had at least one!
But still, no contemplation of vote splitting (to be fair, that wouldn't have helped), nothing. Just roll the dice, put everything on Russell, and hope for the best. Especially from a modern perspective: dumb, dumb, dumb. Note that the best workaround here was simply to pile the votes on someone else, like Natalie, Jaison, or Mick. As he stated in his exit interview with Gordon Holmes, John was a big proponent for the Vote Natalie position — but John was overruled.
Importantly, the Galus were indeed shown briefly considering voting out Natalie instead of Russell, in case he had an idol. But at some point between raising that possibility and Tribal, they switched back to Russell. The edit wistfully implies that maybe Russell did *something* to get people to vote against him, but this was not shown, and it's hard to believe they would leave any Russell footage in the can, if they had it.
From Kelly's exit interview with Gordon Holmes, it sounds like the Galu women may have been the drivers of this decision. They wanted an all-women's alliance, and to get there, the first step was to get rid of Russell, making Natalie a free agent. So presumably, John and/or Dave wanted to vote Natalie, while Monica, Laura, and Kelly said Russell, and Brett (and/or Dave) sided with the women, making the target Russell. Regardless of the exact details, this certainly seems like another instance of "Russell Hantz is the greatest player of all time" fairy tale editing magic.
Even though the Galus brought this on themselves, it's not clear that Russell really played any particular driving role in his idoling out of Kelly, apart from having the idol in the first place. The move was Shambo's idea. She gave Russell all the insider gossip — that Monica was despised by the Galu men, and would be an easy target whenever, whereas Kelly was well-liked and thus a threat. That plan became reality as soon as their mutual intended target, Laura, won immunity. It's unclear if Shambo, who voted with Galu despite being in on Foa Foa's plan, fed any intel to Russell that the votes were coming his way. But it's possible.
The day of reckoning - things improve dramatically
In contrast, the Episode 10 vote is actually pretty interesting, once the numbers have finally evened out. Shambo has officially, publicly flipped to Foa Foa. So it's tied, 5-5. John is also considering flipping, in order to play a more devious game in cahoots with Russell (whom he's not sure he can trust). Meanwhile, Monica is trying to work a split-vote angle, trying to sell the Foa Foas on a ruse that she'll flip if they take out John. Once again, none of this is really Russell's doing. He has a third idol now, but that's not why everything breaks up, and really, the rest of the action in Episode 10 takes place in spite of Russell's third idol, not because of it.
The Galus finally agree to target Natalie (one episode too late), because they accurately assess that Russell won't waste an idol on her. Shambo's season-long crusade against "Medusa" (Laura) finally has a chance to come to fruition, as Laura's two-episode immunity streak comes to an end. Russell's role in all that is at best peripheral. Sure, he befriended Shambo at the merge, but John and Erik would have done the same thing at this point, and besides, every single person on Aiga beach is aware that Shambo will be voting against Laura in Episode 10, no matter what. The Foa Foas are more than happy to help Shambo take out one of the biggest social/physical threats from Galu in Laura. It is possible that Russell uniquely recognized that Shambo just wanted to feel heard (as Boston Rob did with Phillip three seasons later), and gave her that audience, but we can't conclude that just because we see Shambo talking to Russell a lot, that she doesn't talk to other people (since we do see her with Brett and John).
John's decision to start working with Russell, however, is at least partially Russell's doing. They do scheme and plot together, and Russell does (falsely) promise John they'll vote out a Foa Foa the next round, if he joins them. Mostly, though, John's doing it because the strict tribal-line alliance game Galu has been preaching bores him, and he's also tired of being overruled by a bunch of strategic nincompoops, who want to do dumb things like vote Erik out, whereas Russell seems like he's willing to do fun and interesting things. Adding to the list of dumb things Galu does: they concoct a scheme to save Laura that involves tricking all the Foa Foas into voting against John ... without consulting John first. Great job holding on to your most wavering number, Galu!
The other potential wild card in this episode is Monica. In the merge episode, the editors highlighted Russell trying to woo Monica by showing her his idol. Clearly though, that (and Russell) has nothing to do with Monica's plan, and from what we see of Monica in this episode, she has no intention of actually being Russell's ally. Still, knowing that Shambo has flipped and it's a 5-5 tie, Jaison and Mick try recruiting Monica while Russell is away at reward. Monica responds tentatively that she could be on board if they take out John. They respond that they could do that. This is the seed of Monica's later attempted ruse, as she swears she's not *really* targeting John, she's just trying to save Laura by tricking the Foa Foas into splitting their votes. (Wink, wink. Even though it's payback for his earlier attempts to take her out.) Either way, Monica's playing double agent, but it has nothing to do with Russell. But it's still fun to see.
Shambo also played a significant role in these two episodes, providing the game plan for the idol play in Episode 9, and rallying John (and failing to rally Brett) to join her on Foa Foa in the next episode. Even if her motivation here was a singular (and questionable) hatred of Laura, Shambo's willingness to look past original tribe colors and work with people she respected/ preferred is at least not "purple good, yellow bad," which puts her a step ahead of certified supergenius Dave E. Ball.
Russell's main role in all this is simply as the intransigent enforcer of the Foa Foa foursome, which despite his idol-attracting powers, is thoroughly old-school. He's able to dictate terms, because everyone just assumes (correctly) he has an idol now. Foa Foa is still a solid four-person bloc at this point (Jaison will soon realize it's not as solid as he'd like), and continue to rebuff all Galu efforts to divide and conquer. This is not a particularly modern Survivor approach. But that united front combined with the threat of idols does at least inspire John to take active steps to avoid a rock draw, particularly a rock draw to save someone he'd rather vote out.
It's also something that might have happened earlier, at the merge, if Laura hadn't won immunity. John and Erik were contemplating a more voting-bloc-oriented approach, temporarily using the Foa Foa numbers to target Laura and/or Monica. (John is still eager to do that, and going all in on hoping Russell will join him, but alas, no.) But that all fell apart, and now here we are, watching the Galu sailing ship sink while Foa Foa relaxes near the beach, buoyed by a steady supply of idols.
Russell Hantz and the Idol of Requirement
Before the reward challenge in Episode 9, we see Russell declare that he's going to find the re-hidden idol, and he even gives his search parameters: He's going to look by the well, by treemail, and under the bridge — the key landmarks around camp. This is good deductive reasoning by Russell: the previous clue referred to a specific tree in camp. It probably wasn't going to be there again, so it had to be near something else that could be put in a note. (It's also a bit lucky, since when using the same beaches a month later in Heroes vs. Villains, production put the idols in much more varied places.)
Still, it's no secret the show likes to reward industrious idol-hunters with idols. And reward him they do.
What's most fishy here is that we see Russell searching in a few of these places before the RC and coming up empty. Then the reward challenge essentially divides along tribal lines (by random draw!), and all the old Foa Foas are sent back to camp, while the winning team is exclusively old Galu. Most importantly: the only Aigas who saw the first round of clues were Shambo (away on reward), Erik (voted out), John (away on reward), and the Foa Foas (in camp with Russell). Well, and Laura, who is not shown at all. While away at reward, the winning purple team receives a note that an idol has been re-hidden back in camp ... but none of them can do anything about it, because they're not there. John at least intends to search, but it will obviously be too late.
It's not clear precisely when Russell finds his second idol, since there's no timestamp, and the next timestamp jumps all the way from Day 22 (reward challenge) to Day 24 (day of the IC and Tribal). So it's theoretically possible that he found it on Day 23, when everyone else was in camp. But it sure *looks like* the idol was hidden while everyone was away at the reward challenge, and that Russell found it exactly where he expected it to be hidden ... all while his main competitors (Shambo, John, maybe Dave) were safely sequestered away at reward. Kelly agrees that this must have been when Russell found it, in her exit interview with Gordon Holmes. Furthermore, Dave Ball implies that it may have been hidden *during* the reward trip itself, because Laura looked in the same spot while they were away, and it wasn't there. (This may have been after Russell found it, though.)
Hiding an idol where only one person can find it, and where that same person has already announced they plan to look? That's pretty sketchy, but absolutely par for the course with modern idol finds. (See also: Ben finding an idol tucked into the raft where he sleeps, or by the distant path he's hiked to and just gave a confessional at, in HvHvH. Or for that matter, Malcolm wishing he had another idol in Caramoan, and miraculously finding one right next to the path he's on, at eye level, minutes later.)
When modern idols are re-hidden, it's likely that happens at night (after one is played), presumably while the tribe is still at Tribal Council, or en route back to camp. But there's no written rule that it has to be. This was still early days for idols, of course. Regardless, though, it definitely appears that Russell announced he needed an idol, and one magically appeared, right where Russell and only Russell was likely to find it.
The best pair of never-repeated challenges, then one of the worst
We can't let these episodes pass without praise for the pair of fantastic challenges in Episode 9 that were run once, then for unknown reasons never repeated. The reward challenge, "Coconut Code," featured pairs of people running out and retrieving poles with black- and white-painted coconuts impaled on them, then arranging five of these poles to form a four-digit code (as seen on a digital clock), which a fifth, blindfolded person then had to dial into a combination lock, by touch. Each team had a different code, so there was no cheating possible. The code puzzle is simple in concept but deceptively tricky. The blindfolded combo lock appeared to be genuinely tough. Naturally, the ex-Galu people on the purple team won, but at least it was close! Having the puzzle first (or in the middle, perhaps) alters the usual Survivor order, and that was refreshing. And it required a different set of skills than we usually see in challenges. Dear Survivor: Please consider repeating this. Coconuts work for Fiji too!
The same episode's immunity challenge (or at least the end of it, pictured above) was also really fun. The first stage was retrieving bags with a grappling hook, which has been done more than enough times. And having only three people advance to the final round in an immunity challenge never seems particularly fair. Still: the final-round puzzle was really entertaining. It's again deceptively simple, just matching block shapes with holes, with each correctly inserted block releasing another one with a different shape. But each person started with two blocks, only one of which would work, and this apparently was enough to stump Shambo and Mick. Laura ended up running away with it, but this would be a fun puzzle to see again in a late-game (final four, final five) situation.
Contrast this, however, with the challenge that eliminated Laura in the next episode: One of the absolute lamest in the show's long history. It's a variation on one that's been in the mix since Borneo, but the execution here was just exceptionally feeble. Again: Multi-round eliminations are never fun or fair in immunity challenges, because if someone desperately needs immunity to stay in the game, it's particularly unsatisfying when that chance is gone seconds after the challenge starts. But that's what happened here. The first round consisted entirely of: Throw one rock at a bunch of tiles. If you miss, you're done. If one of your tiles breaks, you get to advance (as Monica does when Dave Ball misses his entirely and hits one of hers).
The next round is even worse, where contestants use a flimsy "crossbow" to fire spears at a target. Not throwing a spear, where the contestant has some degree of control, but using a "crossbow." And once again, it's a one-shot deal (per tile broken), no practice, no nothing. Just point and pray that the art department slapped together something that functions somewhat like a crossbow should (spoiler: they didn't). One of the best parts of Fiji was Probst openly ridiculing Yau-Man's non-standard technique as he threw spears or fired a bow-and-arrow, only for Yau-Man's experience to pay off again and again. But the challenge department made sure that couldn't happen again! Rather than controlling one's own fate through effort, practice, or skill, this version is basically a random number generator in wood-and-string form. Horrendous.
Purple Kelly, version beta 0.19
Kelly Sharbaugh is the victim of Russell's first successful idol play. She's also a poster child for Survivor's horrendously imbalanced editing. Who is Kelly Sharbaugh? You'll never know from watching this season.
Kelly has just five confessionals in the pre-merge, and none until Episode 4, where she has two complaining that Yasmin is lazy around camp. Then she talks about a reward, then she talks about Russ Swan working too much in camp. (Maybe Kelly is the Galu camp's official time clock monitor?) Then she gets two more confessionals observing about how Galu's newly elected Chief Shambo is drunk with power and punishing Laura. She has no confessionals in the merge episode. Then she's gone on Russell's idol play (she does at least get three confessionals that episode, mostly about the reward again).
There's a common theme to Kelly's confessionals: They're all about other people. We never hear who she is, what she does, how she is approaching playing the game, who her allies are, what her ultimate goal is. Nothing whatsoever to do with Kelly actually playing the game. We can probably assume she's tight with Laura and Monica, but we don't really even see them talking amongst themselves (apart from in a larger group), it's mostly just silent B-roll footage of them when someone else (usually Shambo) is complaining, except when the vote gets flipped on Erik in Ep7. So for all we know, Kelly might actually have had an F2 deal with Dave Ball or John Fincher. And then she's gone.
Actual "Purple Kelly" (Shinn, two seasons later in Nicaragua) at least did something that objectively pissed the show off (justifiably or not), in quitting the game. This Kelly on the purple tribe seemed to do pretty well in the game (a couple of winning puzzle performances, at least), but we never heard anything game-related from her. It feels like she was just there to fill the show's 'teen-season quota of "non-Black woman with dreds" (Courtney Marit, Michelle Yi, Kelly Sharbaugh), and once she was cast, the show called it a day.
What's the point of forcing someone to starve and suffer through a week-long rainstorm if you're not even going to put them on TV afterward? (This is largely applicable to the entire Galu tribe, but seems especially so to Kelly.)
- The big idol play, the what-ifs: Russell's idoling out of Kelly Sharbaugh held the record for most votes voided by a single idol play (7) for twelve seasons, until Kelley Wentworth topped him by two in Cambodia. But on rewatch, it's striking how close it came to not happening. First, Laura would have been the Foa Foas' target if she hadn't won immunity, and Russell just barely failed at preventing her from advancing to the final round by a split-second. Had Laura not won, the Foa Foas would have drawn at least Shambo, possibly Fincher as well. That would create a new 6-5 majority, and allow Russell to save his idol for later. And again, the Galus were also split on whether they should pile votes on Natalie instead of Russell. Had they decided on Natalie, it's possible Shambo might have tipped Russell off in time (it looks like they were telling her how to vote right before Tribal), but that would have dramatically altered the course of the game: Russell burns two straight idols, the erstwhile winner goes out in 11th place, Foa Foa drops to a 7-3 disadvantage. Oh well. What could have been ....
- I'm not a bad sportsmanship! Shambo gives a sad-faced confessional about Laura winning immunity in Episode 9. The next episode, the gloves come off. The first round of the IC is a single rock toss to break plates, and Shambo openly cackles loudly, and high-fives Russell after Laura misses her throw, guaranteeing she can't win immunity. Not the most subtle gameplay, especially when she intentionally went to the trouble of voting with the Galus against Russell in the previous episode, to hide that she had flipped. And while it's not a secret to anyone that Shambo hates Laura, still kind of a tacky display. Similar to Sugar openly cackling when Randy plays the fake idol in Gabon.
Jeff Pitman is the founder of the True Dork Times, and probably should find better things to write about than Survivor. So far he hasn't, though. He's also responsible for the Survivometer, calendar, boxscores, and contestant pages, so if you want to complain about those, do so in the comments, or on twitter: @truedorktimes