by Ian Walker
Survivor eras can be divided up a lot of different ways, but one way that the show’s history can be divided, as much as some fans may not want to admit it, is pre- and post-Hantz.
Russell Hantz is one of the most polarizing castaways ever to play the game, but there’s no question that he injected a massive jolt of energy into the show, unlike anybody who’d played before. It’s not like there weren’t great players before Russell, it’s just that nobody had ever attacked the game as hard as he had. Right from the beginning of Survivor: Samoa, Russell hit the beach with his intention to bulldoze the competition, relishing the role of tribe manipulator as he sent anybody who even possibly concerned him off the island.
His tactics were immediately divisive, as supporters and critics alike wondered all season if somebody who had so little regard for the people he was playing with could win. The final jury vote may have proved him otherwise, making some fans feel vindicated and others bewildered with confusion, but it was one hell of a ride along the way.
It’s the Final 11 round and Russell’s position doesn’t look that great. His little Foa Foa foursome is up against a mighty Galu opposition of seven. Sure, one of the Galus got voted out the previous round, but that was more his ally Natalie White’s doing rather than Russell’s scheming. Plus, he played his hidden immunity idol at the previous tribal council and ended up not receiving any votes cast against him, so now he was down in the numbers and idolless. Needless to say, things looked pretty bleak for Russell Hantz.
However, if there’s one thing that this episode shows Survivor fans, it’s never to count out Russell Hantz (except when he’s playing with a group who’s seen his game before. Then you can totally count him out.)
Russell had already broken new ground earlier in the season when he discovered a hidden immunity idol without any clues, an unprecedented feat in Survivor (yes Gary did it back in Guatemala, but he had an assist from Judd, so those were slightly different circumstances). So, it came as no surprise when Russell began looking for another idol, but nobody at home really thought he’d find it. He had already gotten lucky once, what are the chances that he’d get lucky again?
Then he found another hidden immunity idol.
Russell’s discovery of his second idol was both a critical development for him as a player and hidden idols in general. This moment legitimized idol finding is an attainable and useful skill in Survivor, as Russell had deduced that an idol would be by some prominent landmark, and he followed that notion to the idol. The counterargument there, of course, is that this also strengthened the show’s dependence on hidden idols, as the producers spent more effort in subsequent seasons making idols easier to find, hoping to get the next great idol moment.
For Russell, all finding the second idol did for him was boost his already enormously large ego to even higher levels, proclaiming that the sole reason he was put on this Earth was to win Survivor (that sound you hear is the collective eye roll of all the Russell bashers out there). Russell’s strategy had already proven questionable at this point, but this episode showed that he could do one thing, albeit nothing that had anything to do with building a strong social game, very well.
At least Russell was able to make better use of this idol than his first one. Convinced that there was no possible way that Russell would find another idol, all seven Galu members cast their votes against him at the next tribal council, which is exactly what Russell wanted. When Jeff Probst calls for any idols to be played, he stands up, turns to the other players and tells them “I ain’t finished playing just yet” and hands Jeff the idol, capping the play off by uttering his now famous catchphrase “keep hope alive.” When the votes are revealed all seven votes bounce off of Russell, and the votes of the Foa Foa four send Kelly Sharbaugh home.
The whole sequence is chilling and dramatic and, whether you like him or not, cements Russell’s place in Survivor history while looking like a total badass. For all of the heartbreak and misery that Russell will experience in his Survivor career in the episodes and seasons to come, this is truly his one moment of triumph. Don’t let him know that, though, or you’ll never hear the end of it.
Side-note: This episode gets its name from the moment where Natalie kills a rat. You wouldn’t ever think that somebody smashing a rat’s brains in with a stick would be adorable, but Natalie somehow makes it so. The image of this lovely Southern belle in her bikini, hunting, killing and then cooking and eating a rat is a defining moment of Natalie’s game and demonstrates how well she adapted to her environment, not only socially but mentally and physically.