Over the coming months, Inside Survivor is undertaking its biggest list ranking yet, as we count down the 100 best episodes of Survivor ever. As always with these kinds of lists, it’s entirely subjective, and we’re sure many fans will have different opinions. This is simply Inside Survivor’s ranking. Join us each weekday for a new entry.
Episode: “Tastes Like Chicken” (Episode 9)
Original Air Date: November 5, 2009
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Survivor eras can be divided up in many 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 he injected a massive jolt of energy into the show, unlike anybody who’d played before, and that is at its clearest in this episode of Samoa.
It’s not like there weren’t great players before Russell; it’s just that nobody had ever attacked the game as aggressively as he had. Right from the beginning of the season, Russell hit the beach with an 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 divisive, as supporters and critics alike wondered if somebody who had so little regard for the people he was playing with could win in the end.
Along the way, there is one moment where even the biggest Hantz haters have no choice but to tip their respective fedoras. It’s one of the most memorable Tribal Council moments of all time and marks a dramatic turning point in the season. And it happens in this episode, at the Final 11, where Russell is in a precarious position in the game, with his little Foa Foa foursome up against the mighty Galu opposition of seven.
Sure, one of the Galus was voted out the previous round, but that was more due to Natalie White’s cunning than it was to do with Russell’s scheming. On top of that, Russell had played and wasted his hidden immunity idol at the previous Tribal Council, despite not receiving any votes cast against him. So now he is down in the numbers and without his trusty idol. Needless to say, things look pretty bleak for Mr. Hantz.
However, if there’s one thing that this episode proves, it’s never to count out Russell (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 an idol without any clues, an unprecedented feat in Survivor. Yes, technically, Gary Hogeboom did it back in Guatemala, but he had an assist from Judd Sergeant, so those were slightly different circumstances.
So, it comes as no surprise that Russell begins looking for another idol in this episode. But nobody watching at home really thought he’d find it. He had already gotten lucky once; what are the chances that he’d get lucky again? Remember, until this season, finding idols without clues just wasn’t a done thing. It’s not like these days when it’s almost expected. But, of course, Russell finds another idol without a clue, making history in the process.
Russell’s discovery of his second idol is a critical development for him as a player and hidden idols in general. This moment legitimized idol finding as an attainable and useful skill in Survivor, as Russell deduced that an idol would be hidden near some prominent landmark. Of course, the counterargument is that this also strengthened the show’s dependence on hidden idols, as the producers in subsequent seasons made idols easier to find, hoping to get the next great idol moment.
Finding this second idol only serves to boost Russell’s enormously large ego to even higher levels. He proclaims 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 shows that he can do one thing really well—albeit nothing that had anything to do with building a strong social game.
On the flip-side, Natalie, someone with a stellar social game, has another shining moment in this episode. You wouldn’t think somebody smashing a rat’s brains in with a stick would be adorable, but Natalie somehow makes it so. The image of this sweet Southern belle, in her bikini, hunting, killing, and then cooking and eating a rat is a defining moment of Natalie’s game. It demonstrates how well she’s adapted to her environment, not only socially but mentally and physically.
Back to Russell, and he’s at least able to make better use of this idol than his first one. He shows it to Shannon “Shambo” Waters, who, in turn, tells him that the Galus have a plot to take him out. There is potential here for Shambo to flip and join the Foas Foas in voting for Laura Morett, though that plan is scuppered when Laura wins her second Immunity challenge in a row. But it doesn’t really matter, as long as the Galu alliance continues to target Russell, the Foa Foas can take out whoever they want.
Convinced there is no possible way Russell would find another idol, all seven Galus cast their votes against him at the next Tribal. When Jeff Probst calls for any idols to be played, Russell stands up, turns to the other players, and tells them in that Southern drawl, “I ain’t finished playing just yet.” He hands Jeff the idol, capping it off with his now-iconic catchphrase, “keep hope alive.” When the votes are revealed, all seven votes bounce off of Russell, and the votes from the Foa Foa 4 send an unsuspecting Kelly Sharbaugh home.
The whole sequence is chilling and dramatic and, whether you like him or not, cements Russell’s place in Survivor history. For all of the embarrassment 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 where he looks badass.
Check back tomorrow when we reveal which episode placed at number 29. You can check out the previous entries here.