Russell wins $100K for being a better character than player, but Natalie wins the game and $1M

Russell Hantz may have made Survivor Samoa, but Survivor Samoa did not make him another $1 million. Instead, he lost to Natalie White, who took the prize and title of “Sole Survivor,” even though Russell offered to buy the title from her for $100,000.

Russell did win America’s vote and $100,000 of his own, beating fan favorite runner-up Shambo (okay) and third-place Brett (What the hell? That must have been some kind of ironic vote on behalf of Internet pranksters.). But he was visibly upset thoughout the live show–and he was still pissed this morning.

Why did Natalie win? Erik summed it up in his surprising and emotional jury speech: “in an environment filled with arrogance [Russell], delusional entitlement [Mick], maybe the person who thinks she’s the least deserving is maybe the most.” Shambo and John were the only people who didn’t buy into that argument; the other seven jury members did, although their erratic Q&A–or the editing of it–made them hard to read.

I’m convinced that the fatal flaw in Russell’s game plan was there from day one, and even earlier: He never took the social game into account. (An interview with Russell’s thoughts about this is coming later today; obviously, he disagrees.) At the beginning of the episode, he referred to the others as “my puppets,” adding, “when I’m finished with them, just throw them in the trash.” You can’t treat everyone as disposable and expect them to vote for you. He was, I think, too honest, too cocky, and too confident.

Russell didn’t get how that cost him the $1 million. But he talked shit about everyone and talked himself up, and of course the jury talked amongst themselves about that, and he was better at antagonizing them than befriending them. A good example of this came during the reunion when, amusingly, he produced a pair of socks from his pocket to offer to Jaison as replacements for the ones he burned, and then hurled them into the fire. Funny, but he’s a dick, and dicks don’t get $1 million from people they’ve dicked over. Instead, they complain about not being rewarded.

Don’t get me wrong: Russell was an amazing character and a fantastic player, and I can’t wait to see him on all-stars. I was rooting for him at many points during the season, especially in that final challenge as he faced off against Brett, who would have been the worst winner ever. In a season of weak challenges–one of the immunity challenges tonight was literally running across a net and balance beam, and then assembling a puzzle–the final immunity challenge succeeded because it was the most tense endurance challenge I can recall.

But Russell wasn’t a perfect player. Those people who are upset with the jury seem to think the jury was behaving like childish, sore losers. But often, the winner is the person who does the best job of kissing the jury’s asses, even lying about why they did or said certain things. Like it or not, part of the game is making the jury feel good about their vote, not reminding them that they suck and you do not. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a jury give the prize to someone who played less vocally; juries want their winners to be contrite, not arrogant. And even the asses form bonds. Consider Richard Hatch, who built strong friendships while he played brutally. What Rudy-like friendship did Russell have? Shambo?

Also, let’s not forget the role editing plays. During the reunion, Jeff said, “The audience overwhelmingly says Russell played the better game. The people who played with him say he did not.” In other words, Russell made great TV. Despite his obviously great moves, like finding hidden immunity idols, he did not make the greatest player.

That said, as the words I’ve written so far prove, it’s definitely easier to point out why Russell lost than why Natalie should have won. While she made moves like working to get Erik out, she wasn’t the strategist and big player that Russell was, and her win proves she knew how to play the game, even if it involved being nice and riding someone’s coattails. I don’t think that was really her only game, but even if it was, that’s a perfectly legitimate way to win Survivor.

Interestingly, Russell told me pre-game that he planned to make Natalie part of his “dumb-ass girl alliance,” but it was the jury who made him look like a dumb-ass. Probst asked Russell about those comments and said “a lot of women” found that offensive (so did a lot of men, Jeff). But Russell, arrogant once again, just said, “There’s no regrets how I played the game. I don’t regret anything I did.”

Jeff then pointed out, “One of those dumb-ass girls beat your ass.”

And that is why I love Jeff Probst. And Survivor.

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.