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Russell Swan: “my memory is completely different than what I saw on TV”

For some time, Survivor has minimized the survival aspect of the show in past seasons, replacing it with strategy. Last night’s episode was a reminder that, even though we may not see it, these contestants are suffering as they play the game. In the most dramatic exit in the history of the show, one that broke the fourth wall for the first time I can recall, Russell Swan collapsed during a challenge. He appeared to be dead at one point, lying unresponsive on the ground with his eyes open, tears staining his cheeks.

CBS insisted on showing us what happened before the episode–which went even further when Jeff Probst told People all about the incident, and Entertainment Weekly reviewed the episode in advance. This kind of desperation for viewers isn’t attractive; it’s sad and pathetic. I’ll admit, though, that the episode still offered high drama, even though I would have preferred to have been surprised about, well, everything.

While it was definitely a Russell Swan-centered episode–from the opening shots of him fishing to the conclusion as he gave his final words while we saw that same footage–there were some other good moments. Russell Hantz bitched about his “worthless” tribemates who are “suckin’ each others thumbs beacuse they’re a bunch of babies” instead of working in the cold rain like him (in fairness, dude, they have 1/5th of your body fat). At Galu, the men decided to keep Shambo and dump Monica, but Shambo is so insecure and idiotic that she couldn’t take a hint from Erik and John after they told her, in an amusingly indirect way, that they were voting for Monica (“I’d stay consistent, if I were Shambo”). Erik told her, “Sham, you gotta lock it up,” but Shambo is incapable of subtlety, prompting Erik to say, “pounding fists is not locking it up.”

After Russell fell over, first resting his face on the table maze, and then falling down, prompting crew to rush in and for us to get glimpses of cameras and producers like we’ve never seen on TV before, Probst declared that “this challenge is over, neither tribe wins reward,” but said both tribes would still go to Tribal Council to vote someone off, as they’d been told would happen even before the reward challenge. But once there, the 13 learned that no one was going home, probably because producers realized they couldn’t lose three people in a single episode.

At the challenge, Russell’s determination and/or delusion in the moment led him to say, “I’m good, let’s go,” even though he could do no such thing. Jeff Probst talked to him, gently, trying to convince him that he was not in good shape; it was one of Jeff’s best moments ever as host. “Russell, I watched you black out in front of me two times,” he said.

When we talked a few minutes ago, Russell told me, “my memory is completely different than what I saw on TV.” He said he thought he hit himself on the chin, fell over, and was “absolutely pissed off” that he was being pulled out of the game. “I was a jerk at that point: ‘Get that camera out of my face.’ I was a jerk to the medical staff, because for me, my memory was, I was down for five minutes,” he said.

He has little memory from that day and the days after: “I don’t remember stumbling around” or passing out, he said. “In reality, it could be that it was days” while he recovered; “I must have existed in some kind of alternate reality.” Watching it on TV was difficult because he had no idea how bad it was. “My wife freaked out,” Russell said, and she said, “you’re dead, you’re dead.”

Watching it, however, Russell said he knows the medical staff made the right call. “That person was dying or dead–that person needed to be taken out of the game … they did the absolute right thing.” Still, he wasn’t nice to them: “I’m glad there wasn’t any cameras” in the clinic, because “you couldn’t convince me that I still shouldn’t be in the game.”

As to his game play, Russell told me pre-game that he was going to pretend to be dumb and one-note, but because he was voted their leader, that “got shot to hell,” he told me this morning. He said his tribe was “constantly watching what I do and evaluating that,” and as a result, “I did not sleep … my brain was going a thousand miles an hour every minute of the day. I am stressing the hell out.” Russell told me that he thinks “that chief thing, man, that was the other reason why I ended up on my back. I agonized over everything.”

I asked him about some of his behavior that seemed, well, not very strategic, like choosing the comfort items instead of the functional ones, or arguing with Dave Ball about the fire. He said I’d have to “stay tuned” and “come December” all will be clear, but said that “a lot of times those decisions are really strategic” even though to us, it “seemed like such a stupid decision.” He likened those to chess moves that would lead up to a bigger move, and said taking comfort “is a stupid decision” but “we’re not talking about life here, we’re talking about a game.”

As to Shambo, who Russell liked pre-game because of her mullet, “She was difficult: it was like riding a tornado with her. Shambo is Shambo; you’ve got to be real careful with her.” He said he was close to Dave and Erik, but when I asked about his alliances, he said, “the problem with me and alliances, being chief clouded so much, because I didn’t get to what I wanted to do.”

That, alas, pretty much sums up his game.

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