Some fans love the duo. Some fans hate them. Some are just sick of them. Others love one and hate the other. Regardless of their assessment of the two players, however, most fans can agree on one thing. Survivor: Redemption Island is a very important season in the history of the show and the game; it’s just that no one is quite sure why that is because no one is quite sure what it means. Is the introduction of Redemption Island, a gimmick seemingly ripped right from The Real World/Road Rules Challenge, just a cheap ploy to keep Rob and Russell on the season longer? Is the shark being jumped? By messing with the format so drastically are Jeff Probst and the other producers acknowledging that the show is close to cancellation? Is the Survivor we know and love dead and gone? And, most importantly, what or who exactly is being redeemed? To answers those questions in order: yes and no, no, no, no, Survivor itself, and here’s why.
Rob and Russell are the perfect players to bring back for this season because, unlike many other competitions, failure to win Survivor (even multiple times) doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of ability on the player’s part. Regardless of your feelings on their personalities (and believe me, I find Russell’s need for approval grating), the two Rs are highly talented players who have been to a total of three final tribal council appearances in five games. Russell, in fact, is two for two in the final TC to appearances ratio. And Rob, well, he could’ve won the game in his only final TC appearance, but instead decided to take Amber rather than Jenna for reasons of a larger context. If he had taken Jenna, he would have won 4-3 instead of losing by that same score to his future wife, a fact he was well aware of in game and that any objective fan has to acknowledge as it was undeniably proven by Shii-Ann at the reunion show. In short, Rob and Russell are large personalities who always actively and consciously affected the games they play in. They are the perfect representatives of litany list of players like them.
Off the top of my head, without editing, here is a list of players by season (starting with Africa) that were pretty-damn-good at Survivor but didn’t win for reasons that were beyond their control: Silas, Lex, Kathy, Paschal, Jake, Rob Cesternino, Jonny Fairplay, Leann, Scout, the other four in the Koror five (Ian, Katie, Gregg, and Jenn), Rafe…you get the idea. Each of these players lost because in a game that is influenced by not only the players but the producers, there’s more out of the players control than anyone cares to admit. In fact, as the producers exert more control with in-game mechanics from the tribal swap to the Hidden Immunity Idol, a context is created wherein the more a player attempts to control the game the less likely they he is to win it. It’s why Survivor needs to be redeemed. The last three winners haven’t been bad characters, but game play wise they were Parasites.
In the spectrum of playing styles, there are two poles: the President and the Parasite. They are the basis of a classification system I derived after reading the following quote:
The lesser man thinks he would be president of the company but for the better man. He's wrong. There wouldn't be any company. He thinks better man crowd him out of the better jobs--and all he has to do is destroy the better men, then the jobs will be his. But he destroys the jobs when he destroys the better men. They were not made by these jobs--these obs were made by them. The lesser man can neither create the jobs of the genius nor keep them. (There is an important difference of viewpoint: the creator knows that he makes his own job--the parasite thinks that he can be made by a job prepared for him; the creator knows that wealth is produced by him--the parasite thinks that he is "cheated" out of his chance without the wealth that came out of nowhere. The creator makes his job; the parasite takes over.)Essentially it goes like this. The President contributes the most independent ideas to the game, setting the parameters within which everyone else must play. The Parasite contributes the least amount of independent ideas to the game, merely existing within the parameters that everyone else has set. In between these two extremes, there is an entire spectrum of players who are mixed cases, sometimes acting as a President and other times acting like a Parasite. Their mixed role does not necessarily make them a good or bad player. It is simply a classification system as to understand how they play.
- Ayn Rand, Journals of Ayn Rand, pg. 434
Playing as a President is much more difficult, but if successful it is much easier win. The percentage of Presidents who have actually made it to the end in Survivor is not too high because necessarily Presidents must eliminate each other. Playing as a Parasite is much easier but if successful it is difficult to win. Parasites appear less threatening as they don’t push the game in the same way as Presidents, but have a hard time convincing a jury they have a legitimate claim for winning. To better understand this system, I have placed all the winners from S1-S21 on a scale from most Presidential to most Parasitic with a brief explanation as to why they’re there.
(Note: This list is not a ranking from “best” to “worst” or any commentary on the skills of the players. In fact, my favorite winners are in the second, third, fourth, and fifth tier. Notably, I’m actually a big fan of Fabio as a winner because of the context he played within.)
Brian– He took the alliance strategy and perfected it. Arguably no season has belonged to one player like Thailand did to him.
Richard– If you want an original and independent thinker, look no further than Hatch, as he came to the idea of alliances on his own and rode it to the end. Still, he’s below Brian because Brian took things in directions I doubt he ever thought of.
Chris– Once his mission became clear, he was able to set the tone and style for Vanuatu. He’s only below Hatch and Heidik because he seemed to want to naturally be a second tier President with Bubba as his VP.
The Presidents with a VP
(Almost exactly the same as the President, except with a #2 with exceptional skills that doesn’t really stand a chance of winning the game against him.)
Earl- From day one, Fiji was Earl’s game, but he played it alongside Yau’s intellect, charm, and Idol. Was it Yau’s game then? No, never, as Yau didn’t have the leadership and people skills that Earl did.
Yul- The similarities between Yul and Earl are kind of scary. Yul even had his second-in-command Ozzy, a challenge hog. Was it Ozzy’s game? No, never, as Ozzy didn’t have the strategic outlook and overall plans that Yul did.
Todd- Todd thrived on having Amanda as his second-in-command because it made him look better in the long run. She was constantly his sounding board in a similar relationship to House and his underlings, but make no mistakes, just like House, it as Todd’s game, everyone else was just amusement in it.
Parvati- In many ways, she took the-having-a-VP game to a new level in Micronesia. Most of the time it actually looked like she had more of a cabinet, especially if you consider her endgame relationship with Amanda (a former VP) and Cirie (a former star employee).
(He lacks the ability of the President, but is very good at identifying what strengths exist around him and getting them to work to his advantage.)
Tina- Maybe it’s arguable she was a President because she pioneered the Manager role, but a Manager is a Manager. Her relationship with Colby (and Keith) still define Australia to this day. The later Yul/Ozzy relationship was similar, the difference being here that their relationship was mutually beneficial (as shown by the close 5-4 vote), whereas Tina was always going to beat Colby in the end.
Tom- What makes Palau such a unique season is the results of the tribal pick ‘em and how that played right into Tom’s management skills from his job as a fire chief. What resulted is the only tribe to last the entire game as Koror dismantled Ulong and then absorbed Stephenie.
Aras- Calling Aras a manager is controversial for sure, as it is popular to lavish Cirie with praise for her performance. However, it’s important to remember that while Cirie is very good at convincing people of things, she isn’t always convincing them of the right things for herself. It’s why she had an extremely similar outcome in Panama and Micronesia. Aras, on the other hand, despite his immaturity and sometimes grating behavior, knew how to assemble and lead a group into battle…a group that he made Cirie the star employee of.
(On his he’s own not able to do much, but give him a complimentary player or players and watch him excel.)
JT- The amazing thing to me about Tocantins will always be that Stephen didn’t receive one vote from the jury. He and JT played side-by-side the entire game. It was almost like they were brothers. Their partnership is perhaps the most balanced in the history of the game.
Vecepia- What made Vee so dangerous and the Marquesas endgame so crazy was her ability to sit side-by-side with someone and use his talents and personalities against him. Its part of the reason people have had a hard time respecting her as a winner. She can often appear to be not be doing anything at all.
Sandra (PI) and Sandra (H v V) – That Sandra was able to play almost the exact same game is scary and revealing. She is a master of the “just survive the next three days” strategy because she is great at always appearing to be on your side. It’s the reason she campaigned to get Jonny Fairplay and Russell out, but went to the F3 with both of them.
Bob- Calling Bob a coworker is surely another controversial statement, but Bob’s skill as a teacher-mentor are clear in his relationships with the final four of Gabon, especially Sugar. It’s also impossible to call him a Parasite when he designed and constructed his own fake Idols that had an effect on the game.
Amber- Many might call Amber a Parasite, but the partnership between her and Rob is clear throughout the season. She was always sitting beside him. Still, she is almost a Parasite because without Rob saving her through Lex (as well as many of Rob’s other moves), she would have never won.
Ethan- It’s impossible to call Ethan a Parasite because the Boran three were brothers in a way that wasn’t seen again until Tocantins, but it was also clear the Lex was the leader and the strategic thinker. Ethan, on the other hand, was the likable and affable guy you kept around and voted for from the jury because he was your best bud. Why do you think Kim J took him to the F2?
Jenna- Yes, she and Heidi had a coworker relationship, but really her winning was thanks to the mind of two people: 1. Rob C and his unionizing strategy 1. Matt and his final identification of the game and subsequent turning on Rob.
Danni- Every time I think back to Guatemala I can’t think of one single thing she did besides benefit from a superfan of the show (Rafe) and a previous player returning (Stephenie). Oh, she won final immunity and a couple of reward challenges.
Natalie- Whatever your opinion on Samoa and Russell, it is undeniable that Natalie won because of Russell. What about that Erik vote out? Wasn’t that Jaison’s idea? The only thing that keeps her from being at the bottom of this list is her final TC performance that made everyone completely ignore Mick.
Fabio- There is no better example of a Parasitic winner because he was being that way intentionally. At times, Fabio seemed like he had no idea what was going on in the game because that's what he wanted the other players to think. He always just went with the flow, staying out of the cross hairs of a cluster of folks thinking only in the short term. His winning three immunities make him tough to put here instead of Natalie, but it just goes to show one fact. No one can win Survivor playing like a true Parasite.
The important knowledge to take away from this list is not the exact rankings (which we could probably squabble about all day), but the two extremes and what they reveal:
1. The most important difference between the President and the Parasite is the use of your mind. Ultimately, that is what explains who won more than any other consideration. Why did Yul beat Ozzy? Because the jurors thought he used his mind more. Why did Natalie beat Russell? Because the jurors thought he relied too much on “the game” and Natalie in contrast used her mind to understand what was going on around her.
2. The game has always existed in a tenuous balance between Presidential winners and Parasitic winners that the producers have tried to engineer in favor of creating unpredictability in the game. The tribal switch in Africa was an attempt to preemptively combat the dominance of Presidents and Managers by undermining the power structure they built. Likewise, the Hidden Immunity Idol is an attempt to give players who somehow find themselves in the minority an attempt to upend the status quo. However, the more Presidential players always find a way around the rules and, like social media sites evolve because of their users, the game shifts in ways no one could have anticipated. This observation leads perfectly to point three:
3. Since Micronesia, the game has evolved so that only players on the more Parasitic side of the scale have won. In fact, two of the last three winners have been the most Parasitic ever and the most recent winner actually adapted his strategy to intentionally play Parasitically. Additionally, in the most recent game, Presidential players were sitting on the jury when one of the most Parasitic players ever quit in a move that showed little to no deference for the game. This progression of the game necessitates action on the part of the producers to restore the balance and contemplation on the part of us fans to consider why Presidents don’t win every time (and if we’re ok with that).
The return of Boston Rob Mariano and Russell Hantz forces us fans to reconsider the actions and perspectives of two of the most independent thinkers in the history of the game. They have drastically different styles for sure, but based on their obvious intelligence and understanding of how Survivor works, we must ask ourselves why they’ve never won. Redemption Island is a chance for redemption for everyone involved. The producers need redemption for messing with the game to the point that people can skate by partially oblivious to what is going on and still earn a million dollars. Rob and Russell are looking for redemption for having all the potential in the world and never, quite literally, cashing in on it. And most importantly to us, as fans we’re looking for redemption for accepting a game where Parasites can win and for supporting and commending players who push the game in the direction that enables Parasites.
It’s the major reason why Rob and Russell, who are each the personified endpoint of the two major eras of the game, are the returning players. Despite Jeff Probst’s wildest wet dream, the two could never work together because their two styles are diametrically opposed. We owe it to ourselves as Survivor fans to ask why that is and which of them, if either at all, deserve redemption. Essentially, it all comes down to one question:
Who would you rather win Survivor, Presidents or Parasites?