Zapatera throws a challenge to try to get rid of Russell. But does the target have one more trick up his sleeve?

By Dalton Ross
Updated February 28, 2015 at 12:52 AM EST
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Survivor Russell Hantz
Credit: Image Credit: Monty Brinton/CBS
S22 E3

“Throwing today’s challenge is not strategy. It is plain stupidity.” – Stephanie

She’s right, you know. I’m quite sure that scores of you out there were delighted to see the mouth that roared, Russell, finally have his torch snuffed. No doubt sock manufacturers were celebrating from coast to coast. (I hear Hanes has even given all its employees Thursday off as a holiday.) But you can’t be delighted with the way it went down — with the Zapatera tribe throwing the immunity challenge. Throwing a challenge, especially when you are only up two tribe members on the other team, is the epitome of shortsighted stupidity. It’s the type of thing where, even if you are happy about the person they got rid of, you can’t be completely satisfied, because you also find yourself liking the people who failed on purpose a little bit less. It’s a sour aftertaste, is what it is.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking out there: “Typical Dalton. Still hasn’t gotten over his Samoan man crush on Russell and now he’s using this as an excuse to bitch about him getting voted off.” To that I say…not true! Yes, I still think Russell was robbed in Samoa (not in Heroes vs Villains, though – Parvati was the one robbed there), but I also always assumed he’d be the first one booted out of his tribe here. Probst thought he’d last longer, but I knew he was a dead man walking the minute he showed up. I just hate the fact that the tribe purposely lost the challenge to get rid of him. The only person who appeared even remotely against it, Julie, highlighted the exact reason why throwing challenges is such a bad idea: You’re stepping on the other team’s throat. Why allow them to get up for air and gain momentum? That’s exactly what happened in Pearl Islands when the Drake tribe — who were firmly in command after winning the first three immunity challenges — lost one on purpose and allowed the Morgan tribe to then win three of their own. (The Aitutaki or “Latino” tribe also threw a challenge in Cook Islands, when they had only five members to begin with. The result? They ended up watching three straight members go home as well.) Those Zapatera bastards may have thrown the challenge, but I won’t give anything less than 100 percent effort on this recap. Let’s do this!

Things start off just after the second Tribal Council. (FUN FACT! Notice how the second Tribal Council took part on night 5 instead of the usual night 6? Wanna know why? Because on night 6, Jeff Probst was not even in Nicaragua, but rather in Los Angeles winning his third straight Best Reality TV Host Emmy award. Maybe they should have just had a Tribal Council without Probst and seen what would have happened, kind of like that weird Probstless challenge they ran in Samoa. Tribal Council — anarchy-style!) We see voted-out Matt feeling sick to his stomach as he arrives at Redemption Island after being blindsided, but he’s still talking about coming back to win the million dollars. If ever Survivor needed a laugh track.

Speaking of a laugh track, let’s check in with Phillip! Boston Rob is thrilled that Matt is gone and Kristina’s idol is out of play, and now he just has to keep the former federal agent and current walking punchline in check. Rob does an amazing thing here — he tells Phillip the truth, informing him that he is the fifth man in a four-person alliance. And even more amazing…it works! Instead of telling Rob to “pipe that,” Phillip announces that it’s all good. Who knows? Maybe Phillip is not concerned with winning the game. Maybe he’s just there to search for a magical brick wall that he can roller-skate through to return to his home planet of Xanadu. (That’s not completely far-fetched, by the way: Phillip was discovered for the show while roller-dancing by the beach. Oh yeah, and…ELO rules!)

NEXT: Our very first Redemption Island duel

The folks at Zapatera have tree mail telling them about the first Redemption Island duel. And whoever pulls the rocks of their tribe color are permitted to watch. Good for Steve and Dave, who pull the purple rocks and get to go. Bad for Marquesas‘ Paschal, who most likely had a heart attack watching at home on his TV at the mere sight of a purple rock. Meanwhile, Ashley and Andrea pull the Ometepe orange and off to the first duel we go!

I’ve gone on record as being a big hater of the Outcasts twist of Pearl Islands, but I came into the Redemption thing with an open mind. On one hand, I’ve always disliked it when voted-out people are brought back on to shows. Big Brother has been a notorious offender in this regard. (Just one in a long line of ways Big Brother is notorious.) My philosophy has always been, when you’re gone, you’re gone. But if you’re going to do it, this is just about the best way possible. Everyone is told about it in advance, so it is officially part of the game, not a cheap gimmick sprung on people later (most likely in an attempt to get a specific big personality back on the show). And the earlier you are voted off, the harder it is to get back in. Even for a stubborn traditionalist like me, it’s hard to find many qualms with it. So the question becomes, will it deliver dramatically?

If the first duel is any indication, the answer is…yes. Probst welcomes the witnesses and combatants to the Redemption Island Arena, which would have sounded a lot cooler if he had had a huge echo machine on his voice like at a Monster Truck show. Then smoke and lasers could have started shooting out from the statues while a furry Redemption mascot (Big Red, perhaps?) ran in waving a big RI flag before jumping off a mini-trampoline through a hoop of fire and dunking a basketball. Of course, no show by Big Red would be complete without the lovable mascot shooting T-shirts out of a cannon to all the lucky fans in the stands (all four of them).

The duel between Francesca and Matt is an old Survivor standby: Use rope and sticks to make a pole, use the pole to retrieve keys, use the keys to open some locks, and the first person to unlock the door and walk through it wins. At first, it looks like a blowout for Francesca, as she grabs her first two keys before Matt has even grabbed his pole, which for some reason sounds dirtier than it really is. But ignore what LL Cool J has to say and DO call it a comeback, ’cause Matt gets his pole nice and sturdy (again, way too skeezy sounding) and fetches keys not once, not twice, but thrice! He wins the right to fight another day, while Francesca is ordered to throw her buff in the fire — no souvenir for you! — and be off, making her not only the coolest contestant to be voted off first but now the coolest first exit as well. (Bring this woman back, Mark Burnett!)

One of the things that always amuses me on Survivor is unnecessary lies. Of course, there are often situations where lying makes perfect strategic sense. Other times, it’s as if people are on Survivor so they feel they simply need to lie about stuff, even when there is no reason to. There have been plenty of times when I’ve spoken to contestants before the game began and they’ve been like, “I’m a real estate agent, but I’m not gonna let anyone know that.” Why not? You’re a freakin’ real estate agent! So what? Which brings us to Steve’s decision upon returning from REDEMPTION ISLAND ARENA…ARENA…ARENA! He thinks it would be clever to lie and tell Russell that “the black chick” won. Oooooooh, that’ll show him. Or should I say…blow his mind! What a stroke of Machiavellian mischief! (Cut to Russell 30 minutes later finding Matt there and being like, “Oh, they told me she won. Whatever.”)

NEXT: Mourning the death of a Survivor catchphrase

Russell is too busy trying to find the hidden Immunity Idol to worry about who had won at Redemption, and when he can’t find it, Stephanie has the idea to make a fake one and then carry it around in a bag constantly so people will think she’s protecting the idol. Not a bad play, although it only works if they can bring one more person over to their side. And as if Russell didn’t have enough problems, now, according to Mike, “Russell has got some funk going on with his armpits.” It seems Mr. Hantz shaved his pits before the season began and now has a nasty rash under both arms. Take a number, ladies!

By now Steve has decided that punking Russell on the Redemption Island thing is not quite enough. He wants him out. Pronto. He brings up the idea of throwing the challenge to Ralph and Mike, and then to David and Julie. Only Julie seems hesitant, realizing that a two-person advantage (soon to be only one) is no advantage at all. The whole thing makes me so mad I want to force them to sit through a lecture on the importance of numbers, followed by a marathon screening of the David Krumholtz series Numb3rs, followed by another lecture on how annoying it is when TV networks substitute actual numbers for letters in the titles of their shows. Steve says they’ll decide whether to throw the challenge when they get there by giving a thumbs-up if the fix is in, but this entire plan gets two thumbs down from me.

Before we get to the challenge, I’d like to pause for the cause and say a few words for the untimely demise of what had become a Survivor institution. With the introduction of the Redemption Island duel, we are no longer being treated to reward-only challenges. Instead, we are getting immunity/reward combos. I have no problem with that per se, but in losing the reward challenges, we have also lost one of our classic Probstisms. You know it. You love it. And if you’re like me, you already miss it. Say it with me out loud, people: “Wanna know what you’re playing for?” Granted, it wasn’t the catchiest of catchphrases. And it was always a loaded question anyway because of course they want to know what they’re playing for! Why are you even asking? But for some reason I always looked forward to it. And what now? “The tribe has spoken” has even lost a little of its oomph now that an epilogue about being able to get back in the game has been added to that catchphrase. So what are we left with? Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE “Come on in, guys!” Especially because Probst often makes a point of looking at the ground when he says it, as if he doesn’t really care whether they come on in or not, but “Wanna know what you’re playing for?” had a special place in my heart, right next to the old days when we actually had a final two (which everyone knows is vastly superior to and more dramatic than a final three). So long, “Wanna know what you’re playing for?” You will be sorely missed. If this were a fallen-comrades montage, I would laugh and reminisce with my three buddies about you and all the crazy times we shared over slow-motion replays before throwing a piece of wood with your name on it into a huge fire on a mountain peak that would be gloriously captured by lots of scenic helicopter shots.

NEXT: Boston Rob finds an Immunity Idol clue in an unlikely place

Okay, back to the challenge. As if it weren’t bad enough that Zapatera is throwing the damn thing, they also have to basically take all the drama out of one of the coolest challenges in recent Survivor history, the waterwheel contest from Nicaragua. So they throw it and Ometepe, who could have been down three members, wins and is now down only one. They take their Immunity Idol and comfort items back to camp, and then the race is on to find the hidden Immunity Idol clue. Rob is searching high and searching low, but the one place he hasn’t searched? Phillip’s butt. SAY WHAT?!?

After noticing that Phillip’s chair is lopsided, Rob…well, let him tell it: “I looked down and the hidden Immunity Idol clue is right underneath his ass.” Rob then takes the chair and pretends to fix it while retrieving the clue. Like this guy wasn’t in control of everything already. One person most assuredly not in control is his nemesis Russell. He knows that the alliance of six will split their votes 3-3 and that he will then be kicked out of the tribe on the revote. He needs someone to flip, and his target is Julie. Russell has had remarkable success in picking the weak, vulnerable link in an alliance, be it either Shambo in Samoa or Tyson in Heroes vs Villains, and Julie is actually his best bet here as well. Before the game, she was the only person (besides Stephanie) who actually professed to me to be something of a Russell fan. Stephanie and then Russell both approach her about switching sides, with Russell promising “I got you” if she joins his threesome (which, thankfully, involves neither Matt nor his pole). She sounds intrigued by his offer, but is she intrigued enough?

Zapatera gets its first taste of Tribal Council, and Ralph celebrates by not allowing anyone to understand a single word he is saying — except Probst, of course, who after countless tutoring sessions with Professor Big Tom is now fluent in hillbilly. Russell calls out the team for throwing the challenge, to which the rest of them hem and haw. “I would say today we didn’t go 100 percent,” says Mike. “We definitely wanted to win, but if we lost we got some fat on this tribe that we need to trim off.” Steve, for his part, insists that “we did not throw the challenge.” And then Probst throws the haymaker of the evening: “So, David, you got your ass kicked by Rob — handily, today. Wasn’t even close.” Trying to play on his pride! Love it! After clearly stifling a “Screw you, Probst, I could have mopped the floor with that meathead!” David simply reports the outcome: “Rob beat me.”

NEXT: The part in which I have no idea what Ralph is talking about

Then Sarita gets personal, calling Russell a sickness and a huge black cloud that doesn’t work around camp, leading Stephanie to freak out and then Ralph to freak out at Stephanie’s freak-out. Ralph then says something that I rewound eight times but still can’t translate. Something about fish. For his part, Probst is clearly impressed at all the disunity on display for a tribe that has yet to lose a challenge when they are actually trying. “We’re early in the game and you guys are so divided, you’re in trouble come a merge,” says the host. “Big prediction from me, but I think I’m right.”

The votes come back and it is 3 for Stephanie, 3 for Ralph, 1 for Russell, 1 for Russel, and 1 for Ressell, but Probst deems it a three-way tie, meaning Stephanie, Ralph, Russell, Russel, and Ressell cannot vote and everyone else has to vote for one of them. Russell’s fate is sealed and he’s sent off in the revote. “I’ll be back and be ready,” he promises. But first he has to get past Matt on Redemption Island.

What do you think? Can he do it? Are you digging the Redemption Island twist? And are you suddenly feeling a bit nostalgic for “Wanna know what you’re playing for?” Hit the message boards and let us know. But before you do, make sure to check out our exclusive deleted scene (as well as my pregame interview with the recently ousted Francesca) in the video player below. Plus, Jeff Probst answers a few key questions about the latest episode every Friday morning here on EW.com, so make sure to peruse that as well. And for more Survivor scoop, follow me on Twitter @EWDaltonRoss. See ya next week!

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