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It was the best of times. It was the Ides of March. It was Apocalypse Now. If I’d known it was coming I’d have baked a cake, hired a band, opened the champagne.

Pull up a chair, and I’ll tell you how my most-favorite-ever Survivor episode in twenty-two seasons came about. Reader Warning: Fans of Russell Hantz may find this recap objectionable. People like Jeff Probst, who continues to insist that Russell is the patron saint of Survivor or something. Don’t be surprised if they bring him back next season with a rule change to allow a Hidden Immunity Idol to be played all the way through the final vote.

Before we get started with the show, I have a question I’d love for someone to answer. Are all those deadly poisonous snakes they keep showing us–the bright yellow one and the orange-striped ones keep popping up every week–really crawling all over camp and the Tribal Council area? That is so not safe.

ROB IN CHARGE AT OMETEPE

Poor Matt was blindsided last week. Trudging onto Redemption Island, he’s forlorn, “I feel like an idiot.” He’d been so unconcerned about being voted out he hadn’t even taken his possessions with him to tribal council.

At the Ometepe camp, Rob (though pleased about having made Kristina play her idol) is worried how Andrea’s going to react to their having voted out her guy, ”She’s smahht enough to know we double-crossed her and hold that resentment.” Rob may be surprised when he finds out just how clever is Andrea. The next day, though she’s blubbering privately, “Deep down I’m really pissed,” when Rob tries to explain the move, saying he wished he “coulda found another way,” she’s calm and cool. He tries to reassure her that she’s safe in the alliance, but I doubt she’ll be trusting the Robfather in future.

To Phillip, Rob offers congratulations on his “Oscar-worthy” acting at tribal council and tells him he’s earned a place in their alliance. Fifth place, but it’s not as if Phillip has anywhere else to go.

DUEL TO THE DEATH OF A BANDANNA

Tree mail arrives at both camps telling them to choose two people to go to the Redemption Island Arena. It’s time for the Rock in a Sock. On Zapatera, Steve and David get the purple rocks. At Ometepe, Andrea and Ashley pick the yellow ones. Rob worries that Andrea will get to talk to Matt, “I don’t want Andrea talkin’ to Matt, her island boyfriend. I don’t want her gettin’ any ideas.”

The Redemption Arena, built by the Survivor crew, is quite amazing. It looks so much like some ancient coliseum I half expected hungry lions (in Nicaragua it should be jaguars) to come snarling and leaping out of the gates. Instead, we have Francesca and Matt ready to do combat, with an audience of four, each of the pairs from the two tribes seated far apart.

The challenge is: standing behind a bamboo “jail,” each competitor must fashion a pole by lashing together bamboo sticks, use the pole to retrieve three keys, unlock three locks and open the “door” of their jail. Jeff has hardly begun to tell Matt and Francesca “This is the first step in your journey to get even” when Andrea yells, “I didn’t vote for either of them!” Mission accomplished. Good work Andrea. (Aside: Every time I see her on screen I’m wondering if her eyeliner is permanently tattooed or if she has a hidden stash of Maybelline.)

The competition is close. Francesca gets her pole constructed and has two keys retrieved before Matt has a workable pole. But the third key is further away and her pole won’t reach, so she has to make adjustments. Matt quickly catches up. Determined, he nearly squeezes his whole body through one of the six-inch openings in the bamboo wall to extend his reach, and makes quick work of the third key and the locks.

So far, Jeff hasn’t come up with any snappy farewells for Redemption like “The tribe has spoken.” I’m sure he’ll think of one before the season ends, but for now he tells Francesca to throw her bandanna on the fire and adios herself out of there. Matt lives to fight another day.

AT ZAPATERA

Steve has decided to deceive Russell about who won the challenge, thinking it will throw off his game should Russell make it there, “The black chick wound up pulling the thing off.” He confides to Marvelous Mike (Ah, c’mon, you know you’re thinking the same thing), “The blonde dude is still there.” I guess Steve is not one of those guys who never forgets a name.

Russell is completely unconcerned about who won the duel. He’s desperately trying to find the Hidden Immunity Idol. He and his harem, Stephanie and Krista, are poring over the clue, “something alive next to something that’s not.” Since they can’t find the idol, Stephanie has a brainstorm to make a fake idol, put it in her bag, and then pretend to guard the bag so the others will think they have the idol.

The only problem with her scheme is that Ralph actually has the idol. He’s grinning, “It’s not Russell’s game no more. It’s my game.” And his secret: he’s told no one he has the idol.

While Stephanie is parading around camp clutching her bag as if holds the secret formula for Coca-Cola, Russell (as usual) is lolling under the shelter. Mike finds him disgusting, “He just sits in the tent with his concubines.” To make matters worse, Russell has shaved his armpits before coming out to Nicaragua, and now his upper chest is covered in a foul-looking, putrescent rash. Poor dear. I’ll bet he’s still using those razor blades that were rusted from Hurricane Katrina flooding.

Steve has decided it’s time to make a move, “We know Russell and his harem got the first immunity clue…Just gotta make sure we stay on our toes ‘til that cancer’s cut out.” He suggests first to Mike and Ralph, and then to David and Julie, that they should throw the day’s challenge and get rid of the cancer. Julie makes the solid argument that perhaps being only two people ahead of Ometepe, they should wait. They leave it that they’ll decide when they get to the challenge: one thumb up means “lose it.”

It’s bound to be debated whether or not throwing a challenge is ever a good idea, but here’s the thing: in this game you have to grab your opportunity to make moves. They know Russell and his gals have a clue to the idol and suspect they may already have it (remember Ralph has told no one). If they wait until later in the game to try to take him out, he may be able to protect himself with the idol. If he makes it all the way to a merge, it’s a pretty sure bet he’ll flip to ally with the other tribe. Another, not insignificant, consideration is that Russell is an unpleasant and unhelpful person to have at camp. He plays with the philosophy that he doesn’t have to lift a finger–so long as his gal pals are doing his bidding.

TORTURE BY WATER–WHEEL

The challenge is the water-wheel. We saw it last season on Nicaragua. There’s a giant ferris-wheel looking contraption to which three tribe members are strapped. Three other members spin the wheel so that the people on the wheel are submerged into a trough of water, where they must slurp up a mouthful of water. When they reach the top of the wheel, they spit the water into a vial. When the vial is filled, it overturns, releasing a ball. The ball goes down a chute. At the bottom a fourth tribe member has to solve a slide puzzle, then guide the ball through the openings in the puzzle. This event has to be utterly miserable for the people on the wheel and it’s always the girls who have to do that part because they’re lighter! And for those of you who want to try this at your next backyard barbeque, here’s a hint: slow down, or even stop, the wheel at the top, so that the person can spit their whole mouthful of water into the tube. So far, none of the four teams who’ve played it seem to have figured that out.

The reward for winning is not small, a waterproof tarp, blankets, beach chairs, some pillows. I thought sure seeing that would make Zapatera change their mind about throwing the challenge, but no, they really want to be rid of Russell.

Zapatera is clearly stronger than Ometepe, and it’s not easy for them to disguise their intention to lose. Jeff notices that Steve is slow in turning the wheel. Rob and David are the puzzle-solvers. Rob gets started first, but Zapatera’s ball drops soon after. Rob is working like crazy, sliding the pieces into place. David stands and stares at the puzzle as if touching it might electrocute him. Russell stares at David and begins to suspect the plan. Later he rants, “If I didn’t know any better, I’d think they threw the challenge. I’m dealing with a bunch of bitches.”

Ometepe is thrilled with their tarp and gets busy putting it over the shelter. Rob is looking at the bigger picture: he realizes that somewhere in the reward is probably a clue to the hidden immunity idol. “The game is always on. In the past I ignored the hidden immunity idol. That didn’t work for me, so I’m startin’ to look for the clue. Nowhere.” He has almost exhausted his search, when suddenly he notices Phillip snoozing in a lopsided chair, “I look over and see Phillip’s fat ass.”

Rob urges Phillip to switch chairs so that he won’t break the one he’s in. Phillip obliges and promptly goes back to sleep. Rob discovers the clue sewn into the fabric of the chair covering, “I looked down; the hidden immunity idol is right under his fat ass. Had Phillip not been so fat, it wouldn’t have been bending that much and I wouldn’t have told him to move.”

Rob reads the clue, but is no closer to finding the idol, “the clue basically said, ‘the idol could be anywhere.’ I’m not tellin’ anybody about the clue.”

JULIE WITH THE POWER

Russell is convinced the tribe threw the challenge. He talks things over with his girls. They believe (correctly) the others’ plan is to split the vote 3-3 to protect against the idol and that they need a fourth vote. Russell thinks they should go after “the old lady”. He’s talking about Julie.

Stephanie, who I find more obnoxious every time she opens her mouth, is delegated to convert Julie. She argues that Julie is at the bottom of the other alliance, lies, and claims that she, Russell and Krista have the idol. Julie seems to agree to join them, saying, “I like my chances with somebody who’s been here before.” To seal the deal, Russell strolls over for a handshake and to instruct her to vote for Ralph. He points to his ridiculous new tattoo, which he wears like some tinhorn dictator’s medallion-draped uniform, “Keep hope alive, baby. This ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”

Stephanie cackles with glee, pumping her fist, “This is gonna be the biggest blindside ever.”

Thinking that Julie has flipped, I despair that I’m going to be stuck with the troll for the rest of the season. Still, I’m keeping hope alive.

BEST. TRIBAL. EVER.

Zapatera grabs its torches and is seated for its first date with Jeff and his torch-snuffer. Right off the bat, Ralph gives away the game-plan, “We got two teams in the same team.” Steve backs him up, “Six of us are pretty rock solid. Then there’s the three with Russell.”

Russell accuses the six of throwing the challenge. Mike more or less admits it, “Today I’d say we didn’t go 100%, but we’ve got some fat on this tribe we need to trim.” Steve denies that they deliberately lost.

Russell tries to defuse an attack on himself with, “Everybody comes here that perceives me as the legacy.” And he protests that his purpose this go-round is not to burn socks. He claims he’s a changed man.

Julie, questioned by Jeff, quietly observes that they need to go into a merge with numbers. That makes Russell grin like the cat who ate the canary. He’s got this “old lady” in his idol-less pocket.

Stephanie starts acting as if someone has put burrs under her saddle. Using her outside voice, she disparages the others for throwing the challenge and sneers at them for not recognizing the vast superiority of Russell Hantz to anyone who has ever competed on Survivor. Did I mention I don’t like Stephanie? I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t like her, even if she weren’t Russell Hantz’s personal dogsbody.

Sarita isn’t having it, “It’s like a sickness. It’s like a big black cloud over everything we do. He doesn’t do anything at camp.”

Ralph wants to include Stephanie in the useless category. He utters some unintelligible gibberish about Stephanie and fish. Jeff tries to translate into English, “I think what you’re saying is that she doesn’t do anything but she eats the fish.”

It’s time to vote. The suspense is killing me. Russell looks about as confident as “a Christian holding four aces.” Jeff reads the votes. (We don’t see him asking if anyone wants to play an idol, but I assume he does.)
Russell. Ralph. Stephanie. Ressell. Russell. Stephanie. Ralph. Ralph. Stephanie.
Don’t even think it–misspelling never counts against you in Final Jeopardy.

It’s a three-way tie. Hallelujah! Julie held her ground. Stephanie looks green around the gills.

There’s a revote. Only Stephanie, Russell and Ralph can be voted for and they don’t get to vote. This time there’s no suspense when Jeff announces the votes: it’s the Troll’s Torch to be snuffed.

The tribe has spoken. Shouted, actually.

With a surly look, Russell warns, “I’ll be back. And I’ll be ready.”

Stephanie, red with fury, turns to Julie and growls, “Storm’s a comin’.”

Jeff, clearly disappointed to see teacher’s pet sent packing to Redemption Island, ominously remarks, “You just voted out one of the most successful players in the history of Survivor. The question is, will this decision come back to haunt ya?”

I don’t know about the gang at Zapatera, but I’ll sleep just fine, thanks Jeff.

Next week: Phillip’s on the hot seat, and it’s do or die for Russell on Redemption.

I’ll leave you with Russell’s exit speech: “It was the first time I was ever voted off. I didn’t like it one bit. I wanted to bitch-slap every one of ‘em.”