Monty Brinton/CBS(2)
September 18, 2009 12:00 AM

“The clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy.” — Sun Tzu, the Art of War

Are there actually 20 castaways on Samoa? After last night, I could count just one — Russell Hantz. I watched, mouth agape, as Russell, by pure force of will and malice, convinced his tribe to vote out the one person who was on to him. Congrats, Puppetmaster! For hijacking your tribe’s hive-mind and getting them to vote out Marisa, your biggest threat, you win this week’s Fishy Award For Best Strategic Move.

If you’ve been watching CBS at all over the past week, you’ve seen commercials promoting Russell as the “biggest villain in Survivor history.” He handily captures the title in just one episode. Jonny Fairplay must be pissed!

On the first day at the beach, Russell sets up what he calls the “dumb-ass girl alliance” — a series of separate secret alliances with Ashley (“the dumb short-haired blond”), Natalie (“the even dumber long-haired blond”), and Marisa (who he almost generously just calls “the dark-haired girl”); empties the tribe’s water bottles; burns Jaison’s socks; and makes up a tearjerker story about losing his dog in Hurricane Katrina.

You really have to hand it to Russell. After 18 seasons of Survivor, he’s managed to invent an entirely new strategy: Sabotage your tribe to create dissension. And when things start going to hell — the water is gone and the socks are missing — you’re the only one who knows which way is up.

That said, there’s a lot I don’t like about this. Half of what Russell does seems evil first, strategic second. Setting up a lot of separate alliances is guaranteed to raise some eyebrows. Camps are not that big — will notice when you go off as a pair. Also, it’s hard to maintain a lie about your life. There’s a lot of down time on Survivor. If Russell slips up once in a casual conversation, he’s finished. If you’re caught in a small lie about your past, you have no credibility for big lies about strategy.

And of course, if you make your tribe weak by dumping out their water, they won’t win immunity challenges — and you won’t have the numbers when you get to the merge.

It all seems unnecessary — lots of flash, little reward. Marisa senses he’s shady. If your dumb-ass girls are turning on you, how are you going to keep control of the rest of the tribe? Yet Marisa makes an enormous blunder. She tells Russell that she’s wary of him. Seeing that his cover’s blown, Russell creates a campaign against Marisa within the rest of the tribe that is nothing short of brilliant. “If you stay with me, then you’re going to be fine for a long time,” he tells Betsy. That’s what everybody wants at this stage — safe passage into the endgame — and snake-oil salesman Russell knows just how to pitch it. While Foa Foa chews its cud, Russell leads them to the slaughter — a bold plan that is unquestionably the episode’s key strategic move.

In Tribal Council, Marisa scrambles to set things right. “If I did something to put a mark on my back, then that was dumb of me … And I guarantee you it won’t happen again.” She’s right, it won’t. I said in my first blog that Survivor is a game of mistakes. Marisa made hers when she told Russell about her suspicions. That mistake made Marisa Calahan the first boot on Survivor: Samoa. –Stephen Fishbach

Tell us: What did you think of Russell and his strategy? How long can he realistically stick around?

Monty Brinton/CBS(2)

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