The 40 Most Influential Survivors: Russell Hantz

Russell Hantz

Samoa, Heroes vs Villains, Redemption Island, possibly some sort of international season?

To celebrate the 40th season of Survivor, we’re counting down the 40 Most Influential Survivors to ever play the game. Because Survivor is a game, a tv show, and a rabid fandom, we’re taking all forms of influence into consideration for this list. Go here to view the criteria we are using to determine what qualifies for the list. Note: this list is presented in chronological order and there will be spoilers for various Survivor seasons.

Russell Hantz is the 27th entry in this series.

This is a no-brainer. If we were to rank these things (lol at that) Russell Hantz is probably the most influential Survivor since he debuted. If you were mad enough to try and rank these things, he is probably top five. He is enormously influential to the show and the game. And there are a few reasons why, but to me it all boils to one thing: Russell Hantz is the first modern Survivor player.

So what do I mean by a “modern” Survivor player? Well, let’s look at the components of Russell’s game that have proven to be influential, and perhaps then this term will become clearer. First, and perhaps most obvious, is Russell’s ability to find hidden immunity idols without a clue. To remember how revolutionary this was you also have to remember the era of Survivor Samoa was occurring in. We had just come off multiple seasons of Exile Island, where one contestant would go, by themselves (usually), and then receive a clue to where the idol was (sometimes). The clues would start off pretty broad and usually required quite a lot of work to track the idol down. Frequently contestants would crisscross an island multiple times following the clues like a treasure map out of an old-timey pirate novel. Instead of doing all that, Russell just went looking in the jungle. And he was successful. Three times. Let me repeat that, he did something in Samoa that no one in Survivor had ever done before and he was able to do it three times. And then he was on Heroes vs Villains and played with 17 of the greatest Survivor players ever (and also Sugar and Randy), and he did it again. Twice.

There has been some talk since Samoa about how Russell was able to do this. Was he given clues we didn’t see? Did he just pay attention to the camera people and look in the areas they seemed to pay attention to? It doesn’t really matter though, because Russell’s success was incredibly popular. People started looking for idols without clues all the time now, to the point where actually getting a clue is kinda rare these days. People like Ben won their season because they had perfected this art. Ben even told Denise about what he looks for when he goes idol hunting (distinctive flash of color). And the show started hiding more idols nearer to camp because they knew people would be looking for them. And also, and this is important, Russell then used the idols he found rather than holding onto them.

It is really important to remember that the show and the producers want Hidden Immunity Idols to be played. The show is exciting when that happens, it adds tension to tribal council when the audience at home is wondering if someone will or will not play their idol. It also gives us something to debate when we talk after the episode about whether “Kim right to play her idol on Denise instead of Tyson or herself?” Idols are exciting and the show likes exciting. Idols can also lead to BIG MOVEZtm and this is another area where Russell is the first modern Survivor player. Russell found his first idol early on in Samoa, and then he came into the merge and his tribe was down in numbers pretty substantially (8-4). And then Russell and his alliance were somehow 4 of the last 5 remaining players. And how did Russell do this? He didn’t have the benefit of team challenges like Yul, Becky, Ozzy and Sundra did in Cook Islands, he had to break a 8-4 disadvantage using just idols (and some of the opposing players’ stupidity). So first the opposite side voted out one of their own (who also had an idol and didn’t play it). Russell thought they would vote for him and played his idol, which some people on the other side knew about. So then Russell goes and finds another idol, and now down 7-4 he plays that and eliminates someone. Now the numbers are 6-4. Now his alliance convinced Shambo to flip, so it was 5-5, and future Mr. Shallow flipped rather than go to rocks. And Russell and his alliance had numbers, and the third idol he found he wore openly to prevent anyone from moving against him.  The key is that Russell was always looking to use the idol to change the game in his favor, not just to save himself. And this has become a defining trait of how Survivors use Hidden Immunity Idols since this time. And also, Russell knew if an idol was used, he could go out and find another one! Where before the idol was seen as largely a one-time thing, now Russell knew that the show and the producers wanted idols to be played, so if you use an idol another idol would be in play. Russell in turn then helped define what the show was hoping to see when people got idols. His willingness to play the idol was as influential as his ability to find them without any clues.

And all the above leads to the real reason Russell is the first “modern” Survivor player. He was incredibly, unbelievably popular. It is probably no surprise he won the fan vote in Samoa. After all 90% of the edit that season focused on him. But he then won the fan vote in Heroes vs Villains too! He beat Rupert! You know how hard it is to beat Rupert in a fan vote on Survivor? The man won a million dollars this way! But Russell’s game and style of play was incredibly popular with audiences despite him coming up short at Final Tribal Council two seasons in a row. And this is important because his popularity drove future players to imitate aspects of his game, and it drove the show to encourage gameplay moves like Russell Hantz engaged in. I joked about BIG MOVEStm above, but this is an active and actual talking point on the island and among Survivors now. They want to see players who are out there to play, and playing, much like in many sports, is idealized by a visible trying. Finding idols is trying. Attempting to up-end the game is trying. Being active even if all your moves fail is trying (just ask Adam who won his season because he was perceived as trying where Ken and Hannah weren’t). Russell’s effort alone became something to be aspired to in a winner. It wasn’t enough to get to the end and be better liked than whoever sat next to you, now you have to have something on your resume, a concept that players discuss openly on this and other recent seasons! And Russell didn’t even win! He was, and remains, way too big of an asshole to ever win. But his popularity and the popularity of his style of game ushered in the modern era of Survivor where juries care a lot more about your resume, about what moves you made, about how hard you visibly tried to change the game in your favor.

Who did Russell influence? He influenced the show, he influenced production, he influenced every player who comes on and talks about playing hard and making big moves. Would Tony have won if Russell hadn’t changed the discussion of what winning gameplay looks like? Would Ben have won if Russell hadn’t paved the way for idols to be played and then found and played again? Would we have had Angelina’s discussion about how finding idols was gender biased? I don’t even know if we would still have this show if Russell hadn’t come along. And on a personal level, it was Samoa that got me back into the show. I had stopped watching, and then I heard from somewhere that this guy Russell was doing crazy stuff this season on Survivor and I got curious. So I checked it out. And well, except for luckily skipping Nicaragua through pure dumb luck, I haven’t looked back since. So since I am the one writing this, and clearly the center of this universe, in my eyes Russell is one of the 40 most influential Survivors. Still an asshole though. Fuck that guy.

Who else made the list?

You can see each entry on the list by clicking this link.