Guest Post: A Survivor Eulogy for Russell Swan

The following is a guest post from Contributor, Glenn Holford  – @GlennHolford


Oh, man. Come on, Matsing! This was your shot!

Andy Baker wrote a column last week about how he thought perhaps Matsing was deliberately cast to be losers, and he raised some points that I found to be compelling. But, I didn’t see any signs of a conspiracy this week. I thought that challenge was very fair. Every tribe had a pretty equal chance to pull it out. All Matsing had to do was not come in last place. How can our friends in Blue keep finding creative new ways to spectacularly lose?!

Being forced to watch so much of the Matsing tribe’s camp life has endeared them to my heart. The Matsing Three were all characters I felt emotionally invested in. I cared about that little ragtag group of underdogs. I thought they might turn out to be scrappy. I thought they might have some fight left in them. Now, I just feel like the producers forced me to become a Cubs fan. You know it’s not going to end well, but now you’re stuck with them.

Malcolm and Denise are clearly far better Survivor players than Russell Swan is or has ever been. They made the absolute right decision—really, the only sane decision—in voting him off. But still, I felt sad to see him go. Something about Russell has always tugged at my heartstrings. The guy genuinely seems like a hero.

There was a great scene in the Spider Man movie, where the Green Goblin has Spidey unconscious on a roof, and he’s trying to convince him to join forces with chaos. The Goblin tells Spidey, “The only thing [people] like to see more than a hero is to see a hero fail, fall, die trying.”

I thought it was interesting that Probst compared Russell Swan to a superhero. He’s certainly built like Captain America. And all season long, his outbursts after challenges and at tribal councils have been expressions of frustration—of bewilderment—at his own inability to succeed. He seems genuinely to believe that, as Probst put it, if he tries his best, he should win. Always.

Now, that’s crazy. Survivor is not a game of who-wants-it-more. Desire to succeed is actually almost entirely irrelevant.

But Russell strikes me as a guy who seeks to bend the world through force of will. Persistence has probably been his defining personality trait all the way through his childhood, education, and career. If I put on my Denise-The-Therapist hat, he’s a perfectionist. Probably a little bit of a narcissist. Suffers from an inability to recognize the boundary between his sphere of control, and the realm of outside influence. But he also plays with so much heart, and that’s what’s made him, even still, my personal favorite Survivor contestant of all time.

I liked that Russell defended his “attitude of excellence” at Tribal Council. Being excellent is hard. It takes its toll on every other area of your life. It forces you to make sacrifices that are bitter and difficult. Remember, Spider-Man, with great power comes great responsibility. But being excellent is also about realizing your potential. Being excellent is about doing the right thing, the best way that you can, and never ever quitting, no matter what. Being excellent is kind of like being insane.

I’m a lover of strategic gameplay as much as anybody. If you’re a Godfather or a Puppetmaster type, I’m going to get a huge kick out of watching you play Survivor.  If I were on the show, that would be the style of gameplay I would be attempting to emulate, so I can appreciate it on an intellectual level. But I could never play Russell’s game. I don’t have the heart for it.

So, strategy is fun to watch. But I also love to watch the Rocky movies. There’s something very compelling about watching a guy get pounded to pieces over and over and yet, somehow, just keep scraping himself back up. That’s what Russell Swan brought to the game.

Unfortunately, that’s also thoroughly rotten gameplay. Survivor at its core is a game about adaptive diplomacy. And in a way, excelling at Survivor is arguably more difficult than excelling in life. To be an “excellent” Survivor player, you have to let yourself be outshined sometimes. You have to let others lead, or at least believe that they’re leading. You can’t run out in front of the herd, or someone will just snipe you in the back.

The best Survivor players behave more like flocking birds—they keep three or four people around them on each side, like moving shields. They steer the crowd from within the crowd. And sometimes, they let themselves be seen losing small battles so that they can win the war.

Russell never understood that—indeed, couldn’t possibly understand that. It runs fundamentally counter to his character. Russell doesn’t want to lead, he has to lead. He can’t help himself. And perhaps that means he is arrogant, short-sighted, and misguided. Maybe Malcolm is right, and he lacks self-awareness. His steam-roller approach to Survivor has certainly proven itself to be spectacularly ineffective. But I think Russell Swan’s going to catch perhaps too much flak from this season. People are going to give him a really hard time about his gameplay, and rightly so. But I’ll commend the guy for his character any day.

So maybe Russell Swan is a tragic hero. He couldn’t see past his delusions enough to skillfully navigate his reality in the game. He’s a crummy Survivor player, I’ll admit it. But, he’s also demonstrated that he’s deeply idealistic, powerfully guided by his values, and driven to manifest his ideals into reality. Kind of like a superhero.

Godspeed, Spider-Man.

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