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'Survivor' Politics: Blood, Water And Walking The Plank

Rupert Boneham, seen without his tie-dye, on <em>Survivor: Blood vs. Water</em>.
Monty Brinton
Rupert Boneham, seen without his tie-dye, on Survivor: Blood vs. Water.

[Information follows about Wednesday night's episode of Survivor.]


Wait — let's step back.

In recent seasons, Survivor has silently changed its entire approach to casting with very little comment. Where it once would send a whole group of new people to a new environment, it now seeds every season with anywhere from a sprinkling to a deluge of old contestants. Not just notorious old contestants, like your typical All-Star season, but contestants nobody cares about. Contestants who were terrible at Survivor.

And contestants even I barely remember, despite having written roughly 15 pages per episode about the seasons on which they competed. (That's how we did recaps back in the day, uphill both ways. In the snow. Et cetera.)

The show tends to not only cast these people, but linger obsessively on them, whether they are vaguely likable or simply members of Jeff Probst's Man's Men Army, which is made up of guys who are either super-powerful athletes or hugely arrogant creeps. You can usually identify these guys because Probst calls them by their last names, a fact rather expertly mocked/exploited by John Cochran, a decidedly underdoggish fellow who insisted on being called "Cochran" and managed to win in the second season he played. He now writes for a sitcom. True story.

Survivor seemed for several years to be ceaselessly preoccupied with the Hantzes Russell and Brandon, uncle and nephew who both played loudly and attention-seekingly and intermittently explosively and never had the slightest chance of winning, because people ultimately don't give a million dollars to people they can't stand. But when it came time to cast the "Blood vs. Water" season, in which one tribe is made up of returning contestants and the other tribe is made up of their "loved ones" (wives, boyfriends, siblings, whatever), they surprisingly cast no Hantzes.

They did, however, dig into the vault to pull out Rupert Boneham, who was tongue-bathed by the show throughout season 7, and then season 8, and then season 20. Rupert has always fancied himself a great and honorable pirate, a fellow who does nothing but sacrifice for others, despite the fact that his arrogance once led him to insist upon literally — no, literally — building a shelter out of sand, which predictably collapsed as everyone else knew it would, because sand is a really bad building material if you want to outlast the presence of water. (Pirate, my wooden leg.)

This season, they brought him on with his wife Laura, who joined the Loved Ones tribe. The first thing that happened in last week's premiere was that each tribe, the Loved Ones and the Returning Players, got to vote somebody out instantly, based on nothing at all, really. That person would go to "Redemption Island," a sort of purgatory where ejectees go for one final chance to get back in the game. Reflecting perhaps a certain impatience with Rupert, the rest of the loved ones booted his wife.

But the show had a twist to offer: Rupert could choose to take his wife's place on Redemption Island, and she'd take his place on the Returning Players tribe. Of course, as anyone who's ever seen him play knew he would, Rupert chose the grand gesture of taking his wife's place, certain he could prevail on Redemption Island, win the million dollars, and also be more morally upright than everyone else.

Unfortunately, Redemption Island got the best of Rupert, and now he's gone. Oops. So much for playing the hits, right? The same thing happened in the 22nd season, when Russell Hantz was brought back for what was billed as an absolutely epic battle between Russell and "Boston Rob" Mariano. Two giants! Will meet! High stakes! Big bucks!

Russell was the first person his tribe got rid of, because he's actually terrible at Survivor. In the past, he's been kept around a long time precisely because he wasn't any sort of threat to win. But in his third appearance, people seemed to lack the patience to live with him on a deserted beach for that long. Rob, on the other hand, won the million dollars. So it wasn't that epic of a battle. (P.S. Russell cried. This isn't relevant, it's just excellent.)

There is, for a longtime fan, a certain satisfaction in seeing the show's laziness bite it right on the nose: they bring back a guy they're sure can bring in fans, which is easier than finding anybody new, and now he's gone. Already. Which means we will get many fewer lectures than we otherwise would have about living an ethical pirate lifestyle and playing the game with honor. (Rupert loves honor.)

Overall, though, the loved-ones idea is a little more interesting than it seemed at first. When you beat the other tribe, after all, you put your partner at risk of being voted off. And what about the possibility that your brother is over on the other tribe learning to hate the wife of the guy you want to align with? If you all last that long, what happens when you all get thrown together?

For the time being, though, it's enough that Rupert's beard is no more. Farewell, Rupert's beard. Back to politics.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.

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