Survivor: Redemption Island
You're Looking at the New Leader of Your Tribe
By Jim Van Nest, Survivor Analyst
February 17, 2011

No one was *actually* eliminated yet, so...

Hello, good people, and welcome to Survivor: Redemption Island. My name is Jim and I'll be your guide through the murky waters of Survivor's 22nd season. A lot has happened in the four seasons since I hung up my recapping shoes. A good ol' boy from Alabama took home $1 million, but a Dragon Slayer stole the show. We had another All-Star season that was a gazillion times better than the first. Some dude called Fabio "Beavis'ed" his way to a million bucks.

But easily the biggest Survivor story of the last two years was the emergence of Russell Hantz, the biggest villain in the history of the show. Love him or hate him, Russell is sure to get a response from every fan of Survivor. From those who think he was robbed of the title in Samoa and Heroes vs. Villains, to those who think he was lucky to make it as far as he did...everyone has an opinion on Russell. During Russell's second tour on Survivor, he got the attention of another Survivor icon, "Boston" Rob Mariano. The first half of Heroes vs. Villains could be broken down as Rob vs. Russell, as every episode watched their feud deepen. Thanks to one of the biggest bonehead moves in the history of the game, Russell managed to outlast Rob when Tyson essentially voted himself off the island. At the HvV reunion, Rob refused to shake Russell's hand and boldly suggested that if they ever got to play again, he'd "kick his ass all over the island". The sound you heard after that was a cash register ringing as Jeff Probst blinked and his eyeballs turned to dollar signs.

And now, just one season removed from HvV, Rob and Russell are back to settle the score once and for all! There are 16 other people out there playing too, but if CBS promos are any indication, this is all about Rob vs. Russell.

The only thing that might take the spotlight off the returning players is the new twist for this season, Redemption Island. Redemption Island is a new twist on an old twist, the Outcast Tribe from Survivor: Pearl Islands. The Outcast tribe is the single worst thing to happen in all of Survivor's 21 seasons. It allowed people who had been voted out of the game an opportunity to get back into the game and set the stage for the worst finalist in the history of the show, Cub Scout Leader Lill. As a fan of the show from Day 1, that twist was like a slap in the face to all of the fans. And yet, here I am some 15 seasons later and I like the concept of Redemption Island.

The difference here is that Redemption Island will keep the evacuated players living in the same conditions as the rest of the cast. They'll have the same weather, same food (or lack thereof) and they'll have challenges. Here's how it will work. In tonight's episode, someone will get voted out of their tribe. That person will go to Redemption Island, where they will live alone for the next three days. In next week's episode, someone else will get voted out and also go to Redemption Island, where the two players will live together until Episode 3. Episode 3 will host the first Redemption Island duel. This duel will pit the two RI dwellers against each other, and the loser goes home. The rest of the cast will go to RI to watch these duels and witness their outcomes. At some point later in the game, the "champion," if you will, of Redemption Island will have the opportunity to get back into the real game and continue to compete for the million dollar prize.

The strategic possibilities here are crazy. Do you dare vote Boston Rob out, knowing full well that he can dominate anyone that comes to RI with him, thus earning a place back in the game? How does this change the strategy of a tribe who has to go to Tribal to vote someone out? Do you vote a strong member out so that they can beat the other person waiting for them at RI? I haven't completely turned the corner on players getting voted out and being allowed back in the game, but if I'm ever going to change my mind on it, producers have come up with a way that intrigues me and at least has my mind open to the twist.

So, here we are, back in Nicaragua for 39 days, 16 new players, two returning Survivors, one epic twist and one unretired Survivor Analyst.

Can I just say that I love these huge sweeping openings? The show begins with Jeff and the players in an army helicopter flying over several Nicaraguan islands. We meet Philip, a software CEO and former Federal Agent. Matt looks like Fabio but acts like Jesus, while Ralph is a self-described redneck. And within five seconds, I like Ralph when he starts with this quote. "We ain't never had a dumbass to win the game, have we? Maybe it's my turn." As Jeff gives us the opening, the chopper banks and the music begins.

As the players disembark, we meet Francesca who is in awe of being in the game and Matt, an Iraq war veteran who feels his skills will suit this game well. After a quick welcome, Jeff breaks the news that two more players are joining them and another chopper comes in for a landing. First out is Boston Rob and the players go nuts. Next up is Russell and the reaction is "oh no." The only person not worried about Russell is a cute young girl named Stephanie. She's in game mode already. "I'm gonna stare down Russell." And then she does. And why not? Each season Russell picks a cute young girl to align with. Why not her?

We take a few seconds for Jeff to massage Rob and Russell's egos. Francesca notices that they're sizing up the other Survivors like prey. To decide where they play, they draw for buffs. Rob ends up with the orange buff of the Ometepe tribe and they are THRILLED to have him. Russell joins the purple Zaptera, who are not quite as thrilled, except for Stephanie. After some introductory hugs, Jeff drops the final bomb. "When you are voted out at Tribal Council, you will Not. Go. Home." I've already covered Redemption Island, but Jeff goes through the full explanation for everyone. Russell, not surprisingly, is not worried about Redemption Island. And with that, each tribe is given a map and sent on their way.

We come back from break as Zaptera arrives at camp. Right off the bat, Russell calls them all together for a little talk. He tells them all that no matter how it looks on TV, this is the toughest thing they'll ever do. He tells them that he's not there to sabotage anything and that he's there to win. In the first what the heck moment of the game, apparently each tribe has been given a tool box full to the brim with nails, hammers and everything needed to build a shelter. I guess with the rain that's expected, it's a good idea to give them some help with their shelter. Farmer Ralph is knowledgeable about construction and takes the lead as everyone pitches in to build a nice looking shelter.

Over at Ometepe, it's no surprise that Rob has taken charge. The tribe is pretty well star struck with Rob right off the bat. If this continues, they can just write the check out to Rob now. If they don't get the stars out of their eyes, he'll devour this group. Philip decides he needs to take some charge. For instance, he's telling everyone what to do and actually comes and takes the shovel from some of the women because they're not digging right. Francesca tells us that he's going about things in a very odd way if he wants to stay in the game. To make things better, though, Philip decides to take the ladies into his confidence by confiding in them that he used to be a...duh duh duh...federal agent - which, of course, means that when he gives his word, it's good. AND on top of all that, he's an expert at analyzing behavior. Oh yeah, and he has a lot of sisters and loves women. Easily one of the weirdest first day conversations ever.

After Philip's pow wow breaks up, Kristina is seen going through all of the supplies they've been given. She tells us she's looking for a clue to a hidden idol. Smart girl. As she's doing this, Rob sees her and makes sure that the coast is clear for her to continue her search, basically letting her know that HE knows what she's doing. Not so smart girl. She never does actually find anything. The next conversation is Rob pointing out to Philip that there are five girls and only four guys so they need to be on the lookout. But have no fear; Philip is great with women, so they're good. As a prime example of how good he is with women, Philip goes straight to Kristina and tells her that he's not playing with Rob and that he's sticking with the girls. Now is a good time to mention that Philip is coming on a smidge too strong and if he's not the first person voted off the Ometepe Tribe, I'll be shocked at this point.

Over at Zapatera, Russell is making his move on Stephanie. As he's talking to her, he's recounting his past seasons and the success he's had, as well as the success that his girl has had. Stephanie is on board with an alliance with Russell for right now. And honestly, why wouldn't she be? I mean, we all know Russell can't win this game. But the girls he has aligned with in his two seasons have finished 1st and second respectively. I actually like Stephanie. She seems very aware of what's going on and what Russell is about and seems very ready to essentially play him the same way Parvati did on Heroes vs. Villains. This will be an interesting pair to watch, if Russell can find a way to stay in the game for a while.

David and Matt are now talking about Russell's MO in this game and how he picks a cute little girl and turns her into the villainess. They have agreed that they can't let this happen. It is getting around fast that Russell has his hooks in Stephanie. And with that, the tribe has already made the decision that Russell has to go as soon as possible.

On to Day 3 on Ometepe, Kristina is telling us that Rob is dangerous to have on the tribe and that now might be the time to get rid of him. She says the guys are in awe of him and the younger girls see, taken by him as well. So she has decided that it's time to go hunting for hidden idols. So she randomly goes off walking with a shovel. Really? No one notices that? Anyway, she is on the lookout for anything that stands out, or for landmarks that they could put on a map. And, all of a sudden, there it is. The searching has paid off as she takes the idol and moves it to a new hiding place. She tells us that she's not sure what to do with it. She wants to tell someone, but is not sure who to tell. She seems to be targeting Rob with her first vote and doesn't seem scared to use an idol to do it. So we join her rallying Francesca and Philip against Rob. What transpires is the NEW weirdest conversation I've heard on Survivor.

Philip tells Kristina that he's not going to tell her how to play her game. He then goes on to ask, nay, demand to know who else is voting for Rob. He tells her that they only have three and as she tells him to relax, he basically starts interrogating them. Next up he chastises them for talking at the same time. Francesca is not having any of that. After a few minutes of complete nonsense, Philip decides the conversation is over for now. Honestly, it's hard to even was that bizarre. So bizarre that the only thing to cure me right now is a...

Probst sighting!! The first challenge has each tribe pushing blocks along some tracks to make the base of a temple. They'll run up the steps and chop a series of ropes that will release another set of steps. They'll climb those steps and the put together a block puzzle to complete their temple. Winning tribe gets fire (in the form of flint) and immunity, losing tribe gets to send someone to Redemption Island.

And here we go. Zapatera gets off to a quick lead as Ometepe really slows down. By the third block of steps, Zapatera is really pulling away - so much so that they actually get their fourth block set before Ometepe gets their third block set. Ralph takes to the ropes and releases the second set of stairs. They have a huge lead at this point, which is probably good considering how masterful Rob is at puzzle challenges. Finally they get their steps in place and Matt starts working on the ropes. As he releases the second set of stairs, Zapatera is well into their puzzle, but Boston Rob is on the puzzle now. At this point, the lead is gone and you have to think Rob will win it. Russell is now leading Zapatera, so it's Rob vs. Russell, right off the bat. And in a pretty solid upset, Russell guides Zapatera to the win in the first immunity challenge. Considering their lead, this shouldn't even have been close, but given the competition, you have to like getting a win any way you can. As we go to commercial, Russell tells us that he knows how Rob thinks and that he's thinking, "Oh crap, I'm with a bunch of weenies."

We come back from break to Ometepe where the mood is pretty down, of course. Ashley tells us that she feels bad that they let Rob down. No, I'm not kidding. This is the kind of star struck half of this tribe is. To the half that's not star struck, Kristina takes Francesca into confidence by telling her about the hidden immunity idol. She tells Francesca that she wants to have the girls vote for her and she'll play the idol to blindside Rob tonight. Francesca admits that it would be an epic moment, but at the same time, Rob is way strong and that they don't have any numbers, so dumping Rob right off the bat might not be in their best interest as the rest of the tribe will be pissed. Francesca offers up Natalie for the vote. She says she'll vote however Kristina wants, but she would rather do Natalie. Kristina says that they'll go with Natalie for now, but she wants to think about it some more. Now is as good a time as any to point out that Francesca is a player. While the urge to dump Rob like that would have to be strong, she realizes that not only is that a horrible move for their tribe, she realizes it's a horrible move for their alliance. They dump Rob and the other five people will make them pay for it with their votes.

Kristina goes to Rob to see who he's leaning towards and he tells her he doesn't know. Rob was thinking Francesca at first, but having caught Kristina looking for the idol clue, he realizes that this is not someone he wants to have in the game long-term. So he goes to the rest of the tribe and tells then what he saw. He tells them that he thinks they have the idol, meaning Kristina and Francesca. And then he does the unthinkable, he suggests they split the vote. The guys are going to vote for Francesca while the girls will vote for Kristina. "Does everybody understand this? I got so screwed last season because one person didn't understand."

We join Kristina and Philip in another stunner of a conversation where he's discussing "hyper state of arousal". He tells her that he's with her, but he still wants to know who the other votes are. So, she grabs him by the hand and takes him to the idol. "We don't need the votes, we got them right here." She explains to him that their three votes are all they need to get Rob out of there. As they talk, Kristina and Philip make a deal to go all the way...but she's VERY concerned that he won't be able to keep his mouth shut. Philip then tells us that this is the perfect time to get rid of Rob and then he can take over as the leader of the tribe.

Right off the bat, Jeff asks Rob what it was like to first get to the camp. He says that they went straight to work and that Philip kind of took the lead. Matt mentions that having someone call you out on things on the first day didn't really go over too well. And just like that, Rob has taken the focus off of him and put it on Philip. I'm not one who fawns over Rob (like David Mumpower and Kim Hollis), but that was a pretty smooth move right off the bat. Jeff asks Francesca why they would be voting someone off tonight. She says that they need to keep the tribe as strong as possible, so that would suggest a woman would go. He asks Kristina how she feels tonight. She says she doesn't feel safe at all and that she's worried that she'll be the one to go.

Jeff then asks Rob about the guys having a free pass. Does Rob get a free pass as well, or does he get an asterisk? He answers that it could very well be him walking away tonight and there's nothing he can do about it. Francesca suggests that Redemption Island puts a whole new twist in the thinking now. She suggests that by voting off Boston Rob, which they're not by the way, he stands a good chance to do well at RI and come back into the game. Philip doesn't like something he hears and interrupts. He says that before they came to Tribal, Francesca and Kristina came to him and asked him to vote for Rob. After some back and forth between Philip and Francesca, Philip tells us again that he was a special agent and that if he gives his word, he'll go down on a sinking ship. He then says that he'll be voting for Francesca tonight. Um...okay.

Kristina speaks, at the risk of Philip jumping down her throat as well and says that Philip freaks out too much and that there may be a bit of instability there. Philip then says that the plan was to vote for Rob because Kristina has a hidden immunity idol. And in the back row, Rob just laughs. Jeff confirms that she does have an idol. So Rob wants to get the score and asks Kristina if the plan was to vote for him. She says that she told Philip to vote for him, but she and Francesca were going to vote for Natalie. One of the funniest things about this entire exchange is that Philip has mispronounced Francesca's name every time he's said it. And oddly enough, he never says it the same way twice. There is some positivity here as he says again that he's voting for Francesca and that he has nothing else to say. And there was much rejoicing.

And now Rob takes over. He gives us the update that Philip is pretty adamant about his story and that Francesca has adamantly denied it. But Kristina hasn't done much to defend herself. "It was something that we considered. We'd have been idiots not to. But it's not something that we were going to do tonight." Rob asks to see the hidden she hands it to him. "Give me the immunity idol and you'll stay." Oh yeah, this is the best first Tribal ever. Kristina refuses to give him the idol. He tells her that the idol may keep her around for another three days, but he's going to do what he had planned to do, with the people he planned to do it with. And after all that, Jeff has nothing else to say except that it's time to vote.

We see Rob's vote for Francesca. "It feels so good to play with you amateurs." We see Natalie's vote for Kristina, telling her that she may make it through tonight, but not the next vote. We then see Francesca's vote for Philip telling him that she planned to vote for Natalie, but after that display, he earned her vote.

And we have a crazy surprise as Kristina does not play the idol. First vote: Kristina. Kristina. Francesca. Philip. Francesca. Philip. Kristina. Francesca. So we're at three votes Kristina, three votes Francesca and two votes Philip. One vote left. First person voted out of Survivor: Redemption Island...Francesca. It's a huge, ballsy play by Kristina and it pays off. She lives through the vote AND keeps her idol. And by the sounds of it, she's gonna need it.

Next time on Survivor: Russell and Ralph butt heads, Philip gets in a fight with a crab and Francesca gets introduced to Redemption Island. If this first episode is any indication, this is going to be a great season. Can't wait to be back next week. Until then, take care.