Rain is a double-edged sword on Survivor. It gives and it takes. We love the layer of drama it adds when you see the contestants shivering, their fingers wrinkled like prunes, as they struggle to make fire. But rain can also bring with it severe, life-threatening problems as it did this week when Russell collapsed due to dehydration.
I’m going to focus this blog on sharing with you everything you didn’t see that happened when Russell went down.
During the early stage of the challenge when they were pushing the sphere, I was completely unaware that Russell was struggling. I noticed he was tired but that is not unusual during a challenge and so I thought nothing much of it.
Even when they reached the maze, I noticed it taking him a long time to get himself over to the maze, but he was blindfolded and I am watching 13 other people, so once again I wasn’t overly concerned because exhaustion is normal and in fact, the effort someone puts into a challenge is often a determining factor in whether they stay or are voted out.
Russell had always given 100% so it didn’t surprise me to see him exhausted.
It was when his head went down and stayed that it started to become clear that something wasn’t right. But because he was blindfolded and I couldn’t see his eyes, it was again very hard to determine if he was just tired or in some kind of real trouble.
When I watch the episode edited with the luxury of close ups, it seems much more obvious that Russell was not doing well and I wish I had gotten there sooner. I can only tell you that from my vantage point, in the midst of everything going on – 10 people running a challenge, 4 others on the sit out bench and a challenge to oversee, he was only one of the things I was keeping an eye on.
As a result, I had no idea that he actually had already passed out for the first time while he was standing at the maze, but that is exactly what our doctors think happened. They think he had already passed out once before I even got to him.
When a Survivor appears to be in trouble, our first rule is to give them the chance to save themselves or see if one of their tribemates can help them before we make any decision about sending in medical, safety, or our water rescue team. We do this because it is their game, their adventure and whenever possible we want them to make the decisions about their fate.
Let me be clear, we are watching them the entire time, they are never out of our sight, and our medical, safety and rescue teams are always on alert – but we would rather give the contestants every chance to handle it themselves before we move in to take over.
But in this case, it happened so fast that I didn’t even consider waiting. I just instinctively called for medical to come in and get to work. Because our medical team is so well run they were prepared for someone to pass out or get injured even before the challenge began. That’s what they do, they prep before the challenge about what could possibly go wrong so they are ready for it. They knew dehydration could be a factor and so when Russell went down they had a plan in place and were helping Russell within seconds of me calling them in.
As you saw, Russell said he was okay… and then immediately passed out again.
Once medical informed me that Russell was going to require some major time-consuming attention I called off the challenge because it seemed the only decision that made sense. There was no way we were going to continue — it was clear Russell was going to require too much time and because both tribes were going to tribal council either way, it didn’t seem to matter enough to consider an alternative. So we sent the tribes back to their camp and told them to await word.
In a moment like that you make a decision. Sometimes it’s the right one, sometimes it’s the wrong one, but you have to make a call. It’s one of the things that I most enjoy about doing a show like Survivor. It is for all intents and purposes, a live show. It would be great to go back and script out all my reactions and comments like a movie, but you can’t do that. All you can do is react and hope your decision makes sense. I’m sure many people will feel canceling the challenge was “lame” or “silly” but for me it was the only call to make as Russell was the priority and that’s that.
At this point our challenge crew led by our director and senior producer Dave Dryden became reality shooters and producers. Dryden quickly re-positioned them so they could cover the unfolding drama. Their ability to quickly reconnoiter is why we have such great coverage of everything that went down.
For the next 45 minutes we monitored Russell’s vital signs. We gave him water from his canteen. We gave him oxygen. We propped him up and gave him time to try to relax and get calm.
During that time Russell and I talked about a lot of things. He was very worried that he would be pulled from the game. He was worried how he would be portrayed and what his family would think. He did not want to be seen as a quitter.
That’s why I tried to recap everything that had happened up to Russell up to this point – how dominant he had been in the game, his leadership, his physical capability. I was trying to make the point that no matter what happens, he would never been seen as someone who gave less than 100%.
I explained to him that he had already passed out two times, but his recollection at that point was so foggy he didn’t understand. He thought he was fine and was demanding to be put back into the challenge. In fact, I don’t think he even realized that everybody else had already been sent back to camp and the challenge called off.
Even with all of this going on, our doctors assured him that if his vitals came back strong they would allow him to stay in the game.
Nobody wanted Russell to go home.
When Russell passed out for the third time, I got very worried. Then his heart rate dropped 30 beats in less than a second. I was watching the heart rate monitor and when I saw it move from 97 to 68, I was honestly concerned that we were losing him. Forever.
Even writing this brings back the same emotion.
Our doctors were not exaggerating or play acting when they started pounding on Russell’s chest and repeating his name, asking him “Russell, are you with us?” It seemed to go on forever, his eyes not moving, not responding to anything.
I have never been more proud of our medical team than I was in that moment. Heroic. Incredibly calm. Well practiced. They knew exactly what they needed to do and they didn’t waste a moment.
Telling Russell he was being pulled from the game was difficult. I understood that he didn’t want to quit. He was in a great position in the game and there was such a fire in his belly. Many people have been pulled from the game that didn’t want to go, for some reason this one really got to me.
What you didn’t see was that after Russell pulled off his oxygen mask in frustration, he experienced a lot of different emotions, all of them completely understandable. He was extremely frustrated at me, at medical, and at production in general for pulling him from the game. He yelled. Then, he got quiet. Then, he cried. Finally, he prayed. It was extremely emotional and simultaneously beautiful. He was in a very vulnerable state and to be a witness as he processed the situation and made peace with it was an honor.
I’m guessing that Russell had no idea how bad it was until he saw the episode last night. I think he will be surprised at how serious it was and will realize that he is not a quitter and there was no other decision to be made other than to pull him from the game.
After Russell was removed we then had to make a decision whether to continue with our double tribal council or cancel it.
SIDE LINE: For the record, I have always hated the “win or lose, you must vote someone out” twist, but it’s existence comes from necessity. Let me explain: We would prefer to start the show with only 16 contestants. It’s much easier for the audience to get to know 16 people. But it gives us no wiggle room if someone quits or has to leave the game due to medical emergency.
If we start with 18, that gives us a bit of breathing room in terms of numbers but also gives us an uneven number of men and women on each tribe.
If we start with 20, as we did this year, it gives us plenty of wiggle room for quits or medical evacuation, but because we have 4 extra people we have to get rid of them at some point. Thus the “win or lose, you’re voting somebody out” scenario. I am happy to say that we have since figured out a better way to do double eliminations. So should we ever need to vote out two people in one episode it will not be a “win or lose both tribes going to tribal council” scenario.
BACK TO INSIGHT: So… what to do? We gathered the creative team and the decision was made that due to the unprecedented canceling of the challenge, the medical drama, and incredibly difficult conditions the contestants had endured the past several days, the best move was to make a gesture of good will and spare them from voting anybody out.
Was it was the right move? Depends on your point of view. It was certainly not a “clear-cut this is the only decision to be made” situation. We considered everything and we made what we believed to be the right call. You may disagree. In fact, I’m pretty sure many of you reading this right now are saying, “Hell yes I disagree. You should have voted people out. That’s what Survivor does!” Well, not this time. Sorry.
One thing was very clear, the canceling of the vote did seem to lift their spirits. You could see them begin to re-energize once they heard the news. You saw the rivalry between the two tribes reignite. Why is this important? Because at the end of the day if the Survivors lose their motivation to continue and it turns into a “group” funk, then the show is in serious trouble.
It’s probably hard to appreciate how difficult this season has been, so all I can do is repeat what I’ve said many times – this is a very tough season added to an already very tough game. Remember, we are not giving them food, we are not giving them water. We don’t offer them dry clothes or help them start their fire. We were worried about their welfare and did not want anybody else to be evacuated and certainly didn’t want anyone to decide to quit.
Okay – that’s it from my end. I hope you’re still enjoying the season. One thing that has always been true about Survivor fans, you are loyal. We appreciate it.
Until next week.