Welcome to Reality TV Week at The Ringer! In addition to celebrating the best characters in the genre’s history, we’ll also be remembering some of its most iconic moments, from The Note on Jersey Shore to the Bananas Backpack on The Challenge to Jessica Simpson’s quandaries about tuna fish. Now, it’s time to remember the burning of the hat on Survivor.
Ten years ago, the single greatest season of television premiered on CBS. Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains (HvV) was the 20th season of the series featuring an all-star cast made up of 20 former players divided into two tribes. It was an all-out battle, beginning with the first challenge, which ended in a dislocated shoulder for one player and a broken toe for another. This season really had everything—from brutal physical challenges to a cast of all-time favorites to unforgettable moments of gameplay, including one of the best blindsides of all time and one of the weirdest scuffles ever shown on reality TV. But really, the season’s greatness can be distilled into one moment.
On Day 39—the final day of gameplay—and with only three competitors remaining, something snapped in Sandra Diaz-Twine, and Russell Hantz’s fedora received the brunt of her wrath. You might recognize Sandra’s name—she appeared in the first round of The Ringer’s Best Reality TV Character Bracket in the Antagonists region. And while she most definitely belongs in that category, and was part of the Villains tribe on HvV, her classification as a player on Survivor has always been more nuanced than many of her fellow castaways; on a scale from villain to hero, she’s resolutely in the middle, and always vacillating between both sides. The burning of Russell’s hat is a prime example of the type of the blurred dichotomy we, as viewers, have come to know and love. But before we can get into that fiery scene, we must go over two key things.
First, Russell Hantz is an agent of chaos. If he were a square on an alignment chart, he’d be chaotic evil. A proud liar and intimidator, Russell is so villainous that they dropped him in an all-stars season directly after he’d finished his first season of Survivor. Because of this, none of the other HvV contestants knew about his maniacal gameplay style before competing against him. The only hint to his true character was the fact that he’d been placed in the Villains camp.
During his time on HvV, Russell purposely hid the Villain tribe’s only machete, orchestrated the torch snuffs of fan favorites like Boston Rob and Rupert Boneham, and manipulated his own allies to the point that they were left blindsided and broken at tribal councils.
Oh, and Russell said stuff like this: “These are all-stars, but you know what? I’m a little above that. Like Michael Jordan is in basketball, like Michael Phelps is in swimming. There’s always somebody that’s above their sport.” It should be noted that this statement was made about a day into his second time playing Survivor, a game that he had never won.
The second thing you must understand before you can fully enjoy the scene at play is Sandra Diaz-Twine’s all-consuming, unabashed hatred of Russell Hantz.
Throughout HvV, Russell took pleasure in belittling Sandra and how she plays a less physical game. He also convinced himself that because she’d already won Survivor once, she’d be easier to beat in the final tribal council vote. But unlike the countless other tribe members who went up against Russell only to find themselves voted out at the next tribal council, Sandra was able to sense Russell’s paranoia, which she then used to manipulate him. Honestly, it gives me chills whenever I rewatch Episode 14, which starts with Survivor host Jeff Probst recapping the last episode by saying, “The only person to cross Russell and still survive … was Sandra.”
For those who know Sandra’s history in the game, this isn’t shocking. In Survivor: Pearl Islands, she challenged the infamous Jonny Fairplay—a.k.a. the Survivor contestant who pulled off the dead grandma bit—and didn’t back down. Sandra has a keen ability to spot these assholes coming from a mile away—and when she does, she subtly works to target them, undermines their perceived dominance among the rest of the tribe, and takes them out.
Sandra’s consistent attempts to subvert Russell’s control of the game throughout HvV were groundbreaking. It almost seemed that she prioritized getting rid of Russell above winning the season. On multiple occasions, she even tried to sabotage her own Villains alliance post-tribe merge by approaching the Heroes alliance, just because she wanted Russell out of the game. She’d already won Survivor, so why not focus on winning a personal struggle?
Which brings us back to Day 39. To celebrate the final day, the three finalists—Villains Sandra, Russell, and Parvati Shallow—are treated to a “feast,” which I put in quotes because it looks more or less like what a human eats on a normal day:
For people who’ve been marooned on an island for the past month-plus, I guess a handful of eggs and some tomatoes feels like the Last Supper. Anyway, the three toast each other, remark on how full they are, and finally lay down on a tarp, with Russell once again commenting on how awesome his gameplay is before scurrying away with only his Survivor-issued Buff on his head, leaving Sandra and Parvati to scheme one last time.
I love how one of the first thoughts Sandra has once Russell is out of earshot is to burn his fedora—and yes, this moment is made a trillion times better by the fact that the hat is a fedora. You truly cannot make this stuff up.
Egged on by Parvati, Sandra takes Russell’s hat from its perch, and doesn’t even hesitate before tossing it into the fire, literally igniting her final rebellion against Russell with the flick of his own fedora. “I should burn his sneakers,” she adds, while Parvati, for the first time this entire season, lets out a genuine laugh.
“Screw it, that’s payback for everything he’s done to me in this game. I don’t care,” Sandra says, casually.
Shocking no one, Russell throws one last tantrum after he returns to camp and can’t find his fedora.
Not only is Russell’s beloved fedora gone forever, he doesn’t find out what actually happened to it until the reunion special (where, of course, he wore another fedora). And while it’s extremely satisfying to watch Russell freak out over an ugly hat, it’s even more gratifying to know that Sandra was able to sneak in one last quiet rebellion against the tyrant of this season before her fate, as well as Russell’s, was put in the hands of a jury. While I might not technically call this act “heroic,” I think there’s definitely something about it that gives anyone who watched HvV an overall sense of justice. Sandra is taking out her revenge on her own terms for all of Russell’s villainous deeds. The fact that an episode later she became a two-time winner by beating Parvati and Russell in a 6-3-0 vote is really just the icing on top. In reality, she won the minute she let that fedora touch an open flame.
An earlier version of this piece misidentified Parvati Shallow as a Hero; she was a Villain.