April 20, 2011 at 11:29 PM ET
By Andy Dehnart, TODAY.com contributor
On "Survivor: Redemption Island," Matt and Mike may have won the first three-way duel, making loser Dave the first member of the jury. And while Julie may have been voted off, the episode was entirely about Phillip, the former federal agent whose spiral into odd behavior reached a new low Wednesday night when he turned others' response to his behavior into something about race.
Maggot-infested rice led Phillip and some tribemates to dump out what was left and pick out the larvae, but the players needed a new container in which to store the remaining and allegedly good rice. He asked Steve and Julie if he could use their container. They said no, perhaps because they were being selfish, perhaps because it's just smart to not put formerly maggot-infested rice into a container with maggot-free rice.
But Phillip thought his argument was rational and freaked out, leading Steve to call him a "lunatic." Phillip then played the "race card," as his own tribemate Grant said. Phillip started using the N-word, talking as if he were a racist white person, and said that "some white folks like to take a black man and make him crazy."
In the middle of his rant, Phillip actually made some excellent points about race and sounded surprisingly intelligent for someone who could never pronounce the other tribe's name correctly, and who at his best seems like a goofball, and at worst seems like he's having a disturbing Kelly Killoren Bensimon-style meltdown that is no longer fun to watch.
The problem is that he applied the points to a situation where they just didn't belong. Mike called Phillip crazy -- as we all have been doing -- after Phillip threatened the three remaining members of the original Zapatera tribe, saying he'd hide their rice can, and telling Mike that would happen "unless you walk with that (expletive) can everywhere you go." Then, with no sense of self-awareness, Phillip said, "I'm a reasonable person." This from a man prone to rants who walks around with a feather poking out of a headband on his bald head.
In other words, Phillip was acting like a lunatic. And while we have seen plenty of instances of racism or quasi-racism on reality TV before -- including ones where cast members and viewers alike refuse to admit that behavior is a form of racism -- there was not a fragment of evidence that Steve was responding to anything except Phillip's increasingly erratic behavior.
All of this came up at Tribal Council, of course. While there were a lot of emotions, primarily from Phillip and from Steve, who was defending himself against the label of racist, host Jeff Probst handled the conversation very well. It's remarkable that an intelligent conversation about race could emerge from some ridiculous behavior in the middle of a game that literally had its contestants spin in a circle to get dizzy before assembling a puzzle. But that is exactly what happened, and is why "Survivor" remains awesome.
Keep reading at realityblurred.com to learn why Matt wants to quit the game, and how close the immunity challenge really was.