Reality TV and Tropes- Survivor: Samoa and the Tomato in the Mirror

by Julian

TV Tropes is a wiki that compiles and deconstructs the myriad of recurring devices and conventions that appear in storytelling. These tropes are not, as the name of the site implies, simply bound to television, and can be seen in all forms of media. Reality TV and Tropes examines these tropes as they apply to specific instances within the world of Reality TV.

Have you ever played one of those retro video games with a forced, top down perspective (or alternatively a modern game intentionally trying to look retro)? If you have, you’ve probably hit a point in the game where you’re traipsing through a dungeon only to stumble upon a dead end. You retrace your steps a thousand times but no matter what, you can’t seem to figure out how to get to the next section of the dungeon. After what is either a moment of sheer luck or consulting a guide, however, the solution becomes clear. There has been a doorway right there the entire time! The problem is that the door is on the left side of the hallway, and given the forced, top down perspective, you, as the player, would never realize it’s there–even though from the perspective of the character in the game, it’s totally obvious.

A forced perspective that keeps the observer from seeing what the characters see can be used as a storytelling device as well; it’s a trope that goes by the name of the Tomato Surprise. By withholding information or forcing perspective, the story creates tension for the viewers when there is none for the characters. The twist in the story comes not from the characters learning new information, but from the reader learning new information that changes the framing of the story completely. A story about a man using a knife to butcher his victim, with red liquid oozing everywhere could seem like a tale of vicious murder–until the end of the story, when it’s revealed that he’s simply dicing a tomato.

A key element of the Tomato Surprise is that the characters in the story aren’t learning anything new at the point of the twist. Only the observers are taken by surprise, as the detail that the twist hinges on is often something so mundane that the characters in the story wouldn’t even think to mention it.

A classic example is the iconic Twilight Zone episode The Eye of the Beholder. Our protagonist is a woman who suffers from hideous facial deformities, and who has undergone numerous procedures in an attempt to correct them so she can have a more normal appearance. In the wake of her most recent surgery, her face is bandaged, and remains covered for most of the episode. Forced perspective should be noted here, as all of the other characters–predominately hospital staff–never have their faces shown.  Their images are always somehow obscured, be it by shadows, curtains, etc. At the climax of the episode, the bandages are removed to reveal a stunning Donna Douglas–and that the operation was a total failure. As we pan back and finally see the faces of the hospital staff, they are revealed to be have gnarled, twisted, piglike features. As observers, we come into the story believing that it takes place in our world, and assume as much because nobody ever says otherwise. The use of forced perspective keeps us from seeing the details that are already known to everyone in-universe, so we’re taken by surprise when it turns out that what is “malformed” in our reality is the norm in theirs.

The Tomato Surprise is an easy trope to overuse, and as it became more prevalent, it became easier for observers to identify and predict it before it happens. This has led to a variant of the trope rising in popularity–a trope called The Tomato in the Mirror. In this variant, our perspective is forced by presenting the story through the viewpoint of a single character, who is, like the observer, not given the full story. The rest of the trope still stands, however. With the exception of our protagonist, all of the other characters are fully informed. When the protagonist learns that they, in fact, have been a tomato the whole time, it comes as a shock to them and nobody else.

One of the most popular examples of this trope is M. Night Shyamalan’s first and best film, The Sixth Sense. The entire movie follows Bruce Willis as a child psychologist attempting to help Hayley Joel Osment, who sees dead people. The twist hits at the end of the film, when Bruce Willis realizes that he died in the movie’s opening, and has been wandering the world as a ghost ever since. We follow his perspective throughout the film, and the moments where he is interacting with other characters always manage to, by coincidence, make it seem like they’re interacting with him. (The obvious exception is Hayley Joel Osment’s child medium, who even explains to Bruce Willis upon their first meeting that the ghosts don’t know that they’re dead and only see what they want to see.)

This brings us to Survivor. (When it comes to me, though, most things lead back to Survivor…) In particular, it brings us to the 19th season, Survivor: Samoa.

The cast of Survivor: Samoa

Among the Survivor fandom, Samoa is one of the most controversial and polarizing seasons–some people think it’s absolutely amazing, while others think it’s one of the worst seasons of all time and responsible for issuing a new era of Survivor that’s focused on all the wrong things. And no matter which side of the debate you fall on, it’s impossible for your opinion to not have been impacted by, if not be a direct result of a single contestant–oil company owner Russell Hantz.

Our Tomato

Russell ended up dominating the editing like no castaway before ever had, and it’s unlikely we’ll see anyone ever dominate the edit so thoroughly ever again. He had a whopping 108 confessionals by the end of the season–more than anyone else ever–which gave him a third of all the confessionals in the entire season. Just let that sink in… out of 20 castaways, every third confessional came from one of them. The season’s winner, pharmaceutical sales representative Natalie White, by comparison, had an all-time low of fifteen by the season’s end, barely over 3% of all the confessionals, and by far the lowest total for any winner in the entire series.

Hi, I’m Natalie White. You may know me from my role as Natalie White, the winner of CBS’s Survivor: Samoa.

This incredibly unbalanced editing is the primary criticism of Samoa as a season, and it’s really not that hard to understand why it bothered people. It’s difficult to get a read on what is really going on in the game when you’re seldom hearing from most of the players, and on top of it, Russell’s confessionals were repetitive. You could reliably predict that he’d remind you at least twice an episode of that he was the best player to ever be marooned, that the victory was his from the moment the season started, and that the other players were all absolute morons who were lucky to not to have accidentally killed themselves by virtue of their own immense stupidity.

Watching Samoa live for the first time was a frustrating experience, and by mid-way through, not only was I sick to death of Russell, I was sick to death of the people around him for never voting him out. Russell was playing hardball like it had never been done before. He was the first contestant to ever seek out a Hidden Immunity Idol without ever having a clue or even knowing for sure that there was an idol, and it’s a feat he repeated not once, but twice more during the course of the season. He was adamant that he had unlocked the secrets of how to totally manipulate the other castaways, and it was by effectively torturing them. Russell bullied, berated, and mocked the people around him, hoping to mentally beat them down to the point where they’d have no choice but to follow his wishes. He increased the discomfort by sabotaging his own tribe, Foa Foa, emptying canteens and burning socks. And of course, he lied and backstabbed at high speed, promising his word to literally anyone whose ear he could catch and then voting them out when it best suited his whims. The fact that nobody ever seemed to wise up and take Russell out was, as a viewer, infuriating.

The even bigger problem beyond this was that not everyone watching hated Russell. In fact, on the contrary, a huge chunk of the viewership absolutely loved the guy, to the point where he won the Sprint Player of the Season fan favorite award at the reunion show! You, the reader of this blog, may even be a fan. Not only did it appear that Russell was manipulating his tribemates, it appeared that he was manipulating the viewers. He had convinced a large chunk of the fanbase that Survivor really didn’t exist until he came along, and that many of the most respected players to have come before him were amateurs by comparison.

Now, you’ll note I’ve already said that Russell didn’t win Survivor: Samoa. And given that we were with Russell every step of the way as he lied and manipulated through two whole tribes of players, it begs the question: how did he lose? The answer is simple. Everybody else absolutely hated his guts and thought he was the biggest douchebag on the planet. If given the choice between Russell and a stick with a face carved in it, the jury would have made that fucking stick a millionaire.

Upon re-watching Samoa, I’ve moved from one side of the coin to the other, going from hating it to finding it brilliant–but not for the reasons that you might think. I haven’t somehow come around to thinking that Russell really is the greatest player ever and that he was unfairly denied his prize by a jury of Bitter Betties. Rather, I’ve come to the conclusion that the editors of Samoa took it upon themselves to give a fresh twist to the story of “Self absorbed jerk overplays and loses to his much more socially savvy and likeable ally.” I have come to love it because the entirety of Survivor: Samoa is a Tomato in the Mirror plot, making it totally unlike any season surrounding it.

The editors did as much as they could to ensure that we were seeing the story predominately from Russell’s perspective, and omitted details that were clear from the perspective of the other castaways.   When Russell told us he was the greatest player of all time, we wouldn’t be shown anyone challenging that notion. When Russell said that everyone else was an idiot and that they weren’t even playing the game, the edit corroborates his take on the story by simply not showing us the other castaways at play. If anything, it might be the closest experience we, as viewers will ever get to knowing what the reality of being a player of Survivor is like, because out on the island, you don’t have the luxury of confessionals to tell you what the people around you are really thinking.

What we saw for most of Samoa was Russell Hantz’s truth. From his vantage point, he was the best player, and everyone else was a fool blindly stumbling around the jungle. By forcing Russell’s perspective, the editors created the perception among the viewers that Russell was right. However, much like in The Sixth Sense, it’s not until the very end where the twist is revealed.

The last four Foa Foa standing head to the Tribal Merge

By the time Russell’s Tribe, Foa Foa, merged with the Galu Tribe, Foa Foa was outnumbered 2 to 1 by Galu, leaving Russell and his remaining tribemates–anesthesiologist Mick Trimming, law student Jaison Robinson, and Natalie–forced to stick together by sheer necessity. As has been seen in many a season before, a tribe that flourishes in the pre-merge challenges is given plenty of time to build resentment within a large group of people, so that by the time the merge hit, there were cracks that the Foa Foa Tribe could exploit, allowing Russell and Friends to systematically dispose of the former Galu Tribe. Russell’s strategy from the get-go was that he would drag sweet, dumb, useless Natalie to the end of the game, where the jury would have no choice but to reward him–they’d never give it to some airheaded bimbo who did nothing but cling to Russell’s coattails for dear life, after all. From Russell’s perspective–the perspective we were seeing–Natalie was a goat (Great Opponent At Tribal) and he was leading her to the slaughter.

Jaison and Dr. Mick Steamy

As Galu’s numbers shrank lower and lower, again, the question came to mind–why isn’t anyone targeting Russell? Why aren’t any of his allies turning on him? Don’t they realize that Russell Hantz is the greatest player ever and that they’re just signing up to lose to him if they let him reach finals? Well, the answer to that question is, again, simple, and, again, is found by pulling away from Russell’s perspective–nobody besides Russell thought that Russell was the best. As Russell lead the charge in dismantling Galu with his brutish personality and scorched earth gameplay, the real game was being played between Jaison, Natalie and Mick. The three of them were competing to see who would get to take Russell to the end, as Russell has actually been the worst player all along. While he was puffing himself up in confessionals, everyone else was at their wits’ end with him, growing more and more tired of his absolutely insufferable personality and obnoxiously thick sense of entitlement.

Our “twist” reveal in the Final Tribal Council comes in the form of the final juror’s speech,  from the first member of Galu to be fucked over, bartender Erik Cardona.

“Perception is not reality! Reality is reality, and you are sitting there and that makes you just as dangerous as any one of those guys,” Erik tells Natalie. And he’s right. Erik is the mirror, and Russell is the tomato. Russell didn’t see what everyone else did. Sweet, perceptive Natalie saw Russell antagonize and destroy anybody who he even thought could threaten his status as the best ever, so she just kept her head down and stayed under his radar. While Russell blustered and raved like a lunatic on his power trip, Natalie befriended those around her, taking genuine interest in their lives and experiences. She knew the names of every juror’s families and friends, their hometowns and their jobs, their hobbies, fears, their dreams. Erik holds up his mirror and Russell–along with the audience–sees the truth. Natalie was the winner all along. Russell was her goat.

You can see that he still has no idea what happened

As an overall, now three-time player and general human being, I cannot stand Russell Hantz. He’s easily one of my bottom five castaways of all time, not just for the depths of his horrific personality, but for the awful impact that he left on the show. His Tomato in the Mirror storyline was one that sadly, a large chunk of the viewership failed to understand. The reveal was lost on them, and they walked away from the season still just as blind as Russell himself, shocked at how the best player ever didn’t win the game. Russell would return for a repeat performance in the following season, Survivor: Heroes vs Villains, the show’s 10th anniversary all-star battle, where he once again bullied his way to finals, and once again lost because he was oblivious to how hated he was. The second time around, however, the secret is out of the bag. The editing no longer supported his claims of being the best to ever play, but it was too late. Too many people in the viewership were swept up in Russell-mania and production re-oriented the series to reflect the public response to his character. Future seasons would see casting choices clearly meant to be new variations of Russell’s hyper-aggressive strategist persona. Season 22, Redemption Island, was entirely devoted to his feud with Marquesas  and All-Stars alum Boston Rob that had developed on Heroes vs. Villains. Season 23, South Pacific featured his nephew, the 19 year old Brandon Hantz, as a castaway, while in the same year, Big Brother, also on CBS, cast Russell’s brother, Willie. Willie would end up being disqualified from the game for physical violence against another houseguest. Brandon would prove himself to be an emotionally unstable, if well intentioned lunatic, and was invited back for the second edition of Survivor: Fans vs Favorites where he self-destructed, dumping his tribe’s rice in the midst of a heated feud with another castaway, leading his tribe to forefit the immunity challenge and vote him out immediately before he could become physically violent.

The sad reality is that Russell’s legacy and impact on Survivor has been an overwhelming and negative one. But for one season alone–his first–I can’t help but give a begrudging respect to the astonishingly clever treatment the editors gave to his character. Survivor: Samoa was dedicated to the Tomato in the Mirror, and as a result, became one of the most unique and fun seasons Survivor has ever seen. It’s unfortunate that it came at a major cost to the series going forward.