The year 2024 has not got off to a great start: wars continue to rage, climate disasters ravage our blue planet, and politics divides neighbours, families, and friends. And yet there has been one nugget of optimism in the muddy silt of despair: the second series of the BBC’s reality TV sensation, The Traitors. Hosted by human fringe Claudia Winkleman and adapted from a Dutch format loosely based on the after-dinner game Mafia, The Traitors has gripped the nation over the past few weeks. Twenty two contestants – ordinary people from across the UK – holed up together in a Scottish castle, forced into a tango of deceit and interrogation: what could be better?
And then, in tonight’s final episode, there were five. Leading the line for the finalists was Traitor Harry, who has become the show’s breakout star following his ruthless patricide against ginger agent of darkness, Paul. Then there was his accomplice, Andrew, a Welsh bodybuilder who has defied the odds to survive his role as cannon fodder for the away team. And then, on the side of the Faithfuls, an unholy trinity led by Jaz, who everyone seems convinced is a cretin despite his consistently insightful accusations. “We’ve made some mistakes, haven’t we?” observed fellow Faithful Mollie, which is putting it lightly. And, finally, there was Evie – “the only Scottish finalist” as she describes herself – who has spent the series sneaking through round after round under the cover of narrative obscurity.
This year, now that the format is more established and scrutinised, it’s clear that The Traitors has mastered a form of perfect imperfection. The game itself makes little to no sense: the Faithfuls this year managed to correctly uncover four different Traitors at the evening roundtables, yet still had to face off against two Traitors in the final. It renders the first several rounds of the game essentially pointless. The basic strategy continues to be to lie low, act dumb and hope that lack of suspicion, or intimidation, carries you all the way to the showdown. There is a reason, perhaps, why parlour games don’t normally last for several days. No amount of warbled indie covers of emo anthems can paper over these cracks in how the game works.
And yet, The Traitors pulls off its tricks, in large part because it understands that the essence of any good reality TV is human psychodrama. The thrill of I’m a Celebrity is not seeing people perform the fascinating task of eating kangaroo testicle, but witnessing how people psychologically cope with the threat of marsupial genitals. Big Brother, meanwhile, is essentially the Stanford prison experiment; Rise and Fall, a rerun of Stanley Milgram’s infamous obedience tests. The Traitors is the apotheosis of this, a form of emotional hot boxing. In just a couple of weeks, friendships have been forged and unforged, the stakes raised to a hysterical pitch. The prize pot, which ended up at £95,150, is hardly comparable to the $4.5m offered for winning Squid Game: The Challenge. And yet they fought for it with the savagery of a prison riot. Back stabbings – and front stabbings – are ten a penny in the Traitors castle.
In the end, it all came down to Mollie. Trapped between a Traitor she trusted and a Faithful she had her doubts about, the better angels of her nature won out – to her detriment. It was Harry’s game; it was always Harry’s game. The series’ climactic scene, where Mollie realised what she’d done, was reality TV unfolding in perfectly orchestrated chaos. “You have played an extraordinary game,” Claudia told Harry, after Mollie had swept off the set in tears. But really, it was an extraordinary piece of casting. Finding this 22-year-old army engineer from Slough was the real miracle. “Now I’m just Harry again,” he observed with relief as his charade finally came to an end. But, somehow, it’s hard to imagine that this man – born television gold – is ever going to be “just Harry” again.