The Traitors series 2 review | Manipulative but addictive psychological telly

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The end of The Traitors series 2 in the UK marked has been met with sizeable ratings and lots of chatter. Spoilery thoughts here.

NB: Spoilers for The Traitors series 2 lie ahead.

Full disclosure: I didn’t watch the first season of The Traitors. I was sceptical of the enormous hype that circled around at the end of 2022 when the Claudia Winkleman-fronted murder mystery parlour game stormed onto BBC One, instantly creating an online sensation. Alongside the UK version, we got American and Australian flavours as well (and now more), and soon rumoured celebrity versions.

It takes me a while to warm up to so-called ‘reality TV’. I resisted The Great British Bake Off for years. Strictly Come Dancing even longer. The persistence of Mrs Black, however, that The Traitors was brilliant television paid off and this time, I broke.

Ultimately, she was right.

The Traitors does flirt with brilliance even when the construction as a whole contains numerous flaws. For those living in a cave for the past 13 months or more, the concept is this: 16 people are gathered in a beautiful Scottish castle to compete in challenges that could net them £120,000, but in the group Winkleman assigns secret ‘traitors’ who once a day get the chance to kill one of the rest, ‘faithfuls’, before the group choose to banish daily who they believe is a traitor.

By the end, if the faithfuls remain, they split the pot. If a traitor or traitors still remain, they take it all.

The idea is both complex and relatively simple. The kids’ parlour game ‘wink murder’ – or Mafia – on a large, expensive and glossy scale, with an array of contestants drawn from across British society in terms of age, race, disability, gender and location (as you’d expect). The Traitors very much plays on our current media obsession with the murder mystery, inherent in the mass market success of authors like Richard Osman or a resurgence of Agatha Christie, and films such as Knives Out. Blend this with the popularity of true crime in visual and audible means, you have a game show to fit the zeitgeist.

Any game show such as this relies on the personalities. Though worlds apart in tone and texture, Bake Off is exactly the same. It was a bit of a damp squib of a series last year because the contestants ranged from boring to a bit weird – the best thing about it was Alison Hammond joining as host.

I can’t speak for the first season of The Traitors but a compelling array of contestants were certainly in evidence this season. Also, as host, Winkleman is having the best time shaking off her perky Strictly persona and instead tossing out pithy asides (such as when she jokes that the ‘traitors’ keep selecting men) and strutting about in amazing sweaters, playing up the neo-Gothic role of the sinister architect.

She is the glue that allows the contestants to stand out as personalities, in a game built less on what they do but how they react to what they do, and either who they are as people or the personas they choose to adopt in the show. For instance, Paul very much emerges immediately as an amoral boo hiss villain, charismatically becoming the most popular man in the group while plotting against everyone else.

For just over half the season, you’re rooting for his downfall (or perhaps the opposite, which I’ll come to later), before in many respects his hubris becomes his undoing as he plots one step too far and is betrayed by the real Machiavelli of the series, Harry.

As with many game shows that run over successive weeks, and The Traitors is a bit unique in that it condenses 12 episodes into a four week running time to build temporary but intense suspense, you remember many of the characters who lasted longer.

Do you even remember Aubrey, murdered on day one? How about Kyra, a metropolitan firebrand taken out for perhaps standing out too much? They barely warranted a mention as the series progressed. Other characters lingered on for a while (three of them, Jas, Evie and Mollie, even reached the final episode). Many of them grow, undoubtedly thanks to creative editing of course, into genuine ‘characters’ to root for or despise.

Diane was one who only lasted half a season but made a real impact, her legacy of being the secret mother of Ross lingering on across the series. She dies in arguably the most memorable ‘mission’ of the series, where her real life son has to literally bury her alive in a ghoulish but riveting bit of television, unable to admit who he is to her.

Dramatists would struggle to conjure something as devilishly compelling to watch, and this is where The Traitors stands out for me. Many of the missions – which see them undertaking often physical challenges, Krypton Factor-style, across the Scottish highland landscape – are quite disposable, necessary components to establish the money, the competitive element and so on, but there’s a genuine creativity often in how the show is presented, and how these characters are pitted against each other.

Hence why it was disappointing to see not enough made of the big Diane and Ross ‘twist’ (codenamed by producers, amusingly, as ‘The Supremes’), which sets up a possible revenge storyline for Ross as he’s later recruited by the traitors, only for it to peter out an episode later as Ross is eliminated.

He ended up having neither the guile or time to take vengeance on Harry (and fellow conspirator Andrew) in a way that might have made a genuinely thrilling conclusion. It feels a false dawn and a waste of a clever twist, though it does establish the potential of the contestants having secret connections to each other in future series. (Series one, of course, saw boyfriend and girlfriend Alex Gray and Tom Elderfield keep their relationship a secret, but to much less dramatic effect than Diana and Ross.)

What we end up with, as contestants are banished or murdered, is Harry’s master plan, who rises like a young Scarface out of the shadow of older villains to become the calculating upstart.

Harry plays a brilliant game, convincing almost everyone from the start of his purity and twisting events quietly to benefit him, and seizing opportunities when they come along. Depending on your point of view, he either deserves to win for such mastery of people’s mindsets and emotions or desperately deserves his comeuppance. I was in the latter camp, my wife the former. I suspect many would join her. He at least displays some contrition toward the end, but I found his brand of smugness hard to bear.

It does allow for a thrilling final act, as the drama hangs on Harry and Mollie, two perfect examples of Gen Z myopia from different perspectives (one light, one dark), a pair who you sense are almost on the verge of a romantic connection, but who are placed in a position of ultimate betrayal.

I am under no illusions that producers guide events, as the show structurally cuts to the contestants reflecting on their actions in sequences clearly filmed after the fact, but there’s no denying I felt a level of dramatic injustice and tension in those final minutes that few scripted dramas can match. I was literally shouting at the TV and compelling Mollie not to fall for Harry’s spell. The fact she did already makes The Traitors in line for one of the TV events of 2024.

It did leave me wondering just where we are as a culture if The Traitors, a show built around deception, is such a powerful hit.

The show works hard to develop a familial bond between these people, and a conflicted element to most of the ‘traitors’ (save Paul, unmoved to the last), but ultimately Mollie leaves that room devastated that a man she trusted lied to her for two weeks in such a profound way and robbed her of almost £100,000. Maybe Winkleman’s off-the-cuff joke about male dominance was the point. Harry and Paul aren’t exactly toxic as such, but they do a perfect line in the kind of abusive male gaslighting many women experience on a daily basis. It’s now just farmed here for entertainment.

This isn’t to knock The Traitors. It is a tremendous combination of Big Brother, The Crystal Maze and an Agatha Christie whodunnit, but we are undoubtedly feeding on the psychological trauma of people placed in an environment built on paranoia, lurking behind a facade of teamwork and friendship. Maybe that’s who we are now. Maybe we’re all ‘traitors’ to some degree. Maybe that’s why we’ll keep watching this show for many years to come.

You can find A J. on social media, including links to his Patreon and books, via here.

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