The Traitors Is a Dramatic Game of Social Manipulation, What Does That Teach Us?

If you’re at my apartment on a Friday or Saturday night, and we’re wondering, what should we do, how should we spend the evening?, I can pretty much guarantee you one thing: I will suggest, with feigned casualness, trying to seem like I really don’t care that much, that we play One Night Ultimate Werewolf. I won’t bore you with the details, because who on god’s green earth wants to read board game instructions. All you need to know is someone is secretly deemed The Werewolf, and they don’t want to be discovered by the rest of the group as such. The group has five minutes to discuss, with the goal of identifying who really is The Werewolf. If the group successfully identifies The Werewolf, the group wins; if The Werewolf goes undetected, The Werewolf wins.

Reality competition series The Traitors is basically One Night Ultimate Werewolf, except all the people playing are from various other reality TV shows, and the villains are The Traitors, not The Werewolf. And instead of having five minutes to discuss, you have hours, or days, or weeks, broken up by episodic challenges. And the American version  all inexplicably takes place in a huge, ancient mansion in Scotland, hosted by Alan Cumming, who is dressed to the nines, narrating each turn of events in the thickest Scottish accent you’ve ever heard. So yeah, it’s amazing.

The Traitors Season Two opens with a bunch of reality TV stars from totally disparate worlds — from Rupaul’s Drag Race’s Peppermint, to Survivor’s Parvati Shallow and Sandra Diaz-Twine, to Bling Empire’s Kevin Kreider, to a professional boxer, to a random retired British politician — arriving at Alan Cumming’s mansion in rural Scotland. That would’ve been enough of an opening, but no, The Traitors goes hard where it simply could’ve not gone at all. The stars are greeted by Alan Cumming’s bearded, silent footman, then his dog Lala, and finally, a bunch of people dressed all in black vigorously playing these huge drums, for some reason. Everyone’s screaming, and so am I! This is theater, people!!! And I love theater!!

As with most competition reality TV shows, the pace feels slower in the first few episodes — but honestly, the completely unnecessary drama of literally every choice made by the producers of The Traitors makes it feel fast-paced and delicious from the very start. For anyone who watches a good amount of reality TV, it’s really dang fun to see folks from very different shows all socializing here. The bizarreness of someone from Big Brother teaching Kevin from Bling Empire about Johnny Bananas from The Challenge (now is when I confess… I also love The Challenge) is just — well, it’s just something I never thought I’d see borne out.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit that arguably the biggest reality TV pairing of this season (at least for me) is two people from the same world — Parvati and Sandra from Survivor. Survivor fans out there know about the long-standing rivalry between these two absolute icons, and let me just say, The Traitors Season Two, at least in the first three episodes, does not disappoint when it comes to exploring their dynamic.

And this is where I’ll level with you — as soon as I saw Parvati and Sandra were gonna be in the second season of The Traitors, I was deeply hoping that one or both of them would be a traitor. Parvati in particular, because the role of Traitor is one Parvati Shallow was meant to play. The Traitor must have high emotional intelligence and be able to form connections with, if not everybody, then at least the right socially influential people. The Traitor must be calm under pressure, or else their identity will be discovered by the group. The Traitor must be agile and adjust their plans as social dynamics shift and evolve. Parvati Shallow — #1 flirter; master meditator; evolving, growing human being — would make a great Traitor, wouldn’t she?

But if there’s anything I’ve learned from Parvati, it’s that the best way to keep someone invested isn’t to give them what they want — it’s to withhold. So I’m not going to tell you if she got selected as a traitor or not. I’m not going to tell you if it happens in a conventional way or not, or if it happens at all. You’ll just have to watch to find out. If you want.

What I will tell you is that every single thing about The Traitors — from the setting, to the emotionality of the contestants, to the language Alan Cumming uses, to the very timbre of my recaps! — is over the top. Only Johnny Bananas (a fascinating human being to me; how on earth can you win a show with the physical and mental absurdity of The Challenge not once, not twice, but seven times?!) seems to realize how silly and extravagant this show’s whole deal is. Everyone else — including me, as a viewer — gets sucked into the lush, high-octane world of The Traitors and swallowed whole.

You might think, then, that The Traitors is escapism at its finest. Sure, on a surface level, it is. I could (and will) watch it for hours, completely dissociated from the world around me. But I don’t think it’s that simple. In fact, early in the show, The Challenge’s Trishelle Cannatella’s treatment of Peppermint shows us that the power dynamics at play in the game are anything but divorced from reality. Without really anything significant to go on — the game has truly just started — Trishelle decides, based on how Peppermint reacted to a joke, that she thinks Peppermint is a Traitor. It’s hard not to see racism, transphobia, and homophobia, as factors in how Trishelle effectively turns nearly the whole group against Peppermint, rather swiftly, which is especially easy for her to do since Peppermint didn’t come on with sibling cast members the way most other players did, which Peppermint spoke about in her exit interview with Out. Trishelle’s treatment of Peppermint and her subsequent elimination is hard to watch and stomach. Peppermint ends up, heartbreakingly, being the very first person sent home, despite, of course, not being a Traitor. I think the outcomes of the Trishelle’s and the group’s treatment of Peppermint will heavily impact the rest of the season, given how strongly some folks reacted when Peppermint was revealed to not be a Traitor, just after being the very first person the group sent home.

The Traitors is a show, much like One Night Ultimate Werewolf, about social manipulation. How groups of people define otherhood, rightly or wrongly, based in reality, assumption, fantasy, or some mix of all three. How someone slides into or resists a role thrust upon them by a group. How someone seizes, maintains, and loses power. How the collective subsumes the individual every time, except for when the individual subsumes the collective. How groupthink pulls focus from those deserving scrutiny to those completely innocent.

I’ll be watching The Traitors Season Two and recapping it every Friday. Join me?

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Anya Richkind

Anya is a writer, a Pisces, and a huge fan of Survivor. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner Jess and their kittens, Buckett and Tubbs. She writes a substack called Questions I Have in which she explores questions big, small, medium, and more. Check it out here: anyarichkind.substack.com

Anya has written 35 articles for us.

19 Comments

    • I watched season 1, it was great it was way different then the other series that r on,I was wondering if a 2 would be made and thank goodness, I luv it , watched season 2 last night , it is like playing clue but better, the host makes it even better it makes u see how the players think and their strategy, the challenges r even better, GREAT SHOW.

    • There is in the first season of the UK version: a 72 year old woman called Andrea, who mentions on the show that her late partner of 26 years was a woman and has a very practical haircut.
      Generally, I fucking love Andrea! She’s there because she feels that, if you can physically do something, you should jolly well give it a go! She very quickly becomes the beating heart of the cast, the one who everyone else loves, and I think a lot of fans of the show really like her too.
      As someone who’s still young, but often gets maudlin about things like old age and death, seeing her genuinely lifted my spirits. I think it’s important to see elderly people – especially elderly gay people – being able to have fulfilling lives despite losing a partner, or living alone.
      I know that’s absolutely a more detailed answer to your question than you were expecting, but that’s an answer I have for you! I don’t know about the second UK series, since I haven’t seen it yet; there are also a good few gay men in UK season 1, so there are at least as many queer people in the cast as their are Traitors lol.

  1. John Bercow?!?!?!? i googled it and the “random british politician” is the EX-SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE??? HOW IS THIS MAN ON THIs show. He ran the House of Commons (the elected part of Parliament) for a decade??? He refused Trump from speaking in Parliament on his UK visit as “not an automatic right but an earned honour” which caused a huge media storm but he didn’t back down. This man had immense power HOW is he here. If you do recaps of The Traitors I would be so interested in how he goes.

  2. I absolutely loved the first season of Traitors. For a while, it felt like I was the only person watching the show so I became a bit of an evangelist. I kept telling everyone I knew to watch. I loved Alan Cumming, Cirie is my absolute favorite Survivor alum and I was perpetually swooning over Andie. I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it but it was one of the most satisfying reality show competitions that I’ve ever seen.

    So, naturally, I was excited about the new season. But, man, did my excitement come to a halt after these first few episodes…and I’m not sure if I’ll even continue watching the rest of the season. The stuff with Peppermint just felt so unsettling to me…that whole thing just reeked of transphobia and racism and I’m not sure I can stomach watching it anymore.

    • Watching Cirie on The Traitors was SUCH a joy and a treat, and I LOVED Andie. Who WASN’T swooning over them?? Their relationship with Cirie was so nuanced and just incredible to watch unfold (without giving anything away).

      I totally know what you mean with Peppermint. It was hard to watch. It made me think about the ways in which competition reality shows sometimes replicate dynamics of the “everyday world” more than they subvert them. I wonder if anyone still in will like, reflect on how all that went down at any point in (or outside of) the show.

      • SPOILER
        I think that was part of Deontay’s intense reaction to Peppermint leaving. He said he knew it wasn’t her. I think he could see the homophobia/transphobia/racism/bias behind the move and was emotional that he couldn’t change it.

        I am greatly enjoying this season! Phaedra has been doing great, and I am hoping Sandra can get her crew together and make some moves!

  3. I implore you to check out the UK Traitors! It’s not reality TV stars, which I really really love, and the host is Claudia Winkleman, who is ICONIC. I tried watching season 1 of the US but couldn’t get into it cause I don’t know who any of the reality people are and Claudia has my whole heart.

    • Ooooh, thank you for the reco! I do wonder about the choice to cast only reality tv stars — it’s very entertaining and extremely campy, but I feel like a cast of only “normals” would be a very different experience!

      • I mean, it is still entertaining and very campy, only rather than people being very game play-y, they are all super invested in all their relationships even though they have known each other for like, 2 days.

  4. After the way that Peppermint was treated in that first episode, hard pass. And the grovelling that nasty woman did on twitter to say “oh I reached out before the show to check in!” when she only messaged literally within hours of the show being aired after HOW many months since recording? Gross.

  5. I’ve just blasted through the first season of the UK version of The Traitors, and I’ve noticed similar biases in that series as well, even though all the participants are civilians? I’ll try and be vague, but people in that series come under suspicion for really stupid reasons (most egregiously of all, “this person didn’t raise a toast to the Faithful…it MUST be because they’re a Traitor and feeling guilty about it, and NOT because the glass was on the same side as their missing hand!”). It becomes really clear the kinds of biases that are at play: signs of neurodivergence being seen as suspicious, women being punished for being assertive or brash, older people being completely under suspicion and being brushed off as ineffectual due to their age, etc.

    It’s a fantastic bit of telly, if only because it’s a really good view into how unconscious biases work, as well as how people actually come to believe things. We assume that, as rational, logical people, we start off with no opinion, we gather evidence, review it logically, and then come to a reasonable viewpoint; the real truth of it is that people have some kind of gut feeling, they come to a snap judgement, and they then look for evidence that supports that judgement while ignoring evidence that doesn’t. The minute people start saying they’re smart, they have it all figured out, they’re entirely certain about someone being a Traitor, is the minute that person starts fucking up massively – they don’t understand that their biases have impacted on their decisions, and more often than not the group end up paying for it.

    Because of this, anything that a person says or does can be misinterpreted by others as “proof” that they’re a Traitor, even if they’re Faithful. Too loud (especially if you’re a woman)? That clearly means you’re trying to steer the group in certain directions, Traitor! Too quiet? That clearly means you’re hiding something, Traitor! Too friendly? Clearly you’re just trying to build up a base of allies so you won’t be suspected, Traitor! Too standoffish? Clearly you’re being shifty and detached, Traitor! Whichever way it goes tends to be based on vibes, rather than anything truly solid – and that’s not even going into how a herd mentality often develops.

    It’s a really good show, can’t wait to get stuck into series 2, and I know it’s because the audience is given privileged information that the cast are not… but seeing people keep falling into these mistakes, of misinterpreting ordinary behaviour as being suspicious and ignoring actually suspicious shit, really got to me.

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