When the first episode of The Traitors hit our screens a few weeks ago, my wife and I only watched it because there was literally nothing else on. We tuned in with no expectations, a vague understanding of the basic premise and no intention of becoming avid viewers.
We mainly laughed through the first episode at how overly dramatic it all was. We audibly groaned a bit, too, like when one contestant introduced herself as “a presenter, actress and social media content creator” (a lengthy way of saying “sporadically employed”) while another described herself as “an estate agent from Swansea and a Glam Ma”. The world doesn’t need another portmanteau! (Little did we know, at that point, how much we would come to love Amanda.) The programme’s soundtrack also consisted of a number of suspenseful, warbling cover versions (including a cover of Nirvana’s Come As You Are in episode three), so it sometimes felt like we were watching a very elaborate John Lewis Christmas advert.
But all of that aside, the opening episode did have some intriguing moments. Not least the exercise where Claudia Winkleman instructed the contestants to line up in order of where they expected to finish in the competition, from ‘most likely to win’ to ‘least likely’. After much light-hearted shuffling around in what the contestants assumed was a meaningless ice-breaker, Claudia ominously reminded the 22 strangers that every decision they make in the game has consequences. With that thought lingering in their minds, she then directed her gaze to Amos and Kieran (who had placed themselves last), telling them: “If you two think you’re going to lose, I am going to take you at your word. So I’m afraid it’s goodbye.”
Only five minutes after the group had arrived at Ardross Castle, like frenetic children high on Tangfastics, they all had to watch, with mouths agape, as two fellow contestants despondently left the castle grounds before the game had even really begun. It was a brutal and entirely unexpected way to start the series.
By the end of the first episode, Claudia had gently squeezed the shoulders of three blindfolded contestants to signal their transformation into traitors, who would then meet in secret each night to decide which contestant they were going to “murder” (i.e. someone they would write a letter to, who would subsequently leave the show). They would also have to casually operate as malign influences within the group to encourage people to vote off strong characters and intelligent game players during the round table banishment sessions.
Our review of the first episode was: “it’s watchable shit”. And even though I found the contestants’ overuse of the term “100%” slightly irksome, we loosely agreed to watch the next episode – but only if there was nothing else on.
Of course, the inevitable happened when we tuned in the following night: we became ever more enthralled. Episode two began – like all subsequent episodes – with the contestants returning to the castle for breakfast, where the group would discover that one of them was missing (“murdered”). Watching how quickly these fairly ordinary people became consumed with paranoia, suspicion and complete irrationality when trying to weed out the traitors became fascinating.
In fact, one of the most ruthless moments in the series wasn’t orchestrated by the show’s producers but instead happened organically as a result of Alyssa (a traitor) sowing a seed of doubt among the group about Nicky, who she identified as the only person not to raise a glass to the faithfuls during a toast. This eagle-eyed observation may well have been grounds for suspicion had it not been for the fact that Nicky lost her right hand in a car accident and literally couldn’t raise the glass that had been placed in front of her stump.
But that minor detail didn’t matter one jot! And even though they had all heard Nicky’s emotional backstory earlier in the day (a young mum at the time of her accident who wanted to use the prize money to buy a bionic hand to replace the one she tragically lost 23 years ago) almost the entire group went for her at the roundtable and voted her out. The Cranberries’ Zombie played as Nicky left the room, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if the group had drowned out the track by loudly chanting in unison: “Fuck you! And fuck your hand!”
The show just got better and better from there. The business of sniffing out traitors continued, but there was also a focus on certain contestants who had withheld information about themselves from the wider group. Alex and Tom entered the show as a couple but kept their relationship secret till episode four, when the deception ripped through everyone’s exhausted, paranoid brains like white-hot shrapnel. Maddy didn’t reveal that she was a part-time actor until episode eight when she admitted to having minor roles in Eastenders and Casualty, which the remaining faithful seemed to think made her an Oscar, Emmy and Tony award-winning star of stage and screen, and all-round master of deception.
When Kieran left the show in the final episode, voting for Will as “a parting gift” to the remaining contestants, it was genuinely some of the best television I’ve watched in years. “They know! Look at their faces! They KNOW!” I shouted at the TV excitedly as Hannah and Aaron tearfully confronted the possibility that Will had been lying to them all along. (Meryl, on the other hand, looked utterly perplexed, as if she was still silently trying to place Claudia Winkleman’s face.)
I felt really sorry for Kieran, who had been recruited as a traitor somewhat against his will, because he struggled to mask his emotions and the overwhelming feeling of guilt. Also, he appeared to have a tic which made him roll his shoulders a lot – especially when nervous – so he carried the slightly shifty appearance of a used car salesman about to flog you an over-priced second-hand car held together with duck tape and Polyfilla. Of course, that couldn’t be further from the truth. He actually turned out to be the hero of the show and a thoroughly decent, honourable bloke to boot.
The success of The Traitors was almost certainly in its casting. I loved Maddy’s quirkiness, scattergun sleuthing, and unwavering dedication to outing Will as a traitor every two minutes. Amanda was a brilliantly unflappable traitor; calculating, impossible to read, but ridiculously likeable. The obnoxiousness of John (described by Mark Gatiss as “evil incarnate”) was counterbalanced by the all-encompassing warmth of retiree Andrea, who was like a walking motivational quotes generator. And Will was undeniably the best traitor the show could have hoped for, determined to win at any cost, with a seemingly never-ending supply of buses under which he threw faithfuls and traitors alike.
Also, in contrast to reality shows from recent years, which have been cast with identikit social media influencers, Love Island pretty people and vacuous, fame-hungry wannabes, the contestants on The Traitors all seemed relatively normal. Also, many of them had very admirable plans for the prize money. Lovably innocent, doe-eyed Aaron just wanted to give all the money to his mum for a down payment on a house. What’s not to love about that?!
Oh, and whether you love or hate Claudia Winkleman – she was great as the presenter and master of ceremonies. Whether she was popping up from the depths of an oversized cashmere roll-neck to solemnly deliver plot twists, like a little mole with a laser-cut fringe, or animatedly cheering on the contestants during a group task, she was a friend to faithfuls and traitors alike.
I actually feel slightly bereft now that the series has ended because it feels like something that can only be done once in a truly authentic way. It’ll be rubbish if they churn out several more series and it ends up like Big Brother, when the contestants became far too savvy about the show’s mechanics. Apparently, they’re already planning a celebrity version of the show – but it won’t be the same.
Anyway, it was truly great event television and a reminder that linear TV isn’t dead. It’s agonising to wait for the next episodes when you’re enjoying something so much, but it’s certainly worth it when you get there.