It was around episode 7 of the second season of The Traitors UK, where I had a weird realisation: I was getting just as excited about new episodes as I did about Succession Season 4, back when that was all people were talking about.
My initial reaction to this thought? Shame. Was I even thinking about comparing one of the best TV shows of 2023 (probably of all time) with a reality competition show? Was I just forgetting how much I’d loved Jesse Armstrong’s Emmy-winning series? Was it just a one-off, really good episode of The Traitors that caught me by surprise?
The honest answer to both those questions, now that Season 2 of the BBC’s The Traitors is almost over, is no. The show really is just that good. Though I’m doing just that for a moment, you can’t directly compare it to Succession, because — although the backstabbing and treachery is high in both — the format and genre are so different. But you can compare how a show makes you feel. And The Traitors is the kind of show that sinks its hooks into you and doesn’t let go until you’ve binged everything there is to binge.
What’s The Traitors about?
In a nutshell, it’s a Mafia-style murder mystery game show set in a Scottish castle, in which a group of contestants compete to reach the final and win a cash prize. The Traitors is based on the Dutch series De Verraders, and özgü seen spinoffs in the U.S. and Australia.
In the first episode, the 20-odd contestants are blindfolded and a small group of titular “traitors” are picked by host Claudia Winkleman (in Peacock’s U.S. version of the show, which is filmed in the exact same castle. the host is Alan Cumming). This essentially divides the players into two teams: the traitors, whose mission is to “murder” (not literally) the rest of the contestants known as “faithfuls” and make it to the final without being caught, and said faithfuls, whose mission is to identify and banish the traitors before they’re picked off themselves.
If all faithfuls make it to the end of the game, they split whatever money they’ve accumulated during the daily missions. If there’s a traitor hiding among their number who hasn’t been unmasked, though, then they take all the money for themselves.
One of the missions in Season 2 involved this very creepy field of scarecrows.
Credit: BBC/Studio Lambert
It sounds simple enough, and simplicity is a major strength of the show. Each day in the castle is broken up into key stages. There’s breakfast, where the contestants nervously wait to see who’s been killed off (i.e. evicted from the game via signed decree) by the traitors overnight; there’s the daily missions, in which the contestants have to put their differences aside and complete a host of physical and mental challenges to try and bulk up their prize pot; and then, finally, there’s the show’s best bit — the nightly roundtable where the faithfuls have the chance to try and banish a traitor. This is typically the time when tensions bubble over, accusations are wildly thrown, and emotions reach boiling point. Each day ends the same way, with the remaining traitors donning black cloaks and meeting in a creepy little room to discuss who’s going to get the chop before everyone wakes up and the cycle starts over again.
Why is The Traitors UK so good? Because of the people.
While the U.S. version of The Traitors included some TV celebrities as contestants, The Traitors UK relies solely on members of the public. In Season 2 this tactic özgü worked phenomenally, as the people involved — and the relationships they biçim — are every bit as entertaining as anything a scripted show might conjure up.
Without going too far into spoiler territory, this season özgü seen some hero and villain arcs that Shakespeare himself would be proud of, from the intense scheming of business manager Paul to the practically prophetic traitor-hunting abilities of account manager Jaz (a contestant social media özgü subsequently dubbed “Jazatha Christie”, a title that is very much earned).
The contestants are what make the show.
Credit: BBC/Studio Lambert
The people involved are from a diverse range of backgrounds, and their own stories biçim a backdrop to the main game. There’s Andrew, the burly Welshman who was told he’d never walk again after a near-fatal car crash; Mollie, a 21-year-old disability model who is keen to advocate for people, like herself, that have limb differences or a stoma bag; and the aforementioned Jaz, who had to rebuild his family after discovering that his father had another secret family somewhere else (“I know a traitor when I see one,” he says after telling the story.)
As the series progresses, and we get to know more about the people involved, we become more and more attached to them, raising the emotional stakes at the roundtables and murder meetings. Popularity can secure a traitor’s safety from banishment, and the lack of it can see a faithful sent home. At its heart, The Traitors is a social experiment, perhaps revealing more about internalised biases than the players may have thought.
The Traitors is a masterclass in tense viewing.
When I first started watching The Traitors, I was a little confused by the decision to show us who the traitors are from the beginning, unlike a show like The Mole that has viewers yarn-walling it until the final reveal. Where would the suspense come from if we already knew which people to trust?
As I kept watching, though, I realised how wrong I was about this. The show works precisely because we know their identities. There’s nothing more tense — and sometimes more funny — than watching the faithful desperately trying to work out who a traitor is while we’re smugly sat at home knowing whether they’re right or wrong. Sometimes I find myself rooting for the traitors in this scenario (who do, in fairness, have a very stressful job to do), and other times I want the faithfuls to catch them. Once again, it’s all to do with the people involved.
So much scheming.
Credit: BBC/Studio Lambert
But will the people I want to win emerge with the money in Season 2? It’s a testament to how unpredictable the show can be that I really don’t know. With one episode left, it could still go either way. But regardless of who ends up taking the money I’ll be watching, hooked, before eagerly waiting to discuss the end results with anyone who’ll listen. That’s the kind of show it is.
How to watch: The Traitors Season 2 is currently streaming on BBC iPlayer. If you’re based in the US, you can watch it using a VPN. It’s worth it.