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How ‘The Traitors’ became the biggest reality TV hit of 2022

Back-stabbing and scheming in a sprawling Scottish castle has made for one of the year's biggest reality TV hits. But why do we love it so much?

By Mark Beaumont

The Traitors has proved to be one of BBC's biggest hits of the year (Picture: BBC)

The bell tolls for the killing hour. The surviving Faithful, isolated in trusted groups in the lounges, drawing rooms and libraries of a sprawling and remote Scottish castle, cease their paranoid whispering, toast what could be their last, eternal dusk and retire to their chambers to snatch whatever fitful sleep they can, their nightmares full of poisoned chalices and raised knives. For in the night, malice walks.

The bell tolls once more. Medieval torches flicker. A gothic cover of Phil Collins’ ‘In The Air Tonight’ strikes up, or anything by London Grammar. And a procession of cloaked and hooded figures – the Traitors in their midst – makes its way through dark courtyards to their grimy turret. There to plot, conspire and place their seal on that night’s murder.

You’re not, as you might think, witnessing a Tory Christmas party at Jacob Rees Mogg’s house. Nor, as half of my pandemic timeline might assume, a Pfizer board meeting. This is BBC’s gothic survival gameshow The Traitors, and it’s far and away the most compelling and engrossing reality show of 2022, if not of all time.

On paper, it reads like someone giving a game of wink murder the budget of Interview With The Vampire. On a steam train standing in for Agatha Christie’s Orient Express, twenty contestants arrive at Ardross Castle in the Scottish Highlands with their cold, dead hearts set on a potential £120,000 prize for the last left standing. The perennially super-fringed Claudia Winkleman in a presenter’s role surely stolen under cover of darkness from Noel Fielding, explains the rules: an unknown number of them will be selected to be Traitors, don robes and hoods each night after lights-out and select one of the remaining Faithful contestants to “murder”. Because “vote out” doesn’t really sound like something the Illuminati might do.

By day, everyone works together on games and tasks designed to add money to the prize pot or earn themselves immunity from that night’s blade in the dark (well, note on a chair). By night they gather around a medieval style round table hewn from pure betrayal, pointing fingers, casting aspersions and voting on each other’s trustworthiness in the hope of communally “banishing” a Traitor. A conspiracist Coach Trip, you might say, but also so much more.

Many have put the show’s intense fascination factor down to its gothic murder mystery aesthetic, taken from the original Dutch series De Verraders: equal parts And Then There Were None, Eyes Wide Shut, Rosemary’s Baby and the Hammer classics. But this is mere set dressing. The Traitors is so enthralling because, within that shroud of occult intrigue, it holds up a deep, dark truthful mirror to the primal human psyche, and the viewer themselves.

It all relies on one genius stroke: though the watching public knows who the Traitors are from the off, the Faithful are given virtually zero information to help them work out who the bad guys are. Immediately – as in every societal system where a malevolent presence is certain, but intangible – a paranoid witch hunt plays out as timeless and misguided as any from Salem to the latest Twitterstorm, via The Thing. The Faithful are forced to rely on hunches, intuition and the slightest, fleeting signs of suspicion – an unenthusiastic toast, a crocodile tear, how much a fellow contestant looks like Ted Bundy. Imran Nasim, famously the youngest Astrophysics PhD in the world because he wouldn’t stop banging on about it, didn’t declare “I am not a Traitor” convincingly enough. Banished. Nicky Wilding, in the game in the hope of buying herself a bionic hand, woke up in a bad mood on day two. Banished. Any name whispered around the breakfast table on the flimsiest of “evidence”. Banished.

The loudest players, those most confident in their intuitive people-reading skills, point the herd towards the contestant they’re certain is a Traitor; everyone else votes along just thankful no-one’s pointing at them. Witness pink-quiffed magician Tom Elderfield, who makes a living from reading unconscious signs and signals of dishonesty and subterfuge (and wasn’t exactly Mr Total Transparency himself) setting off the Bombshell Breakfast when he exposed the “overproving” of his prime suspect. Turned out he wasn’t quite the Derren Brown he thought he was.

For all its Vampiric Council trimmings, this is a microcosm of modern online life to which we can all relate. We’ve all been poor lovestruck Matt, left heartbroken by catfish Alex with her secret boyfriend amongst the group. We all follow a Maddy, the Lucky Magic 8 Ball of sleuths, certain that she’s cracked it but wishing anybody – anybody – would take her crazy (but half-correct) Wilf/Aaron theory seriously.

And this is an environment in which the Traitors themselves are all-powerful. Manipulation is effortless – they only need drop a name over cocktails to plant a seed of certain banishment. And if anyone actually starts trying to deduce who they might be from the murders they’ve committed, it’s a metaphorical candlestick to the cranium for them that very night. It’s like watching a game of 4D chess where 90 per cent of the pieces are pawns that think they’re playing Guess Who?.

Yet the Traitors are players with the hearts of jackals, the morals of snakes and the ruthless cunning of Michael Gove. The instant the group’s cracked magnifying glass falls on them, they’ll throw one of their own to the pack as distraction, knowing that only the most traitorous Traitor will survive. Watching one particular backstabber-in-chief meticulously casting suspicion on fellow Traitors to protect themselves – in some of the most heart-in-mouth twists in the series – has been a Machiavellian masterclass to rival Big Brother’s Nasty Nick.

Meanwhile, the sheer schadenfreude of watching a germ of distrust in a random Faithful grow, spread and reach its tear-stricken denouement – or the threads of the Traitors’ plots and mis-directions weave their way through groups huddled whispering around fireplaces, too frightened to say anything that might make them a target – is so compelling you often find yourself willing the Traitors to avoid detection for another episode or two.

As Thursday’s final approaches and the group grows smaller, their eyes opening to the games being played around them and the clues and patterns finally starting to slot into place, the stage seems set for one final, decisive double-cross. Et tu, Kieran? Whether Faithful or Traitor wins through, though, one thing is certain. With the nation so gripped by this illuminating experiment in the psychology of fear, group delusion, suggestion, confirmation bias, self-preservation and duplicity, I’m A Celebrity 2022 must be kicking themselves that they made it so clear who their smiling assassin would be.