The Mole first aired 20 years ago, in 2001, and is finally streaming again thanks to Netflix, which has also acquired the format internationally and is filming a new season with American contestants. This summer, I’m re-watching the first two seasons, and recapping, analyzing, and discussing each episode, starting with season 1, episode 4, “Part the Fourth,” which first aired Jan. 30, 2001, on ABC.
There are two well-designed tests in the fourth episode of The Mole, both with considerable twists, plus one—well, I don’t know what to call it. I’m referring to moments when the producers essentially screw with the players, or let the players screw with each other, but no money is at stake. For an example of the latter, several players had to re-pack the other players’ luggage. Do these scenes/opportunities/traps have an official name? If not, maybe they’re challenges, versus the group tests. A personal challenge? This particular challenge was a suspicion-generator. Maybe that’s a good name?
During a day of interviews, we see the players left alone when the crew leaves, filmed from a hidden camera that is sub-SD quality. That gives the player a chance to sneak a peak at a producer’s binder, and gives us a cameo from producer Clay Newbill, now the showruner of Shark Tank, formerly a producer on The Real World and showrunner of Road Rules. If I was playing, I might have considered anyone who looked at the notebook to be less likely to be the mole. After all, in a non-test, where no money is at stake, the mole has no incentive to do anything. And why would the mole, who’s working with producers, need to look at the production’s notes? Well, unless the producers told the mole to do that.
Only Kathryn takes the bait, and Anderson calls her on it during dinner, and it’s a fascinating interrogation. Anderson starts with broad questions, basically trying to get Kathryn to confess. Eventually, he says, “Kathryn, is there anything you’d like to share with the group?” Kathryn says no, and Jennifer jumps on this and compares it to Kate’s reluctance to share about her exemption. “You’re in the hot seat and we’re waiting to hear what you have to say,” Jennifer says, leading to my favorite line of the episode. Kathryn says, “I’m waiting to see what Anderson has to say. I’m a lawyer. I know to just sit here quietly.” Bravo!
The first test also gives one player a chance to raise suspicion. While the $30,000 test is basically a game of laser tag, it’s just a great challenge, especially since the arena is what looks like an abandoned village in Spain. Because of her personal sacrifices during the previous test, Kate takes the taking-it-easy role. She’s handcuffed inside a church, and the rest of the players have 45 minutes to rescue her. They’re unarmed and have to dodge snipers on the way to the church and then as they take Kate, together, to the town’s cinema.
The editing and cinematography are a little clunky compared to what we might expect today, but it’s still thrilling. The players are all wearing MTV’s Fear-style rigs with cameras that stay focused on their faces, so we often watch via that very disorienting view, not seeing what they’re seeing, but seeing look around move instead. When a player is hit by a sniper, the screen fades to red static, and the editing treats this like Floor is Lava’s exits: the player just disappears. The other players even talk about them as if they’re gone: “Henry’s down! Henry’s down!” Jennifer yelled into the radio. Later: “Kathryn is dead!” (Speaking of other reality shows, I gasped when Jennifer arrived at the church and declared, “Holy moly!”)
The real test is communication, and the players fail. They struggle to coordinate between themselves, and even to report their locations. After every player except Jennifer and Steven have been eliminated, Steven promises to check in every minute, and then does not—though he claims he does. (I wonder what the editing left out there.) Meanwhile, Jennifer and Kate fail to communicate while they stand around the church, waiting for Steven to show up, as they all must travel together from the church. For some reason, Kate refuses to just clearly explain to Jennifer where they’re going, and this really frustrates Jennifer (and me!). In a game of communication, a lack of clarity isn’t just suspicious, it’s infuriating.
When they arrive at the cinema, having failed the test because they weren’t together, Jennifer starts interrogating Kate. Once Steven arrives, Kate tries to shoot him—Steven, “The Undercover Cop.” That’s because of the twist Anderson Cooper explained to her at the start of the test: Kate can get an exemption for herself if she sabotages the team’s win by laser gunning all remaining players when they arrive at the cinema. Kate ultimately attempts this—but after the test is over. Steven immediately pushes the gun down, away from him, and when Kate persists, they wrestle with the laser tag gun as he admonishes her for pointing a gun at him. Kate keeps trying, and no one has any idea what’s happening, and it’s weirdly subdued and chaotic at the same time. Anderson finally intervenes and says the test is over, and then Kate reluctantly reveals what she was offered.
What’s most interesting to me is how Jim enthusiastically defends her, arguing that others would take the same offer. He’s previously told the group that they’re working as a team but not playing the game as a team. In 2001 terms, Jim is the Richard Hatch of The Mole, the person who’s approaching this experience as a game to win, and playing at a level different than many other players. Meanwhile, Charlie is most definitely the Rudy Boesch, even telling his wife during phone calls home that he wishes he hadn’t gone on the show. Charlie continues to survive despite the odds and his apparent bad game play. It’s Henry who’s executed at the end, despite having made a psychic prediction that Charlie would be the one to go, even writing Charlie’s name down in an envelope and sealing it, which the other players open after Henry leaves. I’m not clairvoyant and I would have bet on Charlie’s exit. I’m shocked he’s still in the game.
The other test, which takes place at the University of Seville, reveals the existence of its twist at the start. Anderson Cooper tells the players there’s a trap involved. Then he splits the players up, and the first group to play is given eight brain-teaser puzzles, many of which I remember playing in little activity books in school, not that I remember how to solve them. They have limited time, and an audience of Anderson Cooper reminding them of the remaining time, but each correct answer wins them $15,000.
They solve five puzzles for $75,000, and then are taken on a meandering tour of the campus, eventually ending up in a room with a monitor showing the other players attempting the same puzzles. That’s when Anderson reveals the real twist: Every puzzle the other group solves will deduct $15,000 from the $75,000 they’ve won. One player can go back to stop the other group, and Jim is elected to do that. This task was particularly thrilling for me to watch because I think of navigating my way into and then back out of a place to be one of my superpowers. I can drive walk into a confusing new place and then retrace my steps. Or at least, I think I can; I would have loved to have tried.
Jim definitely gets lost, but eventually finds the group, and is completely out of breath. Perhaps that explains why he’s not very clear when he’s trying to explain what’s happening. But for some reason, those players—Steven, Charlie, and Kathryn—think that they need to keep playing, or that if they get more questions right then they get more money. Eventually, Jim convinces them; notably, Steven says, “I trust you. We’ll stop.” He looks at Kathryn and it seems they decide together, ignoring Charlie, LOL.
While that second group has completed two puzzles, Anderson explains that only $15,000 will be deducted, because Anderson didn’t send Jim out until after they’d finished the first puzzle. (Can you imagine the producers of Big Brother figuring out, in real time, that an element of their game play had been unfair, and then making an adjustment in the players’ favor?) That decision is not listed in the end credit disclaimers, which I’ve become fascinated with, probably because Anderson explains what happened in the actual episode. The disclaimer in The Mole episode four is just about editing, and is the thing all shows do but only this show acknowledges so clearly:
“Game play and some game elements, not affecting the outcome, have been edited for time.”