The Mole first aired 20 years ago, in 2001, and is finally streaming again thanks to Netflix, which 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 The Mole season 1. Today: season 1, episode 5, “Part the Fifth,” which first aired Feb. 6, 2001, on ABC.
“How do you work together when you can’t trust anyone?” That’s Anderson Cooper’s question to the audience in his introduction, and it’s a good question—except these players do work together, and do genuinely seem to like each other. They are suspicious: Jennifer tells us she’s “leery” of Steve and Jim’s friendship, and the editors show us Steve playing with Jim’s hair while in the van. They also get frustrated and annoyed with each other, but of course they would. They’re human beings playing an emotionally intense game.
The first test begins with Anderson Cooper asking the team to divide into three pairs: resourceful people, smart people, and “one group of, well, stupid people,” he says. While the players don’t tend to spend too much time strategizing, and are often demure—except Kate, who’s always jumping in to volunteer—I really do love how the game is designed to get them to self-organize and self-categorize in ways that affect the actual challenges.
Each team has to get to the hotel in Jerez, Spain, or else they don’t actually get a room for the evening. The stupid pair, Charlie and Kate, just get driven to the hotel, because, you know, they’re stupid. The resourceful pair, Kathryn and Steven, get a beaten-up van that’s missing tires but does have a goose. The smart pair, Jennifer and Jim, get a Smart Car, and we get to hear Anderson Cooper do a hilariously bad impression of Dr. Evil from Austin Powers: “We will call it the Mini-Me of the European automotives.”
The smart team has to find the answer to a series of questions, and each answer leads them to a different location. Meanwhile, Kate and Charlie have been given the answers to those questions, so they can help Jim and Jennifer between being wined and dined and massaged at the hotel. The twist is that Anderson Cooper offers them an additional $40,000 if they prevent the smart team from arriving on time. This presents all kinds of interesting complications, especially when it’s clear that the resourceful team isn’t going to arrive on time, making Kate and Charlie scramble to correct the bad information they’ve been giving Jennifer and Jim, so they’ll at least make $40,000.
During the test, Jennifer figures out that Kate and Charlie might have been given an offer to deceive them, and this is illustrated with some great comedic camera work as Charlie talks to them on the phone. He says the room has been stripped of all identifying materials, and the camera operator shows us that he’s wearing slippers with the hotel’s name. Even the on-screen map gets to be funny, showing the red arrow representing Jennifer and Jim’s path making a U-turn toward the correct town.
Meanwhile, the resourceful team’s van breaks down, and Steve and Kathryn each accuse each other of being the mole between wasting time. But they also have fun. As they’re going down the road riding a scooter and a bike, Steve says, “Everywhere we go, we’re a spectacle.” And then there’s very nearly a car accident in the other lane that the cameras catch, with cars braking hard, tires squealing. It’s kind of terrifying, and I wondered if the spectacle caused one of those drivers to gawk and be distracted. Ultimately, Kathryn and Steve end up on a bike, Kathryn on the back, Steven peddling hard to get there. The clock ticks down, and it is really amazingly suspenseful for something so ridiculous.
Kathryn and Steven’s late arrival means, as Anderson says in voice-over narration, “Sadly, it’s too late for them to get a room.” They sleep in the Smart car, which I’m guessing wasn’t product placement considering the inclusion of Kathryn saying, “This car sucks.” We learn at the end of the episode that the players received extra time, though no explanation of how that worked, exactly:
“Game play has been edited for time, not affecting the outcome of the game. Due to technical difficulties, extra time was added to the three routes test.”
The second test earns the team $20,000, but it’s ultimately an excuse to reunite the players with their family members. It’s so incredibly casual, and I love how under-produced The Mole is in these kinds of moments. The players just kind of wander in to gather around Anderson Cooper, and Jim has his fake “Jim Bob” teeth in his mouth.
The test is simple: Anderson Cooper gives them a statement one of their loved ones has made, and they have to figure out who it’s about. The players get the answers 100 percent correct—until Kate balks at being identified as someone who nags, so she nags the team until they switch the answers for her and Jennifer. Anderson Cooper takes the players into a wine cellar to reveal if their answer was correct. He has some light banter with the player, asking them who in their life said the thing, and taking notes on it, as if he doesn’t actually know. And then Anderson calls into the darkness to see if that player’s loved one will answer. For example: “Angie, is that what you said?” Cue Steven’s wife, Angie, running in.
These are sweet reunions, especially considering that Charlie’s 38th anniversary is in two days, on Friday—which made me think of Dorothy Zbornak being married to Stan for 38 years on The Golden Girls. Speaking of exes, it’s Jim’s ex who shows up—thankfully, they still seem to be friends, because otherwise that sounds pretty miserable. Anderson playfully mocks Jim and Joe, his ex: “You guys look identical, I’ve got to tell you that.”
The reunions become bittersweet when the players realize that Jennifer and Kate did not get to see their family members. After all the reunions, Anderson Cooper gathers them together. “So that’s a very nice job. Kate and Jennifer, I’m really really sorry. It’s a tough game,” he says—and then doesn’t even wait a beat before calling out, “Amy and Adam,” and Jennifer’s best friend and Kate’s son come out. The Mole isn’t just going to fly people halfway across the world only to let them sit in a hotel room, like Survivor has done, just to emotionally manipulate people. No, The Mole let them deal with the consequence of their wrong answers for a few minutes, and then let it go. Kate and Jennifer get full visits, too, not just a hug and a goodbye. “What people will do for money these days,” Kate’s son Adam says upon seeing her green hair.
This was reality TV’s first full loved ones visit, and I did not remember that The Mole was years ahead of Survivor on this. The Mole also demonstrated how to do it well, and Survivor could really use the help.
In early Survivor, it went well. Dr. Sean does gets a visit from his dad on Survivor Borneo after (most of) the players get videotaped messages, and Colby is rewarded with a visit from his mom late in Survivor: The Australian Outback. And earlier in season two, all the Survivor players’ loved ones competed in a challenge via instant message. Survivor didn’t actually bring all of the players’ family members on location to reunite until season five, Survivor Marquesas, and then gave us the infamous moment with Johnny Fairplay during Survivor: Pearl Islands. Later, though, the loved ones visit devolved into grotesque spectacle for Jeff Probst to order up “love” like he’s shouting at a McDonald’s drive-thru menu.
I just love what The Mole does, which is letting us spend time with the players and their family member. Some of that is in formal interviews, but there’s also a lot of casual interaction, and together they give us a sense of what this experience is like. Jennifer knocks on the door to her room and tells Amy, “I’m not alone,” but Amy opens the door anyway, and quickly slams it. “Welcome to You Have No Privacy,” Jennifer says. The family members even join the players and Anderson Cooper for dinner—where Charlie and his wife are presented with an anniversary cake—and then get to sit in on the execution, so they really get the full experience. How great is that?
Before the quiz, Jennifer reviews her extensive notes with Amy, and we get to see glimpses of those notes, and the grids she’s created to track numbers and other details. So when she’s executed, it was the most shocking elimination so far for me, in part because we got to see how prepared Jennifer was. And somehow, both Charlie and Kate are somehow still in the game.