The Mole first aired 20 years ago 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, continuing today with The Mole season 2, episode 1, “The First Betrayal,” which first aired on ABC Sept. 28, 2001 and re-aired May 28, 2002.
The words of the first mole, Kathryn Price, were echoing in my head as I watched the start of the second season: “This is a hideous game,” she said in the penultimate episode of season one after a game forced the final three—by then, very close friends—to say mean things about each other.
Season two seems to have been inspired by that cruelty, and ratchets it up a notch. This episode tested my affection for the show, both in 2001 and now. It’s just meaner than season one, from the start. As the players sit blindfolded, Anderson Cooper tells them, “I’m sure you’re all completely disoriented, and believe me, it’s only going to get worse.”
Worse? Part of what is so great about season one is that, yes, there is a betrayal afoot, and yes, there are some very raw and emotional moments that result from these high-stakes games. But the cast is having fun playing this game of intrigue, and being playful with their host.
Cue season two, when the producers set fire to the players’ bags, burning a beloved stuffed animal and a Bible in the process. Now, we’ll get some resolution in episode two, but in 2001, we had to wait a week, and the players had to wait several days. The show had something of a PR problem on its hands, with Kathryn—who’s now working on the show, as a story producer—defending it (“Enough with the outrage already”).
The burn bags game is not the first test, however. Instead of participating in a group bonding activity like the season-one players did when they jumped out of a plane, the players are split into three groups by their three leaders and assigned to one of three tests. The leaders choose how much each test is worth, but that’s not revealed that to the other players.
These are clearly designed to raise suspicions immediately, or at least, for the cast and the editing to be able to point fingers at individuals right away. (Rob puked, he must be the mole!) Even Anderson Cooper joins in. “Just to keep in mind, you may be putting the mole in one of these events,” Anderson tells the two leaders, Bill and Darwin, while putting his hand on Bill’s shoulder. “Or one of you could be the mole.”
They all take place in beautiful locations. The Mole has relocated from its season-one homes, France and Spain, to Switzerland, and begins at Tarasp Castle, which—along with the Swiss Alps—provides an absolutely stunning backdrop to the first and last games.
All three games are simple, increasing the level of fear but decreasing the amount of effort. The first is just a bike ride down and up a hill to retrieve two arrows, which are then fired at a target. Each of the three players—Rob, Bob, and Bribs—do it on the first try. (Bob is the first to be executed, but even though he’s basically highlighted in this first game, it doesn’t tell us anything about him, so he goes home before we have any idea who he is.)
The second group has to climb a ladder and then cross a rope strung between two trees, while keeping their heart rate under 130. Everyone does it with no problem until the last player, Al, who’s given himself the hardest task—and his heart rate immediately shoots up past 130. It takes him more than a half-hour for it to go down so he can cross one rope, even with Myra coaching him to rub his carotid artery to slow his heart rate.
Anderson Cooper introduces the final game like this: “We like to call it the swing for life, or if you’d rather, we can call it the swing for death. Either one; doesn’t really matter.” He also hangs out on the bridge eating a sandwich, echoing one of my favorite moments from season one, so it seems like the production is struggling with tone here.
The swing, which happens underneath a bridge spanning seems both terrifying and exhilarating: jumping off a small platform under a bridge and free-falling until the rope catches and swings the player back and forth. While Katie is crying, she does it, as do the other players—except Elavia.
Anderson offers her an exemption to forfeit, which means they won’t get whatever money was assigned to this game. She takes it, and thankfully, the leaders, Bill and Darwin, assigned $0 to the bridge jump, so the group starts off with a big win, and a lot of suspicion.
The show does Elavia a real disservice here, both in ostracizing her from the group and making her look suspicious to us watching on TV. While she’s pretty quiet throughout the episode, the episode gives us no context to understand her decision. Imagine an interview in which she said, I’m clueless and have a bad memory, so I really needed that exemption! Plus, I’m terrified of heights. Instead, we see Katie call Elavia a “shady suspect.”
I’m terrified of reality TV shows emotionally manipulating their contestants, and that’s what the second test is all about. First Anderson Cooper gives the players their journals in one of the few comedic moments in the episode. “Welcome to my mountain hut,” he says, and then they all go inside and exchange information that they wrote on their applications.
They don’t yet know is that they’ll be tested on this knowledge. Four players are chosen, and each has to answer a single question. These are impossibly challenging questions—not basic information like age or hometown. If they get all four questions correct, they get $40,000; if one person gets one wrong, they get $0.
“But that is not all that is at stake,” Anderson Cooper says, and then points toward what looks like blue testicles dangling in the night sky. It’s a net full of bags, and hovering over a huge fire. “That’s right. Those are your bags.” If they get all the questions wrong, he explains, “it is burn bags burn.”
And that’s what happens. As Katie cries over the loss of her childhood stuffed animal, and Heather laments the loss of the Bible she’s had since she was 13 (“that’s not something you burn”), it is very obvious the producers told the players to bring a sentimental item with them, just to make this scene even worse. All of this is The Mole going someplace I didn’t expect The Mole to go. It’s better than this—isn’t it? We’ll see.