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: The Next Betrayal. This is season 2, episode 10, “The Tenth Betrayal,” which first aired July 16, 2002.
The Mole 2’s players explore Rome on the 31st day of the game, and it seems like a nice, genial time. Then they move on to two tests: One of which falls a little flat, and the other is the best game to date, and exactly the kind of challenge that I love to watch and I’d love to try.
First, the players gather above a market in a town square. Anderson Cooper asks for two people who like to shop. Heather says, “I think that’s us!” after looking at Dorothy, and Anderson immediately mocks them: “really redefining gender roles here.” Al even piles on: “breaking barriers!”
Dorothy and Heather have to spend 200,000 Lira—still amazing that this season was filmed pre-Euro—on 10 items. Then, the other four players have to try to sell that stuff, and earn back at least 200,001 Lira. Dorothy and Heather get a weird assortment, from axes to dresses to cactuses, and then men barely sell any of it, and so they lose $30,000. This leads to some finger-pointing, as if Heather and/or Dorothy sabotaged the game by choosing weird things.
The players do earn $10,000 for another morality game, though; a man walks up, puts down a book, looks at some of their merch, and then picks up his book and walks away. He’s left behind some cash, and the players immediately see it and give it back to him. They figure out immediately that he was planted by the producers, since the book was Romeo & Juliet, the theme of an earlier test.
While the men try to sell things, Dorothy and Heather have to watch from above, and that’s when they decide to form a (shaky) alliance, and basically decide to target the men. “Who do you want to knock out first?” Dorothy asks. The answer is Bribs, and while we don’t know exactly what they do, in a later episode they’ll admit that Bribs was their first target.
The second test takes place in the small Italian town of Santo Stefano di Sessanio, amid its narrow streets and staircase streets, and the 14th-century Tower of Medici at its center. It’s a striking location, and such a terrific setting for a challenge.
While trying to find the exact name of the town, I learned that the devastating 2009 earthquake in Italy—which left more than 300 people dead and affected around 50 towns—was centered in L’Aquila nearby. It completely destroyed the tower, while the town itself “was largely abandoned after many of its ancient buildings were left in ruins by earthquakes,” The Guardian reported. How completely awful.
The test that took place that remarkable place is relatively simple: it’s basically hide and seek, as Anderson explains. To earn $50,000, one “tracker” has to catch one “evader,” while the other players watch from above, as lookouts. I just love everything about this test, which succeeds on all levels: conception, execution, gameplay, and editing. Even the use of on-screen graphics is exciting.
There are two mini-twists, one of which the whole group knows about: If the evader can pick up five of nine large green thumbprint cards, they get an exemption. The twist the players don’t know is that the tracker gets an exemption for successfully catching the person within the 30-minute time limit.
What’s particularly clever about the game is that the evader and tracker were selected by group vote, which is the best way to use such a thing—not to just make a person feel shitty. The evader was the person voted most-deserving to win the game (Heather), while the tracker was the least-suspicious player (Al).
Heather is thrilled that she has a chance at an exemption, and she also gets a radio to secretly eavesdrop on the rest of the players. But the town is small, the thumbprints are all in the tower’s line of sight, and she is caught pretty quickly—even though Al misses Bill’s first signal to start running. “I just wanted the exemption—just one,” Heather says, despondent.
This leads to a rather fascinating outcome of the players winning $50,000 for the pot and all feeling terrible for their teammate. “Really good day for the pot, bad day for Heather,” Al says, after trying to comfort her.
Anderson Cooper offers the players a chance to play again for another $50,000, with the same exemption still up for grabs for Heather (but not for the new tracker, Bribs). Heather has renewed energy and a much smarter strategy, and I was shouting at my TV, rooting for her as she snuck around town, grabbing thumbprints when the players in the tower were not looking. The tracker can’t start chasing the evader until a spotter in the tower actually sees the evader, and Heather does a great job of hiding and sneaking around in that second round.
This sequence is edited brilliantly, with the editors putting us in the position of the people in the tower. We’re not with Heather as she sneaks around, just seeing empty streets. It’s a thrilling game, and the tension is high when Heather has four of the five thumbprints she needs, and knows where the fifth is. She’s spotted, but thinks she can outrun Bribs. She’s within inches of grabbing it when Bribs grabs the flag on her backpack, and she’s lost an exemption yet again.
Again, the reactions are fascinating, as the players definitely feel for Heather. Despite successfully winning another $50,000, Bribs actually apologizes: “I’m sorry, Heather.”
With all that attention on Heather’s failure to get an exemption, I was completely expecting her to be executed. But it’s Bribs who leaves, and he leaves behind his can of mole killer on his chair for someone else to hold on to.