The Traitors is the best new show of 2023, and other reality TV is going to have a hard time competing with its perfect combination of strategy, drama, and production values, never mind Alan Cumming.
My review was spoiler-free, but now it’s time to talk about it all. Well, episodes one to five.
These recaps have spoilers, of course, though they’re divided by episode, so you can read along as you watch (unless you’ve already binge-watched the whole thing!)
The comments below, however, are fair game for episodes 1 to 5, so don’t dive into the discussion until you’ve finished the first half.
By the way: I hate this dumping-all-episodes-at-once distribution model for competition reality TV, and I think Peacock made a bad call here. I like the Hulu model best: two episodes, maybe three, dropped as the premiere, and then weekly episodes after that.
The Traitors’ “Who got murdered?” cliffhangers are effective, and they do pull me into the next episode, but as fantastic as this show is, I don’t want to watch a 10-hour movie. Even when I recap a show immediately, I like having a few days to process before the next episode, to talk about it, to see if the events sit differently a week later.
This all-at-once model means that a lot of people have already watched the whole show this weekend, and then it’s gone. Compare that to two months of conversation about it, building tension and ideally bringing in new viewers.
Okay, I’ll climb down off this particular soapbox. On to The Traitors‘ episodes 1 to 5!
The Traitors US season 1 recaps
- Episode 1: ‘The Game is Afoot’
- Episode 2: ‘Buried Alive’
- Episode 3: ‘Murder They Wrote’
- Episode 4: ‘Life or Death Situation’
- Episode 5: ‘Getting Away with Murder’
Next: Episodes 6 to 10 recaps
Episode 1: ‘The Game is Afoot’
As I wrote in my full review of The Traitors, the series had me from the opening shots—the castle, the peacock (ha!)—and Alan Cumming, who is immediately perfect. Just listen to the delicious way he makes the word “murder” linger.
The first episode does a really swift and good job of establishing the game, even though there is not a banishment. This is effectively a two-part premiere.
Before the game can start, it needs its Traitors, and the dramatic selection takes place at the round table (roundtable? Round Table? Roundtable?). Alan Cumming has everyone blindfold themselves, and then he walks around the circle, gently tapping the three Traitors on the shoulder: Cirie, Cody, and Christian, who’s the only non-reality star Traitor.
I just realized all their names start with C. Was this an intentional clue by the producers? Like “Can you C the Traitors?” (This is why I’m not a producer.)
I was honestly a little stunned that they did the selection this way, so open and risky, but it’s also perfect, because so much of this show happens in the open. The second everyone lowers their blindfolds, three of them have new information and the others are trying to find them.
Geraldine’s fidgeting and/or lack of eye contact seems to immediately pinpoint her in some people’s minds. There are other suspects, too, but her name gets floated the most.
Ryan Lochte, who was not selected as a Traitor, tells us, “I definitely would have gave it away,” Ryan says. Reza says there’s no way it can be Ryan, and hums a little tune that he says he hears when he sees Ryan walking around, and the editing picks up that music cue: brilliant.
In the first of many frankenbites—sentences that seem to be pieced together in editing from multiple clips—that I noticed during the series, Rachel says, “I can already tell that Cody is a Traitor. It’s very obvious. I see you.” One reason this seemed odd to me is that this comes up and gets dropped.
Honestly, how could any of them know at this stage? They barely know each other—or at least, barely know half the cast, and the other half has varying degrees of knowledge, from what they’ve seen on TV to their off-screen friendships.
“There’s not much else to do but judge people, and I can’t really turn it off,” Kate says, and oh how true that statement is! More on this later.
That first challenge establishes two things: One, that the challenges are group efforts, and everyone is working together, even when they’re split into two smaller teams.
Two, this show is not fucking around when it comes to production design. Those massive horned figures! The fireworks sparking along the rope! The figures engulfed in flame! This seems like a Survivor finale challenge, and here’s it’s just the opening act.
The teams had to 1) row out to retrieve a flame, and 2) find lengths of roap and 3) soak them in fuel and then lay it in troughs leading to the figures.
Splitting this very large group of 20 players into two teams allows them to get to know each other, and for us to see them interact, though honestly there are so many people it’s hard to grab on to much from this.
I’m not sure why the first team to finish won $20,000 and the second team won $10,000—just to create some irritation or antagonism from those who are the most competitive?
Either way, both teams are successful, earning $30,000, so we’re almost one-third of the way to Netflix’s entire prize for The Mole.
And we’re almost to our first elimination, which is a murder, not a banishment. The Traitors, in their dramatic hoods, make their way to a tower, where they learn each other’s identities. And that’s when they decide too use their power not create chaos, not to eliminate people who suspect them.
Of course, eliminating someone who suspects them is a quick way to being figured out, and at this stage, I don’t know what the best strategy is. A random selection just might be best.
Episode 2: ‘Buried Alive’
Episode two gives us our first breakfast, where the murders are revealed. The players come down in producer-selected groups. As I wrote about in my review, since they leave the potential victims for last, the players could pick up on that. I cannot imagine they’ll do that in a second season!
The players learn that Reza has been murdered, which definitely creates conversation and questions.
The second challenge, the start of the first real challenge, Alan Cumming asks for volunteers, in a way that was so reminiscent of Anderson Cooper’s Mole players being split into groups.
The six—Amanda, Arie, Bam, Kyle, Shelbe, and Stephenie—discover they’re getting buried alive, in graves. Again, A+ with the production design. Obviously, this was safe, with air getting to the players,
The other players are split into three groups, and go on a scavenger hunt across the grounds which will eventually lead them to the graveyard—although it turns out there’s at least one other graveyard!—and to the right coffins to dig up.
Inside the coffins were clues. Curiously, in some shots, the clue had been digitally blurred out. But in others the text was clearly readable, and had riddles like:
Slow and steady
wins the race,
but not in this case
I might be old
but you’d be wrong
to bark up at me
Not since Anderson Cooper hosted The Mole has a host so immediately and perfectly fit in, and known exactly how to calibrate his presence (of course, the editing is helping by selecting moments). Alan Cumming walking around the buried contestants and saying “Did I hear something?” and shaking his head should win him a reality host Emmy alone.
Two of the teams successfully dug their players out in time, though the yellow team helped the red team free Shelbe and Amanda after they got Bam and Kyle out. But the blue team of Andie, Anjelica, Azra, and Cirie did not get Stephenie and Arie out in time.
Andie worried that their map-reading would lead to her downfall: “Am I going to be murdered because we just happened to go the wrong way?” Challenge performance does affect the pot, but since this is not The Mole, there’s no reason to sabotage, so screw-ups don’t stand out as much more than screw-ups.
This challenge, however, is where Michael makes his a crucial mistake. Annoyed with Geraldine for, um, running fast in a timed challenge, he tells Kate, “I’m down to vote for her if you are.”
And then, being an unnecessarily overeager player, he turns that dumb decision into an even dumber one, threatening Kate: “I’m telling you right now: If you don’t vote for her, I’m banishing you the first chance I get.”
He also does this as Kyle is pulled from the ground, and again upon arrival back at the mansion: “You’re gonna vote for Geraldine, right?” Putting aside the aggressive strategizing, what’s the goal here? Did he think she’s a Traitor because she ran faster and kept the map for herself? Is he suspicious from her fidgeting at the table? What is the logic?
At the first Roundtable—and again, just outstanding production design and producing here, from the table to having the players talk openly—the drama starts quickly. Brandi gives Christian the finger, and then calls out Michael for pitching Geraldine.
Michael tries, poorly, to explain his behavior: “I was trying to be funny. I’m awkward, okay, I have anxiety, okay?” Then he suddenly looses that awkwardness: “Yes, honey, I am looking for every excuse to get you gone.”
When it’s time to vote, on private slates they reveal to each other, Rachel voting for “Jeryldean” made me laugh out loud—though I appreciated that she at least attempted to spell a name; Christian just wrote “G.” Then Cody wrote “Gi.”
This idea of showing every vote is antithetical to the standard reality TV has established; votes are private on Survivor, Big Brother, and other shows. But switching that is such a wonderful update: learning that another person voted for you to your face is such a different dynamic than trying to figure it out later
Geraldine is banished, and revealed, of course, to be a Faithful. Since we know the Traitors, I wondered how these moments would play out, but it’s quite dramatic to watch the other players learn if they’re right or not.
After the Roundtable, Brandi said, “I’m not going to apologize. Where’s my wine? Idiots.” She, however, is not an idiot:
At the end of this episode, Brandi has correctly IDed both Cirie and Christian as Traitors. As annoyed by her as I am, I am also quite impressed—and now the question is, what will the Traitors do about it?
Episode 3: ‘Murder They Wrote’
While Cody wanted to get Brandi out, Cirie said “I don’t think we should go after Brandi outright” because her friend Kate would know. “Think about it!” Cirie said.
Somehow, after briefly discussing Michael, they decide on Bam. “We didn’t want to create a predictable pattern,” Christian explains to us.
Everyone, especially Kate, is freaking out that Brandi is maybe gone.
Then Christian tells those siting near us, “If it’s Brandi, I think there’s a pattern. She was just, like, very vocal at the table, which I respect, but, like, obviously someone may have not liked that.” Then he takes a big slurp of orange juice. Subtle.
Cirie’s irritation with Christian is simmering now: “Christian’s doin’ a lot of talkin’ and explaining. Inside, I’m like, bro, you gotta be careful,” she says in an interview.
But the Traitor challenge is to react as a Faithful would. When Brandi enters, not Bam, Cirie says, at the table, “This makes no sense at all.”
Kate thinks its Michael because of his confidence in Geraldine: “You sent her home,” she says.
Rachel, who got her start on Big Brother, says, “I don’t think we should just go after one person. I feel very uncomfortable.” Kate, with sunglasses, slumped in chair, says simply: “I do.”
Kate also tells Christian, “You’re next.” Christian says, “Come at me.” Kate says, “I will.” But that will have to wait!
The challenge takes some players to a distant church, where they get to play music on bells. The other players stand on the castle’s steps and listen, and as soon as they ID the song, have to run inside, find a music box that plays that song, and then match the figurine in the music box to an object in the house.
But first, there are important questions to answer: “What’a a figurine?!” Brandi asks.
It’s a decent challenge, with fun moments like Cirie knowing exactly where the owl is because it’s been staring at her. The challenge also quickly turns into a montage, a smart way to move it forward.
Fergus, the castle’s silent groundskeeper, rings a small bell to let the players in the church know if their fellow players back at the castle got it right, and there’s a lot of celebration: they get all of them right, winning the max of $25,000, and bringing the episode-three prize pot to $75,000, three-quarters of The Mole’s entire prize, not that I am comparing.
In an absolutely incredible reality TV moment, Kate and Brandi go off to discuss their suspicions. But instead of, you know, talking about them, they write them down, and then talk anyway. Way to be as least secretive as possible!
Before the banishment, at the Roundtable, Brandi tells everyone to vote for Michael, because he’s been floating names, and Michael says, “Using your same logic, you’re the number-one suspect.”
At the table, Brandi is in the hot seat, and loses support quickly when she tells Michael, “You’re not crying tonight!” and “Your anxiety went away, didn’t it?”
It’s interesting how the Roundtables seem to have a kind of momentum, and even with split votes, there are a lot of people who jump on a bandwagon—it’s like Sandra Diaz-Twine’s “anybody but me” strategy.
The really difficult challenge, I think, is if you’re in the hot seat, you need to redirect that heat without bringing more as a result of your redirection.
Brandi is banished, and of course, reveals that she’s “a motherfucking Faithful.” She adds, “and so is Kate,” and then points fingers at Michael for creating “chaos.” As she walks away, she screams, “Idiots!” What an exit.
Cody tells everyone, “We’re playing too emotional.” Even The Traitors is not immune from its stars not understanding adverbs.
After the Roundtable, Kate’s note falls out of her pocket, and Stephenie sees and grabs it. “Kate’s a traitor!” she exclaims, because it says “Shelbe murder,” but crossed out, along with Amanda’s name.
Stephenie tells Cirie (“it says who they’re murdering tonight”), which immediately opens an opportunity: “This is an opportunity to frame Kate,” Cirie says.
Episode 4: ‘Life or Death Situation’
The question at the start of episode four is: Will the Traitors murder Shelbe or Amanda, because they are mentioned on Kate’s paper? If so, how unfortunate for Shelbe and Amanda!
Christian throws out Azra’s name because Azra defended herself for being reserved to Kyle. Why not Kyle? The Traitors apparently don’t want to murder any dudes, nor frame Kate (alas!), so it’s Azra who goes home for, I guess, daring to challenge Kyle.
I really think the Traitors should have used Kate’s note. But perhaps that’d be too obvious?
During the breakfast scene, in an interview, Christian tells us, “I have so much confidence and faith in the other two Traitors.” But if I was one of the other two traitors I would not say that about him!
He sat at breakfast and said, “Who do you think?” while scratching his chin theatrically. Why not just say, Who do you think I—I mean, THE TRAITORS—mur-dered?! Mwaa ha ha!
Kyle turned to Cody and said, “they’re keeping around people who have some suspicion around them.” Cody’s reaction was “hmm,” which I’m not sure is subtle, either. But Cody is also falling apart. “It is weighing heavily on me,” he told us.
Kate shows up with in sunglasses, sits down, and then looks at her reflection in a knife: “Still gorgeous.”
Anjelica was in tears over Azra’s exit, and when Alan Cumming arrived, he put an end to that. “I think we’ve mourned long enough,” he said, which is so perfectly heartless.
Before the challenge, Andi suggests pooling information, and Christian pipes up, saying, “I get it, but I think it’s tactically smart not to say it in a big group.” Tactically smart to keep secrets from everyone and tell everyone you’re doing that?
More significantly, Stephenie and Cirie both share the existence of the note with others. “Why would anyone write that down?” Rachel asks. Good question, Rachel!
The challenge is the Carnival of Chaos, which is the first challenge designed to directly incite some drama. It’s also wonderfully creepy: a wheel onto which people can be strapped.
The players arrive to see two skeletons strapped in. They are Jack and Chester, Alan Cumming tells them. “Don’t worry: they died doing what they loved—just before they were strapped into an archaic Ferris wheel.”
Cirie gives a perfect soundbite saying that “it’s going to be way past interesting and a quarter to explosive.” But ultimately, I’m not sure it is. The biggest challenge seems to be the wheel, at least for Andie, who was terrified of falling out.
It’s basically a version of Match Game: Five players are strapped to the wheel and spun, slowly; the other players have to collectively answer a question by naming one of those five players. Then the wheel players answer, and every match wins money.
Many of the questions are benign, such as: Who would most want to be stranded on a desert island with? (Andie) and Who’s the most likely to Google themselves? (Kyle). The meanest they got was: Who’s the most two-faced (Michael) and Who’s told the most lies? (Kate). Kate protested: “I haven’t lied about anything!” and that’s actually true.
Michael basically told everyone to keep voting for him in the second round, which was nice and kind of sad, too.
Before the Roundtable, Kyle floated the idea of Cirie being a Tratior, suggesting that there would be at least one woman, and likely a reality star. Stephenie declared, “There’s absolutely know way. I know for a fact she’s not.” I guess Stephenie is bad at being a Traitor (er, snake) and sniffing them out!
At the Roundtable, it was basically Kate versus Michael. Quentin defended Michael, and the Kyle threw Michael right under the bus saying Michael had just floated Quentin’s name. I love the front-stabbing in this show!
“If I go home because I’m wrong about Michael, okay, worth it,” Kate says. I’m stunned Michael made it this far, and also that the Traitors have managed to evade so much as a vote at the Roundtable, even though there are clearly suspicions.
Kate and Michael both got votes, but Michael was banished. When he stood in the Circle of Truth, Michael made a meal of the moment. “Kate, you’ll be happy to know,” he said, and paused. “That I am….” and everyone started cheering. “A faithful. I wasn’t lying, y’all!”
“These Traitors, they’re killing this game,” Rachel told us.
The Traitors are also concerned that their strategy is now obvious. “I don’t like that at all—the fact that they’re onto the reasoning that we did it,” Cody said. Cirie said, “We have to make a drastic adjustment.”
Episode 5: ‘Getting Away with Murder’
The breakfast entrances were interrupted by Kate telling us, “Rachel’s personality is so abrasive and annoying,” which is so precious coming from Kate. She’s an amazing character, for sure.
Once again, the producers saved the two that we know were the two murder options for the final two: Kyle and Ryan. It seemed like other players were picking up on this; are they no longer?
Christian came in with the final group, and I just cannot get over how obvious and obnoxious he acts at all times. I was pleased to see Cirie now shares my annoyance. He scanned the wall of pictures—not the room of people—and said, “Wait! So there’s only Kyle and Ryan left? I love both of them!”
In an interview, Cirie told us, “Christian, you’re kind of looking like a bad actor in a B-movie, and Cody’s shaking. If I’m noticing it…?” It’s wild that Christian has not yet attracted suspicion, other than from Brandi; I guess Kate has forgotten about that.
Upon learning he’d been murdered, Ryan Lochte said, “I’m really sad that I’m not gonna be a part of this game any more.” Wait: was he part of the game? I thought he was just part of Alan Cumming’s castle collection.
Cody whispered to Kyle that Ryan identified Kyle, Arie, and Rachel. “I’m not bringing that up today at all,” Cody said, bringing it up.
“I think Cody just blew his cover,” Kyle told Stephenie, thinking that Ryan would never mention him as a suspect. Cut to Cody pacing outside: “Aw, fuck.”
For the mission, the players all returned to the church, where gold-masked congregants sat in the pews. Andie said “it felt like walking into a horror movie,” while Angelica described it as “a living nightmare.” It looked to me like a full-blown Eyes Wide Shut orgy was about to break out.
For this mission, they were broken into two teams. Each team had to send one person to the confessional booth, where Alan Cumming gave them a location in a book. The team together deciphered it, and then had to find a congregant with a matching accessory, like a starry scarf or gold watch. But each team had just one guess.
Amanda told us, “I have seen way too much Investigation Discovery. This is too easy.”
As always, Alan really enjoying his role. “Go forth, do not multiply,” he said as two players left the confessionals. When Kyle had to return because he forgot the page number, Alan said, “Have you forgotten already? It’s all your sinning from the past, Kyle.”
Team one won $20,000, while the other team won nothing. “You’ve disappointed yourself and you’ve disappointed me,” Alan said. But what was the point of having two teams? Creating pressure? There’s been some criticism of the challenges that I do not agree with, but there are some choices in the challenges that confuse me.
At the start of the Roundtable, Alan Cumming told the group the pot was “$114,900—god that is an annoying number! Let’s make it $115. You’re welcome.” I love this show.
Meanwhile, Stephenie asked Kate to name all the people she’s suspected, and Kate said, “I’ve been very open. Fuck you.”
Before the Roundtable, Cirie told Kyle his name’s been floated around, and then Kyle told Cirie about Cody’s confession—but refused to mention Cody’s name. Kyle did, however, tell Andie: “I need your help.”
Kyle did, however, bring it up at the Roundtable, and Cody admitted what he told Kyle. But Kyle wasn’t able to make a case against Cody, and it was Kyle was voted out. Upon revealing his Faithful status, said, “y’all got played yet again.”
Before the episode ended, there were two cliffhangers: “Amanda has had to leave the castle for reasons beyond her control,” Alan Cumming told us. (Amanda posted a comment on Instagram Saturday saying “it did suck. I’ll post all the details soon”.)
The other cliffhanger was a knock at the traitors’ door: Who was it, and how would that change the game? That’ll be in episode five, and in the next set of recaps, which I’ll publish later this week. I’m still working my way through the season, and want to savor this fantastic show as much as possible.