The Traitors is essentially a blown-up version of a party game that dates all the way back to the 1980s (Mafia), but in the long-oversaturated and love-obsessed market of reality TV, it served up something fresh.
Albeit in the form of a fresh hell for its participants.
There was something slightly sadistic about how gripped millions of us were last year, watching 22 people descend into the very depths of paranoid despair as they systematically picked off one another. But you just couldn't deny how fascinating it was to see, writ-large, the processes (in-group and out-group, herd mentality) we'd only really read about in our A-Level psychology textbooks.
The castle, the cloaks, the flaming torches, the Dark Angel of Claudia Winkleman. It all added up to twelve spellbinding hours of atavistic drama. And, at long last, it's back.
The new series starts on 3 January 2024. So, for anyone living under a rock during that long Winter of Deception of 2022, let us be your faithful guide to The Traitors.
(Cue the absurdly melodramatic cover of your choosing).
Where did the idea come from?
Although it slipped quickly into the mainstream, the game itself has esoteric origins in some quite gruesome history. Marc Pos, the original Dutch creator of the series, told Variety last year that he was inspired by a book he read about the tragic voyage of a 17th century Dutch ship.
The Batavia was the flagship of a Dutch East India Company fleet that wrecked on the Houtman Abrolhos islands near the western coast of Australia, all the way back in 1629.
The story goes that, as the ship broke apart, the majority of the passengers managed to swim their way to shore. Meanwhile, the ship's commander, Francisco Pelsaert, sailed to Batavia to get help, leaving in charge one Jeronimus Cornelisz. Unbeknownst to Pelsaert, the latter had been plotting a mutiny prior to the wreck, and him and his followers thus set about massacring the remaining survivors. Crucially, when the survivors made it to the island, nobody knew who was in favour of the mutiny (read: Team Traitor).
Cornelisz and his mutineers were ultimately tried and executed for their crimes. But I'm sure they'll be resting easy now they've inspired a hit reality TV format.
Where is The Traitors set?
A far cry from the sun-drenched love nests of your run-of-the-mill reality shows.
The imposing, 19th century, Baronial-style Ardross Castle, hemmed in by the vast, green and lonely beauty of the Scottish Highlands, sets a Gothic and claustrophobic atmosphere conducive to a collective meltdown.
Unsurprisingly, in this age of peak Television Tourism, the Ardross management have noticed an upswing in wedding venue enquiries following the competition (as revealed to The Guardian). Apparently nothing says "I do" quite like a series of calculated backstabbings.
Who is the host?
The game revolves around the centre of the Winkleverse, Claudia Winkleman, who sternly presides over the pressure cooker from behind her trademark fringe. Best known for her wholesome hosting of Strictly Come Dancing, many were surprised to see Winkleman playing so against type. But she won many plaudits, including an RTS Award, for her stone cold, Lady of the Manor-like rule enforcement.
The first 10 minutes encapsulate the masterful misdirection of her casting. Her entrance gets a warm reception fit for a kindly icon, but just after she lulls them into thinking a "great time" awaits them, she swiftly pulls the rug out by banishing two contestants (Amos and Kieran) before they are even divided into teams.
This is a game in which you can trust no one. Not even our Claudia.
What are the rules?
It's devilishly simple really. 22 people are taken to a castle, but just as they begin to make friends, they are sat at a Round Table and blindfolded. Winkleman ceremonially circles them to bestow just three with the privileged title (or poisoned chalice?) of 'Traitor'. The rest of the cast are mere 'Faithfuls'.
Each night, these three Traitors must don their hooded cloaks before meeting in secret to discuss which one of the Faithfuls to kill off. Later in the series, they are given the option to kill or recruit, although they can only do the latter through flattering correspondence, not conscription. This is a democracy, after all. Albeit one given to murder.
The victim is only revealed to the surviving Faithfuls at the suspenseful breakfasts; their absence milked for maximum pathos by both the producers—and the players desperate to prove their allegiance.
The show's centre-piece, however, is the Round Table discussion, in which the players cast and deflect aspersions like a mentally torturous variant of Hot Potato. Once discussion has suitably degenerated, Winkleman restores order by calling a vote. The players vote publicly, and the person with the most votes is banished.
They are, however, allowed what must be a satisfying vengeful declaration (if you're a Faithful), or a pretty humiliating apology (if you're a Traitor), when they are asked to reveal whose side they belong to.
Top marks to Ivan for his exquisite exit in the last series. After Tom, a magician by trade, had turned the majority against him by repeatedly reminding everyone of his credentials, he embarrassed him with pithy aplomb. "Tom, this was your big flourish, and here's The Prestige. That was not my card—I am a Faithful."
What is the point of the challenges?
During the day, the players are split into teams (unrelated to their Traitor or Faithful status) and set a physical or mental challenge to complete. This is primarily to give them the chance to increase their prize pot. But, as Pos pointed out to Variety, they also throw another psychological spanner in the works, in that "the hand that can help you climb the mountain can kill you the next night."
The sheer scale of the Scottish Highlands allows for some epic challenges. Series one saw the players build fuses and set fire to huge wicker beasts down by River Alness, strapped to a (not-so-)fun-fair wheel and subjected to Mr and Mrs-style questions, and buried in a graveyard hoping to be dug up by their teammates.
The team that wins the challenge of the day is sometimes given the chance to draw a 'shield' from one of the chests in the secret cupboard, which protects the bearer from murder for one night only. Although, as Winkleman warns them: "they may protect you from death, but not from democracy."
In other words, they can still be voted out by their castle-mates. Which, compared to the quick and quiet death-by-letter, is by far the more painful of exits.
How do you play?
If series one taught us anything it's that there aren't any fool-proof methods of proving Faithfulness. Taking a back seat or pleading shyness arouses suspicions (Rayan, Alyssa, even poor Andrea), but so too does being the loudest person in the room (Tom)—especially if your theories get a Faithful banished.
It also speaks to how useless the vast majority of us are at reading people, and how no profession is conducive to prowess. Even magicians. (Sorry Tom).
The Traitors of the first series, Amanda, Wilf and Alyssa, played a remarkable, ruthless game. Particularly Amanda, who perfectly played up to her benevolent "Glam-Ma" reputation, and Wilf with his outrageously Machiavellian manoeuvres, which even included throwing fellow Traitors under the bus.
It will be interesting to see how the new cast approaches the game, having probably researched the first series. But I'd wager that it won't make much difference. Pit any 22 people against one another, each with their own unfathomable minds and biases, and chaos will always ensue.
And it shall be glorious.
The Traitors returns on Wednesday 3 January at 9.00pm on BBC One and BBC iPlayer, and episodes 2 and 3 will be available on iPlayer immediately after. The show will air on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights.
Find out more about the making of the series by watching our Anatomy with some of the key producers—and deceivers: