Did anyone win The Traitors?

Tom Rippin Traitors blog post header

*Spoiler alert: This blog post contains spoilers from The Traitors season 2!*

I have played the roles of faithful and traitor more than once. Yes, I have even played the role of Claudia Winkleman, though never with the budget for costumes to which she seems to have access.

Admittedly, it was never in the high-budget, Scottish-castle TV version of the game, but during many a fun evening - around a campfire, dinner table or in a living room. The game I played is called Mafia and is remarkably similar to The Traitors (despite the protestation of the Dutch inventor of the Traitor format that they have nothing to do with each other): A group of “citizens” has been infiltrated by several Mafiosi. No one knows who they are, but every night the Mafiosi convene and decide to “kill” one citizen. The murders evoke panic and in response the citizens (including the undercover Mafiosi) come together every day to “banish” one member of the group in the desperate hope that they can detect and banish the Mafiosi.

The banishments are decided by vote after a free-for-all discussion in which the group feverishly tries to find some - any! - rationale for why any one particular member of the group should be banished above all others.

I’ve watched snippets of the second Traitors TV series, but I wasn’t properly drawn in until Friday’s finale! The TV format follows Mafia’s rules with several dramatic embellishments. First amongst these are the daily group challenges, through which the contestants earn money for the prize pot that the winner(s) will receive. 

On Friday, five contestants remained. The final quintet was made up of 3 so-called “faithfuls” (citizens) and 2 traitors (Mafiosi). The stakes were high. The winner was due to walk away with £95,150. The game carries on until there are between 2 and 4 contestants left. If any traitor remains, they claim the whole prize pot. If no traitors remain the pot is split between the surviving faithful.

Saturday’s final went all the way. The final trio of Jaz (faithful), Mollie (faithful) and Harry (traitor) go for one last banishment. Mollie banishes Jaz, not only bringing his game to an end, but also sealing her own fate. In the final denouement Mollie finds out that Harry, with whom she has, since the start of the game, formed a close friendship, is a traitor. The £95,150 will not be split between the series’ two best friends and Mollie has to leave the castle immediately - empty-handed. Harry is left standing with Claudia Winkleman in front of a pile of gold worth over £90,000. 

This is the climax, the victory, the moment of celebration. Think of the announcement of the Strictly Come Dancing champion or the winner of The Voice. Despite Claudia Winkelman’s best efforts though, the moment is primarily awkward - it transmits to me a poignant sense of emptiness. Apart from Claudia,  who is, after all a paid member of staff, there is no one there to celebrate with; no joyous jumping up and down, no screams of excitement, no group hug. Claudia reaches for the British all-cure: “let’s have a drink”, and they help themselves to the champagne set out in the next room. I muse about whether beer might have been more welcome, but champagne is, of course, a stronger signal of the fact that a lot of money has just been won.

The next thought that pops into my head is this: If I was Harry, would I share my winnings with the other contestants? Not because winning is bad - I am as competitive as the next person - but because winning alone is sad. Would it be worth having less money and more friends? All the fellow contestants though have been whisked away from the castle - out of sight and out of mind. Much like in the real world, the less fortunate rarely impinge on the lives of those who win big.

Harry and Claudia take their champagne outside for some fresh air and Harry spreads his arms and roars: “I am the best traitor in the wooorld!”, followed by a much more sheepish: “I hope Mollie didn’t hear that”.

I still can’t get beyond feeling strangely empty. Harry reminds us that he has, of course, done this all “for my family” and that he is so relieved that he can now return to being himself again. I get a glimpse of the huge significance this prize money may well carry for this 22-year-old British Army engineer. The annual salary of an army soldier after training is £23.5k. If you assume a 40-hour working week, that is just under the the Real Living Wage. Harry has just won 4 times that amount. 

This show goes to the heart of one of our society’s core beliefs: that the winner takes all. If I lose my friends along the way, so be it; if I have to live a lie at work, so be it; if the only people left to celebrate with me when I “win” are paid staff, so be it. This is the game, this is what everyone does, this is what will make you happy. Society teaches us this time and again. 

This narrative is, happily, fake news. It doesn’t serve our society, nor is it how society actually works; and it is certainly not what human nature dictates. We know this because many cultures around the world - who have not been influenced by Western economic theories of the past 50 years - don’t work like this. And even within Western economies cooperation and mutuality are indispensable to our economic survival - we just don’t admit that very often.

Winning alone is not only unnecessary, it’s also a really bad strategy, even for the winner! Have you ever thought of what happens after the game of Monopoly ends? Life goes on. You now own all of London. because you have bankrupted all our peers. There is no one left to play with. The continuation of the game is going to be long, boring and lonely!

And yet, winning alone is what Harry chose to do - consciously or through how our societal expectations are configured. And he may have very good reasons for doing this. Whilst too many people live in dire financial straits, the experience of even just the fear of poverty is too disabling to overcome. And this fear seeps through all of society - not just those directly affected. Whether Harry is in this situation himself or not, as long as there are people in our society who can’t pay their rent or struggle to put food on the table, the incentives for fighting for and taking the cash are hugely powerful.

The Traitors has reminded me of two lessons we need to bear in mind as we try to transform our economy: 

  1. Life should not about winning alone, we have to make it about succeeding together
  2. That is only going to be possible once we all a fair chance of living a decent life 

Let’s keep faithful, not to the fake news of the past, but to the knowledge that we can choose our future and bring about the transformation we need.