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Traitors: a very human tale about our fundamental nature

Traitors: a very human tale about our fundamental nature

In light of the BBC One Traitor’s final, Daniel Turner reflects on what the show has to tell us about human nature. 26/01/2024

“That soul up there which has the greatest pain,”  
The Master said, “is Judas Iscariot;  
With head inside, he plies his legs without.   

Of the two others, who head downward are,  
The one who hangs from the black jowl is Brutus;  
See how he writhes himself, and speaks no word.   

And the other, who so stalwart seems, is Cassius.  
Inferno, Canto 34, Dante Alighieri  


Throughout human history stories of betrayal have been passed from generation to generation as dramatic twists to historic events. Phrases such as “Et tu Brute” or “Judas, would you betray the Son of man with a kiss?” have echoed through the hallways of time as shocking displays of what Dante deemed the worst of human sins.

Titillated by the portrayal of one of humanity’s most common fears – to be betrayed by one you trust – people cannot help but gather and observe as these dramatic acts unfold, making it unsurprising that millions are projected to watch the season finale to BBC One’s Traitors tonight.

Looking back over the course of Season 2, households across the UK have witnessed a microcosm of the destructive effects of distrust as 22 individuals gathered in a castle in Scotland to play an extreme game of murder mystery for a chance to win up to £120,000. The objective? Simple. A small group of ‘Traitors’ are chosen out of the larger group with the objective of picking off (either through secret nighttime ‘murder’, or by convincing others to vote out) the ‘Faithful’. Succeed and they split the money earned through collective team challenges between them. However, should the Faithful discover their identities, and have them banished, then the cash is theirs to take home.

It’s funny how treachery impacts us as humans. Even though they began the game hugely outnumbered (19 Faithful vs 3 Traitors), the anxious knowledge that anyone they spoke to could be a Traitor encouraged, as one participant observed, the Faithful to act more “traitorish” than the Traitors themselves. With whispered gossip in empty rooms, and collusion with those they felt had earned their trust, betrayal became almost like a virus infecting all in its vicinity, leading to a haemorrhaging of Faithfuls as they were murdered by night, and banished by day.

As the episodes rolled on, we witnessed the pressure of being contained in such an environment take its toll on each of the contestants, leading to a “tension in the air” as commented by one, and odd self–sabotaging behaviour by numerous others. With the cash prize closer in sight, even civil discussion became harder for contestants to sustain, and outbursts of frustration and anger became more commonplace round the discussion table. Such drama was not limited to the Faithful. The same ruthless backstabbing of self–appointed ‘head traitor’ Paul, which saw the banishment of fellow Traitors Ash and Miles, soon saw him cast out from the group. And now here we are, hours out from the final with a very close split of 3 Faithful and 2 Traitors.

When considering human nature, the events of this series – while entertaining – are hardly surprising. As people, we are fundamentally built for relationships. It is core to our survival. However, such relationships are only successful in so far as they are built on trust. In light of this, the act of betrayal can be understood as a violent strike to the core of what it means to be human. The devastating impact of which not only wrecks the victim and perpetrator but can ripple throughout society and even generations. It sows distrust, preventing families, communities and nations to flourish as they should.

It is important to note that trust does not mean an unconditionally agreeable coexistence without argument or strife – quite the opposite. Like in a marriage, trust is built on the understanding that through the good and bad, through laughs and quarrels, both parties are there for the betterment of the other and the good of the whole. Lose this, and life will soon reflect hell as depicted by C.S Lewis in The Great Divorce, wherein people would choose the miserable comfort of infinite isolation, moving “[m]illions of miles from us and from one another”, over the necessary complexity of relationships.

Unfortunately, this reality is not limited to the enjoyment of television viewers; it is all too close to home. Across our society, and the world, trust is plummeting, as institutions one–by–one have left people feeling betrayed, overlooked and taken advantage of. Be it our government with their handling of Covid (whether you believe there was massive government overreach or neglect), our judicial system which saw hundreds incorrectly prosecuted for what was actually a software error, or by our churches who on countless occasions failed, through cover–up, the victims of sexual, pastoral and spiritual abuse.

The impact of this betrayal has been a fracturing within our society. A rift in our politics, that has bled into everyday life, between “us” and “them”. Having gained interest in politics in my final few years of school, with the headline acts of the Scottish indyref, Trump and Brexit, I have often reflected that my generation have only ever experienced politics as divisive and devoid of trust or goodwill. Will that change? I don’t know.

Strangely, a show about distrust, betrayal, manipulation and mob rule could paradoxically be a starting place to tackling many of these problems. As we gather with friends over the weekend, and in our workplaces on Monday, and discuss the final showdown between Traitors and Faithful, we will be finding the common ground necessary to building relationships and community. Culture at its best can act as a powerful neutraliser between ardent foes. Like a game of football on Christmas Day in no man’s land. A place where we set aside our differences and remember the humanity that we all share. 

 

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Image credits:

BBC/Studio Lambert/Mark Mainz 
Photographer: Mark Mainz 
Image copyright: Studio Lambert

Daniel Turner

Daniel Turner

Daniel is the Content and Communications Officer for Theos and a producer for The Sacred podcast. He previously worked in the charity sector in operations, content and media. Daniel studied Music at Goldsmiths, University of London, and spent time throughout his degree volunteering for an ecumenical Christian university outreach. He has a strong interest theology, with a specific focus on Catholic liturgy and apologetics.

Watch, listen to or read more from Daniel Turner

Posted 26 January 2024

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