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Two Fans Of ‘The Mole’ Discuss How To Properly Be The Mole

Image via Netflix

All great reality shows rely on the premise that no games are as entertaining as mind games. Survivor, The Amazing Race, and even The Bachelor require contestants to manipulate and lie and scheme. It's simply good television to have one person say in a confessional, "I would never lie to him; I love him," and then cut immediately to someone else saying, "She lies more than anyone I've ever met." No show in the early era of reality TV leaned into this premise more than The Mole, which initially ran from 2001 to 2008.

On The Mole, contestants complete challenges to gain money for a pot that the winner will take home. But one contestant, the mole, is constantly trying to sabotage the challenges. The show requires everyone to be a little manipulative, because you win by discovering the mole, but also leading your fellow challengers astray. The Mole was canceled due to low ratings, but Netflix revived the show (same premise, same challenges) and premiered a new season in October.

Because we are not beholden to the timelines of streaming giants, we would like to discuss the new season now. The rest of this blog contains spoilers for The Mole. Do not whine if you read past here and get spoiled!

Samer Kalaf: Hello, Kelsey. Thank you for being the only person on staff who was willing to admit that they too care about The Mole.

Kelsey McKinney: Hello, Samer. I have to admit I was furious when you mentioned that you had watched a new version of The Mole, because my mom and I have been complaining about that show being canceled for years! I was shocked that it managed to be revamped and released without my knowledge! How did you find out about it? 

SK: Honestly, Netflix's whole plan trapped me. Last year while browsing, I noticed that the first two seasons of the American version were on Netflix, and so I watched with my sister because it was a fun time-waster while we were home and I had forgotten the outcomes. At some point in the last few months, I saw a trailer for the new season, I think? My memory there is blurry. In retrospect, I should have realized that the reason Netflix had The Mole was because it planned to reboot The Mole, which was itself a reboot from the original Belgian version, De Mol. (I haven't watched that version.)

KM: This is so funny, and maybe just proof that my Netflix use has plummeted into the ground, because I had no idea this was happening. I’m going to have to have a chat with my Netflix algorithm. But it has been a long time since I saw the original Mole. Did you watch when it premiered in 2001, or was watching with your sister your introduction? Also … did it hold up?

SK: I definitely remember watching the first couple of seasons as it aired, and one of the Celebrity Mole seasons. I know Angie Everhart and Corbin Bernsen were on it, although I don't know why those particular names are still stuck in my head. 

KM: [takes a drag of a cigarette] Wow, I haven’t heard those names in years. 

SK: This must be what it's like to be David Roth every day.

KM: Hahahahahah. So you were primed by your rewatch to watch the new season, and I was primed by pure nostalgia. I barely remembered the rules of the original Mole

SK: Yeah, we should provide the gist. This new season of The Mole has 12 contestants who work together to solve missions so that they can add money to a pot, but one of them is—you guessed it—the mole. This person sabotages the tasks in order to keep the pot small for whoever eventually wins it in the finale. At the end of each episode—in the original version, anyway—all the contestants take a quiz filled with questions on little details from the day. The person with the least correct answers is eliminated. This summary is repeated at least 50 times over the course of any episode you watch, I assume because the producers think The Mole is too cerebral for the average Netflix user.

KM: The other important thing to know is that players can earn an exemption card and not have to take the quiz. It’s like an immunity idol in Survivor. It’s really funny because they do repeat the details of how the show works constantly, and yet like halfway through the season it was unclear to me if the mole could be eliminated by failing the quiz. 

SK: I've also wondered about this, but I assumed the producers gave them the questions/answers ahead of time or filmed them pretending to do the quiz.

KM: So! I actually did a little research ahead of writing this, because I was curious how they produced this series, and I learned something very interesting: Only one producer on set knew who the mole was, and was the “mole handler.” So that producer was ALSO kind of a mole because they couldn’t let the other producers or contestants know who the mole was! 

SK: Wow, that makes some sense. A thing I noticed is that at the end, the show didn't reveal all the clues throughout the season that would have led you to the mole, because in the original version, that constituted about half of the season finale. There were definitely clues; occasional Defector contributor and Mole fan Brian Feldman found one early on and figured out who the mole was. It seems especially hard to preserve the crucial mystique on a reality show these days.

KM: Wow! I’m so jealous of Brian’s brain and ability to find that! I was too busy watching, like … people’s facial expressions lol. I guess before we get too much further, I would like to know if you enjoyed watching Netflix’s The Mole (2022).

SK: I did. I saved my viewing of it until I was home for Thanksgiving so I could watch with my sister, and I think that enhanced the experience, because we got to yell together about how badly some of the contestants played the game. How'd you like it?

KM: I watched the entirety of it last weekend, because I was very tired after the Normal Gossip shows last week. But I really enjoyed it! I found the cliffhangers very good and I would think about it when I wasn’t watching! It’s kind of rare for me to binge a show, so that seems like a good sign!

SK: The cliffhangers were funny, because in the original version the episode would end with the eliminated player's departure, but in the new version, they'd just cut to credits in the middle of any dramatic moment. The eliminations mostly happened at the start of episodes. I figured the reason for that was because you could binge this season quickly, but maybe there have been other reality TV developments in the last two decades.

KM: This is the influence of The Bachelor Extended Cinematic Universe, in my opinion! The Bachelor was the first show I noticed that pivoted to this one season and just never went back. Maybe six years ago they just stopped ending with rose ceremonies. The suspense was the cliffhanger because viewers want to know who will get eliminated! It’s gripping! They’ll come back, and once you’re watching, inertia takes over! Why not watch the rest of what these dummies on TV are up to? 

SK: In this case, with an emphasis on "dummies." When you watched the first episode and met all the contestants, were there any that you were drawn to?

KM: This is a classic trope of reality television, which is that in the first season the contestants all suck at the games. Then every season after that they are better, so they truly were dummies in some senses! Drawn to in which sense? Like contestants I liked or ones I thought were the mole? Did you have any? 

SK: I was intrigued by Pranav, because he seemed like he'd play the game well. Dom was entertaining but I thought ultimately doomed by his assumption that everyone would be as forthcoming as he was. Will was definitely set up as the Main Character from the very beginning, but he really was skilled at the game.

KM: It’s so funny because even though Pranav went out before her, I do think he ultimately doomed Avori with his suggestion that she cast more doubt on herself! 

SK: Avori (a professional gamer) was good at the game but also too clever for her own good. They had that mission where one team was diving for money, and another was supposed to bring diving equipment, but she straight-up dropped the air tank on the beach and didn't even bother to give a good excuse for it. The gamer mindset aided her, but only to a certain point.

KM: She was so good at the game. I think if she had played it like Will and never tried to cast doubt on herself, she would have won. It is so fascinating to watch the players think, which you get to do on this show! From episode 1, I was convinced that Jacob was the Mole. I wrote it in my notes: “guy from Ohio is mole.” So I was thrilled when Avori came to that conclusion, even though she was ultimately wrong. I felt smart that she thought the same thing as me lol. 

SK: I fluctuated from episode to episode. That one dinner near the end where Joi puts her cards on the table and calls him "the shithole Mole" was pretty spicy for a non-romance reality show in 2022. The editors got to use so many reaction shots.

KM: It was so funny! I was like, “Are they gonna kiss?” Because that kind of yelling always predates kissing in every other reality show! What I really loved about that was Will and Greg reacting to her saying that. Just two guys who live for drama. 

But I never thought Joi was the mole, because her gameplay made zero sense to me. Can we talk about her spending all the money? 

SK: That part was a genuinely shocking moment in the show. My sister and I hooted and hollered. So, at one point all the contestants had a chance to look at dossiers containing info about every other contestant; this was appealing because it would help them get an advantage on the quiz. If no one looked at the dossiers, the group would get $10,000 for the pot. If a contestant didn’t look at the dossiers, they could bid on who they thought would look. The highest correct bid would get an exemption, with the money taken out of the pot. At the time, the group had $28,500.

KM: The dossiers were also the only way to check the entire season if someone was making up a whole separate identity for the show. So it made some sense that a few people would look at them! But when Joi bid, she bid $25,000! Which was almost the entire pot of money the team had earned. And because she guessed correctly, the money was taken from the pot and she got an exemption. It was such a chilling moment because everyone was so, so mad at her. 

SK: I just want it on the record that Joi is a commercial airline pilot, a job that demands attention to detail. I'm sure she's normal in everyday life, and maybe the editors of The Mole did her dirty, but the way she played the game was brutal. In the first episode, she was supposed to navigate her team with a map and failed. I have no clue how she got so far in the season. I have to respect how bad she was at finding the mole, even though she somehow made it to the final three.

KM: Joi very much had the vibes of going on vacation to a foreign country with someone who claims they will be able to communicate in another language and turns out to only know how to say things like “¿Donde esta el biblioteca?” She was such a nightmare to work with on every challenge, and yet there she was at the end! 

SK: I think her strategy was indicative of a larger pattern in the show: A bunch of these people thought they could break the game from day one. They figured that if they screwed up often, they could draw suspicion and lead other players to do worse on the quiz. But the issue was that basically half the group pursued this strategy, so midway through the season, everyone was fucking up all over the place and bickering over a pot that wasn't even in the tens of thousands. To be clear, it was great television.

KM: Everyone was trying to play 4-D chess. What’s weird, though, is that they must have all been kind of sharing that theory that casting blame on yourself is the best strategy for that. When in reality, it would have been just as effective to pick someone you thought was absolutely not the mole, and cast suspicion on them at every turn. It was truly perfect TV when three people had to run five seven-minute miles for a pot of $10,000. Chef’s kiss. 

SK: Part of me wonders if this was a generational thing. Were they mostly afraid of confrontation in this way? That might be why the "shithole Mole" moment felt notable enough to close an episode.

KM: Yeah, everyone on this show seemed very aware of the “villain edit” as a concept, which I think is fair. It’s not fun to be the internet’s enemy, but also I think being the villain on a show like this is kind of fine! The problem with people casting suspicion on themselves is that none of them were villainous enough. It was a very civil show. Much more civil than every other reality show on right now. Everyone took their little quizzes and worked together and had a nice dinner together. There was also almost no cursing. It was kind of nostalgic in that way! 

SK: I'm pretty sure Avori and Pranav are just friends now even though the show's over. Maybe they knew each other before the show?

KM: Oh my god, one of the most heartbreaking things about this series is that the eliminated player isn’t allowed to say goodbye to anyone. So when Pranav left the show, Avori was just left there on the couch crying, wondering to the camera if she could have helped keep him there (even though her intel was wrong). 

SK: Yeah, that was rough. That was the same policy for the original version: The eliminated contestant has to leave immediately so they don't talk to anyone still playing about what they guessed on the quiz, or who they think isn't the mole. But yeah, I couldn't imagine any lingering resentment, aside from maybe Dom getting fucked over while he was trapped in that car. He returned for the finale and didn't seem like he was dwelling on it, though.

KM: That was actually my very first moment (according to my notes) where I added Kesi to my Mole list. She was so adamant about wanting to bring Dom back. Dom seemed great! I liked him as a contestant! But it was a weird argument for her to make, and it made me suspicious of her! 

SK: Nice job at clocking that; I hadn't picked up on it. Thinking about it more, the other contestants did have a fair argument about how he would return with an advantage because he would know, from his bad quiz result, who wasn't the mole, and so it'd make sense that Kesi would want him to get in front of another weak player.

KM: Yes! I think also it was early enough in the game that you could take the wrong test results too far and become convinced that someone who was the mole wasn’t. Like if Dom had come back, there was a 50/50 chance he leads everyone far, far away from you. 

SK: This might be a good segue to talking about the actual mole: Kesi. I did not think it was her until the ninth episode (out of 10). Long before Joi pointed her finger at Jacob, I thought he was for sure the mole. When he got eliminated, I shifted to Kesi.

KM: When was the moment you knew? Was there a clear point for you?

SK: Kesi was playing the game so subtly that I thought it had to be her. Joi was truly all over the place, and I thought Will was too insistent on completing the tasks. He never really sabotaged anything. He would've sucked as a mole.

KM: One thing I have always loved about this show is that it is the perfect example of confirmation bias. It is so easy to convince yourself that anyone can be the mole at any point in time. My terrible brain was pretty convinced to focus on Jacob fully for many episodes. For a little while (episodes 4–8), I was focused on both Jacob and Kesi.

SK: He worked with Joi on a couple of team tasks, and it felt like a very mole move to allow her to naturally sabotage the mission and take the blame.

KM: It did! He was so sneaky in this weird way! I knew it was Kesi for sure when Greg went home, because he changed his answers on the quiz away from Kesi and then got cut. Really, justice for Greg. He should have trusted himself! 

SK: Greg was a fun player to watch. At the beginning it seemed like he wouldn't last long, but then he became more transparent in his self-interest, and I think that benefited him. Sometimes he was in that "too clever" category but when he actually helped with the tasks, he was great.

KM: Yes! It’s funny because the arguably least interesting player was the one who ended up winning. Will, who was focused on getting money the entire time and completing challenges, won the whole thing! I’m not sure if that will be replicable in seasons going forward as the players get smarter. 

SK: It's amusing to me that Will was portrayed more or less as the protagonist, and then became the winner of a show on a network that also released Squid Game

KM: Hahahahaha. I didn’t even think about that. That’s so funny. You’re right. Here’s a question: Do you think that the second-episode twist (where a briefcase was revealed to be stolen, shown to be by Will, and then revealed to be Will winning more money for the team) gave him an unfair advantage where people trusted him more? 

SK: Oh, that's interesting. I do wonder if that specific task (stealing to get more money for the group) would win you a lot of goodwill, because for a lot of the exemption challenges, it typically had to be something that would more permanently betray everyone else. But the betrayal there is pretty easy to explain away, and like you said, since it happened so early and because Will was naturally presented as a leader, he might've had a bit of an advantage.

KM: Yes! I wonder what this show would look like if there were more opportunities for sabotage that would be a positive development only if you succeeded. There were many obviously bad or annoying things people could do on the show, but not many good things masquerading as bad. 

Will won the season, but who was the winner of your heart in the end? 

SK: Aw. I don't think they'd ever do a second-chance version because a contestant learns too much about the game, but I'd like to see how Pranav would've done without Avori. He felt like a strong player who made one critical mistake: trusting a gamer. (Just joking, gamers—I am one of you.)

KM: Haha! You’re right, though. She was too good at the game! She couldn’t be his ally! But the world of reality television is infinite. Pranav could show up somewhere else! You never know! 

SK: Maybe one day there'll be a show that combines The Mole and Chopped. Actually, does this already exist? (It does: Rat in the Kitchen. Doesn't seem like anyone watched it.) Who was your favorite?

KM: I’m sure this is going to be a common answer, but I loved Dom. He had such a kind and fun energy. He just wanted to hug all his bros. The deep look of pain that came over his face when he thought that Will had betrayed the team after knowing him for one (1) day, endeared him to me forever. Do you think that you could compete on this show? Could you be the mole? 

SK: Dom was a sweetheart. I'm not very good at lying, so I think I'd be pinpointed within two episodes. As a regular contestant, I would certainly try to do well at the tasks but likely be betrayed by a gamer. How about you?

KM: Are you good at carrying things up a hill, though? I think my physical capabilities are too weak for my success. People would think I was sabotaging when really I’m just a poor swimmer. I would be like Greg! Good for a few episodes before being conned by someone into self-doubt.

SK: Oh yeah, I can't swim for shit. I have plenty of experience carrying all the groceries from the car to the house in one trip, so I'll measure my strength as average.

KM: “Two Defector Staffers Drown During Filming of Reality TV Show in Tropical Paradise” really doesn’t seem like good television, to be honest. Last Q: Samer, are you the mole right now? Don’t lie. 

SK: I am not, but Ratto's been acting very suspicious during our various challenges today…

KM: Wow…

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