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'Traitors' producer teases 'heart-stopping' finale: 'You'll scream at the TV'

Producer Mike Cotton opens up about casting for Season Three and the moment that "really surprised" him in Season Two.

"The Traitors" is a game of manipulation.

A take on the party game Mafia, the American version of the show unfolds at a Scottish castle. There, players are divided into “Faithfuls” and “Traitors.” Faithfuls have to vote off suspected Traitors from the group, all while being potentially “murdered” by Traitors. If the Faithful eliminate all the Traitors by the final night in the castle, they split the prize. If they do not, the remaining Traitors take it all.

But who is manipulating the manipulators? We spoke to executive producer Mike Cotton, one of the masterminds behind the U.K. and U.S. version show, about how the pop culture phenomenon gets made.

Below, Cotton shares behind-the-scenes secrets, his favorite gameplay and if he’s been enjoying the memes as much as we have.

What was behind the decision to try an all celebrity cast this season? How do you think it came out?

Cotton: Season One was a mix of civilians and celebrities. I think we thought that’d be an interesting experiment, in that this is a show about who you trust, and can you spot someone who's deceiving you? We thought it’d be really interesting to have a cast that some people didn’t know anything about, and some people you might have a preconceived notion about because they’re a celebrity.

I think Season One worked really well. When we looked at moving forward to Season Two, we wanted to build on the brand. We sort of reflected, and felt that there’s only two teams in the show. Two sides, the Faithful and the Traitors. Would it be a cleaner, simpler proposition to just have celebrities in the mix? We just wanted to build on the show.

How early do you decide, when you have this cast, who is going to be a Traitor?

We treat the cast like you might building a jury. We want people from all walks of life, who all bring something different to it — a different skill, a different experience. When we’re casting people, we like the idea that everyone might have a potential to become a Traitor, because you never know. They might get recruited within the game.

We don’t actually choose who the Traitors are until the very last minute. We film them arriving at the castle, they have their drinks, explore the castle, they get to know one another. They have these chats with Alan (Cumming) by a fire, where he sort of interviews them to be a potential Traitor. It’s not until we’ve done all of those things that we actually then sit, and, as a group — the network, the producers, Alan — decide together who the Traitors are going to be. But we don’t, at the very start, call someone specifically to be a Traitor. We sort of see how it will play out.

Does Alan stay in character the whole time? What role does he kind of play off camera?

Alan is a puppet master of the game, so when he’s with the cast, he is who you see on the show. He is obsessed by the game. He has a feed in his dressing room so he can watch all the fixed cameras throughout the castle. He can literally dial in and listen to conversations himself, and he loves that. He’s always desperate to know, “Who’s going to get murdered?”

As soon as we found the cast in Scotland, we thought he’d be the perfect host for the show. And he really loves the game. He was a fan as soon as he watched the (original) Dutch version.

The Traitors - Season 2
Alan Cumming.Peacock

You’re a producer and also a game maker. How do you design these plot twists? How early in advance do you make them? When do you decide to deploy a twist?

We’re actually quite strict on this. I think people think we throw them in when we want. There’s a set of rules for this game, a bit like Monopoly, that we stick to and play. We pre-planned in advance where those twists were going to happen, when they were going to drop. We knew when the Poison Chalice was going to be. We knew where the sacrifice Torch Ceremony was going to be, and we put them in a blockout beforehand.

Producing is much more like writing a story. We plan out what all the different chapters are going to be, and where they’re going to happen. And then we leave them to it. It wasn’t that we suddenly thought, “Oh, we need to put this twist in here to drive this moment.”

That was sort of preordained, and then we just saw the cards fall how they were. That’s what’s exciting for us: We set it up, let it go, and just see what happens.

Do you ever watch someone play and go, “Oh my God, they’re figuring it out too quickly?” Were you shocked by someone’s gameplay? How do you handle that?

We watch in a gallery near the castle, and half the time it’s watching through our hands, like, “Oh my God, what’s gonna happen?”

We were totally surprised by Peter with the plan that he hatched (ed. note: Peter Weber lied to suspected Traitors about having a shield). I was really surprised. He came up with that plan. It was a really clever plan. And he effectively rumbled Parvati and Dan by doing that. I thought it was a really clever move.

Sometimes that’s a bit scary. But as long as they play within the rules of the game, and that move totally was, that’s what’s exciting. I think if we’re on the edge of our seats as producers, then we know that the viewers are going to enjoy it as well.

I want to know about the breakfast table entrances. How do you decide who comes out, and at what time, to build that suspense?

That’s a good question, because no one ever asks that. As producers, we are really hands off. When they arrive at the castle, and once we start the day, there’s very little intervention from us. We’re not like other reality shows. We don’t say, “Hey, can you go and have a chat with this person?” We don’t orchestrate conversations. One of the reasons for that is that we want the players to be immersed within the bubble, but also, we don’t ever want to influence the game. If we intervened, people suddenly think that someone might be a Traitor because the producers keep talking to them. So we’re deliberately hands off.

There’s not much within our control or power, but one of the things we can decide is the order that people come in to breakfast after a murder. But there’s a couple things. We always want to keep it different. So we mix it up constantly. If someone always came in first, or someone always came in last, it would arouse suspicion. The people that come in towards the end are normally the ones that the Traitors would have discussed that night. But again, we mix it up. Sometimes a Traitor will come in with one of the last people as well. We can decide that.

Sometimes we might have a bit of fun with the order in which people come in, but a lot of that is trying to be as random as possible so that people can’t spot a pattern, because people do look for patterns. We try to keep it random. Sometimes there’s a chance for some bit of fun. Like, we might put both Traitors in to start with, so they can have a discussion first.

As a producer, do your allegiances sway over the course of your time filming in the castle?

All the time. I really respect good gameplay. I was amazed by Peter’s move with the shield. I think Kate’s played it really interesting now that she’s become a Traitor. We never could have predicted it. We didn’t make her a Traitor going back in. We had no idea. We were overjoyed when she did.

Who were you surprised made it as far as they did?

That’s a good question. I think Phaedra has done really well, right? She made it really far. Everyone was on her. How amazing that she got rid of Peter! She managed to do that. And we gasped in the gallery as we were filming that, because we just didn’t know whether she was gonna do it or not. And so I thought that was totally brilliant. I was surprised how far she made it. 

Initially coming in, I assumed that a strategist like Dan might make it further than someone like Phaedra, but actually Phaedra had so many skills from her legal background, to being a "Housewife", that actually she was a brilliant player in the end, and played the game really well. 

The Traitors - Season 2
THE TRAITORS -- "Blood on Their Hands" Episode 207 -- Pictured: (l-r) Kevin Kreider, Trishelle Cannatella, Peter Weber, John Bercow, Carsten “Bergie” Bergersen, Mercedes “MJ” Javid.Peacock

Who were you surprised made it to the finale?

I think MJ’s played a really interesting game to make it to the finale. In many ways, when she first got there, she didn’t sort of fit into a clique, necessarily. She wasn’t a Housewife. She wasn’t a gamer. And I think she went on an interesting journey. I think she felt that herself, that sometimes, like in the (torch) sacrifice, she wasn’t anyone’s number one. And so I think she’s played an interesting game, and has done really well to get to the final.

The Internet is asking, “Does Shereé even know she’s playing a game?” Do you think Shereé knew she was playing a game?

I think — well, she knew what the game was. But sometimes, I have to admit, sometimes it looks like ... I think sometimes she probably got confused about the game that she’s playing, because it is a complex game.

Have you seen all the memes?

Of course! We see all of those things. We love all of them. I mean, I’ll always love Phaedra’s “Oh, Lord, not Ekin-Su!” And I also loved MJ’s walk, when she walked into the room with Peter and his pals. I loved that. 

You mentioned Dan earlier. Do you think Dan threw Phaedra’s game under the bus?

Look, he played within the rules. Traitors are allowed to accuse other Traitors at a round table, but only from the viewpoint of being a Faithful themselves. It was a controversial move. I think he thought his only chance of staying was if he could feed them another Traitor. It was a really bold move. I think if it worked, we probably would have all said that he was a genius, and what an amazing move, and it turned the game on its head. And I think he knew that he had to do something big to try and save himself. Was it fair? Some people say it was unfair, but it was within the rules of the game.

The Traitors - Season 2
Phaedra Parks on "The Traitors.."Peacock

I know you’re an executive producer for the UK version as well. What is the difference in playing styles of the Brits versus the Americans, if there is one?

The Brits probably are playing a little bit more emotionally. They aren’t used to being in TV shows like some of our celebrity cast, and they wear their hearts on their sleeve a little bit more, and probably cry a bit more than some of the Americans do.

I know you can’t say who wins, but is there anything you can spill about the finale? What was it like to watch it go down in the castle?

It’s really dramatic. It’s heartstopping, and there’s a couple of moments where I think you’ll scream at the TV. I think you’ll really love it.

Were you happy with your winner? 

Yeah.

Who is your dream cast for next season?

We just started the process of building that cast at the moment. I’ll tell you what I do though, is I love looking at everyone’s suggestions on X or Twitter, and on the internet, because it’s fascinating to see who people want. And so we do read all of those things. But also, I think we want to keep it surprising, too. I want some surprise casting twist in there. Because that’s what will make it fun.