This recap covers episode nine, “Circle of Trust.”
The cavernous dorm is now so empty you can practically hear the roar of the air-conditioning.
“Circle of Trust” picks up shortly after the conclusion of the dice game. We’re down to nine players, with the pot at $4.47 million. (Yeesh.) Mai is torn up over Chad’s elimination, and through a confessional, we hear Ashley (278) continue her verbal victory lap as she hones in on Mai’s shrewd and perhaps duplicitous deployment of a sweet disposition.
Which she’s not wrong about, by the way! In many senses, Mai (287) is a terrifying player. For one thing, she’s proving to be more capable of deception and cutthroat decisions than most in the competition. And based on her attempt to oust Ashley, she’s willing to break from whatever group consensus emerges — which back in the dice game meant implementing a less antagonizing framework of self-elimination, eruditely described by Sam as “a game of civil decency” — to take action based on her own moral code. (Or internal strategic assessment. For her, it seems to be a mix.) But Mai doesn’t appear to be especially good at communicating her rationale, as evidenced in her one-on-one chat with Sam in the latrines. So this creates a kind of dissonance that increasingly renders her a chaotic agent in the eyes of everyone else. No wonder she feels isolated. No wonder she leans harder into brutal action.
But the thing that does confuse me is the extent to which everyone else doesn’t seem particularly bothered by what Ashley did in the Glass Tile challenge when she hung Trey out to dry. Did I see the same thing as everyone else? Or am I a victim of magical reality-television editing, which extravagantly inflated something that was only vaguely there? I have to wonder.
Now that Squid Game: The Challenge is down to nine players, it’s got some catching up to do in terms of character development. We’ve spent a ton of time with Ashley, Mai, Phill (451), and to some extent Amanda (19) and Sam (16), but we’ve barely gotten to know Rose (51), Elliott (429), Hallie (355), and sweet, saintly labor icon Roland (418), who I have all the time in the world for. However, within the constraints of what little downtime scenes are afforded in this 44-minute-ish episode, there’s only so much psychological insight that can be provided through confessionals.
Around the dorm, the players take stock of their actions and relationships, which lets us do the same, too. A close bond is shared between Phill and Sam, who seem to approach the game with the most humanistic lens possible despite everything that’s happened. We know from the previous exposition that Sam is close to Ashley too. Roland buys into Mai’s sweetness and believes he can trust her; they are shown to bond as well. We see Roland and Hallie hang out, though the latter is increasingly wary of fully trusting anybody at this point.
Challenge time. The titular Circle of Trust game, not quite the same as the similarly named exercise you might find at a sad corporate retreat, involves the players engaged in an extended session of deduction. The remaining nine sit in a circle, blindfolded, and one is randomly tapped to target another player for elimination. The targeted player is then given the opportunity to identify their executioner. If they’re wrong, they’re out. If they’re right, the executioner is out. On and on it goes until we’re down to the final three.
Mai gets tapped first. In yet another example of everyone being absolutely justified in being uneasy with her, she targets Roland, the one person who felt comfortable trusting her after the dice game. Dear sweet “we ball!” Roland, who delightfully fist-bumps his way through what is obviously a deliberation phase prompted by the producers. He accuses Rose on the basis of their lack of familiarity and is cut from the game. “I feel bad that I picked Roland,” she says in the confessional. “But I have to do what I have to to move forward.” Was this the only card she could play? Going for Ashley would be too obvious. Going for anybody else other than Roland is a possibility, though given the room’s general wariness with her, it’s not without risk. Picking Roland isn’t a sure thing, but it’s the least risky, and Mai makes the bet to fully exploit his chill nature and trust in her. It’s a brutal move.
Hallie is tapped next. She targets Amanda, working off the assumption that she’d continue in her solidarity with the women’s coalition. It’s the right call: Amanda accuses Phill — who possesses the most open face in the game, shaking his head when confronted with her pointing finger — and is eliminated for her failure.
Elliott is made to select next. Here we get even more insight into how everyone else views Mai. “I do honestly believe my biggest threat is Mai,” he says in the confessional, explaining his choice to target her. “In every game, she’s always come out smelling of roses, and some of us aren’t really sure how.” What happens next provides part of the answer: Cuz she’s a killer! Despite Ashley trying to draw attention to herself, Mai correctly deduces her attempted executioner. This moment has significant downstream effects, as it’s all but certain to compel others to think twice before targeting her.
Rose is up and quickly finds herself in a pickle in that she doesn’t really have any alliances to exploit or find cover in. She targets Phill on the basis of not knowing him all that well. With a finger-pointing flourish that recalls Hercule Poirot (or Phoenix Wright?), Phill correctly susses out Rose using the same rationale. He fist-pumps, quietly, in celebration.
Next on the block is Ashley, who decides not to target Mai due to their mutually recognized beef. (Between correctly sniffing out Elliott and locking Ashley into this logic, Mai is doubly protected in this situation.) Presumably setting aside Sam, with whom she shares a bond that may come in handy in the endgame, and possibly discounting Hallie over being a little too unknown to her, she opts to target Phill. But Phill turns out to be a killer himself, pulling another Holmesean feat of deduction to accurately identify Ashley.
Now down to four, we’re not shown the last person selected to play the final hand. It’s a logical narrative choice since the show gets to extract a nice shot of tension down the home stretch, but it also puts us deeper into the shoes of the player in the hot seat. Hallie decides to accuse Mai, working off a growing sense of distrust in her that’s developed over the course of the competition. But she turns out to be wrong, proving that Mai can even be a killer in indirect, unintentional ways. The executioner was Phill, who practically walks out the MVP of the Circle of Trust.
And that’s it. We have our final three: Mai, Phill, and Sam. But we’re not done yet, as we have one last beat. Back in the dorm, Mai’s game continues. As the three take in the near-empty living space — “It looks like the water level rose,” says Sam, fast emerging as the show’s poet laureate — they ambiently talk about what just happened. When asked about who she targeted for elimination, Mai lies, trying to avoid being found out for throwing the one person who trusted her under the bus.
Perhaps she didn’t want Sam and Phill to see her too much as a killer. But boy, is it far too late for that.