Warning: This article contains spoilers for The Circle Season 2, including the finale, which is currently streaming on Netflix.
How, exactly, do you win The Circle?
I don’t mean on a functional level, because that’s obvious: you get to the end and get ranked #1 by your fellow players, securing your victory and $100,000. It’s pretty simple if you think about it like that. But I’m talking about a bigger question: What does a winning game even look like on The Circle? The second season of the US version just wrapped up, after 13 episodes of hammering home strategy. The contestants talked about it. The marketing talked about it. Host Michelle Buteau talked about it.
And in the end, when Deleesa Carrasquillo won, playing as her husband Trevor, she was praised for playing a great game all around. I don’t disagree at all — Trevor was my favorite all season long, and I think Deleesa’s game was absolutely top tier. Next to Natalya Platonova’s winning game as Felix on The Circle’s third UK season, it’s probably my favorite game we’ve seen win in this format. I just can’t really tell you why.
For all the focus on strategy this season, whether there’s a “correct” strategy to win The Circle remains something of a mystery. Unlike fellow social strategy game Big Brother, which saw several strategies for dominating the game crafted by players like Dr. Will Kirby, Danielle Reyes, and Jun Song, so far the players on The Circle seem to be making it up as they go along. And the rapidly evolving metagame — catfish are bad, no wait... now they’re good — only complicates things.
So for sake of conversation, let’s take a look back at this season to try to figure out what a signature Circle strategy might be — and why the format of the game dictates that a player can only control so much on their own.
Regarding Trevor’s winning game, there are a few clear lessons to be learned. For one, being an early influencer would seem to be a death sentence (just ask Savannah and Terilisha), whereas consistently rating third is the place to be. That shows you’re valued by your fellow competitors, but you’re not the one making decisions. Also, making low-key bonds across the board is better than being paired with one clear ally: you don’t want people to start rating you low out of concern that you’re too beloved.
Contrast Trevor’s game to that of runner-up Chloe Veitch. The former Too Hot to Handle star was a delight on the show, and her sterling social game kept her afloat despite her relative lack of strategy. But Chloe was #1 on the average rating a few times, increasing the size of her target and making her vulnerable to those making strategically lower ratings near the end of the game. Courtney Revolution was one such player, as he pointedly submitted his final rating to put himself in the best position to win. Unfortunately for Courtney, the damage to his game was done when he was publicly tied to his ally River, aka Lee Swift. He could strategize all he wanted, but he was destined to have his rating dragged down by those wary of him in the endgame.
Perhaps the most interesting part of Trevor’s game was how Deleesa handled the two opposing sides of the house. She saw how dominant Courtney and River had become, and launched a game plan to weaken them. She used her connection with Chloe to get her closer to Trevor’s other ally Mitchell Eason, then planned on targeting either Courtney or River to get them out of the game. Ultimately, that plan didn’t work — Chloe was in too closely with Courtney and River, and her #1 ranking of the latter gave River the power to block Mitchell. But Trevor’s positioning meant Mitchell took the fall for it, not Deleesa.
In the end, Trevor won, and would likely have done so whether the attempt to break up Courtney and River had worked or not. It was social positioning that won the day, plus a smart, convincing catfish portrayal. It’s a much more satisfying ending to the season than we’ve seen on other installments of the series, which have sometimes featured too-smart-for-their-own-good strategic rankings in the endgame result in an unsatisfying winner.
But while Trevor’s social bonds and catfish persona are all credited to Deleesa, there’s some level to which her strategy still came down to luck. Yes, she got those third-place ratings early on and thus stayed under the radar, but those were a result of how the rest of the players rated each other. Had the ratings gone differently, Trevor could’ve wound up on top. That’s what makes it hard to understand what a great Circle game really is: the format restricts how much control one player can exert.
It’s possible that the full potential of The Circle has yet to be explored. Maybe the next winner will be the Dr. Will of this relatively new series, and demonstrate a truly in-control, dominant game. Maybe we’ll see a Jun develop the Circle version of a floater strategy. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the game evolves too fast for anyone to really crack the code. And in some ways, that makes for a more interesting game: you never know who might wind up on top.
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Kevin O'Keeffe is a writer, host, and RuPaul's Drag Race herstorian living in Los Angeles.