The winner of season three of Netflix’s The Circle is officially crowned! If you’ve been following our weekly recaps, you know there were a lot of solid contenders competing for the $100,000 prize this season. This season was an emotional roller coaster from catfish Ashley to Daddy Nick, making us both laugh and cry. After Jacki is blocked in the penultimate episode, that just leaves one final task for our five finalists: the final ranking to determine, once and for all, who is the most popular. After weeks of intense gameplay and deception, one player earned that sweet, sweet prize money …
And the winner is James!
Like everyone he played with, I’m a huge fan of James and couldn’t be happier to see him win. After getting an admirable third place, Sophia a.k.a. Isabella sums it up best: “Honestly, I thought I would be disappointed I didn’t win, but I’m really not,” she says. “James is somebody who deserves it so much, so it still feels like a win.” This perspective and grace are exactly why we fell in love with Sophia, and it’s lovely to hear her happy for our winner.
So just how did James pull off the win? After three seasons, James is the first winner to not arrive on day one, proving just how great of a game he played. His time in the Circle may have been limited, but he used every moment to his advantage, pulling in the right people and having all the right conversations at just the right times. His approachability, humor, and sincerity drew the other players in quickly, making up for any time he may have lost.
In last week’s recap, I put Nick and James at the top of my power ranking, and it seemed like the two men were both in contention for the win. After nailing two ratings in a row and becoming an influencer twice, Nick was just seen as too competitive to win. Matthew and Sophia both struggled with rating their closest ally, fearing that Nick’s popularity was the most threatening to their own games. Ultimately, Nick got fifth place, disappointing the confident MIT grad.
Where James and Nick differ is that Nick says the things he has to say, rather than what he wants to. Make no mistake, James knew the game he was playing and what he needed to do to win, but he didn’t come off as shady and conniving as Nick. Knowing he needed to bond with players like Ashley, he opened up and tried to form a sincere connection. Nick, on the other hand, was calculated and smug throughout his entire game. Almost reminiscent of Russell Hantz’s strategy in his two seasons of Survivor, Nick aligned with women he knew would always protect him. He had the Band to back him up, but his relationships with the other players were secondary to securing the numbers advantage. That’s a fine strategy mathematically speaking, of course, but we all know popularity, the name of the game in The Circle, isn’t determined with just numbers. Both Nick and Russell used strong-arm tactics and secret advantages as part of their strategies to successfully make it to the end of their respective games, but that style of gameplay comes with a price. Just like Russell could never sway a jury in his favor owing to the ferocity of his game, Nick ends up last in the final ratings. No one — not even his closest two allies — rated Nick highly. His bond with Isabella was strong, and it seemed like Sophia valued their friendship, even if it was under the pretense of flirting, but one good friend does not a winner make. In the end, James was simply a more likable player than Nick and wasn’t as seen as threatening, allowing him to grace the top of the ratings the time it mattered most.
Another reason James deserves this win is because of his ability to instantly clock catfish in the Circle. Matthew’s ruse may have eventually convinced him, but when James first arrived in the Circle, he quickly figured out that Jackson and Isabella were catfish. He was wary of Ashley, too, but in a true testament to Matthew’s gameplay, he successfully convinced James he really was a sweet and innocent lesbian. Season two was won by the show’s most successful catfish so far but — no shade intended, I love DeLeesa — I’m here for a winner with a God-tier catfish radar.
But more than just crowning our winner, the finale of The Circle also introduced all our players face-to-face, finally revealing Sophia and Matthew’s true identities. Nick and Sophia were the first to meet, and unsurprisingly, his disappointment was immediately evident. Once Sophia explained that Isabella wasn’t just a pretty face but was really her big sister, Nick softened to the idea. Sophia seemed so worried that she was going to break Nick’s heart but with Rachel a.k.a. Jackson ready to pounce on Nick anyway, I think he’ll be okay. Kai and James were both sure of Isabella’s catfish status, so it didn’t surprise them much to see the purple suit-donning lesbian in place of the blonde bombshell they knew from her profile photo.
Now Matthew, on the other hand, is a surprise. In the loudest moment of the whole season, Matthew a.k.a. Ashley arrives at the final in-person chat, looking dapper as ever, and is met with an eruption of screaming. No one suspected Ashley was a catfish at all, but Matthew assures them that he’s “still gay as sin!” When the final ratings are revealed, Ashley gets second place and immense praise from all the players and host Michelle Buteau. I believe that if Matthew played as himself, he would’ve made it just as far, but how can you argue with the results? Matthew knew he wanted to be his true emotional self but felt that people would trust him more behind if he played as a woman. Props to Matthew because clearly it worked out for him!
The Circle’s short run so far feels like the game is still trying to figure itself out. Twists, like the Blue/Orange Michelle debacle and Vince the Ghost Hunter, are entertaining and have interesting impacts on the gameplay but ultimately feel random in the grand scheme of the series. Add in the fact that there’s an undisclosed number of players each season who enter the game at various intervals, and there’s no real way to predict what will happen next. This is fun, sure, but it also prevents players and viewers from having a real grasp on what it takes to win. With almost no consistency, it’s hard to say what kind of personality is best suited for a game like The Circle — being overly nice, like Ruksana, is threatening; overtly strategic gameplay, like Nick’s, is threatening; even River and Courtney’s becoming best friends resulted in the duo getting fourth and third place, respectively, in season two. The one thing we do know, though, is that with James as our newest champion, it’s clear The Circle rewards sincerity and genuine connections. Season-one winner Joey Sasso was praised for being his true self, and while season-two winner DeLeesa played as her husband, she incorporated her truths into her profile and conversations — for the most part! James fits right in with the show’s previous winners in this regard, and if he’s any indication of what the show actually wants to represent, I think the coming seasons will be just as surprisingly wholesome.
• James shows us the power of speaking things into existence by waking up the morning of the finale and declaring that Michelle should practice saying his name. Go off!
• “This is for the 100k, the 100 Kai!”
• For some reason, it didn’t quite hit me that Nick’s alliance, the Band, was made up entirely of catfish until I saw them all in the same room. And the fact that, conversely, Kai was aligned with players all playing themselves is just hilarious. Nick was so preoccupied telling everyone what they wanted to hear (and celebrating the fact that his allies all told him what he wanted to hear) that he was unable to see the true deception happening right under his nose.
• Rachel doesn’t want to step on Sophia’s toes regarding going on a date with Nick, to which Sophia (who, again, was wearing a bright-purple pantsuit) yells, “I’m gay! I’m gay! I’m gay!” in case someone hasn’t gotten the message yet.
• When James finally meets Daniel at the reunion, he immediately scoops him up like a baby, and apologizes repeatedly for blocking him. Such a cute moment that really showcases why I love both these men.
• Ruksana’s brutally stunned “Hi …” when she meets the real Sophia is legendary. Someone needs to post that video now because I need that reaction immortalized.
• Finally, one last Michelle Buteau shoutout! Only popping in here and there throughout the season, our gorgeous host often says just what I’m thinking. Her utter disgust at saying “Big Nick Energy” one last time makes me think we share an opinion of Mr. RiNickulous, and I love that for us.