We Watched All Of Panic. Here’s What’s Really Going On With The Game

Photo: Courtesy of Prime Studios.
Spoilers for Panic on Amazon Prime are ahead. Our conversations — they had the mentality of that Always Sunny scene where Charlie is pointing,” Olivia Welch, star of Amazon’s Panic, laughed over Zoom recently. The actor was sporting artfully crafted braids and a patterned top as she reminisced about the off-camera detective work she and Panic co-stars like Ray Nicholson, who was also on the call, put into understanding the ever-evolving puzzle that is their Texas-set young adult thriller. At the center of Panic is the summer-long game of the same name, whose rules — and goals — become exponentially more complicated over its 10-episode first season, premiering May 28. 
The only image comparable to Welch & Co.’s mad dash to understand Panic (and Panic) is Charlie Kelly (Charlie Day) and his elaborate conspiracy board — one of society’s most relatable GIFs. “Us trying to solve it as we filmed: It was definitely that,” Welch recalled. 
“We also had running jokes that perhaps Ray had super powers,” Nicholson joked, referring to his breakout character, Ray Hall, whose prowess at Panic’s death-defying stunts is approaching superhuman (see: Ray’s seconds-long dash over a creaky beam in the sky during second episode “Heights''). “Anything can happen in this world,” he added.  
“You truly never knew where it was going to go,” Welch concluded. 
Considering just how hungry Panic insiders like Welch and Nicholson were to crack the secrets of the game — brought to the screen by creator Lauren Oliver, author of the 2014 novel of the same name — it’s likely viewers will be even more confused as they watch the streaming series unfold. Luckily we — with a little help from Welch and Nicholson — can explain. 

What is Panic, the game? 

Panic’s series premiere cold open is confusing. It suggests Panic is a terrifying game used by a remote society to determine who is allowed out of their closed community and into the wider world (or, at least that’s how I interpreted it). That is incorrect. 
Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Prime.
Kariana Karhu and Olivia Welch as Heather and Lily in Panic.
Panic is an annual game in the fictional working-class town of Carp, TX, open to all recent graduates of Carp High School’s latest senior class. The game runs directly after graduation and throughout the summer, until a winner is determined. That winner gets a humongous cash prize, which they can use to leave their dead-end town. Panic has several elimination rounds, and each one ratchets up the fear quotient. Panic has been running for a number of years, but its exact origin is unclear. It all started, as Welch’s Heather Nill says, “because it was summer and there was nothing else to do.” Seniors who do not play Panic are free to watch much of the game as entertainment. 
The main rule of Panic is simple: Don’t panic. If one does panic — and exits a challenge — they are thrown out of the game. Panic is managed by a pair of unknown judges and hosted by at least one emcee. Judges use clues and subterfuge to communicate game developments in plain sight. Panic ends when two finalists compete in a head-to-head challenge (which we will not spoil for you). The winner gets the entire cash prize. 

Has Panic killed anyone? 

In Panic’s premiere, “Panic,” Heather ominously says the game has “ghosts.” We then see a sign that reads “RIP Jimmy & Abby, we miss you!” As we learn over Panic season 1, the sign is talking about Jimmy Cortez (David De La Barcena) and Abby Clark (Avianna Mynhier), two Carp teens a year older than Heather and her friends. Jimmy and Abby, who were also a couple, died under extremely suspicious circumstances during Panic the year before the events of Panic. Abby was hit by a car during a challenge where no such vehicle should have been a threat; Jimmy shot himself to death during a game of Russian Roulette. Panic eventually reveals the Russian Roulette challenge gun was supposed to be a fake, suggesting someone purposefully murdered Jimmy. 
Among Panic season 1’s many mysteries, the question of who may have orchestrated Jimmy and Abby’s death’s via the game looms large. These in-game tragedies also alert the existence of Panic to Carp’s most powerful sheriffs, who spend the summer trying to stop the possibly fatal festivities. It is unclear if players besides Jimmy and Abby died during Panic in previous years. 
Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Prime.
Ray Nicholson as Ray in Panic.

Where does the money for Panic come from? 

Initially, Ray explains Panic’s money comes from forcing every student at Carp High School to fork over one dollar a day each day school is in session. The year before the events of Panic season 1, the pot was $30,000. Somehow, it explodes to $50,000 the year Heather, Ray, and their classmates play. “Yeah, that was quite a bit of money … Ray is out there hustling if that’s what’s going on,” Nicholson admitted. 
That’s why this section of Panic invites many theories about the prize money’s source, which is never confirmed in the series. One obvious possibility comes from gambling. Over season 1, Heather begins to realize outside forces (aka adults) are betting on the outcome of Panic, adding new, extreme stakes to a children’s game. It would make sense that some mysterious individual flooded the pot to increase game play. 
Another option is money laundering. “That’s a great theory,” Welch and Nicholson agreed, confirming that even the Panic cast was surprised by the pot’s size. A few major breadcrumbs in Panic suggest drug money is a major piece of Carp’s economy, including Tyler Young’s (Little Fires Everywhere’s Jordan Elsass) dangerous scrapes as a failing drug dealer and the marijuana farm found on the secluded Spurlock farm. As Ozark told us, all criminal operations need an outlet to clean their money — why not a chaotic teen game that already has a betting component? 

Is Panic rigged? 

Yes. At a base level, the anonymous judges manage Panic and attempt to use insider knowledge to ensure the game is extremely personal and scary for each contestant. There is a guiding hand over the proceedings. But, depending on the last challenge, it is extremely difficult for the judges to pre-determine who will actually win — only who will get to the finals. 
Then, there is the new gambling undercurrent to the game. Depending on bets, it is likely some outside forces would be willing to do anything to fix the game and ensure their own payday.

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