Wayward Pines is the unnerving new television series by creator Chad Hodge (Runaway, The Playboy Club), who has had the momentous task of taking Blake Crouch’s creepy book trilogy and turning them it into a single set of ten episodes. Onboard too as executive producer is M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable), who also directs the pilot.
The show has been billed as a “limited series”, which means it’s ten episodes and done, unless it does well enough in the ratings to earn another season. Similar to American Horror Story’s ability to draw in big names, it has meant a fair amount of well-known talent has signed on without the overbearing hassle of having to commit to a certain number of years.
Hodge promised a huge twist in episode five and it was definitely delivered, while also explaining the drawing factor for Shyamalan’s involvement. Additionally, it serves as the halfway point for the series, which makes it a good time to review and reassess what’s happened on the show so far.
*********** Spoilers Ahead***********
The series follows Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon), a Secret Service agent who goes searching for two fellow agents that had gone missing a few weeks prior. When his search leads him to the picturesque town of Wayward Pines, after a nasty car crash, it quickly becomes apparent that nothing is as it seems.
The townsfolk are eerily cheerful as they go about their business in their white picket houses, all the while continuously receiving phone calls that seem to dictate orders to be followed out from a secret caller.
When Ethan finds one of the missing agents, Kate Hewson (Carla Gugino), who also just happens to be his former mistress, she has not only gotten married and settled down in Wayward Pines, but has also unexplainably aged twelve years in the process. Through her Ethan learns of the set of rules the townspeople must follow, the most ominous being that they must always answer the phone, while Kate seems at odds between helping Ethan and sticking to her Stepford-wives-like persona.
At this point Ethan smartly decides that the best plan is to hightail it to the nearest exit by stealing a car, which brings him to the discovery that a giant fence surrounds the town. Now, not only is he stuck within the walls, he discovers that anyone who breaks a rule faces what is known as a ‘reckoning,’ a.k.a. being slaughtered in the town square as the residents watch on.
Meanwhile, Sheriff Pope (Terrence Howard) and Nurse Pam (Melissa Leo) work as the antagonistic foils that appear to know more than what they are letting on. While Pam could easily fall into the stereotypical creepy villain, Leo plays her with such an edge, masked behind sweetness, that it’s almost a shame we will have only a short time to watch her.
Outside of the town, Ethan’s wife Theresa (Shannyn Sossamon), and son Ben (Charlie Tahan) start up their own search for answers when he too goes off the radar. Admittedly, it was refreshing when the two ended up within the town walls as well, rather than a stretched-out season-long search completely separated from the real action. Added to this was the reveal that Theresa had sacrificed a career in the Secret Service to be a mother, which has provided her the skills to escape outside of the clichéd frantic-spouse character and actively hunt down Ethan. At this point, one can only hope her story arc will continue to allow her to be active for the rest of the season, rather than relegating her to just being “the family” that Ethan so desperately wants to protect.
Yet, throughout the first four episodes, an uneasy feeling seems to lurk beneath the surface, mainly due to the growing trends of television in the last decade. A viewer couldn’t be blamed for treating the growing mysteries of this small town with trepidation. The television landscape has been littered with shows built on the premise of ever-expanding mysteries that seem to build and build, only ever giving the slightest morsels to appease the audience’s appetite and ensure that they’ll tune in for the next episode.
The guiltiest of these shows being Lost (others: FlashForward, The Event, Alcatraz, The River, to name a few), where the mysteries continued to grow so wildly preposterous and shockingly tangled that no set of answers could ever really provide a satisfactory conclusion. As each season progressed, it became clearer that the continual churning out of new mysteries came at the cost of maintaining a coherent overall story arc for the series.
Here though, Hodge has remained adamant that all questions will be answered by the end of this one-season run. There is also some solace in knowing that the existence of the source material that is being faithfully adapted ensures that there truly is a beginning, middle and end to this story.
There also seems to be a capitalising on the relentless killing off of seemingly important characters, arguably popularized by Game of Thrones. When Ethan meets Beverly (Juliette Lewis), the resident bartender who has been held in the town for a year, they hatch a plan to escape. It then comes as a shocking surprise when the plan fails and Beverly faces the ‘reckoning’ when caught, leaving her to be slaughtered with a gruesome death by the end of episode two. It’s then even more surprising when Sheriff Pope, who at this point seems to be an integral part of the story, is dragged beyond the fence to his death by some grisly beast.
While this makes for great story telling and leaves the audience on the edge of their seats as to whether their favourite character might be next, it becomes a bit tarnished when used too often. When Justin Kirk (Weeds) then guest stars as a realtor turned rebel in episode four, it becomes fairly obvious that he most likely won’t make it to the end of the episode alive. This kind of story telling works in Game of Thrones because the world is so widespread it has had more than a few episodes to make these deaths matter, and main characters aren’t killed every single episode. Whereas here, one shocking death an episode, in a ten-episode season, starts to feel a little cramped.
Another reason Game of Thrones gets away with it is because it doesn’t rely on killing guest stars for shock value. Most audiences are fairly genre savvy when it comes to this kind of storytelling and are normally switched on enough to know that when a well-known actress or actor suddenly appears in an episode, on a show that has a track record of killing of characters, they probably won’t be making the end credits alive. It would ring more than a few bells if Brad Pitt suddenly showed up in Westeros or if Jennifer Lawrence appeared with a bunch of survivors on The Walking Dead.
Which brings us to episode five, the game changer, which thankfully did not include some shocking death. The episode was titled The Truth, which is definitely what was delivered. Yet, the twist delivered is one that will either engage audiences for the rest of the season or ensure that they change the channel.
When Ethan’s son, Ben, is taken with two other students for an orientation at his new school, it is revealed that it is actually the year 4028 and that all inhabitants of Wayward Pines have been hibernating in an ark as the last remains of humanity, before being re-released into the town. The Earth is now just a wasteland, overrun by mutant predators known as “abbies” that roam the forests beyond the walls
Wayward Pines is discovered to have been created by David Pilcher (Toby Jones), who had previously been posing in the town as a psychologist. He masterminded, or at least saw to it, that each inhabitant was carefully chosen to live as mankind’s last hope. Now Ethan’s son has been inducted into the “First Generation” that will know the truth of the quiet town.
There was some clever storytelling involved to create this twist, with characters appearing to go back and forth between the town and the outside world. What appeared at the time as a straight narrative, was actually switching between the present and some two thousand year old flashbacks.
With such a wild answer to so many posed questions, it does create some uncertainties in the plot though, like the excuse that adults cannot know due to their inability to handle the truth. It seems flimsy at best, especially when you consider that all of these people have been hand picked. Why not just handpick the people that could handle it? Or why not just have only the children to begin with?
Also, it seems conflicting to leave the adults out of the loop only to have them either rebel or live in fear, particularly when the punishment is death. Isn’t the entire point to be saving humanity?
And why abduct people specifically from what seems like a random point in the early twenty-first century when, judging by the still standing buildings of the nearby city, civilization clearly went on for more than another thousand years?
But the major problem with this twist is that it essentially changes the genre of the series. What started as a mystery thriller with some subtle nods to the supernatural has now turned to full science fiction. It’s sure to alienate viewers who have unexpectedly found themselves in a genre they have no interest in.
The question posed now for the remaining episodes: where can the series actually go?
Sure, how the apparent apocalypse came about, what created the abbies and the full story of how Pilcher created the town would be interesting to explore, but how much do people really care? The fun of the show was in the conspiracy and mystery of the town, the mysteries behind running it and why the town existed in the first place.
Now that this has all been revealed, it feels like a lot of the wind has been taken out of the narrative. It’s hard to even guess where the story may go and if it will even stick closer to what came before it or delve head first into futuristic dystopian fiction. It almost feels like it would have been better served as a Twilight Zone episode, with the big reveal at the end making audience stomachs drop, leaving what comes next only to the imagination.
Still, the journey here was enjoyable enough and, with only five episodes to go, the cost isn’t too high to see this all the way through. It’s probable that there are still many mysteries to come and go, but at this point you couldn’t be blamed for calling it a day.