This is a review. Thus, it is likely to contain spoilers. If you haven’t, as yet, found yourself at liberty to view this episode then consider yourself apprised of the potential jeopardy and proceed at your peril.
While I am aware that the show is based on a series of books by Blake Crouch, I have not read them and do not intend to until this show has ended. I will be reviewing the show solely on its own merits, not as an adaptation.
What a difference a week makes. Apparently, the truth really does set you free. At the very least, it takes a show that is struggling to find its stride and instantly transforms it into not only a different show, but also a better one.
This episode marks the halfway point of the season, so there is a built-in symmetry to placing the big twist here. There is a palpable sense that the season will actually be made up of two shows and we just watched the first one end.
Fittingly, as we learned via the world’s creepiest audiovisual class presentation (Wayward Pines High must have a really unique A/V club with Hope Davis’ Mrs. Fisher at the helm), those two halves will be separated by roughly 2,000 years. The show’s big twist is that Wayward Pines is nothing more and nothing less than the last hope for the future of mankind, an oasis of idealism surrounded by a vicious wasteland populated primarily by the genetically horrified descendants of homo sapiens. All of our characters have been in some sort of cryogenic sleep for two millennia. I thought they were having fun riffing on Twin Peaks and Lost. It turns out that they were going for The Omega Man and Planet of the Apes.
My initial reaction was to be considerably impressed. It isn’t easy to pull off a magic trick after you announce that you’re about to do a magic trick. It also isn’t as if we didn’t know that the first four episodes were filled with misdirection, it’s that we didn’t know which misdirection was the important misdirection. I was growing legitimately concerned that the creative team was going to pull a Lost and explain a few mysteries while simply ignoring others that were impossible to fit neatly into the narrative. This concern was, of course, based mostly on my inability to come up with a scenario that fit with all of the available data. Even when I did head down what I thought might be a viable path, complications like the seemingly random time distortions would throw my solution into disarray. In fact, I really think that the time irregularity was the masterstroke of the creative team’s misdirection. Because it seemed both random AND possibly supernatural, the time problem put the audience off-balance and kept us from getting too close to the truth. Even more, it gave the audience permission to not think too hard about it. It was easy to think, “Screw it, it’s obviously going to be some kind of stargate/wormhole thing that messes with time and the whole town is going to be floating on an asteroid somewhere or something. No sense in trying to piece it all together when we obviously don’t have all the information necessary to figure it out.”
Except dammit, we did have all the information.
I cannot believe that I not only got punked by an M. Night Shyamalan twist again (though I guess author Blake Crouch, who also wrote this episode, really gets the credit for this one), but the answer was right there in front of me. Again.
If anything, this is even more impressive than The Sixth Sense. I’m sure loads of people figured out that Bruce Willis was dead on their first viewing, once they heard that there was going to be a big twist. The clues are easy to see when you are looking for them. This time around, we knew going in that something big was coming and they still, with all eyes on them, pulled it off. Moreover, they did it fair and square. If you go back and look, I think you will find breadcrumbs aplenty.
The bigger question is: will you also find a storyline that justified taking half a season to get to the twist? Unfortunately, I don’t think so.
As impressed and pleased as I am by a well-executed illusion, the big reveal did nothing to dissuade me from my notion that the story was written in reverse; the idea of the twist came first and then a meticulously crafted lead up was written to justify the eventual revelation. In fact, it is the very demands of the convoluted intro that keep the first half of the season from working as a satisfying drama.
When you have a puzzle as intricate as this, where everything is in service to the final goal, nothing can happen organically. Much like the town itself, the master plan demands strict adherence to certain rules in order to maintain the illusion’s integrity. Consider the red herrings that were so effective in disguising the true nature of the town. We had characters that appeared to be able to move between Wayward Pines and the outside world. Time seemed to pass either faster or more slowly than the outside world. In fact, right there it is: the “outside world.” That was the illusion the creative team was really protecting: the idea that there was still an outside world for our characters to return to and as long as the audience bought into that fallacy, then the twist to come was still safe.
But that meant that scenes of the doctor back in the outside world of 2015 had to be placed at certain points of certain episodes, even if they broke up a tone or rhythm that was working. Even worse, almost all of the bland and lifeless time spent with Theresa and Ben before they arrived in Idaho was bland and lifeless because its purpose wasn’t to be good drama. We had to see why they didn’t arrive in Wayward Pines until days after Ethan because the timing of how people wake up in town must match their outside world experience so that they will buy into the illusion just like the audience. Secondarily, their arc’s second purpose was to show us Sheriff Pope in the outside world which, again, had to fall parallel to a specific moment in the Wayward Pines timeline to maintain the illusion that the two events were happening simultaneously.
I do sympathize with the writers, directors and editors. Even trying to describe it is tying my fingers into knots. I can’t imagine the number of multi-colored index cards that it must have taken to get this to all work out. I could continue to laboriously attempt to show examples of how constrained everything about the first four episodes had to be by design (and there are MANY more examples) but I suspect that you get my point.
The larger question of whether or not this will all have been worth it is yet to be answered. I have no doubt that more surprises are coming, but I doubt there will be more reveals of this magnitude. For instance, I don’t believe for a second that the real reason that the adults of the town cannot be told the truth is that they simply wouldn’t be able to handle it and might choose to kill themselves and their families. That explanation reeks of something you would say to a teenager to get them to keep a secret. The details of precisely how humankind devolved into the “Aberrations” were a bit vague as well. Given Dr. Jenkins’ penchant for hybrid organisms, I wonder how long it will be until we find out that his role in all this is as much instigator as savior. Right there, though, is the enormous upside of this seismic shift in plotting.
The audience will now be forced to completely reconsider most of the main characters. Nurse Pam has shifted from being the psychotic villain to this show’s Rick Grimes. The dead (or something much like them) walk the earth and she’s willing to do whatever it takes to protect her people. Similar rethinking will be necessary for almost everyone, though I suspect a big part of the remaining episodes will revolve around figuring out precisely who in the town knows what.
When people talk about The Sixth Sense, they seem to only ever talk about the twist, which I think is a shame. I think the most remarkable thing about that movie is that it would have still been a terrific film without the twist. That fact also happens to be the thing that separates that film from the vast majority of M. Night Shyamalan’s later films, all of which were almost certainly written backward from their twist. None of them can stand apart from their ending.
In putting the twist at its halfway point, Wayward Pines still has time to prove that it can be more than the sum of its ending.
Some closing thoughts:
I do feel that I should spend at least a little time discussing the plotting of the episode rather than just what it means for the series. It won’t take long. The entire running time was made up mostly of just bouncing back and forth between two scenes. Though it was voiceover heavy in the extreme (which most screenwriters will tell you is a major no-no), in this case I thought it worked marvelously. If you’re going to have 45 minutes of chill-inducing voiceover, Hope Davis is an excellent choice for the voice. The overall success of the episode on its own merits, outside of the revelatory nature of its content, depends entirely on Hope Davis’ ability to carry the audience with her voice and Matt Dillon’s ability to carry the audience without his. While Ben and his classmates’ orientation was the big draw, it was mostly just exposition spoken aloud. The episode would have ground to a halt without some kind of action. The decision to send Ethan into the wild to go full Predator against the dangerous Aberrations that control the wilderness was a brilliant one. I have lamented that Matt Dillon’s acting abilities had been somewhat wasted to this point, but I’m beginning to see why he was chosen. He excels at both stoicism and conveying thought through action. He can speak volumes with a glower. Here is where all of the pre-planning by the creative team pays the largest dividends. Dillon’s wordless action would have given us plenty of information all on its own. Parallel with Hope Davis’ voiceover, and the audience gets additional depth. It’s like reading a book that already has notes in the margins. Great stuff.
Along those lines, full kudos should go to director James Foley. On paper, this is a thankless episode for a director, but Foley managed to find just the right tone. Plus, dialogue-free scenes require a director with a strong grasp on visual storytelling and Foley proved that he is more than capable. That’s no surprise given his directing history, which includes not only an episode of Twin Peaks, but also House of Cards and Glengarry Glen Ross among many others.
Jack McKinney is a professional camera salesman by day and a freelance filmmaker, Paste contributor, and amateur prestidigitator by night (and occasionally weekends). You can cyber-stalk him on Twitter.