FOX’s Wayward Pines: Season 1 Review

FOX’s Wayward Pines

A 10-episode “event series” that aired from May 14 to July 23 detailing Secret Service Agent Ethan Burke’s time stranded in the seemingly-idyllic but secretly-insidious town of Wayward Pines, Idaho.

Exec produced by M. Night Shyamalan, who also directed the pilot. Head writer and showrunner is Chad Hodge. Based on a trilogy of novels by Blake Crouch (who also co-wrote the show’s relevatory fifth episode, as well as eight and ten).

It’s best described as Lost-meets-Twin Peaks with a dash of Stephen King. Which means, it’s so up my alley I felt like I was going to be mugged by the show. Was I? Find out below where I break it down episode-by-episode. BEWARE! SPOILERS ABOUND! 

The main cast:

  • Matt Dillon as Ethan Burke, our protagonist, a Secret Service agent with a trauma in his past
  • Carla Gugino as Kate Hewson, Ethan’s missing partner with whom he had an affair
  • Terrence Howard as Sheriff Arnold Pope, the secretive sheriff of Wayward Pines
  • Melissa Leo as Nurse Pam, a nefarious nurse at Wayward Pines Hospital
  • Toby Jones as Dr. Jenkins, a phony psychiatrist at Wayward Pines Hospital
  • Juliette Lewis as Beverly Brown, a bartender whom Ethan befriends
  • Reed Diamond as Harold Ballinger, a toymaking resident of Wayward Pines
  • Shannyn Sossamon as Theresa Burke, Ethan’s wife
  • Charlie Tahan as Ben Burke, Ethan and Theresa’s 16-year-old son
  • Tim Griffin as Adam Hassler, Ethan’s boss and family friend

Episodes reviews below:

  1. Where Paradise Is Home
  2. Do Not Discuss Your Life Before
  3. Our Town, Our Law
  4. One of Our Senior Realtors Has Chosen to Retire
  5. The Truth
  6. Choices
  7. Betrayal
  8. The Friendliest Place on Earth
  9. A Reckoning
  10. Cycle

1.1: Where Paradise Is Home

Aired: May 14

This is the first piece of entertainment since 2004’s The Village (I know, controversial choice, but relevant considering the subject matter) that M. Night Shyamalan hasn’t completely screwed the pooch on. He doesn’t go flashy but he does add some style to the series going forward. Quick shout out to the superb directorial choices coming up as well, including The East‘s Zal Batmanglij (Episode 3 & 4) and Predators‘ Nimrod Antal (Episode 9)

Our first shot is a bloody eye opening a la the classic opening shot of fellow mystery series Lost. Our protagonist Ethan Burke awakes in the woods, injured from some sort of car accident. He meets a bartender Beverly (Juliette Lewis) who gives him an address and a deliciously-cryptic note: “There are no crickets in Wayward Pines.” The show does a good job of presenting the classical town-with-a-secret deal: cult-like activity, mysterious motives, and, it turns out, artificial cricket sounds. Yep, Stephen King would be proud.

Burke finds the body of one of the missing agents, Bill Evans in the abandoned rundown shack at the address Beverly gave him. He is decomposing, apparently tortured to death. He reports the crime to the Sheriff Office and finds only an inattentive secretary (Siobhan Fallon) and an ice-cream obsessed sheriff Arnold Pope (Terrence Howard). Ethan passes out from his injuries.

When he wakes he meets Nurse Ratchet, I mean, Nurse Pam (Melissa Leo), playing a Stepford Smiling sadist and a oblivious psychiatrist Dr. Jenkins. Refusing treatment, Ethan leaves. Meanwhile, his wife Theresa (Shannyn Sossamon) and son Ben (Charlie Tahan) wonder if he’s run off with his old partner Kate Hewson (Carla Gugino) with whom he’d had an affair after an unknown incident at the Service.

They’re reassured by his boss and family friend Adam Hassler (Tim Griffin), although this is undermined when he approaches Dr. Jenkins in the real world to “call it off.” Unfortunately, Jenkins says, it’s too late. Did Hassler want Ethan gone to make a move on his wife? I hope I’m wrong. Just typing that make me throw up in my mouth a little.

Ethan finds Kate, but she is seems just as indoctrinated as everyone else and wary of the town’s surveillance system. She claims to have been there for 12 years and is now married to some toymaker named Harold Ballinger (Reed Diamond). Which is just sad. Being named Harold pretty much dooms one to a future as a toymaker. Also, him being a toymaker of wooden music boxes and rocking horses is probably the single strangest thing in Wayward Pines and that’s saying something.

Having found the two missing agents, Ethan tries to leave the town but finds the only road leads him right back to the town. Going through the woods leads him to an advanced electrified fence. Pope finds him and tells him he cannot leave the town.

1.2: Do Not Discuss Your Life Before

Aired: May 21

Ethan continues to defy Pope’s authoritarianism and conspires with Beverly to escape the town. To do so, he retrieves a hidden notebook from Evans’ corpse in the morgue (first clue: why is nobody around to find or guard this shit? Doesn’t Pope have deputies or something?)

Before Ethan and Beverly can escape, they’re invited to dinner at the Ballingers. Beverly is under the impression it’s 2000 and that she awoke in 1999 in the town. The time disparities are growing and its becoming apparent either time travel or brainwashing is involved here. Or both. I’m all for shit getting cuckoo-weirder. True Detective disappointed this season in that regard.

During the dinner, Beverly admits to having a daughter, a remnant of her past life prior to her entrapment in Wayward Pines. Aparently mentioning the time lapses or past lives is a big no-no and Beverly flees the table. Ethan follows her when the town’s phones all begin ringing at once. The two separate to evade the townsfolk. Ethan escapes notice but Beverly is not so lucky.

Pope drags her to the town square where the entire town has gathered to bear witness. With the cadence of a cult leader, Pope executes Beverly by slitting her throat. Ok, shit just got a whole lot more real.

1.3: Our Town, Our Law

Aired: May 28

Each episode picks up immediately after the previous and it is a editing choice I like and respect. Limited series TV has become popular to both audiences and creators because of the extended but not eternal exploration of character and story. Consistently, they’re compared to multiple-hour films. The seamless editing lends itself to that model.

Ethan, for some reason, continues to avoid the “reckoning” (Pines’ lingo for last week’s Beverly-execution) for his transgressions and Kate warns him not to screw up again. The only way to survive in Wayward Pines, according to her, is to play along.

Theresa has the grand idea to drive from D.C. to Idaho to confront Ethan’s presumably-philandering ass. In an even grander idea, she takes 16 year-old Ben out of school to accompany her. Because that’s good parenting. Unfortunately, they are waylaid by Pope pretending to be a state officer and he cuts their brakes without them knowing. Apparently, car accidents are the Wardrobe to the Narnia that is Wayward Pines.

Suddenly, in a jarring editing choice, the two are in Wayward Pines and reuniting with Ethan. We’re told in exposition about their car wreck but they seem oddly-ok for it, especially considering the whole first episode Ethan was collapsing all over the place. Kind of stupid.

Even more stupid is Pope’s tyranny, which seems guaranteed to backfire at some point. Threatening a woman is pretty low, especially if you’re growling lines like “This is MY town.” Hey, dude, she’s been there for like a day. Let her acclimate to your douchebaggery before you get all confrontational.

In a classic case of “son sees dad cavorting with former mistress” Ben sees Ethan talking with Kate. We’ve all been there kid. In another great parenting move, Theresa takes Ben and leaves on foot with their luggage in tow. Even if there wasn’t an electrified fence around the whole town, this seems like a bad decision.

Our good friend Pope agrees and tracks them down, no doubt with good intentions. Not content threatening women, he hits Ben. Which is when Papa Wolf Ethan Burke swoops in for the tackle. Pope has him at gunpoint . . . when Ben runs down Pope in self-defense. The dying Pope sputters with his last breath “You think you want the truth but you don’t. It’s worse than anything you could imagine.” Them’s fighting words. Ethan puts a bullet in him. Surprisingly cold-blooded. I mean, I get he threatened your family, but execution?

Taking the keys off Pope, he finds he can open a section of the fence to escape. Right as the fence opens some THING – of course obscured like some Sasquatch sighting – takes Pope’s body away amid animal screams. The Burkes do the smart thing and GTFO.

1.4: One of Our Senior Realtors Has Chosen to Retire

Aired: June 4

As a limited series, there are pleasures and problems. Pleasure: how frank and honest characters are allowed to be with each other (it helps balance out the sheer weirdness surrounding them). Problem: it’s like playing speed chess, where story arcs began in an episode MUST close by the end, because there’s only 6 more episodes damnit and we can’t sit around in Wayward Pines’ recently-vacated Sheriff’s office!

Speaking of which, in a brilliant case of “You Break It, You Bought It,” Ethan is immediately named the new Sheriff following Pope’s “disappearance” and meets the Mayor Brad Fisher (Barclay Hope). Given the turn of events, the Burkes agree to play along as a family until Ethan can solve the mystery behind the town and, hopefully, a way to escape.

Later, Nurse Pam tasks him with dealing with another “reckoning,” this time with Peter McCall, one of the town’s realtors (hence the title), Ben begins his Pines-ian education at the WP Academy, complete with hypotherapist-turned-teacher Megan Fisher (Hope Davis), the Mayor’s wife. Almost immediately, she begins indoctrinating him against his past life. Brainwashing = confirmed.

Ethan refuses to reckon Peter, instead taking him to the fence to hide him until he can figure out a way out. Peter turns out to be a pretty gutsy guy, telling Ethan that the only way he’s found is via climbing the cliff face. But to do it, Ethan’s going to need to maintain his cover – and Peter will have to die. He flings himself against the fence  and makes a barbecue of himself. Ethan bids farewell to Theresa, gets a shotgun, and makes for the cliff. At the top, another shot of a blurry Sasquatch awaits. Idaho is seemingly less and less friendly by the episode.

Oh, and Theresa and Kate finally get to talk, albeit only for 30 seconds. God, I hate shows that make female characters third wheels to their male protagonists. I especially hate shows that make them fight over the male protagonist. Please, Wayward Pines, I’m liking you so far. Don’t make me hate you.

1.5: The Truth

Aired: June 11

This one’s the biggie. Just as we reach the halfway point of our trip to Wayward Pines, we get a megadrop of answers about the town, what the it is and its purpose. What’s up with the time lapses, the public executions, and the electric wall keeping residents in and strange creatures out? Well, I’ll cut to the chase:

It is not 2014. It is 4028. For some reason, the fact that it is 2014 multiplied by two irks me. Anywho, the town is the last vestige of human civilization, saved by a mysterious man named David Pilcher. He constructed the town as an “ark” to save what he could of humanity. Why? Because we were turning into Aberrations or “Abbies” for short. Humanity was kept on ice in hibernation chambers for 2,000 to survive the collapse of civilization.

These are the creatures outside the town’s fence, vicious carnivorous predators with enhanced senses and speed. Why humanity became these uber-beasts isn’t really covered. Something about the environment changing us or some shit. I can go with a lot of stuff, but come on, I needed a little more here. The whole scenario doesn’t really feel that different than a zombie apocalypse, a staple of American entertainment at the moment.

Unfortunately, most of these revelations were delivered in the DUMBEST possible way: a slide show. Seriously, a fucking slide show? Christ, are we telling a story or going to a pitch meeting? This was not in the books, per series creator Chad Hodge, but added, as was Ben’s storyline and the “First Generation” nonsense. Naturally the addition to the series was the worst part. The cardinal rule of storytelling is show don’t tell. The books, smartly, took that route by sticking with Ethan’s travels.

He survives the Abbies until he finds the ruins of Boise, Idaho. It’s then a helicopter lands . . . and Dr. Jenkins emerges. Only, he’s not Jenkins; he’s David Pilcher, creator of Wayward Pines. I was wondering if Toby Jones was going to wallow in the background much longer. Nope, here he is, right at the forefront. He’s a fascinating deconstruction of the chosen one archetype. Behind Jones’ fascinatingly British face and dumpy body, there lies real passion and emotion. I look forward to seeing more of Pilcher and less of whatever facade Jenkins was.

Interestingly, in the books, Pope’s death occurs here instead. His tyranny had grown wearisome on Pilcher, who leaves him to be eaten by Abbies while instead taking Ethan back. The change was made to accommodate Terrence Howard’s role on Empire (smart move on his part). It would certainly have cast him in a far darker light than the one he’s currently in.

1.6: Choices

Aired: June 25

Now we fill in the gaps left by last week’s episode’s less-than-satisfying reveal. The Abbie explanation is still lacking. Humans began inexplicably evolving into super killers out of nowhere because . . . global warming?

Multiple flashbacks reveal how the Pilcher siblings  – yes, David and Nurse Pam are siblings – began to make their ark that would become Wayward Pines. We get the origin of Pilcher, Pam, Ms. Fisher, even the deceased former sheriff Arnold Pope. Pilcher was able to recruit some volunteers during the 1990s who took his warning about the Abbies seriously, but all the townsfolk, including the Burkes, were abducted and placed in cryostasis against their wills.

Pilcher and his 200-some volunteers now run the town from a secret base in the mountainside. But why hasn’t he simply told the town the truth? Why continue the charade of surveillance and reckonings? Because he did tell the truth . . . to Group A. They promptly went mad from the revelation. The town tore itself apart, some committed suicide and the rest escaped only to be eaten by the Abbies. The current residents are Group B. With his case finally laid bare, Ethan agrees to help Pilcher re-establish law & order in Wayward Pines, but without the executions.

More importantly, Pilcher’s become aware of a group of residents who are secretly trying to escape the town – by any means necessary. He needs Ethan’s help to root them out before they make a drastic mistake and destroy the fence. Turns out, Kate & Harold are at the forefront of this effort and are making a bomb to do just that. I very much like that we’re shifting in gray areas. Plus, as much fun as Nurse Pam was as a psycho-sadist nurse, I’m also liking the turnaround on her as a recovering-addict who takes care of her slippery brother. There’s a reason Melissa Leo is an Oscar-winner. Many reasons actually. (Have you seen The Fighter? You need to see The Fighter)

There’s a ton of interesting ideas at the heart of this episode, particularly the titular theme of choices. Too much good stuff to simply write it off. I much preferred Toby Jones’ selling the exposition drop (kudos for that unenviable task) to the last episode’s infamous fucking slide show.

1.7: Betrayal

Aired: July 2

This episodes focuses on the Subversives, the latest ill-named group in the world of Wayward Pines.They are led, of course, by Kate. Their goal? To breach the fence and escape back to their “lives.” Despite Ethan instantaneously breaking Pilcher’s rule of informing them of the futility of such an effort, Kate is only further incensed. She believes Ethan’s been brainwashed and moves up the timetable of her revolutionary plan.

Some dumbass in the Subversives decides to try to pipebomb Ethan’s car. Through sixth sense or the Force, Ethan finds it before he turns on his car. Perhaps he used the mystical powers of Lead Protagonist Magic. Anyway, he almost immediately is savvy to Kate and Harold’s role in the conspiracy.

I’ve said it before, but this show has really poor editing. It’s almost like they want us to know that material was deleted. The addition of the First Generation has the kernel of a good idea at the bottom, but watching it is so grating, mostly because the child actors are, I’m sorry, banal and boring.

We’re treated to a unintentionally hilarious scene where Ms. Fisher picks Ben and his crush Amy to stand in front. Amy, for her part, seems fine but Ben has two emotions: flustered and more flustered. I don’t think they said sex once during this scene. Instead, it was talk about biology and how men and women “fit like a glove.” If you’re going to commit to proper sex education, at least be honest about how awesome fucking is.

But of course, we instead get to spend time with Ben and Amy’s little nighttime sex-capade and the poor kids don’t even get that far. Melissa Leo, like everything she is a part of, is the single greatest piece of the Wayward Pines puzzle. Ethan, meanwhile, manages to capture the first group of Subversives before they bomb the fence. However, he is caught unaware by a second bomb, which promptly backfires on main street. Surely the kids are dead? I never thought I’d say this in any context, but please let the kids be dead. Free us from bondage.

Nope. Amazingly, the fucking driver died. But the kids mere inches from the actual bomb in the bed? Just a little disoriented and bloody. I’ve liked Matt Dillon as our hero so far but his ending performance was so lackluster. I’m left feeling hopeless. Wayward Pines, you’re mugging me.

1.8: The Friendliest Place on Earth

Aired: July 9

To it’s credit, it skips the terrible last scene from last week to get Ben right to the hospital. This kid plot is killing me. Everything that was added to this show has been terrible, I’m sad to say. And most or all of it relates to these damn kids. From the infamous slideshow to this totally-unbelievable relationship.

Ms. Fisher, the devious snake that she is, continues poisoning Ben against his father. Although, I will say its interesting how we’re coming to understand how reckonings work and why they are seemingly unavoidable. Putting characters, particularly quote-unquote “good” characters in moral dilemmas with no easy solution and intense peer pressure is compelling drama. There are themes of interest in Wayward Pines. Occasionally they shine through bright and make this journey worthwhile. Other times . . .

Wife characters tend to suck. Not inherently so, but because writers – who, in Hollywood, are primarily male – can’t seem to wrap their head around a well-written spouse. True Detective suffers severely from this. There are exceptions – The Blacklist and The Good Wife have strong female characters who are wives yet with their own agendas and personalities. Theresa has gotten the short end of the stick. She was cheated on, her husband disappeared, she showed up in Wayward Pines and has had to wander around in ignorance.

All this to say: standing up to the bitch that is Ms. Fisher was extremely satisfying.

Once again, Melissa Leo is the single greatest thing on planet earth. I can’t emphasize this enough. Her character arc is the most satisfying on the show. The whole freedom vs. security theme is interesting as well, as Pilcher’s branding of the insurgents as terrorists. Best part? Its all organic to the story. These elements have been at the core since the beginning and are now coming to the fore. I appreciate that. Like I said, good ideas hidden under bad execution and excruciating time with those damn kids.

Harold and a nameless dude continue the plan to escape by stealing a dump truck. However, Harold has a crisis of conscience about leaving Kate behind and chooses to stay. Nameless dude, I’m sure everything’s going to work out for you. He rams the fence and makes it all of 10 feet before his shouts of joy become screams of terror when Abbies rip him to shreds.

1.9: A Reckoning

Aired: July 16

We begin at the end of the previous episode. Ethan makes quick work of three Abbies trying to come through the busted gate. I’m still pissed we have no explanation for humanity’s evolution into mute orcs other than the nebulous “climate change.”

Just like that, we cut to Pilcher and his men repairing the fence. It’s a disappointingly trite resolution to the fence breach. Plot turns swiftly to the indoctrinated First Generation and the town’s thirst for bloody vengeance – a reckoning.

Ethan convinces Harold to give him the names of the remaining 14 Subversives by showing pictures of what the Abbies did to his nameless friend. Best line of the episode, perhaps the series: “Maybe I’m a psychopathic cannibal or maybe I’m telling the truth.”

Ms. Fisher uses Ben as a mouthpiece to inflame his fellow classmates. Some of the brainwashed students of Hope Davis (all boys notably. I guess Ms. Fisher isn’t pushing them to fuck any girls to their chagrin) take matters into their own hands and slaughter all of Kate’s compatriots at the sheriff’s office, including poor Harold. This had shades of school shootings what with the insane bug-eyed perpetrator and his queasy allies confronted by the gory reality of their call for “justice.” I like that Ethan isn’t a wishy-washy protagonist either, trying to “save” the murderer. Right before he pulls the trigger on Kate, Ethan guns him down.

I haven’t mentioned Theresa, Plot 33 or her uber-creepy boss because, well, the whole thing sucks. This storyline has been so slow for a show with only 10 episodes. Let’s break it down in pluses and minuses. Plus: Theresa finally had something to do this episode. Minus: it’s another deus ex machina short cut. Plus: Kate finally believes Ethan. Minus: no explanation is given for these random video journals that confirm everything or for Adam Hassler’s all-too-brief return.

Ethan tricks Pilcher into thinking he’s going to reckon Kate, insisting the whole town be present. Her co-conspirators arrive with weapons and the town seems ready to descend into chaos, just like Group A. However, Ethan and Kate turn the tables and reveal the truth to the residents. Backed up by some of our recurring stars, things seem like they might resolve peacefully. Maybe people can accept the reality.

While I agree with their actions, I can’t say demonizing Pilcher was the best move. Especially since he turns full-on villain and vindictively disables the town’s power, including the fence keeping out the “Abbies.”

1.10: Cycle

Aired: July 23

The epic conclusion. It’s war in Wayward Pines and, from a storytelling perspective, it makes sense. The fence was the ultimate Chekov’s Gun. If It wasn’t going to be disabled at some point, it would be a huge miss. And what better way to conclude that with justifiable bloodshed? Quick recap:

Ethan died to cover the escape of the residents through Plot 33. Pam killed her brother after he tried to put her back in hibernation. Three years later, the brainwashed First Generation have taken over the town and placed the adults in stasis. How they did this is unknown. Ben awakes from a coma to see Amy is the new Nurse Pam. He escapes the hospital to find the town just as strange as we first found it, now complete with corpses hanging from street corners. It’s an interesting mirror to Ethan’s arrival. Airing on the day of yet another terribly tragic mass shooting in a movie theater, it drives home a powerful point: Shit. Don’t. Change.

I appreciate the cyclical nature of the series. The theme of eternal recurrence is a classical one and definitely something that may resonate with me more than other viewers. Personally, anything close to a tidy-bow or change in how the town operates would be disingenuous. There was a chance at the end of last episode but Pilcher took it away because of he cared more about control than lives. (NOTE TO SELF: I have a sister. Never put her in cryostasis against her will. It just won’t be good for anyone).

THE SUM OF ALL REELS: 

There is so much to like about Wayward Pines, even if you’re not predisposed to it like I am.

Unfortunately, there is an equal amount to dislike.

As pulpy genre entertainment, it works in fits-and-spurts. As an exploration of post-apocalyptic civilization, The Walking Dead does it better. As an exploration of American themes like freedom vs. security, vengeance vs. justice, and painful knowledge vs. blissful ignorance, it has moments. But it doesn’t really succeed at any them, merely touching on them on the way to the next thing.

But it is short and wastes little of the viewers’ time, like many of the mid-00s serial shows did in the wake of Lost. It isn’t given the opportunity to flounder and drown like Twin Peaks was. But it never comes close to the heights both of those shows reached in their primes. The show’s biggest strength is its cast of very capable actors – excluding those damned kids – who elevate the material beyond Syfy channel nonsense and into something palatable.

Now FOX is pondering reneging on its event/limited/mini/whatever they call shows nowadays by giving a second season and I say: Please No. We don’t need more, especially since Ben is now ostensibly the protagonist and these First Generation brats run the town. Let the series stand on its own. Going back the the Twin Peaks comparison, anything past this climatic point will be forced. Let it stand for what is: a nice little summertime distraction . . .  for those who care to enter the world of Wayward Pines.

About Sam Flynn

Wasting oxygen since 1992, Sam thanks the gods he doesn't believe in everyday his parents didn't discard him as an infant. It would have been the sensible thing to do.
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