Wayward Pines and red herrings

Wayward Pines is the kind of show that defies you to answer the question “What is it about?” without giving away what it’s about. As soon as you hear the name M. Night Shyamalan, whatever you’re watching, you’re going to start scouring each scene for clues… clues to the almighty Twist. (Spoilers start mid-way though this post, with a warning.)


Produced by Shyamalan, Wayward Pines is based on a series of novels of the same name by Blake Crouch. Season 2 just started, and I couldn’t decide if I was excited about it or not. So I rewatched the pilot, which I remember a suspenseful and riveting. The first half of the first season, up to The Twist, kept me guessing, theorizing, and eager for the next week. After that investment, I wanted to stay engaged — it was the summer TV season, after all — so I kept with it and more or less enjoyed it. It’s now, having all of the information about what the show is about, that I realize the pilot isn’t that good. It’s pretty awful.

This pilot stuffs so much information and angst into 45 minutes, you don’t get to reflect on its structure. It’s hard to feel its rhythm, spot the act breaks, when you don’t know what story it’s trying to tell. You end the episode asking “WTF?” which is usually a sign of a good show. It makes you think. It leaves you trying to assemble the clues and discard the red herrings. But there are red herrings and then there’s plain useless information. Once you know The Twist, season 1 starts to look like nothing but a tangle of tropes.

From the show’s first scene, the idea is introduced that the protagonist, Ethan (Matt Dillon), isn’t in his right mind. A Secret Service agent, he’s show with a therapist, unpacking the trauma of a terror attack for which he feels responsible. The therapist (Hooray, Malcom Goodwin!) asks whether Ethan is still experiencing hallucinations. Later, a nurse tries to convince Ethan that he’s having delusions, and the idea is hinted repeatedly. However, if Ethan’s experience of waking up after a car crash in a bizarre town that seems to exist out of time, isn’t real, why tell the story? Anyway, it’s so much more fun to hate the diabolical nurse holding him prisoner.


Hindsight begs the question, though, why is that nurse such a bitch, anyway? Wouldn’t it be more productive if she behaved normally, dressed like it was 2014, and didn’t, you know, handcuff him to the bed? If the whole purpose of Wayward Pines is the illusion of normalcy, of high-tech gadgetry and scientific enlightenment, what’s with the whole Pleasantville thing? I get that they want to avoid date stamping anything, considering that people have been brought in from different years, but why couldn’t it look at least as modern as 2000? And why couldn’t they get a doctor, or at least someone to play a doctor, and some believable hospital staff? Nobody, right mind or not, would consent to surgery in that joint.

Numbers get thrown around like beach balls: addresses, years, times, and this non-sequitur: “Ten sixteen twenty-eight is not doing well.” The impulse is to try and hang on to them as you watch, figuring some of them will have meaning. The premise, as far as we know at the start, could be anything from time travel to a Matrix-like head game. So we grasp for clues. Fruitlessly.

Several other events turn up empty. Why is there no evidence that Ethan was in the SUV that crashed? Why was the other agent’s body burned, and why was it left to rot? Why does the bartender try to convince Ethan that the bartender who waited on him (Juliette Lewis) doesn’t exist? Why not just say she’s on vacation? People’s treachery and lies are so overt that they’ve been written for the audience’s benefit, to create suspense, rather than to fit believably into the season-long story.

So, it’s a fun ride if you don’t think about it too much. There’s a reason this is a summer show on network TV. What do you think? Is anyone watching Season 2?

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