Case Study 46: Wayward Pines, Episode 3–“Our Town, Our Law”

Original Airdate: May 28th, 2015 on FOX

Hey look, I’m reviewing a show from this century! The executive producer of Wayward Pines is M. Night Shyamalan, which is somewhat ominous considering the quality of his last eight movies, but thankfully he didn’t write any of the episodes. Pines is based on a trilogy of novels by Blake Crouch. This appears to be one of those situations where the entire enterprise was meant to be contained in the first 10-episode season, but the show evidently did well enough in the ratings to merit a second season despite the fact that they’ve run out of novels to adapt. (Game Of Thrones syndrome?)

Strengths

  • Intriguing. Pines owes a suspiciously large amount to Lost and Twin Peaks, and while it manages to set itself apart during its later episodes, the burden of derivativeness looms large over the first few. Anything operating out of the Lost playbook risks suffering from the same ill that plagued that show–lots of mysterious things that promise an interesting story dangled in front of you without any payoff. Thankfully, Pines overcomes this potential flaw and by the fifth episode we’ve got a pretty solid idea of what’s going on without having sacrificed any suspense. In the meantime, the intrigue of the decidedly weird town of Wayward Pines is delectable. Agent Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon, There’s Something About Mary) travels to the secluded Idaho hamlet on an investigation for the Secret Service, but when he tries to leave he discovers that all the roads out of town circle back around. He sets off into the forest, only to find a giant electric fence with a sign warning him to return to Wayward Pines, and that “beyond this point you will die.” He even realizes that there are tiny speakers planted everywhere outdoors to simulate cricket song. Part of the reason mysteries and science fiction have proved themselves to be such enduring genres is that humans have a natural curiosity. If you present us with a set of unusual circumstances, we want to know what’s going on. Even if the explanation is ultimately unsatisfying, the very wonder of the intrigue itself is a pleasant sensation. Problems only arise when you try and prolong it indefinitely.
  • Creepy. Pines starts as a mystery and is eventually revealed to be full-blown science fiction, but it consistently offers the rewards of horror fiction. Imagine finding yourself trapped in a town that looks perfectly normal on the outside but which operates on a set of unknown principles, controlled by unknown actors. The consequences of trying to escape are dire: episode 2 ends with a brutal public execution. There’s also plenty of more traditional horror film elements–in this episode, Ethan finds his way into a mysterious storage facility. He’s searching the interior of a car when he’s abruptly interrupted by someone smashing through the window with a syringe full of sedatives. That’s right, a good old fashioned jump scare. Hell, at the end of the episode we get our first glimpse of the hideous, carnivorous monsters that live outside the fence. Strong horror fiction often melds mundane fears with extreme consequences. Here, a fear of nonconformity or malicious nurses and cops gets parleyed into a violent, high-stakes environment. It’s very effective.
  • Melissa Leo and Terrence Howard. Melissa Leo (The Fighter) and Terrence Howard (Empire) are good in everything, but they especially shine here as the banal faces of evil in Wayward Pines. Leo plays Pam, the nurse at the local hospital. When Ethan wakes up there after the car accident that brought him to Pines, she’s all benevolent smiles, and Leo masterfully manages the transition into creepy insistence that Ethan follow doctor’s orders and then into outright menace as she threatens to give Ethan the incorrect amount of anaesthesia, ensuring that he’ll wake up during brain surgery, unable to move but feeling every cut of the knife. As the first half of the series develops, her aura of veiled menace is pitch-perfect. Howard also displays excellent modulation as the smarmy yet intimidating Sheriff Pope. His character also starts out on the ambiguous side, but even after it’s revealed that, why yes, he DOES slit people’s throats in the town square, Howard’s performance remains captivating and the sheriff seems entirely real–and entirely unpredictable.
  • Raising the stakes. So resolving the mysteries at hand and having Ethan escape the trap of Wayward Pines would give the show plenty of material. By the end of episode 3, the viewer is operating under the assumption that the real world is just on the other side of the fence. It’s tantalizingly close but hopelessly inaccessible, and some unknown evil is controlling the denizens of the town. Then the show tosses us a curveball–Ethan gets the upper hand on Pope in a fight and kills him. After Pope’s been incapacitated but before Ethan finishes him off, Pope murmurs, “You think you want to know the truth, but you don’t. It’s worse than you could ever even imagine.” His claim is immediately proven true. Ethan uses Pope’s keys to open a gate on the fence–and a barely-glimpsed monster emerges to steal Pope’s corpse. I liked Pines quite a bit, but even if it had been terrible I would still have wanted to see Episode 4.

Weaknesses

  • Matt Dillon and Charlie Tahan. This show’s single biggest deficit is the gaping black hole where the personality of the main character should be. Dillon’s emotional range as Burke appears to have “stony” at one end and “slack-jawed” at the other. In the first three episodes, he discovers the dead body of one of his colleagues. He witnesses the execution of his erstwhile co-conspirator (Juliette Lewis, Natural Born Killers) after they botch an attempt to escape the town. He’s confronted with the news that his wife (Shannyn Sossamon, Sinister 2) and son (Tahan, Charlie St. Cloud) will also be trapped with him in Wayward Pines. Burke’s reaction? Just another day at the office! This is more of a detriment in any given episode the more heavy lifting that Dillon has to do, but it’s never a good look when your lead actor is lousy. Tahan’s performance as Ethan’s son Ben is one note played over and over again on a poorly tuned and possibly rusty saxophone, and that note is “sulky teenager.” But he’s a child actor. Matt Dillon is a 35-year Hollywood veteran. What’s his excuse?

Motivation: It’s a mix of knowledge (who makes the mysterious phone calls that tell the townspeople what to do?) and survival (Why is this weird, aggressive sheriff in my house all of a sudden?)

Final Judgment: 8/10. This was very good, if somewhat light. One wonders what they’re going to try in the hastily conceived second season. I’d also give an 8/10 to the season as a whole, though there are ups and downs.

NEXT TIME: I travel to a steampunk version of the 16th century as I review The Mysterious Cities Of Gold!

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Case Study 46: Wayward Pines, Episode 3–“Our Town, Our Law”