M. Night Shyamalan is still Kryptonite to many who’ve been burned by his love of twist endings. But we’ve already let you know we’re cautiously optimistic for Wayward Pines. And after weeks of hype, the show, which is based on the books by Blake Crouch, began its 10-episode cycle last night. Spoilers follow!
Executive producer Shyamalan (the show’s credited creator is Chad Hodge, who previously worked on The Playboy Club) directed episode one, “Paradise is Home,” and his spooky-fairytale visual style is well-suited for the task. We begin with an extreme close-up of a bloody eye, and draw back to reveal the beat-up face of Secret Service agent Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon), upside down. Ok, we’re as disoriented as Ethan already. Why is he lying in some random forest, and how long has he been there? Is he in the Black Lodge, or what?
Answers don’t come fast on this show, but flashbacks do — at least in these exposition-heavy first scenes. We see a troubled Ethan back home in Seattle, talking to what appears to be some kind of workplace shrink who says, “I’m glad you’re here, Ethan.” “Hallucinations and nightmares” are mentioned. Ethan’s feeling guilty, we learn, over his role in allowing a bomber to carry out a fatal attack, which he’s convinced he should have been able to prevent.
We also witness a fraught conversation between Ethan and his former partner, Kate (Carla Gugino), with whom he was carrying on a torrid extramarital affair, and who is now missing. In fact, she’s the reason why he’s bumbling around rural Idaho. (There’s another missing agent, but he’s clearly not as important to Ethan ... for now.) All this filters back into Ethan’s battered brain, and into ours for the first time, as he stumbles out of the woods and down the road, which turns into the main drag of a postcard-perfect small town, crouched in the shadow of a mountain ridge. “Where am I?” he asks the coffee-shop cashier. “Wayward Pines, Idaho,” is the chirpy reply.
And into the credits, which are little dioramas (made with the figures used in model train sets, perhaps?) that depict segments, including a cemetery, of a scaled-down Wayward Pines, suggesting the town itself is some kind of staged, contained scene. Hmmm. And like Twin Peaks, an obvious influence (along with, as we’ll see, The X-Files, Shyamalan’s own The Village, and many others), we get a “Welcome” sign signaling the city limits. The town’s motto informs the episode title: “Where Paradise is Home.” But that home, as we soon discover, is hardly paradise.
Ethan’s in a bad way. After he passes out in the diner, he wakes up as ... apparently ... the only patient at Wayward Pines’ hospital. We learn, thanks to the sweetly sinister Nurse Pam (Melissa Leo, camping it up), that he was in a “massive car accident,” and has suffered a concussion and some cracked ribs. Cue the flashback, in which Ethan and another male agent, the unfortunate (or perhaps nonexistent?) Agent Stallings, are motoring through those same mossy woods we saw in the opening, looking for Kate and another missing federal agent, Evans, when all of a sudden, yep, massive car accident. Ethan, who still doesn’t realize he’s washed up on the shores of the Twilight Zone, makes some totally reasonable inquiries: have his family (wife Theresa, teen son Ben) or his bosses, both back in Seattle, been notified of his whereabouts? And where the hell are his personal effects, his wallet, his cell phone?
“I can certainly put on my Nancy Drew hat and look into that for you,” Pam sneers.
Suddenly, we’re in the longed-for Seattle, where it seems like Ethan’s bosses may not know where he is, though they do have some idea what happened. Theresa (Shannyn Sossamon), fake-happily getting fish tacos with Ben (Charlie Tahan), definitely doesn’t know where he is, though since she’s fully aware of Ethan’s affair with Kate, she fears he’s run off with her. Until she gets a call: “Theresa ... there’s been an accident.” She tells Ben the bad news, but she puts on a brave face, reassuring him, “I know he’s OK.”
Back in WP, Ethan decides he’s had enough of the Misery-esque vibes he’s getting off Nurse Pam. An interesting detail: despite his wallet and whatnot going MIA, his suit is right there, hanging in the hospital room closet. He engineers a jailbreak and it’s back to the town’s twee downtown, as manicured as a theme-park but hip enough to have a “Biergarten.” There, he meets friendly bartender Beverly, “the first normal person I’ve met in this town.”
He tells Beverly about the missing-person search, and she passes him a note with “my address,” but it’s no come-on. It’s a clue: “There are no crickets in Wayward Pines.” And indeed, when the burger-stuffed Ethan lurches out into the night and hears crickets, he plunges his hand into a bush and discovers ... a little sound effects box making cricket noises! WHAT CAN IT MEAN?
After a restless night at Wayward Pines’ only hotel, staffed by a capricious proprietor who’s eager to boot his only guest this next morning (that whole lost-wallet/not being able to pay thing makes Ethan kind of undesirable), Ethan strides forth to Beverly’s address. Except it isn’t her address. It’s an abandoned abode in an overgrown yard that wouldn’t have been out of place on True Detective’s first season. And it’s got a sweet surprise inside: the moldering corpse of the missing Agent Evans!
Ethan’s next stop is the Wayward Pines sheriff’s office. The front desk is staffed by one Arlene Moran (Siobhon Fallon), possibly the long-lost cousin of secretary Lucy Moran from the Twin Peaks sheriff’s office. She directs Ethan down the hall to Sheriff Pope (Terrence Howard, who got the same camp-it-up acting memo as Melissa Leo). He’s eating ice cream (“Rum raisin ... mmm”) and is incredibly, suspiciously blase about Ethan’s tale of a decomposing body in a house down the lane. “I can walk you over there!” Ethan huffs. “I. Don’t. Want. You. To,” Pope replies, between licks. It’s awkward.
Also awkward: Ethan’s repeated attempts to phone home, and reaching the Burke family answering machine. When he calls the “Seattle Secret Service headquarters,” he gets a new receptionist he’s never met (but who has the unmistakeable vocal chords of an uncredited Susan Sarandon), who tells him she’ll take a message for him. Riiight. He hustles back to the Biergarten in search of the only non-weirdo in town, but Beverly is nowhere to be found. In fact, there’s nobody named Beverly who works there, apparently. What now? (And what does the barkeep’s furtive report to ... someone ... that “101628 is not doing well” mean?)
Ethan doesn’t know what to think, and neither do we, but when he revives after his latest blackout episode, he’s back in the hospital, tied to a bed with Dr. Jenkins (Toby Jones) looming over him. Jenkins is the local psychiatrist, see, and he’s super-duper concerned about Ethan’s head injury. “I’m not delusional,” Ethan enuciates. “I’m not having hallucinations. I’m not having a dissociative breakdown.” And he doesn’t consent to surgery, which is probably code for “lobotomy,” either.
Thus begins the weirdest sequence in this episode, in which Beverly magically appears to spirit Ethan away from whatever creepy brain drain he’s about to be subjected to, and Ethan battles sadistic Nurse Pam for supremacy of the Whispering Pines hospital hallways. He breaks a mirror to clock her location (he is a Secret Service agent, after all!) before bopping her in the head, then woozing out thanks to the industrial-grade sedative pumping through his veins.
Recurring motif on Wayward Pines thus far: Ethan passing out at an inopportune moment, then snapping to someplace even more weird than he was before. This time, though, he’s got help from Beverly, who tells him her story (but not before warning him, “They’re trying to break your mind!” You don’t say.) Seems she was a software sales rep who came to Wayward Pines to outfit the local school with Y2K protection. Crossing the street, she was hit by a motorcycle and had one of those massive head injuries that seem to be pretty common thereabouts. She thinks it’s the year 2000. Ethan insists it’s 2014. What is going on with the time line here?
Oh, it gets weirder. But first, back to the boring-ass real world, where Theresa’s found her, uh, Nancy Drew hat, and she’s poking into her husband’s extended absence. Both she and Ben wonder, “Is he with HER?” And in fact, he is ... kinda. Because on his latest wander through the upside-down world of Wayward Pines, he spots Kate swanning around a barbecue looking like a 1950s housewife instead of a no-nonsense Secret Service agent. He follows her and “Harold” home — who the eff is Harold?, we and Ethan wonder together — to her house, which is literally behind a picket fence. Cute. But sooooo not the Kate that Ethan remembers.
But she does remember Ethan, after kind of pretending not to, and she brings him up to speed. Harold is her husband. (We later learn they run the local toy store together.) But she’s still got a bit of federal agent in her, guiding Ethan to sit under the fan on her Martha Stewart-perfect front porch. It’s to muffle their conversation from They Who Are Listening (the same They who placed the faux-crickets, no doubt). Kate thinks she’s been in the ‘Pines for 12 years, though Ethan swears he saw her weeks prior. “I don’t have answers for you,” Kate tells him, hinting that his nosiness is putting her life at risk. But that doesn’t stop her from giving him a death-ray smile and opining, “You could be happy here!”
Not bloody likely. Ethan is a man of action, and he makes a bold attempt to escape Wayward Pines. He steals a car. He zooms past the “Paradise is Home” sign. He zooms past the “Paradise is Home” sign again. Wait. What? Forget ye not, fair viewer, Ethan Burke drove past a merry-go-round on the way out of town. And now he’s going around and around, too.
But before we’re able to fully digest what’s happening, a quick scene back in Seattle. Dr. Jenkins turns up IN SEATTLE, in (presumably) the year 2014, and Ethan’s boss is all, “If there’s time, I want to call it off!” What is happening?
Back in Wayward Pines, Ethan is grappling with the same question. The town just ... ends, with a menacing electric fence blocking all routes beyond. There’s also a not-so-welcoming sign which reads “Return to Wayward Pines. Beyond this point you will die.”
The message is further enforced by Sheriff Pope, who’s followed him to the border. “How do I get out of here?” Ethan asks, referring to the town, but also the bizarre alternate reality that surrounds him on all sides.
The answer is, of course, “You don’t.”