The other week, my partner Katherine and I binge-watched Wayward Pines on Disney+. Being a fan of Lost, I love a story about a mysterious place where nothing is what it seems. And my next book, The Puddle Bumps, also has a mysterious town with a dark secret and a lot of weird shit going down. Partly I was watching Wayward Pines to seek inspiration for it.
For the first five episodes of the 10-episode first season, Wayward Pines absolutely delivered. Those first five episodes were intriguing and weird. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the second five.
HUGE spoilers for Wayward Pines season 1 ahead.
Secret Service Agent Ethan Burke, who has been searching for two missing agents, wakes up from a car accident in a town called Wayward Pines where everything is a bit ‘off’.
First of all, he’s unable to leave. The roads all go in a circle. Further investigation leads Ethan to discover an enormous electric fence surrounding the town and blocking the only exits. Sheriff Pope seems to be the only cop in town and completely uninterested in solving any crimes; he just eats ice cream all day and casually lets himself into other people’s houses. There are cameras everywhere and people are warned not to discuss their lives before Wayward Pines. The nurse at the hospital, Pam, is super-weird and creepy and seems to be one of very few staff there. Ethan discovers one of the missing agents dead and decaying in an abandoned house, while the other, Kate, is living happily in the town and claims to have been there for 12 years even though she only went missing a few weeks ago.
There is a lot in these first few episodes to make you go, “Whaaaaa?”
Ethan teams up with another resident, Beverly, to try and escape. Beverly’s been in Wayward Pines for a year, also unable to leave, but she arrived in 1999 and thinks it’s now 2000, even though Ethan knows it’s actually 2014. After the two are caught, Beverly is brutally murdered by Sheriff Pope – in front of the rest of the town – during a ritual called a ‘reckoning’.
Meanwhile, Ethan’s wife, Theresa, and their son, Ben, are in Seattle trying to find out what happened to him. Eventually they find out that he has gone to Wayward Pines and follow him there. They’re pulled over by Sheriff Pope, who secretly sabotages their car. They arrive in Wayward Pines and we see the family reunited, but things still don’t add up. Ethan sees them at the hospital before they arrive in the town, and shortly before their reunion he finds Theresa’s damaged car covered in dust, like it’s been there for ages.
At multiple points through those first five episodes, you’re screaming at the TV, WTF is going on? Which is what makes them so gripping.
And then we come to episode five, The Truth, in which we are told absolutely everything. The sinister schoolteacher sits three students down and tells them that it’s not 2014. It’s actually 4028, over two thousand years later. Ethan Burke didn’t just arrive in the town. He was abducted, put into suspended animation for two thousand years, and woken up. So were Theresa and Ben. The scenes of them looking for Ethan were in fact set two thousand years before the scenes of Ethan waking up in Wayward Pines.
It’s a fantastic revelation and those early episodes in hindsight are cleverly done. Because you see some of the same characters in both time frames, including the architect of the programme, David Pilcher, you think it’s all happening at the same time.
Also in The Truth, you find out the reason for all this, and for the electric fence surrounding the town. Humanity has devolved into dangerous aberrations, dubbed “abbies”. Discovering the genetic mutation that would lead us to turn into abbies in the 90s, David Pilcher devised his elaborate scheme to save the human race. He abducted people and put them into cryochambers to be awakened two thousand years later in Wayward Pines, an ‘ark’ protected from the abbies. He has been keeping the truth a secret from most of the townsfolk because the first group he awakened couldn’t cope with it.
This is a great concept. The problem is, we don’t discover this truth a bit at a time over the ten episodes. Rather, every question gets answered in one giant info-dump in episode five. After that, there’s nothing more to find out. Despite being billed a mystery, there’s no more mystery or intrigue after episode five. From episode six onwards, Wayward Pines is a simplistic monster action show about the residents fighting both their oppressors and the abbies.
It’s the same as calling something a murder mystery and revealing the killer halfway through the story. What mystery writer does that? A shit one.
Wayward Pines, in the end, was like the anti-Lost. Lost was criticised for explaining its mysteries too slowly, but at least it kept us watching till the end, because we were desperate to know what was going on on that island. Wayward Pines explains its mysteries too quickly, and as a result, turns into a different, much less compelling show. What they should’ve done was drip-feed us the answers over the course of the ten episodes and only reveal the full picture in episode ten.
After The Truth, everything lost its prior impact, including all the weird characters, who were no longer weird once we knew their deal. Like creepy nurse Pam, who made an initially great villain and then turned into a protagonist. Pam at the beginning, a woman quite happy to watch people get ‘reckoned’, didn’t quite gel with the Pam we were watching by the end.
And frankly, after the abbies attacked the town and Ethan had to sacrifice himself to protect the others, I felt nothing. I’d been holding out for a further twist (after all, this show was produced by twist-master M. Night Shyamalan), but alas, there was none, and that final episode just sapped all my interest. They made a season two which, I’ve heard, is just more of the same. No thanks.
Final thought: the abbies were a bit rubbish. Just naked people with sharp teeth who drool a lot. Colour me underwhelmed.
The positive about watching these shows is that they offer good examples of how not to do stories. Hopefully with my next book, The Puddle Bumps, I can do the mysterious town thing right.