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It’s been clear from the moment we learned about the man behind the curtain: Wayward Pines was David Pilcher’s dream. A vision of humanity surviving its own penchant for self-destruction, Pilcher’s grand experiment was to be a way for the human race to get through what he knew to be the coming dark ages. It was a singular vision, carrying out by those who believed in his dream. No wonder it all lent itself so easily to the narrative of a fairy tale. And no wonder that, like most fairy tales, adults soon came to realize it isn’t real.

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The retreat of the Abies gives the characters a moment to catch their breath, but more importantly, it provides an opening for the series to reintroduce the most iconic character from season one: Melissa Leo’s Pam Pilcher, back for a guest episode that largely serves as a bridge from last season to this one. It’s a way to demonstrate the audience isn’t alone in its feelings of concern—her fear for the direction of Wayward Pines doubles nicely as a meta-commentary on the worry of all of us who are now witnessing the dark and authoritarian nightmare direction the narrative has taken. I read in the killing of Pam a plea on the part of the series: Sure, you may not like where we seem to be at right now, it cajoles, but putting the whole thing to bed is a bit rash, isn’t it? By bringing her back, it allows us to see things—at least partially—from the point of view of Jason and his followers. Things may be bad right now, they admit, but total annihilation is still worse.

The framing device of the fairy tale, complete with voiceover narration by Leo, turned out to be an illuminating tactic for providing some backstory to the rise of Jason, even if Pam’s return, like the others from season one, mostly serves as a reminder of how much bleaker and less fun everything has gotten. If people are going to jump ship, I wasn’t be the slightest bit surprised if this was the episode they ended with, because it’s essentially the mission statement for season two. Everything is different, and the creepy/absurd tone has been replaced by dystopian power maneuvering and gallows humor. Pam comes back only because she can no longer take the guilt of killing her brother, now that she’s seen how little good it ended up doing. Her dream of a better Wayward Pines has been revealed as just that—a dream—and so she sneaks into Megan’s facility, steals a vial of smallpox, and injects herself, hoping to wipe out the entire town. It’s her version of a murder-suicide: She doesn’t want the places she loves to have to suffer any longer.

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“Once Upon A Time In Wayward Pines” is a morally ambiguous episode, largely because it tries to fill in the outline of Jason’s past, and the choices that led to him becoming the dictatorial leader he is today, while simultaneously highlighting his murderous messianism. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have enough time to do anything but hint at key moments on that journey, such as the flashback scene where Megan counsels him on his birthday, telling him how all the other children will eventually have to line up behind him. That’s not quite enough, ultimately—for us or for Pam, who reacts as expected when she learns her precious little leader-in-training is a budding sociopath. Jason’s backstory is both fairly straightforward and maddeningly opaque. Did the fairy tale inadvertently create its own monster? You won’t find an answer here.

Instead, we get the brave new world of Wayward Pines, as embodied by Theo Yedlin. Jason Patric continues to try and make the most of what little he’s given, which means Yedlin searching for more answers about why the specific people in town were chosen in the first place. Part of the problem is that this storyline feels like an aftereffect, something that should’ve been dealt with last year, when our new concern is clearly the survival of the town and the budding mystery of the Abies’ evolution. Pam tells Theo he wasn’t the only reason she was in Hawaii with Pope, but apparently can’t be bothered to expound upon that. Which doesn’t seem fair, really; if everyone’s going to die of smallpox anyway, why not grant him the few answers he wants? His final monologue to Rebecca, where he wonders what happened to his father after Pilcher’s team kidnapped him, helps clue us in to his emotional state, but it’s also an anticlimactic beat after the death of Pam. Rebecca’s not wrong: Theo needs to get out of the past, and focus on the here and now.

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Meanwhile, Megan Fisher continues her quest to be Wayward Pines’ most unsettling explicator of the icky social choices made by the Pilcher devotees. Sure, mankind needs to get repopulating, and quick, but does she have to make it all so…creepy? “You girls haven’t fully experienced your blooming yet” is a really gross thing to say to a group of preadolescent girls, no matter how noble your desire to inform them about the basics of sex ed may be. Her classroom sequences are fascinating, both for how disturbing they continue to be, and for how pedestrian and logical the nature of the social contract in place—at least from the point of view of Fisher and company.

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This episode feels like a decisive turning point in Wayward Pines’ second season. Bringing back Pam was a way to exorcise the ghost of last season, and shape the path of the new narrative arc. Djimon Hounsou’s C.J. continues to be little more than a blank slate (who cares about fire safety!), but the way he eyes the bonfire scorching Pam’s body at the end suggests he may be more sympathetic to her despair at the direction of the town than we yet understand. Still, the retreat of the Abies leads to the new plan: Jason wants to get outside the walls, to begin building out the town, and more importantly, its crops. He holds fast to a vision of a better Wayward Pines, even as he actively works to subjugate it to his will, thereby crushing the visions of anyone else (except maybe Megan). Pam’s last words to him weren’t so inaccurate, after all: He’s closing his eyes to the pain he causes, and wishing for grace.

Stray Observations:

  • Theo really has become the voice of the show’s black humor: “Well, this is festive. Who are they executing today?”
  • Conversely, Arlene’s lack of boundaries should be funnier, but again, knowing what we know about what they’ve done to her, her impropriety is more sad than funny.
  • It feels very fitting that the militant First Generation kids applaud by smashing their fists into their palms.
  • The taut, menacing conversation between Pam and Megan in the Abie research facility was a high point of the episode, and the season thus far. While I think it was a smart move for pushing the story forward, I’m really going to miss Melissa Leo. Her cracked sensibility set the tone for the entire first season, and even though it’s out of place now, she was terrific here.
  • “This is how this story ends…all we seem to know is hatred.”

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