Tim Griffin (Photo: Sergei Bachlakov/Fox)
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If there’s an idea that everyone in Wayward Pines thinks of differently, it’s hope. Group A collapsed under the weight of their inability to psychologically deal with the world in which those people awoke (or at least that’s what Pilcher said, and we don’t have any evidence to the contrary). Group B was kept ignorant, its members suspecting they were part of some nefarious experiment or prison in the 21st century. They hoped to escape, to break free of the rigid rules of the town. But once that illusion was shattered, and the reality of their circumstances made plain, it wasn’t long before the First Generation made their move, and Jason consolidated power.

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Now, as CJ explains to Theo, the town isn’t just in dire need of more food if it’s going to grow and expand. By going outside the walls, CJ and the others demonstrate to everyone in town that there’s a potential for something more. It suggests they won’t always have to live under armed guard, unable to make their own choices and live their own lives. Put plainly, it offers the possibility of life away from Jason and his authoritarian nightmare. “Through us, they can hope,” CJ says, and it’s obvious the guy isn’t just talking about the others. He’s looking for the chance of something else, too, although it’s not clear what that might be. Djimon Hounsou is doing good work with this underwritten character, but we’re going to need more soon from CJ beyond speechifying and portentous looks, if he’s going to take shape as someone we’re expected to care about.

Then again, most of “Exit Strategy” involves trying to do a lot with a little, building tension and momentum out of drips and dribbles of plot. That it succeeds to the degree it does is in large part due to the efforts of guest director Ti West (House Of The Devil), who manages to construct some compelling scenes out of a lackluster script. Arlene’s lumbering hallway approach of Adam Hassler transforms from just another “wacky Arlene” scene to a comically unsettling moment, her jarring appearance suggesting a maniac from a campy horror film. Similarly, many of Hassler’s sequences gain a weight unearned by the character, as the long-gone explorer’s obvious PTSD makes his return home more of a hall of mirrors for his mind to play tricks.

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Hassler’s return is the pivot upon which this week’s installment turns, and the results are uneven. From the moment Xander wakes up in the bottom of the pit outside the walls, my general thought was, “Hmmm, I vaguely remember this guy from the season premiere?” Yet it’s Xander’s perspective on events that drives the first arc of the episode, as someone we’ve spent basically no time with meets another character (Hassler, looking like the Geico Caveman) we only knew as a minor player in the first season. It’s one thing to spend time in the first few episodes introducing us to our new cast, but we’re almost to the halfway point of season two, and the show is still just tossing new characters at us and expecting the audience to be on board. So Xander’s a troublemaker, fine; given he seems to be a major player this year, maybe a little more detail beyond “I colored outside the lines” would help us to get a sense of this guy? Surely there’s something to Kerry’s claim that he’s being given a second chance, “for the 10th time.” That’s nine more than Ben Burke got.

(Photo: Sergei Bachlakov/Fox)

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Speaking of Ben, I wish the show wouldn’t play so coy. Is Ben dead? That was the obvious implication from Theresa looking under the cover of the dead body, but given that we didn’t see him, and this show now refuses to ever go in a straight line when it could zig-zag a half-dozen times to get to the same place, I’d lay odds on his survival still being around 60 percent. Hassler essentially returned to tell us what we already suspected—the Abies are getting smarter, and they have more of a social structure and capability for thought than anyone in town (outside of Theo Yedlin) suspects, which implies someone outside the walls could potentially be captured by them, Ben included. “They’re not our enemies, they’re our replacements,” Hassler says, which would be more ominous if that hadn’t been clear from the beginning.

There are better mysteries to be explored this week, and they involve the townsfolk, not the Abies. Rebecca and Megan clash over the icky storyline of Lucy getting her first period, a subplot that’s almost impossible to watch without a faintly disgusted look on one’s face. Megan coaxes compliance from Lucy’s older brother, and feuds with Rebecca when she stops Megan from taking Lucy away to…wherever the “procreation rooms” are. (Again, gross.) But this gives the show a chance to drop one of the most intriguing character beats thus far. “You really wanna pick that fight, Megan?” Rebecca asks the wheelchair-bound zealot, a smile playing on the edges of her lips. “’Cuz I’m not sure if this is gonna be a winner for you.” What power does Theo’s wife wield that we don’t know about? Because those are the words of someone who’s holding a trump card.

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Theo nicely captures the issues with this week’s episode when he complains to Rebecca that, for everything that seems to make sense, two others come along that are totally inexplicable. And that’s what this season is struggling with: “Unexplained” isn’t the same thing as “mysterious,” no matter how many odd looks and refusals to answer straightforward questions the show directs its cast to provide. It’s time for Wayward Pines to start getting serious about pushing the story ahead, and to do that, it’s going to have to stop sacrificing forward momentum for the sake of ”mood.” Throwing an Abie on that carousel at the end of “Exit Strategy” is a good start.

Stray Observations:

  • Episode MVP goes to the children’s performance of “Pines! A Musical Celebration.” That’s some season-one mojo the show is serving up.
  • This line of Megan to Frank, Lucy’s brother, comes a close second, though: “Nothing says ‘Wayward Pines’ like a piece of fresh, warm fudge.”
  • Theo is still sassing Jason, and still not giving Rebecca enough of the benefit of the doubt. She doesn’t like eugenics, either, Theo—or didn’t her rescue of Lucy demonstrate that very well?
  • “Do they put people in pits?” “They do a lot of things.” We’ll see, Hassler, we’ll see.

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