This Wayward Pines post is written from the point of view of someone who has not read the books the series is based on. As such, spoilers are strictly forbidden. Any spoilers in comments will be deleted on sight. Remember: Discussions of things that were different in the books or confirmations of things that won’t happen count as spoilers, too. Have you read the books and want to discuss what’s coming? That’s what our Spoiler Space is for.

You could be forgiven for thinking you’d somehow stumbled into the first episode of Lost, given the almost beat-for-beat allusion to that show’s iconic opening that kicks off this new 10-part miniseries. (As Joshua Alston points out in his must-read review of the coming season, it’s a literal wink.) Welcome to Wayward Pines, where nothing is certain, no one can be trusted, and imitation is not only the highest form of flattery, it’s a way of life. In fact, for the residents of Wayward Pines, imitation is how some of them survive—imitating normal behavior, and always looking over their shoulders, for fear they’re not doing it right.

Why does Wayward Pines exist? That’s the central mystery that Secret Service Agent Ethan Burke will doubtless be unraveling for the next nine episodes, and it’s one that even some citizens still don’t know. Whether people have been scared into submission, or whether they know more than they’re letting on, Ethan doesn’t seem like he’s willing to go along. If the architects behind this experiment want to keep him in line, they’re going to need leverage. Cut to: Theresa and Ben Burke.

This series is going to rise or fall based on Matt Dillon’s ability to play the off-putting mood of the show with the proper mixture of befuddlement and guile, and he has shown up ready to play. The scenes where Ethan deals with his primary interlocutors in Wayward Pines—Nurse Pam, Sheriff Pope, and Dr. Jenkins—are both archly comic and full of foreboding. That’s a tough needle to thread, but Dillon is a treat to watch, all gruff exasperation and implacable masculinity. He’s like a fallen version of the self-righteous cop from The Wicker Man: No matter how weird things get, or how insane the people around him are behaving, he grimaces and deals with it.

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I’m assuming most viewers saw the final “twist” coming from a mile away, but it’s worth noting that the show didn’t try to play it off as a shocking revelation, so much as a frank “What did you expect?” Yes, this town is isolated, cut off from the rest of the world, with any attempt to leave resulting in death. Yes, there’s a nefarious conspiracy, in which Dr. Jenkins seems to be cutting deals with people in the outside world to recruit new “subjects,” for whatever bizarre experiment is going on here. And of course everyone in the town is either a part of it or afraid of it, save for one woman (Juliette Lewis) who can offer some explanation. These are all expected parts of such a story, but the show juggles them expertly, making these tropes feel fresh and compelling.

Speaking of compelling, right now I’m most intrigued by the inexplicable time fluctuations that seem to be different for every person in town. Hearing Beverly follow up the news that she was taken on October 21, 1999, with the confession that next week will mark her one-year anniversary, was a great “whuuuh?” moment that I didn’t see coming. When it’s backed up by his former partner’s claim that she’s been there for 12 years, it got even better. Especially in this early going, the show’s primary job is how best to string along viewers, and that time-twist definitely caught me in its snare.

The conceit of this episode—that Ethan is encountering his own version of Kafka’s The Trial, where menacing authority figures keep him from accomplishing anything or understanding his predicament—obviously can’t last. The show is presumably going to dole out information as it becomes necessary to further the story. Although, the brief moment where Dr. Jenkins meets up with Ethan’s old boss at the Secret Service in Seattle was a surprising giveaway. It’s an announcement that we won’t always be in Ethan’s shoes, only learning things as he does.

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The supporting cast is obviously having a blast. Melissa Leo is practically ladling relish onto Nurse Pam’s lines, and the hospital escape scene, ending with Ethan slamming her head into the glass, was a delight. As Sheriff Pope, Terrence Howard is note-perfect, balancing winking asides about rum raisin ice cream with a quiet menace that nevertheless allows him to also seem like a bored small-town cop just doing his job. Taking notes about the agent’s decomposing body that Ethan finds, Pope is pragmatic, hostile, and chatty, all in equal measure. It’ll be interesting to see if the sheriff knows more than others, or if he’s merely the enforcer of the rules.

We know—as does Ethan, now—that he’s not suffering hallucinations, or at least not as far as we can prove. His health is another matter. it’s unclear just what Jenkins is up to, but Ethan might actually need surgery; that car crash at the beginning was ugly. But we also don’t know to what degree the other townsfolk are in on the con. The man in the bar, trying to convince Ethan that Beverly doesn’t work there, seemed to be part of a coordinated effort. His ex-partner Kate, given her shock at seeing him, clearly was not.

They’re keeping up appearances with him, for now, letting Ethan think he can actually leave voice messages for his family and call “Marcy” at the Secret Service. However, now that Pope has confronted him at the edge of the border, and flatly conveyed the fact that no one is going anywhere, that charade can’t last. Or can it? Is part of the experiment the need to keep up appearances? Will Ethan be expected to play along like Beverly and Kate? Or is he here for some other reason? Everyone seems to accept his odd-to-them behavior, as he does theirs.

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This was a crackerjack opening to a series that, at least for now, promises to be a hell of a lot of fun. The real question is going to be whether the show can sustain this kind of momentum. In a mystery series, the easiest part is often the opening gambit—the equivalent of a carnival barker tempting curious rubberneckers inside the tent with alluring patter. But as countless puzzle-box riddles of television shows before have demonstrated, when it comes time to start delivering explanations, these houses of cards easily fall apart. The most obvious reference point here would be NBC’s Persons Unknown, a similarly themed show involving a sinister small town where nothing was as it seemed. But whereas that show quickly exposed that it had no idea what it was doing, Wayward Pines’ pilot is remarkably assured. So far, the questions are mounting, but the general premise seems clear: No one gets out of Wayward Pines. And if the show keeps up this smart balance of mystery and absurdity, I certainly won’t want to.

Stray observations:

  • Welcome to the Wayward Pines TV Club! I hope you’re all as excited as I am for this show—the fake-town-giant-experiment setup is basically catnip, for me. Who doesn’t love a good “nothing is as it seems” Twilight Zone-ish mystery?
  • I loved seeing the wonderful character actor Siobhan Fallon do her thing as Sheriff Pope’s dry, twitchy assistant Arlene. “He’s very disheveled.”
  • “There are no crickets in Wayward Pines.” Do you think that was just a way of cluing him in to the fact that something is wrong in this town, or is Beverly hinting at something deeper?
  • I love the banal nature of the Secret Service’s treatment by the show—Ethan may as well work for an insurance company.
  • I haven’t discussed Ethan’s wife and son much, yet, mainly because there’s not much going on with them, thus far. For now, scenes of them learning their husband and father isn’t coming back are tolerable, but I could see the journeys outside the wall quickly becoming tiresome. We’ll see.
  • Do you think all of the townpeople are part of the experiment, with only authority figures like Pope or Pam knowing what is really going on? Or are they part of the experiment, too, and it’s all Jenkins and/or whoever he’s working for?
  • One quick reminder: spoilers from the books won’t be tolerated in the comments. Don’t ruin everyone’s fun—if you’ve read the book(s), head to our Spoiler Space and take part in the discussion there.

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