TV REVIEW: Wayward Pines Season 2

written by David Steffen

Wayward Pines was a weird speculative mystery/thriller show that aired as ten episodes in the summer of 2015–see my review of that season here.  At the time that it aired it was unclear whether it was going to be a standalone miniseries or whether there would be a second season–the ending wrapped up a lot of things but left a route to continue the story if it were desired.  And, (obviously, given the title of the article) it did return for a second season in the summer of 2016.

Season 1 of the show was based fairly closely on the Wayward Pines trilogy by Blake Crouch (spoilers for the books and for season 1 here).  In that segment of the story, Secret Service agent Ethan Burke travels to Wayward Pines, Idaho to investigate the disappearance of two other agents.  But the town seems to have no escape–everyone there is living under obscure rules under penalty of death and the road leading into town doesn’t lead back out again, and there are monsters at the gate.  Throughout the course of the season (or the three books) he discovers that he did not just travel to Idaho–he was abducted and put into cryogenic sleep for almost two thousand years.  David Pilcher, scientist and genius, had discovered that the human genome was becoming corrupted by pollutants and human beings were mutating into something entirely different–he had started a secret project to put a thousand people into cryogenic storage to wait through the consequences and come out on the other side.  But in the future the creatures that had been humanity were still out there in the form of mutated violent monsters he named aberrations (aka abbies).  He rebuilt Wayward Pines from the ground up as a stronghold against the abbies, waking people up from their cryogenic sleep to populate the town under the pretense that it is still the 20th century.  Eventually Ethan learns of all of this and reveals the truth to the town–Pilcher lets the abbies into town as punishment for this betrayal and the first season ends shortly after Ethan sacrifices his life to save the town from the abbies.  But history repeats itself and the First Generation raised in the town seizes control of the town and starts a new regime.

Though Season 1 was mostly based pretty closely on the books, the ending of season 1 leaves no room to stick to the same story and so, unsurprisingly, it diverges wildly.  The protagonist of this season is a new character who has just been woken from cryo for the first time–a surgeon named Theo Yedlin who was abducted without his knowledge as most of the residents of the town has been.  Shortly after he reunites with his wife, who is behaving oddly for reasons he doesn’t understand.  The Wayward Pines that he wakes to is one controlled by the First Generation who have forced a much firmer and overt control than had been visible in season 1, even with uniforms reminiscient of Nazi Germany military uniforms.  Jason Higgins is leader of this group, a young man raised in Wayward Pines, trying to enforce control in the town as best he can.

Ethan Burke’s son Ben is alive and the leader of a pocket of resistance against the First Generation leadership.  He is offered some protection form the fact that he too is considered part of the First Generation and they are all forbidden to harm one another by the rules of the town.

Adam Hassler returns from the wilderness where he has been on a years’ long mission to explore deep into abby territory.

The abbies are shower greater signs of organization, assaulting the electric fence that protects the town systematically and strategically.  Most townspeople don’t believe the evidence, but others are very nervous about where this is going.

The ground inside the town limits has gone sour, and won’t take crops anymore.  They have started growing some crops outside the town limits, and must protect them from abby attacks.

And they find an abby in town, a female who seems to be some kind of leader.  What should they do with her?

As you might be able to tell from this quite scattered synopsis, a big issue I had with this season of the show is that it is kind of all over the place.  Season two has only 10 episodes, and there are so many big ideas being explored simultaneously that it just feels unfocused and scattered.

Season 1 was pretty solid, and was based largely around the mystery of the town, and we started that season as ignorant of the current events of the fictional world so much of the show was trying to figure it out along with them.  In season 2, we start with a new character awoken from cryo who has no idea what’s going on.  But.. why?  We follow a character in season 1 ignorant of the situation so that we can discover it along with him, understand the strangeness and the danger piece by piece.  But… here we already know what Wayward Pines is.  And, while it makes sense for the character to have go through this gaining of knowledge, that part of the story felt like it was just going through the motions telling us the same story over again as if we hadn’t been paying attention the first time.  Not only that, but Theo in a lot of ways has an easier setup for understanding and affecting change in the town than Ethan had, because of Theo’s important role as surgeon.  His skills are rare and valuable in a town where medical experts are both irreplacable and in short supply, so he kind of ends up doing a lot of things that no one else in town can get away with–he tries to use it to make some good change, but still, it felt like he started with similar problems as Ethan had in season 1 but with a lot more immediate advantages.  I didn’t understand why they’d make that narrative choice when it would be more natural to escalate the challenges rather than escalate the protagonist’s advantages.

There were a few recurring characters, and some new ones.  There is some excuse for new characters to show up, despite the relatively closed system of Wayward Pines, because we know there are a whole bunch of people still in cryo who haven’t been woken up yet–so if they want to add a new character they just need to have a new person wake from cryo.  But, they also introduced a new character, CJ, who had been responsible for waking up periodically throughout the centuries that everyone was under and checking on the progress of the world to decide when to wake everyone up.  He was, at every stage, the first person to wake up and to start waking other people up, and because he had such an important role, in season 2 he is important enough to have major input into decision-making.  So… where had he been in season 1?  The real answer is that no one had made up his character yet, but his character as established should have been visible in season 1.  That kind of thing felt lazy and cheap–they could have found characters who all fit with the story as told in season 1, but sometimes they didn’t bother.  It reminded me of season 2 of Under the Dome, which likewise operated with a very closed system and yet they kept adding new characters who couldn’t possibly have gone unnoticed in the first season, because of lazy writing.

Besides that familiar throughline of the plot about discovering what the town is about, there are quite a few plotlines that are very potentially interesting, but there are just so many and they’re so poorly threaded together that major plot focus for an episode or two suddenly trails off without ever really resolving anything, and as the end of the short 10-episode run approaches there are only more plots all tangled together.  When the end of the season comes, it’s like… wait, was that actually the end of the season?  Nothing wrapped up, there is no satisfaction at completion of story arcs.  Did the writers know when the season was ending or did the makers of the show tell them to write and then abruptly ended the season 4 episodes early?  Or did the writers just have no idea how to make a satisfying season arc?

Some of the ideas here were interesting, but it feels more like a rushed publication of a truncated rough draft than like a finished final work.


BOOK REVIEW: The Last Town by Blake Crouch

written by David Steffen

The Last Town is a… I guess I’d call it an SF/horror thriller… the final book in a trilogy written by Blake Crouch and published in 2014 by Thomas & Mercer.  There’s no way to discuss the events of this book without major spoilers for the first two books, so if you don’t want to know anything about book 1 and book 2, stop here.  I have reviewed book 1 and book 2 already.

It is nearly two thousand years in the future, and pollution of the environment has caused humanity to mutate into vicious animals with only a minor resemblance to the human species we know today.  In the late twentieth century rich the scientist David Pilcher predicted this and prepared to save as much of humanity as he could–he perfected the technology of cryogenic sleep, and took 1000 people into sleep with him.  This group of people included both a staff of volunteers who came willingly, and those who were abducted without their knowledge under the guise of car accidents and other incidents.  After waking up in almost two millennia later, Pilcher discovered that his prediction was correct, and the world was overrun with what he called aberrations or “abbies” for short, humanoid vicious predators who had replaced our species of humanity.  He rebuilt the town of Wayward Pines in the mountains of Idaho.  Those who had been abducted were woken to live in this town, the nature of the world kept a secret from them and living under the constant threat of capital punishment for breaking a long list of oppressive rules.  No one was allowed to leave, though none of the residents know that there is nowhere safe to leave to.  Pilcher’s volunteers kept surveillance over the town from a base in the mountains.

Secret Service agent Ethan Burke was one of those abducted, and he fought against the town rules until Pilcher decided to promote him to the position of sheriff to protect and oppress the people of the town.  Ethan played along for a time, knowing that there would be lethal consequences for anyone who oppossed Pilcher, but he arranged a plan to reveal the whole truth to the entire town all at once so that Pilcher couldn’t stop it, with the intention that with the whole truth in front of them the townspeople could plan a better future without the need for the oppressive rules and deadly consequences for breaking them.  He hadn’t counted on the depth of Pilcher’s mania, because in reaction to this sharing of information, Pilcher shut down the defenses that keep the abbies out of the valley and let a huge swarm of abbies loose into the town.

That’s where the book starts.  Phew, okay, all that out of the way.

This book, as the previous two, follows Ethan Burke as the main POV character.  As the book starts the stakes are already high as Ethan is just realizing the extent of the lethal problem that Pilcher has triggered.  He is a leader with military experience, and he has to do his best to organize hundreds of civilians with only limited access to weapons survive a brutal attack from the abbies.  And there’s still the question of what to do about Pilcher and Pilcher’s staff, still safe in the stronghold of the mountain.  Near the end of the last book Pilcher’s psychotic helper Pam was left outside the wall by Ethan to die at the hands of the abbies, but with the door open she can stroll right back in.  And meanwhile, Adam Hassler returns from a long trip away.  Adam Hassler is Ethan’s former boss at the Secret Service who offered up an unwilling Ethan for inclusion in Wayward Pines, and who was “married” to Ethan’s wife for a year in Wayward Pines unbeknownst to Ethan before being sent off on a long voyage to investigate abby country.

Although this one was probably the most action packed, given the premise, I found this the least enjoyable of the trilogy.  What I really enjoyed about the first book was the mystery of what the heck was going on in this town and what the point of the rules are, and all of that.  What I really enjoyed about the second book was the step up in understand that Ethan gets when he becomes sheriff, but there is still a lot of truth to uncover, and a lot of dramatic tension inherent in Ethan knowing that the townspeople are in the only area safe from the abbies and that their attempts to escape would only be suicide.  Book three wrapped up the threads from the trilogy, so it served its basic purpose.  I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t find it remarkable in the same way that I found the first two books to be remarkable because it was more of a straightforward action hero story. The townspeople all know what’s going, there’s no more attempt at the facade of a small town, the villains are very clear and obvious at every stage.

The ending of the book was, I thought, pretty weak as well. Felt like it wasn’t really planned, wasn’t really part of the story, but was just tacked onto the end because it had to do something.

The Last Town is not a bad action hero book, but it is a rather unremarkable one.  I would still recommend the series as a whole, and if you read the first two books you’ll probably want to find out what happens to the characters, but the finale is its weakest link.



BOOK REVIEW: Wayward by Blake Crouch

written by David Steffen

Wayward is a… I guess I’d call it a mystery SF thriller… the second of a trilogy written by Blake Crouch and published in 2013 by Thomas & Mercer.

If you follow reviews on this site regularly, and this one seems familiar, that’s because I’ve already posted a TV review of Wayward Pines Season 1 which is based on Blake Crouch’s trilogy of books and covers a similar set of events as the trilogy of books.  And I recently posted a review of Pines, the first book in the trilogy.  The first book relied a lot on big mysteries for a lot of its appeal and revealed many of those mysteries at the end. I can’t talk about book 2 without talking about those mysteries, so if you want to be surprised go read the first book.

To give a quick recap of the first book, Secret Service agent Ethan Burke and his partner travel to Wayward Pines, Idaho to investigate the disappearance of two Secret Service agents.  They get in a car accident in town and Ethan wakes up in the hospital, and something is very wrong about the little town.  There are all kinds of bizarre rules, such as no one is allowed to talk about their past, and everything about the town seems set on forcing its residents to stay–the only road that’s supposed to lead out of town just loops back into it.  Ethan fights hard against the town and becomes the target of a fete–where the sheriff of the town  leads the citizens of the town to find and kill someone who has broken the rules.  Ethan survives the fete and because of his resourcefulness he is let in on the secret of the town.  David Pilcher, the secret leader of the town, has had a decades-long project that started when he discovered that the human genome was becoming corrupted and the human species was quickly changing into something else entirely.  When no one believed his research, he set out on a project to preserve as much of humanity as possible, gathering people he could trust to act as his staff and collecting others against their will.  His research perfected the technology of cryogenic sleep and  he put all of these people (including Ethan) into cryosleep.  1800 years later he and his staff woke up to find that his prediction had come true–the world as far as they could explore had been overrun by the evolutionary descendents of humanity–which they dubbed aberrations (or abbies for short)–vicious human predators.  They set out to rebuild Wayward Pines, protected by sheer cliffs and a high voltage fence and then woke up people to populate the town.  During his first attempt to populate the town he tried telling people the truth, but suicide rates quickly rose, and he salvaged what he could by starting over again (putting people in cryosleep erased their memory since the last sleep).  David Pilcher names Ethan Burke as his new sheriff to help enforce the rules of the town and keep people safe both from the abbies outside the wall and to keep the growing discontent among the townspeople from exploding into revolution.

Phew, sorry, long back story, but most of that’s important to understanding the basic plot of this book.

Near the start of the story Ethan Burke discovers a corpse of a woman who has apparently been murdered, and Pilcher assigns him the task of investigating.  Although the violent fetes are a part of life in Wayward Pines, unsanctioned murders are rare, due in large part to the constant surveillance of the residents.  The murdered woman was one of Pilcher’s employees working in the mountain to oversee the surveillance and discipline of the town, and she had been venturing into town in the guise of a townsperson to root out the secrets of a group of residents who have found ways to dodge the surveillance.  Meanwhile, Ethan has been reunited with his wife and son–when he first came to Wayward Pines 2000 years before he came there before her, and she was taken by Pilcher more than a year later.  But, skip forward 2000 years, and she and their son was woken from cryo more than 5 years before him so she has already settled into living in the town by the time he arrivs.

Although the setting and protagonist the same, this book has a decidedly different feel from the first book, Pines.  The first book feels more like weird fiction because of the unexplained oddities of the little town and the constant attempts of the protagonist to pick at the edges of the strangeness.  By the start of this book Ethan has a much clearer idea of what’s going on and has been drawn into the conspiracy himself, so rather than being in the position of rebellious loner he is a family man in a position of precarious power whose job is both to protect and oppress the people of the town.  He hasn’t lost his rebellious nature, but he is in a very difficult position.

The mystery of the murder made a good centerpiece for the book, (and was a surprise to me even though I’d seen season one of the TV show because of changes in the adaptation), and Ethan’s interactions with Pilcher are a constant source of new information to understand the situation this little town is really in.

The most interesting new addition to me that differentiated this book from the first one is to see more deeply into the point of view of the staff that live in the mountain surveilling the town.  While the people in the town yearn only to get out of the town, the people in the mountain yearn to get into it–to live under the open sky and be able to live a comparatively carefree life and just forgetting all the strangeness around them.  That was an interesting dichotomy to read about, and one that was largely absent from the TV show.

The book is interesting throughout, and manages to avoid the Book Two Slump of many series.  Although it depends on knowledge from the first book and leads directly into the events of the third book, it has an arc that stands on its own that starts with the major change of Ethan being promoted to sheriff and ending with major events that lead into the third book’s story.

BOOK REVIEW: Pines by Blake Crouch

written by David Steffen

Pines is a… I guess I’d call it a mystery fantasy/SF thriller… the first of a trilogy written franchise tie-in novel written by Blake Crouch and published in 2012 by Thomas & Mercer.

If you follow reviews on this site regularly, and this one seems familiar, that’s because I’ve already posted a TV review of Wayward Pines Season 1 which is based on Blake Crouch’s trilogy of books and covers a similar set of events as the trilogy of books.

The story begins as U.S. Secret Service agent Ethan Burke travels to Wayward Pines, Idaho to investigate the disappearance of two fellow agents who were last heard from as they approached the mysterious little town. After a car accident en route, Ethan wakes up in the Wayward Pines hospital, unable to contact anyone and unable to leave. In many ways it seems like a stereotypical small town, but there are big warning signs that something is not right in this little town–the strange things that people say, the strict rules the town keeps about not talking about your past and not asking questions. He wants nothing more than to escape the small town and get back home to his wife and son, but every route out of town is blocked–the main road only loops back into town again.  He finds one of the agents he was looking for (whom he had had an affair with in the past), but she seems to aged more than she should have.  Everything is a mystery in this mysterious, ominous, little town.

I read the books after already seeing season 1 of the TV show, and so I knew pretty much what to expect but I was interested in where it differed and where it was the same.  Pines stuck pretty close to the TV show, albeit covering only the first few episodes.  There are some notable differences, probably just to compress the plot enough to fit it on TV, and the book had more of an emphasis on Ethan’s past torture at the hands of a terrorist.  The main things that differed were supporting details like character appearances and character ages, and that sort of thing, which is always a little confusing but not terribly so.

I commented in the TV Review that some of the “weird little town” moments kind of reminded me of Twin Peaks but that the show did a reasonably good job with them and didn’t make it just a ripoff.  I was interested to read in the introduction that Blake Crouch is a huge Twin Peaks fan and this trilogy was his attempt to write something that had some of the same feel to it, so I think it’s interesting that I picked up the reference.

Book 1 provides a pretty solid plot arc on its own, making it a reasonably good standalone book on its own. By the end of the book you find out clear explanations for most of the weirdness in the town but with enough questions left to leave plenty of remaining mystery, the immediate plot arc resolves in a satisfying and interesting way, and at the end of the book the situation changes drastically enough to serve as an excellent hook for reading the next book–many things are the same but big big things have changed so if you’re like me you’re immediately drawn by the question of “WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?”


TV REVIEW: Wayward Pines Season 1

written by David Steffen

Wayward Pines was a 10-episode horror/science fiction miniseries written by M. Night Shyamalan which aired on Fox between May and July 2015, based on the series of novels with the same name written by Blake Crouch.  It wasn’t clear when it aired, even when the season ended, whether it was to be continued or not, but at the time this article is posting Wayward Pines Season 2 is less than a week away.

The story begins as U.S. Secret Service agent Ethan Burke travels to Wayward Pines, Idaho to investigate the disappearance of two fellow agents who were last heard from as they approached the mysterious little town.  After a car accident en route, Ethan wakes up in the Wayward Pines hospital, unable to contact anyone and unable to leave.  In many ways it seems like a stereotypical small town, but there are big warning signs that something is not right in this little town–the strange things that people say, the strict rules the town keeps about not talking about your past and not asking questions.  Meanwhile, back at home his wife and son are starting to wonder about him–as a Secret Service agent he can’t ever talk about his work, but after he’s been gone for several days without any news from his office, they set out to find him.

I started watching Wayward Pines with my family, expecting it to be fun and weird but probably not that memorable–it felt in its initial description and promotions to be something very much like Twin Peaks.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Twin Peaks, but Twin Peaks is its own weird little thing and I’d be concerned that something that tried to be Twin Peaks would just be a pale comparison.

But it wasn’t a Twin Peaks ripoff in the slightest.  Occasionally there was that same weird small town vibe, occasionally feeling like Twin Peaks in some small way, or like a Stephen King sleepy little town horror setting.  But these similarities were passing and more to do with a well-captured mood than with deriving too closely from another show.  It’s hard to say much more about what the events of the show without getting into major spoiler territory.  Even though I started with a skeptical attitude, it got me interested in the first episode, and only increased my interest as the show went on.

One thing that made the show different in a way that might be considered good or bad is that it has major shifts in almost every episode.  It’s a show built around mystery, but it’s not stingy with revealing the answers to those mysteries–almost every episode has a major revelation.  I’m surprised that they put all of that into a single miniseries instead of expanding it out to a few seasons–some of the shifts would’ve made epic season finales and the shows events could easily have been spread out with plenty of good meat to fill several seasons of TV with gradual reveal of those mysteries rather than stacking them back to back.  On the one hand, the show was over so quickly this way, on the other hand it’s fast-paced and never dull and kept me interested to the end.

What makes the best TV shows stand out to me tend to be the writing and the casting, and both are very good in this.  Particularly notable in the casting were Matt Dillon, Carla Gugino, Melissa Leo, and Terrence Howard.  Matt Dillon as Ethan Burke is not always likeable, and he’s made some bad decisions that still haunt him, but as the protagonist in this tight situation he is competent and compassionate and able to think on his feet.  I’ve liked Carla Gugino for a long time, and this is probably my favorite of her roles–as a longtime resident of Wayward Pines she has had to adapt to survive in this strange little town and the conflict inherent in every choice she has to make is well portrayed.  Melissa Leo plays Pam, the nurse at the hospital, the first face that Ethan sees upon waking up in Wayward Pines–her performance lends a lot of the initial sense of wrongness about the town in the way that she acts.  Terrence Howard plays Sheriff Pope, the law in the town, and is the most clear villain in the beginning of the show, giving a great performance as a quirky but dangerous man.

It wasn’t clear when the miniseries ended whether this would be the end of Wayward Pines.  The ending left some potential for that, and there had been some talk of the show being renewed, but some ads for the show referred to the final episode as a series finale rather than a season finale.  Since watching Wayward Pines Season 1, I’ve also read the entire trilogy of books that it’s based on.  As you might guess, the TV show has the same premise and has some similarities but some differences–I find such things interesting to view side by side as if they were alternate realities. The TV show is basically the trilogy of books tightly compressed, with a lot of subplots left out entirely to fit it into a miniseries.  But the way that the miniseries ended is not even slightly compatible with anything in the books, so Wayward Pines season 2 cannot possibly be based on anything familiar.  It’s going to have to be something entirely new building off of the familiar setting and characters, so that’s going to be interesting.  A reader of the book would be able to spot many but not all of the major plot points in season 1, but readers will have no better idea than anyone what’s going to happen in season 2.