Wayward Pines, FOX's new ten-episode miniseries starring Matt Dillon, Terrence Howard, Carla Gugino and Melissa Leo introduces a character still recovering from significant emotional trauma following a high profile catastrophe whose fatalities number in the range of 600, and for which he feels devastatingly responsible. Now in search of two missing secret service agents, Ethan Burke finds himself in an inescapable "Mayberry-like" town where the inhabitants live false lives and fear punishment for breaking the town's seemingly urbane directives.
A psychological thriller reminiscent of The Twilight Zone, The X-Files, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and anything written by Stephen King, Wayward Pines' menacing tone is expressed through a blue and shadow lens layered with an anxiety-inspiring score with slasher screechy undertones. Though the mood is dark, the questions are provocative enough that you'll be desperate for the next episode when the curtain falls on the first.
Schizophrenia Be Damned
Special Agent Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon) of the secret service awakens deep in the forest. He is bloody, disheveled and disoriented, having been thrown from the vehicle he was traveling in with fellow federal agent, Agent Stallings. Their car was hit head-on by the grill of a semi truck. Burke sees that Stallings is missing along with Ethan's wallet, briefcase, and phone.
Not three minutes into the pilot and we're thrown a theoretical bone: Ethan is schizophrenic. Or is he? Flashback to a shrink's office. Nightmares and hallucinations have been plaguing Ethan Burke. He allowed 621 people to die in the Easter bombing and has been paying the psychological tab ever since. His family doesn't understand or can't be told. His tenuous marriage with Theresa, after his affair with his partner, Kate (Gugino, Entourage), is near the breaking point. He's all alone.
The mental patient imagining or dreaming a wacky suspense-filled alternate reality is a trope not worthy of Executive Producer M. Night Shyamalan's prowess as a tale-spinner or novelist Blake Crouch's brilliance as the creator of the Pines trilogy book series that Wayward Pines is based upon. Or perhaps we are being thrown this explanation early to force its eager dismissal? Regardless, later elements provide enough substance to have us believe we're in for something much more compelling.
Introducing Nurse Ratched, the Administrator of Wayward Pines' Ghost Hospital
Ethan makes it into Podunk, aka Wayward Pines, and collapses. He awakens in a starkly ominous empty hospital where he's tended to by Nurse Pam, who is surely a descendant of villainous Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Flashbacks enlighten us to Ethan's mission: two federal agents have gone missing, one of which is his mistress, Kate Hewson. The other agent: Bill Evans.
Nurse Pam says that Ethan's companion, Stallings, died in the collision with the semi. Ethan survived with only a concussion and some broken ribs, or so we are told at this point. He asks about the suspicious absence of other people in the hospital and gets a pat answer. There are no phone jacks in the rooms, so calling anyone is out of the question. Freaky.
Ethan puts on his suit and leaves the hospital despite Ratched's ominous objections.
The Real World Continues on
While the car was recovered by the secret service, along with Stallings' corpse, not a single human cell or any artifacts substantiating Ethan's presence in the vehicle are found, throwing into question whether or not Ethan was even in the car when it crashed. The car's GPS has disappeared. (Queue the theme song from The X-Files.)
When Ethan is finally able to leave messages for his wife, she doesn't receive them. Theresa leaves messages for him, but he doesn't have his phone. Theresa and their son immediately suspect Ethan may have gone off with his ex-lover, Kate, but Ethan's boss, Adam Hassler, won't confirm or deny it. It's classified. Ethan also gets nowhere when he calls his secret service office to speak to Hassler as well.
Was Ethan ever in that car? If he was, how did the Wayward Pines freaks remove all traces of him? Maybe this whole experience is a figment of a deranged imagination or a damaged mind.
Welcome to the Twilight Zone Where Some are Dead
At the Biergarten, he meets bartender Beverly (Juliette Lewis, Secrets and Lies) who seems normal. She gives him food and a note with an address and the bizarre phrase: "There are no crickets in Wayward Pines." What the --?
At Ethan's hotel, it has no functioning phones or computers. The concierge is oddly pleasant, but asks Ethan to leave if he can't pay.
Ethan finds the structure at the address Beverly gave him. It's a ramshackle abandoned home overgrown with dust and ivy. Inside the shack Ethan finds the tortured and mutilated decomposing remains of secret service agent Bill Evans tied to a bed frame.
Returning to the Biergarten to find Beverly, he's told that there is no such woman working at the bar. Ethan's will is finally broken as he attacks the barman who then disables him, sending him back to the hospital, but not before grabbing a radio and reporting that "10-16-28 is not doing well."
Nurse Ratched Prepares Ethan for Brain Surgery
In the hospital, post-barroom skirmish, Ethan meets soft-spoken psychiatrist Dr. Jenkins (Toby Jones, Ever After) who tells him he has a epidural hematoma which has caused the dissociative breakdown back at the bar. Jenkins recommends surgery to drain the blood from the brain and again I'm reminded of the electroshock therapy administered to uncooperative patients in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Don't agree to it, Ethan! Ethan refuses only to be stabbed in the thigh with a sedative dose large enough to fell a horse by Nurse Pam. As he's being wheeled to the surgical suite, Beverly appears and somehow takes control of his gurney.
Beverly Spills the Beans
Beverly and Ethan run through the hospital. Ethan repeatedly notices water on the floor -- or did Beverly piss herself? The water has to mean something for as much as it flashes onto the screen, but we don't know what yet. Nurse Ratched finds them, but Ethan executes a sneak attack and the two escape to an abandoned church where she says he will be safe.
Beverly finally breaks code and admits what happened to Bill Evans. Evans was tortured and brutally murdered for trying to escape Wayward Pines. She and Evans were planning to escape when he was captured and killed. She admits that the people in Wayward Pines will try to break his mind. Even more interestingly, she herself landed in Wayward Pines after an accident that she thinks happened a year previously 'in 1999.' Burke tells her it's now 2014. (Queue score from Twilight Zone). So, there's something wonky about time perception in this twisted little town.
An Unforgettable Laugh Leads Ethan to Kate
Nathan walks the Wayward Pines park and hears his lover's laughter. Flashbacks reveal that the affair had started following the fatal catastrophe Ethan feels responsible for.
Kate and Ethan exchange wary eye contact at the park, but neither makes a move to acknowledge the other. Ethan follows Kate and her husband home and knocks on the door. She pretends she doesn't know him in front of her husband. Once alone she whispers that they are being watched and listened to all the time.
She says she's been living in this house for 12 years, however Ethan had seen here a mere five weeks previously. This story she's telling him is obviously a script she's been made to memorize. She tells Ethan to leave because he's putting her life at risk by just talking to her.
Ethan asks the million dollar question: "Kate, am I having a relapse?" She shakes her head no.
Evans and Jenkins are in Cahoots
Then comes an unexpected twist to disorient us yet again. In a brief real-world interlude we see Ethan's boss, Adam, meeting with Dr. Jenkins to request that they "call it off." Jenkins says it's too late, but not to worry because everything is being taken care of. What--?
Resistance is Futile, Escape is Impossible
Ethan steals a car and drives out of Wayward Pines, but finds himself driving in a big loop where every pass leads in and then back out of Wayward Pines, and then back in. Finally, he ditches the car and runs into the forest where he finds the exterior perimeter of Wayward Pines. An electrical fence rises into the sky and stretching to the left and right as far as the eye can see. On the other side of the fence: inky darkness. Posted on the fence is the ominous warning: "Risk of death. Return to Wayward Pines. Beyond this point you will die."
There's Only One Sheriff in Town
When Ethan makes it to the county seat to retrieve his belongings and report Evans' rotting corpse, Sheriff Arnold Pope (Terrence Howard, Empire), slurping rum raisin ice cream, denies having Ethan's personal effects or knowledge of any missing persons, much less the rotting corpse. Pope seems somewhat normal, if not rather low key, but I smell something fishy about this character.
In the final scene, we see Ethan return to the stolen car only to be stopped by Sheriff Pope. "How do I get out of here?" he asks. Pope's final words: "You don't."
Disturbing Yet Provocative Questions Remain
Major questions remain. How did Wayward Pines get to be like this? What retribution is so heinous that Kate would abandon her real life to avoid it? What does Evans know and what experiment is Dr. Jenkins running that Ethan is unwillingly participating in?
Wayward Pines airs Thursdays at 9pm on FOX.