Wayward Pines’ Surrealist Apartheid
With the appearance of episode five, Wayward Pines suddenly became interesting. Up to that point, the series appeared to be no more than a shoddy American remake of the even shoddier British remake of what is arguably the greatest television series ever done — Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner. (Benighted readers of this review who are unfamiliar with that majestic narrative should not even bother with either of these limping xerox successors, but just go buy the The Prisoner DVD set at once.)
Wayward Pines initially reprised The Prisoner’s surface plot device with unabashed fealty: a secret service agent wakes up in an isolated community which appears almost idyllically normal but is in fact a prison run by mysterious overseers for cryptic purposes. The heroic agent wants to (a) find out who’s behind it, (b) learn what it’s all about, and (c) escape, not necessarily in that order.
The main difference is that in The Prisoner, that quest takes on vast metaphorical dimensions: the Individual versus The State, the Self versus the Crowd, Ego versus Conformity. In Wayward Pines the quest is trivial because the lead character, Ethan Burke, as portrayed by Matt Dillon, is rougher and more wooden than the pines themselves. None of McGoohan’s razor-sharp articulation here: Dillon gives us a thuggish, monosyllabic, recently pistol-whipped, characterization straight out of forties film noir. McGoohan’s crystalline “I am not a number. I am a free man,” here devolves into Dillon’s “What da fuck?” expression as he repeatedly emerges from coma. If his acting here can ever be said to emerge from coma.
Burke stumbles around. Questions are asked. Some locals — “Nurse Pam” — act creepy. Most locals — the sheep — appear clueless. Surveillance cameras are everywhere. Trivial unwritten rules, such as scrawling anti-town graffiti, are transgressed, for which the punishment is public execution by the Town Sheriff (with the ecumenical name of Pope). Burke kills Pope and — more shades of The Prisoner? — finds himself promoted to Sheriff in turn. All very misterioso; but mostly just boring and parochial and unpleasant, largely because the players are boring and parochial and unpleasant.
The one fascination to that point is not the series but its teeming ancestry and baldfaced plagiarism. For The Prisoner is not Wayward Pines’ only precursor: author Blake Crouch is explicit in locating its origin in a fan fiction Third Series of Twin Peaks he attempted at age twelve. But Crouch, and executive producer and cinematic bombardier M. Night Shyamalan, do not rest there. They go on to gut and serve up taxiderm stretches of elements straight out of Lost, The Returned, Under The Dome and other small-town-weird classics with a flamboyant blatancy that must be seen to be believed: the very opening shot, a blinking-eye close-up that pulls away to show a battered disoriented man in a suit wandering in an unknown wood, is so straight out of Lost one is amazed a lawsuit has not been instituted. What, are there no hungry copyright attorneys anymore?
Shyamalan’s insensibility to litigation is the student of narrative’s gain. Eliot once described the choice method of modernism as collage. Judging by Wayward Pines, now that post-modernism reigns, collage is the only method. Creators of such narrative will find Wayward Pines well worth study, not for its creativity or originality but for the almost gross way it lifts and slaps together and juxtaposes elements of similar earlier work. Can we really get away with anything now? Looks like it. And can we actually make it work? Well — no, not really. The relentless collage may interest the literary craftsman, but the earlier episodes do little more than bore.
Yet in episode five, the stitched-together dead meat of this Frankenstin suddenly twitches! This orgy of narrative deja vu takes an original turn. No, the characters are not all dead and in Purgatory! The walls around Wayward Pines are not there to keep residents in. They’re there to keep the outside world out. Because — shrieking violins a la Bernard Herrmann — the outside world is no longer our world at all, but the world of 4028! Human civilization has crashed and burned, the cities are rusted ruins, history is over, the woods are filled with hordes of teeming mutated carnivorous Zombies! (Well, you knew there’s be hordes of zombies, right? Who doesn’t throw in a few zombies nowadays?) The truth is that mankind is extinct. With the sole exception of Wayward Pines: a sort of ark built by a far-seeing billionaire in days gone by, for cryopreserved late-twentieth century American pioneers to re-awaken and re-conquer the amber waves of slightly mutated grain.
Why does this make the series suddenly interesting? Partly because heroes are more interesting than victims (one of The Prisoner’s key insights). The notion of a small band of civilized beings striving to live and thrive again in a hostile savage world is appealing; far more appealing than a tale of frightened lab rats trying to understand who the experimenter is. The latter may well be the human condition, but who wants to dwell on it?
But the series also becomes interesting for another, more unsettling, reason.
I’ve always felt that science fiction — popular science fiction — is not so much an accurate picture of tomorrow, or even possible tomorrows, as it is a metaphorical picture of today, and about how the world of today envisions tomorrow. In that respect, Wayward Pines is yet another daunting image of modernity’s descent into neofascism.
Consider. Under the deceptive, easy surface of Wayward Pines, residents are under surveillance 24/7 and ruled by the unelected iron fist of anonymous managers, all set in place by a dictatorial billionaire businessman. The schools are there to indoctrinate. Churches are decayed ruins. Free market economics? All jobs and homes and social roles are assigned. The exterior is all Town Hall democracy, but the mechanics are Ingsoc.
Wayward Pines is the Custodial State of The Bell Curve 2,013 years on. Conspicuous by their near-total absence are foreigners, Asian, blacks. Mind you, I am not suggesting that the producers of Wayward Pines are conscious racists, nor am I arguing for mandatory diversity in casting. In art, plausibility trumps social engineering: multi-ethnic casts of Hamlet are as subtly jarring as having a play about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King with George Clooney and Johnny Depp playing the leads. The fact remains, deliberately or inadvertantly, Wayward Pines is white suburbia under glass.
But its originality, its flicker almost of genius, is to show us how the world looks to white suburbia through that glass: a world where the gated community is safe, orderly, good, and almost uniformly Caucasian, while the world outside the gates is threatening, violent, hostile, devolved, in chaos and in ruins. To give the authors, or their attorneys, some points for catering to diversity, yes, there is a black man standing watering a lawn near the end of episode five, and an Asian woman waiting tables. But is it sheer coincidence that virtually the only other black character in Wayward Pines, Sheriff Pope, cuts a white woman’s throat in public, and threatens the hero’s white wife, and that the series hero later kills him for it? Is it too much to suggest that the series’ writers are touching, perhaps unconsciously, a buried and dangerous American nerve?
Wayward Pines purports to be an image of isolated small town America, but what isolated small town looks that sharp? Where are the collapsed barns, the seedy bar, the trailer trash developments, the empty streets and shops as a dying economy pushes everyone into the cities? This is not small town America but prosperous suburban America. And the architects of Wayward Pines, when selecting for residents to populate it, seem to have worried more about representative social exemplars than about selecting for survivability or IQ. There are obese swarmy sexist realtors, rude government clerks, sadistic nurses, small town politicians and slimy restauranteurs, but where are the software engineers, technologists, scientists, military strategists — figures critical for group survival in a postapocalyptic world, but alien to gated communities?
The bogus explanation of the need for this suburban facade is so bogus one suspects authorial duplicity: “adults” can’t handle The Truth; they go mad and kill themselves. Only a select few high school students (YA Fiction spinoff!) can handle the Red Pill. Good grief, are they serious? The designers avoided filling Wayward Pines with a cohort of the Marine’s best and brightest because adult Marines can’t handle it, but high schoolers can?
Arguably the genius-billionaire creator of Wayward Pines is concerned not so much to preserve mankind as to preserve the American way of life; but why preserve this not especially representative whitebread slice of Americana, as opposed to the cream of Mensa or NASA? I suspect the answer lies not in the logic of the story but in the writers’ perhaps intuitive sense of who their audience is, and what moves them. That intuition is stark. The neoreactionary resonances of Wayward Pines present a separatist picture of fragile outnumbered civilized whites within and cannibals and global collapse without — a surrealism of apartheid. That it is popular suggests a new weltanschauung may be stirrng under that surrealist surface, a quiet but potentially seismic shift in the political consciousness of what remains of middle-class America: a sense that if the price of preserving the way of life of the white middle class means giving up democracy, diversity, individual rights, governmental accountability, the price is worth paying, or at least worth entertaining.
What in Wayward Pines is devolving is not the human genome but rather the consensus regarding diversity in a significant part of the population, the suburban Caucasian middle class; what we experience, or at least witness, when we view Wayward Pines, is the felt sense of that population edging, descending, toward the worldview of a Le Pen if not a Breivik. That it should resonate with a large part of the viewership makes this suddenly interesting series genuinely ominous indeed.