Wayward Pines starts with a close-up of its hero, Secret Service agent Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon), turned upside-down, bruised and bleeding from mysterious injuries, on the floor of a forest he doesn’t remember entering. It’s the perfect image to kick off a series steeped in dream logic, set in a town (and a world) where nothing is at it seems.
As the plot untangles itself, we learn that he’s come to the titular town to find out what happened to two fellow agents who visited the place earlier and just sort of vanished. (One of them is played by Carla Gugino.) But this is no ordinary town, nor is it Twin Peaks, exactly, although the mountains and tall fir trees and signage testify to that series’ overwhelming impact on the writers’ imaginations. There’s something else going on here, and we aren’t sure what. I’m reluctant to explain too much this high up in a review, because I knew nothing about the show going into it and was glad I didn’t bother. A big part of its pleasure lies in how it seems to be settling comfortably into a certain groove, then suddenly goes off in another direction.
Which isn’t to say that Wayward Pines is unlike anything you’ve seen; in fact, it borrows bits and pieces from a lot of beloved TV series and films, which I’ll wait to name until the fifth paragraph of this piece in case you want to play spot-the-reference on your own. What I mean is that it’s TV designed for people who watch a lot of TV and know a lot of TV, and aren’t necessarily coming into Wayward Pines to be stunned by its novelty but to see if a group of talented actors, writers, and filmmakers can stitch a crazy quilt of influences into something coherent and pleasurable. They do. But it takes a while — two episodes, at least — for the viewer to really tune into its odd wavelength. Once you’ve done that, you might realize that what you’re seeing is not really a jump-scare thriller or even a puzzle-box fantasy but a very, very dry comedy whose humor is rooted largely in the spectacle of Matt Dillon wandering from scene to scene, taking it all in and then wondering if any of this is actually happening or if he’s losing his mind. (Spoilers from here.)
Wayward Pines is adapted by producer Chad Hodge from Blake Crouch’s novel Pines, and executive produced by M. Night Shyamalan, who once seemed like the next Spielberg (according to Newsweek, anyway) but has fallen on critical hard times. The first few episodes feel like a partial return to form for the filmmaker (especially the pilot, which he directed himself). The show lacks the patient, sinuous creepiness of his excellent early films, as well as some excellent sequences in his weaker follow-ups; he’s a distressingly hit-and-miss storyteller, but a great thriller director in a Roman Polanski vein, unafraid of long takes and unsettling silence. Wayward Pines isn’t as elegant as his best work, but it has that vintage Shyamalan feeling of psychic uprootedness, where neither you nor the hero can be entirely sure what’s real and what’s an illusion, a dream, a metaphor, or some kind of supernatural event.
Flashbacks take us into Ethan’s recent past and introduce his superiors, his colleagues, and his wife, Theresa (Shannyn Sossamon), and son, Ben (Charlie Tahan). In the present, Ethan staggers into a Wayward Pines coffee shop, horrifying the barista, then collapses on the floor. He wakes up in a hospital and meets his nurse and caretaker, Pam (Melissa Leo), and the resident psychiatrist, Dr. Jenkins (Toby Jones); like everyone else in this town, they don’t just talk, they baffle and tease and unnerve. Every word out of their mouths has an insinuating and untrustworthy edge, though neither Ethan nor the viewer knows precisely where this feeling is coming from, or if it’s real or imagined. Pam in particular seems to take delight in unsettling the hero; Leo’s performance suggests a wide-eyed, peppy cousin of Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Empire star Terrence Howard, who exudes weirdness even when he’s standing on a red carpet, ups the ante as the town sheriff. His performance is a kick, too — like an African-American revision of one of those redneck lawmen who used to torment drifter heroes in ‘70s movies. The miserly doling out of revelations is very Lost, and there are numerous echoes of classic episodes of The Twilight Zone (fans of the series will instantly guess which one), as well as The Prisoner, while the town’s mysteriously circumscribed quality sometimes suggests Under the Dome minus the dome.
After a while, Ethan realizes it’s not just his own predicament that’s screwy. The rules of time and space seem to have been twisted into pretzels as well. Has a year passed since he spoke to another character, or 16 years? Does the town have borders, or is it endless? What the hell is going on? Once we get to the pilot’s ending — a twist that’s not really much of a twist, and to its credit, the script doesn’t pretend otherwise — the next couple of episodes take us deep into Kafka country, and Wayward Pines turns into the scripted-drama version of one of those shaggy-dog jokes that becomes funnier the longer it goes on. What crimes have been committed here? Why is everyone tormenting Ethan? Is he being punished for something? Is he being subject to some kind of cruel experiment, and if so, is his search for missing colleagues just the pretext to treat him like a lab monkey? What the hell?
It’s impossible to overstate how much the show benefits from having Matt Dillon as its lead. Very few actors are as adept at seeming like they aren’t in on the joke. He’s a great deadpan comic actor, a fact that people seem to rediscover every ten years or so, and this is another prize portrayal in that vein. There’s a moment in the second episode where Ethan reenters the coffee shop where he collapsed in the pilot and orders an espresso. The barista tells him how much it will be, and Ethan takes out a wrinkled bill, unfolds it, and stares at it for a very long time. Finally the barista says, “You give that to me, and I give this to you,” and slides the espresso over to him. Dillon’s face is immobile but his eyes say, “Good to know.”