Wayward Pines introduces Matt Dillon as battered, unsmiling FBI agent Ethan Burke. I’d add that he’s “troubled”, too, in the sense that he’s like so many TV cops: burdened with a familiar backstory. Wounded by an operation gone wrong and a marriage made frail by his inability to communicate, Ethan is dispatched to Idaho to locate a pair of missing agents, one of whom just happens to be a colleague with whom he had a brief affair.
Wayward Pines‘ first three episodes (of ten) lay out this history, as they also establish a paranoiac and rather bloody allegory of eroding privacy and personal freedom under the guise of promised protection and security. Ethan’s own story takes a turn at the start, when a car accident leaves him in a hospital in Wayward Pines, Idaho, a strange hinterland that splices the unearthly perfection of Wisteria Lane with a damp, subpar Twilight, a place whose citizens insist on their strong sense of community, not to mention the show’s most obvious precursor, Twin Peaks. It’s hardly a spoiler to state that beneath the folksy charm of Wayward Pines, every resident harbors a painful secret.
Despite our suspicion that Ethan’s relationships and interactions constitute an excuse for repeated demonstrations of man-pain (Dillon does the jaw-clenching, thousand-yard stare beautifully), Wayward Pines actually becomes more complicated and involving a couple of episodes in, as the intrigue deepens.
Some of this intrigue has to do with what might optimistically be viewed as a wry comment on the eternal strong-woman trope, combined with a twee appropriation of early-Mad Men-like intricacies. This occurs early, as Ethan’s wife and erstwhile lover reverse roles: he confesses that he fell for fellow agent Kate (Carla Gugino), not just for her professional haircut, but because she was “fearless”, which makes her apparently unlike his wife Theresa (Shannyn Sossamon), who begins the series with little identity beyond wronged wife and mother. Wayward Pines‘ most disorienting and interesting idea might be the way it upends this narrative: as we observe Kate’s paralyzing fear (figured though a softened sweater-girl look), Theresa channels her anxieties into action.
The show offers other intrigues as well, one focused through Ethan’s confrontations with the local sheriff, Pope (Terrance Howard), seems to reverse the usual dynamic of a vicious, institutionally racist police force suppressing the locals. Is it by coincidence or design that Wayward Pines’ most prominent authority figure, seemingly the only non-white male in town, leads with terrifying religious fervor? Sheriff Pope visits repeated violence on Ethan when he tries to escape, making Ethan part of a brutalized minority: the outsider. At the same time, Pope is hardly “in control”, as Ethan may (or may not) be considered part of a sinister force comprised of generations of anonymous white men in suits who wield power secretly, whether officially or not. This plot point gains traction when it’s inevitably revealed that someone ominous and unseen is watching over Wayward Pines, but also that Ethan’s faith in his own office is misplaced, his control lost long before his badge.
Though it’s unclear in three episodes where such ideas might go in Wayward Pines, the show does provide plenty of unanswered questions to pique our interest. We might also be wary: the occasional half-hearted carnival imagery or the all-purpose atmosphere of dread created by tired old tricks like thunderstorms, ugly motels, and abandoned houses suggest that Wayward Pines may not want anyone to think all that hard just yet.