Silo, Graham Yost

‘Silo’ Is the Smart Sci-fi Show We’ve Been Waiting For

Combining conspiracy thriller, dystopian nightmare, and science fiction, Silo succeeds in predicting a grim future for humans but good outlooks for Apple TV+.

Graham Yost
Apple TV+
5 May 2023

It’s been decades since science fiction on film moved beyond the realm of high-dollar blockbusters for geeky kids and into a symbiosis with the dystopian, highly political, and sometimes eerily personal narratives. The sci-fi-related content has proliferated across the big screen and streaming services. Its recent heterogeneity, while welcome, now means pretty much any other genre, aesthetic, or pathos, can shape the end result. 

The biggest, even remotely sci-fi hits of the past decade that were not reboots/revivals of canon sensations such as Star Wars, Jurassic Park, or Blade Runner had little in common, ranging from dystopian politics of Severance (another Apple TV+ hit), through renditions of personal trauma of Arrival and Interstellar, to young adult smashers like The Hunger Games series. Deeply emotional stories of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Spike Jonze’s Her, and even Lars von Trier’s Melancholia are also categorized as science fiction by IMDB. The offer is diverse and bountiful like never before, but despite intense efforts (Extrapolations, Invasion, The Expanse…), save for Denis Villeneuve’s Dune films, old-school sci-fi, now in itself a niche, hasn’t produced many knockouts as of late. 

Until now, that is, or at least so it should be. Despite HBO-esque ethos and Disney-esque embarrassment of riches, Apple TV+ has been struggling to deliver a winner since Severance and Slow Horses premiered last year. The star power of the likes of Harrison Ford and Jennifer Garner did little to turn the viewers’ attention to their latest shows, Shrinking and The Last Thing He Told Me. Not even Meryl Streep could secure hype for Extrapolations, a postapocalyptic anthology that premiered not two months ago. On 5 May, however, we finally got treated to Silo, a slick mixed-genre drama rooted in classical sci-fi, with the potential to bring back both the genre – and Apple TV+ ambitions – to the forefront. 

Silo is based on the hugely cinematic story Wool, a self-published series of novellas turned bestsellers by author Hugh Howie. When the first stories were released in 2012, 20th Century Fox promptly secured the rights to an adaptation, with none other than Ridley Scott and Steven Zaillian attached to the project. This iteration was ultimately discarded when Disney acquired Fox, but it’s a solid illustration of how big of a deal the series has been to the industry. Now that it’s finally seen the light of day (unlike its inhabitants), Silo is expected to be the next big thing for the sci-fi genre and its creators/producers. If we’re to judge based on the first season, it will almost surely be a hit.

Well-acted, excellent-looking, and fine-tuned for existential dread and imaginative landscaping, Silo is a sci-fi fan series that shows more than it tells. It is a smart, if at times slightly uneven, ten-episode introduction to the world of (allegedly) the last humans, with murders, conspiracies, anomie, and distrust running rampant. The ensemble featuring Tim Robbins, Common, David Oyelowo, Rashida Jones, Harriet Walter, and more delivers across the board, with phenomenal Rebecca Ferguson anchoring the show as the indomitable, anxiety-ridden Juliette. Her pursuit of the truth behind the conspiracies and walls of silence gives Silo its emotional weight. 

The plot is the standout among the myriad elements that come together seamlessly. Silo unfolds as a police procedural with conspiracy thriller elements, where the story of whodunnit breathes life into the sci-fi components and social critique. It is a creative and fresh way of looking at what would otherwise be a traditional science fiction vision of a society suffering in the wake of apocalyptic events. While the first season left us wanting (a lot) more, it’s a potent beginning of a multi-layered narrative, showing plenty of promise. 

Created by Graham Yost (Justified creator and The Americans executive producer) and principally directed by Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game), the inaugural season takes place (mostly) in a gargantuan, brutalist bunker. Across 144 expansive, meticulously organized levels, the last 10,000 humans live within a concrete confine, mostly underground, with only the uppermost plateau peeking into the barren outside through a single broad window resembling a screen.

The said “outside” is toxic, as no organism can survive overground after a cataclysm of unknown origin. It’s been many decades since the remnants of humanity went underground to save themselves, and no living person has the slightest idea of what life was like before. This is about as much as we can gather on the first glance. In the words of Silo’s ritual-driven bureaucrats: “We do not know why we are here. We do not know who built the silo. We do not know why everything outside the silo is as it is. We do not know when it will be safe to go outside. We only know that day is not this day.” 

Except we do know just about enough to make us squeamish. It is difficult to write about this show without betraying major spoilers, but with the first two episodes having already aired, there’s plenty that can be commented on now.

We know that upper-level bureaucrats are obsessed with symbolism, staging most of their contact with the populace as liturgical. We know all women are on birth control for population monitoring reasons, but some women might not be deemed “suitable” to bear children. We know there was a rebellion of sorts 140 years ago, but we don’t know why, and the silo’s inhabitants are not allowed to ask about it. There are a lot of “relics” from Before Times, but discussing them, let alone having them in possession, is verboten big time. In fact, there is a lot the characters are not allowed to know or ask about, considering how peaceful and uneventful the everyday tedium of the silo is, as if life on the outside, or even on the inside, is not exactly as it seems.

Silo‘s first two episodes, roughly following the first novella, introduce us to life in the silo through the eyes of its sheriff, the sympathetic and dependable Holston (David Oyelowo), and his wife, the suspicious “troublemaker” Allison (Rashida Jones). In the present day, the sheriff has done the unthinkable: he said out loud he wanted to “go outside”, meaning he would be sent to clean the big window outside the silo and die from poisoning within minutes. He is prompted to do so, partly out of grief for his wife, who herself decided to leave three years ago. The other part is that he suspects there’s more to the silo’s – and the world’s – history than the overseers lead on. There might even be a chance he will survive the inhospitable conditions once he’s sealed out from the underground society. 

Silo‘s non-linear narrative skilfully messes with the little that we see: three years in the past, Allison and Holston are a happily married couple, just going on about their business working, he in the police, she in IT, and finally getting the clearance to have a baby. Like an anthill, the silo is limited in its capacity to sustain an ecosystem, so it’s only reasonable that one would need a permit to procreate. The introduction to Holston’s and Allison’s life seems jovial enough, so what could have possibly prompted their insistence on killing themselves through excommunication? 

As the two episodes (entitled “Freedom Day” and “Holston’s Pick”) unfold, we learn that this tension between maintaining the status quo and the desire (need?) to understand one’s ontology and the community’s teleological shackles is at the heart of Silo. On the one hand, we get a visually thrilling dystopian system that works: endless blocks of rounded concrete are pierced by a vertiginous double helix staircase, neat little apartments in the hues of blue and green are seen with minimalistic retrofuturistic furniture (Disney’s Loki comes to mind), schools, hospitals, police stations, everything that’s needed for a self-sustained society functions in the silo.

Throughout the 7.5 hours of the first season (episode length ranges from 40ish to 63 minutes), scenery ranges from hydroponic fields with crops under fluorescents to the immense mechanical department maintaining a gargantuan motor. The workers and jobs are plentiful, including vocations as diverse as OBGYNs and administrative assistants. On the face of it, there are no visible signs of trouble anywhere, and the people are well-adjusted. 

On the other hand, mechanized movement is just one of the countless things prohibited by the mystifying Pact, allegedly a resolution to the “rebellion” from 140 years ago. Hence, no elevators. Virtually nobody knows what stars or dolphins are, and so much as seeing a relic can get you jailed. There are doors (of course there are) that cannot be opened even in an emergency because the Pact prohibits it. The bureaucrats’ jobs are, for the most part, opaque. The authority of the tyrannical Judicial is outright absolute. While there is no mention of autocracy or class division, it is crystal clear who the Up Top folk are and who remains in the masses. Freedom is heavily restricted in every sense, not just physically. 

Allison is the first of this batch of characters to realize the caste system (surely others before her must have known, too). The women of the silo are implanted with birth control devices. She meets with a fertility counselor who suggests she isn’t the type of person the heads would allow to have children, but she persists. When a year (the designated amount of time to conceive with a clearance) passes without her becoming pregnant, she believes her birth control – contrary to what she had been told – had not been removed.

She is invited for an IT repair for a man from the Deep Down, George, who has found a relic, an old computer drive, and needs help decoding it. Once revealed to Allison, the contents of the drive will set the main plot of Silo in motion in ways both thrilling and depressingly violent. 

The actual protagonist of the show, Rebecca Ferguson’s Juliette, doesn’t come into focus until much later. An engineer with a striking aptitude for mechanics and a similarly striking ineptitude for tactical communication, Juliette toils away Deep Down as a key figure in the maintenance of the silo’s massive motor, the kernel of all that’s left of life on Earth. Fearless, stubborn, and deadpan but honest and fair, Juliette (named after “the play” some have even heard of) is a tough heroine on a tougher mission, reminiscent of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley.

After learning that Holston picked her to be his successor as sheriff, a role she’s completely unprepared for, she will be pushed into a web of surveillance, intrigue, and murder. Her journey from the literal bottom to the top – shown through the multiple brushes with the eminence gris of Judicial, Sims (Common), and the indecipherably amicable head of IT, Bernard (a great Tim Robbins) – will blow open some of the doors the regime of the silo wants to remain closed. It is a physically and emotionally demanding role, with ample room for sympathy and identification.

Luckily, Ferguson is up to the task. Hailed as the new icon of science fiction after her hypnotizing turn as Lady Jessica in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, the Swedish-English actress conveys the right combination of grit and vulnerability to make her smart and complicated character in Silo work. Driven by a thirst for justice and personal trauma whose many layers are gradually revealed, Juliette will stop at nothing to uncover the conspiracy behind multiple deaths and the truth about everyone’s life underground. 

Her mission is shown in tremendous detail, with countless minutiae woven into the story. This is also one of Silo’s biggest strengths, as the cinematography and direction are outstanding, assuredly commanding uninterrupted attention to the visuals and making the silo a character in itself. Tyldum, who’s already done great work in the genre with the short-lived (but excellent) Counterpart, is a master of quiet exposition and sets the tone for the series with the first three episodes, the only ones he directs.

The third episode, “Machines”, doesn’t feature many details vital to the central conspiracy but instead brings the atmosphere in the Deep Down forward via an issue with the silo’s motor and Juliette’s reaction to the problem. Clocking in at 63 minutes, this is the longest episode of the season by some margin. It is also its best, with a pulse-quickening, outright electrifying 20-minute sequence of emergency motor repair.

Without giving anything else away, scenes such as that one do wonders for the viewers’ “feel” of the silo and the life within it; the visuals, in this case, efficiently substitute and build upon occasionally sparse dialogue. Not for a moment are we allowed to forget that this haunting, claustrophobic ordeal is entirely dependent on unfavorable physical circumstances. In this respect, Silo mostly resembles a Ballardian universe, which is a considerable compliment.

Certainly, Apple TV+’s enormous, undisclosed budget helps animate the unimaginably humongous structure-as-organism and its abundant organelle, but we’ve witnessed more expensive shows looking dull and unimaginative. Despite a somewhat tired dystopian premise of people confined in an uncanny space post-apocalypse, Silo pulls off looking fresh and exciting, thanks to its creators’ stellar attention to detail. 

To Yost’s and Tyldum’s credit, the pacing generally resembles a ponderous novel and not a typical, cash-grabbing adrenalin shot. The many characters are given backstories (not as complex as Lost, but similar to the idea) or even entire episodes, their personalities revealed through personal turmoil and rites of passage that often have little to do with the silo’s mythology or central mysteries. Despite risking the alienation of those only looking for big-budget setpieces and heart-stopping action, Silo is a thoroughly adult affair, looking to immerse the viewers into every aspect of the experience. Atli Örvarsson‘s deliciously dark and evocatively Reznor-like soundtrack certainly works to the atmosphere’s advantage.

However, what truly elevates Silo from a slick-looking sci-fi to an overall great show is its plotting and especially the thematic scope of the social commentary. The claustrophobic noir of the banality of everyday routine strongly resonates with everyone’s recent experiences of lockdowns. The blasé ease with which women’s body autonomy is jeopardized and vital information omitted from the public echoes the attitudes of governments worldwide today.

Moreover, despite the constant feeling of oppression, the impossibility of escape hits a bit too close to home for us in the real world, with its manifold hostile and outright deadly borders. The all-too-familiar-readiness of the majority to blindly follow the rules to avoid disrupting the status quo is merely an insult to injury. 

Among the numerous phenomena Silo addresses, those examined with the most depth are the overtly political ones. The chieftains rely heavily on ritualistic behaviors and events to construct social reality, control, and maintain power. Communal events are dramaturgically staged as quasi-religious by the leaders, at times so much so they come across as comical. Every dismissal of an inhabitant to “clean” the window to the outside (a euphemism for dying) is accompanied by a solemn reading of verses from the unknowable Pact and entails the expectation that the person about to suffocate to death will clean the one large window with a cloth prior to collapsing, while the masses look on and even cheer. Ceremonies are mandated for occurrences such as “Freedom Day” to commemorate the end of the “evil rebellion against the benevolent regime”. Every public appearance by the Up Top leaders necessitates a gathering of the crowd, not out of worship but sheer fascination. 

The rituals are deployed relentlessly to maintain homeostasis and regulate social interactions and reverence for the (secretive and utterly dubious) institutions. In the words of the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, the role of this kind of politics is to serve both as the “model of” and the “model for” reality, which thrives on the naturalization of the power of the upper echelons and the culture of forgetting every remnant of a potentially shared history from the Before Times.

There’s no actual autocracy in the silo. Still, the intensely isolationist politics of its chiefs are staggeringly reminiscent of much of what’s going on with the turn to right-wing policies in the global Northwest. The people of the silo might very well be the last humans on Earth, but the idea behind their governance is for them to stay that way. In their world, Juliette’s reasonable curiosity is an unforgivable act of dissent, one that will threaten to collapse the social order. Such is the fragility of the systems based on performative confabulations and self-righteous opaqueness.  

Nevertheless, despite its expert execution and storytelling depth, Silo isn’t perfect. Most of the reveals have been saved for later seasons; we are given so little development that some plot points become stretched too thin, overstaying their welcome and dragging the pacing down. As a result, the later batch of episodes can sometimes feel plodding and repetitive. The creatives are betting big that Silo will stay and develop for years to come, especially with the shocking, game-changing discovery made at the very end of the season. 

With the second season already in the works and with what we’ve seen so far, I can only hope Apple TV+ bet on the right horse this time. 

Silo‘s first two episodes are available now on Apple TV+, with new episodes streaming on Fridays through 30 June.