The dystopian fad has come and gone, and “mystery box” TV shows like Lost have fallen out of favor, so it’s a big swing on the part of Apple TV+ to put a lot of money behind a dystopian mystery box show. But Silo is a less risky bet than it would seem. It’s based on Hugh Howey’s bestselling series of books from the early 2010s, which means unlike Lost and shows of its ilk, we know there’s a satisfying ending comin, and the particulars of the show’s dystopia have been tested and approved by the readers who made Howey’s books one of self-publishing’s biggest success stories.
It helps that the dystopian setup is one we haven’t seen in the slew of Hunger Games knockoffs from that decade (although it is reminiscent of pre-Hunger book-turned-film City of Ember). There’s an entire city living in an underground silo. They don’t know why they’re there or who built the silo. But they have normal things like a cafeteria and a police department, and Sheriff Holston (David Oyelowo) goes through his morning routine… and then locks himself in a cell. His Deputy tries and talks him out of it, but he says what, in the silo, are fateful words: “I want to go out.”
Three years earlier, his wife Allison (Rashida Jones) went outside, and died. But before that, they were happy together, and approved by the powers that be (the Judicial department that manages the silo) to try for a baby, one of the many aspects of life in the silo that’s strictly controlled by Judicial. (A nosy old woman, claiming to be a fertility specialist, tries to nose into their business, but they’re not interested.) Allison works in the I.T. department, with Tim Robbins making a brief appearance as Bernarnd, her stickler-for-the-rules boss, who deletes a post she had made on how to recover deleted files. The silo has a lot of deleted files. Some rebels erased their history 140 years earlier, but it seems like the authorities want to make sure that history stays buried.
Six months later, Allison still isn’t pregnant, and the fertility specialist comes back. But when she meets with Allison in private, it’s not to talk about babies. She starts asking questions no one in the silo is supposed to ask — why are they living underground? Were there really rebels, or did the powers that be erase their history deliberately? Is she unable to conceive (as the older woman herself couldn’t when she was younger) because of Mother Nature? Or BIg Brother?
Allison has to go down to the lower levels for an IT house call, a trip long enough that it requires an overnight stay. She goes to help George, who read her post about deleted files. He has a broken hard drive that he suspects dates from before the rebellion. She helps him unlock the files, and they find blueprints for the silo and who knows what else. But owning a pre-rebellion relic is illegal. If they get caught, they get sent outside. So she leaves, as he keeps sifting through the files.
Of course, Allison can’t let it go. She goes back to the midwife, and wants to know why she thinks Judicial doesn’t want them to have kids. And then she goes back to George and asks him to show her everything. They pull up a file called Jane Carmody Cleaning. When people are sent outside, they’re made to clean the camera that gives the residents their view of the outside, on screens placed around the silo. We don’t know what she sees on the video, but it affects her.
As does the fact that the year they were allotted to try for a baby is up. She’s 38, and isn’t going to be given another chance. She confronts her husband, telling him “I’m not the person they want having kids. They want docile, obedient people.” And knowing her husband is a sheriff, she knows he’ll want proof. So she shows it to him. The doctors never actually took out her birth control. She took it out herself, that morning, digging into her side with a kitchen knife.
Holston runs for help, but before he gets back, she’s on the top level, ranting to the people that the display outside is a lie. She stuns her husband with the words none of them are supposed to say: “I want to go out.”
The deputy has no choice but to handcuff Allison as her husband looks on in horror. Holston meets with the Mayor, and she wants to help. But he knows nothing can be done. Their most fundamental rule is, if you say you want to go outside, you go outside.
Before she goes out, she lays out her conspiracy theory for him. Everything on the screens showing the outside world has been faked. It’s all a ruse to keep everyone inside, although to what end she can’t explain. But she wants to go outside to see for herself.
He’s skeptical, and can’t believe his wife is throwing her life away on this crazy theory. Until she asks him something he can’t answer. Why do people clean? When they’re sent out there to die, they have no motivation to help the silo by cleaning off the cameras. Many of them insist they won’t do it. And yet they all do. She thinks it’s their attempt to communicate with the inside, make them see more clearly what’s going on outside.
She tells him that if it’s desolate outside, like the screens show, she won’t clean. She’ll wave goodbye, having made the biggest and last mistake of her life. But if it is green and lush, she’ll clean the camera, so Holston will know the truth. She’ll go find out what the outside world is like, and then she’ll come back for him.
Holston is the sheriff, so he has to tearfully go through the ritual that sends his wife outside. It’s still his job, he swore and oath, and “An oath doesn’t mean anything if you only follow it when it’s easy.” They seal up her suit, put the helmet over her head, and she goes outside. Holston has to be the one to close the airlock-like door.
A crowd gathers to watch her through the screen. She walks away, but then turns back. She wipes off the screen and gives her husband a half smile. She walks off into a landscape that, to our eyes, looks desolate and dead. And then she collapses into the dirt.
If she walked out into a green landscape and the screens are showing a lie, then why does she die? If she walked out into a desolate, poisonous landscape, why does she come back to clean the screen? We don’t get any answers, and before the episode is done, we get one more question.
Two years later, George is dead. He fell down the spiral staircase that runs through the center of the silo. It’s an apparent suicide, but there’s a woman named Juliette (Rebecca Ferguson), who says it’s murder. Holston is called in to investigate, but all we see is that Juliette is an engineer who works on the generator that powers the entire Silo.
And then we’re back to the beginning, with Holston in a cell, awaiting his trip outside. Whatever happened between him and Juliette, it awakened him to whatever Allison thought she knew. He says he’s going to go outside and find her, whether the body lying outside on the screen is real or not, he’s going to find out the truth.
So we have our mystery box, and our dystopia. The latter is cleverly constructed because, while a strictly regimented life trapped in an underground silo is bad enough, the hint of pervasive lies and sinister forces at work add a lot of BLAH to the story. As sinister as the Hunger Games’ oppressive government is, there are few surprises about their methods or motives; they’re authoritarians exactly as advertised. Whereas it’s not only not clear what’s going on with the cleanings, and the erased history, it’s not clear who’s behind it or why. (Okay, it’s probably Judicial) Don’t expect any answers next week, just more questions.
• If this first review is a little too plot-heavy, it’s only because there’s a lot of setup to get through. It’s too early to talk about things like how faithfully the series does or doesn’t follow the books And we can’t even really get into how it conveys the claustrophobic world of the silo, as we’re focused pretty squarely on Allison and Holston this week. But we’ll get deeper into it over the ten-episode season. There also aren’t really any spoilers this week, as we know from the first minutes Allison went outside. I’m not sure why we start with that and get the whole episode in flashback, except that that’s how it was in the book. It might have been more affecting to get to know Allison not knowing her fate in advance, and being just as shocked as her husband when she says the fateful words.
• The most significant change from the book here is the pregnancy storyline. It comes and goes in two paragraphs in the book, and Allison’s suspicions are limited to the computer files and not her birth control. But it’s a good change. Trying for a baby gives their relationship more romance than it has in the book, which makes it all the more heartbreaking when she goes outside. And the shift from joyful anticipation to dull despair as the year drags on with no pregnancy — and the possibility that, even after having to win a government lottery to even be allowed to procreate, it may still be out of their control — illustrates the bleak undercurrent of life in the silo better than anything else in the episode.
• The series was adapted by Graham Yost, who previously created Justified, Boomtown, and wrote the screenplay for Speed. Morten Tyldum, the Norwegian director who got an Oscar nomination for The Imitation Game, directs the first three episodes.
• Apple TV+ started us off with two episodes before releasing on a weekly schedule. We’ll get to episode 2 in the next few days, and then review new episodes every weekend.