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Culminating in a breathtaking, near-real-time attempted repair on a towering power generator, the third episode of Apple TV+’s Silo is both the longest — 62 minutes — and most exciting in the show’s 10-episode first season.
It isn’t necessarily the best Silo episode, but it’s guaranteed to get your pulse racing. That’s a good thing.
Cast: Rebecca Ferguson, Common, Tim Robbins, Iain Glen, Harriet Walter, Chinaza Uche, David Oyelowo, Rashida Jones
Creator: Graham Yost from the novels by Hugh Howey
What isn’t so good is that the race to fix the generator erases all momentum for the show’s main murder mystery; it introduces and confirms skills for the series’ main protagonist that are barely paid off in subsequent episodes; and the key figure in the sequence is a character who, unless I’m forgetting something, is never so much as mentioned again.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a show doing a standalone episode this early in its run — “Long, Long Time” from The Last of Us is a tremendous recent example — but in the case of Silo, it captures much of what’s simultaneously so successful and so frustrating about the series.
It’s easy to get caught up in the adaptation of Hugh Howey’s book series, which hails from Graham Yost (Justified), one of my favorite showrunners. It isn’t always as easy, though, to be caught up in the exact same things the show is interested in at the exact same time it’s interested in them.
Sometimes the world-building in Silo is superb while its primary storyline flounders, and then sometimes that primary storyline catches fire and the world-building becomes nonsensical. Sometimes the show’s twists are ridiculously obvious and it’s insulting to the audience’s intelligence that they’re treated as twists at all, but sometimes its reveals are fairly satisfying. Some of the performances are quite good and grounded, but the show has a tendency to dispatch abruptly with key characters, usually in ways that are disappointing instead of shocking. Plus, there’s at least one total dud of a performance that throws a lot of the show’s dramatic weight out of balance.
Silo is set some distance into the future in a vast underground silo hosting 10,000+ survivors of some apocalyptic event that left the Earth uninhabitable. What happened? When did it happen? Nobody knows, because 140 years earlier, a group of rebels destroyed all of the Silo’s records, erasing much of its history and the entire history of the Before Times.
The Silo is 140+ floors of highly stratified living space, with a vast spiral staircase down the middle. Authorities and the elite are up-top, white-collar folks are in the middle, and the blue-collar mechanical section — as well as unseen punishment mines — are down below. There’s very little upward mobility, made literal by the fact that the Founders — writing in a manual called The Pact — forbade the installing of elevators, which somehow is far from the most ridiculous of the Silo’s rules and regulations.
It’s all overseen by the Mayor (Geraldine James), 40 years into a beloved tenure, and the highly respected sheriff (David Oyelowo’s Holston). But the true power is in the hands of the IT department, run by Tim Robbins’ Bernard, or possibly the enforcers of Judicial, embodied by Common’s glowering Sims. The world’s ultimate form of punishment is being forced to leave the Silo. Nobody who has left has ever come back or even made it more than 50 yards without collapsing and dying, a demise watched by the entire community from an observation room.
This is one of those dystopian worlds in which the ultimate sin is questioning the status quo, which Holston’s wife Allison (Rashida Jones) begins to do. Uh-oh! Soon, more people are raising those questions about the world outside and the world inside. Things escalate when a man with a particular investment in forbidden relics — anything connected to the Before Times — is found dead and an outspoken mechanic (Rebecca Ferguson’s Juliette) claims that he was murdered.
Buoyed by Gavin Bocquet’s production design, Silo looks terrific in a shadow-filled, largely gray-and-brown kind of way. The little bursts of color, including the emerald subway tiling in the sheriff’s office, are well-utilized and point to a consistently striking run-down-futuristic chic. Leave the plot completely out of the equation and I was curious to learn about how the Silo handled things like farming and fertility and even meal-times. The provided answers aren’t always all that revelatory, mind you. Like that elevator thing. I’m sure it’s explained better on the page, but here it’s an example of the Founders cutting off their symbolic noses to spite their symbolic faces, and the show has a really hard time justifying why sometimes it takes days to descend from top to bottom and other times the distance can apparently be traversed in minutes.
There are a lot of things that the show either wants you to take on faith or to learn more about in the books. Even if some questions — What is a “Forgiveness Day”? Why do they have vintage ’80s-style computers, but nobody understands the concept of “video”? — are intentionally evaded, I can accept that it’s on-theme, if nothing else. It’s not a revolutionarily different world from countless other post-apocalyptic fictions, but it’s sufficiently lived-in and persuasive that I wouldn’t have minded slowing everything down a beat or two for more backstory and breathing room.
But Silo is determined to race along in fits and starts, which includes rushing through characters. Maybe it’s a spoiler to say that as good as they are as points of introduction to the Silo, Jones and Oyelowo are not the stars of this show. Ferguson is the star, and and she brings a muscular determination to the proceedings and even occasional touches of humor. This must have required some effort since the first three episodes of Silo are directed by the reliably self-serious Morten Tyldum. Lest that sound too critical, Tyldum directed the third episode, which is, as I said at the top of the review, taut and thrilling.
Ferguson is so good that I frequently was able to forgive that whatever accent she’s doing, she surely isn’t doing it consistently. There’s an effort in the casting to fill the ensemble with Brits of different shapes and sizes — Iain Glen, Harriet Walter, Chinaza Uche, all quite good — so that if there’s inconsistency, it’s at least a consistent inconsistency. And who’s to say what a “Silo” accent even sounds like? So maybe the myriad wandering accents aren’t wrong and the wrong accents are the American actors who nobody asked to attempt a wandering accent? Either way, having Ferguson and Oyelowo doing that thing where their accents are flat and non-specific except for when they shout, but having Common doing generally flat and affectless American line readings, made my ears hurt.
Common is, unfortunately, the weak link in the cast. He’s always a particular kind of actor: instantly striking as a presence, generally convincing physically and a strange cipher emotionally — completely at odds with the passion that infuses his music and unscripted persona. His performance here is a great leather jacket — unexplained, since nobody else in the Silo seems to go to the same tailor — and a perpetual smirk. Opposite Robbins’ soft-spoken, pragmatically insinuating nuance and Ferguson’s fiery and perpetual irritation, Common’s lack of inflection leaves the show with a conflict deficit.
Even if Silo had had a forceful antagonist, the focus of the first 10 episodes still would have meandered, lasering in on a murder mystery one moment, drifting off to an existential crisis the next. Characters come and go and sometimes you invest in them enough to feel their absence and sometimes you barely notice their arrival and later have to go, “Wait, THAT person was supposed to be significant?” But what matters most in shows of this type is how it approaches a destination. The finale of Silo arrived at a place that, while not really mind-blowing, had me curious to spend more time in this world and with some of these people.
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