Apple TV’s ‘Silo’ gives us all the post-apocalyptic suspense with none of the zombies
If you see yet another film or television series that takes place in the aftermath of a devastated global calamity of one sort or another and find yourself rolling your eyes and muttering, “Oh, brother…not another one,” let me be the first to say: I get it. Apocalypse narrative fatigue is real. It seems about every third buzzed-about movie or TV show these days takes place amidst the wreckage of the civilized world. The only difference, apparently, is the flavor of the cataclysm, and whether or not the resultant zombies are fast or slow.
It takes a lot for a post-apocalyptic series to stand out from the growing mountain of ravaged Earth and ravenous undead stories these days. Fortunately, Silo, the new series now streaming on Apple TV+, manages to clear this hurdle admirably. The show adapts the Wool collection of novels by author Hugh Howey, who has become something of a modern literary folk legend for aspiring sci-fi writers by turning a self-published book into a bestselling franchise and now a high-profile television series. Fans of the novels, naturally, have been waiting with bated breath for years to see whether or not this adaptation does the source material justice, or if they’d get Witchered by the show’s writers and producers.
Fortunately for the fandom standing at the ready with their rotten fruit and pitchforks, Silo is an evocative, tense, and richly realized incarnation of what most fans loved about the novels. The story is the same: At some undefined point in the future of humanity, roughly ten thousand people exist in a Silo of mysterious origin, taking shelter from a toxic outside world. There they do their best to keep the silo – and, by extension society – thrumming along as they attempt to lead something akin to meaningful lives. Knowledge about humanity before the silo, or how the silo came to be in the first place, is expressly verboten. Even a relic of the before-times as innocent as a Pez dispenser is enough to land you in trouble. And the most grave transgression? Saying you want to “go outside,” which all have come to know as an instant death sentence.
Given the ignorance of life before or outside of silo-dom, the story relies mainly on the cloistered lives of its characters to snare our attention. It’s a clever way to avoid some of the more tired post-apocalypse narrative tropes like wandering through destroyed cities and across long swaths of charred landscapes, crucial set pieces in shows like The Last of Us. There are no zombies, save a few bored office workers staring at 16-bit computer monitors. As it stands, the Silo is operating mostly successfully at the beginning of the series.
We meet the capable Sheriff Holston (David Oweloyo) and his wife, Allison (Rashida Jones), who struggle with infertility after winning a lottery that allows them to have a child. As her one year free of birth control nears an end, Allison begins to unravel, allowing conspiracy theories and data on an illicit hard drive lead her to theorize that nothing is as it seems in the silo. She asks to go outside, and we find her immediately sentenced to “cleaning,” the ultimate punishment, entailing the always-fatal task of scrubbing grime from cameras outside the silo so that its residents can clearly witness the desolated outside world on giant screens throughout the facility. For what reason she’d volunteer for this duty, both we and the Sheriff have no clue. But there’s no doubt it keeps us on our toes.
Sadly, Allison doesn’t make it very far before dropping lifeless on the barren ground, in full view of everyone in the silo. With her demise follows a series of other high profile deaths, leading to the need to replace some high-profile positions in the community, and also not a few mysteries of exactly how these people perished. In short order, Silo turns largely into a detective procedural, a smart move that again distracts us from traditional crutches that might bore us by now. While the big questions still hover over us and the characters, we’re met with more immediate mysteries to solve. “Who killed the world” and “who built the silo” and even “what planet are we on,” take a backseat now to “who killed this or that important character,” and “who’s really pulling the strings here, anyhow?”
The narrative order of operations at play is part of what makes Silo such a successfully suspenseful television show. It goes like this: solve a murder -> uncover corruption -> discover the truth about the silo -> discover the truth about the world. Or at least that’s what we’re led to believe. Of course, there are going to be more than a few surprises and twists along the way to keep us on our toes and chatting at the watercooler. Still, allowing the various mysteries of this world to start small and build with each episode works brilliantly here.
Silo also excels in its casting. We only get a couple of episodes with Allison and the Sheriff, but both Jones and Oyelowo both deliver haunting and emotional turns. Adding to the mix are Tim Robbins’s awkward and potentially nefarious head of IT, Bernard, a judicial enforcer played with grim solemnity and conflicted humanity by Common, and the show’s true star, Rebecca Ferguson, who portrays a gruff, capable mechanic turned [SPOILER ALERT] new sheriff in town whose efforts to seek the truth about the silo serve as the core of show’s story.
Ferguson nails the role of Juliette, in a performance far removed from any of the leading lady or leading villain roles with which we might associate her. Gone is the sexy self-confidence of her spy in the Mission: Impossible franchise, or the sexy malevolence of her “soul vampire” in Doctor Sleep, or her weirdly sexy space nun in Dune. In fact, there’s very little sex appeal to the character at all, despite the fact that Ferguson is, objectively, a staggeringly beautiful person. As Juliette, she’s shrouded in mechanic overalls (and, later, a law enforcement uniform), streaked in engine grease and carrying the slumped posture of someone accustomed to bending down to repair broken machines all day. What remains is a deep, interior smolder that makes her character absolutely captivating.
Juliette is loyal, smart, and capable, if lacking in etiquette, and we can’t help but root for her. It’s an important quality for a protagonist, likely because she’s just a tough girl from “down deep” looking to square things up a little with the fancy folks who live near the gardens and computer servers at the top of the silo. This brings up another reason Silo succeeds. Amidst the science fiction and the murder mysteries is a tale as old as time: the structure of a society, and how it can fall out of balance when the people in power try desperately to control not only resources and information, but the people on the lowest tier of the ladder, which is not a metaphor here.
For further examples of this theme, please see everything from Les Miserables to Animal Farm, Snowpiercer, Brave New World, The Platform, ad infinitum. Thankfully, the writers and producers of Silo don’t bludgeon us with themes of social and economic inequality, mostly allowing it to serve as an undercurrent here, though doubtless things will come to a head eventually, I’m guessing around the time of a season finale.
The world building in Silo works to great effect as well, thanks to impressive set design. The sheer scale of the massive structure at the heart of this world feels believable and lived-in, from the hundred story-high spiraling stairways to the cracks in the concrete that adorn rooms and offices, to the gargantuan turbines deep in the belly of the building that keep the juice flowing.
Not that the show is flawless. The CGI de-aging employed in a few flashbacks proves more distracting than convincing. Computers are awesome at creating monsters and aliens and spaceships, but somehow rendering Iain Glen’s youthful skin and hairline dances a little too close to the uncanny valley for my taste. Also, the costuming appears entirely too pristine for a subterranean culture that’s existed for at least 140 years. Yes, Common looks handsome and intimidating in his crisp black leather jacket, but unless they’re hiding several levels of fashion and textile designers in this silo, it strains credulity.
But that’s a small quibble in an otherwise largely effective and entertaining series. Silo has executed the first half of its debut season impressively, and unless they fumble the ball now, Apple TV has all the makings of a runaway hit on their hands. Especially if they don’t stray too far from the source material, which contains enough shocking reveals, romantic subplots, breathless action sequences and massive set pieces to amply supply a series like this for numerous seasons to come. In the meantime, I’ll be looking forward to seeing how this one plays out, and maybe keeping my eyes peeled for a few cows hiding in the background.
Because seriously…that leather has to come from somewhere, right?