The Peripheral S1E2: “Empathy Bonus” — Are We Real to You?

Lev grabs the face of the bot that looks like Flynne in the peripheral after she leaves. His hand is on her face as he purses his lips
Courtesy of Amazon Prime

The following contains spoilers for The Peripheral S1E2, “Empathy Bonus” (directed by Vincenzo Natali and written by Scott B. Smith, based on the book by William Gibson)

Two episodes in and The Peripheral is a blast. “Empathy Bonus” begins with a firefight, flowing directly from the conclusion of Episode 1 in a way that shouldn’t have been surprising but I still found thrilling. There is a sense of novelty that runs through The Peripheral, even as it plays with notions and premises we’ve seen elsewhere. The elements (future London and near future Appalachia, etc.) mix to give rise to a tone that feels familiar yet off-kilter, and I am loving it.

And what is going on with these giant statues?

Large statues in the style of the ancients tower over a decaying city skyline
Courtesy of Amazon Prime

The Peripheral is so full of mysteries that this one might almost seem like background, but S1E2 is peppered with shots of this uncanny skyline, populated by Greco-Roman figures towering above decaying skyscrapers.

As Lev (JJ Field) says, a lot can happen in 70 years and a lot did…but what? We have Wilf’s word that we’ll find out eventually.

Wilf stands with an umbrella as Aelita looks over at him
Courtesy of Amazon Prime

Wilf (Gary Carr) and Lev are on the hunt for Aelita (Charlotte Riley), who it turns out works (or worked) for the Research Institute (who you’ll recall hosted the party at what used to be Buckingham Palace last week). She’s helped Lev and his technicals gain access to Flynne’s world, for reasons that he won’t share with Wilf. (Lev doesn’t lie to his friends, as a point of pride, so stop asking the wrong questions if you want to stay friends).

Flynne’s world is a stub, which Wilf explains as a matter of it diverging into a new timeline once those in the future made contact with it. Which makes sense and is all well and good, except that the word ‘stub’ has some troubling connotations and those would seem to be backed up by Aelita’s question to Flynne (Chloë Grace Moretz) in the pilot about whether she’d change her life if she knew she wouldn’t exist in ten years.

It doesn’t seem like Flynne has put that together yet (though she does know what ‘efficacy’ means, thank you very much), but of course she’s been busy trying to not be murdered and all of this information is probably a bit overwhelming.

But if there are many stubs, what distinguishes this particular stub? And if Wilf’s explanation is accurate, wouldn’t it create a new stub each time future London was calling the past? Yet Lev seems to have an interest in the particular stub that Flynne is from. Why could that be?

I wonder to what extent Wilf’s explanation of stubs may be misleading. Perhaps reading about quantum tunneling might provide a clue, or maybe The Peripheral will end up mimicking Lev in asking us to discern between the types of questions we should ask and those we shouldn’t. I hope it’s not that, though. It’s always disappointing when a sci-fi story waves its hands at inconsistencies in its logic (unless that show is Doctor Who and this is done very explicitly, with a wink and smirk, as it were).

Wilf and Flynne sit on a bench in the peripheral created for their meetings
Courtesy of Amazon Prime

The Peripheral S1E2 ends with Flynne’s mother having regained her vision, so the drug that Wilf gave her seems to be working, which means that Flynne will be ready to help them find Aelita. But it’s the penultimate scenes that I find more intriguing. These see Corbell Pickett  (Louis Herthum) being offered $10 million to kill Flynne and Burton (Jack Reynor), and then being wired the first quarter of that sum even though he didn’t agree to take the job.

A few things are of note here. Corbell is visited inside of a sim of the Tropicana Club, and he doesn’t take kindly to it at all. Of course, he seems to suspect it’s Homeland Security trying to entrap him or something like that, but I have to wonder if Corbell is actually going to be so irked by the situation as to instead help the Fishers. His introduction in the pilot showed him to be a man with a defined sense of decorum, and I don’t think we know how he’ll factor into this story just yet.

Corbell, dressed in white, glares with a furrowed brow
Courtesy of Amazon Prime

Further, it seems noteworthy that while Cherise (T’Nia Miller) insisted early in S1E2 that basically everyone Flynne has ever known needs to be killed, Daniel (David Hoflin) only asks Corbell to kill Flynne and Burton. I’m not sure what to do with that observation, but I don’t think it’s something we should gloss over. We really don’t know why the Research Institute is so set on seeing Flynne dead, if you think about it, since if she knows something important it’s not clear she even knows that she knows it. Her knowing something still could be enough to motivate taking her out, but it goes to a further level to kill those around her, who really don’t know anything. This has me guessing that there are perhaps some almost metaphysical type stakes to their continued existence, tied in with something about the stub they inhabit. Or I suppose maybe it’s just wanton coldness and cruelty.

It’s also worth noting that when Flynne attempts to Google SearcherEye Aelita West, something seems to happen to her hand. She gets no results on Milagros Coldiron (except things about baby names and the like), and nothing on Wilf, but the sudden onset carpal tunnel is a next level kind of nothing, almost like the universe telling her she can’t search for Aelita’s name…

Flynne's hand clenching up as it holds a computer mouse in The Peripheral S1E2
Courtesy of Amazon Prime

Tommy (Alex Hernandez) finds the invisible car of the commandos who attacked the Fishers, providing S1E2 with its most adorable scene as he stands agog at a coffee cup floating in the air. Tommy is a charming fellow, but it’s also nice to learn that this tech is not commonly encountered in the world of 2032. That near future is meaningfully close to our own, but we also haven’t learned all of its differences. We don’t know what happens been then and the end of the century, but we also don’t know what happened in the fictional decade between now and Flynne’s present.

The mysteries proliferate.

Tommy in a sheriff's hat looking at a hovering cup of coffee
Courtesy of Amazon Prime

It can be hard to hold everything together in The Peripheral if you’re not paying close attention, and there might almost be too many open questions even if you are, but I find it refreshing that so far the series has refused to spoonfeed anything to us, instead trusting the audience to connect dots that the show probably will draw more explicitly lines between moving forward.

I’m along for the ride and I hope that you’ll join me all season.

See you next week.

Written by Caemeron Crain

Caemeron Crain is Executive Editor of TV Obsessive. He struggles with authority, including his own.

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