The following contains spoilers for The Peripheral S1E4, “Jackpot” (written by Scott B. Smith and directed by Alrick Riley)
I’ve praised The Peripheral to this point for filling in the background of its story obliquely, creating intrigue not just around the plot but about the very world we’ve been thrown into. Perhaps it should be no surprise that as we reach Episode 4 that’s abandoned, with the writers feeling the need to provide us with a bunch of information so that the action moving forward makes sense.
And boy do we get exposition in “Jackpot.” If you were wondering what happened between 2032 and 2099, don’t worry, because characters are going to lay it all out for you under the thinnest of conceits as to why they’d tell each other. Honestly, I hate this kind of thing.
Cherise (as she would prefer not to be called) visits Lev to threaten him, but first has to remind him of how the power structure in their society works, which is surely something he already knows. At least when Wilf and Ash relay details about how the world ended to us it makes some sense because Flynne is learning this information at the same time as we are, and the scene is aided by some stunning visuals, but it still feels a bit clunky.
Still, none of this stopped me from being entertained by The Peripheral S1E4. Even Dr. Nuland laying out how the world works for no reason was delightful in its presentation, from her metaphor with Lev’s toast to the snark that oozes between them. I too wonder what the roof is supposed to represent, and continue to find Lev immensely charming.
I expect some may have soured on Lev this week, whether from how he refers to Wilf as a family pet (which I have to admit is definitely not a good look) or from how he tells Wilf his goal is to learn how to open stubs so that he can make money by doing things like engaging in unethical pharmaceutical testing on their inhabitants (more exposition!). It’s definitely completely fair if you just view Lev as a scoundrel at this point. He is one! But I still want to hang out with him.
Further, I can’t defend it, but Lev’s program of immediately having his ancestors murdered in any and every stub where he can makes sense to me. There have been a lot of stories where someone runs into an alternate reality version of themselves and thinks it’s neat, but I can relate more to someone who finds the prospect horrifying. Star Trek has played with this time and again, of course, but Lev’s position is that it doesn’t have to be an evil Lev (or maybe the Mirror Universe Lev would be a philanthropist or something I guess, and not have a goatee), the mere existence of one’s doppelgangers is distressing as they claim to be you but aren’t.
This does bring the question back to the top of my mind, though, as to why the stubs are called stubs. The term definitely implies a cutoff to their existence at a certain point. Is this because they all hit the Jackpot but none yet discovered makes it through? Or is it something in the metaphysics of how these alternate realities work? I had been thinking the latter, but now I’m leaning towards the former: it’s not just our world that’s doomed; it’s humanity across the multiverse.
Thrilling. And right in line with my preferred solution to the Fermi Paradox that every advanced species causes its own extinction right around the time it develops anything resembling space travel.
Of course the big mystery that remains in The Peripheral is what Flynne’s got to do with all of this. S1E4 sees her having a seizure, seemingly from using the headset, and her hand issue has been ongoing. It wasn’t directly the visits to the future that triggered the problem with her hand, however—at least as I have read things, it was when she tried to google Aelita.
That’s weird for various reasons, not least of which is that Aelita would not yet exist in Flynne’s time, so I’m really not sure where The Peripheral is going with all of this. That’s intriguing. And it’s nice to see Flynne herself wondering about the diorama she saw at Aelita’s place.
We also still don’t know what Aelita wants, when it comes down to it. She told Wilf in the pilot that she was going to save the world, but not this world, and that seems like the best clue we’ve got as to her motivations. Maybe she believes Flynne’s world can be saved? Certainly her interest isn’t in working for Lev. She was inhabiting a peripheral that was a young version of herself in that opening scene, which is also odd, and I’m realizing I am not entirely sure how this fits into the timeline of events now that I think about it.
Regardless, “Jackpot” provides us with a glimpse into what it was like for Aelita and Wilf before they were adopted, and at the same time a vignette of the state of the world in 2075. Tricking children with the illusion of food so that you can kidnap them for their own good seems like a nice image of what the Research Institute is all about.
So, the answer to what happened between 2032 and 2099 is…everything. Someone hacked the North American power grid and caused a complete and long-lasting blackout. A pandemic they called the blood plague went wild (a filovirus, of which ebola is an example you should be familiar with). Of course the environmental catastrophe, followed by global population collapse. And for a kicker there was a terrorist attack on a nuclear silo (which happens to be located where Flynne lives!).
It’s terrible how plausible this all is, to the extent that while I won’t argue that a real world Jackpot is likely, I couldn’t argue that it is unlikely either. But what’s more striking is that The Peripheral doesn’t feel at all like a cautionary tale. This isn’t a matter of trying to spur us to change our ways to avoid the terrible future; it’s just a compelling story in that terrible future.
This goes, too, for the power structure we’re told arose in the wake of the Jackpot, with the Klept, the putative government that exists to provide a façade of legitimacy, and the Research Institute all jockeying for power and trying to make this post-apocalyptic world in their own image. One could even say each is pursuing their own version of the Good, but of course they are all despicable.
Which brings me back to being on Team Lev. At least there is an honesty about his position, as unscrupulous as it is. That’s refreshing. And of course I’m really on Team Aelita. I think. We still don’t know what she’s trying to do, or how our friends fit in to the grand historical stakes of this story.
But whatever the answer, The Peripheral is a blast.
See you next week.