The following recap contains spoilers for Silo S1E3, “Machines” (written by Ingrid Escajeda and directed by Morten Tyldum)
If you watched Silo S1E3 cold, you might be forgiven for presuming that the show had done enough solid character work prior to this to make it compelling. But, unfortunately, it didn’t. The series took a big risk by spending its first hour getting us invested in Holston (David Oyelowo) and Allison (Rashida Jones), then shifting its perspective to Juliette (Rebecca Ferguson), who might as well be wearing a placard that reads “Protagonist” at this point.
I’d like to laud that risk, and I can imagine it working better in the book version of this story (which I have not read), but so far I feel the TV version of Silo has done little to portray Juliette as an interesting person with a rich inner life. Instead, she just seems to be a headstrong engineer who is of course mad and sad about her dead boyfriend, George (Ferdinand Kingsley).
Worse, since Silo raised the prospect that the outside is not, in fact, toxic, but left the truth of things unsettled, I don’t find myself invested in the perpetuation of the silo itself. So instead of a thrilling hour of television, “Machines” got me thinking about how it’s never what happens in an episode of TV that makes it great in a direct way; it’s the felt stakes with regard to characters who have come to feel like people we know.
Because on its face, S1E3 should work. Mayor Jahns (Geraldine James) and Deputy Marnes (Will Patton) walk the silo on their way to meet Juliette, who Holston chose to succeed him as Sheriff. They are given multiple indications that the powers that be at judicial want Paul Billings to be appointed and for the matter to be done with, but Ruth persists out of respect for Holston (and maybe something else).
Meanwhile, the generator that powers the silo has been malfunctioning. At first, Juliette declines the nomination to be Sheriff, saying she has to stay and work on the generator because she’s the only one who can effectively do so, but she changes her mind when she sees that Holston has carved “TRUTH” into the back of his badge. Now she says she’ll do it, but only on the condition that they shut down the generator and fix it properly first.
That’s all well and good except they can’t actually turn it off, so it’s a race against the clock as steam pressure builds up and threatens to blow up the silo/kill everyone. This is either poor design, since it would seem the people who built the silo made it depend on a machine that cannot be fixed within normal protocols, or perhaps they knew the amount of time the silo would be necessary for and that the generator would last long enough. The implication would be that people have stayed inside for way longer than necessary. Perhaps it has been safe to leave for a century and a half at this point.
Regardless, we get a series of scenes that are all meant to be gripping and full of tension. Juliette ends up spraying a hose at the built-up steam to try to cool it down and almost drowns. Coop (Matt Gomez Hidaka) struggles to get the fixed blade back on so the generator can be restarted. And there is a lot of dialogue about just how dire the situation is.
Apologies if this recap is lacking pathos; I really struggled to care about any of this. Because of course, at the end of the day, they manage to fix the generator, no one dies from the risky procedure, and I never really believed there was a risk that anyone would or that they might fail. And this gets to the problem I was articulating above: A story like this can work, even when we know that success is virtually guaranteed, if we’re invested in the characters. And I’m afraid I’m just not.
When Juliette punched Coop early on in S1E3, I did not know his name. I made a note of it later. I’m still not sure about the names of the other members of the mechanical crew, and I hardly care enough to look them up. The silo is home to thousands of people, but they’re faceless masses so I only care about their safety to the extent that I care about human beings in general. The felt stakes of the story are sorely lacking.
Mayor Jahns grew on me significantly over the course of “Machines,” so it figures that the episode ends with her probably dead. Marnes finds her bleeding out on her bathroom floor, and insofar as we can suspect this is a murder carried out by those mad about her making Juliette the Sheriff, it provides just enough intrigue to make me want to continue the series.
But at this point, for me, it’s the lingering question about what happened to Holston and the fact that Graham Yost is involved in making this show that motivate me to continue. I don’t know if that will be enough to keep me going.
The central mystery of Silo—who built the structure and why?—remains intriguing, and I want to know the truth about what’s outside. I did note that when the generator was cut in this episode, the cafeteria window briefly showed the lush landscape Holston saw, which was a nice touch.
We don’t know the history of the silo, and neither do the characters in the story. That’s the hook. I expect the narrative to move from here to focus on the investigation of George’s death and what happened to Mayor Jahns, and that’s all well and good so long as it brings us back to the mystery at the heart of this show’s premise.
I can only hope that what’s to come will make me view “Machines” in a more positive light in retrospect.