Ah, the simple pleasures of Silo. It’s a show I look forward to watching and writing about every week, because it’s a show that, to paraphrase the Sex Pistols, knows what it wants and knows how to get it. Its aim is to explore a central mystery — who’s keeping everyone inside this Silo and why — and it does that. Its technique is to use the fundamental building blocks of suspense filmmaking — cat and mouse games, races against the clock, a drip-drip-drip of clues — and it does so with skill and panache. If this sounds like I’m damning it with faint praise, then I’m misspeaking, because it really is a formidable achievement. Lots and lots and lots of science fiction shows try and fail to achieve what Silo makes look easy.
A relatively short episode, clocking in at just over 45 minutes plus the credits, “The Flamekeepers” introduces, well, what was probably obvious to you the moment you saw the title “The Flamekeepers”: the clandestine secret society of knowledge-gatherers and memory-preserves trying to safeguard the last vestiges of the past against the encroaching Orwellianism of the intelligence operatives who are the real power in the Silo. Not the Sheriff’s Department, who are obviously and openly subservient to Judicial; not the IT Department or the office of the Mayor, both of which, we learn from Bernard, are equally under the thumb…but also not really even Judicial, whose own overlord Judge Meadows is a depressed alcoholic who maintains a luxurious apartment full of relics under glass in exchange for her silence.
No, the real ruler of the Silo appears — appears — to be Sims, augmented by a fleet of secret spy cameras hidden behind mirrors, a gaggle of operatives who monitor everyone those cameras capture, and a black-clad, catcher’s-mask-equipped platoon of Raiders who conduct SWAT-like smash-and-grabs against the unorthodox. Everyone refers to this group without a name; they’re always “They” or “Them,” and yes, you can hear the capitalization. And as of right now, they’re fighting an insurrection of one: Sheriff Juliette Nichols, the Last of the Flamekeepers.
She’s been named this by Gloria Hildebrandt, the fertility consultant and conspiracist who first planted the idea in Alison Becker’s head that she was being prevented from having children by the authorities and their complicit doctors in the medical unit. Since her involvement in the “demise” of the Beckers, she’s been kept imprisoned and drugged into incoherence on Meadows’s orders, which really means on Sims’s orders I guess.
The bulk of this episode involves Juliette’s attempt to retrieve Gloria from under the watchful eyes of…pretty much everyone, revive her, and interrogate her to find out what she knows about…pretty much everything. (Mainly the murders of her bf George, Mayor Jahns, Deputy Marnes, and Judicial goon Trumbull, plus the alleged executions of Alison and Holsten Becker, and whatever connections they have to the various relics being passed from one to the other.) Juliette pulls this off with the help of her father, a man desperate to reconnect with the daughter he could not properly love or parent when she was a child. It’s not just his emotional inspiration or his medical knowhow that makes it possible: In a very real way it’s his past complicity with “Them,” since it’s made him aware that everyone’s being watched and thus helped him figure out blind spots in their spy network, such as the nursery they use for reviving and talking to Gloria.
Alas, the story Gloria tells does not endear Dr. Nichols to his daughter, despite the fact that he was integral in getting her to tell it. Yes, Gloria was a Flamekeeper, an inheritor of the Rebellion that the whole Silo views as borderline luciferian. (Flamekeeper, Lightbringer, same difference.) So was George’s mom Anne, through whom Gloria passed that picturebook of forbidden ancient knowledge to George and thus to Holsten and finally Juliette. To me, the most shocking revelation is that They literally put something in the Silo’s water to help erase people’s memories of the past after the rebellion, rather than simply suppressing the past by destroying evidence of its existence. (Jeez, that’s really messed up was my exact thought.)
But Gloria has more to say, specifically about Dr. Nichols. In much the same way that Alison’s ob/gyn only pretended to remove her birth control, so too did Dr. Nichols with Gloria. He was told by Them that this was to safeguard the Silo against genetic diseases — but if that was the case, Juliette angrily retorts, why would They have asked him to lie to his patients about it? He has no answer to that, because there isn’t one, other than “If I hadn’t lied, They would have killed me.”
In the end, the Doctor’s involvement is not discovered and Juliette escapes Sims’s raiders. (But for how long?!?!?) She now has both the picturebook and the hard drive with all the answers (one assumes) in her possession. (But for how long?!?!?) So the mystery can proceed apace.
But along the way, I’m struck as always by how deft Silo is at conveying emotion and character with just a few quick gestures. By-the-book Deputy Billings — whom Mayor Bernard straight-up tells Juliette is slated to replace her — is made sympathetic not only by the presence of his lovely wife and baby, but also by Juliette’s refusal to listen to his calls for help when a bar fight turns into a miniature riot, a genuinely irresponsible thing to do on Juliette’s part. (“I’m sorry,” she tells him weakly; “We’re past that!” he responds with justified anger.) Bernard is made sympathetic through his genuine concern that a power-mad Meadows will hijack the servers that keep all of the Silo’s systems operational in order to shut him and Juliette down. Meadows is made sympathetic through her misery at being under Sims’s thumb, seemingly all-powerful yet powerless where it counts. Dr. Nichols is made sympathetic through his aching desire for make things up to Juliette and Gloria, and through the skill of actor Iain Glen, who from Jorah Mormont till now has one of the saddest smiles on television.
And Juliet works because of the steely performance of Rebecca Ferguson, A strikingly beautiful human being, Ferguson transmutes that beauty into something hard and cold, befitting Juliette’s anger, determination, and frequent impotence to actually fix anything. (You can see why she thrived in Mechanical, where she could fix things, which is why she’s doubly miserable now that she can’t.) It’s that hardness — derived from the trauma of her childhood, and of George’s murder, and of the subsequent revelation that George was probably just using her to get at more secrets of the past — that you see when she rejects her dad’s overtures at rapprochement, or Billings’s attempts to get her to be decent to him, or handsome stargazer Lukas’s late-night kiss.
On top of all that you get the occasional moment of poetry: Gloria muttering about “the water They don’t want us to know about” (incredible phrase); Juliette partially silhouetted in the light coming through the window of the nursery where she and her father are waiting for Gloria to awaken; the use of flowers to block the view of the mirror-watchers, and the visual of those flowers lying dead on the dresser after they’ve been tampered with by unseen hands. You could say, pun intended, that Silo works from top to bottom.
Sean T. Collins (@theseantcollins) writes about TV for Rolling Stone, Vulture, The New York Times, and anyplace that will have him, really. He and his family live on Long Island.