Based on trailers and images, it’s pretty easy to write offas yet another dour post-apocalyptic story. It’s all grey and brown and miserable, with the remnants of humanity holed up in an underground silo to avoid the poisonous world outside. You’d be excused for mistaking it for something like The Hunger Games or Divergent. But setting aside, Silo doesn’t have much in common with the rest of the genre. It’s more of a small-town murder mystery that just happens to take place after the world ends.
Silo, based on the novels of the same name by Hugh Howey, is set at an unclear point in the future when the planet has been seemingly devastated. The humans who have survived manage to do so by living in the titular silo, a gigantic underground structure sealed off from the toxic outside world. The show kicks off 140 years after the silo first became the permanent home to 10,000 humans.
There are a few important mysteries at the core of the story. One is the fact that, for reasons that are at least initially unclear, all of human history has been erased from existence. The people inside of the silo know basically nothing about what came before. This includes everything from culture (one of the main characters is Juliette, played by Rebecca Ferguson, and no one seems to know where her name comes from) to nature (the residents can see stars in the night sky but have no idea what they actually are). Relics from the time before the silo are considered dangerous and illegal, even something as benign as a Pez dispenser.
This leads us to the other mystery, which is just what’s going on outside. Since no one really goes out of the silo because it’s widely believed that the air is toxic, it’s unclear what it’s really like. Residents are able to view the landscape through a giant screen inside the cafeteria. It depicts a typical post-apocalyptic scene: crumbling ruins, rubble strewn everywhere, and nothing that could be considered alive. If someone says they want to go outside, they’re allowed, but they can’t ever return to the silo, so it’s the equivalent of a death sentence. (They’re also asked to clean the camera outside if they feel like it, which everyone seems to do.)
These are all big existential questions. And the show definitely explores them, but it smartly does so at a very human level. The silo is basically a small town: it has a mayor and sheriff, a market and a farm, and everyone has a job of some kind to keep things going. Things start out when Sheriff Holston (David Oyelowo) and his wife Allison (Rashida Jones) get approval to have a baby and spend the next 365 days trying to conceive. A lot happens in that year, and over time, Allison starts to question a lot of the dogma that’s preached inside the silo, and that rubs off on her husband. Eventually, he meets Juliette, a gruff mechanic who works on the generator down below that’s vital to keeping everyone alive.
Without spoiling too much, someone dies, and the investigation brings Holston and Juliette together. As they try to figure out just what happened, they’re pulled into the bigger mysteries about the silo and the world that surrounds it.
The show does a great job of balancing these two sides of the narrative. For the most part, it stays focused and grounded; characters investigate by going door to door and questioning people, and all of the bigger storylines are directly tied to specific characters and their histories. That includes a shadowy security chief (Common) and the head of IT (Tim Robbins), both of whom clearly know much more of the truth than they let on. Silo slowly reveals itself over the course of 10 episodes, and it kept me guessing most of that time.
That said, there are some very obvious revelations, but these mostly serve to misdirect from what’s really going on. The things you can easily guess from the beginning turn out to not be that important, or at least not in the ways you might expect. By the end, my view of the entire story had changed.
I also have to commend the production design. A concrete tunnel in the ground doesn’t seem like the most visually interesting setting, but Silo’s silo feels like a real lived-in place. Offices and homes are painted in different colors to add a human touch, and since photographs don’t exist in the silo, everyone has beautiful drawings of their families around. Things feel weathered and used, which makes sense since the place is more than a century old, but it doesn’t feel gross and dirty like many similar shows and movies. The visuals go a long way to selling this as a real place. Also, Silo follows other Apple series likeand in having some truly excellent retrofuturistic computers and gadgets.
The first season is surprising in how it uses a well-worn setting to tell a much more classic kind of story. It looks like The Hunger Games but turns into something closer to Fargo. It also doesn’t answer everything by the end — in fact, the mystery only gets stranger by the time the finale wraps up. Thankfully Apple seems generally willing to give weird mysteries the time to tell a complete story. I mean, we got. Hopefully we get that same kind of time to figure out what the heck is up with the Pez dispenser.
Silo premieres on Apple TV Plus on May 5th, with new episodes streaming on Fridays.