Silo Series Premiere: A Dystopian Mystery Box For The Very Patient

The Silo premiere episode feels incomplete, but compelling in its depiction of a future underground dystopia.

By Nathan Kamal | Updated

silo premiere


Apple TV+ has added a new show to the ever-growing and always-relevant genre of dystopian future science fiction content, but this time with a twist. The Silo premiere episode reveals this particular gritty, steampunk-inflected series is more of a mystery box show than a traditional sci-fi story, which means that viewers had better strap in for a slow, patient ride. Fortunately, Silo is a gorgeously shot, compellingly acted series, but it will remain to be seen whether that is enough to keep audiences interested. 

Silo is adapted from the novel Wool by Hugh Howey (itself the first book in an extensive series), which begins with an intriguing concept: human society appears to have been reduced to 10,000 people living in a vast underground silo, the origins of which had been lost to time. The atmosphere outside the titular silo (which is impressively represented in its gloominess in the premiere episode) is fatally toxic, and the punishment for wanting to go outside is to be forced to go outside. But what both the books and the Silo premiere presupposes is, what if it were not actually a wasteland outside and this is all some conspiracy?

The Silo premiere begins with chief law enforcement officer Holston (David Oyelowo) going about his morning routine, allowing us a glimpse at the various levels of dairy herds and underground crops and day-to-day life in this society. Then he says the most taboo thing possible: he wants to go outside. It’s a good set-up; why would Holston, a trusted man of authority, want to go to certain death?

silo premiere

However, the Silo premiere episode then immediately goes into flashback mode to two years earlier, when Holston and his wife Allison (Rashida Jones of Parks and Recreation) struggle to conceive a child after being given a short window of time in which her state-implanted birth control is removed. Allison, an IT worker, is approached by another citizen with contraband computer files that seem to have information predating a long-ago uprising that threatened the entire silo.

Those files raise both the unthinkable possibility that the outside that the silo citizens see through a camera screen in a cafeteria is actually a CGI illusion and that the idea of the fertility lottery might actually be some form of eugenic selection.

The Silo premiere jumps back and forth between the two time periods in a manner that reveals more about the underground society, while also casting doubt about its benevolence and truth. It’s an effective way to both show the relative satisfaction of most citizens with the status quo and to hint at darker forces at work, but it also means that the entirety of the first episode essentially serves as table-setting for the rest of the series, not even giving us a consistent POV character.

It is possible that the creator and showrunner Graham Yost (best known for the critically acclaimed neo-noir Western series Justified) sees this as a feature, not a bug. In the Silo premiere, we are introduced to first Holston, then Allison, and then in the final moments of the episode, the mysterious engineer Juliette (Rebecca Ferguson of Dune) as potential protagonists, without ever really giving us time to figure out anyone’s motivations. 

In the case of Juliette, Silo appears to be trusting the marketing of the show (or possibly, readers of the books) to indicate that Ferguson’s character will be significant, giving her a dramatic entrance that isn’t supported by any foreshadowing or knowledge of her importance to the story. Sure, we know Ferguson will be a big part of Silo because she’s the highest up on the poster, but we shouldn’t have to go to extra-textual sources to know that.

Most likely, the somewhat scattered tone of the Silo premiere episode has to do with the vagaries of streaming releases. While the first installment feels incomplete, Apple TV+ released two episodes at once, so presumably, it expects viewers to immediately go into the next to understand why anything we just saw was important. But if that’s the case, why should it be two episodes at all?

More than any other show, the Silo premiere resembles that of Lost, the Damon Lindelof-J.J. Abrams ABC drama that popularized the idea that viewers should be satisfied with a never-ending series of enigmatic reveals that never quite resolve things. Given that Silo does have extensive source material, it will hopefully be able to maneuver around some of the pitfalls of that particular approach.

It also helps that each actor (plus a briefly-seen, delightfully sinister Tim Robbins, who hopefully has more screentime in the future) is bringing commendable intensity to the story, and that Morten Tyldum’s (Passengers) direction makes the claustrophobic yet oddly familiar silo seem like a real place rather than a sci-fi conceit. We’ll just have to see whether the show explores it more or is only interested in the mystery of it.