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The End of the World is Going to be Weird on Prime Video’s Quirky, Clever Adaptation of Fallout

Adapting open-world games can be a great challenge for film and TV creatives because they don’t have the handy-dandy narrative skeleton to convey what made a game so successful. How do you adapt a game with such little storytelling structure to a genre that requires it? Sometimes it baffles creators and the resulting adaptation feels like the product of someone who never really played the game or understood why it was a hit (see all versions to date of “Hitman.”) The team behind Prime Video’s highly-anticipated adaptation of “Fallout” is too smart for that mistake. Brilliant TV voices like Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have taken the “Fallout” sandbox and populated it with their own toys, producing a show with archetypes, settings, and ideas from the Bethesda games but its own strange voice at the same time, one that somehow gets David Lynch, George Miller, Sergio Leone, and Beaver Cleaver to sing in harmony.

“The end of the world is a product.” This line in Prime Video’s “Fallout” may be spoken hundreds of years in the future, but it almost feels like a meta-commentary on today’s entertainment, where shows like “The Last of Us” and movies like “Furiosa” continue our non-stop fascination with what happens after the apocalypse. Like most post-apocalyptic fiction, “Fallout” isn’t about the end of the world as much as how humanity cracks under pressure, and this time it comes with some incisive commentary on capitalism and control. Who profits off fear? Who determines what freedom means? How could a show possibly be as straight-up weird as the “Fallout” games?

The good news is that the team behind Prime’s “Fallout” took that last question very seriously, but not in the overly quirky, eccentric manner that can sometimes sink self-aware projects like this. The truth is that the “Fallout” games are defiantly strange, the product of developers often thinking of the most unusual thing that might happen to the species of Earth after nuclear radiation. They are about a culture that essentially stopped growing in the ‘40s, complete with music and imagery from that era, but has to now survive in a violent future. Imagine Lynch’s golly-gee, picket fence America from something like “Blue Velvet” mixed with “Mad Max: Fury Road.” The greatest compliment I can pay Prime’s “Fallout” is that it both thoroughly understands these influences on the source and allows itself a new identity. It's a show that recalls “Westworld,” “Lost,” “Deadwood,” and old-fashioned family sitcoms … all at the same time. It turns out that the end of the world will be a pop culture mash-up.

Ella Purnell of “Yellowjackets” plays Lucy, a Vault-dweller, which means she has spent her whole life underground in a makeshift community that preaches peace and kindness (but, obviously, has a few secrets of its own). Her dad (Kyle MacLachlan) happens to be the head of the Vault, but Lucy’s world is shattered when pops is kidnapped by an infamous resistance leader (Sarita Choudhury). As Lucy goes to the surface to try and find Dad, her brother (an excellently subdued Moises Arias) learns a few things about the power structure and purpose of the vault they’ve called home.

Of course, the surface is a very different place from the idyllic vault, populated by monstrous creatures and bona fide weirdos. Someone who falls into both categories is a gunslinger known as The Ghoul, played with slimy perfection by the great Walton Goggins. A survivor for the two centuries since the bombs fell, The Ghoul is a bounty hunter with secrets (arguably too many) that connect him to not just Lucy’s arc but kind of everything “Fallout.” He’s the Man in Black of this show, the Ed Harris character on “Westworld” who became something of a thematic lynchpin for the entire endeavor. Finally, there’s a soldier in the faction known as the Brotherhood of Steel named Maximus (Aaron Moten), who gets thrust into a hero role for which he is distinctly unprepared. However, the writers are smart never to make him into Lucy’s savior. If anything, despite being raised underground, she’s more street-savvy than him.

There are several direct nods to the “Fallout” games, but it's the general tone that's most well-adapted to television. The first few episodes replicate the unpredictable terror of an open-world game, in which you can be assaulted by nightmare fuel at any given moment. The games have a unique combat system that often leads to slo-mo shots of body parts being ripped from their rightful place, and that’s here too, although the show smartly doesn’t lean on any of those mechanics too heavily. There’s a phenomenal Wild West shootout early on that’s very reminiscent of the game, but the writers don’t resort to that kind of thing every episode. As a fan of the games, what I like most about the overall aesthetic is how much it nails the unpredictability of the world, which always keep you on your toes.

However, that can be hard to maintain for an entire season, and “Fallout” stumbles a little bit around the halfway point when two of the protagonists go on a sidequest of sorts. Again, the willingness to break narrative predictability is admirable, but it kind of hurts the momentum, making the 8-episode season feel longer than it is. It also takes a long time for any performance but Goggins to make an impact. By the end, I liked what Purnell was doing. But this is really The Walton Goggins Show, through and through, to the point that it dips when he’s not on-screen, either in Ghoul form or doing some of the best dramatic work of his career in extended flashbacks.

The final episodes dip into deep thematic waters, unpacking class commentary and even the military-industrial complex in ways that sometimes exceed the show’s reach. However, it ends confidently enough—and with enough twists—that these could merely be the seeds for what will be sowed in future years. Maybe the greatest compliment I can pay “Fallout” is that it climaxes in a manner that convinces me it’s just getting started. After all, the market on the end of the world is only rising.

Whole season screened for review. All episodes available on Prime Video tonight, April 10th.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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