|Vincenzo Natali, Alrick Riley
|Scott B. Smith
|Scott B. Smith, Jamie Chan, Bronwyn, Garrity, Greg Plageman
|Chloë Grace Moretz, Gary Carr, Jack Reynor, JJ Field, T'Nia Miller, Louis Herthum, Katie Leung, Melinda Page Hamilton, Chris Coy, Alex Hernandez, Julian Moore-Cook, Adelind Horan, Austin Rising, Eli Goree, Charlotte Riley, Alexandra Billings
|October 21st, 2022
Amazon’s mind-bending series based on William Gibson’s novel offers gripping performances, plenty of plot twists and turns, and stunning visuals of a dystopian future. Sadly, this is hampered by a cliffhanger season finale that feels rushed and leaves the viewer confused.
Violence/Scary Images: Hand-to-hand combat; knife fights including repeated stabbing; several characters are shot both with real bullets and a futuristic sonic weapon that does severe internal damage. The antagonists are ruthless and devise disturbing deaths and punishments such as smashing glass into someone’s face, killing a gang through heat exhaustion, and crucifying the bodies. The androids in the series are also maimed. They look like humans, so there is gore as an android’s flesh is ripped from his hand, and his eye is plucked out. Some of the worst violence happens off-camera, but there is still plenty shown in close-up detail.
Language/Crude Humor: Heavy language including f***, g******, s***, etc.
Sexual Content: None. We see some occasional kissing, and one scene of a man swimming nude in a pool.
Drug/Alcohol Use: Characters drink and use drugs.
Spiritual Content: None.
Other Negative Themes: Morality is ambiguous, as even the good guys do the wrong thing for the “right” reason.
Positive Content: Themes of self-sacrifice, courage, love, and family bonds are strong.
In 2032, Flynne and Burton Fisher care for their ailing mother Ella in a sleepy, small South Carolina town. Ella suffers from a terminal brain tumor, and her deteriorating health and care consume much of her children’s lives and finances. Flynne works at a local 3-D printing shop, while Burton makes money as a gamer, paid to help clients level up in advanced virtual reality simulations. Burton has technological implants from his time as a Marine, which enable him to link mentally with his unit, all of whom grew up together and share a close bond.
When Burton is hired by a client to test a new gaming headset, he asks Flynne to take his place. Flynne is far more skilled, and often uses her brother’s account and avatars, thus giving him credit for her accomplishments. Realizing the client wants Flynne’s skills and not Burton’s, they switch places.
After donning the headset, Flynne finds herself in a hyper-realistic simulation, where she is controlling an avatar that looks exactly like Burton. The sim takes place in a futuristic London, where titanic replicas of famous sculptures tower over even the tallest skyscrapers and stand sentinel over the mostly deserted city.
A voice in Flynne’s head directs her to a party where she is instructed to convince a woman named Mariel to take the Burton avatar home. En route, she is tasked with distracting Mariel and rendering her unconscious with a narcotic inhalant. Flynne accomplishes this but is attacked by Mariel’s android driver, which she succeeds in disabling. Flynne is then instructed to bring Mariel to a secret location where she meets the voice in her head: a woman named Aelita West.
In the real world, Flynne enthusiastically describes the hyper-realistic game, though she is somewhat confused by the story. Burton is informed the client wishes to have another session.
When Flynne enters the sim again, she finds Burton’s avatar strapped to a table, immobilized. Aelita looks on apathetically as she is put through a brutal procedure where the avatar’s eye is removed and replaced with one of Mariel’s, without anesthetic. The nature of the headset means Flynne feels everything the avatar does, including pain. Aelita forces Flynne to train her mind to disconnect from the pain. Once the operation is complete, Aelita takes the Burton avatar to an underground vault. She has Flynne access a strange chamber via retina scan before they are attacked, Aelita is wounded, and the Burton avatar is killed.
Flynne emerges from the sim traumatized and frightened by the experience and angrily refuses to return. She experiences bouts of dizziness and disorientation and begins to question the nature of the simulation. She wonders at the inclusion of excruciating pain in a game. Before the avatar was destroyed, she also observed a robotic skeleton underneath its damaged hand.
Flynne is soon contacted by Wilf Netherton, who claims to represent the company that hired Burton. They have realized Flynne and Burton switched places and he informs Flynne that a contract has been posted on the dark web and he believes Flynne and her family are the targets. Someone is coming to kill them, and he implores her to return to the simulation so he can help. Flynne refuses and informs Burton, who is unconvinced there is any true threat. Soon, a group of mercenaries armed with futuristic technology descends on the Fisher home. Burton and his team thwart the attack using their cybernetic implants.
Flynne enters the sim once more to gather information. She discovers she is now piloting an avatar that looks like her. Wilf confirms her suspicion she is not actually in a simulation. The avatar is actually an android called a Peripheral, enabling her to experience the world as though she is physically present right down to physical sensations such as pleasure and pain. Furthermore, Wilf, the Peripheral, and the London they inhabit are actually seventy years in the future. A quantum tunnel links the two timeframes. Wilf also reveals the future he is in is not Flynne’s future. Flynne’s timeline is an alternate reality, an off-shoot known as a Stub, created when someone from his present made contact with someone in the past, effectively changing history.
In Wilf’s past and Flynne’s future, a decades-long series of catastrophic events, collectively known as The Jackpot, wiped out most human and animal life on earth. These events included wars, terrorist attacks, plagues, and the destruction of the environment. The survivors are mostly gathered in large cities like London.
Wilf explains Aelita was attempting to steal something of great importance from the vault she took Flynne to. Aelita is now missing and Flynne may hold the only key to finding her. Wilf and his associates promise to help keep Flynne and her family alive and to provide Ella with a cure for her brain tumor if Flynne will agree to help them find Aelita.
The Peripheral packs a punch. It’s the brand of sci-fi that offers plenty of action and jaw-dropping sequences while also being heady, intellectual, and posing philosophical questions to ponder.
The series holds strong for seven of the eight episodes. However, the final episode makes a few plot jumps that aren’t given a sufficient explanation and leave most of the central plot unresolved. A second season is coming, but it almost feels like a really good series that got canceled before it could finish telling the story. Business and entertainment politics mean things often happen behind the scenes that viewers have little knowledge of. Studios order post-production reshoots, rewrites, and edits that sometimes leave the end product less than comprehensible. Perhaps that’s what is happening here. When the credits rolled on the final episode I said, “wait…what?”
The promise of a second season means I’m still willing to watch and recommend this series to others.
The blend of a familiar small town and a surreal future that seems plausible is excellent. Gibson’s future is not full of flashy starships or alien technologies. It’s a world we know, made surreal by the tragedy that has left the familiar marred and augmented with the wondrously new.
The effects are impressive. Nanotechnology and virtual simulation are part of everyday life in the future. Flynne is awestruck to discover the glittering futuristic city she sees is a blend of real and augmented reality. In one scene, Wilf shows her how to turn off the augmentation as they stroll along the Thames. The people surrounding them, and much of the city, vanish to reveal ruins punctuated by new skyscrapers and towering sculptures, which are revealed to be purifying the atmosphere.
The plot takes multiple twists and turns as we learn The Jackpot completely disrupted all of society. What remains are three powers keeping everything in order and each other in check. The Metropolitan Police maintain legal order, mostly with Peripheral and android officers. They turn a blind eye to the more questionable actions of the other two powers, the Klept and the Research Institute. The Research Institute is responsible for all of the technology of the future. Knowledge, innovation, commerce, science, and even medicine are all under its purview. The Research Institute, led by Cherise Norlund, is trying to kill Flynne and her family. The Klept is a vast alliance of Russian crime families that brutally but effectively restored order in the wake of The Jackpot, giving rise to a wealthy, elitist society. Opposed to all of this are the neo-primitives, who believe technological innovation is to blame for The Jackpot.
In Flynne’s present, the world is a bleaker place than we know. Texas has broken from the United States in a bloody war Burton and his friends fought in and received their implants. Politics are corrupt, and the town is controlled by the wealthy Corbell Pickett, a self-styled Godfather, who runs a vast illegal drug empire, owns much of the town, and employs most of its inhabitants.
The show asks a number of philosophical questions. Most of the characters believe they are working for the common good, whatever their warped or misguided methods may be. The inhabitants of London struggle to see Flynne and her contemporaries as real people and worthy of consideration. They are pejoratively called Polts, short for poltergeist, as they will most likely be dead within a decade or two due to The Jackpot.
An Ambiguous Morality
Each character has their own agenda, and for many, that includes awful things they are willing to do to achieve their own ends. There is no shortage of villains with lofty goals of saving the world or bringing order to chaos, who think nothing of viciously murdering others. Flynne and Burton routinely lie to protect those around them from the truth of what’s happening. Other characters who seem to be a benchmark for morality later commit cold-blooded murder in the name of saving everyone they love.
There is no shortage of violence. In most cases the most gruesome things depicted are happening to Peripherals, but they look like real people. They bleed and their operators experience pain and trauma. Brutal killers hunt Flynne and Burton. More than once an innocent party is killed in the process, and the camera does not always cut away.
Aside from violence, language is heavy with liberal use of the f***. Sex, however, is absent. There is one brief scene of rear nudity when we see a man swimming nude in a pool. Considering the series is produced by the creators of Westworld, I was bracing for far worse.
The casting is tight and on point.
Chloë Grace Moretz is one of those rare luminous child actors that successfully transitioned into an adult career that is equally diverse and impressive. She easily switches between the “real world” tomboyish girl-next-door to her black-clad peripheral; and routinely beats the snot out of her opponents.
Of note is T’Nia Miller, whom I first discovered watching Foundation. Miller plays Cherise Norlund, head of the Research Institute and the person who wants Flynn and Burton dead. Miller has a magnetic quality to her performances, and her portrayal of the calculating and sadistic Norlund is a high point of the show.
Alexandra Billings arrives late in the series as the slick Inspector Ainsley Lowbeer, a high-ranking officer in the Metropolitan police. Lowbeer is smart to the point of being able to anticipate responses and out-maneuver just about everyone. She also has the uncanny ability to pull the truth out of people. The character is the first real match for Charise Norlund. Where Flynne charges in fists and feet flying, Lowbeer uses wit and the immense technological assets at her disposal. Behind the scenes, Billings discussed the challenge of rendering Lowbeer’s distinct clipped accent and manner but pulls both off to resounding success.
Jack Reynor plays Burton, Flynne’s traumatized Marine brother. Our initial impressions of Burton shift over the first episode. Hot-headed and often dismissive of his sister, he is nonetheless committed to keeping Flynne and Ella safe at any cost.
Gary Carr as Wilf Netherton brings a nuanced innocence to the character, despite hints of a dark and violent past. Wilf is a childhood friend of Lev Zubov, played by J.J. Feild, one of the ruthless Klept crime family that both keeps order and conducts its own covert affairs. Feild contrasts Zubov’s cold, calculating cruelty with warmth and charm, a trait of many of the most powerful characters in the story.
In the “present” day, Louis Herthum portrays drug lord Corbell Pickett. Like Zubov and Norlund, Pickett believes he is doing what is best for the town he controls and uses a smug charm to veil cold-blooded murder and violence.
The Peripheral is mostly good storytelling that unfortunately loses steam in the final thirty or so minutes of the season. The cliffhanger ending feels more like a mid-season finale than a season-ending one. Virtually nothing is resolved, and a few twists and turns are confusing.
The surreal glimpses of a dystopian future London make for eye-popping visuals, as do the seemingly magical technological feats. Squeamish viewers may find the violence a tad too gruesome, and the writers are not above tragic and brutal deaths delivered in full view of the audience.
Language can be heavy, but sex and nudity are mostly absent.
Existential musings are also heavy as the characters grapple with the reality of multiple realities and versions of themselves. Alternate universes are created and exploited at the press of a button in The Peripheral. While religion is not present in the story, one can’t help but wonder at the theological implications of a multiverse.
Ultimately, The Peripheral is worth watching. Gibson has penned a sequel and is at work on a third book to conclude a trilogy. We’ve been promised at least one more season, and for now, I’m willing to stick with this show and see where it takes us.
The Bottom Line
The Peripheral is worth watching for those who can handle the language and occasional squirm-worthy violence. The cliffhanger season ending is unsatisfying, but not unforgivable.