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tv Fallout Season 1 Finale: Capitalist Middle Managers Murder the World

A messy sendoff is anchored by the series' best, darkest, and most grimly funny scene

Fallout,Photo: Courtesy of Prime Video

When I started this little post-apocalyptic journey seven episodes ago, it was with a question about tone. Was Fallout, at its core, a comedy or a tragedy? But it’s a false distinction, in a lot of ways. As our old pal Bud Askins might tell us, either in his flesh body, or trapped with his brain rolling around inside an off-brand Roomba for all eternity: The difference between the two is often only a matter of time.

The worst thing you can say about “The Beginning,” the final episode of what will almost certainly be merely the first season of Prime Video’s Fallout, is that its best and most affecting scene not only comes only halfway through its run-time, but 200 years in its past. That’s the sequence in which Cooper Howard, having infiltrated his wife Barb’s workplace at Vault-Tec, eavesdrops on a meeting between her, her co-worker Bud, and the heads of the other biggest tech giants on the planet, as they pitch them on getting in on the Vault experiment themselves.

Bud’s pitch is typically messy, Michael Esper deploying enthusiasm to grim ends as he lays out a picture of a future that consists of middle managers giving the human race performance reviews—forever. But it’s Barb who actually lands the sale. Barb who taps into the fear underlying everything that Vault-Tec does. Barb who breaks her husband’s heart, Frances Turner and Walton Goggins again giving the series’ best performances, this time completely isolated from each other in multiple senses of the word.

How do you sell bomb shelters to the public, despite ongoing peace negotiations? How do you ensure that, when your Dwellers emerge into the future some centuries down the line, they won’t be eaten alive by the other survivors? How do you ensure that the people you love are safe? Easy: By making sure the people you love are the only ones left. “By dropping the bomb ourselves,” Barb announces with perfect conviction to the (metaphorical) ghouls in the room. It’s a punchline that isn’t funny, a tragedy you can’t help but laugh at. As Bud waxes enthusiastic about a sort of terminal form of capitalism and his dreams of breeding a culture of “super managers,” and the other executives—there’s more on them down in the strays—begin getting excited about all the fucked-up experiments they can run with their own private vaults, Barb Howard lays out the disturbingly simple logic for killing the world: Once everyone else is dead, she and her family will finally be safe.

It’s an idea that kills her husband, albeit slowly, Goggins looking more horrific here than when he’s walking around, two centuries later, with a big open hole instead of a nose. It’s also an idea that’s been core to Fallout’s journey so far, especially for Maximus, the only one of our three leads who grew up out in the Wastes. His feelings for Lucy are clearly genuine, but she also represents that safe place he’s been looking for all his life—the same one Elder Cleric Quintus dangles in front of him shortly before the Brotherhood Of Steel invades Griffith Park to horrifically bloody effect. It’s what Hank MacLean peddles to his daughter as he tries to lie her back into proper daughter shape; what Lee Moldaver is avenging with the torch she keeps burning for Shady Sands. It’s even what drives the Ghoul, under all that cynicism and badassery: the search for something, someone, safe enough to call home.

Unfortunately for “The Beginning,” though, things are a little messier on either side of that central, perfect scene. We open, for instance, with the Brotherhood themselves, who remain unpleasantly generic—even if it is nice to check back in with Dane a bit this episode. (They confirm to Maximus that they booby-trapped their own boot, out of a desire not to get dragged out into the Wastes.) We know enough about the Brotherhood, by now, to realize that they’re fascist, power-hungry jackasses—but not enough to care about them as anything more than target practice for other characters. Maximus has steadily grown to be an important part of the show’s three leads despite starting off in the weakest position. But that’s only because we’ve gotten to know him, not because he’s given us any kind of window into the group he ostensibly represents.

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Moldaver’s community is more interesting, a thriving society with access to agriculture, childcare, and egalitarian attitudes toward the inhabitants of the Wastes. (Note that one of the ghouls Lucy saved back in “The Ghouls” is there, receiving help.) Moldaver herself, despite her apparent propensity for setting up Bond villain-esque lunch tableaus, turns out to be sane, measured, and possessed of a completely rational goal: using the MacGuffin in Wilzig’s head, combined with Hank’s Vault-Tec personnel password, to activate a cold fusion reactor to provide power to the Los Angeles boneyard. (Fallout gets its second jaw-dropping L.A. vista of the series late in the episode, as Moldaver turns all the lights in the destroyed city back on with the press of a button.)

As with the Vault 4 residents in “The Radio,” though, Moldaver and her people are just so unambiguously good here that it feels a bit like Fallout is putting its thumb on the scale for any final decisions Lucy might have to make. (Where’d Moldaver get those raiders from the first episode, by the way—and why? Everyone in her camp certainly seems capable of using a knife and fork.) The reveal that Hank is not only a Vault-Tec stooge from before the War, but that he nuked Shady Sands personally, in a fit of paranoid jealousy after his wife left him for the surface, feels like Fallout abandoning a decent chunk of the moral ambiguity that’s made these last eight episodes such an interesting trip, in favor of sorting characters safely into boxes for the road. That same patness applies to Cooper’s storyline, the show employing huge stretches of coincidence—notably, his connection to Henry/Hank—to get all its characters in one place for the finale. It smacks of unconfidence, of an effort to wrap everything up neatly before the show departs for parts unknown.

Weirdly, Lucy gets the shortest shrift here out of anybody, her choices essentially boiling down to picking which of the several people yelling at her she’ll decide to believe. That she’s ultimately left with no decision but to choose someone else to follow might be weirdly true to the Fallout games (along with the conflicts and connections between parents and children that make up a key part of the plots of both Falloutand 4), but it still feels like giving a great character surprisingly little to do with the climax of her own life’s story. That said, Ella Purnell can sell an “Okey dokey” like nobody’s business, and she’s the character we’re most excited to see grow and evolve as the series inevitably continues, she and the Ghoul hitting the road on her father’s trail. (Maximus, meanwhile, is doomed to get the recognition he no longer craves in the worst possible way.)

“The Beginning” does serve up simpler pleasures, meanwhile, whether it’s the bark-laugh fun of seeing some poor Brotherhood schmuck falling vertically into a rotating propeller during their assault on the Observatory, or just the sight of Kyle MacLachlan, Space Marine, as Hank hijacks an abandoned set of power armor to make his eventual escape from his vengeful daughter. (It’s always fun to see MacLachlan go full villain, his eternal boyishness shading into deluded petulance at the ways the Wastes have “corrupted” his daughter.) And then there’s the pleasure of watching the Ghoul do his own version of the dark room gun-kata fight from Equilibrium, disassembling a whole crew of power armor-wearing Brotherhood Knights in a way that, yes, feels genuinely, authentically badass. There’s fun to be had here, because Fallout always knows how to serve that need, even as it’s driving elegantly toward some deeper purpose (or fumbling it a bit, as “The Beginning” manages to do both at different points, after all).

Okay. Final verdict time. Fallout is, in the aggregate, a much better television show than it ever actually needed to be, given the popularity of its parent brand, and the ease with which executive producers Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, and series showrunners Graham Wagner and Geneva Robertson-Dworet, could have just slapped a few Pip-Boys on stuff, adapted the plot of Fallout 3, and called the whole thing good. Whereas, say, The Last Of Us worked as a video-game adaptation solely by strictly recreating its source material in a non-interactive form, this series opted instead for the more ambitious path: wrestling with the themes and ideas that power the Fallout universe, without slavishly recreating them. It has, over these last eight episodes, been both heartbreaking and laugh-out-loud funny, genuinely moving and horrifically, gut-churningly violent. Structurally, it’s something of a mutated mess, in desperate need of clean-up by some well-meaning Samaritans, who we can only hope might tame its frequently meandering episodes into more focused shapes. Even so, it’s a show of exceptionally high highs and only the occasional outright failure or dull patch. Like the games it pulls from, it has big, weird ideas about humanity, hope, and humor, and it expresses them through a point of view like pretty much nothing much else on TV, ragingly cynical in a way that never quite curdles into despair. It’s not only a good adaptation, but a great story in its own right—and it’s all enough to make us sincerely hope this world won’t be ending any time soon.

Stray observations

  • On the editing front: I thought the episode had ended at fully four distinct points (starting with the “Okey dokey”), making for a real Return Of The King experience.
  • Great read from Aaron Moten as he describes Titus’ death: “He died running.”
  • Michael Cristofer, who genre fans will likely know from Mr. Robot, is great, here and elsewhere, as Brotherhood leader Quintus. (He’s also a Pulitzer-prize-winning playwright and wrote the original screenplay for The Witches Of Eastwick. Learning: It’s fun!)
  • Moisés Aran has basically spent the entire season off in his own little show, but he’s been great, very affecting and intense—even if Norm’s plot just kind of putters out to nothing after the big reveal of Vault 31's secret.
  • Speaking of our old pal Bud: “I don’t have kids myself, but I do have a training program for up-and-coming executives, and that’s basically the same thing.”
  • Fallout Game Corner: Okay, this one is going to be a doozy—especially since the location we see Hank tromping off to in the final final final epilogue of the episode is the city of New Vegas, central to the Fallout spin-off of the same name. (You’d be excused for thinking it’s Seattle, but no, that’s a giant roulette spinner atop a hotel, not the Space Needle.) At the same time, all of the executives who show up at the meeting with Bud and Barb are named characters from Fallout lore—most especially RobCo representative Robert House (a.k.a. the guy with the mustache). House, played in the games by the sadly-late René Auberjonois, is a big deal in Fallout world, having survived the fall of the bombs and basically turned Vegas into his own personal fiefdom. Expect House to be a big deal in season two.
  • Bonus Fallout Game Corner: I get a happy little thrill every time the show uses the Pip-Boy confirmation sounds from the games. That is all.
  • It’s kind of sweet that Barb has Coop’s posters up in her office.
  • Less sweet: her getting to drop the “War never changes” line, as we cut back and forth between Moldaver’s troops and the Brotherhood slaughtering each other.
  • “I loved your mother. But she stopped being your mother when she left home.”
  • Counter-point: “Where’s my fucking family?”
  • Okay, but seriously: What is up with Moldaver’s lunch spread? Was she expecting Lucy to drop by, or do they just serve up a full roasted mutant two-headed pig with an apple in its mouth for every meal?
  • Oh, and that’s a deathclaw skull on the ground as Hank’s marching on, right? Can’t wait to see those nasty bastards in live action.
  • Unanswered mysteries: what the hell Moldaver is doing in the future, why the Enclave had the who-sit (and who the Enclave are, at least for those who haven’t played the games), and, most pressingly, no Ron Perlman cameo. Really?!
  • And that’s a wrap on the first season of Fallout! Thanks for taking this journey through the Wasteland with me, folks; this show massively exceeded my (admittedly dim) expectations, and I find myself genuinely excited to see where it goes next.