Rebecca Ferguson in Silo
Rebecca Ferguson stars in the Apple TV+'s SiloCourtesy of Apple TV+

With Silo, Apple TV+ Strikes Prestige Sci-Fi Gold

The long-gestating adaptation of Hugh Howey’s book series was worth the wait. 

When Hugh Howey’s self-published novel Wool became a runaway hit in 2011, its unlikely success nearly overshadowed its narrative merits. Howey became a ballyhooed poster boy for Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing—and Wool got dubbed “the sci-fi version of Fifty Shades of Grey,” a comparison so rude it’s almost libelous. People were fascinated by an industry outsider rocketing onto the bestseller list thanks to online buzz alone, even if they never bothered reading the book. 

That’s too bad—it’s an engrossing, pulpy yarn. In 2012, 20th Century Fox acquired the rights to Wool and its prequel Shift after an intense bidding war, with Ridley Scott attached to direct. Fans waited to see when production would begin. Then they waited some more. 

While they waited, the world changed. Howey published a third novel, Dust, and called the trilogy “the Silo saga.” Netflix, which had just released its first original series when Howey started posting chapters of Wool online, grew into a juggernaut, and inspired altogether too many imitators. Game of Thrones, in its first season when Wool was published, became a cultural phenomenon. Every television executive wanted their own dragon show. Streamers poured money into replicating HBO’s success, frequently favoring lavish sci-fi and fantasy epics. These streamers included Apple, which placed big bets on shows like Foundation and For All MankindSome succeededMore flopped

Now that Apple TV+'s Silo is finally here, more than a decade after that first adaptation attempt, it faces the danger of appearing unoriginal, just another entry in a crowded field of aspiring dystopia-flavored tentpoles. If it had debuted on the original schedule, back when you could count the number of streaming services on your hands, the bar to distinguish itself wouldn’t be quite so high. At this point, though, audiences know their way around a grim, futuristic hellscape. We’re harder to impress than those Obama-era naifs downloading Wool and sharing a Kony 2012 video on Facebook while wearing skinny jeans. 

We have Dystopia Fatigue Syndrome. 

Watching Silo can feel familiar. The show’s opening credits sound like a riff on the portentous theme from Westworld, and the show can strike a similarly self-serious tone. Like every other new prestige drama, it includes a Game of Thrones alum (Iain Glen, aka Ser Jorah Mormont). The dialog can occasionally go rote, like Prestige Drama Mad Libs. (“You need to trust me!” “This is getting dangerous.” “Try not to get yourself killed.” Stuff like that.) And Silo’s premise is a lot like the inferior television version of Snowpiercer—like TNT’s show, it is a murder mystery set in a mysterious, intensely class-stratified postapocalyptic society confined within a tight space as the possibility of rebellion foments. 

There’s two crucial differences between the TNT Snowpiercer and Silo, though. Instead of a train perpetually circumnavigating a ruined Earth, the setting for Silo is, as the title suggests, a 144-story silo buried beneath a ruined Earth. More importantly, instead of being bad, Silo is good. 

The first two episodes introduce viewers to the show’s subterranean universe through the eyes of Sheriff Holston Becker (David Oyelowo) and his wife, Allison (Rashida Jones). They’re happily living within the Silo when they win a chance to potentially reproduce. Allison’s government-mandated birth control is removed, and they have a year to conceive. There’s a sense of urgency—this is, we discover, their third shot at having a baby, and likely their last. As months pass without a pregnancy, Allison starts to suspect their fertility issues aren’t a coincidence but instead are tied to the shadowy nature of the Silo’s government and what it wants from its residents. 

Holston and Allison’s storyline is made emotionally resonant through two excellent performances—Jones’ is a career-highlight—and it simultaneously serves as an efficient bit of exposition. We learn that the Silo functions as a self-contained city, powered by a strange patchwork of technologies from the past; there’s an IT department, radios, and ancient computers, but no elevators or pulleys or phones. The residents don’t know much about their history, because a failed rebel group destroyed most of the available documentation about how the silo came to be and what happened to the world aboveground. The Silo is governed by a document called the Pact, stipulating strict rules about how to behave. The most important rule? If you ask to go outside, you must go outside—and you cannot return.

People who go outside are equipped with a sort of hazmat suit and given a piece of wool to “clean.” They are asked to wipe the sensor on the camera that provides the silo with its only view to the outside. These “cleanings” are a communal ritual—a type of public execution—and people gather to watch their doomed neighbors succumb to the toxic air. Corpses of former cleaners dot the decrepit landscape. 

After the second episode, the show’s true protagonist emerges: Rebecca Ferguson’s gruff, capable mechanic, Juliette Nichols, who gets recruited from a life of grunt work in the lower levels to join the law enforcement team “up top.” Ferguson gives an action-star turn here, magnetic and lithe. (My only complaint about her performance is the accent work—despite spending her whole life in a North American underground city, Juliette sometimes sounds oddly Scandinavian.) 

Juliette doesn’t want to leave her sooty home and her cherished generator. She loves machines! She has a wise old lady friend! But, you see—a mystery needs unraveling. Her boyfriend, a curious type, went searching for ~ answers ~ about the Silo’s true nature and wound up dead. Juliette suspects murder—and a sheriff’s badge means she can investigate. She’s quickly at odds with leaders from the Silo’s two other main power centers: the imposing Sims, from the judicial branch (Common, glowering) and Bernard, the conniving tech leader (Tim Robbins, glowering even harder). Intrigue ensues.

The dead boyfriend isn’t in Howey’s books. I suspect he got concocted to soften Juliette’s edges, since she’s a fairly hard-nosed heroine. He’s … whatever. There are a few other changes, most notably in the Silo’s look. In the novels, it’s a claustrophobic place, rundown and resource-strapped, and all the residents wear uniforms corresponding to their jobs. The show’s Silo is a vast, cavernous place, and the people within it dress how they please. (They also seem somehow immune to vitamin D deficiency.) Otherwise, the first season is a fairly faithful adaptation of the beginning of Howey’s story—a good thing, since Wool is a humdinger, twisty and thrilling. 

If this show gets picked up for future seasons, it will be fascinating to see if it follows Howey’s structure, since the second volume, Shift, is a prequel with parts set hundreds of years in the past. This is not a George R. R. Martin situation; they won’t run out of pages to adapt and have to wing it. 

And Silo does deserve more seasons. This is what the streamers strive for and rarely achieve: a real-deal epic. Does that mean Silo will get the attention it should on Apple TV+ in 2023, compared to how it might’ve been received on, say, Netflix in 2013? Probably not. The long delay means Silo is debuting to a tougher crowd with too many choices. Here’s hoping enough people dig it.