Fallout (TV Show) Review – [Score 100]

I have a very simple relationship with the Fallout games. I have spent thousands of hours playing the games both vanilla and modded, more of my t-shirts feature the Vault Boy than don’t, I’ve got no less than three custom Fallout controllers, my Samsung smart watch is a working Pip-Boy, I’ve been using a Vault 111 backpack for school and work every day for eight years, and I am even making eye contact with a Vault Boy bobblehead as I type this. I guess what I am trying to say is I like Fallout. Just a little.

I think I experienced the same trepidation all fans of a game franchise feel when they hear a movie or TV show adaptation is in the works. First and foremost, terror. But a slight hint of excitement – what if it’s good? There’s of course the matter of finding the right folks to partner with, who both have experience in Hollywood and understand and respect the source material. And then the matter of executing it in a way that interacts with the game universe. When Bethesda announced a high-budget Amazon Prime Fallout TV series with showrunner Johnathan Nolan (Westworld, The Dark Knight Trilogy) working collaboratively with Todd Howard, everything sounded right. I was tentatively hopeful, but I’ve been hurt so many times by game adaptations in the past. Perhaps you’ve heard by now, but not only is Fallout the best video game adaptation I’ve ever seen – it is one of the best TV shows I have seen in many, many years.

Goggins’ turn as Cooper Howard, aka The Ghoul, is the standout among a litany of excellent performances.

Fallout the TV series is unique in that it is canon to the games. Not only is the story a part of the game universe, but Fallout 5 will likely feature events and lore we learn from the TV show, and perhaps even characters from it. This is so intriguing to me because it essentially means that Fallout the TV show is, until the game comes out, Fallout 5. That puts a huge burden on the show – if it had been poorly received, it could have damaged the canon of this 30-year-old universe irreparably. Thankfully, Nolan is a huge longtime fan of the games, and through careful collaboration with Bethesda Game Studios has nailed the tone, atmosphere, humor, visuals, and most importantly narrative style of the Fallout games. And here’s the kicker – it has been done so well that even those with no knowledge of Fallout love the show, too.

Fallout takes place in an alternate timeline where the transistor was never developed in the 1950s. As such, technology advanced by way of nuclear power, leading to everything from nuclear powered cars to microwaves in every home. Culture also somewhat stagnated in the 1950s, and the clothing styles, music, food, parlance, and social norms of that time period somewhat evolved into a futuristic new aesthetic. In short, everything looks like Disney’s Tomorrowland. And in the year 2077, at the height of the resource wars, the bombs fell. In just hours, almost all of humanity was wiped from the earth’s surface as a dozen nations traded nuclear strikes until there was no one left to strike. And now, 219 years later, in the safety of a city-sized underground shelter…

Not only does the power armor look accurate to the games – it simply looks good.

Our story begins with the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed vault dweller Lucy, played by the immaculate Ella Purnell (Arcane: League of Legends, Yellowjackets). Our first protagonist is a perfect representation of a vault dweller – highly trained in a great many academic areas, but with zero street smarts and wildly naive to the true nature of humanity. The show even goes so far as to tell us which of her skills she is proficient in, as if she were an RPG character – that’d be repair, unarmed combat, and science. Fans have even been able to figure out her stat build based on just watching the character; and yet again, the beauty of all this is that none of it is intrusive or noticeable to the layman. There are dozens of references to these characters being part of an open world RPG, but only to the fans. Newbies to the franchise will enjoy the exact same stellar writing, performances, and visuals as the rabid veterans such as myself.

After an attack by surface dwellers which results in her father, the Overseer, being taken, Lucy must venture out into the wasteland for the first time to rescue him. Meanwhile, her brother, Norm, investigates the connected vault system, the hidden history of Vault Tec, and the truth about who their parents are by snooping where he’s not allowed to snoop. You may recognize Norm’s actor (Moisés Arias) as beloved comic relief character Rico from Hannah Montana back in the day, and he puts on an excellent performance as well. Our story turns to a Brotherhood of Steel initiate, Maximus, who yearns for the power to destroy those who killed his family when he was young. Maximus is played expertly by Aaron Moten, who managed to make me burst into laughter several times by just being that damn stupid. Fans have joked Maximus is using a 0 Intelligence/10 Luck build, and I must agree. After a lot of lying, cheating, and stealing, Maximus sets forth as a Knight of the Brotherhood to conquer the wasteland.

Purnell’s performance is at once wildly naive and extremely relatable.

And last but not least is the star of the show, the scene stealer himself, Walton Goggins (Justified, The Hateful Eight) as “The Ghoul.” Goggins has something about him, some X factor, that makes me immediately think of him as perfect for Fallout. More than that, though, his character’s journey is intriguing, beautiful, heartbreaking, and reprehensible all at once. Goggins plays one of the more complex characters I’ve seen on TV in the last few years, and he handles that complexity with great care. I was on the edge of my seat not only when he was in firefights or tossing out some wasteland wisdom in a monologue, but also when he was simply speaking to his wife or looking at his daughter. Goggins is the standout of the show, and in a world where your co-stars do as fantastic of a job as Moten and Purnell have done, that is high praise indeed.

A few episodes in, I was trying to figure out why these three characters’ stories worked so well. Why do they feel familiar, but new? Nolan himself provided an answer to that question: Fallout the TV series is largely inspired by the classic 1960s film The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. Lucy is of course the Good, the naive, sheltered player character emerging from the vault into a world so reprehensible she must either adapt or die. Maximus is the bad, lying and stealing his way through the wasteland without regard for others, almost treating them as if they were simple NPCs in a game. And The Ghoul is of course, literally and narratively, the Ugly. He is willing to do whatever it takes to survive, and that’s how he’s made it for 219 years while the world has eaten itself alive.

The core theme is summed up very nicely when Lucy asks The Ghoul in horror, “What are you?” and he responds, “Oh, I’m you, sweetie. You just give it a little time.” While of course it is intriguing in its own right to watch a good person compromise their values and go bad, it’s an extra tip of the hat to gamers – when you play Fallout, what regard do you have for what is right and wrong? Do you compromise your personal values because it’s a simulation, or are your actions in the game a reflection of what you are in your real life?

Another paradise, another hole in the ground.

The end of the show drops a narrative bomb, revealing a secret about the very premise of the franchise that has been kept hidden since the first game in 1997. The best part is that it does not retcon anything established, but simply answers a question we all thought we knew the answer to this whole time. As an obsessive Fallout fan, this revelation is so astonishing, so smart, and so well placed I actually had to pause the episode and contemplate it for half an hour. And again, even for non-gamers, this revelation works to bring a whole new weight to every event you’ve seen unfold. It’s brilliant.

When adapting a beloved thing, whether it be a book, or a game, or an anime, it is important to try and translate how the source material makes you feel. Fallout was such an impossible thing to adapt because it makes you feel different depending on how you play. It’s why the existing stories of the games are unadaptable – not only do they have dozens or even hundreds of branching storylines, but they are all about you, the player. Fallout is a special series because it gives you building blocks to make your own story and fight for your own ending, through dialogue, skill checks, and your actions. Fallout the TV series works because it follows three protagonists, each with a different build, each doing a very different kind of run, but manages to put weight behind every single one of their decisions. In this same vein, the visual designs, like translating the iconic Brotherhood power armor, the vault interiors, or the Gulper to real life don’t work because they are 1:1 with the games – they work because they were done with care.

I have very, very few complaints or notes for Fallout Season 1. Perhaps some more time with the Enclave would have been nice, or confirmation that the West Coast Brotherhood and Legion merged together. Some more time showcasing Lucy and The Ghoul’s dynamic would have been great. I would have very much liked to see perhaps the most iconic Fallout monster, the Deathclaw, but of course there is always next season. You can see I’m struggling here. I love Amazon Prime’s Fallout, and moreover it is important to me. It has reminded me once again why I love the things I love so much, but it’s also brought an excellent standalone series to viewers who are now itching to try out the games. And I want more of this show desperately. However, while we wait for Season 2, I’ve got a replay of Fallout 4 scheduled, then Fallout 3 and New Vegas with A Tale of Two Wastelands, then I need to try out Atlantic City in Fallout 76… so until then, I’ll keep hanging out in my favorite universe when the fancy strikes me, and smile knowing that more and more wastelanders are arriving every day to see what my favorite game series in the world is all about.

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