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I've always seen Fallout as a bleak and cynical video game series. Yes, it has humor, but that humor is, itself, very dark and cynical. As such, the goofy, slapstick humor of the early episodes of Amazon Prime's Fallout TV show were a bit off-putting for me.

Around episode 3 or 4, however, the tone begins to shift. From then on, this show is Fallout through and through. It is violent. It is graphic. It is cynical.

Amazon did a fantastic job with the cast. Ella Purnell is fantastic as the innocent and naïve vault-dweller (named Lucy) who serves as the audience surrogate for exploring this world, as well as an adaptation of the player avatar for all of us who tried to play the first game's Vault-Dweller in a "good karma" playthrough. Aaron Clifton Moten has a weird, detached quality to his performance as Maximus, as if Maximus is half sleep-walking through the events. As weird as the performance is, it does give a genuine sense that Maximus is just completely callous and desensitized to the violence and cruelty of the Wasteland, and he only ever seems to perk up when that cruelty gives way to some kind of comfort or happiness.

The side characters are also well cast and entertaining. From Kyle MacLachlan's vault-daddy, to Matt Berry as the voice of the Mr. Handy robots, and all the Wasteland inhabitants and vault-dwellers in between, everybody is great.

But the real show-stealer is Walton Goggins as the movie cowboy-turned-ghoul bounty hunter Cooper Howard. He steals every scene he's in, and gives off just the right combination of confidence, charm, and antagonism befitting such a gun-slinging cowboy anti-hero. We also see empathy and vulnerability in his character, especially in the flashbacks to the pre-war times.

Fallout (Amazon) - Walton Goggins as Cooper Howard © Amazon.
Walton Goggins steals the show, even if his make-up leaves a little to be desired.

The lower budget of a TV show does make itself apparent with some of the makeup effects and one character's digital de-aging effect looking pretty bad. Walton Goggin's ghoul makeup looks more like he's cosplaying the Red Skull than being one of the rotting zombies wandering the wastes. I'm wondering if this was the result of a contractual requirement that the actor's makeup not be too uncomfortable or hide too much of his face, because other ghoul characters and extras that we see in the later episodes look pretty ghoulish.

But other than that, the show looks good. The Wasteland has that eerie beauty that we come to expect from a post-apocalyptic landscape. Whatever money was saved on Walton Goggins' makeup must have been spent on the Power Armor costumes. The Power Armor costumes look fantastic and move surprisingly well for being such a large and bulky practical effect. Being an actual costume (or maybe a puppet?), the Power Armor has an appropriate dirty and weathered look to it, and doesn't clash with the scenery in the way I usually expect a CG character to look.

When the bombs fell

Most importantly, Amazon's Fallout TV show stands head and shoulders above the lackluster games that Bethesda has developed (despite having Todd Howard as a producer). Bethesda's games have been running in place, depicting a Fallout world that has basically been stagnant for 200 years, with people still using bottlecaps as currency and constantly fending off cannibalistic raiders, mindless supermutants, and hordes of ghouls.

Black Isle and Obsidian's Fallout games (including the Bethesda-published New Vegas) are all about how people's actions shape and change the world around them. The world of these games does not remain static. In between each game, massive upheavals have happened that have dramatically changed the status quo. Factions rise and fall, cities rise and fall, currencies rise and fall. The raiders are divided up into factions that can be negotiated with. Supermutants are actual intelligent characters with a functional society. The Enclave is basically destroyed in Fallout 2, and is hardly even mentioned in New Vegas. And the numbers of ghouls is always on the decline as they are constantly being hunted down and killed. But a lot of forward progress is often undone or reset by the series' constant factional conflict.

Amazon's Fallout is set in Southern California, and basically acts as a sequel to the first 2 Fallout games and New Vegas. It largely ignores what's been going on back east in Bethesda's Fallout 3, 4, and 76, other than re-using some visual details introduced in those games. It picks up where New Vegas leaves off, by showing us what happened to the New California Republic, and how efforts to rebuild civilization have been going -- or not going, as the case may be.

Fallout (Amazon) - Shady Sands © Amazon.
The TV show acts as a direct sequel to Black Isle and Obsidian's games.

This show also explores the pre-war society that was largely neglected by the games, other than the opening few minutes of Fallout 4. The anti-corporate sentiments as much more overt here than in any of the games. In fact, according to Amazon's Fallout, capitalism might be more dangerous than nuclear weapons. I don't necessarily disagree, though Fallout's writers and I aren't exactly on the same page regarding the details (see the spoiler section at the end).

But the TV show also does all of this without feeling over-indulgent or trapped in nostalgia. There's plenty of easter eggs and references to people, places, and things that fans of the games might be familiar with, as well as teasers of what's to come in a second season. But the show is largely restrained and sticks to the story that it is telling. That means we aren't subjected to obligatory action scenes against Super Mutants or Deathclaws, unless that's actually part of the story. Nor are there nostalgic visits to Vault 13 or Junktown or New Reno, unless (again) it's relevant to the story.

No matter how idealistic or good-willed a character (or player) may be, there are forces in the world that are outside of our control. Any nuclear-armed world is always a terrifying place that balances on the razor's edge of cataclysm.

Fallout, the TV show, adds to the lore of the Fallout canon, and moves the franchise forward with bold confidence. It succeeds where Bethesda Game Studio has largely failed.

But there is also a second major twist in the final episode, which I do feel kind of undercuts the franchise's theme of "war never changes" by making the war maybe possibly not actually be a war. Open the spoiler section below if you want to read my thoughts on the matter.


War has changed

Throughout the entire season, it was heavily implied that Vault-Tec actively tried to escalate international tensions and undercut peace talks in order to maintain a high level of public fear and panic. This resulted in far more interest in buying space within vaults, and thus more profits for Vault-Tec. This, I think, was perfectly fine. Corporations being willing to sell-out the world in order to make a buck fits right in with Fallout's style. And Vault-Tec has always been depicted as unhinged and probably evil.

The Fallout video games are anti-war games,
as much (or more) than they are anti-capitalism games.

However, the last-minute revelation that Vault-Tec went 1 step further and actually dropped the first bomb, goes (in my opinion) a bit too far. This creates problems for both the plot of this TV adaptation, and more importantly for the extended Fallout lore. Vault-Tec having dropped the first bombs means that the "war" wasn't actually a war -- at least not in any traditional sense.

This confuses and muddies the themes of the entire Fallout IP, including all the games. Yes, these games have always been very anti-corporate and anti-capitalism. The corporations in the game did immeasurable damage to the world and to society, and continue to damage the Wasteland with what little remnants of their businesses they left behind. But the games were also staunchly anti-war games.

The opening cutscene of the first game depicts a U.S. soldier in Power Armor committing a war crime, which is shown to the U.S. public as propaganda. All of the games are about how tribalism and nationalism leads to cycles of violence that are unavoidable (despite our best efforts). Any segregation into different communities, and any concentration of power, invariably leads to conflicts, and the only stabilizing forces in the Fallout games are those that are given out freely to everyone, irrespective of social status or allegiances to any particular group.

Vault-Tec dropping the bombs changes the core
conceit of the entire Fallout series.

In fact, this is something that Bethesda's adaptations of Fallout have doubled-down on, with both Fallout 3 and Fallout 4 being explicitly about the obligation to share life-giving resources for the well-being of the entire Wasteland. The original games weren't quite that direct, but they still lead to similar conclusions. The Fallout TV show understood this as well, which is why our villain-turned-hero, Maldaver wants the show's McGuffin. The cold fusion core gives electricity to everyone. Not just her band of New California Republic hold-outs. I don't condone her methods, but her end goal is commendable.

But now the war has changed. Because it isn't war anymore. Now it's just greedy corporations being cartoonishly evil.

But even this evil doesn't make a whole lot of sense. As I said before, the idea that Vault-Tec had a vested interest in keeping the world on the brink of nuclear annihilation is one thing. Actually pulling the trigger on nuclear annihilation is something else entirely. The motivations of Vault-Tec and its leaders is a lot muddier and more confusing now. Capitalist corporations "win capitalism" by growing their business and profits and monopolizing markets. This often means eliminating competition (whether that be by buying them out, or driving them out of business, or by out-competing them in a fair market), because no competition means nobody else to cut into your market share. But the end goal is still to enrich the company and provide value to shareholders. Eliminating the competition by literally destroying the world does not increase shareholder value, because then there aren't any shareholders, no new markets to expand into, and no way to grow the business.

The tragedy of terminal capitalism in which we currently live is a tragedy of the commons. Corporations aren't destroying the world because they want to destroy the world. Corporations destroy the world because the cost of not destroying the world cuts into their bottom line. No one corporation wants to the be the first one to make business concessions on something like climate change, or their participation in the military-industrial complex, because any good faith action in those regards gives a competitive advantage to that company's rivals, and therefore reduces that first company's value to share-holders (even if just temporarily). So all the companies keep polluting, and building missiles, and doing business as usual until the world ends (and they literally can't do business anymore), or the general public steps in by authorizing (or mandating) that the government take regulatory action.

Fallout (Amazon) - Vault-Tec board meeting © Amazon.
Could one of you please explain to me how destroying the world increase the company's value to share-holders?

In addition to the comic book supervillain motivations being confusing, this also raises a lot of questions about what, exactly did happen. Were Barb and Bud going rogue when they blew up L.A.? Or were they acting in official Vault-Tec capacities when they conspired with the heads of other companies to blow up L.A.? Did Vault-Tec own a stockpile of active nuclear warheads? Or was it one of Vault-Tec's co-conspirators who detonated the first bomb? Did Vault-Tech and/or its co-conspirators blow up all the cities in the U.S.? Did Vault-Tec and/or its co-conspirators also blow up all the other cities around the world? Were there actual bombs and missiles that fell from the sky? Because remember, this event has always been referred to as "when the bombs fell" by characters in Fallout, including surviving robots and ghouls who were alive to witness the events firsthand. Did those witnesses actually see bombs and missiles fall?

Or did Vault-Tec simply launch a single missile at China (or the U.S.) in order to trigger the Chinese (or U.S.) automated missile defenses and retaliation systems? (that is my preferred explanation). Did Vault-Tec blow up the whole world (in which case, there was no "war")? Or did Vault-Tec simply light the match that ignited the powder keg, and resulted in the nations of the world starting an actual nuclear war?

Is the rest of the world outside of the United States also a nuclear wasteland?

Up until now, these questions weren't really questions. The world of Fallout was destroyed by Mutually-Assured Destruction, just as was feared throughout the real-world Cold War. "The end of the world occurred pretty much as we had predicted", said the narrator of Fallout 2's intro. It didn't matter which country fired the first shot. All that mattered was that somebody did, and the other country(ies) retaliated in kind, knowing full well that it would end the world. Because counter-attacking the enemy is just how war works.

... and war ...

... war never changes.

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