Did Jonathan Nolan get carte blanche with The Peripheral? I wonder because, barring the slightly rickety season finale, there’s a level of confidence and sureness in the plotting and execution throughout that’s almost completely at odds with Westworld. We know that show had some serious teething problems during its first season. Perhaps HBO compromised his vision? Or maybe showrunner Scott B Smith simply he has a keener grasp of story. Whatever the reason, while The Peripheral skirts many similar futurist themes, it does so with a degree of coherence and engagement Nolan and Lisa Joy’s previous show conspicuously lacked.
Flynne: What happened to the people, Ash?
It would be easy to assume the Nolan brothers weren’t White Hats – that was my working theory; it’s also worth considering that, whatever the nature of one’s Hollywood affiliation, needs-must may dictate content and output – given the dividing line between exploring themes as a warning and advocating them may be construed as a thin one (particularly with science fiction; the good guys may win, but the very act of putting a scenario out there, embedding it in the consciousness, is the key stroke of predictive programming). So The Peripheral could, if one so wished, be interpreted as prescribing the smell of inevitability. Both in its surveillance-heavy ten years hence and the depopulated 2099.
And one might readily perceive an applied wokeness quotient to the content, which may simply be a means to let the more salient content slip by unnoticed. We have a hyper-capable Wonder Rey/Buffy in Chloë Grace Moretz’s Flynne Fisher, an uber-gamer who’s a deadly killing machine à la Neo when inhabiting her future robot avatar (daddy knew she was special: “He could sense the power and strength inside you”).
Her brother Burton (Jack Reynor) isn’t nearly as smart as her (although contrastingly much more measured) and is, to a degree, bundled with a coterie of pals as hive-mind super-soldier males, courtesy of advance tech “haptics” that allowed them to work in synch when in the military. Despite such skillz, they’re inevitably no match for a hyper-capable femme AI, Anjli “Rani” Mohindra’s Beatrice, who wipes the floor with them (Eli Goree’s Conner Penske, a triple-amputee as a result of future meddling, thinks her prowess is just great). And then there’s Inspector Ainsley Harriett Lowbeer, played by veteran trans actress Alexandra Billings (Transparent). One might construe this as implying The Future is Trans, given the limited bodies on the ground we run into.
The Peripheral is based on William Gibson’s 2014 novel and deals with such heady themes as freewill and provisionally puppeteered destiny. The shift into a Schwab-enhanced world is intimated by environs a few years hence where verisimilitudinous gaming is a profession in itself, and the cashless society has pretty much come to pass; handprint ATMs are standard, and Flynne asks cop Tommy (Alex Hernandez) “Is it true that Homeland Security flags every withdrawal?”
The farther-flung future is more infringed still. Everyone has implants de rigueur. Artificial telepathy (the haptic drift tech of Burton and his friends derives from the same source) adds to the transhumanist vision/nightmare, whereby synching and surveillance are simple facts of daily life, along with holographic displays of buildings and populace to simulate a recovered society.
Wilf: Without the immunity boost of her implant, how could she last?
Evidently, however, much of what we are told about this world’s antecedents is subject to amendment. Everyone presumably surrenders to the idea of implants because they enhance immunity that would otherwise be terminally impacted. However, Aelita (Charlotte Riley), who has had hers removed, is doing just fine. What’s more, she has it that “They repress our memories because they still fear us”.
Memories are history. History is manufactured by those in control. The “medicine” this populace is given is hindering, not helping them. What are the chances the chain of events that led to the Jackpot – the confluence of events that did for the world – aren’t as described either? You know, the way recent attempts at depopulation weren’t actually down to a pandemic. The future ostensibly comprises a trio of controlling interests: Russian hoods (the Klept oligarchy, who assembled order “from the chaos of the jackpot); corporate science (the Research Institute); and, er, the Met Police (which, apart from bending the rules on use of AIs, appears to be on the up and up). So one or all three parties are covering the facts.
Wilf: The Jackpot was unstoppable.
We’re told the collapse of society – more than 7bn people dying over four decades or so – was down to no one thing, but everything together. There was the hack of the North American electrical grid, which caused a complete blackout, months long and continent wide. There was a pandemic, a blood plague that attacked the viscera. Environmental catastrophe followed in 2041, with droughts, antibiotic failure and agricultural collapse, followed by full population collapse. And then came the end; a domestic terrorist attack in the US blew up a missile silo North Carolina.
An engineered society, one with administered medicine (vaccines) that causes the symptoms of disease in the recipients they are ostensibly claimed to remediate, one that claims powers of nukes, where natural disasters are invariably down to weather control, and where no power outages are going to happen on a wide scale unless they’re designated to do so, would theoretically be quite straightforward to depopulate. Is that where Nolan is going with this? A depiction of Agenda 2030? (Everyone seems to be living in an urban centre, London). Certainly, the history cited is exactly the kind you could imagine being fostered on a post-plandemic populace in the Schwabian “utopia”.
Opposing the status quo are Neoprims – “someone who believes we killed the world by trying to save it”. Vaccination is evidently part of the state-ordained deal (“Have they been immunised?”; “In full compliance with state guidelines” a flashback to young Wilf and Aelita informs us). The prims want the stolen Research Institute data – swiped by Flynne in the Peripheral body of her brother – “So they can burn this world down and build a new one in its place”. Meanwhile, the haptic-drift science turns out to be based on “Targeting our moral adjustment mechanism”, the need for it boiling down to the old favourite of perceived wretched humanity (our “resistance to acting for a collective good”). It represents, essentially, the final stage in a fully controlled and subservient mankind. The Research Institute expresses the concern of the “potential of hacks… employed in less benign manner”, which is assuming theirs is, in any way, that.
Lev: The act of connection produces a fork in causality, the new branch causally unique. A stub, as we call them.
Above and beyond this, Nolan is tackling the tricky territory of time travel. He and his brother previously went there with Interstellar (in a causally paradoxical sense) and Chris then flew solo with Tenet. Here, he uses Gibson’s premise to posit an at least partly logical take on such territory. Intervention in the past through quantum tunnelling creates a branched-off, parallel timeline (when the present made contact with the past, “the past immediately branched off and formed its own continuum, or parallel timeline, or stub”). It is
Identical until the point of contact, then separated. The “quantum tunnel, as you term it, allows you to communicate with the past” Or rather, a past, “since in our actual past, you didn’t” make that contact.
Essentially, this addresses the problem inherent in any – let’s call it fictional – time-travel plot of telling a story within the confines of time travel changing the future or past; those affected and affecting the change will cease to exist in that form, and indeed, coherently would be unable to enter the past to cause the change in the first place; such dynamics are clear in the territory of Back to the Future fudging, where Marty “returns” to a present in which he didn’t live and of which he has no direct knowledge. Simultaneously, that series (and Looper) offered the gradual fade in/out of a timeline where changes bleed into the particular reality.
Wilf: You killed your family?
It may be that the actual answers to time travel’s logistics are not entirely satisfying in purely rational, linear causality terms (ie, paradoxical loose ends remain), but my understanding is that there is no multiverse of parallel co-existing timelines, and that rather, there is only one physical timeline, however many potential ones there are, so time travel will only ever produce a singular result.
The Peripheral’s peculiar answer is to compartmentalise (“Imperialism… easier for us to third world it”), as if the stub may be fenced off and controlled. Lev professes that he had his alt family killed off because it “Troubled me – the idea of different versions of myself, in another world. The existential nihilism of it”. But in the theory as presented, every time an intervention in time takes place a new stub ought to be created (ie, rather than the linear stub we see, with multiple back and forths to 2099, there should be multiple stubs, a new one created every time there is a distinct instance of travel back to, or forwards from, 2027). There should also be multiple 2099s reached in these stubs, therefore creating their own time travel and stubs within the stubs. I’m tempted to suggest there should also be a clean 2099 without any time travel, since the one we see’s interaction with a stub surely presents a level of interference and split course that would not otherwise be the case, although I may be reaching there.
Generally, though, the twist on time travel here, for all that it seems far from bulletproof, is distinctive and constantly intriguing. The Peripheral is most overtly nursing themes of transhumanism and AI, but the avatar aspect may also provide an analogy to the clone body (where, for example, as related by Donald Marshall, a functional Stephen Hawking clone was available in clone centres, albeit such vehicles are essentially limited in functionality).
Here too, corporate intervention in the past, altering timelines such that the Jackpot is accelerated and depopulation/transhumanism are too, is in part the modus operandi of the Greys in coming back in time through portals. Eager transhumanist Conner is essentially enraptured at the prospect of living out his life in a fully able future avatar and happy to let his actual body waste away. Inhabitants of avatars are called Polts (poltergeists), further emphasising the divorce from true materiality. The blurring of lines is encouraged, such as the AI having feelings for the human and vice versa (we learn of the Uncanny Valley Statute that instructs “Peripherals should not operate as autonomous beings”). We’re in Blade Runner Replicant territory.
Cherise: You have no idea all you’re putting into peril.
I was, admittedly, less impressed with the final episode, The Creation of a Thousand Forests, which seemed to go from some particularly clunky expository Wilf (Gary Carr) backstory to Flynne using her special 2032 nous to wow the 2099 guys, her idea being to open up a new stub reboot, rather like in a sim (this precociousness rather reminded me of whizz kid Matthew Broderick in WarGames). Plus, after a winningly well-judged brother sister relationship throughout the season, Flynne suddenly decides “Burton can’t know. If he found out he’d never let me go through with it, okay?” Er… Is that right?
Lev’s Son: (anticipating some visceral knifing) May I watch, daddy?
Lev: I fear not. Run along to the kitchen. Nanny made pudding.
There are several strong performances. Moretz is fine, no more than that, and Riley (Tom Hardy’s other half) grates with her bolshy hard girl act (is her manner supposed to be affected, given she’s been raised by posh types?) Riley makes a potentially so-so part engaging, Goree a potentially maudlin one vital. Billings comes on like Madea by way of Steve Tyler. The standouts regulars are JJ Field’s Lev Zubov, charming but ruthless beneath the veneer, and T’Nia Miller’s Cherise, offering zero charm but revelling in her own wickedness. This is also a highly polished show, with especially sharp direction from Vincenzo Natali (he helms half of this first run).
It will be interesting to see where The Peripheral heads next. Critics haven’t been rapturous, but the audience response seems generally more enthused. At some point, media, even media anticipating the changing landscape, will have to absorb real-world revelations or become laughable/obsolete. The Nolan boys may well be seen to have remained ahead of the curve.