Fallout Season 1, Episode 4 Review – “The Ghouls”

Fallout The Ghouls

“The Ghouls” is the most Fallout-ass episode of Fallout so far, an hour that feels even closer to its video game roots than the show’s opening trio of reference-laden episodes. I mean, this is an episode where both MacLean children experience the cinematic equivalent of Fallout‘s emergent storytelling – the kind packed with feral ghouls, ticking computers, conspiracies, a modified housekeeping robot – and of course, the iconic 10mm Fallout pistol. Thankfully, the reverence “The Ghouls” has for its source material doesn’t completely dilute its storytelling; though Fallout‘s fourth episode certainly feels like it exists between more consequential episodes of the series, it is the most satisfying single hour of the season’s first half.

What “The Ghouls” is about, of course, is an observation on environment; as The Ghoul callously drags Lucy across the wasteland in search of radiation vials, Fallout is putting its main character through the archetypal moral ringer – especially once her and The Ghoul trade fingers, in what he considers their first “honest exchange”. Like the radiation that transformed the Ghoul (and now keeps him alive), Fallout‘s first four hours have squared their focus on pushing Lucy past the limits of her own humanity; and in “The Ghouls”, the show offers its first true test of her vault-formed morality when she is callously traded by the Ghoul for two month’s worth of vials to keep himself alive.

Fallout The Ghouls

We’ve already seen the contrast between Cooper Howard and the Ghoul he’s become; in case that point wasn’t nailed home, however, “The Ghouls” begins with the pair coming upon a ghoul at the end of their life – or at least, their life before they lose what’s left of their humanity and become fully feral. At the end, all that’s left of The Ghoul’s old friend is a decrepit corpse whispering his name to himself over and over again; there’s no more fitting visual metaphor for what nuclear war and its aftermath have stripped away from the people left in its wake, and how strong one’s sense of self has to be, in order to simply survive in the world. The Ghoul, knowing far too well how the world will strip you away from yourself (later, we get a resolve from last week’s flashback where we learn he caved into the director’s demands to make his character kill), shows the only compassion he can; he blows off Roger’s head before he can finish going feral, before informing Lucy that it was time to prepare some “ass jerky” for the road.

It’s a dark moment of humor, but certainly not just an empty punchline; it works as an overt visualization of how this world resolves its conflicts – and more importantly, as a manifestation of Lucy’s own internal struggle, which comes into focus in the episode’s second half, as she survives the feral meat market hidden inside Super Duper Mart.

That sequence is an early series highlight (and not just because of Matt Berry’s pitch-perfect performance as Snip Sip, the friendly organ-harvesting robot), capturing the anxious melancholy of exploring Fallout‘s societal remnants and the strange, uncomfortable bursts of violence that usually springs from it; “The Ghouls”, after all, is not just about how the ghouls are defined by the radiation that changes and sustains them, but examining how that applies to everyone, from raiders and their shared sense of chaos, to the Vault dwellers in 33, so adhered to their missions and functions they lose their humanity in the monotony.

Fallout The Ghouls

The Ghoul sending Lucy into Super Duper Mart allows Fallout to examine how Lucy’s brief time in the wasteland has reshaped her; she’s grown more pragmatic, more aware of the dangers lurking in her surroundings – but that knowledge has only solidified her sense of self, rather than allow itself to be reshaped by the dark, terrible world around it. After she breaks free from the surgically-obsessed robot and threatens the two men “running” the operation, Lucy demands all the ghouls imprisoned there are set free – of course, a few have gone completely feral, leading to her killing someone (presumably for the first time).

As she emerges, her vault suit wrapped around her waist and blood splattered across her face, she tosses a bunch of vials at the collapsed Ghoul and tells him, “Golden rule, motherfucker” – which is a bit of a cheesy line, but a particularly fitting one. Time will tell whether Lucy is still the woman she thinks she is, or a twisted version of Roger trying to convince herself; but in the moment, her steadfast repudiation of The Ghoul’s point of view makes a strong statement for her character – and more importantly, a sign Fallout‘s story is beginning to come into focus.

Across (and under) the wasteland, Norm gets to do The Thing and explore an abandoned vault (though unlike most people’s first experience in a vault, he’s not cramming his pockets with gauze, stimpaks, and paperclips). One can almost feel the memes being queued as Norm and Chet slowly walk through the remains of Vault 32 and its dead inhabitants; they access a Vault computer, they see a bunch of writing in blood on a wall, and they get to experience the dread and discomfort their virtual counterparts have experienced for decks, slowly unraveling the dark secrets each and every Vault (abandoned or otherwise) contains.

Fallout is still playing coy with what happened in Vault 32, and how it illuminates the puzzle of Moldavar, Hank, and the “true” purpose of Vault 33, of course; the answers will inevitably be unpleasant, and it will be interesting to see how this filters through Norm, Chet, Steph and the other remaining members of Vault 33 – who are also going through an election, which in Fallout terms, is usually a table-setter for some sort of impending catastrophe.

Fallout The Ghouls

Oddly, Maximus, Thaddeus and The Head are left on the sidelines for “The Ghouls”; the episode is better for it, allowing for a leaner, more focused version of its slow-paced storytelling. However, their absence barely being felt isn’t exactly promising, given how naturally both of their individual stories would’ve fit within the thematic framework of “The Ghouls”. The tradeoff, perhaps, is Chet’s “well, that is one wet lady!” line (the result of an awkward, emotionally charged visit from a pregnant Steph) – and if that’s the price we have to pay to briefly excise the show’s weakest element, I’m all for it.

“The Ghouls” ends in its most interesting place yet; Lucy, with a dead finger and one shoe, back on the road alone trying to find Wilzig’s head (and whatever it contains) in pursuit of her father, leaves The Ghoul to his own devices at the remains of the Super Duper Mart. After charging himself back up with some good ol’ vials, The Ghoul sits down to watch TV, and we see the end result of his conversation with the film director in “The Head”; he allows his character to become a Commie-hating killer, a sign that his transformation into something he didn’t recognize began long before his physical transformation, a man whose lost himself more than poor Roger ever could.

“The Ghouls” is a leaner, brasher version of Fallout, one more willing to push Lucy to her limits as a character with agency, which inherently makes for a more interesting entry than say, the repetitive Gulper interactions of “The Head”. There are still some head-scratching pacing decisions – do we need to be this facetious about what’s going on in Vaults 32 and 33? – but “The Ghouls” is still an effective momentum builder episode, and a solid table-setter for whatever is to come in the season’s second half.

Grade: B+

Other thoughts/observations:

  • Given most ghouls seem to last 2-3 decades before turning feral, how The Ghoul has held onto his sanity for what appears to be centuries is fascinating.
  • Boy, the Ghoul seemed interested in learning Lucy’s last name… I feel like this probably ties into her mother’s Pip-Boy at some point, no?
  • As any good former Vault Dweller does, Lucy emerges from her first Fallout dungeon with an upgraded set of “armor”.
  • “Ass jerky doesn’t make itself!”
  • The Ghoul really gives Roger the old Of Mice and Men treatment.
  • There is mention of a great “Plague of ’77”, which may or may not be when Lucy’s mother died (or “died”, given this is still a show created by Jonathan Nolan).
  • At least Norm gets some pie and ice cream!
  • A new baby in Vault 33 could be an interesting view into whether what’s left of their society is still sane and/or functional; however, I think the aforementioned election is going to be the real stress test, no matter how calmly its participants address each other.

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