The Peripheral Aims to Fill the High-Concept Sci-Fi Void Westworld Left Behind

The Peripheral Aims to Fill the High-Concept Sci-Fi Void Westworld Left Behind

Ten years from now, a young woman in the rural South turns to a lucrative side hustle to pay for her mother’s medical treatment: playing virtual reality games to help rich clients level up. But as we see in The Peripheral, her latest gig is far more than a game, and the world it opens up is incredibly vivid, dangerous, and complex.

That’s the very basic set-up for Prime Video’s new series, which is based on the 2014 novel by cyberpunk legend William Gibson, is produced by Westworld’s Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, and was created for TV by novelist turned screenwriter Scott Smith (A Simple Plan, The Ruins). With that kind of pedigree, it’s no surprise that The Peripheral paints a grim yet intriguing vision of the future — or futures, as it turns out. Not only does gamer Flynne (Chloë Grace Moretz) live in 2032, her VR adventuring sees her visit London in 2099, which turns out to be a very real time and place where technology has advanced to the point that “quantum tunnelling” allows contact between the time periods, including the ability to port someone’s consciousness from the past into an eerily lifelike android body, called a “peripheral,” in the future.

Flynne puts on the headset that changes her life. (Photo: Sophie Mutevelian/Prime Video)
Flynne puts on the headset that changes her life. (Photo: Sophie Mutevelian/Prime Video)

Much like Westworld, The Peripheral is a series that demands viewers pay close attention, lest they miss some bit of critical information — be it a clue to the story’s central mystery, or an explanation as to who is where and what the hell is going on. Fortunately, we have Flynne and her brother, Burton (Midsommar’s Jack Reynor) learning right along with us, and a script that admits more than once that even the characters pulling the strings get confused sometimes. (If you’re someone who had to rewind Westworld on occasion to clarify WTF just happened, like I did, get ready to do the same here.) The Peripheral runs eight episodes — Gizmodo got a chance to see the first six, but won’t be spoiling story points here — which feels exactly right; it’s the ideal framework for a snappy pace, but also provides enough breathing room to let its more complicated ideas settle in.

Once you have a grasp of The Peripheral’s tech elements, as well as the creative way it approaches “time travel,” then it becomes the intrigue-laden thriller it really aims to be, and becomes a lot more fun to watch, too. There are two storylines at play that intersect more and more as the episodes progress. Flynne and Burton’s life revolves around caring for their ill mother and trying to make ends meet in a small town where Flynne works in a 3D printing shop and Burton spends most of his time hanging out with his friends, all of whom served in the Marines together and have an intense bond further enhanced by the “haptic implants” they all share. Then, 70 years later in a dystopian London — still an unsteady, underpopulated place decades after a cataclysmic worldwide event dubbed the “Jackpot” — we meet Wilf (Gary Carr), a “fixer” for the outrageously wealthy Lev (JJ Feild), who’s trying to find Wilf’s adopted sister, Aelita (Charlotte Riley); she vanished while doing high-stakes corporate spying on his behalf, accompanied by Flynne (in peripheral form).

Burton is a good ol' boy... who will also kill you if he has to. (Image: Prime Video)
Burton is a good ol’ boy… who will also kill you if he has to. (Image: Prime Video)

Other elements complicate both storylines, including backwoods kingpin Corbell Pickett (Louis Herthum), who becomes an at-first-unwilling participant in Flynne and Burton’s drama; and the machinations of Research Institute, which controls future London with its insidious, reality-shaping tech, and whose leader (The Haunting of Bly Manor’s T’Nia Miller) is also very interested in tracking down Aelita, believing she’s stolen something of incredible value, and Flynne by extension. There’s also a murder, and that’s when things get really messy.

It’s a lot to take in — but hardly any of it is extraneous, and nearly every nugget of information sprinkled throughout both stories becomes important. (Like I said, The Periperal demands you pay close attention.) And even with all that plot going on, which is carefully doled out one puzzle piece at a time, and all the sleek visual effects it necessarily relies on, the show does an excellent job fleshing out its characters, using flashbacks to show us moments that shaped them into the people we’re meeting now. It helps that the performances are across the board excellent, with Moretz at the centre as a sheltered young woman who’s also intelligent and confidently badass enough to hold her own after being plunged into some rather outrageous circumstances. The supporting turns are of the sort where the characters make indelible impressions even if they’re only in a few scenes — like Riley as the elusive, sharp-tongued Aelita, and Miller, whose RI boss simply oozes evil and elegance from every pore.

Pickett wonders why the future has come knocking on his door. (Photo: Sophie Mutevelian/Prime Video)
Pickett wonders why the future has come knocking on his door. (Photo: Sophie Mutevelian/Prime Video)

The Peripheral poses some pressing questions to its characters — including, but not limited to, why everyone in the future is so interested in North Carolina circa 2032 — that will no doubt find answers by the end of the season. But the show also explores bigger themes that come into play with its bleak view of the future. The “Jackpot” warns of a near-apocalypse caused by a domino effect of all-too-relatable horrors (climate change, a pandemic, domestic terrorism), and there’s an underlying narrative about the dangers of changing the past, as well as what not changing the past might mean when something so close to doomsday is looming on the horizon. The Peripheral’s ultimate message is really a warning; as we see quite clearly, even something as dire as the “Jackpot” can’t curb humanity’s obsession with greed, power, violence, and stomping on anyone who questions the fucked-up status quo. By season’s end, the show might find some sort of uplifting ending for its heroic characters — but there’s a darkness running throughout that feels less like science fiction, and more like a troubling inevitability.

The Peripheral will have a weekly release on Prime Video starting October 21.

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