Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon), Secret Service agent, apparently made a mistake and let someone suspicious go. Apparently, 621 people died. This weighs heavily on his conscience. Other mistakes weigh heavily, too. Such as having an affair with his partner, Kate Hewson (Carla Gugino), and hurting his wife and son. Yet, as four episodes of M. Night Shyamalan’s disturbingly strange world of Wayward Pines unfold, we begin to wonder if it’s all a hallucination in Ethan Burke’s mind – or something else.
We can expect a surprise ending from Shyamalan. But, from my vantage point as a psychoanalyst, let’s take it as Ethan Burke’s internal struggle. If we do, there’s plenty to be said for what happens in a vulnerable mind when guilty feelings are just too much to face.
The series begins with Ethan in torment about his mistakes. He asks his partner, Kate: “Is it happening again?” He must be having disturbing flashbacks. She advises: “every day you’ll think of it less and your life will return to you.” Is this wise advice? If something’s so troubling that it’s causing serious psychological symptoms, it’s best not to try to forget.
Don’t think about what troubles you, it turns out, is the Wayward Pines way:
The Wayward Pines rules
“1. Do not try to leave. 2. Do not discuss the past. 3. Do not discuss the time before. 4. Let us accept each other for who we are today and not for who we once were. 5. Work hard, be happy.” It’s an attempt to escape from a far from perfect life. And from terrible feelings about what kinds of infractions or infidelities were committed in the past.
The Wayward Pines fantasy
Counterfeit your identity, disconnect from what you’ve done or what you feel, and the past will go away. That’s the Wayward Pines state of mind. It’s a trick of memory. What’s happened is put into a time warp, made to seem very long ago, even when it isn’t. You must act happy, even when you aren’t. Above all, don’t ask questions.
The Wayward Pines threat
If you don’t play along and follow the rules – the consequences are severe. Death. If you do, the propaganda goes like this: No guilt. No unbearable feeling. You’re as good as new.
In my work as a psychoanalyst I, at times, see something similar:
Parts of the mind, under extreme fear, exert harsh controls:
We all have different voices in our heads that aren’t hallucinations. A mild form would be a discussion with ourselves: “I think I should do this. No you shouldn’t.” Sometimes the arguments are more intense. Sometimes there’s a self-critical voice that launches harsh attacks. In situations of more extreme conflict, there can be an overbearing “advisor” that exerts control.
Such mental “advisors” masquerade as friends. Nurse Pam’s (Melissa Leo) perversely saccharine and knowing smile is one example. Sometimes these “advisors” can be quite convincing. They know best. They convince you that hiding from the truth, your truth, the truth of how you feel – is the better way to go.
Fear keeps the secrets going – just as in Wayward Pines. And, if there’s any deviation, any doubt, any insurgency; any slip-up, then there’s hell to pay. We see it with Beverly (Juliette Lewis) and Peter McCall (Justin Kirk).
Don’t talk – out of fear of humiliation and attack
Throats will be cut, making talking, of course, impossible. This is Wayward Pines. Humiliation, judgment, or punishment that stops any kind of talk is also the threat of omnisciently controlling voices in some people’s minds.
Intimidation is used, too. We see it as the brutal Sheriff Pope (Terrence Howard) tries one last time to scare Ethan: “You think you want to know the truth. But, you don’t. It’s worse than you could even imagine.” Believing this creates serious despair. Suicide or death can seem the only way out. We see it with Peter McCall.
There’s no one to trust in Wayward Pines
There’s no one to turn to. At least not for Ethan and those, like Kate or Peter, who see some glimmers of truth. The ones who exert control undermine trust. The truth is twisted into something else. Threats keep it under tight wraps. Ethan has to take it upon himself to beat these corrupt and controlling forces.
This is also my job as a therapist. When someone is terrified and beaten down by the propaganda of the one who exerts the controls of threat, fear, or confusion (whether in reality or in the mind) – it’s a big fight to break free. And, it’s almost impossible to do alone.
Bringing truth to light against subversive forces
The greatest confusion for such a person who comes to therapy is this: is it subversive to think about the past and your feelings? Or is it subversive to be convinced not to talk? This is Ethan’s challenge as he tries to find the truth about what’s happening in Wayward Pines. He begins by asking Peter McCall what he remembers.
Remembering is exactly what Wayward Pines won’t allow. It’s a kind of brainwashing so that the warning voices keep disturbing and painful feelings under tight controls. Their power comes from the fear that guilt, a mistake, or infidelity, can’t ever be faced and worked out.
Yet, when you’re hiding from what is troubling you, you only think you’ve escaped. As Peter McCall says … “It (Wayward Pines) let me be someone new and forget my past. Problem is, you can’t forget forever. It catches up to you.” And, it does – in various symptoms or haunting flashbacks.
It’s courageous to get professional help to stand up to the voices that threaten death or the disaster of humiliation and judgment for daring to talk. Therapy can offer the best chance to work the frightening feelings out. None of us can change the past, but there are ways to understand and make up for it.
Whether this is Ethan Burke’s fate, and what exactly Wayward Pines is for him, remains to be seen. Tune in next week for more thoughts about Wayward Pines.