‘Fallout’ Review: A Post-Apocalyptic Adventure With a Sick Sense of Humor

Scrappy protagonists, global calamity, lawless wasteland, based on a video game — sounds like the 'Last of Us.' But this Amazon series is more over-the-top, twisted, fun, and even hopeful.

Walton Goggins as The Ghoul in Fallout. Courtesy of Prime Video

It’s reductive to refer to every big-budget TV adaptation of a popular video game as “[studio]’s answer to The Last of Us.” But there is some basis for comparison between HBO’s Emmy-winning zombie drama and Fallout, the new series from Amazon based on the popular game franchise. Both take place in the aftermath of a global calamity that’s left civilization in ruins. Both follow scrappy protagonists who must survive the lawless wasteland, exposing the violent, selfish nature of a starving humanity. But where The Last of Us is a largely joyless and unoriginal enterprise, Fallout has the courage to be fun, imaginative, and even a little bit hopeful. I would be shocked if Fallout won any Emmys or the attention of mainstream adult audiences, but I’ll take it over The Last of Us any day of the week.

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The world of Fallout is a unique mash-up of discordant genre tropes unified by common themes and interconnected mythology. It’s a radioactive post-apocalypse built overtop of a space age retro-future, populated by Wild West raiders and bounty hunters, mutated creatures and genetic experiments, and cultish paramilitary groups. Safe and sound underneath all this are the Vault Dwellers, the descendants of wealthy Americans who purchased homes in communities of interconnected bomb shelters. Lucy MacLane (Ella Purnell) grew up in the idyllic Vault 33, a self-sustaining, hermetically-sealed paradise. But when her vault is raided and her father (Kyle Maclachlan) is kidnapped by surface-dwellers, Lucy embarks on a rescue mission to an outside world she didn’t know existed, where no one shares her sense of honor and civility.

Ella Purnell as Lucy in Fallout. JoJo Whilden/Prime Video

Lucy’s quest pits her against her polar opposite, “The Ghoul” Cooper Howard (Walton Goggins), a merciless bounty hunter with a black hat and a skull-like face. It’s easy to compare the Ghoul with Ed Harris’ Man in Black from Westworld (also produced by Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan) but Goggins brings a very different charisma to the role of “misanthropic, murderous sci-fi cowboy whose sympathetic backstory is revealed via flashback over the course of the first season.” Goggins is supremely likable even as the most revolting characters, and this is no exception. The parallels between these characters also highlight the difference between Fallout and Westworld—for better or worse, Fallout does not admonish us for enjoying its violent delights. There’s blood and guts aplenty, but it’s stylized, heightened, and often played for laughs.

That’s not to say that Fallout is strictly brain-off television. Creators Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Graham Wagner expand on the cultural satire of the video games, taking aim at jingoistic paranoia and disaster capitalism. Who stands to profit from the end of the world? How do those market forces nudge culture in dangerous directions? Fallout approaches big questions in a light and digestible way, which is substantially more entertaining than another grimy tale about how indoor plumbing is the only thing keeping human beings from eating each other. 

Lucy vows not to be corrupted by the cold cruelty of the surface world, a difficult promise to keep when everyone she meets tries to kill or exploit her. But, where more self-serious post-apocalyptic dramas like The Last of Us or The Walking Dead relentlessly punish characters for letting their guard down, Fallout validates Lucy’s kindness just often enough that she doesn’t seem foolish for offering it. Ella Purnell is aptly cast as a character who is equal parts sweet and tough. Even in Lucy’s most naive or presumptuous moments, it’s hard not to root for her. 

Aaron Moten (r) as Maximus in Fallout. JoJo Whilden/Prime Video

But perhaps the show’s most interesting performance is Aaron Moten as Maximus, a squire in the service of the fanatical Brotherhood of Steel. Where Lucy is sheltered and the Ghoul is jaded, Maximus represents the casual cruelty of a desperate life. Rescued and adopted by this order of crusaders in powered armor, he has endured years of bullying, hard labor, and religious indoctrination, and the only way to advance himself is at the expense of his peers. He doesn’t see himself as malicious, he’s simply following the rules of the world into which he was born. He’s as cloistered and naive as Lucy, but from the other side, and it makes them a fun pair to watch.

Fallout casts an irreverent eye on its over-the-top wasteland and has a sick sense of humor about violence and death, but that rarely gets in the way of connecting emotionally with the characters. There’s no shortage of kooky, cartoonish concepts and imagery, but it still looks less like a video game than your average Marvel or Star Wars show thanks to an emphasis on practical sets and effects. Fallout has a sense of play and joy, and a confidence you don’t get from a show that Demands To Be Taken Seriously. Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Graham Wagner may not be aiming for naturalistic high drama, but even in the atomic wasteland, personality goes a long way.

All eight episodes of ‘Fallout’ are streaming now on Amazon. 

‘Fallout’ Review: A Post-Apocalyptic Adventure With a Sick Sense of Humor