Final Pam in all her glory.

How I learned to love the bomb.


I have never and likely will never play anything in the Fallout series (#nintendokid4lyfe), but I have long enjoyed the aesthetic and world building of those games thanks to deconstructions like Monster Factory and the many brilliant videos superimposing Tony Soprano onto the world of New Vegas. I’m also just barely old enough to have grown up with the specter of the Cold War as well as the knowledge that I was growing up close enough to DC to be on the frontline for mutually assured destruction (no seriously, I have a very vivid memory of a 6th grade social studies lesson where the teacher showed us just how close we were to the blast radius). My parents were the duck and cover generation, and I grew up fixating my generational trauma on films like The Iron Giant, Dr. Strangelove, and The Day After (another middle school social studies lesson). Let’s just say, the idea of a long form exploration of how such destruction might play out is very much up my speculative fiction alley. I’m always reluctant to give a new series a try, but an endorsement from Monster Factory’s own Justin and Griffin McElroy pushed me over the edge this weekend. Besides, only a fool would resist a Walton Goggins starring role. 

Before you run off to watch, I will say this: the violence and gore in the series is pretty extreme. Case in point – there are 3 distinct incidents where key characters suffer from uniquely horrifying trauma to one of their feet. If you do not want to see realistically rendered human entrails in your streaming entertainment, you will struggle with this show. That said, the very violence itself is something that is now sticking in my head about what makes this show more than just a pretty apt adaptation of a gaming experience I have admittedly never tried.

On its surface, Fallout is a well written, well acted, well directed, well produced example of how to take messy IP (14 games if you include DLC and expansions, much more if you include all the spin-offs and canceled projects) and turn it into something that anyone can enjoy. Walton Goggins as the Ghoul steals the show with an iconic antihero that would net him an Emmy nom if it wasn’t video game IP on a streamer, Kyle MacLaughlin and Michael Emerson dot the 8 episodes with their hard-earned genre fiction gravitas, and Sarina Choudhury does more in her handful of scenes as Moldaver than she got to do in 2 seasons of the Sex and the City reboot (I could gush for an hour just about how this series is a character actor paradise). The art direction is also clearly loving and labored, with every prop and vista feeling like both an opportunity to give texture to the narrative and an opportunity to show respect to the fanbase. Most importantly, the writers and showrunners made the very wise choice of making the nature of the world itself the central mystery of the season: the series follows the gormless Lucy MacLean as she stumbles through the Wasteland, figuring out the hows and whys of the post-apocalypse alongside the viewer. There’s no hand-holding for the newbies, and there’s plenty of inside jokes even for someone who has only watched a handful of play-along videos on YouTube. I devoured the whole thing in a weekend.

But I wouldn’t disrupt my very vague publishing schedule to write to you about how I think a particular series is worth a watch unless I also thought it had something worth saying about how we relate to technology in a bigger way, and I genuinely believe that Fallout touches on certain ideas about digital identities and ethics more competently than other more “serious” works have. The aforementioned review on The Besties podcast teases at the idea that the series is best understood through an awareness of its gaming roots. Justin McElroy notes that while his non-gamer brother-in-law also recommended the series to his wife, she found the cartoonish violence shocking at first in a way that caught him off-guard. This is not to say that violence in video games makes players numb to such violence. Rather, I would argue that as a gamer who knows the series as gamer IP, I came to it with a framing of unreality. Watching a shotgun blow off someone’s left arm is as absurd as imagining that a stimpack could set them right enough to carry on with their mission. These gameplay mechanics are part of the language of the medium. I winced at every flayed bit of flesh, but the gore and violence is already part of an exercise in ethics via avatar.

Both Fallout and Westworld share a director/producer in Jonathan Nolan. I gave up on Westworld in the first season, and then struggled several times to pick it up again. I watched all of Fallout in less than three days. Why? I think, genuinely, it comes back to the nature of violence in both series. Anyone who has played an open-world game knows that part of the allure and thrill is seeing how far you can push things. Last year’s biggest games, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom and Baldur’s Gate 3 both succeeded thanks to taking this idea to extremes. And similarly both Fallout and Westworld lure the viewer in with compelling characters that are then shown to respond to the dangers in their worlds with extreme violence. If the most efficient solution to your problem is to crush someone’s skull with your prosthetic robot hand, why not do so?

With Fallout, however, the text is subtext. The viewer can come to the series imagining that they are watching some n00b role-play as Lucy, or they can watch with an outsider’s earnestness for Lucy’s journey. Or, as the legions of fans of play-along videos and role-playing podcasts do every week, they can do both at the same time (just because I think Final Pam is a joke doesn’t mean I don’t care about her and her metal husband). The only clues to the gamer’s POV are those narrative tics of video games, the exploding guts and magic healing tools. In Westworld, there is a more clear delineation between the players and the NPCs. We watch the series knowing that some characters are “real” and some characters are just designed to suffer for our entertainment, and then the series labors to make us care about the suffering.

After slogging through most of the first season of Westworld, I finally gave up the ghost when, after eating pot brownies and watching an episode with an ex-boyfriend, I woke up in a panic and shoved him out of bed and onto the floor because I had a nightmare that I was one of the brothel NPCs who only exist in the world of the series to be raped by players. In that world, anyone who isn’t a white male exists only to suffer. While Fallout shares much of that Western aesthetic, it exists in a world where interracial relationships are common, women can be just as powerful (and evil) as men, and even Walton Goggins’ John Wayne-styled character can have a sensitive conversation before the blast with a Native American costar about the problematic depiction of indigenous people in the genre. By decoupling the violence from gender, sexuality, or race, Fallout allows for a world where both the butt of the joke and the cause for concern is capitalism and any conversation beyond that is the product of the viewer’s biases.

This is not to say that we should dismiss intersectionality. Rather, I think it gives the viewer more space to embrace it. In one episode, Lucy worries she’s been sold as a sex slave only to be told by the ever-charming voice of Matt Berry that nothing so terrible would ever befall her – instead, she’s only been sold for organ harvesting. As a woman, I found myself laughing about someone stealing my kidneys in a way that I cannot laugh about someone raping me, and the real heart of that joke is that every woman watching the series was waiting with horror for Lucy to be raped as we have seen so many women raped on television before her. Likewise we can assume that Maximus’s devotion to the Brotherhood is as shaped by the reality of race as Betty’s devotion to Vault-tec, and that Moldaver is who she is (no spoilers!) because as a woman of color she has been dismissed and sidelined throughout her career. But again this is all subtext that we are free to take or leave. You can watch Fallout as though it is as bizarre of an alternate raceless reality as Bridgerton, or you can imagine the person who might choose to design and play as a character who looks like Maximus or Betty or Moldaver with all their experience of our “real” world.

Lucy’s very fear in that episode is, for me, the biggest crack in the fourth wall of the series. Why would a woman raised in a multiracial, multigenerational, ethically obsessed, sexually frank “paradise” fear rape? She shouldn’t! The fear in that scene and Matt Berry’s character’s acknowledgement of that fear are an acknowledgement of the baggage we bring as “players” to any entertainment. For me this was the moment, for all its camp, that Fallout became a more clever series than Westworld. Westworld depicted endless rapes to show me that rape is bad. Fallout made a crass joke about the fear of rape to show me that I would be upset to see an imaginary person experience it and then allow me to laugh about it. The latter tells me much more about myself and about the media than the former.

Video games are, with rare exceptions, the product of design by committee, and the product of many people’s feelings and experiences converging around a handful of ideas to be consumed by many people. So are TV shows, but few TV shows attempt to play with this relationship between creators and consumers, and between reality and fiction. Fallout, by being as big and dumb and playful and confusing as the games themselves, does a better job than most at attempting this metatextual discourse. Maybe most people won’t ruminate on it, but most people probably didn’t think about Westworld that critically either. If anything, Lucy deserves as much consideration as Final Pam.