'Fallout' TV show is almost perfect — but it’s missing one crucial thing

Ella Purnell in Fallout TV show on Amazon Prime Video
(Image credit: Amazon Studios)

Prime Video’s new “Fallout” TV show is an absolute blast. Based on the best-selling role-playing series of the same name, it’s right up there with “The Last of Us” and “Cyberpunk: Edgerunners” among the best adaptations of a video game ever. 

Considering its high quality, I’m not surprised that the show has pulled an impressive 93% on Rotten Tomatoes with critics praising everything from the strong writing to the stellar production design. After debuting earlier this week (Wednesday, April 10), the initial reception from fans of the gaming franchise has been just as glowing. 

As a long-time fan of Fallout, I’m equally thrilled with the careful attention to detail and clear respect this Amazon show pays to the source material. But, if I’m being honest, after watching the first four episodes, there is one key element missing. 

Prime Video’s “Fallout” show is excellent, but I wish it took a few more cues from the very best game in the franchise, Fallout: New Vegas. 

A morally gray wasteland 

Fallout: New Vegas keyart

(Image credit: Bethesda Softworks)

Released in 2010, and developed by Obsidian Entertainment, Fallout New Vegas was pitched as a spin-off to tide fans over between mainline the Fallout games created by Bethesda Game Studios, but instead of creating an interstitial sequel to fill the void between Fallout 3 and 4, Obsidian made the crown jewel of the franchise.  

Set in the Mojave Wasteland, with the eponymous neon-lit New Vegas strip at its center, Fallout New Vegas offered all the RPG trappings of its predecessor, alongside largely functional shooter gameplay. What sets New Vegas apart is its phenomenal writing. Even 14 years later, it remains one of the best-written video games ever. 

You play a courier delivering a package to an unnamed recipient in New Vegas but are prevented from completing job through when you are accosted by a mobster named Benny (voiced by the late Matthew Perry) and left for dead out in the desert. You survive this ordeal and venture out into the wasteland to find out what is so special about this package and end up in the middle of a three-way faction war. 

Fallout: New Vegas screenshot

(Image credit: Bethesda Softworks)

New Vegas’ story, both in its main quests and side missions, is so compelling because many of its characters and the situation you are presented with are rarely black-and-white. Yes, the game features a gamified karma system, so actions are technically judged to be “good” or “evil” and move you up or down a morality scale, but it’s not always easy to know which decision is which. And that’s super engaging. 

The “Fallout” TV show instead plays things a little more obvious. In this small-screen take on Fallout’s harsh and unforgiving wasteland, the characters we meet fall into standard archetypes. After four episodes, I’d feel pretty comfortable, classifying each member of the cast as either a “hero” or a “villain”, at least when speaking broadly. 

Heck, even the main character presented as a little more morally ambitious , The Ghoul (Walton Goggins), appear to be set for a predictable redemption arch by the end of the first season. The other two leads, Ella Purnell’s Lucy and Aaron Moten’s Maximus are already on the good side of the scale, with viewers supposed to like and root for them right off the bat (if you can excuse Maximus' razer blade stunt). 

A first look at Amazon's Fallout TV series coming to Prime Video

(Image credit: Amazon/Prime Video)

What's even more frustrating is "Fallout" has moments in its first four episodes where it could explore the thin line between "good" and "evil" but it doesn't fully commit. 

For example, in episode 3, the Vault 33 survivors try to decide what to do with a group of raiders that they’ve captured as keeping them perpetually as prisoners is costing them resources they cannot afford to spare. I was pleased to see this plot point develop, thinking it could lead to some tricky moral questions, but that doesn't happen, probably because the raiders are presented as downright comically evil.

Another example comes in the very first episode, when Vault 33 Overseer Hank MacLean (Kyle MacLachlan) is forced to pick between saving his daughter or a group of vault-citizens. He chooses to save his daughter calling her this "world", and then the other vault-dwellers in danger just sort of turn out fine in the end. It's a cop-out moment and prevents a proper exploration of the morality of Hank's decision. 

Fallout is still utterly fantastic 

Even though I’d love to see “Fallout” embrace moral ambiguity a little more in the back half of its first season, or in a potential “Fallout” season 2, I should stress this is really just a minor quibble, and is massively outweighed by all the things that I love. 

“Fallout” on Prime Video expertly translates the iconic retro-futurism of the franchise (the production design is truly remarkable) , and nails the darkly comedic tone. I was excited to see the world of “Fallout” brought to the small screen, but I never imagined it would translate this well. And it helps that the very sharp writing has hit the perfect tone perfectly blending the ultra-violence with deadpan comedic gags. 

“Fallout” is a very special series, and the current frontrunner for my favorite show of the year. On balance, it’s easy to forgive a pretty small criticism like it not being quite morally gray enough to my taste when it gets almost everything else so very right.   

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Rory Mellon
Entertainment Editor (UK)

Rory is an Entertainment Editor at Tom’s Guide based in the UK. He covers a wide range of topics but with a particular focus on gaming and streaming. When he’s not reviewing the latest games, searching for hidden gems on Netflix, or writing hot takes on new gaming hardware, TV shows and movies, he can be found attending music festivals and getting far too emotionally invested in his favorite football team. 

  • Tim_1974
    Oh boy, if you've only seen up to ep 4 you're just getting to the good stuff. Hope you enjoy the second half as much as I did!
  • jeleleven
    Tim_1974 said:
    Oh boy, if you've only seen up to ep 4 you're just getting to the good stuff. Hope you enjoy the second half as much as I did!
    Yeah.. articles like this should probably be held off until the author watches all the episodes.
  • JDJJ
    Moral ambiguity is not a plus, it is weak writing. Yes, Fallout games are good at giving the player the freedom to do what you will. But actions should have consequences, otherwise there are no real stakes. And that is one of the downsides of the Bethesda versions, as well as Starfield. Emil Pagliarulo has stated that it isn't worthwhile to put effort into writing good stories or having your actions bring real consequences in the world, for good or ill, stating that players would just "make paper airplanes" out of their story. He thinks players just want to shoot stuff. The Bethesda games contain "moral ambiguity" because the main stories are not well planned out, and the plotlines are simple by design. Think of great stories, even in Hollywood, and in the best of them, bad people come to a bad end, and good people may sacrifice for good, but overall heroes win. The Godfather, and the Sopranos, even when the bad protagonist wins, he loses. Walter White and, even Saul Goodman...nobody gets away with it. And in real life, this is usually the case as well. Conversely, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter have been hugely popular movie series based on well regarded stories, and the dividing line between good and evil in those is as stark and wide as an ocean.

    I don't know where this ridiculous notion came from that moral ambiguity equates to good, or gritty writing. Moral ambiguity is not the same thing as showing tempted or weak characters that struggle with doing the right thing, or characters facing moral dilemmas needing to figure out the right path. Those scenarios can be features of good stories. But in a story that is morally ambiguous, the author, and perhaps the audience, are set adrift with no moral compass or direction, and there are no consequences or stakes. Nothing matters, really, and the show or movie cannot rise above spectacle, and the audience is never invested. Perhaps this view that moral ambiguity is desirous comes from the cynicism and nihilism that is a big part of Postmodernism nonsense, and perhaps the article's author has been brought up immersed in that. And there's nothing wrong with a good redemption arc,
    even if the article author was wrong on his prediction of Cooper undergoing a redemption arc by the end of the season.

    But perhaps we shouldn't expect much from a video game "journalist" who doesn't even bother to watch the released episodes before rushing out this garbage article, especially when so many of the public have watched them all.

    In any case, I think the Fallout series is more morally ambiguous than the games.
    In the games' canon, the Red Menace is much more real than it was in the Cold War. In the games, China invades Alaska to set off the chain of events, and launches their nukes first. In the series, Vault-Tec seems to have goaded the war into happening by stealing and launching a nuke on their own, or with the help of an allied defense contractor. This isn't presented as a moral dilemma. Armageddon is somehow presented as more profitable, which is ludicrous, because it will spell the end of the economy and any revenue they'd receive. A more plausible scenario would've been Vault-Tec and the defense contractors trying to keep tensions just high enough so they can sell more vaults to the public, and more armament, robots, etc to the military. Then, their efforts to keep the pot simmering but not boil over spiraled out of their control, and they ended up bringing about circumstances that led the Chinese to feel they had to launch. But instead, they series gives the commies a free pass (other than a passing reference to bread lines) and instead makes this a wholesale indictment of capitalism (ironic, given the series was created by rich people in Hollywood, and funded by the one of the largest corporations in the world, headed by one of the riches men in the world. Probably an irony lost on the show's writers). The games had a lighter touch: it lampooned Cold War rhetoric, 50's and 60's laughable safety and health practices, and corporate excess, but it also turned that wit on us, the players. After all, aren't we the real vault dwellers? Isn't America, safe between it's ocean barriers, and (despite media sensationalism) safe from the dangers that historically faced most of humanity, and face many people today? And the games were more humorous in this as well, while the anti-capitalism here is cheerless and edging towards sanctimonious, as Hollywood is wont.

    I could go on with other examples.

    Despite this, I think it is an enjoyable series. Generally, it keeps the woke propaganda to a surprising minimum, and they nailed the set design and feel. It was a surreal experience to see the games where we've spent so much time brought to life. It's the closest thing to finding yourself waking up from a recurring dream you've had for years, and finding yourself in that dream world. The Fallout world is so unique and rich in details like brands, music, etc, and they got all that right. And besides the plot holes and taking liberties, it does have an engaging story, and I want to see what happens. Maybe in Season 2 it will be revealed that Cooper had talked his wife out her plans , but something like my scenario above happens anyway. That would be an interesting twist, and I think make this a far more interesting story.