3 Body Problem: What Is a Wallfacer?

Three Wallfacers hold the fate of humanity in their hands, but what will Saul Durand, the least likely hero in 3 Body Problem, do now?

Jin and Saul in a swamp in 3 Body Problem
Photo: Macall Polay / Netflix

This article contains 3 Body Problem spoilers.

“How do we keep secrets from an adversary who sees everything, who is watching us right now?” asks the UN Secretary General in the 3 Body Problem season 1 finale. She then answers her own question: “Humanity still has secrets. The sophons have vast power, but they are not all-powerful. They cannot read our minds. This is the basis of what we call the Wallfacer project.”

Not much is known about the San-Ti, but intelligence gained from Mike Evans’ interaction with the aliens suggests that their communication is mind-to-mind with no mechanism for deception. This gives humanity a strategic advantage despite Earth’s comparatively inferior technology and the fact that the sophons are watching their every move: any plan carried out in only one person’s mind cannot be revealed to the enemy.

The Secretary General explains it this way:

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“We have chosen three people to formulate and direct strategic plans. They will develop these plans entirely in their own minds, sharing them with no one until the time is right to execute. We shall call them Wallfacers after the ancient Buddhist name for meditators. These Wallfacers will be granted great authority, allowing them to exploit all our resources. As long as they violate no international laws, the Wallfacers never need to explain their actions and commands, regardless of how incomprehensible their behavior may be.” 

It almost sounds as though a Wallfacer’s plan must go beyond mere secrecy. Because they will presumably need the help of other humans, they will have to run a bluff even within their own war room. Make it look like bombs are being built while also re-directing an asteroid for a collision course — that sort of thing. Maybe even have several lines of inquiry leading nowhere as a misdirect.

The Wallfacer introduced as General Hou Bolin is described as an expert in military history, having written the textbook used in several universities, not to mention his own personal experience with conflict resolution, peaceful or otherwise. Likewise, Professor Leyla Ariç fought ISIS and knows all about fighting asymmetric battles. But what does Saul Durand (Jovan Adepo) bring to the table?

His importance is based solely on the knowledge that the San-Ti want him dead. Remember, the aliens don’t know how to keep such intelligence, whatever they might be basing it on, to themselves. Playing their cards close to their chest isn’t in their DNA. They attempted to assassinate Saul; therefore, Saul must become a Wallfacer under the protection of the UN’s Planetary Defense Council until his hidden potential reveals itself.

It’s a puzzle to us all! After all, Saul the cynic lives only for the moment. “Why should I get bent out of shape about what the world might look like 400 years from now? I have no control over it,” he tells his one night stand. “I’m not going to have kids. The family line ends with me, so I guess I don’t worry about the far future that much… Eventually, humanity will die out, and then we don’t even have to worry about these aliens.”

His logic doesn’t sound like the insightfulness of a defender of humanity, but perhaps his focus on the “now” will have some sort of strategic significance — who knows? From a storytelling perspective, we can only assume as viewers of 3 Body Problem that the other two Wallfacers will fail despite their brilliance, and Saul will arrive at some sort of epiphany only he can have. That’s how these things work!

The Secretary General specifies that the chosen three “will pass through the long years, turning their backs on everyone,” so it’s likely that they will intermittently hibernate so that, like Wade with the Staircase project, they can be present when the San-Ti arrive in 500 years. Let’s hope 3 Body Problem gets a season 2 so that we can see these plans come to fruition.

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All eight episodes of 3 Body Problem are available to stream on Netflix now.