The Wild Frontier
TNT, Sundays, 9 PM
Written by Melinda Hsu Taylor
Directed by Fred Toye
“One objective leads to another.” – Weaver
No matter how advanced the technology or how ugly the aliens, Falling Skies keeps reminding me of pioneer Westerns. Maybe it’s the unconscious echo of settlers versus Indians that resonates with me, but Tom Mason and his fellow refugees remind me more of the characters from Wagon Train than Battlestar Galactica. I’ve always loved both science fiction and Westerns, probably for the same reason: they pit human beings against unknown worlds, unknown enemies, unknown challenges. The American character was forged on the frontier, and if we are all sophisticated urbanites with Twitter accounts and smartphones today, our cultural DNA still includes the memories of mountain men, explorers, guerrilla fighters and settlers. As historian Tom Mason points out more than once, being outnumbered does not mean you’ve lost. From Thermopylae to Vietnam to the ’04 Red Sox, time and time again humans have hung on and won out over superior numbers and technology. What counts, every time, is not who has the better weapons, but who has the smarter strategy.
“What were you? Blood? Crip? Slytherin?” – Pope
I swear John Pope gets better every week. This week he proved himself to be, as Maggie put it, “a liar and a deserter – but the SOB can cook”. Tapped to lead an expedition to a motorcycle shop to scrounge bikes, he offers a sardonic running commentary aimed at members of the squad. This particular bon mot was aimed at one of the black members of the team, who proved to have been Boston PD, not a gangbanger. The 2nd Massachusetts still won’t trust Pope with a gun, which provokes him (“Unarmed? What am I, Canadian?”). Pope proves that his boasts about hunting and killing aliens is no idle bluster: he literally sniffs out a nest of roosting Skitters hanging upside-down under an overpass. When Mason refuses to let him kill the Skitters, he knocks out one of the team, steals a bike, and roars off to torch the invaders. The aliens respond by sending a half dozen children with weapons to attack Mason’s team, putting them in a hell of a dilemma: shoot at children? Or let themselves be killed for a principle? Mason finds a way out – this time – but the Skitters are quick learners and will soon realize that using human children as shields and weapons will cause the resistance far more harm than an army of Mechs. This is a chilling and effective twist, introducing moral brinksmanship of the first order.
“The Skitters have radios in their heads?” – Uncle Scott
The aliens are not the only dirty fighters. While Tom is away scrounging cool rides, Doctors Glass and Harris work on “understanding” their alien prisoner. Annie wants to communicate with it; Harris, an apparent graduate of the Josef Mengele School of Medicine, wants to vivisect it. Annie tries to learn Skittish; Harris uses psychological warfare, displaying a dead Skitter and dissection implements to the prisoner. The alien responds to stress by emitting static, which Uncle Scott (Bruce Gray, Medium) and Matt Mason pick up on their homemade crystal set, scrounged from parts (in the future, all engineers will be named Scott, apparently). Mike decides to interrogate the Skitter with the barrel of a rifle, setting off another burst of static. Further evidence of this property emerges when Ricky, recovering from the removal of his harness, wakes, puts it back on, and comes under the control of the Skitter. Ricky begins speaking – but is he speaking on his own, or for the Skitter? This looked like an homage to Independence Day, in which a scientist (Brent Spiner) was forced to translate for an alien. His message is equally chilling: “Kill me.” Mike tries to pry the harness off his son, and it looks like this time it kills the boy. Score one for the aliens, again. As Tom points out, at least they know something they didn’t know before, although the cost of that knowledge was high. For Mike, perhaps it was too high.
“I said I scored my first bike here. I didn’t say I bought it.” — Pope
Of the dual stories in this episode, by far the weakest was the idea of scrounging motorcycles. Sure, it looks smart on the surface – motorcycles are fast, fuel-efficient, and can go where cars and trucks can’t. But they are also noisy, complicated, and require highly refined fuel. If the scouts for the 2nd Massachusetts need a fast way to get around, they either need to be retro-fitting those bikes with solar-charged batteries, or rounding up horses. That’s right, horses. Horses are fast, fuel-efficient (grass grows everywhere), and can go where cars and trucks can’t. They even replicate and fix themselves with no human intervention, and they are far smarter than any bike and many humans. I refuse to believe none survived the alien apocalypse, and with 200 people in the refugee camp, there has to be at least one horseman. One of the mistakes early colonists in America made – and Tom Mason should know this – was to try to duplicate the culture they left behind too closely. Any colonial situation results in the colonists dropping down a notch, technologically, from the mother culture. People cut off from their mother culture are also cut off from the leading edge of technological development “back home”. In this case, “back home” is “back when”, and the effect is the same: the 2nd Mass is going to have to learn to do more with less. We already see that in this episode, when Uncle Scott puts together a radio using vacuum tubes, not transistors, and uses a hand-crank to power it. It’s time for the surviving humans to start thinking along the same lines, and look at horses and mules for normal transport, saving the expensive internal combustion engines for combat.
“…In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.” — Lourdes
There’s been some objection online to the depiction of faith in Falling Skies, particularly the character of Lourdes (Seychelle Gabriel, The Last Airbender). So far, her only role on this show has been to pray. And her scene at the end not only gives this episode its coda but its title, and a fine upbeat ending – the group literally breaks Pope’s bread and says grace. But I must say that I’m disturbed that hers is the only faith depicted in this post-apocalyptic America. Did no Jews survive this second holocaust? No Muslims escaped at all in Boston? No Methodists or Buddhists? If the show is setting up a faith-versus-atheist dialogue, that’s fine and appropriate to the premise. Indeed, faith played a major role in the settling of America; it’s as legitimate a part of our cultural DNA as Davy Crockett. But I’d hope to see some show go beyond the tired cliché of having all persons of faith represented by Roman Catholics, and all persons of not-faith portrayed as embittered cynics. Since this episode played such obvious homage to Independence Day, I’ll cite one of my favorite scenes from that movie: Judd Hirsch, as Julius Levinson, sits down in a prayer circle and leads people in a non-denominational prayer even though he himself is Jewish. The acknowledgement of faith in a moment of crisis was all we needed; divisive doctrinal issues were not appropriate. It would be nice if the producers of Falling Skies invented a new way to launch an exploration of the role of faith in survival communities.
“Does Dai speak of himself in the third person now?” — Weaver
One other flaw weakened this story: the all-too-common tactic of making smart people do stupid things to advance the plot. Primary example: Dai (Peter Shinkoda, Riverworld) turns his back on Pope, after they arrive at the motorcycle shop. We’ve spent quite a bit of time proving that the 2nd Mass does not trust Pope, and that this distrust is justified. So why would an otherwise smart guy like Dai let Pope get behind him? For the same reason Annie Glass opens a feed door and puts herself within reach of the alien Skitter: so they can take the fall that advances the plot. Secondary example: the Skitter prisoner is held in the same building as women and children, alone, without guards, so that Mike and other tourists can come in and poke at him any time they like. Dumb, dumb, and dumber. This is a tried and true plot device, which is to say hoary, clichéd, and boring. I’d love to see this practice retired.
“You’re not doing him any favors.” — Pope
I know the idea of Tom trying to get his son back is supposed to add emotional dimension to the show. But we’ve seen, for two episodes now, an entire wall of missing children and loved ones. Everyone in the 2nd Mass has lost someone, it seems. For the show to concentrate on Tom and his loss adds a little too much individuation to what is, essentially, a common tragedy. To the writers’ credit, Tom wants to rescue all the harnessed children, but for the most part the writing focuses on his desire to get his son back, possibly at the expense of all those other bright faces on that wall. This is not a hero. It’s a form of selfishness we can totally sympathize with, but it’s still a sentimental quagmire. Tom tells Hal that “Matt deserves a childhood” as he sends him back to school. Really? Does Tom, the one guy who should know better, really think that the world will return to what it was, ever? Even if the aliens are destroyed, no one would know better than a history professor that a post-war culture is unalterably changed by the war itself. There is never a “return to normalcy”, so the childhood Tom has in mind for Matt is as irrelevant to Matt’s future as video gaming skills. Tom should know that children in earlier, frontier eras, grew up very fast – they handled guns as children, learned to evade and survive, and while they studied history and math they also worked alongside adults. To have Tom wrapping his son in an emotional cocoon is sloppy writing.
“First the bikes. Then the drugs. Then your son.” – Weaver
On the other hand, Will Patton’s Weaver is unsentimental, clear-eyed, focused, rational. I like Tom, but if the Skitters set down in my back yard today, I’d be putting my faith in sad-eyed Captain Weaver. He’s the man with the plan, the one who knows what has to be done for the good of everyone, not the good of a few. As Spock would put it, he values the needs of the many over the needs of the few, as any good commander should. I’ll watch his back any day, ’cause he’d be watching mine. From a larger standpoint, I’m expecting a few new characters and a few character deaths before the end of this season. The show seems to have gone with the poll-driven idea of stocking the show with many characters, watching the fan reaction, and then killing off the ones viewers don’t respond to. If I’m right, I expect to see more of Pope and less of Lourdes as the show continues.