Close Encounters of the TV Kind
TNT, Sundays, 9 PM
Written by Joe Weisberg
Directed by Holly Dale
Written by Mark Verheiden
Directed by Greg Beeman
“So we’re in this alone?” — Maggie
Following on from last week’s episode, Tom’s suspicions of Weaver’s fitness for command dominate the final two hours of this initial season of Falling Skies. Weaver’s clandestine drug use, his paranoia, and his abrupt manner convince Tom that not only is Weaver unfit to lead the 2nd Mass in the most important fight of its short career, but that if Weaver continues as he is, there will be no “civilian” authority left in human society. Tom, the history professor, is more awake than anyone else to the inherent danger of a military authority even in time of war. In fact, it is wartime that gives the most opportunity for a military commander, no matter how decent his motives, to usurp the powers and liberties of the people he is defending. In this case, Weaver’s zeal for the mission to attack the Skitter base is so overpowering, he bids fair to sacrifice the entire remnant of Boston in a final blow. So committed is Weaver that he conceals from the rest of the group the devastating news that not only have the 4th and 5th Massachusetts regiments been wiped out, but that Colonel Porter himself has ordered that the attack be aborted. As Maggie says when this is discovered, the 2nd Massachusetts now stands alone.
“Even at half-mast I trust the captain a helluva lot more than I trust you.” — Lt. Danner
In order to highlight the military vs. civilian tension inherent in this situation, the writers bring in a redshirt named Lt. Danner (Diego Klattenhoff, Mercy), who is the total military drone. Even when told that Weaver is acting against orders, he blindly follows the captain’s every command. When Tom challenges Weaver, Weaver has him arrested, disarmed, and confined under guard. Danner has no problem following these orders, but young Jimmy does. When Jimmy learns about Porter’s real order, he and Hal break Tom out of confinement. A few minutes later, Tom is holding a gun to Weaver’s head and disarming him. Weaver sees the error of his ways, convenes the survivors, explains the situation and asks for volunteers. Everyone reconciles and focuses on the mission. This is pretty standard “drama” for television, but it left me very uneasy. I know that TV is not a documentary, and that this sort of betrayal, reversal, and rapprochement is Screenwriting 101. But it doesn’t play for me. To hold a gun to a man’s head is to threaten to kill him. It’s hard to believe that, after someone has threatened your life, within a very short time you are trusting him with it. This is the kind of writing favored by people who don’t really respect guns, or who have forgotten how deadly serious such a moment would be. Worse, it weakens a character in the eyes of the audience. Captain Weaver has always been a strong, forceful character, one of the strongest supports of this show. I hate to see him undermined like this in the final hours.
“Each of us has to make his own decision.” — Weaver
The biggest problem with this finale was the pacing. Most of the first hour consisted of tense dialogue with almost no action. Nearly every motivating moment happened offscreen: the attack on Porter’s HQ, the attack on Dai’s scouts, Ricky’s conversation with Megan/Skitter. It’s fine to have all this dialogue and strong characterization, but this is a war story. We need more war action. We need more guns being pointed at the enemy and fewer at one another. When we did finally get some shooting action, the humans acted like idiots. Tom, left behind to cover the retreat of the women and children from the compromised school, issues the last 30 rounds of Mech-based ammunition to his troops. They expend most of it taking down a single Mech. Does it not occur to any of these seasoned warriors that Mechs usually attack in groups, that a few well-placed shots of that precious ammo would do more good than a wasteful fusillade directed at a single machine? All the heroism and speeches in the world are useless if you are stupid enough to waste all your ammunition on a single target, knowing more are on the way. Of course, this is really a setup to a “rescue” by Tom’s son, but it’s so obvious and stupid it blows its own cover way before the main action comes onscreen. It is, once again, a case of smart characters behaving stupidly for the sake of the plot.
“I want the harness back, Ben.” – Ricky
We finally get an answer to a question that’s been bugging me for a couple of episodes now: why the heck hasn’t Ben told anyone that Ricky is a Skitter sympathizer? It is hard to believe anyone who has survived the invasion, harnessment, and the fights of the last few weeks is so naïve as to believe Ricky will just “get over it” on his own. Ben, however, is afraid of the changes he can feel in himself, changes the adults are too busy denying to address. To acknowledge that Ricky is still harnessed psychologically, if not physically, is to acknowledge some vestige of Skitter in himself, and Ben rejects that utterly. While I appreciate the cleverness of the harness as an analogue for slavery, and the peculiar version of Stockholm syndrome that ex-slaves sometimes show after freedom, I could have wished that it were not hammered home so relentlessly. Still trying to prove (perhaps to himself) that he is as human as the rest, Ben volunteers to help Uncle Scott with his radio. They discover that Ben can hear the Skitter broadcast frequency, which means Uncle Scotty can rig up a jammer. Despite the fact that this more or less proves that Ben is continuing a slow change from human to Other, Tom fights to preserve the illusion that his son is normal and harmless. In doing so, everyone overlooks the danger from Ricky. Now fully committed to aiding the Skitters, Ricky ambushes Uncle Scott, steals a vital component of the radio, and runs away with it. Why doesn’t he smash it, which would be most logical? Because the plot will require it later. There’s really no other reason.
“I’m not one of them. I’m not one of you.” — Ricky
Tom, in what must be the most supremely stupid moment of the series, brings Ricky the traitor back into the community. Now that the 2nd Mass knows the Skitters communicate by radio, now that they know Ricky (and Ben) are turning into Skitters, now that they know Ricky has told the Skitters the details of the plan (because these fighters discuss every single detail of every plan in full hearing of anyone), Tom brings this highly dangerous and untrustworthy individual back to the group. Why? I ask you, why? The answer: sentiment. I love and admire Steven Spielberg and his movies, but if he has one crippling flaw, it’s his obsessive need to give every kid a happy ending. He may not be writing this show, but Spielberg’s influence is there. Ricky, contrary to the needs of war, the community, or plain common sense, is brought back into the fold so that he can redeem himself, despite the unlikelihood of that move. Sentimental endings like this seriously undercut any vestige of plausibility, especially in an audience with even our tenuous connection to real war, real necessities of war, and real betrayal. We know how dangerous infiltrators can be, yet we are supposed to believe the 2nd Mass would not be alert to the dangers Ricky poses?
“If we can jam up their frequencies, we can throw off their communications.” – Uncle Scott
The most interesting facet of this two-hour finale was the use of Ben as a human radio. Having discovered a way to jam the communications of the Skitters, Uncle Scott pleads with Tom to let Ben stay behind when the other children are evacuated to safety. As the Skitters switch frequencies, he can use Ben to find the new one. When the antenna Scott is using to jam the frequency proves inadequate, Ben risks his life to rig up a new one on the school’s flagpole (yes, I note the iconic irony). I enjoyed the way this development so easily integrated into the overall storyline, with the adults accepting Ben’s ability without somehow noticing that it meant that they have a proto-Skitter in their midst. The capacity for willful blindness in this group astounds me. First they don’t notice that their commander is wigged out on uppers, then they refuse to see that two of their former harness kids are not “back to normal”. But I can accept, for the sake of future plot developments, Ben’s weird affinity with the aliens. Or what we thought were aliens. I think it’s pretty obvious by now that the “Skitters” are actually humans who have been morphed into aliens.
“A small disciplined militia can not only hold off a larger military force, but can push them back.” — Tom
Which is a pretty good strategy, when you think about it. The real aliens, as we saw a few weeks ago, are apparently not six-legged spider-types. They are tall humanoids with chrome skin. Their plan for planetary conquest seems to be to enslave the dominant species and get it to harvest the resources of its own planet, using their own technology. Which makes sense – why transport machines and workers and so forth across light years when you can just use the local workforce, which is accustomed to its own tools? And that’s what humans do best – build tools. It’s no wonder that the Skitters are now building a large object, and that the humans are fixated on destroying it. Aside from its role in world domination, the Skitter construct is an affront to the integrity of the entire species, a perversion of everything that gave us world dominance: our tool-building, and our use of language. So it’s appropriate that the 2nd Mass attacks those two symbols of the invaders’ assault while jamming their communications. Best of all, this strategy disposes with the most obvious question: why aren’t these aliens using superior technology? Answer: they don’t have any. Their “technology” consists of exploiting the local species/technology. Just because these aliens can cross space does not necessarily make them technologically superior. And even if they were, as Tom points out, it takes more that superior technology to win a guerilla war.
“You give people hope, and then you can lead the next fight. And the next.” – Weaver
I should not have been surprised by the ending to this season. Having based the entire series on War of the Worlds, it is logical for the end to echo Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Tom and Weaver, apparently the only fighters left of the 2nd Mass, are left alone with a single rocket launcher at the base of the Skitter construct. In a gesture of defiance, Tom launches the rocket at a returning flyer. The flyer crashes into the construct, igniting a conflagration that, if it does not bring the construct down, at the very least severely cripples it. Watching that flyer slam into the building, I realized the genesis for this entire finale: September 11. We have all seen how a single flying machine can take down a huge building, one of the largest in the world, so while it may have started as a futile parting shot from Tom, it resonates with the audience a great deal more loudly than it would have twelve years ago. We have all seen how a small band of fiercely disciplined guerillas can wound a gigantic enemy whose military force is far superior. And we have all seen how that one “victory” can inspire the remaining guerillas for years afterwards, no matter how desperate their cause. It’s an odd lesson to take from Falling Skies, but it’s a powerful one. And rather than hammer it home, the writers let it sit there and gestate in the back of our minds, as Tom and Weaver confront an alien spaceship. In a scene right out of the final sequence of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Tom enters the spaceship with the tall humanoid alien for a chat. He thinks he’s going to save Ben from becoming a Skitter; I think he’s going to be betrayed. There’s no proof these aliens have any notion of honor, let alone the idea of keeping a promise. But that’s for next year.
“The Mechs are running away from us!” — Jimmy
Falling Skies ended its first season with 5.6 million viewers, which according to TNT is the most-watched episode since the series premiere. Whether that means viewers were desperate for some answers or eagerly anticipating a cliffhanger is a question I can’t answer. In terms of ratings, Falling Skies may be this year’s highest ranked new cable show; I’m not so sure it’s the best. It is, however, top notch in production values, casting (particularly Will Patton) and gloss. For the sake of that alien, for the sake of Tom and Pope, and for the sake of alien-invasion stories in general, I’ll be back next summer. I’m just hoping that by then, the alien invasion will be taking center stage, and the soap opera moves to the background where it belongs.