Falling Skies: “Prisoner of War”

Falling Skies

TNT, Sundays, 9 PM

“Prisoner of War”

Written by Fred Golan

Directed by Greg Beeman

“No matter how each of us survived, maybe we owe it to those who didn’t to become the best of mankind.” – Tom Mason

The third episode of the new Spielberg series, Falling Skies, is a textbook example of good story pacing. While some miniseries, like Game of Thrones, take forever to introduce us to context and character, the snappy pace of Falling Skies has been outstanding from the first few minutes. In this, the third installment, the stakes on both sides ratchet up, we learn a little more about both sides of this conflict, and we still end with a whetted appetite for more. Even with all this action, however, we have time for a quiet moment of philosophy, a moment that might seem self-indulgent in another character but is entirely believable in a man who, until recently, was a tenured professor of history. It’s a good balance of character and action.

“I want you to start collecting war material.” – General Porter

Tom Mason, having learned that his son Ben is being held as a prisoner of war nearby, scouts out the situation with his squad. Ben wears one of the “harnesses” imposed on child prisoners by the Skitter aliens, a biological attachment to the spine that puts its victims in a zombie state. While Mason and his crew debate how to extract Ben, his commanding General Porter (Dale Dye, First Platoon) has news: a doctor, Michael Harris (Steven Weber, Happy Town) seems to have finally discovered a way to extract the harness without killing the patient. He directs Mason to extract Ben – and only Ben – from the zombie/slave/prisoner camp. Two things go wrong: the doctor turns out to be a man Tom blames for his wife’s death, and one of his squad members abandons the mission to save his own son, rather than Ben. Tom is knocked out, and Tom’s eldest son Hal and his partner Karen are left behind in Skitter territory. And that’s just the first ten minutes.

“I’ve brought you a prisoner of war.”  — Tom Mason

On his way back to headquarters, Tom fights off a Skitter singlehandedly, using the information Pope gave him: go for the knees. Like Will Smith in Independence Day, Tom drags his prisoner back to headquarters, still alive. Porter orders it locked up for later study as Tom returns for Hal. Hal, waking just in time to see Karen (Jessy Schram, The Mentalist) dragged away by his own brother, who does not recognize him. Then a Skitter forces him to watch as a Mech executes half a dozen children, proving that, as Tom notes, the aliens are at least as familiar with Gestapo tactics as we once were. The message is clear: take one of our prisoners, we kill half a dozen. Hal is released to carry this message, and is agonized to deliver it. He wonders if they should abandon the idea of rescuing Ben, but Tom says no. “We come back, we take ’em all.” I like his attitude.

“Tom handled this one with a sawed-off shotgun and a flashlight.” — Weaver

As I said, it’s more than just an action story; we get real insight into our major characters, and not in a cheesy way. Tom is already clearly guilt-ridden enough over leaving Hal behind in enemy territory (albeit inadvertently). Adding to this, we get a couple of conversations between him and Harris, who was with Tom’s wife the day she was killed. Harris is a pessimist and a cynic, half-convinced that mankind is doomed. Ashamed of his own cowardice, he convicts all survivors of his own failings, scorning them as fools. Tom blames him for abandoning Rebecca, but Harris reminds him that she took Tom’s place on the scavenging raid that fateful day, out of love for him. Even when Harris tries to rationalize abandoning her, it’s clear he’s trying to convince himself as much as Tom. This puts the guilt right back on Tom, who first reacts with anger, then with philosophy, the eminently civilized man. Of the two, Harris is more heavily burdened: Tom may carry guilt, but Harris carries guilt and cowardice. It’s a brief scene, but a vital one, and showed both actors to perfection. Wylie is retiring the honors as a humble and intelligent man forced into roles he never envisioned, burdened with responsibilities he shoulders as well as he can, who is bending but not breaking under their weight.

“For the love of God, somebody find me some olive oil.” – Pope

Last week he was a thug with tattoos and a gun. This week John Pope (Colin Cunningham, Flashpoint) turns into a cook with tattoos and an attitude. When forced to eat the food offered to the entire refugee army, he revolts, describing in loving detail exactly how to cook edible chicken with pasta. Weaver interviews him and we discover he learned to cook in prison where, as he puts it, “They don’t like what I cook, I lose body parts.” An even better incentive for cooking well than a spot on Top Chef. Soon we are seeing refugees tasting his stew and approving it; I would have thought they’d make Pope eat his own cooking before anyone else tasted it, but then I’m paranoid. At any rate, the refugees’ lives will be a little more livable, and our experience of this show a lot more enjoyable, with the continuing presence of this lively, untrustworthy, foul-mouthed artiste in the mix.

“They look like mechs but they behave more like living organisms.” – Harris

Meanwhile, Harris removes the harness from Ricky’s back, but has to keep him under a constant morphine drip to keep him from dying of shock. He and Dr. Glass discuss the biologics involved – what appear to be needles are more like tree roots growing into the spine, releasing chemicals that keep the kids sedated and pliant. Removing the harness is like making a morphine addict go cold turkey in a matter of hours – tough for a full grown adult to survive, let alone a child. So Harris only cuts the needles attaching the harness, which leaves part of the device in the victim. And when the alien Tom brought back finally regains consciousness – so does Ricky. Spooky! Unlike Bran Stark and his psychic connection in Game of Thrones, we stand a good chance of actually finding out what the connection between Ricky and the alien is before the series ends.

“We’re not conquered until we give up.” — Tom

Falling Skies fell off 25% from its initial two episodes, which ran back-to-back as the pilot last week. The final numbers run something around 4.2 million viewers for a 1.5 rating. While a fall-off is pretty much expected from a premiere, this is disheartening. I fear that too many viewers have lost faith in sci-fi TV, when both V and The Event were cancelled with no resolution, when even Jericho could not make its numbers when it came back after massive fan activity. I’m hoping the main reason those shows failed is that they made mistakes Falling Skies is not: there are no cliched “traitors”, no clumsy dialogue, and we actually get to see the bad guys. I’m not sure what it takes to keep good sci-fi on the air these days, but so far Falling Skies has it all: good writing, seamless CGI, excellent casting. I hope it sticks around.