Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles: “Automatic for the People”

Sweet Seduction

Copyright © 2008 by Sarah Stegall

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles
Mondays on Fox, 9 PM
“Automatic for the People”

Written by Natalie Chaidez
Directed by Jeffrey Hunt

Sarah: Do I just wait? Like a time bomb? Am I going to go off someday?
Cameron: I don’t know. Am I?

I wanted more emotion last week; I got it in spades tonight. The second episode of the second season of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles shows us John, Sarah and Cameron flirting with assorted secondary characters, or giving in to fears of cancer, or suddenly growing suspicious of people who last week they were entrusting with their lives. There’s even a hint of jealousy in Cameron’s “threat assessment” of John’s new girlfriend.  Are we in a soap opera or an action drama? Well, it worked on both levels, so I can’t complain.

Tonight’s message from the future arrives in classic Terminator fashion: a naked man arrives in a ball of lightning. Gasping his last breath in Sarah Connor’s arms, he warns her to “Stop Greenway” and coughs out the name of a nuclear facility that, in the future, will someday be used by John Connor’s army to fight SkyNet. Assessing the possibilities, Derek, Sarah and Cameron conclude that if they stop the nuke from going online, it will not be available to Future!John–SkyNet wins. On the other hand, if they don’t stop Greenway, apparently something bad will happen in the future–SkyNet wins. What to do, what to do?

Not that Present!John cares much. Since cutting his hair last episode, John appears to be moving from his Mo phase to a basic Sullen Rebel phase, a dangerous conceit for a kid with a price on his head. When his mother insists on him returning to school after the “accident” in last week’s episode, John finds himself even more isolated and alienated than most teenagers, surrounded by people with friends, other kids with lives and relationships he can’t risk. Moody and withdrawn, he starts skipping class, and finds a like minded soul in a blonde named Riley (Leven Rambin, All My Children). Although she appears as guileless as a puppy, she shows some interesting behavior for a teenager. She not only befriends a total stranger, she accompanies him to his home and sleeps on his floor overnight. Even if she isn’t a Terminator (my first assumption), she shows remarkably poor judgment–is this the kind of person John wants to trust?

But everyone seems to be thinking with their hormones in this episode. Sarah Connor, rather than questioning Riley’s judgment (not to mention asking about the possibility of irate fathers showing up at her door at 2 AM), mopes over the possibility (gasp) that she and John are having sex in his room. She and Cameron gain information about the nuclear facility by flirting with assorted employees of the nuke in a bar. Inside the plant, Sarah finds herself paralyzed by fear of cancer, to the extent that she can’t enter a room full of nuclear waste even in full hazmat gear. In the climactic fight, she forces herself to run through the room unprotected, and even after Cameron checks her with a Geiger counter and declares her clean, she’s worried about developing cancer in the future. She asks Cameron, in the conversation quoted above, to foretell the future. In this case, having bypassed the “future” that Cambot “knew”, of course Cameron cannot help her. These characters are altering the future with every step, so much so that I worry at every turn that Derek may simply vanish, having written himself out of John Connor’s future somehow. Ah, time travel, so many lovely paradoxes.

This episode kept up the high action level of the season so far, with some good Terminator-on-Terminator action. Having discovered that the Carl Greenway that Sarah chatted up in the bar is dead and has been replaced by a Terminator, Cameron takes on in a pipe-room smackdown worthy of the big screen. Tanks are smashed, steam hisses, bullets fly, and eventually the Greenway ‘bot winds up stuffed in a can of hazardous waste. I had to wonder if that wouldn’t merely turn him into a walking fission bomb at some point in the future. Hazardous waste has a habit of turning up in places where it isn’t supposed to be, and we know by now that it takes more than a few whaps upside the head to permanently take out a Terminator.

Subplots include the reappearance of Charley Dixon (Dean Winters) and his wife Michelle (Sonya Walger, Lost) who are taking Agent Ellison’s advice to get out of Dodge. CEO-bot Catherine Weaver (Shirley Manson, Garbage) puts in a brief but important cameo, as she morphs from a nuclear regulatory spokesman into her businesswoman persona. As the only Terminator (so far) who manages to actually pass for human (rather than the blank-faced zombie that Cromartie and Cameron evince), I find her character to be one of the more intriguing new facets of this second season.

Character development includes a tiny bit of progress in Cameron’s quest to become a real live girl–she says “I think” a lot and ignores Sarah Connor as effectively as any real teenager. And then there’s that aforementioned in-your-face “threat assessment”, as well as her apparent curiosity about the landlady’s pregnancy. Step by dragging step, Cambot may be evolving into, if not a human, at least a T-1000. One thing I’m enjoying about Cambot is her cryptic replies; she tells John he can’t be trusted, which frankly shows a lot of intelligence on her part. Right now, he certainly can’t be trusted not to bring a host of Terminators down on their heads.

John is bordering on failure as a character. I hope the idea is that this season is about John growing into his future role as warrior, leader and Terminator re-programmer. Because otherwise I don’t know how much of Emo!John I can put up with. Sullen and rebellious is a mood best left to those innocents who don’t know that SkyNet is gearing up for Armageddon. John can’t afford a normal adolescence. John can’t afford to open up to strangers, let alone acquire a girlfriend. John can’t afford to bring total strangers home, compromising the security Derek and Sarah are busting their behinds to achieve. even if Riley is as innocent as she looks, it’s extremely irresponsible of John to expose her to the kind of danger he lives in. John can handle a gun and shoot back at Cromartie; what would happen to Riley in a dangerous situation? (Assuming, of course, that she isn’t actually a Terminator herself, something I’ll not take bets on.) I’d really like to see Derek start acting like the uncle/father figure he is, and laying down some law to this kid. He’s the only human in this picture who has seen and lived the future, and he needs to help John grow past this stage as soon as possible.

The end of season one looked like Derek and Sarah were starting to gather an army for John. John had some friends (Morris, etc), there was the Latina Girl, Charley and Agent Ellison looked like they might be early recruits. The pace seems to have slowed considerably, however, and it looks like some of the rules of the game are being rewritten. For example, whereas it used to be a rarity for people to be sent back from the future, now it seems to be an almost casual experience. Catherine Weaver, the faux Greenway, and possibly Riley have all arrived quite recently, by all appearances. Naked Man with Message (was that Zack Ward?) got sent back in time just to deliver two sentences. If it’s really gotten to be that routine in the future, why can’t Future!John just send back his whole army and take out the nascent Sky Net before things get out of hand?

Overall, this was a solid episode with more to like than I would have predicted from last week. We got some real (if incremental) character development, a new character, a new house. We got to see Sarah scared of something out of her control, and John struggling with growing pains he can’t indulge in. The menace of the Terminators in the shadows grows, and the development of SkyNet takes another step forward as six nuclear power plants get put under robot, er, computer control. I look forward to more stories, fleshing out these new storylines.

Ratings dropped a little for this second episode. Last week’s season premier pulled in 6.34 million viewers, placing it second for the night. But “Automatic for the People” didn’t pull in as many people; Monday night racked up only 5.49 million viewers. For a show which is spending money on fight scenes, explosions and car chases to this extent, those are not great numbers. I’m hoping for a little word of mouth, a little rebound next week.