Like Mother, Like Son
By Sarah Stegall
Copyright © 2008 by Sarah Stegall
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles
Mondays on Fox, 9 PM
Written by John Enbom
Directed by Sergio Mimica-Gezzan
A series based on a cheesy movie franchise really has no right to be this good. Terminator gets better every week, and if at times it presents us with standard action sequences or relies on well-worn tropes of character and story arc, that only means it has hit the standards set by some of the best television there is. The series debuted with a couple of slam-bang episodes and hasn’t slowed down much since then. Even when, as last week, we don’t get lots and lots of explosions, we get believable, tense human drama. In a genre that all too often focuses on the gee-whiz technology at the expense of character, this is refreshing.
“Heavy Metal” is about parenting. It’s about the anxiety that attends the phase of child-rearing that kicks in when the child starts showing the true sign of adulthood—risk taking. It’s always hard to know when to let go, when to let the fledgling fly, and that moment differs from child to child. Sarah Connor has enough to worry about—you know, end of the world and all that—but now she has to worry that John is taking too many risks. The trouble with the kind of risky behavior John Connor shows in “Heavy Metal” is that you really can’t know whether he’s being brave and smart, or bullheaded and stupid, until the story plays out. This is as true in television as it is in real life—only the end can tell us if the middle worked.
The long-term background of this story is the self-resurrection of Cromartie (Chrome Arty?), the assassin Terminator we saw in the Pilot. Cromartie was mostly destroyed in that episode, but if we’ve learned anything at all from 24 years of Terminator movies, it’s that they’ll be back. He’s been methodically working his way back from being a mere chrome-domed skull to full Terminator status, assembling a body and growing new skin. Now he needs a real face, and he breaks into a plastic surgeon’s office to get one. The one he picks belongs to an out-of-work actor named Lazlo, played by the rarely-out-of-work Garrett Dillahunt (Life, Damages). Meanwhile, Cameron the Good Terminator, who reminds us that she never sleeps, has reviewed enough amateur footage of their leap through time to recognize that at least part of Cromartie came through with them. He’s baaaaack.
Sarah’s first instinct is to flee. She’s spent the last 14 years making the decisions, having to make the hard choices, fighting for her son’s life against impossible odds. So naturally, she starts issuing orders and expects to be obeyed. She doesn’t quite know what to do, then, when John proposes another plan, one that will thwart Cromartie’s efforts to rebuild himself as well as find out why a mysterious shipment of Terminator-metal has been diverted to Southern California. For the rest of the episode, Sarah Connor has two fights on her hands—against Skynet, and against her own reflexive protectiveness for John. She practically convulses with anxiety when they find a warehouse with a heretofore unknown Terminator named Carter (Brian Bloom, Without a Trace) running a military smuggling operation. John’s increasing resentment about being constantly held back by his mother finally bubbles over, and he impulsively climbs into a truck full of metal alloy to plant a bug. Naturally, he’s trapped when the truck ships out, and Sarah’s worst fear is realized: “I’ve lost John.”
Strangely, she shares this moment of loss with none other than Cameron. “You’ve lost your reason to live,” Cameron says. Cameron may be pretty much a fish out of water when it comes to the human world, but a failed mission falls within her understanding. It’s a Pinocchio moment I really enjoyed. It’s also a team-building moment; Sarah and Cameron team up to find where the truck is going. To do this, they have to get information out of a worker bee left behind. Sarah ties him up and threatens him, but when he calls her bluff she sets him free. “You can go,” she tells him, then nods at Cameron. “If you can get past her.” Cut to the worker bee, all arrogance drained from his pale, sweating face, driving a truck under Cameron’s supervision. We don’t know what Cameron did to reduce this swaggering bully to a quivering dog, but we can imagine it was both swift and painful. Kudos to the writers for not wasting time with a torture scene, when we can see the aftermath and still understand what went on.
John Connor, meanwhile, is holding his own pretty well. I was genuinely tense during several scenes of him in the truck—would the guard find him? Would his Blackberry give him away? Would Carter find him? In the end, he survives through wit, skill, good timing, and good luck, as the truck delivers its cargo to a fallout shelter. Even when a Bad Guy catches John, he’s persuasive enough to convince the other man to suspect Carter. What started out looking like a reckless piece of teenage defiance proves out, in the end, to be an act of foresight and courage. John’s a little more of a man than he was at the beginning of the episode, something that his mother can appreciate and even be proud of, even if he can’t drive a manual transmission yet.
I find the B-story in this arc to be increasingly interesting. It’s not just that Chrome Arty has a new face in Garrett Dillahunt. It’s that Cameron, who holds back one bar of the Transformer metal when she destroys the shipment, doesn’t tell anyone about it. Terminators aren’t usually the type to keep secrets; it takes a human to tell a lie. The very fact that she now has a secret stash of Terminator metal lets us wonder if Cameron has more than one agenda—make that program—working. Is she, too, operating in Parent mode? Is she planning to make a little Terminator of her own? Or is she just ensuring that there will be enough Terminator metal around after Judgment Day for her own skeleton to be created? As always, time-travel stories leave me asking more questions than I get answers for.
The directing was tight, well-paced, and efficient, exactly what I would expect from three-time DGA Award winner Mimica-Gezzan. A director who worked on Saving Private Ryan and War and Remembrance has all the chops necessary for the relatively mild action sequences called for here. CGI effects were mostly good, although one sequence with the new Cromartie holding his human model up in front of a mirror in order to mimic his scream didn’t quite jell. It was funny and creepy, and yet technically just a little off. Cameron’s fight with Carter was wonderful—in the dark, almost completely silent, the two machines focused like the robots they are.
And I have to say how grateful I am that we finally got someone mentioning golems, if only to be done with that cliché so we can move on.
This latest installment of the series nicely widens our field of view, introducing the idea that Skynet is already secretly at work stockpiling what it will need post-war, the idea of artificial blood being a signature of the Terminators, and the growing maturity of John Connor. Emo hair notwithstanding, he bids fair to grow into the hero he’s meant to be, if he can just get past this whiny stage. As I said, if all we had was a standard action plot every week with lots of car chases and explosions and Terminator fights, it would still be a fun show to watch. But adding in the dark, brooding angst of Lena Headey’s Sarah Connor, the prickly relationship between Sarah and Cameron, and the tension inherent in any parent-teen dynamic during these turbulent years, gives us more depth than I usually expect in genre television. It’s the kind of thing that keeps me coming back next week.