Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles: “The Mousetrap”

Hard Lessons

Copyright © 2008 by Sarah Stegall

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles
Mondays on Fox, 9 PM
“The Mousetrap”
Written by John Wirth
Directed by Bill Eagles

“They never let you have a good day, do they?” —Derek Reese

Now this is a kick-ass Terminator episode. For the first time this season, we get to see more than a glimspe of John and Sarah Connor’s nemesis, the Terminator formerly known as Cromartie (Garret Dillahunt, No Country for Old Men). Finally we get to see more of him than a blank face and a dragging step; he actually behaves like a thinking machine. Tragedy and comedy are well balanced in an episode that I’m personally putting at the top of this year’s (short) list.

Charley Dixon, acting on Sarah’s advice, is on his way out of town with his wife Michelle. Unfortunately, Cromartie has somehow gotten wind of this, and in a bold move, kidnaps her right out from under Charley. That opening scene is crucial, as it illustrates a key point in Charley’s character, one which will probably be echoed in others: Charley Just Doesn’t Get It. Like so many characters who seem to understand the apocalyptic visions of Sarah Connor and Derek Reese, he betrays his fundamental disbelief over and over again, disregarding her very clear and specific orders. In the opening scene, he’s on his way out of town, but he makes the fatal mistake of turning his back on his wife. He’s unarmed, she’s unarmed, both of them are distracted by a Coke machine or their ongoing silent fight. For whatever reason, they’re not prepared for the tunnel vision, unrelenting mission-focus of a Terminator, so Cromartie has no trouble simply walking up to Charley’s truck and driving it away, with Michelle inside.

From this momentary distraction, all kinds of pain ensue. Charley calls John, against Sarah’s orders. He talks to Sarah, who has told him not to call her. He asks for her help, but then insists on calling the shots himself. He argues with the better-armed, more-experienced team of Sarah and Derek (acting as a superbly efficient team here), and his well-meant naïveté gets his wife killed. It’s a chain reaction of heartbreaking inevitability, as he learns a hard lesson: when you’re in a war zone, listen to the soldiers. Don’t try to think for yourself.

I complained last week that John Connor was on the verge of failure as a character, and hoped it was merely a stumble on the road to more maturity. Was this a redemptive episode? No, and yes. No, because once again he shows immaturity and irresponsibility by ditching school, ditching Cameron, and ditching his mom in order to go hang out with his girlfriend. This not only endangers himself, his future, and the future of mankind; it puts Riley (Leven Rambin) in danger from Cromartie. In the end, he’s as much to blame as Cromartie for Michelle’s death. If Sarah had not been so desperate to rescue her son from the situation he’d gotten himself into, she might have driven Michelle straight to the hospital. As it is, John is forced to confront his grieving father figure, Charley, and his own culpability. He, too, learns a hard lesson: self-indulgence can get your friends killed.

If I had any complaint in this episode, it would be that there were too many stories to follow: John and Riley, Agent Ellison and Catherine Weaver, Michelle and Cromartie, and Sarah/Derek/Charley. Kudos to director Bill Eagle for helping us keep it all straight. Kudos also for some great location shooting—the desert gas station where Cromartie kidnaps Michelle, as well as the warehouse where he lays the “mousetrap” to get Sarah and Derek out of the way were stark, sere, squintingly bright with merciless sunlight.

My vote for best character development in this episode, however, has to go to Cromartie. Having killed actor George Lazlo for his face and identity, he now finds himself famous as part of the direct-to-DVD oeuvre of that actor. “Cromartie the Barbarian”, complete with bad dialogue and cheesy costumes, was worth a giggle every time it popped up on TV. It also pointed up how cheerless Cromartie himself (itself) is; while baiting a trap for Sarah and Derek with Michelle Dixon, he discusses mousetrap trivia. He is one step ahead of Sarah and Derek for most of the episode, and is foiled at the last moment only by John Connor’s unexpected discovery: Terminators cannot swim.

What? Well, of course they can’t. Why didn’t we think of this before? A solid hunk of tin like these Terminators is bound to sink. But if Terminators can’t swim, why has this not been used by Future!John to lure a Terminator army into a deep well? It’s not a deus ex machina by the usual definitions, but it sure feels like one. Now I have to wonder if Cambot is going to rust if she’s left out in the rain. Goodness knows she doesn’t know enough to come in out of it.

Better storytelling and better pacing did not help pull in any more viewers this week. Terminator clocked in at 5.8 million viewers, putting Fox in fourth place for the night. This made Terminator the lowest rated show among major broadcasters. Maybe it was due to the two-hour season premiere of Heroes over on NBC, and next week will show an uptick. I hope this is the case, since this series is starting to really improve in quality from week to week.