By Sarah Stegall
Copyright © 2008 by Sarah Stegall
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles
Mondays on Fox, 9 PM
Written by John Wirth
Directed by Paul Edwards
I was wrong. This series is shaping up to be as much about Sarah Connor as about the new Terminator. It takes a strong actress to hold the screen against a Terminator, but Lena Headey is hitting every one of her scenes out of the park in this episode. The first few episodes after a pilot are often weak and uncertain, but this episode came on as strong as the pilot. Tight writing, a dash of humor, and a brisk pace allowed this episode to avoid the usual sag. And astonishingly enough, a series based on mindless violence and regularly scheduled explosions actually delivers a morality play, with an interesting mirror effect.
Too bad we have to start with yet another dream sequence. Please, please let this be the last one. Terminator has now used up its annual quota of cheesy writer tricks. Sarah dreams that she has the opportunity to stop the development of the atomic bomb by killing its developers—an old ethical question. Even assuming that stopping the development of the bomb that ended the slaughter of World War II would be a good thing, the very question of sacrificing one (or a few) to save many is a world-class moral question that plays out throughout the rest of the episode. Better yet, Sarah’s not the only one facing it. John gets to grow up a little, or at least confront some really grown-up questions.
Three story lines intertwine in this tightly written episode. Sarah Connor is looking for anyone connected with Skynet, or who might someday be connected with Skynet. A visit to the cynical widow of Miles Dyson brings a young former intern of Dyson’s to her attention. Andy Goode (Brendan Hines, Without a Trace) leads a double life—cell phone salesman by day, computer architect by night. Sarah sets up a date (with a guy who looks to be half her age, but what the heck, time travel is involved) and learns that Andy has built a proto-artificial intelligence called “The Turk” from spare parts left over from a few Xboxes. Hence her dilemma: should she kill Andy to prevent him from developing the AI that will someday destroy the world?
John Connor and his sidekick/bodyguard Cameron the Terminator Chick are preparing for their first day at a new high school. As they wait to walk through a metal detector, they spot an odd trompe l’oeil painting on the wall of the school. How does Cameron even know what that means? “I don’t sleep,” she explains, deadpan. Hooray! Let the one-liners roll. The writers are starting to slip in the little bons mots which have added so many catch phrases to pop culture. “I don’t sleep” is not yet on a par with “I’ll be back,” but it’s a start. Of course, Cameron can’t pass through a metal detector any more than a tank could, so John lies for her and explains that she has a plate in her head. Cameron blinks through this but at least does not contradict John Connor; her first lesson in passing for human is how to lie through silence. Cameron quickly finds herself playing confessor to an hysterical teenager named Jordan (Alessandra Toreson,Bones) who takes the trompe l’oeil paintings showing up in the hallways very seriously indeed. As Cameron tries to explain herself to John, the whole school rushes out to the parking lot to watch a distraught Jordan throw herself from the roof. John tries to save her, but Cameron prevents him with an iron grip, and his mother later counsels him that he cannot risk his mission for the sake of one girl.
Oh, really? John rightly calls his mother on this, reminding her that he’s supposed to be a hero, and how can he be a hero if he turns himself into a soulless automaton for the sake of a “mission”? And we’re left wondering if the ends ever do justify the means. It looks like a ridiculously simple question—if you could stop a great evil by committing a lesser one, would it be right? But that question assumes that evil has gradations, that committing one evil will stop evil at all, that all these evil acts can somehow add up to virtue. If Sarah kills Andy, will that really prevent the development of an AI powerful enough to destroy the world? Would the murder of Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, et al, really have stopped the development of the atom bomb? And if so, would that have been a good idea, allowing World War II to drag on another year, killing millions more? Fortunately, Sarah is able to find a solution to the problem that doesn’t involve murder; she torches Andy’s house, destroying The Turk. One might argue that destroying a man’s life work and dreams is almost as bad as killing him, not to mention the danger that he might cobble together another Turk out of spare Wii boxes, but still, it avoids the larger sin of murder and Sarah (and we) can live with that. It’s a solution for the now—but leaves open the question of what Sarah will do next time. And we can be pretty sure that there will be a next time.
More problematic is John’s anguish over the death of young Jordan. Could he have saved her? Would it have been unwise to expose himself to the press and perhaps jeopardize his mission? His problem is a mirror image of his mother’s—can he allow himself to stand by and allow one person to die for the sake of millions? His passivity is as troublesome as Sarah’s deliberate plans to kill Andy. Inaction can be as devastating as action. But should he sacrifice his mission for a “lesser” good? Again, we’re allowed to wonder if it really is a “lesser” good to act within the confines of that humanity the Connors are fighting to save. What would it profit them to save the whole world at the cost of turning themselves—and possibly the world they’re saving—into the very machine-cogs they are fighting?
The answer Terminator seems to offer in this episode is that every life matters, even those that don’t seem “important” in the “larger scheme”. Cameron, in her narrow analytical way, may decree that Andy Goode must die, but Sarah Connor shows the compassion and hope that underlie her character in a powerful way. It’s a more moral solution than many more-popular shows are going with these days—Dexter, 24, Breaking Bad. How exotic and refreshing it is to see a show actually tackle questions this large and fundamental, in a non-preachy, thoughtful way.
Oh, that third storyline? The Terminator Assassin is rebuilding himself, one layer at a time. This time he enlists the aid of a researcher to regrow his skin; of course this will All End Badly for the researcher, who loses his life and his eyes. It’s interesting to see how the Assassin is getting around the fact that he could not jump forward in time with the Connors; all he has to do is wait long enough, and God knows computers are patient.
Summer Glau’s Cameron the Terminator (Caminator?) is growing on me. Last week it was the Pinocchio moment, where she imitated a young woman, trying to model her body language on the human’s. This week she got introduced to the girls’ bathroom/makeup society in a high school, where she fit in like a shark at a picnic. I loved all her responses to the hysteria and bitchiness around her; what woman wouldn’t love to return to high school as a serenely indifferent, completely secure and self-confident creature, immune to public opinion and no longer at the mercy of raging hormones? This stuff will never grow old.
There were some creepy “gotcha” moments in this episode, and one that is genuinely new to me: the fact that fingerprints from the body of a dead adult male at the “resistance” safe house match those of a contemporary young boy. Of course we know that the two are one and the same—the young boy grew up, survived Judgment Day, and came back to this earlier time as a hunter. But puzzling that out will occupy our token FBI agent a while.
It remains to be seen whether the Terminator represents one trip to the well too many for the series. Will audiences really want to tune in every week to see a rehash of the plot of three previous movies? Fortunately for the franchise, tonight’s episode proved that a compelling drama can be written around the basic elements of the storyline, without all the expensive (and ultimately boring) explosions and shootouts. “The Turk” was a thinking person’s version of theTerminator mythos, an approach I’d love to see again.
Terminator is showing some signs of strain on the ratings front; Monday night’s episode garnered only 8.65 million viewers and a 3.6/ 8 among adults 18-49. That puts it in third place overall for its timeslot, and in second place in the demographic. Last week, Terminator clocked 10.07 million viewers and came in second for the timeslot, so this represents a pretty serious drop in viewers. Considering that with the writers’ strike on, there isn’t a whole lot of competition for eyeballs, this does not bode well. Critics may like it, but apparently the public has not yet warmed up to the show. I’m hoping Fox, notorious for yanking some shows during their own commercial breaks, gives the Connors a break.