“Crossroads” (episode 5; originally aired 9/30/2001)
In which Dick Winters comes to, well, the crossroads
(Available on HBO Go.)
In my review of “Currahee,” the first episode of Band Of Brothers, I mentioned this as a show that was ahead of its time when it debuted. Yet as I come to “Crossroads”—an episode that sometimes strains to bridge the first and last halves of the story but has some tremendous sequences throughout—I’m reminded of the ways that it’s also marked by the time in which it was made. In particular, I’ve been comparing this series to its follow-up, The Pacific. Now, I love The Pacific, but outside of the episode where John Basilone falls in love and marries while back in the U.S., I have trouble pinning favorite sequences to certain episodes. The Pacific is a long, unrelenting slog that just gets worse and worse for its characters the longer it goes on. In contrast, Band Of Brothers is still very much a collection of episodes. Even if they tell one larger story, they’re all meant to stand apart as individual chapters within that story. This means it’s relatively easy to remember, say, the episode about Blithe, or the episode told from the point-of-view of the medic, or this episode, the one where Winters spends half the hour typing out an official report on an incident that could have gone very wrong, then the other half going to Paris.
“Crossroads” is also an episode where Dick Winters is forced, just for a second, to reckon with the things that he’s done while away at war. Throughout the series, he’s been portrayed as the straightest of the straitlaced, a character who’s had but the one sip of alcohol (so far as we know) and is constantly working or getting ready to work. He’s the perfect Army man because he’s so regimented, so dutiful and orders-driven. And yet in “Crossroads,” we get a taste of why that might be the case. Winters heads to Paris on some mandatory leave, procured for him by the others, who worry that he works too hard and needs some actual rest and relaxation. And while the episode gets some visual laughs out of, say, the man sitting at one of those famous sidewalk cafes and sipping from a tiny cup, it digs in more deeply when he’s riding on the train, alone, and sees the face of a kid who could be the German he killed in a desperate maneuver to free himself and some other Easy members before they’re outflanked and overrun by opposing forces. We got a hint of this at the end of the series’ second hour, but Dick Winters doesn’t just keep working because that’s the kind of guy he is. He keeps working because to think too much about the men he’s killed might eventually overwhelm him.
This is always one of the things any story set during a war must deal with. For those of us who haven’t served, the thought of taking a human life is hard to comprehend, and yet those who serve in the military and go to war will take multiple lives before all is said and done. The battlefield, however, is no place for a crisis of conscience, so any reflection over the horrors of combat is often left for afterward, for the moments between battles or even after the war, when the full weight of what has happened can sink in. The brilliance of “Crossroads” is that it makes those shots Winters takes to knock down the German soldier personal. The two lock eyes. In that instant, they’re both human beings, not just soldiers on opposing sides. But in the next instant, they’re right back in the thick of the war, and Winters guns him down. It’s what he needs to do to do his job, save his men, and win the war. But that doesn’t mean those eyes won’t come back to him at quiet moments, in unlikely places, like on a subway train rattling through the dark of the Paris underground.
“Crossroads” is the hour of the series directed by executive producer Tom Hanks, and his name on the episode brings me to one of the reasons I suspect this miniseries (and all miniseries, really) has fallen out of the conversation about TV’s Golden Age to a surprising degree: There’s no one name that you can pin this miniseries to as its guiding creative force. Hanks and Steven Spielberg assembled a hell of a creative team and cast, but for the most part, those writers worked independently of each other, doing their own research, as discussed by one of them in the comments on Alan Sepinwall’s review of episode nine. Without a singular voice to point to, Band Of Brothers became easier to write off as an impressive achievement, but not one unified around any particular point-of-view or singular vision.
Yet of all of the episodes Hanks could have directed, he chose this one. And, yes, “Crossroads” features one of the best battle sequences in the whole series, as Winters and his men somehow survive a situation where they are hopelessly outmanned via great tactics and a little bluffing. But it’s also a thankless episode that needs to carry us through a long period where not a lot is happening to some of our major characters and into 1945, as well as a period when Winters gets a promotion and is stuck behind a desk for long periods of time. It’s important to show these events happening, to reflect the historical record, but it doesn’t always make for the most riveting of television episodes. Hanks’ choice here—probably the right one—is to go a little more impressionistic with this, edits cutting past longer and longer segments of time before getting to the long march toward Bastogne that carries us into the series’ back half. Some of this doesn’t really work. I’m not entirely certain the structure of the first half, with Winters typing up the report, is completely necessary (though I love the sound of gunfire dissolving into the sound of typewriter keys hammering), and the Paris interlude seems at once too long and too short. But Hanks gets across what the series seems most interested in conveying: The men of Easy Company were great soldiers and tremendously brave. But they were still men, who could be wounded—physically and mentally—just as easily as you or I might be.
Look at the way “Crossroads” keeps returning to Winters’ lonely run across the open field toward the embankment where the Germans are hunkered down. There are numerous reasons for Winters to keep thinking on this moment in his life, not least of which is that in that moment, he almost certainly had every expectation he would die. (And, honestly, it’s stunning to me that he didn’t.) The shots of him running just ahead of the red smoke, his men following well behind, are at once beautiful and deeply foreboding, even as we know this man probably won’t die, as he’s the lead. And I like how every time Hanks returns to this sequence, it feels a little more drawn out, so that in the final flashback Winters has on the subway, things that took but seconds seem to take an eternity. This isn’t just a story about a man who led the men under him to an unlikely win in a battle they probably should have lost. It’s a story about a man who’s somewhat haunted by that fact.
But that’s not all Winters is haunted by. He’s also haunted by the fact that even though only one man died under his command during this battle—almost a miracle, some would say—that one man still died. Into the death of Dukeman, a character we barely even know, Winters funnels much of his disappointment. He should have been able to keep everybody alive, should have been able to protect every man under his command. Instead, he lost one, and in that one man lost, he can see every other life that might have been lost other than his own. The episode opens with the talking heads discussing what made Winters such a great leader, and the men praise his willingness to be the first one charging into battle at all times. And, yes, that made him a man who was easy to follow. But the fact that the only person he really seemed to accept the potential death of was himself is what made him a great leader.
This, I suppose, is why Winters is our protagonist and not one of the other guys. Everybody is dealing with the experience of war in their own ways. Nixon’s drinking, for instance, gets a real highlight here to suggest just how much he’s come to lean on the bottle, while we get the image of the shellshocked Buck trying to take in a John Wayne movie (Seven Sinners) and seeming like he can’t think of anything other than his wounds and hospital stay. But it’s Winters we circle back to because we know he’s a man who longs for peace but can understand the necessity of war, a man who will take the shot when he has it but also a man who will agonize over that shot when he has the chance to reflect on it. Winters compartmentalizes, sure, but the episode argues that he makes such an effective soldier because he’s able to open the compartments later on and take stock of what he’s been keeping in them.
This is all vital stuff as the story heads into Bastogne, which will be the center of what might be the series’ best episode and the place where Easy Company faced its greatest hardships. “Crossroads” has to serve a lot of narrative masters, from depicting the mission to rescue those British soldiers that very quickly turns into a battle for survival to showing Winters’ time behind a desk to getting us out into the harshness of a European winter to dig in around a Belgian city. In those respects, it’s not the most elegant of episodes, but it manages quite well in spite of it. Some of that is the simple fact of Damian Lewis holding down the center of the story, and some of it is the way Hanks and Erik Jendresen thread throughout the episode the idea of how soldiers deal with what they’ve done in combat when the time comes to deal with it. To return to that idea of every episode of Band Of Brothers being a singular story, this one finds connective tissue where there might not have been, and it’s all the better for it. But so much of it stems from the idea that survival is never a certainty in wartime, from how Winters keeps returning to a moment when he survived but maybe shouldn’t have, because somebody else died instead. There was a moment when those men knew each other and knew what was about to happen. And then that moment ended.
- Also, hey, Jimmy Fallon is in this episode, and I will never remember that Jimmy Fallon is in Band Of Brothers at all until he pops up, out of nowhere, to deliver some exposition about the long odds the men face as they dig in around Bastogne. Thank you for coming, Jimmy Fallon. Also: Am I endorsing a commenter gimmick account that’s Jimmy Fallon in Band Of Brothers, which just runs into potentially fraught comments sections and warns everyone of what’s up ahead? I’m not not endorsing such a thing…
- This could just be the color on my HBO Go being a little wonky, but there’s a shot at the end of the battle sequence in which Nixon and Winters are talking, and we cut to see an image of the treeline, and the red foliage looks almost like the clouds of red smoke. It’s a nice shot from Hanks.
- It’s tough to come up with a great cliffhanger in post-episode text, but damned if this episode doesn’t manage it with the information that the men of Easy were defending a town with limited supplies, ammo, and winter clothing. Those are some long odds.
- The sequence where the men realize that they need to be taking the ammo off the men glumly marching in the opposite direction never fails to have the intended effect of outright horror at whatever is just ahead for Easy to march toward.
- Luz’s John Wayne impersonation irritating the shit out of everybody else seated around him is one of my favorite bits of comedic business in the series. Not everybody has seen this one 13 times, Luz!
- One issue with the episode’s structure: It’s not immediately clear what the timeline is the first time we see Winters sit down at the typewriter. It falls into place quickly enough, but it’s easy to get disoriented in the structure at first, and that’s not ideal.
- This might seem like a dumb thing to notice (trust me, it is), but I really appreciate the way the series covers the passage of the seasons so readily. Those episodes set in summer really feel like summer, and the early parts of this episode have that cool fall evening feel to them, before we get dumped into the wintry hell of Bastogne.
- I would watch a whole series of Damian Lewis as Dick Winters, looking uncomfortably large while hanging out in 1940s Paris.
- Winters wakes up Nixon by dumping a pitcher full of Nixon’s own urine on his head. Be sure to remember this tip when trying to wake up someone in your own life.
Next week: Easy Company heads into hell, and the series hits one of its highpoints in “Bastogne.”