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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Band Of Brothers: “Replacements”

Illustration for article titled iBand Of Brothers/i: “Replacements”
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“Replacements” (episode 4; originally aired 9/23/2001)

In which joining in later on is tough

(Available on HBO Go.)

I’m of two minds about the talking heads interviews that open every episode of Band Of Brothers. On the one hand, they provide one of the absolute best moments of the whole miniseries, and when they’re used well, they can provide some needed historical perspective to the stories being told in the episode proper. On the other hand, there are several episodes where they just seem to be there because the producers had the footage. They don’t really add a deeper understanding or knowledge of the events depicted onscreen. It’s cool to see these men talk about their experiences in the war, but the scenes can also feel like padding, which is rarely what you want from such a thing.

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“Replacements,” however, gets the balance just right. Cutting between reminisces from men who were with Easy Company from the get-go and those who joined after the Normandy Invasion, viewers get a sense of the tensions that will inform this episode and others to come. The replacements looked up to the original Camp Toccoa men with a sort of awe, while the men who’d been with Easy from the start eventually came to view replacements with a sense of wariness. That tension between the new soldiers wanting to impress those with combat experience and those with combat experience bristling at the integration of greenhorns carries through into the first scene of the episode as well, set at a bar where even alcohol can’t entirely smooth over the rocky process of fitting new men into the machine that is Easy Company. This is efficiently conveyed in a scene where a private named Miller (played by an even-more-baby-faced-than-usual James McAvoy) is asked why he wears a presidential medal meant to signify the company’s success during D-Day and after when he wasn’t even present. It was a company-wide award, but the implication is clear: It doesn’t matter if you were ready to go and just didn’t get the call. The call is all that matters.

Miller will die before “Replacements” is over, and it’s a brutal, horrible death that is remarked upon in the sidelines of the episode. The center of the episode is Operation Market Garden, a famously foolhardy and fucked up venture that eventually cost the Allies the chance of ending the war before Christmas of 1944. And when “Replacements” begins, it gains significant tension from Winters announcing the name of the operation and the Army’s high hopes that this will end the war sooner than expected, even as we know that this isn’t going to happen. (Even viewers who don’t know the full details of how Market Garden went south will surely know the war lasted well past Christmas of 1944.) Yet making Miller and the other replacements an important part of this story allows script writers Graham Yost and Bruce McKenna (in a smart bit of screenwriting) to focus the story less as one of a military operation gone wrong and more as one of what happens when your first experience in war seems like it’s going along without a hitch and then heads the other way both rapidly and disastrously. The men of Easy are greeted with what amounts to a victory parade in Eindhoven, and they relish it. But those we’ve been following from episode one know not to relax. The Germans are still laying in wait somewhere, and even if they’re meant to be just old men and kids, old men and kids can still fire guns.

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They’re not just old men and kids, of course. They’re a fully trained fighting force, complete with lots of tanks, and the battle sequence in this episode is filled with some of the most purely visceral moments of the whole series. In particular, “Replacements” gives us the greatest concentrated dose we get of Bull Randleman in this whole thing, and that’s undoubtedly worth the whole hour. As Bull, Michael Cudlitz uses his natural swagger to carry the character’s easy masculinity (he’s one of the few actors I can think of who can pull off the “cigar hanging out of the corner of his mouth” thing), but there’s also a surprising gentleness to him that you wouldn’t expect given the way he towers over some of the other guys. Bull isn’t the guy who’s going to pick on the replacements. He’s the guy who’s going to take a moment to shake his head at the fate of Miller after spending the night hiding out from the Germans behind enemy lines (and fighting one to the death in a barn with a bayonet—which apparently actually happened).

Cudlitz’s blend of qualities means that Bull is equally believable crawling away from a flaming tank that’s threatening to plunge down into the ditch where he’s huddled and crush him as he is quietly helping the new privates preparing for their first jump get all their gear in the right position so they won’t break any of it—or hurt themselves—while landing. When Bull speaks or acts, he does so with great authority, which makes Cudlitz’s choice to underplay almost everything the man does so much more interesting than heading into any situation with extra swagger. Though Bull is a less important character than others in the series, Cudlitz, nonetheless, simply buckles down and gives one of the show’s best performances. (It’s no wonder he’s one of the cast members to continue to work consistently to this day, now a regular on The Walking Dead.) “Replacements” is less focused on a single character than some of the series’ other episodes (even last week’s Blithe-centric hour), but if there’s a guy at its center, it’s either Bull or Miller, making that final moment when the former shakes his head as he sees the latter’s corpse all the more affecting.

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The other great thing about “Replacements” is how it conveys so readily just how easily an operation can go from what seems like a success to a failure in a matter of hours. The men of Easy Company get to Eindhoven and are given heroes’ welcomes. (The cut from the woman hanging the red sheet out her window to the full-blown celebration in the city streets is particularly lovely.) Within a matter of hours, they’ll be watching as that same city is destroyed by German bombers, in a bombing pass that would shatter the city center and kill over 200. Perhaps because Market Garden was so well-covered in other media (particularly the film A Bridge Too Far), “Replacements” doesn’t go in for grand military strategy or explanations of why, exactly, Easy and the others in the 101st Airborne were forced to retreat. It comes close to suggesting the failures here were ones of hubris or overconfidence—that line about old men and kids, for instance—but the episode overwhelmingly puts us in the ditches and behind cover with men watching a situation disintegrate around them even as they have nothing they can do about it.

It’s this emotional approach that best serves Band Of Brothers. To be sure, the series can pile on the spectacle. Episode director David Nutter comes up with some beautiful shots and sequences, particularly the shots of the men rolling when they hit the ground after parachuting in and several moments in the battle (like Bull crawling away from a goddamn tank, which, again, is incredibly impressive). But in “Replacements,” it makes the choice as often as possible to zero in on the ways that the men connect with each other before, during, and after the battle and the ways that their emotions shift and change in the middle of everything going to hell. When Winters and Nixon pop up at episode’s end for their weekly recap of events, Winters says that he hates retreating, and it might have rung hollow in other situations. But here, we’ve felt the other men’s frustration and fear in this situation, so we understand better than if Winters had simply wandered in and said that. If nothing else, “Replacements” is proof that the series can drift away from Dick Winters at its center and still work.

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There are some problems here and there in “Replacements,” but they’re not as significant after you’ve watched enough of the series. The replacements tend to blend together a little bit here, which means that moments that are meant to have significance—like Miller’s death—blend in a bit too much to really make us feel everything we’re supposed to. In addition, there are places during the battle where things turn almost too chaotic, and Nutter loses sense of the geography of where all of the forces are in relation to each other. A little chaos in these situations is fine, but I finally had to pull up a map of the area to understand just where Eindhoven was in relation to where Easy Company ended up and to understand exactly what they were trying to do. (My understanding is that the episode didn’t want to overlap too much with A Bridge Too Far, but by leaving out some of that story, the company’s objectives can occasionally become murky.) This is also another episode that attempts to be more of an ensemble piece than a character one, and while we have Cudlitz to hold everything together and will recognize McAvoy more readily in 2014 than we would have in 2001, there are still places where the many, many characters can blend together.

Yet “Replacements” is one of my favorite hours in the more problematic first half of Band Of Brothers, both because of what Cudlitz brings to it and because of the way it depicts how horrible a wartime defeat can be. We know that Easy Company and the other Allied forces are headed toward victory, and we know that their path to it will be less difficult than it was for, say, the Soviet forces at Stalingrad. Yet war, like everything else, is about mixing the bitterness of defeat with the elation of victory, so it was necessary for the series to work in the place where Easy got its ass kicked the hardest. “Replacements” isn’t always elegant, but it says so much in that final scene where Winters says he hates to retreat. After this hour, we get why. Because we know what’s coming, we know he won’t have to worry about it for that much longer. “Replacements” balances the tension between its characters’ fears and frustrations and our knowledge of what’s coming beautifully, and in that, it finds success.

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Stray observations:

  • There are few scenes more nauseating in this series than the British tank operator saying he can’t rip a hole in a building because it’s against orders, even if it would let him see the German tank in time to fire on its first. And then he and the others simply roll forward into the ambush that everyone knows is coming. It’s great stuff.
  • Women and children alert: We get lots of this in Eindhoven, where women who slept with the Nazis are stripped of their dresses and have their heads forcibly shaved while others stand around them and chant terrifyingly. It’s a great reminder that inhumanity to man wasn’t something practiced only by the Axis. Also, we get some kids, who are vital intelligence gatherers for the Dutch resistance (and about whom I would love to see a whole episode). Also: the Dutch farmer’s daughter, who seems to mostly be there to be pretty.
  • Bull’s nighttime adventures on the Dutch farm are good stuff. I really do enjoy stories about soldiers trapped behind enemy lines and struggling to survive, and Nutter ramps up the tension when Bull is timing his assault on the German soldier in the barn perfectly. (The way Bull waits for the plane overhead to be just loud enough is brilliant.) This also allows for the great shot on the morning after, as Bull opens the door to emerge into sunlight and Nutter pulls focus to the boot of the German soldier he killed, sticking out from the hay where he’s buried.
  • Another great cut: Buck insists he’s too heavy for the other men to carry and says he should be left to be taken prisoner by the Germans, but they refuse. Cut to them kicking open a door. Cut to them hauling Buck out on the door, an ad hoc stretcher arrived at via convenience.
  • Both Winters and Nixon are very good at politely accepting kisses but then pushing on to whatever they have to do next during the Eindhoven sequence. And the shot where Nixon is shot but his helmet saves him is a great shock.
  • Sobel turns up in this episode for a couple of minutes, and he’s mostly there to drive by and glare at people menacingly, then seethe at Malarkey. Not bad, but you’re going to have to do more than that to get Easy Company down, Sobel!
  • If you have the time, read the Operation Market Garden Wikipedia page. It’s obviously just a quick overview of the history of the operation, but it’s a compelling story of both how the thing could have succeeded and how it ultimately didn’t.
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Next week: We focus back in on Dick Winters as we and he reach the middle of the miniseries and a “Crossroads.”

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