“The Last Patrol” (episode 8; originally aired 10/21/2001)
In which Capt. Winters tells a lie
The thing I’m noticing more and more on this rewatch of Band Of Brothers is how much the miniseries emphasizes that survival in wartime is due to chance and dumb luck more than anything else. Yes, being a skilled soldier will certainly help in combat situations, and being able to build camaraderie with one’s platoon doesn’t hurt either. But when it comes to too many situations that these men get into, survival is so far from guaranteed that it can occasionally seem like the men of Easy are only there to be very slowly chewed up and spit out—whether they die physically or psychologically. “The Last Patrol” is a bit quieter as an episode, particularly when compared to “The Breaking Point,” but the characters highlighted here either look strangely bright against the grim backdrop, or they look like they’ve just been to Hell and back, because they have. “The Last Patrol” sticks us in the waning days of a war even the soldiers know will be over sooner, rather than later, then lets us watch as, one by one, their numbers come up.
That’s what makes the final moments of “The Last Patrol” among the most emotional moments in the miniseries for me. When Winters tells the 15 men who are about to embark on a pointlessly dangerous mission to lie to him in the morning, thus allowing them to escape what would have almost certainly been the deaths of a number of them, it’s a hugely moving sequence, thanks to the looks of confusion and then relief that filter across the faces of the men, as well as the way Damian Lewis tosses off Winters’ announcement as if the Captain is just thinking of it on the spot. But it also gains so much from how muted it is, from how tired everybody seems—even Webster and Jones, who just got there and didn’t have to live through Bastogne. Being alive at this point is a lucky accident, and Winters doesn’t want to press anyone’s luck unless he has to. It’s the wrong thing to do, but it’s also so completely the right thing to do that his promotion to major is moved up slightly in the series’ timeline from when it occurred in real life to function as a kind of cosmic reward. Winters, along with everybody else, is just over all of the death and the long slog. He’s not going to lose a single additional man to a cause that strikes him as foolhardy.
The central tension in Winters has always been between the gentle man he is at his core and his extreme success on the battlefield. We catch glimpses of both sides every time we see him, but there are few moments more indicative of this than this episode’s end. If Winters is somehow caught, he’ll be, at the least, demoted and probably suffer far worse. But he’s in a place where he can look out the window and see what the war has done to men like Malarkey, good men who’ve been hollowed out by what they saw in Bastogne. Tossing more boats across the river in pursuit of prisoners who are unlikely to give up any additional useful intelligence must strike him as a chance to simply create more walking shells.
I mention all of this because Band Of Brothers itself seems divided against itself when it comes to telling these sorts of stories. It’s uniquely attuned to the weight of battle in a way that not many other war films are, largely because spreading this story out over 10 hours of TV time allows the characters to gain psychological acuity and depth filmmakers have trouble attaining in shorter periods of time. Yet while it keeps pushing further and further toward some sort of “war is hell, even if the war you’re fighting is just” summation, it simultaneously digs ever more deeply into the idea that the central band of brothers was worth all of the fighting anyway. This also cuts two ways: The fighting was worth it because of the bonds made between these men; the fighting was worth it in the moment because it became more about protecting one’s buddies than striving for a cause.
To be fair, this is a tension that a lot of modern war movies have to navigate. The impulse to find war nasty, dehumanizing business while still building up those who fight in these wars as honorable, heroic men defeats many a lesser story when it can’t thread that needle exactly. Band Of Brothers’ solution is ingenious: It posits that the men are heroic because war is so dehumanizing. To look at Malarkey in this episode and hear him say that he’ll go back into battle when he’s clearly been torn apart inside is to see someone with more courage than most of us will ever have to display. And then to look at a figure like Jones who so desperately wants to go to battle—mostly because he knows the war is waning and he wants to see action—is to see someone who has looked at the effects of battle on the men around him but gains a kind of resolve in his need to do this. Even if that stems from purely selfish reasons (and I think the longer the episode goes on, the more Jones is doing this out of a desire to spell the clearly despairing Malarkey), it’s another moving act of courage. Band Of Brothers doesn’t elevate its characters to superhumans by making them overtly, unbelievably heroic. It finds the heroism that exists in the simple act of being a regular human being.
This is perhaps one of the reasons why I like Henry Jones so much (and, by extension, why I’ve always liked Colin Hanks as an actor, despite a lot of people I know finding him no great shakes). The character is so wide-eyed and innocent—and Tony To constantly frames Hanks in such a way as to emphasize his boy wonder appearance, as if he’s going to abruptly start saying, “Golly gee, Capt. Winters!”—that it’s easy to see him as some kid who’s gotten in out of his depth. And as the men who’ve been with Easy from D-Day through Bastogne laugh and joke about how he looks like a high-schooler, we’re invited to join them. To be sure, “The Last Patrol” plays around with the typical arc of the innocent who goes into battle and realizes a tiny percentage of what the men around him have been through. But both Hanks and the script by Erik Bork and Bruce C. McKenna give Jones a measure of grace, a sense that some element of that innocence was necessary to pull all of these men back across the river to safety.
The patrol itself is one of my favorite battle sequences of the series, as To lays out every single piece of the mission with exactitude. What I like about it is that for a mission that mostly goes off without a hitch—only one man dies, and the only other major problem involves someone who can’t swim falling out of the third boat, so it’s stuck back on the opposite shore—but To keeps placing us in the middle of the chaos to show that even missions that are wildly successful are separated from missions that are colossal failures by the thinnest of membranes. Jackson’s death screams give the sequence where the men have returned home having already succeeded an eerie pallor of defeat snatched from the jaws of victory, and Jones is central throughout here, as we get the sense that we’re viewing all of this through the eyes of someone who just arrived on the scene and realized that the war he’d heard about back home—where things are trending back toward peacetime—is nothing like the war as it actually exists. At the time this aired, Hanks got some criticism for having received the part through nepotism—it was one of his first major roles, and his father was a producer on the series—but I think his work here more than justifies his presence. He might be kind of a wide-eyed naïf at this point in his acting career, but both the direction and the script lean into that quality and make the most of them. Without him, I don’t think “The Last Patrol” would work.
I’ve been talking about the character of Jones as if he’s the focal point of this episode, but, of course, he’s not. The narrator and point-of-view for the episode is Private Webster, a figure who was in earlier episodes but was injured and sat out the Battle of the Bulge. I like the idea of what the episode is going for, with the other men feeling resentment toward Webster for the way that he didn’t get back to the company as quickly as possible (as Perconte does), but Webster also comes across as a bit of a cipher, and It’s never immediately clear why the episode is centered on him instead of Jones or Winters, both of whom are far more important to the action of what happens and the way that the story is told. There’s probably something to the idea of a soldier who’s pulled away from his unit because of an injury, then encounters bitterness when he makes his way back, and there’s also something to the way that Webster is able to look out at the men he once knew and realize how much they’ve been changed by Bastogne. But for all of this to work as well as it could, Webster would have to be a better-developed figure, and at this point in the series, he’s just not. He’s a convenient window into the world of the episode and little else.
That’s no matter, though, because “The Last Patrol” hinges less on the questions raised by his character and more by those raised by Jones and Winters. I like that the episode doesn’t really question whether Winters is right to do what he does, and I like that it refuses to make Jones out to be the easy target for ridicule he could have been. Band Of Brothers is at its best when it’s digging into the humanity of men fighting in a situation that’s inherently dehumanizing, and “The Last Patrol” offers some of the series’ strongest moments in this regard. In a war where someone can be killed just because he was out walking around, what’s the worth of putting even more people in harm’s way when they could be kept safe for another night, another night that might bring them closer to war’s end and the home they miss so much?
- Full disclosure: I also like Henry Jones because I like to imagine this is somehow a weird Indiana Jones fan-fiction. (Yes, I know this person really existed. Don’t get in the way of my fantasies.)
- I guess I don’t find this odd, necessarily, but it is interesting to me that Band Of Brothers doesn’t really try to do more with developing any random German soldiers the men come across throughout its run. There are stabs at it here and there, but the Germans remain ciphers. The real antagonist here is war itself. It’s probably the right call, but in a TV world where basically every character’s point-of-view is developed, it seems almost archaic.
- I love how To keeps the camera outside of the room where Winters is bestowing promotions upon Lipton and Jones. This is a world that Webster will never enter—not least of which is because he apparently never sought any rank higher than private first class.
- If you have a chance—and don’t mind spoilers—go check out Webster’s Wikipedia page. He survived the war, only to die when he was lost at sea many years later, possibly researching sharks. That’s kind of awesome.
- You can always count on Luz for some amusing business, and I like the scene where he haggles with the men over Hershey bars, then just immediately gives Perconte one when his friend is back from his injury.
- The way Nixon handles Winters’ promotion is pitch-perfect. He’s clearly proud of his friend but also doesn’t want to make a big deal of it. This is just another thing that’s happening. No problem.
- I think I like this episode so much because I know that if I went to war, I would be far too similar to Jones—overeager, a bit irritating, overeducated, largely just in the way. I like to think I’d ultimately hold my own, but there’s also every chance I’d just be like Jackson and not hear the orders meant to save my life.
Next week: It’s time for my other candidate for best episode of the miniseries, “Why We Fight.”