Is watching a passive activity? It depends on how you do it. The idea of observing someone else can be a sedative—this is the standard-issue complaint leveled at television as merely a form of consumption—but as anyone who treats the medium with the seriousness it deserves knows, there’s also active watching. It’s a form of engagement, in which you’re not just the quiet observer, but instead responding to the work, turning it over, puzzling out its mysteries, critiquing its failures. And then, there’s what Jennifer McMahon does in this episode of Colony. The detective appears to spend the entirety of “Panopticon” watching, but really, she’s being pulled apart by her own impulses, screaming internally, and raging against the situation into which she’s been pushed.
She‘s told more than once to look out for number one, to face facts, to “do the right thing,” as though anyone on this show could tell you what that was at any given moment with the slightest certainty. She’s surrounded by threatening men, wielding their authority with a malicious pleasure. And so Jennifer decides to stand with the man who hasn’t threatened her. Unfortunately, he’s also made it clear he doesn’t consider her a friend or an equal. “Jennifer’s got a good heart but she’s weak,” Will says, as she listens on, he heart sinking and her frustration bubbling to the surface. But when she storms into her superior’s office, she realizes there’s something worse than being hurt by someone you consider a friend: Giving in to a man who pretends to offer a lifeline that’s actually an assault. So she lies and protects the Bowmans, as a defiant, secret renunciation of the man who holds her life in his hands and tries to turn it to his own repulsive advantage. She clears out her desk, goes home, watches footage of her departed husband and pet, and starts taking pills—but the moment she really died was in that office, when she realized staying in her life would be more horrifying than rejecting it.
“Panopticon” isn’t a great episode of Colony, but it’s a necessary one. Jennifer was in an impossible position, and it had to be resolved before anything else could progress. It evokes shades of Coppola’s superb The Conversation, with its narrative of listening and interpreting meanings, shifting allegiances, and unknown emotions. Jennifer sees the behavior of all the Bowmans, watches their actions and hears their words, but comes to realize there’s something else underlining every exchange. Whether it’s the pain of betrayal, the silence of mistrust, or the mutterings of anger, the household is riven through with uncertainty and wounded pride. As we watch her watching them, the show takes on a meta level of understanding about what it means to observe people living in impossible situations—and it asks us to put ourselves in those shoes, and see if there’s as much difference as we’d like to think between any of their predicaments and our own. We all see injustice, both to others and ourselves, large and small, and what we’re going to do about it (and how that could come back to haunt us) is the perpetual unspoken question.
Katie, for one, is a living cautionary tale for Jennifer. She chose a cause larger than herself, one that most of the audience would argue was at least grounded in good intentions and ethical resistance, but it has put her family in the crosshairs. More importantly, she lied about it. She betrayed Will, and now her children only continue their current life through the grace of Jennifer. Throughout the episode, we see Katie’s regret, and her paranoia, as it becomes unbearable to her. By the time Will discovers the camera in the smoke detector, and realizes the whole house is bugged, Katie is trapped. Her husband doesn’t even know if their relationship will survive, but he knows they have to stick together—at least for now—if anything else is going to.
And the children, for once, function as more than just something for Katie and Will to worry about, they take on roles beyond “prop to motivate action.” Grace sees the damage in her brother and doesn’t know what to do about it. At first, it’s just confusing for her—Charlie sits in Bram’s seat, and it seems like things aren’t in their proper place. But soon, she realizes the hurt goes beyond physical injuries. And it ends up being her choice to reach out, to lie down next to Charlie on the floor and stay with him somewhere unusual and offbeat, that confirms in Jennifer’s mind both her decision and what she’s going to do next. Charlie’s wounds are a gap for the family to gather around, to press in on and try to heal, and that behavior means more to Jennifer in the end than even Will’s cutting words about her. She sees what Charlie needs. It may be a bit too on-the-nose for a haircut to function as the symbolic desire of a child’s inner life (“I want it how it was,” Charlie tells Katie), but it gets the point across.
But Will Bowman is finally just reacting. He’s been out of the bloc, bringing back his son, and doing terrible things in order to make that happen. So when he gets home, it’s an opportunity to finally just let things happen to him for a change. He may not like that feeling, but it needed to occur. One of the reasons he’s been going nonstop is because the moment he rests, he has to face what happened. He confronts Katie, and his situation, and it hurts. Especially when he learns about Bram—on top of everything, his oldest son is in a labor camp. No wonders the tears start flowing. What’s interesting is how much Will has always seen himself as the center of his family, his life, and now he feels like he’s been played for a sucker, and been trailing behind, at the mercy of forces and people he doesn’t understand. Plus, after all that, he’s a prisoner in his own home, his every move watched by…someone. Is it the same someone that looked through the eyes of the droid as he was clinging to the side of the wall? Until he knows, every moment is a performance, a need to put on a show for the cameras.
And that’s the true subtext of “Panopticon.” The word refers to a structure made in order to keep an eye on prisoners at all times. It’s a tall tower in the middle of a courtyard, in which at any moment those below don’t know if they’re being watched or not. The reasoning being, if men think they could be observed at any time, they’ll constantly behave as though they were being watched. The threat of being seen doesn’t need to be actualized; just the potential is enough. The irony is that the same moments that should be seen may be left unnoticed—such as a hopeless young woman, sipping wine and steadily downing pills, while the station that monitors her slow death sits vacant.
- Helena, the Governor-General of the colony, almost sees the L.A. bloc subject to “total rendition” in the opening minutes. It’s another great case of showing the all-too-human fears and insecurities inside the people viewed by others as steely monsters, uncaring and unfeeling. No one wants to be the villain.
- Charlie is not having Lindsey’s bullshit. It’s probably dangerous and stupid in the long run, but it was fun seeing the faint smile playing around his face after he set fire to her book.
- Besides, Charlie had enough problems at other moments—like when Katie confessed she didn’t like Lindsey either, and he responded, “You should get rid of her.” That’s a moment to worry about, Katie.
- Toby Huss felt underused as Agent Burke. His brief scenes leaning on Jennifer to give up her source were menacing and effective, but minimal.
- Will might not have considered Jennifer a friend, but she was the best friend the Bowmans had, deleting every file and piece of evidence.
- It does concern me that we’ve got a trend going now of people sacrificing themselves to save the Bowmans. First Devon, now Jennifer. It can’t last.