Many times over the course of this third season, when I’ve railed against Falling Skies for wasting time or failing to build a satisfying conclusion, I’ve invoked the second season episode “Molon Labe” as a point of comparison for how the show should be doing things. I do this largely because I think “Molon Labe” remains the best episode the show’s ever done, and it frustrates me that it hasn’t been able to reach those heights again. It’s one of the rare installments where the show lets the action take center stage; characters spending time grappling with losses and tough decisions rather than spouting the same speeches, and it allows them to feel like real humans. It was also a brilliantly atmospheric episode, expertly blending siege warfare with survival horror, leading to some genuinely tense moments and terrifying imagery.
“Journey To Xibalba,” the penultimate episode of season three, is another episode that invites comparisons to “Molon Labe,” only this time the comparisons are far more positive. This is one of the better episodes of Falling Skies this season, one that throws a wrench into the resistance’s plans at a time where delay can’t be tolerated. It’s an episode where survival of supporting and even main characters is uncertain, where unexpected events force characters to either band together or find new reserves of strength, and an episode where the creative team finds a way to compensate for a lack of big alien battles. And after a season that’s been largely unfocused and full of missed opportunities, it clears out some of the debris and sets events in motion for a hopefully explosive finale.
The attitude of the episode is set early on, as everyone’s gearing up for a mission few have any confidence will be a success. With the launch of the Espheni defense grid last week in “Strange Brew,” the clock is ticking to shut it down before Earth is reduced to a desiccated cinder. Humanity’s only hope is to use a weapon provided by a second alien race few of them trust—with good reasons given the information being withheld—and the president of their resistance is a suspected traitor. Falling Skies is already a show that’s taken advantage of its grim setting, and the mood of Charleston is one devoid of optimism, no one even tries to pretend it’s anything less than a long shot.
Even the implausible return of Tom doesn’t do anything to raise the spirits of the resistance, as he’s on the warpath following the apparent deaths of Anne and Lexie. He’s barely able to keep a handle on his emotions when talking to his sons, and he advises them to hang onto their rage—a complete contradiction of his earlier messages—and then tries subverting the entire plan on his quest for revenge. Thankfully the show doesn’t brush over the fact that this is yet another time Tom’s returned from alien captivity and could be compromised. He outright tells Weaver and Pope to shoot him in the head if he seems to be a problem. (Pope is amusingly flattered by the request, and Tom’s confidence that he won’t hesitate.) Again, Tom’s playing beats we’ve seen many times before, but there’s a fatalism in his approach that keeps it from feeling entirely rehashed.
If this likely doomed mission wasn’t enough to bring everyone’s spirits down, Evil!Lourdes is certainly determined to get them there—except this time she’s using Espheni explosives instead of grating religious platitudes, and the results are far more effective. First she reduces the Volm encampment into rubble, killing all of the aliens except for Cochise, who is saved by some last-minute intervention by Tom and Pope and enters a comatose healing state. (Though unfortunately not before he can deliver an infuriating speech on how “the human spirit remains the most powerful weapon on the planet,” the personification of the show’s most irritating tendencies to use its core beliefs as a bludgeon.) And after that a second explosive—a device that grows incendiary organic vines in unsettling fashion—tears the interior of Charleston apart, leaving characters half-blinded, confused, and rapidly running out of oxygen.
The structural approach of this episode trades the openness of earlier installments (“Search And Recovery,” “The Pickett Line”) for a more claustrophobic setting, with the explosion cutting the cast off from each other with no way to communicate. Here the early sense of doom the episode establishes keeps the tension going, as many of the show’s secondary characters—Marina, Jeannie, Colonel Porter—are placed in harm’s way, keeping open the possibility that the writers may decide to trim the fat before the final battle even begins. Even primary characters don’t appear safe, as the show traps Hal and Maggie in the armory and toys with the idea of killing the latter off at least twice. (And part of me hoped for that result after some of that dialogue, especially the line “You think it hurts to be dead? It’s living that hurts. Dead is easy.”)
Aside from the atmosphere of near-death experiences, the achievements of the episode are a mixed bag. Hal and Maggie have a conversation hashing out their major issues—Hal’s guilt over what he may have done as Evil!Hal, Maggie’s resentment that he wouldn’t let her join them on their quest to recover Anne—which addresses some tensions but doesn’t go any further towards making me care about their relationship. Pope gets a brief humanizing moment when he throws his team into the recovery efforts, and his uneasy truce with Weaver comes through when he assures him Jeannie’s too tough to die. More positive is the triumphant return of Dr. Kadar, who pops out from a ventilation shaft and continues his string of being Falling Skies’ MacGyver by improvising a demolition charge out of C-4 and some everyday household items. (If anyone gets a promotion to season four regular, I hope it’s Robert Sean Leonard.)
The close quarters also means the secret of the mole finally comes out, as Evil!Lourdes isn’t able to get clear from the explosion and winds up trapped in the infirmary. Here, the recurring flaw of the Espheni’s human allies comes into play—Karen and Evil!Hal enjoy their power just a little too much—and while she tries to deflect Tom’s attention by blaming herself for Anne’s death, she can’t resist twisting the knife in Tom by suggesting Anne died right back where they started. That detail is enough for Tom to start putting the pieces together, remembering the medkit she planted on the plane back in “At All Costs” (points again to the eagle-eyed commenters who spotted that when I missed it), and he calls her away when she’s about to twist a literal knife into Cochise’s brain.
Evil!Lourdes tries to play dumb for a while, but her possession of the weapon that killed Manchester and Hathaway seals her fate, and she turns to psychological attacks by yelling that Tom’s already lost and his alliance with the Volm doomed them all. Here the comparisons to “Molon Labe” are especially accurate, because once again the turning point of the episode comes when Tom throws out all his historical anecdotes and humanist attitudes and just decides to shoot something, in this case Kadar’s improvised blast charge. And it’s great because once again it works—in “Molon Labe” shooting the warlord allowed Tom to force a detente with the aliens, and here he proves Kadar’s doomsaying wrong when the halls turn out to be steady enough to survive the blast and subsequent exodus.
“Journey To Xibalba” isn’t an episode that reverses the unevenness of the third season, but it’s an episode that does its job by clearing the decks of some old business—the mystery of the mole, Hal and Maggie’s trust issues and lingering doubts about the Volm weapon—and teeing things up for the finale with a definite change of mood. Before, the resistance felt they had nothing left to lose and were fatalistic about the odds of their mission; now, they’re pissed off and in a mood to cause some serious damage. Here’s hoping they can ride that momentum to a satisfying close.
- “Journey To Xibalba” also marks the Falling Skies directorial debut of Jonathan Frakes, a.k.a. Commander Riker from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Frakes has worked steadily as a TV director for the last few years (helming episodes of such shows as Burn Notice, Castle, and Leverage), and he does a great job depicting the claustrophobic atmosphere and growing tensions as the walls close in literally and figuratively. He’s a welcome addition to the show’s creative pool.
- In the mythology of the Mayans, “Xibalba” was their term for the underworld, a grand city ruled over by demon lords with such charming names as Flying Scab and Gathered Blood who held power over the pain and torments of humanity. As with “Molon Labe” (last one, I promise), episode titles I have to look up on Wikipedia beforehand promise an interesting installment.
- Calling Tom’s return to Charleston “implausible” was the nicest way I could put it, because that scene made me so angry I practically threw a whiskey bottle at the television. As glad as I am they didn’t waste a week getting him back to the action, the fact that he apparently just sailed down the coast without problems—in what I’m almost positive was stock footage fitted to Lyle’s binoculars—was so much of a cop out return to status quo that I almost gave this episode a D on principle.
- Tom on the deactivated mechs: “They’re just standing there like the emperor’s Terracota Army!” Historical comparison = take a shot.
- Season finale next week! I’m hopeful the episode title “Brazil” implies a Terry Gilliam homage in the works.