OK, this? THIS? This is what Falling Skies should be, people. Maybe it’s an anomaly, and we’ll go back to mediocre basics next week. Maybe it’s the show finally learning what works and what doesn’t. Maybe it’s the story finally kicking into gear after weeks of world building. That television shows often come less than fully formed isn’t a revolutionary or unique observation. But when a show takes the leap from “having potential” to “living up to it,” that’s something great to behold. Again: there’s no guarantee that “Sanctuary, Part 1” is the new base standard for Falling Skies. But if it were to be that standard? I’d stand up and declare myself a fan of a show that’s largely disappointed me up until this point.
As annoyed as certain aspects have made me over the first half of this first season, I’ve at least seen glimmers of what this show could be if it trimmed the fat, de-emphasized the schmaltz, and stuck to being a show about the desperate attempt to maintain humanity in the face of genocide. Falling Skies has chosen to forgo “desperation” in lieu of “vague angst,” with the middle school serving as a way for characters to avoid drama rather than engage in it. It’s all well and fine to show people trying to hold onto vestiges of pre-attack life. But there’s been simply no tension in the potentially claustrophobic hideout. It’s simply been an excuse to ignore outside threats.
Well, all that changed tonight, in satisfying ways. Yes, some of the more cloying aspects hung on for dear life. (I’m looking at you, Mason Children.) But finally, people in this show started acting like actual human beings. Of COURSE they would have problems with a live Skitter living amongst them. Of COURSE they would be freaked out by Rick, Ben, and the other “razorbacks” living among them. And of COURSE such a community would inevitably break down at some point, causing fissions the aliens could exploit for their own means. Episode-ending prayer sessions, and other equally pat codas, have hurt the show’s overall level of danger. This week’s hour finally reestablished that danger, and in doing so, demonstrated just how potent its central concepts truly are. “Safe is over!” declares one angry parent in tonight’s hour. About freakin’ time.
Your overall opinion of tonight’s hour probably rests on how gullible you feel Tom, Weaver, and others were in simply taking Terry Clayton at his word. Many of you probably had your Spidey Senses tingling from the moment he appeared onscreen to aid Weaver. And mine went up as well. In some cases, seeing the twist come a mile away leads to boredom as you wait for the hammer to fall. But in tonight’s case, knowing what might be further down the path actually led to an increased level of dread throughout the hour. It’s the type of dread we at home sense even if those in the show can’t. After all, can you really fault the 2nd Massachusetts for not sensing that a fellow human being may have sold them out to the invaders? After tonight, more fool them for not suspecting. But for now, I bought it.
So much of the motivation in Falling Skies comes from people protecting their children. It’s a potent, yet all too easy, way to give characters a personal stake in the unfolding story. Until now, Falling Skies has largely played on easy fears to create tension, to little to no effect. But to see Clayton use that latent fear and convince parents to willingly send their children to potential slaughter…well, it got under my skin a lot more than Mike losing his damn mind mid-mission to rescue Rick a few weeks back. There’s a difference between playing to an audience’s fear and exploiting that fear. “Sanctuary, Part 1” did the former, while the majority of the series so far has done the latter.
“Humans undermining their own species to aid an alien race in the name of self-preservation” isn’t anything new in the sci-fi genre. (See Baltar, Gaius.) But seeing Clayton coordinate psychological and tactical assaults on the 2nd Massachusetts with the Skitters/Mechs felt like a logical extension of the series as a whole. The success of last week’s raid on the hospital, the disappearance of Pope, the evolutionary way in which the harnesses seem to affect children: all of that narratively paid off tonight. The first aspect put a target on the back of the 2nd Massachusetts. The second aspect gave the aliens the long-secret hideout position. And the third expanded the scope of the saga in multiple ways, most interestingly in the form of Megan. The daughter of Clayon’s former second-in-command, she’s now essentially the Mouth of Sauron for the Skitter/Mech Army. Why can she talk? Why does a suddenly strong Ben still miss the familial warmth of his time under the harness? Are these two things connected? Many sci-fi shows tend to devalue their mysteries by shading them in with more information. Yet the true nature of the harnessed children intrigues me more now than at any point thus far.
Clayton betrays the 2nd Massachusetts not due to an overprotective paternal instinct, but the cowardly yet understandable desire to simply survive. It’s a crucial difference, and it speaks more to where these characters should be at this point. There’s certainly a time for a rebuilding of society in Falling Skies. But that time can only come after its preservation can be established/more firmly guaranteed. It’s a fine line, to be sure. There’s little reason to rebuild society if it’s a pale, inferior imitation to our ideals of what humanity could be. But it’s also probably a waste of time to host a baby shower just a few weeks into the post-apocalypse. Finding that sweet spot in between is the trick, both for the characters in the show and Falling Skies as a whole.
Comparing/contrasting Clayton with Weaver is a useful exercise in this case: whereas Clayton views children as bargaining chips to secure his unit’s continued existence, Weaver takes a special in interest in a single child, Jimmy. Now, Jimmy hasn’t been seen much in the past few weeks. But I found myself rooting for his survival in the one-on-one fight against the Skitter. I also found myself moved by Weaver’s reaction to the hug Jimmy gave him after Weaver Resident Evil’ed the alien’s head into oblivion via short-ranged shotgun blast. Clayton has essentially surrendered any hope of a pre-invasion world, and has chosen to make bargains in the New World Order. Weaver claims to act just as tactically, but is surprised to find a soft spot in his heart for a child who should be at a junior high prom, not on the front line of an intergalactic war. The Weaver/Jimmy relationship gives Falling Skies the beating heart it craves without its usual aim towards the lowest common denominator to achieve such pathos.
And when Weaver finds out what Clayton’s up to? Well, let’s just say he’ll probably have a lot more in common with the civilians in the 2nd Massachusetts than any point thus far.
- Falling Skies is getting pretty good with its creepy moments. Last week we saw Mama Skitter lull her “children” to sleep. This week we got the fleeting shadow of the Skitter in the hallway. Far more effective than anvilicious shot of the Skitter crushing the globe. We get it: the aliens want to destroy our world. Roger that. CLANG.
- Having a harness on your back is apparently like having a mind-controlled version of the PX90 system on your back. It cures illnesses! It gets you ripped! It slices! It dices!
- It’s great that kids are forced to go outside and play, since all electronics were fried in the initial attack. Exercise is all well and good. But is having them play outside really the smartest thing? At least keep them in the courtyard, y’all.
- Really enjoyed the one-shot of Tom helping people set up the barricades outside the school via flipped cars and barbed wire fences. Then again, I’m a sucker for one-shots, so I am an easy target.
- Lost fans: anyone get a “Live together, die alone” vibe from Tom in the gymnasium scene?
- Not too much Anne this week, but her target practice with Margaret fit in with the week’s theme of “survival”. She’s been almost saintly in her care of the survivors. Giving her a bit of an edge can only help bring her down to earth.
- Getting Pope in at the end was a masterstroke. First of all, he’s the show’s most interesting character. Secondly, his incarceration not only gives Hal and Co. a fighting chance next week. Thirdly, it offers a way for him to aid the 2nd Massachusetts in a credible way, while still make them wary of him.
- “I’m not exactly impartial.” “Which is exactly why you’re the right person to do it.”
- “Imagine if Dad knew everything you wanted, before you even asked for it.”
- “You’re not the Terminator, honey. You’re just looking to protect yourself.”
- “If you were a little older, we’d give you whiskey.”