For the first three-quarters of "The Middle Men," nothing happens.
Oh sure, it looks like things are happening. Exciting things. Violent things. Emotional things, with lots of shouting and crying and people getting self-righteous at strangers. Ernie Hudson shows up, mainly because there's a character who delivers a lot of vague, non-committal exposition, and Ernie does a decent job with that. (Although even he can't overcome the stilted, forced nature of the majority of his dialog.) There's a decent cold open in which we first meet Ernie; he calls a colleague to help investigate Phicorp—Ernie's an employee there, but he doesn't know what the big plan is—and that colleague jumps off a building after seeing… well, we don't know yet, but I'm sure it was horrible. (Or else somebody mind-controlled him into semi-suicide.) But if you think about it, nothing happened here. "Men" spends nearly its entire running time wallowing in events we witnessed last episode, and it does so for no purpose whatsoever. There's no character growth here, no sharp, insightful writing to help us reconnect with the show's heroes, no attempt to deepen the show's world or strengthen the sense of impending doom. Instead, it's padding. And then, in the last five minutes, there's a flurry of events to give us a passable cliffhanger—or what would be a passable cliffhanger, if we hadn't just been given forty-five minutes worth of evidence that the show has no idea how to handle it's running time.
"Men"'s story focuses on three distinct groups: Rex and Esther at the San Pedro overflow compound, Gwen and Rhys making one more attempt to rescue her father, and Jack tracking down Ernie Hudson for a chat. Of these three plots, Rex and Esther get the most screentime, and if that made you wince, well, you've been paying attention. For once, though, the problem isn't Rex's carnival machismo. He remains an irritant, but he spends most of the episode sad and a little freaked out over Vera's demise. The problem is that nearly all of the time at the San Pedro compound is driven by the Dickwad Administrator and his Cowardly Accomplice and their attempts to cover up the good doctor's death. There's no reason for this to be in here. I have little to no interest in seeing Dickwad punished for his awful crime; awful as Vera's death was, the story hook here is the modules themselves, and who made them in the first place, and turning the show into a badly written noir about a jerk who gets in way over his head holds zero appeal. Colin Maloney is barely a character, and watching him sweat and sneer his way through increasingly forced conversations is just as excruciating this week as it was last week. (At least he cuts back on the sexism. Yay?)
Which isn't to say that Esther and Rex come out of the episode unscathed. Apparently, grief makes Rex even more of an idiot than he was before, as he first walks handily into custody, and then tries to browbeat Maloney into releasing him so that they can both bring his video evidence of Vera's death to the police. How is this a good plan? Sure, Rex doesn't know that Maloney killed Vera himself, but he knows somebody's responsible, and given that Maloney is the camp administrator, it seems like it'd be smart not to play up the "I've discovered all your secrets, let me tell them to the world!" Maloney ends up repeatedly stabbing Rex's open chest wound in an effort to knock him out; it's a difficult to watch scene that plays less like a grim acknowledgement of the new realities of the post-Miracle Day world, and more like an attempt by the writers to wake us up by distracting us with cheap gore. Then Esther wanders in to the rescue, without any real plan, only to get assaulted, nearly murdered, then get assaulted again before Maloney's nervous soldier buddy shows up and shoots him.
It's an issue that both Rex and Esther come off as idiots here, but the fundamental problem is that the entire time they spend in the overflow camp is a narrative dead end. We would've lost nothing if they'd just slipped out quietly after Vera's death, and to waste most of an episode on them without getting any new insight from their story about what the modules were built for, or any new information at all, makes it painfully obvious that the writers are simply playing out the clock. Maybe this could've worked if Maloney hadn't been a compelling character, but he isn't. This is reminiscent of some of the weaker episodes of 24, when the show would stick Jack Bauer (or worse, his daughter) in a cul-de-sac plot just to kill an hour so they could move on to the real story. Only here, we're not working on real-time, so there's even less justification.
Then again, it's not as though the other plots had much better to offer. Gwen and Rhys are still hell-bent on getting her father out of the overflow camp, and Gwen's discovery that the modules are basically giant ovens leads her to rant at a doctor about ethics. Torchwood often turns to Gwen to serve as the show's conscience, and that means she's had her fair share of moral superiority speeches to deliver, but for some reason, tonight's was substantially more painful than usual. It's not that anything she says is wrong, exactly; it's that there doesn't seem to be any tactical reason to her browbeating. The doctor isn't going to bend, and, worse yet, the more Gwen yells at her, the better the chance the doctor will simply snap and have her dragged off the base entirely. Gwen's worst characteristic is her naive assumption that being right means she can do what she wants; and at its worst, Torchwood caters to that assumption. Her speech in "Middle Men" comes off as something that we should be cheering, but really just makes her look a bit silly. Especially seeing as how she's still stuck in the same place as she was last week, trying to do the same thing. (I suppose it's convenient that this time, her father is in too poor health to visibly suffer another heart attack.)
And finally, there's Jack, who continues to spend too much of this series hanging out on the sidelines poking into his own quests. He's barely in tonight's episode; we see him confront Ernie Hudson (by first getting to him through his office girlfriend, which seems like a waste of energy and time in retrospect), learn that there's something called "The Blessing," and then cheer Gwen on as she blows up part of the overflow camp. (What did she blow up, exactly? Was anyone inside?) Presumably next week all these hints and innuendo will start to mean something, as whoever is running the show has kidnapped Gwen's husband, mother, and child, and are demanding she bring Jack to them. So that's something to look forward to, I suppose, and there's always a chance that, as we move towards a conclusion, the show could shed some deadweight and commit to actually telling a story instead of just beating around it. But even if that does happen, I'm not sure I'll have the energy left to care.
- I guess Oswald and Jilly took a break this week.
- For a show about a world crisis, Miracle Day feels awfully claustrophobic. There are still decent ideas floating around (like the "45 club," whose members jump off of buildings 45 stories or higher as a way to guarantee permanent loss of consciousness), but there's precious little follow through. Remember those cultists with the cool masks? I miss them.
- Nice to see Ernie Hudson, at least. Although I'm not sure why his wife called the cops on him when she found out he was having an affair.
- Seriously, what the hell did Gwen blow up?