About halfway through this episode, we sighed and whined as one, “Where are the aliens?” We indicated last week that the need for filler in a ten-hour story had the potential to be detrimental to the series as a whole, and when it became obvious that a good portion of this episode was going to be about family issues that we originally found quite meaningless, we tsked and acted annoyed and put-upon like the drama queens we are.
But then the writing took a rather brilliant turn in the 3rd act, and a lot of the scenes earlier in the episode suddenly became a lot more important. Esther’s need to both connect with and fix her sister ultimately put the team and the mission in great danger and resulted in a potential shift in the status quo for the team. Sure, we can – and did – criticize her for being quite possibly the most naive CIA analyst the world has ever seen, but her fumbling seems to have been a major learning moment for the team, all of whom (besides Jack, of course) had contact with their own family members this episode, a development that makes Rex’s blowup at Esther kind of a dick thing to do.
Like Esther’s family problems, it remains to be seen if Rex’s interlude with his father will have any effect on the plot. We thought it was there to make Rex seem more sympathetic but they’ve gone so far overboard with this character that we’re not sure he can be rehabilitated without making a major sacrifice or turnaround. He walked up 66 flights of steps until his chest literally burst and we STILL think he’s bully and a dick. And poor Vera (what’s with the old-fashioned names for young female characters?) only looks pathetic flirting with and teasing him over the phone like he’s just a charming rogue.
This was one of the problems with the original Torchwood: the characters were so cartoonishly put together that it was extremely difficult to care about any of them. Back during most of the first two seasons, Jack was a cipher (even though he was the one character about whom we knew the most), Gwen was kind of a mess, personally speaking, and took out her frustrations and insecurities on everyone around her. But the real issue as to why the show didn’t really wow anyone in its first two seasons came down to two characters: Owen and Tosh. The former was an unrepentant jerk to everyone around him and the latter was a wimpy, crying, needy mess who was supposed to be very good at her job, as hard as that was to believe. Sound familiar? We said it last week but it bears repeating: Rex and Esther are Owen 2.0 and Tosh 2.0, just without the sexual tension. We don’t think it’s a coincidence that Tosh and Owen weren’t part of Children of Earth, which is almost unanimously considered a creative highpoint and one of the best mid-show retoolings ever seen on television. So why on earth would the creative team try to recreate these failed characters? For us, the show only really gets moving when it’s focused on what we consider the two main characters: Jack and Gwen.
The minute the episode went from family melodrama to a typical caper story, the energy, excitement, and level of entertainment all shot up. Eve Myles and John Barrowman have great chemistry, as well as an onscreen history. As far as we’re concerned, they could have an entire episode centered around Gwen’s cleavage and Jack’s ass, working undercover. Besides, unlike the weepy Esther and the increasingly abrasive Rex, these two characters are just plain fun. Gwen’s attempt at an American accent was HILARIOUS (“Hot diggety!”) as well as her relieved admission to Jack after the door opened: “I didn’t think that would work!” Even tied up and at the mercy of a scenery-chewing C Thomas Howell, they were the kinds of heroes you naturally want to root for in a story like this: brave and funny and full of personality. “Oh great. He’s cryptic.”
As for that cryptic assassin, we have not much to say. He spewed a lot of mysterious factoids that we’re obviously meant to obsess over, but we’re not inclined to try and figure things out before they happen. Whoever hired him and is pulling the strings of Phicor will eventually be revealed, so why waste the energy on so little information? About the only thing that stood out was the line about Jack “giving them” something, which made us groan a little because once again, that was a major plot point of Children of Earth. It could be that they’re tying the two stories together. Are the 456 behind Miracle Day? It’s possible, but we doubt that’s the direction, since it’ll hinge on a story that a lot of the American audience never saw.
Then there’s the increasingly hard-to-accept Oswald Danes. Then again, it seems like the writers haven’t quite figured out how to make him acceptable. From clear out of left field, Jilly Kitzinger gives a speech about how much he revolts her, even though every other scene with these two characters, both before AND after this one, makes her seem like his biggest cheerleader. Watching him get all messianic on the plague ship, we could see how a character like this would be engrossing to the media and the American public, but we still have a really hard time accepting the idea that America as we know it would accept a pedophile as a messiah, let alone as a corporate spokesperson. A desperate America, falling apart and in chaos might do so, but we haven’t seen that yet on this show. We hear a lot of talk about how bad things are going to get, but we haven’t gotten there yet. The only evidence presented to us has been overworked workers in an overburdened healthcare system. That’s bad; but we just don’t buy the so-called collapse of culture that’s supposed to be going hand-in-hand with it.
We think Danes is going to be interesting going forward. The speech he gave this episode was really the first time he was interesting to us at all. We just don’t think the way he was established to the viewer was particularly believable. It was largely the same problem with Mare Winningham’s riff on Sarah Palin. This morose, schoolmarmish personality simply doesn’t fly if you’re trying to make a comment on modern American demagoguery. A female pundit and politician making radically extreme arguments on American cable news isn’t exactly a rarity. In order for this character to be believable, she should have been perkier, prettier, and saying things that sounded more positive than they really were. A political figure like the one presented here simply wouldn’t captivate the American public the way we were supposed to believe she did. And really, if you think about what she was arguing – government controlled healthcare facilities - it makes absolutely no sense to label her as a Tea Party member. Don’t try and do commentary on the American political scene, Brits. Even we can’t get a handle on it most of the time.
Really, once the show stays away from political and social commentary, it goes back to being a lot of fun. We’re not sure why Davies and his team took such an approach this time. The show was never really about such commentary. Even when it was damning the entire British government for its monstrous fictional acts in Children of Earth, it was more about government in general rather than British culture and politics specifically.
So: more scenes with Jack and Gwen; less of the family drama; do something to rehabilitate Esther and Rex as characters, and stick to the capers and not the political commentary. That’s not asking so much, is it?
Still, it was an enjoyable, if uneven episode.