Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Falling Skies S1 Ep2: The Armory

"Why wouldn't they build robots that look like themselves?"
-Uncle Scott comparing Mechs to Skitters, making certain assumptions and asking a fairly obvious question, but one that might be overlooked by people simply trying to survive-

"I taught the American Revolution. You know how that turned out." -The hopeful historian Tom Mason to John Pope-

"Isn't it more like we're the Indians and their the never-ending tide of humanity coming in from Europe?  How'd that work out for the Indians?" -John Pope offering Tom Mason an alternate take on historical outcomes-

The ragtag fleet comprised of both military and civilians settle in around Acton, MA and the focus is on a weapons armory.  Lines continue to be drawn between the military segments of the group and the civilians (referred to secretly by the military as Eaters).

Captain Dan Weaver, played by Will Patton, continues to draw a hard line in the sand as the Second Massachusetts de facto military leader.  Tom Mason, played by Noah Wyle, in an effort toward cooperation, defers respectfully to Weaver, preferring to pick and choose his battles accordingly.  Dr. Anne Glass, played rather alluringly by sexy Moon Bloodgood, falls somewhere in the middle taking Weaver to task on behalf of the civilians as patients require.  There is clearly rancor among the ranks fo tent city in Acton.  The civilians sleep in tents while the military sleep in houses.  The argument, and rightfully so, is for keeping troops fresh, but when civilians and military are in such tight quarters it's not necessarily great for morale.

Falling Skies, Season One, Episode 2, The Armory, opens with a failed attempt on a nearby weapons depot protected by a Mech.  Little Jimmy Boland, considered a good fighter by Weaver, fears for the death of Golden Retriever Nemo who is nearly executed.  The make-shift assault group takes fire and Mason and company must retreat.  Boland demonstrates his thirteen year old immaturity by making a poor decision and putting their lives at risk.  But it's clear the group defers to the dogs for scouting purposes.

The next day in camp, Uncle Scott, played exceptionally by Bruce Gray, is one of the civilians' teachers in Tom's absence from studies.  It's clear these survivors are making efforts to create a civilized reality.  It's a kind of microcosm of civilization made for themselves, albeit rather primitive and raw thanks to the alien electro-magnetic pulse weapons [EMPs]. Despite being uprooted by aliens these scenes demonstrate humanity's incredible resilience in the face of adversity.  The filthy-faced children are tasked with understanding why they should appreciate life.

Later, Scott speaks with Mason and discusses an obvious but interesting question.  Why do the Skitters have six legs?  Why are the Mechs bi-peds?  It jumps out at you of course, and despite all of the excitement it's good to see Falling Skies make efforts to address that question very early on or at least let you know the survivors are paying attention.  It's always a good sign that the writers are paying attention to the obvious details.  These questions were raised by children in class proving once again how smart kids are and how often we underestimate their own insightful gifts.  Falling Skies never discounts the young as mere background noise.  They are indeed part of this reality and part of this war and will no doubt play a part in the group's survival.  They are essential.  Even Weaver appreciates their value if only as potential soldiers.  The professorial Mason suspects the aliens have been studying Earth for some time and there may be a psychological component or reason to build b-peds perhaps to intimidate.  There is more to come on this fascinating part of the story.  Moon Bloodgood is a near perfect specimen but it looks like she has some competition on Falling Skies.

Falling Skies also, surprisingly, takes a moment to delve into the question of faith.  A girl named Lourdes cares for Hal Mason. She expresses to Hal and Karen Nadler that her faith is stronger than ever.  I loved this line by Lourdes, played by Seychelle Gabriel.  "I don't pray for God to give me things.  I don't think that's how it works. I ask God to show me what I could do for him."  Whether you have faith or not, it's a beautiful and selfless line demonstrating real faith and strength.

Battlestar Galactica certainly had a deeply rooted foundation in religion and spirituality, an amalgamation of different religious beliefs and concepts and Ronald D. Moore certainly pushed the envelope on those ideas, but Falling Skies is more traditionally grounded in Earth-based humanity and hearing a line like that is startling and refreshing.  The dark tale of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica made for a non-conventional approach to discuss these inherent ideas of faith and belief between humans and cylons, polytheism and monotheism, etc..  Falling Skies lays its heart right on its sleeve with that line of faith which is steeped in convention and tradition.  That's a rare thing in television and when I see something like that I must say that it is striking and beautiful and strangely brave today.

It's clear Hal and Karen are in a romantic relationship.  They are young and its refreshing to see the series jump right into that believable real life component.  These young people are in the midst of a life and death struggle but their hormones are raging too and they would hardly stop from a desire to connect for the occasional romantic liaison.  I know I sure as hell wouldn't particularly if there was a girl named Lourdes around.  Karen suspects Lourdes wants a piece of Hal setting up an interesting little love triangle Twilight-style.  It's another possibility for internal conflict (as if external factors weren't enough).  Sex is still a reality and Falling Skies shouldn't side-step it or beat around the bush (so to speak).  These guys are essentially young adults.  Sex is on their minds.  Further, if death is always an option  for lovers and fighters, sex should be too.

As Hal and Karen frolic in a stranger's bedroom they are surrounded by toys, figures and Harry Potter books.  Hal says his father used to read the books to him and he would fall asleep.  Yeah, Harry Potter always put me to sleep too.  But I'm just not an overly enthusiastic fantasy person.  My heart is squarely in the science fiction camp otherwise this would be Musings Of A Fantasy Fanatic.  Any takers on that sister site?

The second go round to the armory sees the group leave Jimmy behind. Weaver is surprisingly empathetic telling Jimmy he's a good soldier.  Jimmy knows he screwed up last time out too.  You can tell he might have other plans to prove himself.

At the armory, Tom's team loses one of their own to another group of survivors taking two arrows to the chest.  The character was Jimmy's replacement.  It was clearly good that Jimmy sat that one out. The other group is comprised of questionable individuals a la the rogue groups of Mad Max acclaim.

Hal and Karen are captured forcing Tom's group to lay down their arms.

A Mech arrives crashing through the ceiling firing on them and shining its powerful light inside the building.  My Boy Wonder strikes again noting the sound effect to the Mech's light is positively scary and instantly reminded him of the sounds made by the alien walkers in Steven Spielberg's War Of The Worlds (2005).  He's absolutely right.  These are terrific sound effects and certainly make sense given the executive production on Falling Skies.

The Armory introduces us to another regular cast member in Colin Cunningham (Stargate SG-1).  The Armory pays a good deal of attention to character with a focus on newcomer Cunningham as Falling Skies' answer to Battlestar Galactica's Dr. Gaius Baltar or Stargate Universe's Nicholas Rush, played by Robert Carlyle.  Cunningham's character though shares the distinction of being the question mark in the series, but is otherwise abrasive in a much more gritty fashion the former villains.  Still, he's not nearly as unintelligent as his appearance might suggest.  Cunningham enjoyed appearances on The X-Files (the thrilling Season Two's Endgame, and Season Three's 731, and Wetwired), Stargate SG-1 (15 episodes) as Major Paul Davis and The 4400 to name just a few.

One of the great questions often raised within the genre (The X-Files, The Thing) and one that is certainly framed in Falling Skies rather effectively within The Armory is, how do we fight the aliens if we're likely going to fight each other?  How do we survive against an invading force when we effectively kill one another?  How do we fight a common enemy when we fight ourselves from within?  The proposition is no doubt insane when you think about it, but with humanity it's inevitable.  Nations acquire nuclear weapons to protect their borders, but how do you protect your country if MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) is the guaranteed end result for all? The idea of trust and cooperation is certainly put to the test in The Armory suggesting it is unlikely to be a smooth ride for humanity along the way.  Once again, who do you trust is a variable within the equation with the arrival of John Pope.  Battlestar Galactica delved deeply and poetically into this convention and Baltar was always a well-written wild card for James Callis.  Falling Skies will no doubt present its own gritty version of the idea.  Pope will either fail humanity or ultimately become an unexpected savior for it.  But one thing is certain, Cunningham looks up for the task in the role of Pope.

So, in the ensuing melee, one of Pope's racist goons is also shot - his brother.  Tom's group is hooded and taken into their homebase.  The allusion is one of terrorism.  The group is taken to a theater where a dead Skitter is displayed as a kind of trophy to the lawless and the bad-assIt's a red shirt without the red shirt.

The lengthy scene is positively gripping as Pope identifies each of the five captors by some kind of archetype or racial component demonstrating a fairly coarse or racist-like and uncivilized mentality.  Pope comes off an amusingly ignoramus and even slightly mad, but he's sharper than his appearances would suggest. Just shy of Pope shooting Tom in the head, Hal speaks for the group informing Pope they are part of the Second Massachusetts and he can get his group guns.  "How Revolutionary War?," smiles Pope.

Eventually, when Pope and Tom begin discussing comparisons relative to their current situation, Pope offers an interesting twist on the idea.  Tom sees the humans as the Colonials and the aliens as the British.  The hopeless Pope as Mason refers to him sees the humans as American Indians and the aliens as never-ending waves of "technologically superior" (as John Kenneth Muir points out at Reflections On Cult Movies And Classic TV) European settlers.  It is certainly another perspective and not without merit.  Such an idea shakes viewers to their very foundations over such a frightening, seemingly hopeless War Of The Worlds-like consideration.  Muir notes "this duel of philosophies makes for one of Falling Skies best and most chilling moments in the opening two hours."  The character exchanges within the theater may be character driven, but in its entirety makes for a strong entry in the series that will no doubt be reflected back upon with appreciation.

Unfortunately Pope suggests the arrival of the aliens has been something of a "blast" for him.  It may be the best thing that ever happened to him because in some twisted way it gives him direction and props him up among others.  He even sits in a throne-like chair in his make-shift home. This "bug hunt" has given his life meaning.  You could imagine Pope maybe more of a layabout prior to their arrival, but the whole affair plays directly into his baser instincts.  He even suggests he had his problems with the law prior to the arrival of the Cooties as he calls them (a nod to the popular childhood game).  Nevertheless, there's more than meets the eye with Pope and circumstances have been self-fulfilling and leading to a rather unfortunate reality for the man.

Meanwhile, Hal is escorted by a female from Pope's group named Maggie.  She's yet another sexy female entered into the Falling Skies ranks.  Hal takes an unsuccessful swipe at Maggie who is taking him back to the Second Massachusetts group as a bargaining chip for the others.

Mason and Pope discuss how the Skitters and Mechs work on sound but how the "Cootie birds" work on heat.  An effort to take one of the alien ships down after luring it to a heat source failed.  It essentially deflected an RPG shot.  The dynamic between Wyle and Cunningham is indeed a strong one.  They capture your attention on camera.  Their simple banter is engaging as Tom convinces Pope to untie his hands and allow him a beer.  Tom makes his way to his wounded, motionless brother unconscious with a sidearm.  Pope recognizes Tom's efforts to grab that sidearm from the very beginning and the writers cleverly work in the idea of trust even from the perspective of the perceived enemy.  "I'm thinking we're having this good conversation yet you had ulterior motives," says Pope.  Tom asks, "What would you do?"  Pope has little belief in the future.  He calls saving the Earth the stuff of "fairy tales."  Pope indeed has little hope.  Once again, how do we form alliances without trust.  If the perceived reality of things is different can differences be set aside?  Mutual Assured Self-preservation should be enough.

Maggie delivers Hal back to his base camp for an arms-for-hostages negotiation. Sound familiar? Weaver refuses to do the trade playing the hard line.  He tells Hal there is no way to know where his father is because he had a bag on his head.  Weaver is going to move the civilians to safety first.  Hal is taken by Mike Thompson to a room to be guarded, but Mike releases him to find his father.  Anne joins Hal to find Maggie and make an offer to help the wounded in her camp.  Maggie returns to Pope, without arms, but with Anne and Hal in the hopes Anne's offer to help his brother will allow the prisoners to leave.  Pope assures life but nothing more.

Tom and the others are held hostage while Pope and his riff raff seek food and extra munitions from Weaver.  Maggie realizes the two goons are outnumbered by the prisoners of the Second Massachusetts.  She takes aim and kills Pope's brother and Q-ball.  It's clear Maggie was an unwilling participant of Pope's gang.  The scene also assures a meeting between Pope and Maggie will one day come.  Maggie refuses to ally herself with rapists and thieves no more and joins forces with the Second Massachusetts.  And for now she is free.

Pope is surrounded by flares and the possibility of incoming alien vessels as leverage to get what he needs from Weaver before the aliens arrive.  Inevitably, Pope is flanked by Mason and Weaver. Tom Mason gives Pope two options.  "Join or die."  An alien ship arrives and fires on the group and Pope is the only survivor of his criminal band of merry animals in the new apocalypse.  Not so very bad-ass now.

Weaver takes Pope prisoner and reads Tom the riot act about chain-of-command, but also demonstrates honor as a man of his word. He informs Tom he has three days to look for his harnessed son Ben since he has completed the armory mission.  With new information provided by Maggie he might have a chance.

There's a humorous finale as Mason and Pope chat.  Tom tells him he should have taken him up on his offer like Maggie.  Pope responds, "And join your tattered remnants.  I'll take a rest for a little while.  Being the leader of a post-apocalyptic gang of outlaws has been exhausting."  He is sharp.  These images conjure reminders of Abu Ghraib (2003-2004) and employs science fiction as a mirror to an unfortunate chapter in history.

Falling Skies ends on a sweet moment as Matt and Tom play a little Lacrosse, a sport single-handedly destroying baseball across America.  Tom thanks Anne and she knows he would have done the same for her.

The second effort, The Armory, for Falling Skies is extremely light on aliens and science fiction but relatively strong on intense character-based, survivalist drama.  The Pope-centric affair pits Cunningham and Wyle toe to toe in some fascinating exchanges.  Much of the episode sees Tom Mason either chastised or tied up and ironically the captive of the school or speaking venues he might once have lectured in rather than being lectured and schooled by others.  But the episode is solid and moves the character portion of the story forward a little into this strange new world as we continue to adjust to existing characters and new faces.

Apart from the Mediterranean good looks of Lourdes we discover another important point, Falling Skies is no longer headed by just one pistol-packin' hot blond, but with the arrival of the flatteringly photogenic Maggie, two sexy, sassy blonds with attitudes are now available to aid the lead of the Second Massachusetts against the alien invasion.  The invasion never looked better.  Now, if the humans could just get out of their own way and concentrate on those nasty aliens, but that's not likely to happen.  By the way I won't ask where those aliens are all day long.

Falling Skies serves up another engaging dose of fractured resistance-based drama with loads of guns and weaponry to honor the latest episode within the impending alien maelstrom.  Writer Muir points to The Walking Dead as an apt comparison noting other critics had placed both Falling Skies and The Walking Dead within similar post-apocalyptic survival territory.  Muir writes, "In The Walking Dead -- even with the apocalypse happening -- man is still roiled by pettiness; by racism and prejudice. He is unable to organize in more than small groups, understand the nature of his enemy, or form much of an effective resistance against the zombies. Although zombies are an ever-present danger in The Walking Dead, wanton and inappropriate sexual appetites are still sated, interpersonal resentments fester, and redneck-ism thrives. Although a (small) sense of community does develop over the first season, there's still much disagreement among the lead characters."  Even with recent episodes of The Walking Dead Season Three, things continue to look incredibly grim and dismal.

The survivors in Falling Skies definitely show markedly less nihilism and dissension.  There is indeed much more hope in play and based on these early episodes more optimistic signs of people attempting normalcy and community.  It's certainly not perfect.  Suggestions of racism by Pope's group are displayed here as well as the veneer that in-fighting is kept in check but bubbling just under the surface.

With The Walking Dead leadership in indeed a problem and quite frankly the survivors are directionless and in utter disarray.  They are a template for chaos.  Mason, on the other hand, is a sound character setting the tone like a compass and offering hope to the people that have survived.  He offers a guide for order, stability and hope.  Judging Falling Skies on that comparison alone it's clear that Falling Skies and The Walking Dead are two great post-apocalyptic interpretations to their respective realities and thus each offers a unique take making for splendid viewing.  There will be no gun control in Falling Skies or in Hollywood in case the title, The Armory, didn't quite make that clear.

As Muir wrote, "So while Falling Skies and The Walking Dead share an obsession with the downfall of man, they boast vastly different approaches and perspectives on that downfall."  Falling Skies, Season One, Episode 3, Prisoner Of War does offer more of the tension exhibited here by Pope and internal strife is still a reality.  Fortunately the survivors in Falling Skies seem to be making strides toward hope or at least a greater sense of community in the face of their trials while some are still clearly limping along.  Falling Skies even dares to delve extensively into a spiritual journey based on faith. 

Elsewhere, the survivors in The Walking Dead look like zombies themselves.  Taking a look at The Walking Dead and Falling Skies after two seasons, initially I would have given the edge to The Walking Dead and I once believed it to be better, but Falling Skies looks to be the more interesting science fiction yarn for this writer as of this writing with equal amounts of potential.  I'm doing the rain dance for Falling Skies. I'm also inclined to root for Falling Skies based on the sheer hopelessness of The Walking Dead, which I still consider appointment television, but it is trying me.

Writer Graham Yost already brought a gritty, survivor's tale to television and arrives in comforting territory here with a touch of science fiction.  He brings the credentials.  He penned Replacements and The Breaking Point for HBO's Band Of Brothers (2001).  He even wrote and directed Gloucester/Pavavu/Banika for The Pacific (2010).  Yost has been heavily involved with Justified (2010-present) and is now showrunning the gripping new drama The Americans (2013).  So Yost has a strong grasp of human struggle and conflict and that writing is reflected effortlessly in the exchanges here between Pope and Mason.

Director and executive producer Greg Beeman's visual flair comes from the humble beginnings of The Wonder Years and the very best of Heroes (2006-2010), particularly Season One and Smallville (2001-2011).  John Pope looks to the fire in the sky.  Falling Skies takes great pains to employ the conventions best associated with alien abduction infusing the series with a real sense of alienness.

Like Live And Learn, the human survivors continue to do just that. And if we haven't learned the lesson by now, we're reminded in The Armory that it is not necessarily the aliens we need to fear but ourselves.  Despite reality shaking adversity it's still the battles from within that can create the greatest hardship. That reality is one that could easily tear us apart.  The Walking Dead threatens that possibility and it will no doubt present its problems along the way in Falling Skies in the same vein as the conflict found here between Tom Mason and John Pope, on the surface, archetypes for good versus evil.  Falling Skies certainly takes those concepts and mines them deeper.  The big difference is The Walking Dead is populated my mindless zombies that merely distract from the hatred of men.  Falling Skies is dealing with a higher intelligence and an invading force not of this world, which requires cooperation for victory.  This is one reason why the two series offer such different and compelling portraits of humanity in the face of adversity.  Humanity in Falling Skies isn't immune from internal strife, but it damn well better organize for any chance of victory against a technologically superior and well-organized lifeform.

The Armory: B. Writer: Graham Yost. Director: Greg Beeman.

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