One of the challenges facing FALLING SKIES is how to not become locked into a locale or a storyline area, but also to make the movement feel like a natural progression, an organic story change, and not just same story, different background. In the first season, the 2nd Mass spent most of their time in a defensive position, trapped like a wagon train against Indian onslaught in a Boston high school.
For the second season, they became nomadic, searching for an almost biblical promised land, the city of Charleston and what they would find there. Once they did get to Charleston, they found that it really only existed in a subterranean world now, one of artificial lights, industrial corridors, and subdued spirits. Like in season one, the underground mall and corridors trapped them in a defense system, but this time, it also allowed routes and ways for them to expand their battle in Season Three, allowing for a fairly secure home base while being able to protect and defend from the perimeters above.
Even that becomes confining, so the discovery that there were others out there, involving President Hathaway in another secret area, allowed the story to spread out again, this time keeping the home base but expanding the locales. This allows for freshness of story and also for a change in tone for the show. The show has moved from a defensive posture to one of taking the battle to the enemy when needed.
But as last weeks episode, SEARCH AND RECOVER, showed, you can’t always be on the offensive. You have to know how to defend, how to discover, how to survive. The episode centers on the survival story of Tom and Pope, who have to depend on each other to find their way back after their plane is shot down by the aliens. This survival story, inspired by the 1958 Tony Curtis/Sidney Poitier film THE DEFIANT ONES is a classic case of bonds being formed on two people, some forced, some natural, some out of a need to survive.
These scenes of Tom and Pope needing each other to stay safe have multiple shadings. Yes, on the top, it is about the realization that two have a better chance depending on each other, but the underlying distrust and previous feelings about their relationship make for a difficult journey.
Yet, one particular scene is very telling to me. Tom and Pope spend the night around a makeshift campfire and start to bear their souls. Pope seems to be especially forthcoming and we find out much more than we’ve know from previous episodes about Pope’s past. We find that Pope’s crime was in protecting his kids, Brandon and Tanya, from a near disastrous hit and run. His need to save them resulted in him killing the man who almost ran them over.
In essence, Pope is Jean Valjean from LES MISERABLES, imprisoned physically and mentally for a simple act of desperation for his family, though a human life is more than a loaf of bread. His Javert is now his own guilt.
In addition, this scene goes back to an alternate human theme of the show. While fathers still seem to present in the 2nd Mass (Tom has his sons, Weaver has Jeanne), the absence of a mother in so many lives has been a driving point all along. In this scene, Pope starts to show his envy of Tom’s fatherhood and his underlying respect for Tom’s closeness to his family. His envy may stem from guilt that he could not be there to save his own family when the aliens attacked. Tom was there for his own family and this scene almost plays out with classic soul searching, a desire to be understood, yet still unwilling to admit to your own emotions.
When Tom and Pope finally let it boil over into a fight, ended by mutual survival needs when Skitters show up, it ends with Tom injured. Any progress in their relationship seems to be dashed by another conflict, another feeling of distrust.
Even their shared attempts to evade capture are laced with mistrust, as if one could not pull off a survival move without tricking the other one into it. This is classically shown in the cliff jumping scene, where Tom simply acts before Pope knows what is happening, and both of them wind up going over the cliff to safety, yet also to Tom’s leg injury. This scene again calls back to another great film, BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID.
And as with any angry yet compassionate father, Tom’s rejection and pushing away of Pope is both a selfless act and yet one that seems cold. Tom believes that both of them will not survive once he is hurt and he resorts to a classic psychological game of making Pope angry enough to leave and fend for himself to save himself. It is as if Tom feels like he is defeated but knows that the 2nd Mass will need the determination of John Pope. However, Pope shows that his respect for Tom outweighs any resentment for Tom and he comes back to save him. One flawed father figure saving another possibly flawed father figure, and maybe a surrogate father figure for Pope.
The theme of “mother” is also prevalent in this episode, as the search party of the Mason Sons, the Weavers, and Maggie set out to find Anne. Maxim Knight as Matt shows how much both his role and his own talent have grown in the three years of the series. He used simple child’s artwork in the first season to deal with the loss of his mother. Now, as shown when they find a dead woman that they at first fear is Anne (but is not), Matt ss shown to be the most emotionally grown up of any of the Masons. The fact that the woman is not Anne, his new mother, is not consolation to him. He insists that the woman be given a proper burial, despite Hal’s dismissal of the importance of it.
Matt later tearfully confesses to Ben his fear of winding up just like that woman, alone and dying or dead somewhere. He has lost so much in his young life, and this season has already lost Crazy Lee, who seemed to treasure him as much as he cared about her. Now, he fears not only losing Anne but also losing connection to all around him. He has had heart to hearts before with Ben, but his emotions are so telling here.
The Liberty Tree, which was Jeannie’s idea, seems to hold the most meaning for Matt, who gravitates back to it to hang the bracelet of the dead woman on it. Whatever dangers the new world finds, Matt finds solace in that simple final act for a person. It is no longer a fear of the aliens, it is a fear of losing what he has been able to hold on to. In essence, Matt is starting to both sober up to the human toll on himself as well as on those around him. Matt is also seeming to start to assume a very professional, no nonsense manner when faced with his duty, but still is in need of someone, somewhere, to hold him and to let him simply confess his fears.
Hal, on the other hand, is a cypher in this episode. We know that there is a split personality at work here, and that the Evil Hal seems to be in charge. Hal appears distant, almost preoccupied. His glances around, his refusal to look up where they find the body can be seen as his knowing what will be found and not wanting to show his hand. It can show his disinterest in what they will find, simply going along as cover. Is he looking out for rebel skitters, or is he anticipating something else to happen? As it is, Hal, is really nothing more than glances or looks in this episode and the Evil Hal story will be more fleshed out this coming episodes.
The same goes for Marina, who is in charge while Tom is missing. There seems to be tension between her and Weaver (but frankly, who hasn’t had tension between themselves and Weaver). Her steely all business demeanor, only broken in the episode when she wishes Weaver well as he sets off on the search mission, is held throughout the episode. This allows for the uncertainty of her motives, especially as she and Dr. Kadar talk about the Volm weapon and the possible actual reason for it. Kadar calls out her claim that she is acting on Tom’s orders and she admits that she isn’t. Still, she proceeds with her own mission, thus allowing the audience to wonder about her motives.
The only problem I have with this episode is one that I guess is unavoidable. We know that everyone has come from a family somewhere, but it becomes a bit of overkill and not that surprising to hear another character justify an action or an emotion because they too have lost family. Even Cochise last week confessed to a missing brother. This kind of gets old for me and only works when it is a major reason for something happening, not just a way of having a character relate to another character. Pope talking about his family seems to carry much more weight on the story than Marina mentioning that she is missing family.
Again, FALLING SKIES delivers on one of the things I love about it, the influences that fuel the story. This is not just informed by classic sci-fi, which would make it a cool galactic shoot-em-up, but it takes its cues from so many great non sci-fi specific elements that came before it. The brain trust behind it chooses some great pieces to draw inspiration from. And with the announcement that a Fourth season has been announced, I can’t wait to see what other touchstones I can spot and admire.