Our best chance of survival is his survival.
This was the best episode of Falling Skies yet. It was exciting, it offered surprise after surprise, character development was meaningful and satisfying, it kept the viewer off-balance, and it feature sharp performances and a non-stop sense of urgency. If you’re not watching this show yet, now’s the time to start. Sure, it’s “low-brow” (whatever that means) and you have to be on board for genre fiction and alien creatures, but with that caveat, this is juicy fiction that aspires to be more.
It didn’t occur to me until I sat down to write this recap that Homecoming featured not one single alien; no skitters, no mechs, no Overlords.* It’s a wonderful exercise in what a science fiction television show can be, and doesn’t have to be, and the ways in which it can thwart convention. The unseen presence of the aliens was everywhere of course, from the way they invade people’s bodies (a motif this week) to the violence they do, to the threat of their possible appearance at any moment. Naturally, the arduous post-apocalyptic circumstances in which our heroes of the Second Mass live are a direct result of the alien invasion, but it’s wonderful to know we can have a great episode without ever seeing a creepy, horrifying skitter.
*Newbie catch-up: Skitters are lizard/arachnid aliens who serve as foot soldiers in the invasion of Earth. Mechs are their deadly mechanical servants. Overlords are Roswell-style “grays” about whom we know very little, except that they’re in charge.
Not that there weren’t creepy or horrifying parts. The scene when Maggie and Hal come across a pile of leaves that turns out to be a barely-concealed burial ground for de-harnessed teens (hang in there, I explain harnesses below) absolutely fit the bill. It was strange stuff for sure, right out of a horror movie, but it also had an odd, alien shape to it. The burial space was subtly reminiscent of the pod shape we’ve such teens sleep in, in past episodes. The woodsy setting with fall leaves covering bluish bodies lent an eerie naturalism to the scene, and then, of course, there was the jump moment, where Karen predictably awakens.
This show has suffered from too many coincidences, as I’ve pointed out in past recaps. How pleasing, then, to find the script this week specifically addresses the point: Karen, Hal’s girlfriend prior to being captured, cannot possibly be so close to their location by coincidence. The Second Mass is about six hundred miles from where they were when Karen was captured. She didn’t just happen to show up, near death and in need of rescue, only a mile or so from the unit’s current location. She must have been planted somehow, and is therefore threatening.
Karen’s presence takes a surprising turn, as Ben finds himself drawn to another formerly-harnessed teen. I have written in the past that Ben’s superpowers (the video clip below spells them out pretty nicely) give us hints about what the skitters themselves must be like.* Instead, the superpowers are going to take these kids on a very different journey, and I can’t guess what comes next.
*More catch-up: Human children are captured and “harnessed” by the aliens; they have bio-mechanical harnesses attached to them that control them and start making them alien. Skitters were, themselves, once harnessed prisoners on invaded worlds. Ben and Karen are formerly-harnessed but retain a mysterious connection to their former masters.
The clip above does a great job of spelling out what makes these “razorback” kids odd, special, and different (Ben says “razorback” is a nasty nickname given to him because of the spikes remaining in his spine after the harness was removed). They have a connection to the aliens which they can’t understand or control, and now for the first time, we see they also have a connection to each other. We don’t know who to trust, and frankly, neither do they.
This show’s writers know how to keep their audience on its toes. There were predictable moments, sure, but the ambiguity keeps things interesting. Especially now that we suspect there are more than two sides: a skitter revealed last week that there is an uprising brewing, skitter versus Overlord. Is it true? Can the skitter be trusted? Again, we don’t know.
The episode was so well balanced that I hesitate to call the Weaver story the “B” story, the conventional term for a secondary story in a television episode. In this case, I’m not sure which story is A and which is B.
The Captain Weaver story—in which the commanding officer of the Second Mass collapsed and nearly died when an entirely new and different form of the aliens invaded his body—was foreshadowed, but again, I was completely surprised by the direction it took. He was injured two episodes ago, and we saw last week that there was some problem with the wound site. I thought this would lead into a crisis because of the lack of medical supplies, perhaps another daring raid on a pharmacy with skitters laying in wait. Instead, the writers took us someplace we’ve never been before, and taught us things about the aliens we couldn’t have guessed. Of course, in pop culture, a mechanic can rig up anything, just as a scientist knows all sciences equally well (the “Reed Richards effect,” if you’re familiar with The Fantastic Four), but the miraculous invention of a blood pump and the portable generator going out atjust the moment when it was complete were the only trite moments in an excellent hour of television.
With all of this—A/B stories taking compelling twists and turns, fuel shortages, weird disease, and the anti-climactic and still-uninteresting return of Pope—there was yet time for good interpersonal and character development. Tom Mason (Noah Wyle) and Anne Glass (Moon Bloodgood) are going in a good direction. The show opens with a sweetly romantic scene (Tom does a pretty good Weaver imitation), and they fight like grown-ups who know how to fight.
At one point, Tom shouts, “Rebecca stop!”
Yep, Tom has a dead wife and called Anne by her name. It was bound to happen, not in the TV-cliché way, but in the inevitable-in-a-relationship way. It was handled deftly, and the scene had a grounded, human feeling to it.
In fact, almost all of the dialogue scenes had that same quality to them. Ben had a self-effacing ability to stand up for himself, identifying his freak nature as an advantage and arguing his case as if he was just a teen talking about his grades or after-school sports, that is amazing. Hal and Maggie steered away from any number of pitfalls as they nogitated their way arounbd a non-relationship. This episode was written by Ben Oh, who also did the excellent Compass. He knows how people talk to each other, and that’s a lovely skill.
This week, even the music wasn’t overplayed, which made the dialogue scenes that much more enjoyable.
Thematically, the episode addressed homecoming mostly in its absence. While it’s true that both Pope and Karen—characters from past episodes—returned to the Second Massachusetts this week, I think the core of this episode was in the dialogue between Anne and Tom: That was what we had then, this is what we have now. It’s good, or it can be, but it’s not home, not really. It was especially telling that Tom, in talking about the past, doesn’t at first mention people (too painful) or things; he doesn’t mention plumbing or cell phones or fresh food. He cites “crisp New England air.” Above and beyond the world that was destroyed, Tom is homesick.
As are they all.
Originally published at Indiewire Press Play.