Here’s where we start to hope. Here’s where we begin fervently, passionately hoping that two outstanding back-to-back episodes of Falling Skies is a trend, possibly the shape of things to come. I say this fully aware that the episode prior to these two was flawed and even irritating. But Molon Labe was excellent television; it was exciting, it was (as I so often say about Falling Skies) surprising, it was absolutely ruthless in its adherence to the realities of the world it is building, and it was full of promise for future episodes. If this show keeps fulfilling its potential, then I will feel genuinely rewarded for slogging through a very uneven first season and several episodes in Season 2 that were almost-but-not-quite, in terms of what excellent televised science fiction could be.
Molon Labe cranked the stakes up high. Last week, I noted that we had an excellent episode with no alien creatures at all. This week, there were aliens everywhere, including some sort of creature we’ve never seen before: a creepy-crawly, gut-wrenching (literally) metal-boring arachnid that may just give me nightmares. We saw other aliens in brand-new contexts as well. We got a clearer look at an Overlord, one of the ten-foot tall “grays” that are running the show, and we see how the other creatures—including Karen, a harnessed human—protect and serve them. And, almost as disturbing as the new spidery things, we saw Karen actually holding one of the giant slug creatures that becomes a harness; a symbiotic alien that merges with and overtakes human teens.
In addition to learning about HORRIBLE SPIDER THINGS and giant slugs, we also learned that the skitter rebellion hinted at in the last episode is real. Skitters are the creepy eight-legged lizardlike foot soldiers of the alien invasion. We recently encountered a skitter (“Redeye”) who claimed that some skitters have formed a rebellion against the Overlords, and they wanted to join forces with the human resistance. Naturally, the humans couldn’t know whom to trust. Redeye escaped.
Now we know that the Overlord in this episode fears the rebellion, and last week’s elaborate ruse to kidnap Ben—our hero’s formerly-harnessed middle son—was only done in order to gather information about the uprising, which corroborates Redeye’s claims.
Military stakes were high as well. Molon Labe (or Molon Lave) is an Ancient Greek phrase meaning “Come and take them.” It was famously used by King Leonidas I of Sparta during the Battle of Thermopylae. He defiantly refused to surrender his army’s weapons, although vastly outnumbered. This battle entered popular culture through the film 300.
Our hero, Tom Mason (Noah Wyle), was a history professor before the invasion, and Falling Skies has struggled to present that effectively. At worst, his history leads to a lot of lecture-hall-style speeches about military history and the Meaning Of It All. At best, Mason’s references contextualize the invasion with a deft hand. To me, this falls on the better side; we have a pervasive sense of history surrounding us. Ben mentions Revolutionary War soldiers in an argument with Tom. This makes sense, given their relationship; surely the historian lectured his kids at home, back in the day, and it strengthens the atmosphere of history without shoving it down our throats. (Their arguments this episode had the feeling of a real family’s arguments, and they were quite moving.)
Another such example is Anne describing Jamil as a “Trojan Horse”. It’s a scary scene that will probably give you the creeps, but it’s great.
This week we say goodbye to two regular characters, recurring guest stars throughout the season: Jamil (Brandon Jay McLaren), and Boon (Billy Wickman). Jamil was last week’s super-mechanic and Lourdes’s love interest: Two very strong reasons for thinking he’d stick around. (He was also played by an excellent character actor with real screen presence who previously appeared as the teacher on The Killing). Boon was recently seen getting his ass handed to him by Tom Mason for letting Tom’s youngest son, Matt, serve as skitter bait. If you’d flat-out asked me who the writers would kill, I might have allowed Boon as a reasonable choice, but Jamil? No way. He was gradually worming his way into an important and visible spot, there was that romance, he’s a bit of eye candy, and he was becoming vital to maintaining vehicles and other machines.
This is smart writing. Even minor characters, if they’re important to us, if we know who they are, are shocking to lose, and they let us know this war is very real. A death like Jamil’s matters much more than that of a character we didn’t know—which is who writers kill off when they’re afraid of alienating their audience.
And what a death! What a disturbing, horrifying, my-skin-is-crawling death! Watch it in the video above (if you’re not squeamish, that is).
Last season, Lourdes (Seychelle Gabriel) was super-religious and featured in some heavy-handed sequences about faith in the face of devastation. I can imagine the collective television audience tearing out its hair in frustration. Surely even deeply religious people don’t want such simplified pablum! This season, we’ve had one scene of prayer and that’s about it. Lourdes has mostly been in the background as Anne’s assistant, with some sweet touches of her burgeoning romance with Jamil. Now, with Jamil dead, we see her lose her faith, all at once. This resolves a question: Is Gabriel a bad actress, or was her material last year badly written? I now feel confident that the answer is “bad actress.” The wave of bitterness might have seemed compelling in more skilled hands, but not from her. It’s a shame to have a weak actress in the middle of things, because otherwise this cast is strong. I love a lot of the small character roles, and knowing that any of them are expendable gives small scenes a “life is precious” quality; I find myself really appreciating these characters.
The writing this week avoided a number of obvious pitfalls. The first was the “helpless people trapped in the basement” scenario. Recall: Tom goes around back to see if the battle out front is a diversion. It is, and he lights oxygen on fire to defeat a mech (mechanized servant of the aliens). The resultant fireball and explosion traps Anne, Lourdes, and Matt in the basement, unbeknownst to Tom.
Now, a number of clichés were just waiting to come to life at this moment. I expected characters to try to outrun a fireball. They didn’t. I expected that much of the episode would revolve around a rescue attempt. Perhaps one of the trapped people would be injured, or in desperate straits, or become a pivotal pawn in the battle occurring outside. Mostly, I expected these three to be helpless. After all, they fit the expected trope: Anne is the hero’s love interest, Lourdes is a young woman who had just been in a scene that reminded the audience of her young romance, and Matt is a little boy—the hero’s little boy. Brilliantly, thrillingly, none of the action played as expected. None of these people were helpless, Anne and Matt were particularly heroic, and it was Lourdes’s male love interest who ended up helpless (and gruesomely dead), not sweet young Lourdes herself.
Tom had another encounter with another chatty alien. Yep. That gets old. This time, the same Overlord who tortured and interrogated him between Seasons 1 and 2 was his prisoner. The Overlord said a few predictable things about humans and their silly ol’ sentiment and their screwed-up planet—things that sounded like they’d been written by Gene Roddenberry. But this time, the encounter was much shorter on words and much longer on action, with a tormented and manipulated Ben present to make sure it wasn’t a gabfest. One Roddenberry-style sentence wrapped that part of it up, and then we were back to interesting and unpredictable content.
Now Karen is still out there with a wounded Overlord, Ben has run to join the skitter rebellion, and the surviving Second Massachusetts is on the road to Charleston, where a group of survivors may (or may not) have formed a rudimentary government and restored some modicum of civilization. Anything could happen. Anything.
Originally published at Indiewire Press Play.