With the clip above, Torchwood zeroes in on two strands of Protestant politics, especially in America. There's the "City on the Hill," in which the elect are chosen in advance for paradise. And then there's the forgiven sinner, in which the worst sin can be wiped clean as someone is lifted up by the grace of God.
Ellis Hartley-Monroe, the "Tea Party" lady who spearheads the "Dead is Dead" campaign, stands for the former. And Oswald Danes, the penitent pedophile, stands for the latter. Who will win? Find out in our recap of "Escape to L.A." Spoilers ahead...
Before I get going, let me say first that I'm sorry I didn't recap last week's Torchwood episode — it slipped through the cracks in the midst of Comic-Con craziness. Suffice to say, I loved the dual sex scene, where you couldn't tell if you were watching gay or straight sex. And I loved Jack and Oswald talking, child-killer to child-killer, about their need for forgiveness or oblivion. Great stuff.
So last night's episode of Torchwood wasn't exactly the most subtle — when Tea Party lady is talking about how segregation is sometimes necessary and Rex is watching in horror, I half expected her to point at the screen and say, "Yes, you, Rex Matheson. You should be segregated, because you are black AND DEAD." In fact, this was the first installment of Torchwood: Miracle Day that I didn't love, thanks to all the cheesy "spyjinks" with Gwen and Jack infiltrating PhiCorp while the over the top operative guy tracks and attacks them. And the aforementioned lack of subtlety. Everybody in this episode was doing too much of that thing where they talk about the subtext directly, instead of just letting the subtext come through.
But there was still enough fascinating stuff in here to keep us glued to the screen. In particular, the ongoing question of what to do with all the intensive care patients takes a major leap forward, and finally someone's talking about quarantine. I'm not sure why the CDC isn't coming in and setting up hundreds of tents or creating impromptu quarantine facilities, and basically treating this like any other disease outbreak. But in any case, the end result is the same. Someone is taking over a disused hospital and turning it into a kind of "plague ship" where all the undying can be stuck. Including, randomly, someone's unwanted baby.
It's obviously meant to parallel the real-life situation of the uninsured, who are foisted onto overtaxed emergency rooms and generally given substandard stop-gap care instead of real treatment.
And this situation, of the undying being pushed aside like garbage, becomes the focus of the major debate between Ellis and Oswald, in which neither of them ever says a word to the other. Ellis Hartley-Monroe basically believes that paradise can be created if you shunt all of the undesirable, all of the doomed people, away and out of our sight. (Weirdly, even though an American actor plays her, she talks like a British schoolmarm, not like an American politician.) Her particular subtext is made explicit when she says that she wants to create "a kind of Heaven" by eliminating the polluting elements. Now that there's no afterlife for any of us, and the Vatican is apparently silent, it's more important than ever to create a society here on Earth that only contains the elect. Which is where the idea of a "City on the Hill" comes in, from super old-school Puritan discourse. In that school of thought, the elect are frequently believed to be chosen from before birth, and if you're not one of the elect, there is nothing you can do to save yourself.
And Ellis is explicitly identified as being a Tea Party member, which turns the whole thing into a critique of Tea Party ideas on healthcare — but also with certain strands of fundamentalism that seek to divide people into the righteous and the damned. I have a really hard time believing that a Tea Party member would criticize pharmaceutical companies for wanting to make a profit, or call them "drug dealers." As satire, it doesn't at all land, and with the rich target of Michelle Bachmann out there, it's kind of amazing how far off the mark this salvo is.
But if you ignore the "Tea Party" satire aspect — and you really should, or you won't enjoy this episode as much — then Ellis presents a thought-provoking depiction of one approach to dealing with undesirables — sweep them under the rug, and hint broadly that they're unworthy in some fashion. Play to people's baseline revulsion with the idea of people who just won't die. It doesn't help, of course, that the people in that "plague ship" aren't all poor or gay, but rather the friends and relatives of nice middle-class regular Americans.
And then Oswald comes along, desperate to save his newfound media stardom, and stumbles onto an alternative narrative about the undead hordes — they're like him. They've been lifted up to everlasting life. The scene plays out almost like an absurd theater piece, with people worldwide applauding a pedophile murderer holding up a baby to the light. But the fact that Oswald has committed frankly unforgivable acts makes him the perfect spokesperson for the idea that the beneficiaries of the Miracle are Saved. The greatest sinner of all is claiming that the Miracle is a form of salvation.
In fact, there are two Miracles in Miracle Day: that the dead do not die, and that anyone can forgive Oswald Danes after what he's admitted to having done.
Of course, it goes both ways (just like Captain Jack) — as Oswald claims the "plague ship" people as his part of his own redemption, he's also saying that they're like him. They're all sinners, even the little baby, and their sins are in some way comparable to torturing, raping and killing a teenage girl.
It works because people desperately want the miracle to Mean Something, and not just to be a living death. And of the two narratives, the idea of salvation and eternal life for all penitent sinners is a lot more attractive than the City on the Hill in the end. It's a lot more generous, for one thing. Although it still leaves us with the question of what to do with all the wretched, if we're not willing to cast them from our bosom. Good thing there are Overflow Camps.
I so want there to be a scene next week where Gwen's dad arrives at the Overflow Camp in Wales — and meets the funny Italian man from the Doctor Who episode "Turn Left," who's just arrived there in the back of a military lorry. "Is good, is good," the Italian man can assure Gwen's dad. "Is like a holiday!" They can sing songs together.
The other half of the episode involved the Torchwood gang proving Rex right, once and for all — they are freaking amateurs. Especially Esther, who does absolutely everything wrong, including going to her sister's house, calling CPS on her sister, then checking on her sister in the middle of a sensitive operation and having a freak-out. Why doesn't Esther just rent out a billboard, and then dance on it? Gwen is no better, though, calling Rhys every five minutes and not even remotely keeping her head in the game.
By the standards of television spy shows, all of the espionage in this episode was only averagely silly, from the whole "getting the biometrics of the one guy who can get into the sealed room" to the rudimentary phone-hacking and infiltration. The whole thing felt no dafter than an episode of Chuck, I guess. It's a good thing PhiCorp isn't the Big Bad of the series, since their entire security at their headquarters consists of one gullible front desk guy and one easily overcome warehouse guy. On the plus side, there was a lot of bondage in this episode.
And then there were the Men in Black, who are suddenly chasing our gang around and putting Ellis into a car compactor and acting about as sinister as you can get without special prosthetics. And the guy who gets Jack and Gwen tied up makes a vague stab at interrogating Jack, but basically lets them interrogate him instead, and drops dark hints that Jack "gave them" something a long time ago. Did Jack's immortality get duplicated somehow? I guess maybe we'll find out next week!