Last night on Falling Skies, someone utters these words: "We're all just a heartbeat away from death. We always have been, we always will be. That's not a reason to lose hope." And sadly, that's pretty representative of the kind of writing we were treated to last night.
There was also a scene where Hal and Maggie are having a moment of unpleasantness, and Maggie said, "It's getting warmer outside" — cleverly stating her hope that things were thawing out between the two of them, using the weather as a metaphor. Hal looks out the window and says, "It still feels pretty chilly to me," thus expressing his own view that things are remaining frosty between them, while continuing this subtle use of the weather as a metaphor.
Sadly, Falling Skies really wants to be a show that features lots of character development, and strong emotional moments. And episodes like last night's show why even though we might respect the show's ambition, its execution falls way, way short. This show aims for sharp characterization and hits on cliches instead. Spoilers ahead...
So in many ways "Death March" was sort of an interstitial episode before the big (and possibly more expensive) Charleston episodes — the whole thing was shot inside the trucks, and large chunks of it were probably done in the studio. (Or maybe they really did film the whole thing on location — I couldn't tell, off-hand.) The Second Mass are basically driving all through the night, on their way to Charleston, and they're processing their feelings along the way.
To counter all the negativity above, there is one pretty great scene in last night's episode. It comes towards the end of the episode, when the Second Mass has found Charleston, and it's apparently a bombed-out wreck. And the show basically does the "BSG middle of fourth season" storyline in like five minutes, with everybody standing around looking bummed and going, "OMG we found
Earth Charleston and it was already destroyed."
And Captain Weaver is standing behind a tree looking severely bummed, and Tector, his new buddy, comes and finds him. Weaver's like, "Not now, Tector." And Tector says that everybody needs Weaver now, more than ever. Weaver asks what he should tell them. To which Tector responds, "I respectfully suggest that you make something up, sir." This being the first time Tector has called Weaver "Sir" after a whole complicated discussion on the topic. Anyway, that was a nice moment, and an actual example of successful characterization.
And now for the rest of the episode.
Actually, there was nothing wrong with most of "Death March". It was just sort of... lumpy mashed potatoes. There were a billion subplots, none of which were that engaging in themselves.
So first of all, Matt Mason has made out his will. And sadly, we don't get to have a whole episode about that. Who is he leaving all his stuff to? Is Matt secretly rich? I bet he left everything to Pope, and that's why Tom is upset. I want to have a whole "courtroom drama" episode where people are contesting Matt's will and there are witnesses and claims that Matt was not of sound mind and body, and possibly some extended discussions of the mind-altering properties of those canned peaches that Matt keeps eating.
Where were we? Oh yeah. So Matt is feeling fatalistic and keeps saying things like, "I think of death only with tranquility, as an end. I refuse to let death hamper life. Death must enter life only to define it." and "If a victory is told in detail, one can no longer distinguish it from a defeat."
Until they almost run over a little harnessed girl. And even though everybody points out the obvious — that they just fell for the "harnessed girl" trap a couple weeks ago — Tom insists that they can't just leave her. So Matt bonds with the harnessed girl, who tells him she loves her "Guardian," aka her Skitter. There is burping, and a lot of Spielbergian forced cuteness. And Matt blabs to the girl all about Charleston and the fact that there's a secret human settlement there. Good job, Matt!
Oh, and somewhere during all this, Anne and Tom discuss one of the more interesting questions on the show — even if they do succeed in kicking the aliens off their planet, there are probably millions of harness children all over the place. In fact, it seems likely the vast majority of the human race is harnessed at this point, since most of the adults are dead. What do they do with those kids? (Even assuming those kids won't all die instantly, the moment the aliens are no longer giving them the drugs we were told they were all hooked on, back in season one.)
Anyway, eventually the harnessed girl sees her "brother," who appears to be a Skitter, and runs away with him, her harness glowing again. I think that's the "A" plot of the episode.
Here are the other plots:
Hal and Maggie drive ahead as scouts, with Pope in the back of the truck dropping beer cans as a trail for the Second Mass to follow. (How much beer can Pope drink in an hour? Where are they getting that much beer? Questions best left unpondered.) Their vehicle breaks down, and Hal has to go off to get water for the radiator — leaving Pope alone with Maggie, to needle her about the secrets of her past that she's been keeping from Hal. So when Hal comes back, she finally spills.
A big point of the Hal-Maggie relationship this season has been Maggie's conviction that she's not good enough for Hal. And now, at last, we find out why. It's not, as they'd seemed to be hinting, that her relationship with Pope was deeper or more complicated than we'd been told before. Rather, it's that after Maggie's cancer was cured, she felt messed up and at odds with all the fake plastic smiling people out there. So she became a Troubled Youth and started doing drugs and stealing, and eventually she went to a correctional facility, where it turned out she was pregnant — and she actually had the baby, who is presumably off being harnessed somewhere now. Hal basically responds to this by being kind of a jerkwad, with the aforementioned "It's chilly" act.
Maggie is one of the cooler characters on the show, but this whole revelation feels a bit underwhelming somehow. Maybe because we already knew she had been a tough kid, and the show has always gone out of its way to remind us that Maggie has been a bad apple in the past — even early in last night's episode, when she's telling Hal he doesn't know how to be really dark. Maybe it's also just because her backstory feels like a mish-mash of cliches that have been tacked on in different episodes, including "teen cancer survivor" and "pregnant junkie," and it feels like the show is trying to milk some drama out of all this that's not quite there. I mean, there's been a freaking alien invasion. Almost everybody on Earth is dead. I'm not sure that "cancer-surviving pregnant teen junkie" even registers compared to that.
Anyway, the episode's "C" plot is the aforementioned thing where Weaver is trying to figure out why Tector won't call him "sir," and Weaver deduces that Tector is ex-military. Weaver wants Tector to step up and take more of a leadership role, and there's some actual good stuff between the two men — although it kind of spirals down into cliche, when we find out just why Tector is so reticent about stepping up and flaunting his awesome military experience when he's surrounded by play-acting civilians like Tom. It turns out that Tector walked his men into an ambush in Afghanistan, and he feels responsible — until Weaver decides to use reverse psychology, telling Tector it really was all his fault, so Tector can insist it really wasn't his fault and have a breakthrough.
I don't know. I like that this show is trying to develop so many of its characters — and I'm hoping that Tector is being set up to be killed off, so Anthony or Dai doesn't have to be the next gratuitous death. (Although where's the episode where we delve into Anthony's psyche? Anthony probably has a lot of emotional damage that we'd find interesting, too. Right?)
And the episode's "D" plot is about Lourdes feeling bummed that her boyfriend Jamil is dead. Lourdes is tending a wounded guy who's suffering from dehydration, and it sort of looks as though Lourdes isn't really giving it her best effort, since she keeps walking away from her patient and looking sulky when she's supposed to be hydrating him. And then he dies, and she yells at Anne, saying that Anne should stop saying that people are dead, because it's a tired line. Later, she apologizes.
All in all, pretty much none of the character development in last night's episode felt fresh or emotionally real to me — although I'm not entirely sure why. It just wasn't clicking, somehow. The characters feel a bit like one-dimensional archetypes that have been blown up to full magnification, rather than three-dimensional characters.
In any case, just when everybody is giving up, we discover that Charleston really is there — it's just hidden, because the humans aren't quite dumb enough to have a settlement of thousands of people that can be seen from the air. Porter shows up and gives Dan some strawberries, and tells Tom that he's becoming a legend. (Based on what? I guess we'll find out.) And then we're off to Charleston! Where, hopefully, the show will return to telling stories about people making tough decisions in the face of an alien invasion, instead of just somewhat shopworn revelations about the terrible things people did or saw before the invasion happened. We can hope, anyway.