There's something that happens to a lot of TV shows, when they start throwing around 20 story ideas instead of focusing on one, and trying to manufacture emotional connection where none exists: The stakes start to feel unreal. The characters start to feel like they're performing against a cardboard backdrop, and we don't care about the things they care about. The drama is half-cooked.
This is something that happens to many genre TV shows, in particular, perhaps because we're already being asked to invest in huge, somewhat abstract notions like alien invaders or time machines. And after last night, I have a strong and nagging feeling that it's happened to Falling Skies.
I really wanted to like Falling Skies, and at times I've enjoyed it a lot. But it seems as though the show has finally just lost its way altogether. Last night's season finale was the perfect combination of:
1) conflicts that felt undeveloped or rushed
2) stakes that were confusing or lacked credibility
3) plot twists that left me scratching my head
To the point where I've been dragging my feet on writing this recap all day. I really like what this show has been trying to do, but last night's episode made me feel like I'd overdosed on lithium or something. I could not bring myself to care about anything I was seeing on my screen. Even to be annoyed by it. I liked last week's episode, because it had a single focus and was tackling real issues, but this week was a return to storytelling that was both dull and over-reaching.
So let's take these one by one:
1) Conflicts that felt undeveloped or rushed
This includes all the stuff that seemed to work so well last week. So is there a military coup in Charleston? Over the course of the episode, Arthur Manchester is in a cell, then he's back in his office under "house arrest," and finally civilian rule is restored, but Arthur is ousted as Majority Leader. None of these developments feels like it comes from anywhere.
And meanwhile, there's the whole thing where General Max Headroom doesn't believe in the Skitter Rebellion. Tom convinces the general not to shoot the rebel Skitters on sight. And then the General hangs out with them and listens to their story, before deciding it's bullcrap. Okay, fair enough. The notion of Rebel Skitters is one that's hard to swallow, and you could easily believe Arthur Manchester's explanation instead, that Tom Mason and Dan Weaver are both under the influence of aliens that implanted stuff in them.
But if you don't believe the Rebel Skitters are real, why not just shoot them in broad daylight? Why let them leave? Why launch a sneak attack in the middle of the night? And why let the Second Mass go off, knowing all the secrets of your security, on this putative suicide mission to kill the Overlord? I lost count of how many times General Bressler changed his mind in this episode, but it was a lot. It honestly didn't feel like his character had a real point of view, or a purpose other than throwing an occasional obstruction in the way of the good guys. He's like the principal from Ferris Bueller.
And when our heroes get back from killing the Overlord — which the General only has their word for — he's suddenly like, "Give these people anything they want!" Why? Why doesn't he just lock them up again? Or have them shot?
Then there's most of the interpersonal conflicts in the episode. Will Pope and his Berserkers take back Tector after he put on a military uniform and acted like a dick last week? I don't care. Will Weaver's daughter go along on the suicide mission or stay behind in Charleston to help build a new political system with her newfound moxie? I don't care. How about whether Matt will go along on the suicide mission? Or whether Ben will stay with his family or go with the Rebel Skitters when it's all over? Again, with the not caring.
There were a ton of scenes in last night's episode where it felt as though the outcome of the scene was pre-determined — you know that Matt and Jean are both staying behind on the suicide mission, because it's obvious. But we still have to watch them play out. The scene between Dan and Jean was especially stilted, with Dan saying things like, "After seeing you stand up to Manchester at the forum, I believe — I know — you're such a person." Who talks like that? It felt like they had given the actors their script outline instead of a script, because everyone was speaking in shorthand.
Worst of all is that every time Tom Mason and Dan Weaver have a scene together, they talk about how they used to have conflicts and disagreements, but they no longer do. Now, the two of them agree on everything. It's never boring to watch two characters talk about their lack of conflict. Nope.
2) Stakes that were confusing or lacked credibility
Either the alien superweapon was not an important target, after all, or it was way, way too easy to destroy. Season one ended with Tom miraculously damaging the alien structure in Boston, too — but at least there, he only damaged it, rather than destroying it. And it was less overhyped.
We're told that the alien superweapon is a huge, important thing, and that if they finish construcing it, then it's game over. But it never feels as though there's any credibility to this threat, and the actual mission against the superweapon goes by really, really quickly. Including the time that Tom and friends are held prisoner and interrogated, the whole "suicide attack" sequence feels like it's over in less than ten minutes. Even in an episode where everything feels rushed or swept under the rug, this is the most rushed thing — and it's the centerpiece of the episode.
I also have a hard time believing in a suicide mission where only one person dies — even though I'm really sorry to lose Dai, who was one of the more likable characters on the show. (And I'm glad Anthony survived. But we could have lost Tector. Tector's had a decent arc already.)
Also, I no longer believe that Charleston is a major settlement, or that anybody cares that much about protecting it. If Charleston was as huge and important as we were told, the people running it would be slightly less vacillating and amateurish, or they'd have been replaced long ago. Given the small budget here, I know they couldn't actually show thousands of people, or more than a few small underground structures, but to compensate for their budgetary limitations they absolutely needed to create a sense of unshakable conviction that this place was a real city in the making, with strong governing institutions. Not just two guys, both of whom feel really easily distracted by shiny objects.
3) Plot twists that left me scratching my head
This was the bulk of the episode, really. I'm not usually a nit-picker but... how did the Rebel Skitters just wander into Charleston? Don't they have guards or lookouts? They just show up, in force. Then the Rebel Skitters are wiped out... off camera, because they probably ran out of money. And then we're told the Rebel Skitters can't go inside the Overlord's evil weapons base, because he'll see their harnesses coming — except they show up anyway, just in the nick of time, when things are possibly about to get interesting.
Meanwhile, you know that any time a woman throws up on television, she's pregnant, right? I don't know why they bother to sell those pregnancy tests at the drug store. Vomit is a foolproof indicator. Anne is carrying Tom's baby, in a development that totally does not feel shoehorned into the last episode to try and add some drama. (And to give Tom a reason to knuckle under to the Overlords.)
Oh, and the Overlords don't use computers, or any kind of storage devices. Not because A.I. rebelled against them in the past or anything — they just don't believe in backing up their data. Their brains are so goldarn huge that they can hold all the relevant information inside their heads. And this one Overlord knows everything about war operations in North America, with absolutely zero records kept anywhere else. But at least, it's not as if that one utterly vital Overlord will constantly walk around with only a couple of guards and let himself get taken prisoner and attacked over and over, right?
It's a miracle these aliens managed to conquer Rhode Island, let alone the entire planet.
For some reason, the way the aliens kept using their alien tentacles to gag Maggie and Hal during the interrogation scene also seemed kind of random. And then the notion that the aliens would really screw with the humans — by having Karen make out with her ex-boyfriend! — kind of random. Except that I guess this leads to the bug inside Hal's eye, that comes out and goes into his ear, Wrath of Khan-style, causing him to have an evil leer. This feels tossed in purely for the purposes of having a cliffhanger, and will probably be undone five minutes into the next season opener.
And finally... there's the random spaceship that lands outside Charleston, right after our heroes have gotten back. Why doesn't anybody shoot at it? Especially once the doors open and a brand new alien walks out? They all just stand there, holding their guns as if they've forgotten what they're for. Of course, it seems highly likely that this new alien is going to be an ally — since the Overlord's gun was aimed at the skies, not at the Earth. There's probably some kind of interplanetary war going on between the Overlords and the prunefaces, and the humans are going to be teaming up with the prunefaces and the Rebel Skitters against the Overlords, and we'll have even less chance of actual human drama cropping up. Um... yay?