About halfway through last night's episode of Falling Skies, there's a super-inspirational moment where the episode's guest star assures Captain Weaver that all the 176 people following him super-respect him as their leader. Except, of course, the whole rest of the episode consists of nothing but everybody disobeying orders and pissing on the chain of command. How are these guys ever going to fight off the aliens, when nobody can obey a simple instruction?
So one thing you have to say for Falling Skies, it has some guts when it comes to killing off characters. Last night's episode, "The Compass," did a great job of teasing that Jimmy was going to survive being impaled on a tree branch — and then yanked the rug right out from under the episode. Given how much of a major supporting character Jimmy was throughout the show's first season, I figured he was safe for the time being — plus he's a kid, and this is a Spielberg show. If only poor Jimmy had been a Mason, he'd have pulled through.
As it is, the decision to kill off one of the show's most sympathetic characters packed a pretty impressive punch, and proved that this show is moving away from the cozy "camping in the woods" vibe it sometimes fell into in season one.
(And meanwhile, there are lots of little reminders that life is not exactly a picnic for these guys, including Dr. Anne pointing out that they're suffering from tons of infections, and the little hints that winter is going to kill more of them than the Skitters and Mechs put together.)
But of course, Jimmy wouldn't have died at all — if anybody in the Second Mass actually knew how to obey an order. Captain Weaver orders Jimmy and Ben to go out on patrol, to secure the perimeter around the aircraft hangar where the militia is bedded down — not to go miles out of their way to find and kill some random Skitters. The look of sick joy on Ben's face right after he's finished off a Skitter by hand, in the episode's opening teaser, is kind of amazing to behold.
Hal is actually kind of right to come down on Ben for his role in Jimmy's injury and subsequent death — if Ben had just stuck to patrolling and doing recon, like he was ordered, Jimmy would be alive and well.
Then, of course, there's the implied order of "if a red-eyed super-Skitter starts activating your residual spikes and doing things that look uncomfortably like mind control, you should notify your superiors immediately." Which Ben most definitely does not do, even once it happens a second time, at the end of the episode. Ben wants nothing more than to keep killing Skitters — but lying by omission about what's going on with him is the best way to save Skitter lives.
And then meanwhile, there's Pope. Even though — as Pope keeps pointing out — Tom Mason literally just had an alien pillbug thingy inside his head, Captain Weaver has ordered that Tom be reinstated, or at least allowed to rejoin the Second Mass as some kind of homily-spouting mascot. And in any military organization with respect for chain of command, that would be the end of it. But instead, Pope and his Berserkers (minus Anthony) kidnap Tom and order him to leave the unit behind, and not let the metaphorical door hit his ass on the way out.
(How exactly that's supposed to work is not clear — what if Tom walks away, like Pope wants, and then just walks right back twenty minutes later? It's not like there's anything in particular stopping him.)
Luckily for Tom, Jimmy and Ben are out on one of their unscheduled, unordered Skitter-killing missions, so they're able to put a stop to this mutiny before it goes too far.
And then Tom has one of his brilliant ideas — why not put him into Pope's unit, the Berserkers, so he can keep an eye on Pope from close up? At that point, as Pope points out continuously, Tom is under Pope's command and therefore must obey orders. Except that — wait for it — Tom basically never obeys a single thing that Pope says, and continually undermines his new C.O.'s authority. (The show contrives to make Tom right about this, by having a Mech randomly show up just as Tom is countermanding Pope's order to attack. If there wasn't a Mech there, then killing those two Skitters would actually have been the right move, since otherwise those Skitters would report back to base about human activity in the area.)
So what consequences does Tom face for disobeying his new C.O.? None whatsoever, even after he beats the crap out of Pope for disrespecting Ben, and for stealing the dead Jimmy's compass. Pope, ever the voice of reason, points out that Tom ought to face a court-martial or something, and when nothing of the sort is forthcoming, he basically says he'll take his ball and go home. Except that most of the Berserkers opt to stay with the Second Mass. — except for Anthony, who goes with Pope to keep him out of trouble.
And yes, that's the buddy-comedy spin-off we've been dying to see.
Just to complete the cycle of nobody obeying orders from their superiors, Captain Weaver receives direct orders from the new government at Charleston, which is probably the only superior authority he's likely to hear from, and decides to disobey them. At first, anyway.
A woman shows up in a prop plane that's specially designed to be invisible on radar, and tells Weaver and the gang that there's a new government forming to
make a better target organize the fight. And she passes along the order for Weaver and his troops to mobilize there, where there are hot showers and free cable TV and magic fingers and stuff. Weirdly, nobody ever makes the point about putting all of humanity's eggs in one easily-bombarded basket. In any case, Weaver wants to stick to his original plan, which is to go hide out in the Catskills so he can work on his stand-up comedy career. (At least Weaver already has better comic timing than Tom Mason.)
Tom Mason argues against the "hiding in the Catskills" strategy — because if they go to ground, the aliens will think they've given up. Apparently, his years of studying history have never encompassed the crucial concept of "lulling the enemy into a false sense of security." Tom believes that if the aliens think the Second Mass have stopped fighting, they'll... what? It's not clear. In any case, at the end of the episode, Weaver decides they owe it to Jimmy to stay in the fight.
It could have been a lot more powerful, though — the scene where Captain Weaver is trashing his headquarters in sheer fury and grief after Jimmy's injured should have been intense and overpowering, and instead it looks like a guy going through the motions of trashing stuff. Neither Will Patton nor Noah Wyle is ever quite able to convey rage — they do pretty well with stoic loss, but whenever the show calls on them to portray out-and-out rage and despair, you end up with a feeling of annoyance instead.
And then there are definitely a few moments of schmaltz, including the motif of Anne marking off every day they're still alive. And Tom groping around for something comforting to say to Ben, and winding up with a lot of drivel about how they're there for each other in a lousy situation — except that at least the latter stuff felt authentically like someone trying to say the right thing and failing.
All in all, the death of Jimmy gives some needed punch to this episode — and the fact that absolutely nobody can hear an order and carry it out actually works in the show's favor, because it shows just how screwed these people are. They're not a military organization, they're a motley gang of undisciplined stragglers. And now they're going to Charleston. The question isn't, is it a trap? But rather, just how much of a trap is it?