Last night’s Falling Skies got off to a fantastic start—that opening sequence, showcasing the rubble of our world, dotted with alien corpses full of snakes, was beautiful. And seeing the renegade Pope as the heroic rescuer was fantastic. It was the set-up for a great episode... that didn’t quite materialize.
The main flaw with Falling Skies has always been the need to turn Tom Mason into an idealized hero, instead of grappling with his very real shortcomings. And this was front and center in both storylines of last night’s episode. Pope and Anthony get their own community of survivors, who view Pope as their savior (at least, at first) and Pope starts to show how he would run a community of human fighters, if he were in charge.
Pope’s main complaint about Tom Mason is that he gets innocent people (whose last name isn’t Mason) killed, by treating them as cannon fodder. This has an element of truth to it, although it’s also true that people die in war. And Tom Mason has, at various times, been kind of a megalomaniac and has shown willingness to squander other people’s lives for his grand gestures.
So if Pope’s biggest complaint about Tom is that he treats non-Masonic human lives as disposable, you’d expect that once Pope is in charge of a community, he’d view every single life as precious... right? But no. Instead, “Non-Essential Personnel” becomes all about how Pope is obsessed with a “survival of the fittest” mentality, and anybody who he thinks can’t fight for their group has to be exiled or put to death. This glaring contradiction—Pope endorsing a worse version of the thing he’s criticizing Tom for—could be just showing that Pope is a hypocrite, or that he lacks any degree of self-awareness, or just that he’s a veritable Walt Whitman of post-apocalyptic survivors.
But how much more interesting would it have been if Pope actually tried to lead according to his oft-expressed principles? What if he’d actually been an okay leader? Not a great leader, but not a terrible one, either? OK, so he’s supposed to have just “broken bad,” according to the title of last week’s episode, but everybody on this show has broken a few times at this point. What would have been really neat to see is a scenario where Pope is actually reasonably good at keeping his people—all of his people—alive, except that he has Hal Mason tied up in the backroom and cannot let go of his vendetta. In that version of this story, Hal Mason becomes Pope’s fatal flaw, the thing he can’t get away from, which prevents him from being anything but a nutjob.
Instead, Hal Mason is tied up in the back room of the bowling alley where Pope has set up shop, but he’s just one of a multitude of reasons why Pope is clearly not a good leader or a good person at this point. (And let’s just take a moment to appreciate how shitty it is that Anthony is being turned into Psycho Henchman #1 after years of getting short shrift on this show. So, so shitty. Anthony is a much better character than this. He’s a freaking ex-cop. He hated Pope until five minutes ago.) The meat of “Non-Essential Personnel” comes when Pope tries to force Hal to admit that Hal’s dad is not a saint, and instead Hal yells that his father is the only reason any of them is still alive. (Which, to be fair, is true, because that’s how this show has set things up.)
In the end, Hal proves that he’s better than Pope, by winning over Isabella, the young woman who was wavering between being a Pope supporter (a Papist?) and helping Hal escape. Hal convinces her that the only thing that matters is to be there for each other, and that’s what the 2nd Mass does. Which reminds her of something her father used to say. (And in the episode’s “B” plot, the 2nd Mass gets ambushed by a grieving father who takes Dan Weaver hostage, and Dan convinces this guy of the same exact thing—being there for each other is all that matters. Dan and Hal give almost the same speech around the same point in the episode. The unstated message is that this wisdom comes from Saint Tom, ultimately.)
Falling Skies has been flirting with the idea that Tom has become too hardened by this war—letting Mira Sorvino die being Exhibit A—but it still wants Tom to be proved right, in the end. Of course, in this episode, Tom does make a decision that potentially throws away the future of the human race, because he wants to rescue Hal and get payback against Pope. The part of the episode where Tom shoots Pope and then gets drawn into a nasty, pointless shootout is actually great—and I cheered at the bit when a random Hornet swoops down and plucks Tom, carrying him off. That was fricken great.
But the idea that Tom is faced with a choice between saving humanity—by leaving Hal to die, and staying alive to help the show’s latest alien benefactors to deploy their weapon against the Espheni—versus saving his son, feels a little half-baked. Probably because the whole thing where Tom sees aliens speaking through his dead wife hasn’t yet borne much fruit as a plot device, and the notion of yet another ultimate weapon, and yet another miraculous chance to take the Espheni down, feels like a late-in-the-game plot hammer. Plus it comes down to the idea that nobody can win this war except for Tom. Which brings us back to the fact that this show just can’t quite let go of Tom being basically awesome, even though it clearly wants to.
Maybe it’s pointless to criticize things based on what you wish they’d done, instead of what they actually did do—but I felt like this latest episode really wanted to be a slightly murky storyline, where Tom is kind of an obsessed psycho who wants payback against Pope as much as he wants to save his son. And Pope isn’t all bad, but actually proves that he can save people, if he could just let go of his fixation on the Masons. I liked the glimpses of that story that I saw last night, a lot.
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