Torchwood gave us a fantastic episode last Friday night, in which we explored two parallel love stories: the love between Jack and an Italian who came to America, yearning to breathe free; and the love between Jack and Gwen. And in both cases, love and betrayal went hand in hand.
Pretty much my only complaint about "Immortal Sins" is that it should have come a couple of weeks ago. Spoilers ahead...
So yeah, there is a distinct feeling of Torchwood getting back on track here, after a two-part "concentration camp" storyline that should have been only one episode, at most. Now the focus is back on the show's long-term characters, Jack and Gwen — and more importantly, we're exploring some really powerful territory, and getting a new angle on the questions of mortality and corruption that have been at the heart of Miracle Day. And the plot is, thank goodness, moving forward.
The Doctor has always had one standard-issue explanation for why he can't fall in love with his companions: They age and die, and he just goes on living. I seem to remember both David Tennant and Matt Smith coming out with that line at some point. (Although maybe River Song is the exception, because she is not quite as mortal as the average Earthling.) In any case, Jack compares himself to the Doctor in "Immortal Sins," but he seems not to have taken on board the Doctor's lesson — relationships between mortals and immortals are always bound to end in tears.
And maybe, as Jack hints once or twice, what makes love meaningful is that it's focused on the present, and any promises you make for the future are just a way of making the present feel more real and beautiful. Like when Jack and Angelo are watching that couple get married, and Jack says that it doesn't really matter if the marriage lasts, or works out. Promises are a way of pretending the future matters, while acknowledging that it doesn't. All that matters is the here and now.
Jack meets Angelo in 1927, on the brink of a really sucky couple of decades — Jack, of course, has already lived through World War II once, and is all set to live through it again. (The chronology gets ultra-confusing. I think you could find four Jacks in World War II Britain at one point: one locked in a vault, one pretending to be a Time Agent, one visiting with Toshiko Sato, and one working with Torchwood.) So their love is always poised on the edge of a precipice, no matter what actually happens — there are terrible historical events looming in the near future, which Jack already knows all about.
It's all sort of summed up by the lovely "firebird" speech, where Jack talks about the beautiful creature that only lives for a minute and burns so bright you have to close your eyes — so that it leaves an impression on your eyelids that lasts longer than the creature itself. Jack is clearly talking about the all-too-brief loves he's experienced, but also about himself — he's lived for thousands of years, but he's only appeared briefly to people, before disappearing from their view.
The great joy of this episode is the way it juxtaposes two of Jack Harkness' great loves, and finds more richness in each as a result of the contrast. In both cases, Jack gets betrayed, partly for being a smug bastard. There are:
1) Jack's relationship with Angelo, his Italian. Which is just so beautifully written and acted, with the lovely seduction scene and the scenes of Angelo's apprenticeship together with Angelo learning about the love that dare not omcom its name. It's hard not to think of Jack's nuturing and seduction of Ianto when you watch those scenes. And Jack makes the same mistake he always makes: he tosses Angelo in the deep end. And then Angelo sees Jack die, and can't quite handle it when Jack is still alive a year later, after Angelo gets out of Sing Sing. Angelo winds up handing Jack over to be butchered. Rather a lot.
2) Jack's love for Gwen, and her love for him. Apparently Gwen's police training back in Wales never included hostage negotiation, because she doesn't do any of the proper steps for handling a kidnapping, when the Families take Gwen's family and demand she hand over Jack. Instead, she betrays Jack, just like Angelo did so many years ago, and drives him up the Christopher Columbus Transcontinental Highway, heading for the middle of nowhere. And she flat-out tells Jack that she loves him, but she'll kill him if it means getting her baby back. And Jack says he loves her too, then promises to rip the skin off her skull to save his own life now that he's mortal.
Partly, these scenes reveal a lot about love, and about how it's of the moment and the fact that it ends in betrayal only makes it more beautiful. But they also reveal a lot about Jack, who's Mercurial by necessity — being immortal means he has to keep moving on — but also enjoys being a man of mystery and being the person that nobody can fully possess. Jack loves to keep dropping little hints, so that people will have to keep asking him about himself. He's always saying things like, "You'll learn to love it," in relation to Angelo's confusion about his weird references. Being an enigma is Jack's main fetish.
In fact, Jack is always intent on creating a bit of a cult around himself — and that's probably a big part of what he likes about Angelo, who's a deeply conflicted Catholic who clings to his faith in spite of his fear that homosexuality has cut him off from God. And in Gwen, Jack has found someone who's essentially got an addictive personality, who treats her Torchwood adventures like a drug that she craves even though they ruin her relationships with her husband and child. Jack loves to be the mysterious cult figure that people throw away everything to be with.
So he's pretty much asking for people to cut him to ribbons, just to find a way of coping with his indefinable mystery.
The interesting thing about the conversations between Jack and Gwen is that nobody mentions the bigger picture. It's clear enough by now that there's something sinister going on with the Miracle, and there are people who've planned for it. And those people's agenda seems to revolve around reducing the human race to sickly but undying vermin, who have no choice but to dispose of each other. That's a great evil, and really Gwen should be willing to sacrifice her daughter to fight it, if need be. Jack already made that choice with his grandson, and Gwen is showing that she's less willing to do what's necessary. In fact, Gwen's choice isn't about whether to betray Jack, it's about whether to betray the mission. Sadly, nobody mentions the elephant in the car.
In any case, the plot starts to trundle forward a fair bit. Angelo is still alive, some 80-odd years later. And he's somehow connected to the Families, who are sporting that triangle emblem that we've been seeing everywhere.
During the period when Jack was strung up and people were carving him like a holiday roast, Angelo's friends sold Jack to three business people for $10,000, and the three businessmen made a sort of triangle symbol with their hands. And even though Jack got away, it seems as though the sinister triumvirate were able to harvest some secret of immortality. Angelo claims not to know anything about those three, when he finally rescues Jack. But he's either lying, or he found out something afterwards.
And that's really what happens when love goes terribly wrong — not just that your loved one turns against you, or kills you, or hands you over to be sliced up. It's that your loved one takes the best part of you, the secret that made you who you were. And gives it to the world, in a debased form. A living death: seems fitting that we got it from a Jazz Age romance gone bad.