“Bastogne” (episode 6; originally aired 10/7/2001)
In which Doc Roe survives winter’s hell
(Available on HBO Go.)
I love a good battle scene as much as any war movie aficionado. They’re the lifeblood of the genre, the thing that brings stories to their climax and wins movies Academy Awards. But as I watch these stories, I often find myself wondering about the others who make the machinery roll on, the medics and chaplains and cooks. They’re the sorts of people that war movies rarely have time for, because the story needs to get to the battle, not keep hanging back from it. But I always find myself thinking about the people who make a giant apparatus run, the pieces that aren’t always noticeable, until you start really looking. And perhaps that’s why I’m so drawn to television, a medium that can adapt a famous nonfiction book about World War II and devote one of the most pivotal hours—set in the midst of the most pivotal battle these men would fight in—to a medic racing from foxhole to foxhole in the bitter cold, just trying to keep his friends alive.
“Bastogne” was actually somewhat controversial when it aired, this time not with the TV critics of the time but with the miniseries’ eager viewers, who entered the episode expecting to see a rough adaptation of the Battle of the Bulge and Siege of Bastogne and, instead, got, as Alan Sepinwall suggests in his excellent review of this episode, a Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead version of events, told from the point of view of a character who had seemed one of the more minor members of the ensemble up until this point. The episode gives us moments with all of the characters we’ve come to know and love over the first half of the miniseries, but if they’re not near the central figure, Doc Roe, then we don’t follow them back into battle. The bulk of the episode is waiting. We wait in the fog for something to happen. We hear the terrible sounds of battle. And we wonder, along with Roe, if this is the time that one of those we’re closest to will die.
I suppose it’s odd to frame this story in terms of “closeness.” The whole point of Roe’s arc is that he tries to keep himself separate from the men. He sleeps in his own little foxhole, and the first time we meet him, he’s sitting apart from whatever’s happening, waiting to be called into action. When the time comes for him to enter the action, he sprints to the right place, but his whole job is to stare at the wound and try not to think about the person who has it, to find the best way to fix the problem or, at the least, alleviate the suffering before they finally bleed out. And if the early going at Bastogne is difficult for all of the men of Easy Company, it’s particularly hard on Roe, who finds himself so short of bandages that it’s a triumph when the company takes a German soldier prisoner and he has a spare one on him. The whole episode is framed around these ideas of common medical supplies that Roe desperately needs more of—particularly morphine and bandages—and it turns something that could be horribly abstract into something intimate and personal.
“Bastogne” is my favorite episode of the series—well, it’s this or “Why We Fight”—and I think it’s because of how wonderfully writerly the whole thing is. Bruce McKenna’s script is the best structured and organized in the whole series, because it’s confident in its ability to keep us focused on Roe’s character arc at the expense of all else. I always come back to Joss Whedon’s famous advice to storytellers in moments like this: Don’t give the viewers what they want. Give them what they need, and they’ll love and trust you forever. Well, McKenna’s script is full of moments when we’re given exactly what we need and only little tastes of what we want, and that’s what makes it so damn effective. Take, for instance, that moment when the tanks roll in through the treeline, caught only in brief glimpses as Roe dashes between injured men. This is part of a much larger battle, but we need only the bullet points to know where we are. Similarly, the connection between Roe and Nurse Renee (invented by McKenna, though both people were real) never progresses beyond the most basic of conversations, as we might want, but that lack of anything more drives the beautiful final moment when he turns Renee’s head scarf into the bandage he needs to fix Babe’s hand. The script, throughout, is just perfect and elegant, the kind of thing that wannabe TV writers watch and are dazzled by. (I count college me among their number; I watched this episode and found it seriously intimidating.)
“Bastogne” is also beautiful in the visual department. One of the things that surprised me while researching this article is that the whole episode was filmed on a soundstage in England, not out in a snowy forest somewhere. And there are places where the snow drifting down from the sky looks fake enough that I can see it, but for the most part, I find the illusion wholly convincing. Much of that is down to director David Leland, who’s able to turn this giant battlefield from a place where we know the scope of everything and the geography of how it’s laid out to an archipelago of foxholes. The characters are part of the same company, but they don’t really feel like it when they’re dug in in small groups of two or three. Keeping us in Roe’s perspective, then, is a way for Leland and McKenna to give us insight into what everybody’s up to as he races from place to place, fighting not just against injuries caused by the Germans but by winter itself.
It’s the winter that adds so much to “Bastogne,” in the end. You could set this basic scenario at any other time of the year, and it would still be powerful. But the sight of the endless snow fields, the cold and hazy fog, and the flakes drifting from the sky gives the episode a haunting, melancholy feel that can’t be captured during the other seasons. One of the first things we see is Winters attempting to give himself a shave with cold water, and it underlines just how committed these men were, not just to their own survival and the survival of their brothers, but to living according to their own individual codes. It’s the kind of thing that only becomes really apparent when the characters have to overcome more than just the bullets whizzing around them, and the dead of winter ends up being exactly that. I also love how the episode captures how things sound in the middle of a snowfall, the way that everything in the forest is muted, even the sounds of battle, or how the bullets seem to have an added hiss as they zip through the air. Band Of Brothers is a technical standout on almost every level, but this episode might be the tech departments’ finest work.
In the end, though, the episode wouldn’t work without its central figure. As Doc Roe, Shane Taylor’s performance is a marvel of economy. Watch how little he moves or speaks, unless he absolutely needs to. Taylor is an actor I haven’t seen pop up in many other things, and his Southern accent is, as is typical for Brits, a little shaky. But he’s exactly the right man for this part and for the way that Roe’s long slog through this siege begins to feel like an unending nightmare. Around this point in the series, Band Of Brothers makes a concerted shift toward telling individual stories, instead of more all-encompassing ones, and it’s one of the reasons I’ve usually preferred the last five episodes to the first five. But I also think the show can get away with it because its bench, as evidenced by Taylor, is so incredibly deep, while it’s done the grunt work of establishing who everybody is so well that by this point in the series, you’re able to pick out the characters as Roe races by, off to save another life.
The other reason that “Bastogne” works better than, say, “Carentan,” one of the miniseries’ other episodes built around a relatively minor character, is that when Roe isn’t onscreen, the events depicted are ones that occur largely because of his absence. By far the most significant of these is the scene where Pvt. Julian bleeds out, largely because no one is able to drag him to safety, where Roe might be able to patch up his wounds well enough to at least get him back to the church back in town (where Julian might have died anyway, but we’ll get to that). Defining an episode like this around a character we haven’t seen a lot of is always a challenge, but McKenna, Leland, and Taylor make you feel palpably everything that happens to Roe—both when he’s onscreen and when he’s not.
Mostly, though, I think “Bastogne” sticks with me because of the awful feel of the waiting. Roe spends most of the episode shrouded in a very literal fog of war, a hardened, unreadable expression on his face, and then someone calls, “Medic!” and he’s off, inevitably only to realize that the someone he needs to help might be many someones. I talked earlier about closeness, about how this episode’s arc is based around how Roe can’t allow himself to get too friendly with these men, and “Bastogne” is at its best when we’re looking at the psychic strain of working on all of these mangled bodies. In most other episodes—hell, in most other war movies—we get a quick look at the carnage, realize how awful it is, and move along. But Roe can’t do that. He’s the guy who has to keep looking, has to keep trying, until the problem is solved or death takes its course. There are more shots of dead bodies in this episode than any of the preceding, and it’s usually Roe looking at them, at all of the people he wouldn’t have been able to save, even if he was there.
It’s also the episode that gives us our first significant female presence of the series in Renee, the woman whose connection with Roe is fleeting, before she dies in the shelling of the city. The conception, I think, of what it means to be a medic in combat (at least in the popular imagination) is that it’s somehow “easier” to be there, away from the front lines and working not to take lives but to save them. It’s why the role of the healer in war stories is often played by the beautiful nurse. We code the role of the one who mends, not wounds, in feminine garb in our storytelling, and we always have. But unlike some other stories, neither Roe nor Renee is presented as someone whose job, while vital, is somehow all about rebirth or healing (whether physical or spiritual). Instead, it’s presented as something awful, something perhaps more psychologically damaging than what the men on the front lines have to go through, and the two of them are portrayed as absolutely damaged and wounded in their souls by the process of trying to save one more life. It’s vivid and raw, and there’s nothing about it that doesn’t sing with the pointless brutality of people shooting at other people, instead of the wonders of healing and grace. Hell, one of the last images of this episode is a church diminished to rubble. You can’t get much less subtle than that.
Yet for all of the ways that “Bastogne” could have been the episode of Band Of Brothers that most tried to suggest war was hell or something equally trite, it’s never content to offer up easy answers. Roe will need time to heal from his wounds as surely as the soldiers he manages to save will. But that doesn’t mean that the work he does and the cause he does that work in the name of are not just. “Bastogne” pushes him to the edge of despair—that bombed-out church, Renee’s scarf amid the rubble—but it also gives him a moment where grace can be in his choice to keep sacrificing. He sits in the fog, back to a tree, and when that word rings out across the forest, he runs out to answer it, both because he must and because he needs to. He may not be at the war effort’s forefront, but he’s a part of it all the same. The machine hums along, but it only hums because it has him walking along behind.
- Buck is pretty messed up at this point in the series’ run, and Neal McDonough is so good at playing this kind of man, all torn apart and aching inside but having absolutely no idea how to express that. He would leave this project and almost immediately begin work on the series Boomtown with Graham Yost (who writes the next episode of this series), and that’s another show where he gets to show all of these particular colors.
- As if I needed more reasons to love “Bastogne,” it’s also a little bit of a Christmas episode, as the men camped out in the woods hear the sounds of the German soldiers singing “Stille Nacht” across the way. But since the war is grinding its way to an end, the two sides don’t have a Christmas Eve ceasefire or anything. When Harry starts up a fire (in a dell!), he’s shot for his troubles and becomes the man Roe uses his last bit of morphine on.
- Though he’s not in much of this episode, Damien Lewis makes the most of every single moment he has. I love that bit at the end when you’re not sure if he’s going to reprimand Roe (for waiting in his foxhole too long) or thank him for saving Harry’s life. And then, instead, he tells him to head into town and get a hot meal. Lewis is so good at playing mercy, and I think too many of his later projects have forgotten that. (Of course, the town’s been bombed into oblivion once Roe goes back, but Winters can’t know that.)
- Women and children alert: I talked about Renee quite a bit above, but Lucie Jeanne makes the character more than just a war movie cliché. There’s a spark to her that gives all of her scenes with Taylor a hint of potential camaraderie (at the very least), which is then tragically cut short.
- I am squeamish about all manner of frost-related injuries, so all of the times that the characters’ extremities are purple (or worse) from the cold are worse for me than almost any of the more traditional carnage in the series.
- The end titles inform us that Patton broke through the German line on the 26th of December, allowing more supplies to be brought in and the wounded to be evacuated, but I also like the note that no man in the 101st believed he had to be “rescued.”
- The men share Lucky Strikes in the foxholes on Christmas Eve night. I like to think that somewhere out there was the waiter Don Draper talks to in the Mad Men pilot.
Next week: The series hits its biggest battle and another of its best episodes in “The Breaking Point.”