“Carentan” (episode 3; originally aired 9/16/2001)
In which the nerves can get to you
(Available on HBO Go.)
“Carentan” is one of the weaker installments of Band Of Brothers, if not the weakest outright. It’s the kind of episode that’s interesting in theory but not really in practice, as it attempts to build an entire story around a concept—sometimes, men are petrified by combat—instead of really telling a story. And then just when it seems like it might have found a way to tell that story, it instead cuts away to something else entirely, and we spend even more time on stuff that had nothing to do with what just preceded, before a graceful final scene that somehow ties everything together, but only barely. It’s not the most well-structured episode of the series, and it doesn’t help that it’s built around a character who’s more cipher than man. Oh, and it also doesn’t help that it’s based on what’s basically an untruth, if not a lie.
There’s not really much that could have been done about this. When Stephen Ambrose was researching Band Of Brothers the book, he heard from some of the men of Easy Company that Albert Blithe had died in 1948, having never really fully recovered from the wounds he sustained at Carentan (including a bullet in the neck). He put that in his book—which apparently only mentions Blithe a handful of times—and then the book was immortalized as this miniseries (which expands those handful of mentions into a full, episode-long character arc). At no point in this process did anybody—Ambrose, or his editor, or somebody at HBO—think that maybe someone should check if this account of Blithe’s life was accurate. Because the truth of the matter is that Blithe didn’t die in 1948. In fact, he outlived World War II by a couple of decades and stayed in the Army for the rest of his life. He even fought in the Korean War and died an active service member in Germany in 1967. The cause of death? A perforated ulcer that developed into peritonitis and renal failure. Not quite what’s depicted here.
Now, obviously, I don’t expect a fictional account of real events to get every single event absolutely accurate. There needs to be a certain amount of dramatic license taken to make the events as interesting as possible, as well as make them fit in the timeframe allowed. When dramatizing the life of a real person, not everything will fit. But the lesson that the producers want to teach the audience via Blithe is one that the life of the real soldier actively contradicts. “Carentan” is about how fear affects men on the battlefield, and even when Blithe sustains the wound that eventually kills him (in this version of events), he has this grimace on his face like he’s not ready to be doing this again so soon. But where the real Blithe felt that fear at first, sure, he must have overcome it, or else he likely wouldn’t have stayed in the Army until his death. It’s sort of like The Social Network, a movie I dearly love, but one that basically and baldly misrepresents a real person and real events to suit a preconceived story. It’s not quite slander, but using a real person to make a point when events don’t always back that point up is always going to fall into a weird grey area. (At least in the case of “Carentan” and the book, everybody can just be accused of bad fact-checking. What’s weird, however, is that when Blithe’s family asked for the error to be corrected in the episode’s closing titles, HBO did no such thing, though the Blu-Ray release of the series contains a feature that correctly places Blithe’s death in 1967.)
This would all be an intriguing footnote if “Carentan” were better than it was, but unfortunately, it’s not good enough to distract from some of its weaknesses. There are absolutely wonderful moments here, particularly in the two big battles and the scenes between them, but for the most part, the episode leans too heavily on a character we’ve only just met, played by an actor who’s not up to the challenge of playing a young man who’s so paralyzed by his fear that he actually battles hysterical blindness at one point. Much of this isn’t on the actor at all, to be sure. Marc Warren is basically asked to play a variety of scenes where he cowers, and there are only so many ways to differentiate that particular action. It’s telling that the scenes where Blithe finally comes alive as a character are the ones where he finally begins to fire upon the Germans, then kills one. Warren’s best material in the episode comes when he goes to find the lonely body of that German soldier and pay his respects. (It also indicates something that the British Warren, who seems to struggle with the American accent here and there, does his best work in a scene where he’s allowed to remain almost completely silent.)
“Carentan” is a nice idea for an episode, but it never rises beyond the level of an idea. Its centerpiece is a scene where Speirs and Blithe meet up in the middle of the night between skirmishes in the battle among the hedgerows. Blithe is talking about how he hid in a ditch because he was so scared, how he was late to the invasion because of that fear, and Speirs stops him cold. Blithe needs to understand, Speirs says, that he’s already dead. The only way he can function in wartime is to shut off so much of his higher function and become effectively a fighting zombie. When he is without mercy and remorse, then he’ll be the most effective soldier he can be, and, perversely, that’s when he can finally have a glimmer of hope that he might make it home alive. It’s a philosophy that’s served the courageous but brutal Speirs well, giving him the fearlessness needed to take that gun last week but also causing him to become a figure of hushed rumors about how he gunned down a bunch of prisoners of war, possibly after offering them cigarettes. (True to these sorts of stories, the tale gets a little taller every time it’s told.)
Everything Speirs says is true, so far as these things go (and is a great reminder of why Speirs is one of the series’ best, most complicated characters), but the scene also rather underlines one of the problems with “Carentan” as a whole: It’s much more about having characters baldly state what it means to be terrified in the middle of battle than it is an actual depiction of what that would be like. “Carentan” actually gets about 90 percent of the way there, to be honest. In particular, the scenes where the men of Easy Company clear out the houses in the little town are brutal and horrifying. Being terrified in that moment would be a completely rational response, so we can understand why Blithe—or anyone—might simply shut down in the face of all of it. But the most common explanation for why people in combat situations are able to quiet that fear and do their jobs is that when the shit really hits the fan, they’re fighting for the others fighting alongside them, for the camaraderie they feel and the will to survive shared among them. By having this story be about Blithe, a character who exists only to teach us an object lesson in overcoming fear while in battle, we lose that particular element outside of the abstract. (Blithe fights because Winters tells him to fight, and we could connect that back to the earlier scene when Winters was kind to him and helped him through his blindness.)
The most potent answer for why the show follows Blithe in this episode is that he really was the guy who was scared, really was the guy who overcame his fears but briefly, before getting shot by the bullet that would take his life a few years later. But because that’s not what happened, the show loses that particular argument. Had Blithe’s story been handed to some other composite character who could be dropped into the previous two episodes and given more prominence to build to this point in better fashion, the episode might have gained power from its ultimate destination. Instead, we’re stuck with a character who never pops off the screen, played by an actor who isn’t given a lot of material to work with, handled via a character arc the episode loses interest in with 10 minutes left. Blithe is taken to the hospital, where other men are celebrating their wounds, and we’re meant to see him as a casualty about to happen. But instead of ending there (which at least would have had thematic symmetry with the opening shot of Blithe staring into the sky mirroring nicely the shot of the heavily wounded Blithe staring at the hospital ceiling), we get several more scenes of motorcycle tomfoolery and the characters learning they’re headed back to the front after a brief stay in England. Malarkey picking up the laundry and learning how many dead and wounded men have packages left behind at the launderer is a powerful scene, but it feels like it loses something for coming at the end of an epilogue that doesn’t hang with what came before.
In general, Band Of Brothers is better the more it focuses on singular characters in the midst of battle, but that doesn’t really carry through in “Carentan.” The truth of the matter is that some of the men who become fearless, as Speirs describes, will die, just as some of the men who never overcome that fear will die. It’s all terrible and random, and I like that “Carentan” chooses to portray Blithe as someone who never turns off his mercy or remorse, someone who will go and find the man he felled and have a quiet moment with his corpse. It just feels like it would have paid off more if we were watching someone with an actual character behind them, rather than a figure shipped in to prove some sort of point. And it would help even more if that character weren’t based on a man whose life ultimately ended up undercutting the episode’s central argument.
- I love Ron Livingston so much that I had forgotten his role in a lot of these episodes is just to show up at the end and either deliver exposition or have rueful conversations with other men in the unit. There should really just be an 11th episode called, “And here’s what Ron Livingston was up to.”
- Women and children alert: We get two glimpses of the aforementioned in this episode, first when the men burst into that home in Carentan and see the mother, two children, and grandfather huddled on the floor, then when we see the laundress and her assistant (also female) whom Malarkey picks up the laundry from. The first group cowers in terror; the laundress has an easy rapport with the new Sergeant. These are fairly common roles for women to pop up in in these sorts of stories, but I can’t help but think of those people huddled on the floor every time the men fire bullets into houses that they don’t yet know house enemy forces or not.
- I mentioned above that the battles in this episode are pretty impressive, and a big reason for that is that the second one features a fair amount of tank warfare. You can never go wrong with tank warfare.
- We get a nice little moment where Harry reveals that he’s hanging onto his reserve parachute so that his fiancée might make a wedding dress out of it, what with the rationing of fabric and all. I really love the little glimpses we get of the men’s lives back home in this series.
- I think there should be a DVD extra in every war movie where you can have Damian Lewis down in the bottom corner of the screen, just giving intricate hand gestures meant to indicate the plan of attack. He always looks so purposeful and intense while doing it.
- I like how as the men are in the field longer and longer, commanding officers and higher-ups are more tolerant of humor at the expense of the Army or the whole experience, as when Luz mocks the idea that Easy Company would be done after three good days of fighting. Also good: the sad little “see what I mean?” when fighting erupts just after complaints about how Easy is always the company sent into danger first.
- “Carentan” was written for television by E. Max Frye and directed by Mikael Salomon. Though this is not the series’ finest hour, both have their moments. Frye’s script contains that great scene between Speirs and Blithe, for instance, and Salomon turns most of the nighttime scenes in this episode into beautiful nightmares, pauses between the slaughter.
Next time: Enough men have died in Easy Company that it’s time to meet some “Replacements.”