“Day Of Days” (episode 2; originally aired 9/9/2001)
In which the invasion begins
(Available on HBO Go.)
I said last week that Band Of Brothers was intended as a TV extension of the artistic World War II memorials that were The Greatest Generation and Saving Private Ryan. Indeed, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg became convinced Stephen Ambrose’s book should be a miniseries in the midst of the process of pulling together Ryan. “Day Of Days” reveals both the strengths and the weaknesses of that approach. In no way can it feel like the opening assault in Saving Private Ryan, but, thankfully, it’s mostly not meant to. Instead, the mission that the men of Easy Company go on is something that’s easier to scale to TV size, and it plays almost as the opposite of the famed storming of the beach in that movie. There, all was chaos, and survival was a crapshoot. Here, survival’s still a crapshoot, but we at all times have a good idea of what these men are trying to do. They need to capture this gun, then that one, and finally that one. And they need to do it as soon as possible.
Where this is made stronger by this being a TV show is that we have over an hour of material on these characters to back up the assault. When these guys plunge out into a night filled with anti-aircraft fire, we want them to survive. When life after life is preserved in the most amazing of fashions in the race to take out the guns, we’re relieved, because we’ve gotten to know who they are. Yes, part of the point of the opening of Saving Private Ryan was meant to convey as much as possible how chaotic that day must have been, and giving us only the familiar face of Tom Hanks to hang onto was a big part of that strategy. But there’s also something to be said for a war story where you’ve gotten to know the people involved, and as “Day Of Days” plunges ever forward into the hellish chaos of D-Day, it’s worth it that we know so many of these men, at least by their names, and that Dick Winters is such a compelling and calm presence throughout. (There are scenes where Winters is pressing forward even as bullets are ripping around him, and Damian Lewis is just so quiet in the role that I’m astonished it took him as long as it did to become a major star. This should have made him right here.)
The battle depicted in this episode is the Brécourt Manor Assault, which is still taught to this day as a textbook example of how to handle the situation Easy Company finds itself in. Outmanned, outgunned, and behind enemy lines without their commanding officer, the men of Easy Company fall behind Winters as he makes up a plan mostly from scratch. (To be honest, the miniseries makes it seem like he had even clearer orders than a brief scan of the history of the battle does.) What’s great about “Day Of Days” is the way that it shows us how Winters is going to use every advantage he can find, from terrain to the element of surprise to just plain dumb luck, and how he’s going to use those things to help keep his smaller force together in the face of overwhelming odds. And then he goes and loses only one man in the assault. If the objective of these first two episodes is to make Winters seem damn near superhuman, then by the end of “Day Of Days,” I’m willing to forgive him a monologue that feels like a frantic attempt to fill in some exposition (about which more in a bit).
I also talked a bit last week about how the show was initially greeted with mixed reviews from critics, and part of that seems to be that most of them were sent just these first two episodes, and by the time “Day Of Days” rolled around, a fair number of those critics couldn’t tell anybody apart from anybody else in the midst of battle. And, to be honest, with the advantage of a prior viewing and all these years having seen these actors pop up elsewhere, I have times when I’m not entirely clear on that either. “Day Of Days” is the shortest of these 10 episodes, with the final fadeout popping up at minute 47 (without accounting for the opening credits, which are around two minutes long), and I can’t help but wonder if the episode could have filled things out just a smidge better in terms of what all the other non-Winters personnel were supposed to be doing. Yes, we get his quick instructions to everybody, but there are moments in the battle when it’s not immediately clear what’s being done or just who’s doing it. That, again, might be a function of trying to depict war’s chaos, but episode director Richard Loncraine generally does such a good job of laying out the geography of where everything is that it sometimes feels like some of this material might have been on the cutting room floor.
Even with that minor fault, however, the Brécourt Manor Assault still feels like a mission statement for the show in general: When we get into the heat of battle on this show, it will not be as impressive as the biggest-budget blockbusters, but it will be with people we’ve come to care very much about. And though the action may be smaller-scale, it won’t be any less intense, because we’ll be thrown into situations where character—usually Dick Winters—will have to improvise their way through horrifying situations, trying to preserve as many of the lives on their side as they can. If “Currahee” is the show letting us know that this story is going to take its time and let us get to know some of these people, then “Day Of Days” is the series nodding toward the fact that it can make situations just as tense as a movie, largely by getting us invested in the people involved.
The assault, however, is just one half of the episode. The other half is actually my favorite part of “Day Of Days,” as it depicts what happens when the 101st Airborne drops into the French night with anti-aircraft weaponry rattling all around. The special effects in this section haven’t always aged as well as they might have—there’s a bit where a plane crashes out underneath the plane our characters are riding in, and it looks like it might have come out of a video game. But the depiction of a peaceful summer night above the clouds turning into hell on Earth is wonderfully done, and I love the way Loncraine captures the flash of the guns lighting up the clouds in the distance, a kind of thunder that can only carry terrible news upon its roar.
What I love even more are the scenes where the men find each other in the woods after landing. Naturally enough, dropping thousands of men out of airplanes in the middle of the night and having them land in the countryside is going to result in many of them drifting off-course, and that’s exactly what happens here. (At one point, the number of men still missing is given as 90 percent, which is astonishing.) Yet, again, the series benefits from focusing this episode on Winters, who begins his mission next to Hall, who’s meant to be a member of Able Company but falls in beside this natural leader, then slowly makes his way past threats to find his other men. I also love the way Loncraine shoots the men’s first combat encounter, with a horse-drawn transport that Guarnere opens fire on without being given the order. The men win, but the sequence is another example of the episode giving us a taste of the series in a nutshell: All of this is going to be more unexpected and brutal than you might think going in.
Yet this episode isn’t all action and battle, either. In particular, it features one of the most haunting moments of the show’s whole run, as well as one of its better character introductions. Malarkey, see, has come across a German prisoner of war who hails from Eugene, Oregon, not so far from Malarkey’s native Astoria. When Malarkey asks how he came to be fighting for the other side, the fellow Oregonian says that his family “answered the call” and says some briefly terrifying things about Aryans and the Fatherland, but then, he’s right back to just another kid from Oregon. Malarkey and the kid get to trading Oregon notes, and then a new character, name of Speirs, orders Malarkey to go back to the rest of the company. And as Malarkey is doing so, Speirs offers the German soldiers cigarettes. And then, apparently (but ambiguously, since we only see Malarkey’s horrified face, and he’s too far off to really know), Speirs kills them, even though they’ve surrendered.
John Orloff’s script here is so perfect, because it underlines that while this conflict wasn’t one of brothers versus brothers as we might have seen in the American Civil War, it was one fought mostly by young men on both sides, young men who had more in common than they might have thought. This is, of course, a fairly famous theme in art about war, so it’s not like Orloff is saying anything new. But he also doesn’t belabor the point. The meeting is unusual and surprising enough that it doesn’t seem like he’s underlining anything in particular, until you realize he’s gotten you to care about this German soldier as a human being just enough to make what Speirs apparently does all the more horrifying, all the more a breakdown of the rules of warfare. (The waters are further muddied by Speirs’ extreme heroism in the closing moments of the later assault.) In another life, these two men could have been friends; now, one of them lives, and one of them dies, entirely because of the uniforms they wear.
All of which leads us back to Dick Winters, sitting by himself and watching hellfire rain throughout the countryside as the battle rages on. He joins his men in laughing over farts and takes his first-ever sip of alcohol (in a little character moment Lewis nails). But then he goes out to look over the ongoing battle, and his thoughts turn not to the day he just had—one that will net him very high military honors—but to thoughts of buying a little piece of land and doing his best to bring the world peace. Winters’ monologues in this episode are often clumsy, straining far too hard to pull in details of the battle that either couldn’t be depicted or were cut for time, but this final image is a graceful, peaceful one, even as flames gutter in the distance. Lewis is an actor uniquely well-suited to playing men who are born to play certain roles but philosophically ambivalent about those roles. In Dick Winters, he likely found his first.
- Okay, if Winters is superhuman, then Joe Toye is really superhuman after surviving not just one but two up-close grenade blasts without any ill effect. The man is made of steel.
- Honestly, I could have done with a full episode set on the ground after the paratroopers made their jumps. The eerie calm of the summer night juxtaposed with the occasional outbursts of horrifying violence make for some of the best stuff in the whole series.
- I’ll expose both my ignorance of World War II history and firearms with this question: What’s so damned desirable about a Lugar?
- The guy who gets lost on his way to headquarters then dies because he sticks his head up at the wrong moment also feels like one of the series’ themes in miniature: A lot of men survived because of courage or intelligence or what have you, but just as many men survived (or died) because of blind luck.
- In reading the Wikipedia page about the Assault, it sounds like the men knew going into the mission that Meehan’s plane had crashed and he was dead, making Winters the new commanding officer. But the episode depicts a scenario where everybody agrees Meehan is probably dead, but they don’t yet know that. I assume the latter is the case, and this is just the way the former site is written, but if I’m wrong, please correct me. Either way, I was surprised how acutely I felt the loss of Meehan, who only got a few scenes to shine but created a strong impression.
- Last week, you guys were talking about how much you like the opening credits, and I think I’ll have to part ways with you on that one. I don’t particularly like them, as I find the music too different from most of the series’ scoring (which is much more experimental and brave than the swooning orchestra on the theme song) and the pacing of them needlessly slow. I much prefer the opening credits for The Pacific now.
- Neal McDonough is another actor who really broke through here, and this episode gives him plenty of chances to shine, though my favorite might be when he realizes that Meehan is likely dead and Winters is likely his new C.O., and he just punctuates that moment with an obscenity. Read that however you like, the series seems to say.
Next week: One of the series’ weaker outings takes us to “Carentan.”