One of the amusing things about watching Falling Skies long-term is that after a while, you can make a game out of deciphering which episodes were made as a result of the special effects budget being short-handed. Given that the show’s on a basic cable channel, there’s only so much money to render hordes of skitters, imposing mechs and high-powered weaponry, and consequently there are always a few episodes every season that don’t feature any of them. Consequently, the show tends to alternate between episodes that feature heavier alien combat action and episodes that focus on the survivors of said action, showcasing the aftereffects of the conflict and the struggles of putting together a new world order after the decimation of the old.
By that logic, it should come as no surprise that “Badlands” is a more sedate affair than the clearly expensive two-part season premiere, which opened with an wide quarry battle full of rebel skitters and megamechs and prominently featured the Volm furthering their own agenda. Unfortunately, being a more sedate affair means that “Badlands” falls into the trap these episodes usually fall into of being the weaker parts of the season, as once characters on Falling Skies stop shooting at things they start talking. And the longer they talk, the more annoying they get as their conversation moves into platitudes. It also suffers from being an episode early in the season, the show still setting up its various conflicts and sideplots in a manner that doesn’t feel terrifically integrated with the show as a whole.
In the early goings though, the show does manage to make the most of its lower budget by spending time on the preparation to the Espheni invasion that Cochise warned was coming in the closing moments of last week’s episode. Various detachments of the Charleston armed forces are scattered throughout the city ruins, with Matt heading up supply runs between posts—opening shots that set the tone of place nicely, with soldiers trading various word games and references to Samuel Beckett plays. And from a technical side, the combination of shaky-cam and the dingy ruins setting gives it a lived-in feel, reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s other wartime projects like Band of Brothers and The Pacific. That feeling becomes even more prevalent once a series of snipers start opening up on the various encampments, critically injuring Crazy Lee and sending the rest of the team scrambling for cover.
The showrunners also find a way to work around the lack of a CGI budget here by adding a few twists to the status quo, as the attackers aren’t Espheni mechs or harnessed kids but human soliders. (Tom’s reaction to the sight is priceless in its dread: “Dan, please tell me that’s not a human being.”) Falling Skies has never tried to pretend that humanity would bind together entirely in the wake of the invasion—the past two seasons have been full of feuds and infighting—but the conflicts have rarely if ever gone into open warfare. Adding this level of conflict helps reflect how much time has passed since the initial invasion, and adds an additional complication to the society-building aspect the show’s investing in now that the characters are securely rooted in Charleston.
When they capture one of the snipers, identified as Lt. Catherine Fisher (played by Continuum’s Luvia Petersen), the game board is changed yet again when she scoffs at Tom’s identification as the president. It turns out she also reports to a president, and not just any president: Benjamin Hathaway, the duly elected President of the United States from before the Espheni invasion. I have a hard time signing onto this level of twist, though I’m willing to admit it could be residual bitterness for Revolution making a similar move in its season finale, which was the cherry on top of that show’s stupidity sundae. It’s not an inherently flawed twist, but it’ll need a lot of factors to line up: the right actor to play the president, enough shading that the successor government doesn’t feel cartoonishly evil, and a way to strike a balance between Charleston, Volm and Hathaway administration.
The ramifications of this idea are barely discussed though—save a brief chat between Tom, Weaver and Bressler—and most of the episode is devoted to various subplots of declining quality. The most interesting one is the death of Crazy Lee, who survives the bullet wound but winds up with a rebar pole impaled straight through her head, leaving her on borrowed time at best. It’s a plot that uses two of the show’s better attributes, its fondness for creepy imagery—the rebar in Lee’s head and subsequent sawing it loose is a watch-through-your-fingers moment—and Colin Cunningham’s acting skills, as Pope displays more emotion than he usually allows himself. Since he and the Berserkers as a whole are the most interesting subset of characters on the show, I found myself much more invested in Lee’s fate than I was when Jimmy was killed in “Compass” or when Dai was killed in “A More Perfect Union”, and consequently the emotion when she gave up the ghost–and Pope’s quiet toast to her during the episode’s closing moments was a nice moment.
Less compelling is the progression of the Anne’s demon baby subplot, which Anne has confided in Lourdes and then by extension Tom. Both of them feel that Anne might be experiencing a combination of postpartum depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and write off her concerns as more of a psychosis (and Tom taking blame for being an absentee father), a slippery slope approach at best given that she explodes at Lourdes once she realizes Tom’s planted her as a spy. This plot still feels like one that disconnects Anne from the show’s main narrative, and it also feels increasingly off-brand for Falling Skies—it’s unsettling, but it’s not unsettling in the survival horror vein the show’s mined successfully the past two seasons. It also doesn’t feel like a plot that’s going anywhere to start, given it doesn’t fit with either alien race and every other human character is sweeping it under the rug.
And if I have little to say about that, I have even less to say about whatever’s going on with Hal and Maggie. Now that it’s confirmed his evening rendezvouses with Karen weren’t just dreams but real meetings he’s wrapped up in conflict, first prepared to leave entirely, then to turn himself in, then decides not to. So far the “Hal is possessed” plot has not yielded the dividends it promised at the end of the second season, and hasn’t done anything to add shades to his relationship with Maggie, which is one of the dullest parts of the show for me personally. Maggie can say as many times as she wants that she’s not giving up on him, but that doesn’t go a long way toward making me care, given the fact that this is an argument the two have had that’s dragged down at least three episodes to date.
The speeches between the two also gets to a problem I’ve had with the show since the beginning, in that it tends to say the same thing over and over again. I understand that Falling Skies has a strong humanist streak and underlying faith in prevailing against the odds, but I wish they didn’t feel the need for everyone to have a speech about it, as they so often do in the less action-heavy episodes. First Weaver offers a series of platitudes to Jeannie who’s constructing a “Liberty Tree” as a memorial to all those lost in the war (“We gotta be who we are, otherwise we’re already dead”) and then Tom gives a presidential address preaching the same thing (“We will remember it’s not about as long as we live but how we live”). Transitioning from this to a series of scenes of people hanging leaves that memorialize their family—complete with diegetic childrens’ chous—it’s a saccharine ending that leaves the episode seemingly on a down note.
That is, until the the action is allowed to rear its head again as alien “beamer” ships swoop in to open fire on the assembled parties, forcing the Charleston resistance to scramble for cover and head for their battle stations. Here’s hoping that’s a sign they’ve got enough money squirreled away in the special effects budget to bring next week up a couple of notches.
- In a scene prior to his final speech, Tom names his assistant Marina (played by Wyle’s fellow ER alum Gloria Reuben) as vice president following Arthur Manchester’s death. Given that promotion and the fact that her whereabouts are often vague, I’m going to bet she’s the mole.
- Given that the Falling Skies creative team is loaded with Battlestar Galactica alums, it’s not surprising that Lt. Fisher gives off a serious Starbuck vibe. Blonde hair, tattooed arms, take-no-shit attitude. She seems like she’d fit right in with the Berserkers, if it wasn’t for the fact Pope will probably try to kill her first chance he gets for revenge.
- While much of the final speech and the ensuing scene was overwrought, I did appreciate the callback of Weaver hanging his deceased wife’s glasses—set up in “What Hides Beneath” as previously his one piece of proof she may still be alive—on the tree branch.
- Pope to Matt: “I need a hacksaw.” Flashbacks of Jack Bauer asking for the same thing ensue.
- “In the last two years I’ve been kidnapped, tortured, shot, implanted with an eye-worm, and last week I was almost torn apart by a harnessed kid and contaminated by a nuclear reactor.” Tom Mason does have a hard life, come to think of it.
- RIP Crazy Lee. “You could be a real pain in the ass, but you could fight like a banshee.”