Falling Skies: “Compass”
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Falling Skies: “Compass”

One of the improvements made by Falling Skiessecond-season première involved moving away from a central location and making the decision to put the resistance on the road. The fortified elementary school of season one helped to build the imagery of the post-invasion world—a once-innocent location now converted into a military base/refugee camp—but the fact that the 2nd Mass had a place to call their own tended to mute the urgency of their circumstances. These are people who have lost everything as a result of this invasion, and are fighting for survival, and Falling Skies is a better show when it deals with them moving on.

But as we see in “Compass,” it’s harder to go somewhere if you don’t have an idea where you’re trying to get to. This certainly applies to the 2nd Mass—torn between the isolated refuge of the Catskills and the possible society of Charleston—but also applies to the writing staff of Falling Skies in equal measure. After a solid start last week, there’s a sense in this week’s episode that they’re trying to put things in motion for the rest of the season, and in the process of setting up these new circumstances the strings they’re pulling are much more visible than they should be.

The strings they’re trying to pull the most this week are the heartstrings, which they do at the expense of poor Jimmy. Ben’s continuing his personal vendetta against the skitters, and while the resistance is licking its wounds at the abandoned airport he and Jimmy have formed a sniper team that heads out at night and picks off any scouts it finds. It’s a strategy that’s works for a while—Ben gets plenty of opportunities to drive his knife into skitter heads and grin sadistically afterwards—but then the two have the misfortune to come up against Scarface. Scarface hurls Jimmy against a tree, paralyzes Ben by means of a previously unknown side effect of the spikes in his back, and spares him after a moment of ominous staring. After Ben comes to, he sees that Jimmy’s not just propped against the tree but skewered on it, a branch intersecting with a few of his favorite organs.

Now, killing off a recognizable member of the resistance is certainly not something the show should be afraid to do—on any good show the threat of death raises the stakes, and has strong emotional ramifications for the survivors around him. The problem with Jimmy’s death is that the reactions to it don’t feel as meaningful as they could, given the history between the characters. For the whole show Jimmy’s been presented as something of a surrogate son to Weaver, but aside from an outburst when he’s brought into camp and personally digging the grave, Weaver maintains his stoic façade. Ben, for his part, is obviously torn up about what’s happened, but his expression is just quiet moping and breaking down in tears. Anne’s devastation stems as much from losing a patient as it does from the fact that it also happens to be her son’s birthday—a detail that would be more meaningful had the show mentioned her lost family on more than one occasion all series. And while later episodes of season one suggested a bond forming between Jimmy and Maggie, her reaction to his death is no more noticeable than the reactions of Hal or Lourdes.

The one person reacting exactly the way you’d expect is Pope, who rejects the funeral as an empty gesture—not that he’d be welcome there given his attitude this week. Pope, having taken it upon himself to deal with Tom on behalf of people who are “creeped out over [his] triumphant return,” drags him from the camp with a bag on his head and orders him to get as far away as he can. Thankfully, Ben and Jimmy happened to be scouting at the same time, a move that’s as much for the audience’s benefit as it is for Tom’s. Until they showed up I was legitimately worried we were heading for another episode where Tom’s separated from the 2nd Mass and has to find his way back, which, on the heels of the première would seriously strain credulity.

Not that there’s any lack of strained credulity next, because while Weaver suggests putting Pope down like a dog, Tom argues they can’t afford to be without his skill set. So what does Tom suggest? Join the Berserkers as a method of keeping an eye on Pope. I find it very hard to rationalize that as noble as Tom is he’d seriously consider this a rational option. Yes, this is the Tom who walked onto an alien spaceship, but the aliens wanted to talk; Pope just wants to put down the “alien stooge.”

Then again, it could be that Tom’s intentions are less that he wants to keep an eye on Pope  in the thick of the alien conflict, getting an outlet for the increased uncertainty he’s felt since his captivity. And certainly Pope’s looking for a fight, given that he’s claimed Jimmy’s compass as a trophy and flaunts it in Tom’s face. Much as expected, the two come to blows in a fight scene in the midst of the Berserker camp, and Tom’s angst trumps Pope’s suspicions as he nearly beats the ex-con to death. It’s a very well-done fight scene that gives us a good glimpse into what kinds of men these two have become: Tom is pushed to a a degree we haven’t seen in a while, and the Joker-like grin on Pope’s bloodied face renders him almost feral. Pope demands retribution, but Weaver’s indifferent to his hurt feelings and features, and he angrily states he’s leaving the resistance—doing so alone, as Tom’s combination of fighting prowess and tactics convinced the Berserkers to switch loyalties.

This is a move I’m even more worried about than Jimmy’s death, in terms of the story going forward. Colin Cunningham’s certainly the most dynamic actor in the cast, and while from a character standpoint it makes sense he’d head off on his own, last season proved that unplugging him from the 2nd Mass robs the show of both his charisma and ability to generate plots by being a non-alien antagonist. “Compass” does steer out of the skid when Anthony decides to join him—more to keep him from returning to the 2nd Mass than out of any real loyalty—butI’m unconvinced Falling Skies can support this story unless the two wind up following the group as closely as Scarface is. (Unless this is a backdoor pilot for a post-apocalyptic Lethal Weapon-style spinoff.)

So the group dynamic feels off this week, but a more promising direction for the rest of the season literally falls out of the sky. And for once, it’s something that’s not trying to kill the members of the resistance, but a single-engine plane flown by a woman named Avery Churchill. Avery claims to be a representative of the Continental Congress, a makeshift government formed by the resistance in Charleston, South Carolina, and extends an invitation to the 2nd Mass to join them. “We’ve been promised paradise before,” Weaver wryly states, but Avery dangles all the right carrots: praise for Tom’s bravery, Weaver’s leadership, and the promise of hot showers.

As I said above, keeping the group on the move is a smart idea, but even smarter is the fact that they’re moving with a purpose as opposed to simply trying to get somewhere. There are nearly 1,000 miles between Massachusetts and Charleston, and if they take the direct route promised by Mapquest, that puts them through New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. This could well be a case where the journey trumps the destination, even if I doubt that Falling Skies has the resources to render all three major cities (much as Tom would love to raid the Smithsonian for historical artifacts or bring the Liberty Bell along as a symbol). The long journey could sustain an entire season of action without feeling like the show’s dragging its heels, especially if pace is mastered early. And even if they do get to Charleston sooner rather than later, the idea of the 2nd Mass locking horns with a more established resistance has potential, and seeing people like Tom and Weaver realize what independence they might have to sacrifice for a sense of belonging.

“Compass” comes across as something of a stalled hour, though it implies a promising direction for future episodes, and also manages to end on a positive note thanks to Weaver’s exhortation to Tom as the group opts to head south: “We’re just pissing in the wind here. We need to get back to war!” Here’s hoping they do so, and hoping the show’s own internal compass is pointing it in the right direction.

Stray observations:

  • Several of you in the comments last week cited the excellent long take as the resistance was preparing to go on the move, and I feel remiss for not mentioning it as well. The camerawork in this show goes a long way toward setting the scene, with this episode’s early conversation between Tom and Anne giving the full picture of how the resistance has converted the airport. Also worthy of praise: the camera panning up to the assembled 2nd Mass at Jimmy’s funeral.
  • I’m no expert at reading skitter facial expressions, but Scarface certainly looked terrified by the fire bullets that claimed his retinue. As a result of that and the fact that it’s the right side of his face that’s torn up, going forward he’ll be referred to as Skitter Clegane.
  • Matt sleeps with his gun now, having killed his first skitter at the end of last episode. Kids shoot the darnedest things.
  • This week in inspirational-bordering-on-corny dialogue: “The way I see it, every day marked off is another day we’re still here.” “All we can do is prepare them for the world in front of them, and it’s a world where kids have to grow up too fast.” “It really sucks. Except you don’t have a choice but to go on.”
  • Weaver, direct as always with Pope: “As far as the fight, I’m not sure I’d have left you standing, so let’s just call it even.”
  • Falling Skies has never shied away from drawing parallels between its struggle and the Revolutionary War, and Avery’s quick to draw another: “I’m Paul Revere with a prop plane.”
  • R.I.P. Jimmy. “He was a good soldier, that boy, but he had no sense of direction.”

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