One of the earliest choices Falling Skies made was to begin its story in medias res, opting to focus on the construction of a new world following the alien invasion as opposed to depicting the destruction of the old. In the pilot episode characters had already gone through the stages of grief for their loved ones, underwent a transition from civilians to combatants, and began to bind together into a fighting force to take Earth back from the invaders. The emphasis has always been on moving forward to the next battle and the next victory, with details of the world before limited to wistful comments—the Second Mass has little time to dwell on the past, and consequently the show feels no need to do so.
And I don’t feel that the show’s lost anything by making this decision, as it’s always at its best when there’s a sense of immediacy. The degree to which we care about these characters comes from who they are now, not how they used to be, and I have no interest in the show shoehorning in flashbacks for the sole purpose of exposition (look no further than Revolution for an example of a show that lost the thread of that device early on.) But I’m not adverse to them trying that idea out if there’s an interesting idea behind it, and “Strange Brew” is an episode that does manage to find one of those ideas and take us briefly into a world without aliens. The end result is a more experimental episode of Falling Skies than we’re used to—unfortunately, the show’s not confident enough to commit fully to the conceit.
The conceit the Falling Skies writers choose is the “It was all a dream” idea, as we open with a beardless Tom Mason waking up in his old home in Boston next to his wife Rebecca. The Espheni invasion never happened, and Tom is a successful college professor with three healthy sons and only ten days left until the Christmas holiday. It’s an almost Hallmark existence, except for a few unsettling recurring details—a homeless man who keeps showing up to yell “Open your eyes,” multiple messages and phone calls from an Anne Glass, and constant repetition of the names of four major U.S. cities with someone asking him to pick one. Before too long, Tom grows wise to the fact that the entire world is an Espheni mind game, spearheaded by Karen to discover which grid tower the Volm plan to destroy.
It’s clear from the start there’s more going on here than just a flashback—last week’s “The Pickett Line” clearly ended with Tom at the Espheni’s mercy—so the selling point is to find something new to do with the idea. Here, it’s the idea to bring in all of Tom’s Second Mass cohorts into his prior life, a move that and lets the cast play more different versions of themselves than they’ve done for two seasons-plus. There’s a definite sense that the actors are enjoying these new incarnations (Colin Cunningham in particular is clearly having a lot of fun trading his leather jacket for a vest and jailhouse logic for Jean Baudrillard) and it also heightens the sense of unreality this new world provides Tom with. We even get some glimpses of who Tom’s sons were before the events, which fills in some of the blanks established in prior episodes—Ben’s insecure and bookish self provides the contrast he considered back in “At All Costs,” while a more jockish Hal resents his father for missing games as Tom referenced in “Be Silent And Come Out.”
There are a lot of interesting ideas being put into play here, and yet I’m lukewarm on the episode as a whole because it abandons those ideas about halfway through. Once Tom wakes up from the dream and grows wise to Karen’s intentions, there’s one Inception-style twist of dream-within-dream where images of his comrades try to trick him into revealing strategy, and then it’s discarded in favor of more standard interrogations. Tom is left at Karen’s mercy as she presents him with what she claims are the bodies of Anne and Lexie and gloats over the launch of the grid, leaving him wracked with grief and rage until he stages an escape by literally throwing himself off a tower, cushioning his fall with a skitter. His experience is over and it’s time for him to walk back home, which—going back to last week and my central complaint about the season as a whole—would be great if we hadn’t seen it all before.
Watching “Strange Brew” I was reminded of “No Reason,” the second-season finale of House, wherein House was recovering from a gunshot wound and slipping through hallucinations with ease. The viewers were never sure what was real because House wasn’t until the end, and the revelation he pulled from his hallucinations was all the more rewarding because of the level of involvement built in his subconscious. An easy opportunity to do something similar was missed here, a chance for the episode to grow increasingly strange as Tom tries to figure things out, slipping into The Carrie Mathison Zone for Homeland-style paranoia as he fills whiteboard after whiteboard with theories. His marriage and family life could fracture from an affair he doesn’t remember, and ideas of world-shattering events too unreal to consider build until it’s clear that’s the only reality there is. Much like “Search And Recovery,” Falling Skies fails to make a great episode because it can’t commit to going entirely outside its comfort zone, having to spend time with the rest of the story and breaking the sense of immersion that’s key to making a more ambitious installment stand out.
The decision to half-commit to the dream conceit also has a glaring structural problem in that it it leaves a feeling of disconnect with the present-day portions of the episode. When the action cuts back to Charleston and the steadily building tensions—Weaver and Pope’s suspicions are obvious to Marina at this point, Maggie’s about ready to kick Pope’s teeth in for his japes about Hal and Lourdes is still off the radar and setting off bombs with ease—it’s hard to tell whether what we’re seeing is part of the Espheni trick or not. It’s confusing, but it’s not an enjoyable confusing where you’re trying to figure out what’s real and what isn’t, it’s a feeling that the episode was poorly constructed. And it feels worse because this is a disconnect that could have been easily avoided, where the episode should have either left the present-day hallucination out of Tom’s mind trip all together or the episode should have been set entirely within his head.
It’s also frustrating that the episode chooses not to commit to the idea wholeheartedly because it means that there’s less time watching Noah Wyle work with new material. Whatever problems I have with Tom Mason as a character, none of those problems can be laid on Wyle, who consistently gives a sturdy performance to anchor the show and projects enough of an innate decency that it softens the hackneyed dialogue he’s given. And while it’s amusing to watch the rest of the cast play around in these new roles, Wyle projects Tom increasingly feeling ill-at-ease as the hallucination breaks down, plus the rage and grief he feels when Karen allegedly presents him with the corpses of Anne and Lexie. His final scene at the Mason house is strongly delivered (once you work past the annoying coincidence that he just happened to be in the neighborhood) as it’s one of the rare instances where a character on Falling Skies simply breaks down under the weight of events, wanting to just curl up and sleep until it all goes away.
With only two weeks to go, it’s sadly getting difficult for me not to share in that sentiment. “Strange Brew” feels as if it could have been one of the season’s best episodes if it had been willing to go into full-bore Inception mode, leaving Tom Mason unstuck in his own head and unclear which reality if any was the correct one. Instead, it remains chiefly wasted potential, a phrase which—as I said last week—I’ve grown weary of associating with this season.
- No sign of the Picketts whatsoever this episode. Between that and the fact that the Mason boys go right back to Charleston with a half-hearted explanation of where Tom is, it’s now even harder not to see “The Pickett Line” as a waste of time. (And a waste of Christopher Heyerdahl, who’s a good enough actor that he should have been given a much meatier long-term role.)
- In the world of random cameos, Peter Shinkoda returns for a brief role in Tom’s alternate reality as Anne’s husband. I can see the merit of having a dead person pop up in his dream to add to the sense of otherworldliness, but I can’t imagine anyone was clamoring to see Dai again—he was on the show two seasons and I can’t remember a single thing of note he did.
- Can someone please explain to me why only a few days after President Hathaway was assassinated, Marina seems to be walking around Charleston with no bodyguards?
- “The overlords have lost confidence in my methods. They’re quite annoyed with me.” I am similarly annoyed, largely because the show has both failed to use much of Jessy Schram this season and haven’t bothered to explain why a former human slave is spearheading the entire East Coast invasion force.
- Beardless Dream Tom Mason is unsettling to me given how awesome Noah Wyle’s beard is. I like to imagine the Tom glaring at Dream Tom is judging him for shaving.