And so it all comes down to this. After four weeks of buildup and four weeks of sporadic combat, we finally get the Saving Private Ryan moment of The Pacific. In some ways, this comparison is inevitable, since both works were shepherded to the screen by Steven Spielberg (and Tom Hanks, in some capacity). In other ways, it feels slightly like the series is inviting the comparison - as when Sledge has the shell explode near him and he is unable to hear much for some time - as if it's daring us to compare it to one of the most famous big screen depictions of war ever filmed. The Pacific was, rather famously, one of the most expensive TV productions in history, and up until now, it's had a nice, handsome look to it, but it hasn't really put it all up there on the screen. This is The Pacific's show-me moment.
In a way, it's easier for The Pacific to impress with Saving Private Ryan-esque visuals than it would be for any big-screen production. This is changing, but spectacle is still enough for the price of admission on TV, if it's spectacular enough. We don't get a lot of projects that offer anything as singularly harrowing as the lengthy assault on Peleliu that makes up the vast majority of this episode (and will feature in episodes to come). Now, I don't think something like this is even half a substitute for something like smart scripts or good direction or good acting, but when you've done your groundwork - as this series has - a big setpiece like this battle can pay off in spades.
Smartly, "Part Five" keeps us out of the fray for quite a while. It, instead, focuses on Sledge's arrival in the South Pacific, his brief meetings with his old friend Sid and with Leckie, and the guys that Sledge will be spending his time with. It takes a good 20 to 25 minutes for the series to make it all the way to Peleliu, and that time is all well spent. There's philosophizing (when Leckie asks Sledge whether God also created the Japanese). There's camaraderie (as Sledge and Sid tussle and then Sid tries to prepare Sledge for just what he's going to be seeing out there). There are even some laughs (most courtesy of Snafu, a character who's one of my favorite supporting players in this thing). This is all screentime well used to make us feel the dread before what must be coming. It's also the first episode to really give us a good sense of what it was like to just be there in the South Pacific, between battles, the way that things settled into a rhythm and hum of drudgery.
Up until now, The Pacific has used its battles as punctuation marks or, at the least, sentences. They are the moments that drop in out of nowhere and make these Marines' lives a living hell. There have been some sustained sequences - Basilone's hour of triumph in hour two stands out - but for the most part, this has been a series about how these Marines adjust to the fact that they can't ever quite anticipate just where the next bullets will come from and what will happen next. Now, however, they're into the part of the Pacific theater that nearly everyone knows about. They're about to embark on a grueling quest to liberate island after island, losing life after life in the process, without very much hope for a swift end to this thing.
For better or worse, then, the assault on Peleliu is probably the series' most conventional battle sequence so far. It's no punctuation mark. It's long paragraphs of harrowing danger. It's hard to not keep comparing it to Saving Private Ryan, frankly, though it arrives as though Saving Private Ryan had had four straight weeks of character building before turning Tom Hanks and company loose on the beaches of Normandy. I, honestly, am a little at a loss for words as to what to say about this. Sure, it wears its influences on its sleeve, but the very fact that it CAN wear those influences on its sleeve is almost as impressive as anything else. There's never been anything quite like this in the history of television, where in the past, a big battle sequence might mean that there were a few simulated explosions and a couple of men flying through the air, if that. There's nothing that really compares to this in Band of Brothers or Generation Kill. It pretty much stands alone as a televised depiction of the numbing horror of being at war.
Better is that this series has given us these characters to carry us through what's about to happen. I've quibbled in past weeks about the way the show would cut to Sledge hanging out in Alabama and it would feel like a different series entirely, one where the subtext was right there on the surface. But it certainly helps now that we see what he came from - the peaceful tranquility of the Old South - and where he's going - into the chaos and confusion of the battle shown here. When Sledge looks over at the other Marine across the transport that's about to deposit him on shore, shells exploding around them, bullets whizzing through the air, and the Marine just smiles and nods at him, it's a terrific little moment that ties two people who have had virtually no experience together before into fast friends. And then there's Leckie, of course, who is now so familiar to us that he becomes almost a port in a storm.
Even better, though, is the fact that we're getting to know some of the people around Sledge, who pop in a way that the guys around Leckie or Basilone just didn't back in the first few episodes. Snafu, in particular, is a lot of fun, with his pitch black view of everything that's about to come, all delivered in a near monotone that makes everything he says that much funnier. There are always people who are expert at gallows humor in any profession where death turns up more often than not, and Snafu's constant predictions of the worst to come become a great running gag in the episode.
The whole thing ends, as it should, with two Marines talking about home, about the things that they've been taken away from. The whole speech about the Grand Canyon, about the thing that you can't really believe until you've seen it, was a little too obvious as a piece of subtext, but the way it was conveyed, with the night sky billowing into orange tongues of fire in the background as the two men tried like hell to avoid thinking about what the next day might bring, was exemplary. This might be the best episode of The Pacific yet, and the good news is, it's only getting started.
- I feel bad. Last week, I seemed to snap at some people in the comments. I really wasn't intending to, and I was trying to seem rather cheeky. You'd think by now I'd know that tone doesn't always carry over the Internet, and I'm truly sorry to anyone who took umbrage.
- Anna Torv, of all people, turns up as the actress that Basilone romances on his war bonds tour. He is, apparently, now our tenuous connection to the homefront, but it was still fun to see him turn up and watch him try to navigate his new celebrity.
- It's interesting that HBO's huge investment in this series - based on the fact that Band of Brothers ended up being the network's best-selling DVD set - is the thing that has kept it from doing lots of other miniseries, like the Lincoln assassination miniseries that David Simon was attached to. HBO will likely make back its investment in this series (thanks, again to DVD sales), but the economic climate the miniseries was greenlit in was very different from the one it ended up airing in. People have had to cut back on HBO, and The Pacific looked like it might be a huge financial boondoggle before True Blood came along and made HBO more money than they know what to do with.
- I love that shot of the bright outdoors bleeding into the battle as Sledge's transport makes its way out of the ship. One of my favorite TV images of the season, actually.