The most consistent complaint against The Pacific so far has been that its characters are not very well developed, are, in most senses of the word, cannon fodder. When they've died in the last few episodes, it can seem a little like extras are dying, so little attention has been paid to revealing who they are outside of the heat of battle. I don't think this approach is wholly wrong, actually, as revealing who the characters are through action is usually the best way to handle these things, but in a war movie - where everyone's wearing a helmet and kinda looks the same - I can see where it's confusing some viewers. To that end, then, the third hour of the show is almost entirely about character development. It takes our characters away from battle and onto the shores of Melbourne for a little R&R, and it gives us a chance to meet them in a more peaceful context, where they open up a bit about themselves.
Well, that's a bit of a misnomer. Basilone spends most of the episode seeming stunned to be winning the Medal of Honor, pulling pranks that may be subconsciously designed to get out of the honor, though his friends always pull him back on the straight and narrow. In the middle of the episode, he learns he's headed back to the U.S. to help sell war bonds, and even though Chesty Puller gives him the best possible sell on this whole scenario, saying that selling bonds to raise funds to buy better equipment is just as important to the well-being of his friends as Basilone staying behind to fight, Basilone seems largely distraught about this notion. His dedication to his fellow Marines is strong, and you can sense his apprehension of being the public face of the war, even if his exploits have already made him a minor celebrity back home.
But this episode primarily focuses on Leckie, who's mostly been portrayed as the intellectual who's in the war but not wholly of it, a man who's keeping his intellect free-floating, careful to not get drawn down too far into things. In this episode, he does get drawn into something, specifically an affair with an Australian beauty named Stella (played capably by actress Claire Van der Boom, whom I've never heard of but makes a good case for future work here). He doesn't just get drawn into an affair with Stella; he gets drawn into a relationship with her entire family and, indeed, her entire neighborhood.
Up until now, The Pacific hasn't felt terribly like an HBO production outside of the fact that it's able to show a little more in the violence and nudity department than most TV shows and that it looks like the network spent hundreds of millions on it (which it did). HBO's series often mix more lurid and enthralling subject matter with a slower pace that reflects something closer to an art film or the rhythms of real life. The Sopranos was full of bursts of unpredictable violence, sure, but it also had moments when Tony would just hang out in his backyard and listen to the breezes. (It was for this reason that people who watched the series on DVD and then made the switch to watching it live often complained that it wasn't as action-packed as it once was. On DVD, it's easier to feel like the action is happening all at once, instead of spaced accurately throughout the season.)
So far, The Pacific hasn't really embraced slower pacing or real-life rhythms. This is not a bad thing, necessarily, since war itself doesn't embrace slow pacing or real-life rhythms, but it has kept us from getting to know the characters in the same way we might in other HBO projects, from caring about them as we normally do television characters. "Part 3" goes a long way toward rectifying this situation, at least in regards to Leckie (who's rapidly becoming the heart of the series). We learn more about his past - he comes from a big, fractious, unhappy family, and he's the youngest of his parents' eight children - and we see how far he'll go in pursuit of his passion for Stella. We also get a sense of his decency and his desire for something like a normal life.
My favorite portions of this episode involve Leckie slowly adjusting to the rhythms of something like a normal life. Melbourne, all things considered, is a lot like his home, and Stella's the sort of girl he might have just as easily fallen in love with in peace time. Instead, this girl he brashly tries to pick up on a streetcar becomes someone he could see himself spending his life with, and it's the frantic nature of wartime, of knowing that he's going to be back in harm's way soon enough, that gives their coupling an extra level of emotional resonance. But I love the scenes set in and around Stella's house, the slow camera movement through the remnants of the ordinary life Leckie is working to defend, or the way the editing gives him and Stella's mom time in their conversation about his life back home. I especially like the scene where he goes to the house of Stella's friend who has died and ingratiates himself to a neighborhood more or less like his own. It's a canny way to give us a sense of what the homefront was like without actually depositing us on the homefront.
I'm less impressed with the story of Sid falling in love with Gwen (played by Isabel Lucas, who was that female Decepticon in Transformers 2, and is much, much better here for obvious reasons). I liked the early, meet-cute scenes with her grandpa in tow, as he tried to preserve her honor, but the episode felt like it lost so much track of the two that the final scene where the ship is pulling away from Melbourne and Sid is looking out over the sea of faces with a sad expression failed to land as well as the shots of Leckie doing the same. For one thing, Lucas and Ashton Holmes didn't have as good of chemistry as Van der Boom and James Badge Dale, and the episode relied too much on this young fella getting initiated into the ways of love (a fairly tired cliche) and instantly falling for the girl to make the whole thing feel earned.
But, man, the end of Leckie and Stella's relationship hits like a punch in the gut. Intellectually, Leckie understands that war makes for temporary romances, that Stella and he live on completely separate continents and likely would not have met but for the war. But when she breaks it off with him and says that he won't be coming back to get her, that they won't be getting married or having kids because she can't risk him dying and breaking her heart and her family's heart, it's a supremely moving moment and one in which you can feel for both parties. She's obviously shaken by the death of the boy two streets over, but she's just as shaken by how quickly this man has insinuated himself into her life and her family's life. Being cruel is the only way she can return to the status quo, and if that means that Leckie is slightly hardened by the experience and lands himself in some trouble, so be it.
But the nature of war is disruptive to the status quo. It's unlikely we or Leckie will ever see Stella again, but the fast connection the two formed, a connection that seems likely to stay with them the rest of their lives, was almost entirely possible because of the war. Leckie and Stella may long for their own version of the domestic bliss that her parents have (a bliss that's in marked contrast to what Leckie says about his own family), but to get it, they will have to wade through another few years of hell. You can work to preserve a thing, you can even fight to preserve it, but at any given time, the fight can bump up against that which you work to save. That this episode drives that lesson home reminds us of the stakes involved for all of these young men.
Some other thoughts:
- We don't see Eugene this week at all. Perhaps the series just realized that it made more sense to keep him separate from the action until he enters World War II, but I can't say that I missed his presence in this hour.
- On a purely prurient note, I don't know if there's a period for the general look of women (hairstyles, the fashion they wore, etc.) than the '40s. Just about everything was designed to make women look both completely desirable and slightly chaste, and that's right up my alley.
- I'll talk more about this in the weeks to come, but I'm finding the sense of melancholy the series is giving to all of the proceedings, the sense of a world that is slowly being reborn as something new and unrecognizable, really well done.