Torchwood: "Escape To LA"
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Torchwood: "Escape To LA"

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Torchwood

"Escape To LA"

Season 4, Episode 4

With Zack indisposed this evening, it has fallen to me to tackle the fourth installment of Torchwood: Miracle Day, a task that I would’ve been more excited about had I not seen the first three episodes of Torchwood: Miracle Day.

For the sake of context, I figure I should rip off the band-aid and say that I think Torchwood: Miracle Day is kind of terrible through three episodes. If someone I know were to ask me my opinion of the series, I don’t know what positive things I would say about it: the plot lacks subtlety, the pacing is nonexistent, the casting is incredibly uneven, the direction has been unimpressive, and the interesting premise has been rendered so dramatically small that it holds no weight whatsoever. While the premiere was able to run on the fumes of that premise, the promise of an interesting season sustaining the show for that hour, the two subsequent episodes featured little of substance or value. The closest it came to pathos was a moment dependent on previous attachment to Jack and Gwen (his drunken discussion of Ianto’s death), and even that felt weakly connected to the premise when a more substantial connection might have finally breathed some life into this world without death.

In truth, “Escape to LA” is probably the most interesting episode thus far, even if it suffers in many of the same areas. The difference, I would argue, is that the show has finally gotten beyond its premise to start exploring the show’s characters, drawing to the surface the way that they are being personally impacted by this miracle/tragedy. To this point, the characters’ involvement has been largely incidental: Torchwood are the people who solve this kind of situation, Vera just sort of conveniently stumbled her way into one of the Medical Review Boards after serving as Rex’s doctor, while Rex and Esther happened to be two people who got caught up in the CIA side of things. The first two episodes were spent putting these characters into position, while last week’s outing had them conveniently stumble upon a potential conspiracy led by a pharmaceutical company, which was conveniently revealed further by Vera’s involvement with Phicorp.

While I do know synonyms for the word convenient (expedient being my personal favorite), I keep repeating the word because I want to emphasize just how much the show has depended on these kinds of developments. “Escape to LA” is an improvement because it bothers to layer a theme over top of the procedure (in this case another "mission of the week" scenario), focusing on how each of the characters have to deal with their own commitments to family in the midst of this crisis. The episode opens with Esther making an incredibly stupid but understandable decision to visit her sister, discovering the dangerous conditions she has created for her children and calling child protective services to have the government take over the role that she feels she should be playing. Yes, it leads to Gwen and Jack tied up by C. Thomas Howell, but Alexa Havens sells the way a simple CIA analyst would struggle to adjust to life on the run when she’s so used to caring for her sister.

Of course, the show had to counter-balance some decent development for Esther with a continuation of the “Rex is a douchebag” line of characterization. In last week’s episode, I could see what Jane Espenson was trying to convey with Rex, and I watched as Mekhi Phifer sold every line as though he couldn’t care less about anything but himself. It’s a wholly unlikeable performance of a mostly unlikeable character, and the lack of any redeeming qualities is growing more problematic with each passing week. While I was supposed to think Rex was heroic for climbing those stairs, or intelligent for coming up with a pretty stock “Getting Around Biometrics” strategy, I couldn’t help but focus on how much of a dick he was to Esther when he discovered that she had visited her sister. Yes, it was a mistake, and a pretty stupid one, but the way he responded was so over the top that I wondered if he had bet his life on Esther resisting the urge to visit her family in some sort of bizarre wager. Later, when he tells her it was her “final warning,” I kept waiting for someone — anyone — to point out that Rex needs to cut her some slack, but everything just kept moving: As far as the show is concerned, Rex is a hero.

It’s a theory that doesn’t hold water, especially when his connection to tonight’s theme was a half-hearted visit to his deadbeat father who is coincidentally hoarding stolen pain killers from Phicorp and who shares a half-hearted argument with his son that I only heard as “Blah blah Daddy issues blah blah.” While Esther’s guilt lingers through the episode, intensifying when she learns that her sister has been committed to a psych ward and her nieces are headed into the foster care system, Rex’s scene comes and goes without any sort of resonance. It is as if it never happened, with the character presenting itself as pretty much the same douchebag who got rammed through the chest with a pole back in the premiere. Every moment that could be redemptive, whether it’s a romantic liaison or a discussion with a family member, just ends with the character proving irredeemable, a consequence of an obnoxious performance by Phifer, passive direction, and a script that necessitates nuance the show seems uninterested in exploring. Esther’s storyline wasn’t subtle, but the show hasn’t done subtle well, so “overt but effective” is about all we can ask for.

That’s largely been my approach to Oswald Danes’ storyline, which I think took an important turn in this episode. Oswald has never really had a motive, a clear sense of why he would be willing to make himself a public face in this fashion. Last week’s episode did a decent job of establishing that he can’t play it halfway, still too hated a figure to be a regular member of society while simultaneously putting himself out into the public. However, while last week made it seem like he’d turned corporate stooge, here we got to see more of what makes Oswald tick. I enjoyed the little ritual with the mini-bar bottles as he enjoyed the sudden luxury offered by Phicorp, but I also enjoyed that we got to see him make a clear decision. He chose to enter that hospital because, ironically enough, that’s what he needs to do in order to survive. In a world where he cannot die, he will only be able to live his life if he fashions himself into a crusader for those who are — whether they like it or not — just like him. Pullman is far better at playing Danes when the character is given a sense of reason and purpose, his hospital speech a fine piece of work that worked in tandem with the emergence of Ellis Hartley Monroe as a counter-figure. It was the catalyst the Danes storyline needed to show us something interesting, and it even made the entire “Plague Ship” setup seem less like pointless exposition (as it offered a convenient, albeit effective, setting for these events).

Arguably, “Escape to LA” is most important for what it reveals about the ‘plot’ of Miracle Day than any of this character nonsense, but I think the latter is more important. Yes, we learn that the organization behind the plot has a connection to Jack’s past (which isn’t shocking), and we also learn that it has something to do with geography and emerging overflow camps. All of this is just talk, though, small details meant to send us theorizing: I laughed a fair deal when Rex just happened to conveniently shoot Howell’s hitman character right before he was about to nonsensically reveal the name of his bosses, as it’s a hokey bit of bait-and-switch (as expected with these one-off villains of no ultimate consequence, similar to Dichen Lachmann back in "Rendition"). However, these plot ideas have some promise, and it’s a good step forward that Gwen (whose phone calls with Rhys helped lay the groundwork for the family commitments side of the episode) now has a personal connection to the overflow camps with her efforts to have her father relocated backfiring and rendering him a guinea pig for the program.

More broadly, I just sort of feel like there’s an actual television show here now. It isn’t just a premise with a bunch of loosely connected characters, it’s a situation escalating by the minute which threatens to overwhelm the characters both within procedural situations (the mission to recover the hard drives) and within their personal lives. In the process, some of the kinks of earlier episodes are being ironed out: While there are still some moments where the slightly campy vibe seems ill-fitted for the U.S. aesthetics and pacing, the mash-up is growing less jarring. Some of this is just time, as we get used to the clear signs of the series’ co-produced nature, but the show is also finding some sense of momentum which is capable of bridging those two worlds more successfully.

By the end of “Escape to LA,” Torchwood: Miracle Day managed to extract itself from the 'terrible' category, at least for me. Finally pulling together its few bright spots amidst the chaotic introduction, the series slowed down long enough to give us something more substantial to latch onto. This is still not a great show by any stretch of the imagination, still irrevocably damaged by the character of Rex and the lazy storytelling that has marred these opening episodes, but it is getting to the point where you can see how (most of) these characters, within this situation, could develop into something capable of resonating on a level befitting a global pandemic of this scale.

Whether they can get there in the remaining six episodes, of course, remains to be seen.

Stray Observations

  • “They are always. They are no one. They are everywhere.” I could list out more of the cryptic bullshit that both the hitman and the voice of the mysterious rotating triangle were spouting here, but suffice to say that we have no idea what’s going on. However, I do like the idea that Monroe was ‘taken out’ because she risked revealing the nature of their plans — gives plenty of fodder for discussion, which I hope we can have in the comments.
  • Of course, at the same time, I’m with Alan Sepinwall that the connection between Monroe and the Tea Party was all sorts of problematic. I don’t understand the need to be concerned with ‘Politics’ (as opposed to ‘politics’) in this story, and even just identifying her as a ‘conservative’ would have made the same impact without seeming like Davies indulging in larger issues that the show isn’t nuanced enough to present intelligently. It also seemed like a waste of Mare Winningham to be given something with so little real substance, but that's just par for the course.
  • I really, really hope they actually follow someone who is in one of the Overflow Camps. One of the show’s biggest problems is the lack of any real “on the ground” perspectives: sure, Rex was one of those who died without dying, but all of the talk of disease has been told through news reports or seen through the eyes of a healthy doctor. I understand Davies is probably more interested in the political conspiracies and government responses, but the degree of distance from the 'real story' is only going to become more problematic.
  • As much as I like Lauren Ambrose, I’m finding her character kind of obnoxiously erratic. At first she seemed all cryptic, but then here she seemed like just another employee asked to complete an assignment. I like the latter character better, as it gives her a sense of personal agency (instead of serving as a stoodge), but then her utter glee at Oswald’s speech just seemed overdone.
  • As a Canadian, I sort of felt Eve Myles was going for a Canadian accent as the hippie mother ogling Frumkin’s baby in what turned out to be a fun scene, in part because of how truly awful that accent was (, eh?).
  • I’ve been waiting for another image to match that horrifying “severed head blinks” scene in the premiere, and while it wasn’t quite as effective, the eye in the wreckage of that car was a smart image.
  • “I’m the bearded woman but I’ve shaved.”
  • “Oh great, he’s cryptic.”

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