“The Breaking Point” (episode 7; originally aired 10/14/2001)
In which war is hell
(Available on HBO Go.)
One of the great regrets of my life is that I didn’t talk to my grandfather about his experiences fighting in World War II. He spent much of it as a POW, so he was, necessarily, reticent about the whole experience, but he was a charming man with a way with a story. Yet when it came time to leap from his days training for the military to the time after the war, when he met my grandmother and started a family, he would usually hand wave them away with some general talk about how awful it all was. He told some of my cousins more, and we’ve pieced together enough to know how shattered he was by the whole experience. But it’s still not anything close to a narrative, just a few glimpses refracted through broken glass. We have pieces, but nothing like a whole.
It’s that way if you get a chance to talk to some of the few World War II veterans left alive today. Drawing out the stories is inordinately difficult, because they went through so much and saw so much and were so ground down by the scale of the conflict, by the horrors occurring on a daily basis around them. More than any other episode, this one gets at why those men might still clam up, even now, when it’s so vital these stories be recorded. “The Breaking Point” concludes with a quote from Dick Winters about how the men who went through the battles depicted in this episode carried scars from them—even if they weren’t wounded during them—and he expects that’s why Easy members remained so close after returning home at war’s end. What “The Breaking Point” depicts is the unending slog of this combat nightmare, a world where every other moment could rain death down from the sky or where two of your friends might disappear in a blaze of fire right in front of your eyes. It’s a brutal, near brilliant episode of television, one that hunkers down and doesn’t look away unless it absolutely has to.
But it’s also, crucially, frustratingly, an episode that doesn’t trust its audience nearly enough to follow what’s going on and how the characters’ relationships are growing. The idea is that we’ve gotten to know all of these men well enough to really be shattered when some of them are brutally injured or killed. Those moments will have more impact than they would have even a couple of episodes ago. And by focusing on Donnie Wahlberg as Lipton, the episode finds the one character who can act as a kind of bridge between all of these men. In the depths of despair, Lipton is able to find exactly what each man needs to keep going, and then he finds a way to give that to each man. It’s enormously emotionally draining, and you can hear it in the way Wahlberg’s voiceover narration is so flat and affectless. This is a man who’s had everything emptied out of him, and he sounds almost like a walking ghost. He’s alive, but some part of him is still wandering the battlefields around Foy.
Unfortunately, Graham Yost’s script doesn’t quite think the audience will be able to get all of this just from the visuals and the script’s structure. Just the words voiceover narration should indicate that. Though I love the way Wahlberg delivers these words, most of his monologues are largely unnecessary, papering over gaps in the narrative that could be filled in easily enough by the audience (or didn’t need filling in at all) or telling us stuff we already can figure out from the enormously powerful performances. We don’t need to be told that Buck Compton is so shattered by his two friends losing their legs; we can see it written all over Neal McDonough’s face. Similarly, when the episode ends with Speirs coming to Lipton in the convent to tell him about how he’s been the real leader of Easy Company all this time, it’s the show underlining a point that’s obvious to all. It’s the whole point of the episode, for goodness’ sake!
Normally, this kind of unnecessary hand holding would be one of my pet peeves, but the rest of “Breaking Point” is staggering enough to make up for it. This is an episode where the script works perhaps too mightily to make all of the pieces fit together into a whole, but those pieces are so amazing that it doesn’t really matter. So many of the best moments of the whole miniseries are in “The Breaking Point,” like Guarnere racing after Toye and sealing his fate or Speirs taking over for Dike on the battlefield and proving remarkable at it. If I’m remembering a single scene or image or moment from this miniseries, it’s about even money that it’s from this episode, even if I think the overuse of the narration keeps it from being up there at the top as the very best. There are so many rich themes and ideas running through the episode, and it’s just a shame that Yost leans on a device he doesn’t really need far too often.
Chief among those potent themes is the very idea of a breaking point, which every single one of the major characters confronts in one way or another in the episode. As I mentioned above, this battle sucked out everything the men of Easy had to give, and then it took even more. We get physical breaking points, like Guarnere and Toye’s lost limbs, or the various men who lose their lives thanks to being desperately unlucky. But we also get psychological breaking points, like that haunted look in Buck’s eyes as he musters out not because of any physical ailment but because he’s finally and completely become unraveled. (Lipton’s narration notes that no one held this against him. They understood what was going on in his head, and perhaps they were the only ones who could.) But we get more subtle breaking points, too, like when Winters finally becomes frustrated with his inability to help his men, his need to stay back behind the front lines, and tries to run off into battle, even though he knows he’s not supposed to. He’s called back immediately, but it hearkens back to the Winters who’s less concerned about himself than about his men, the Winters who will race forward into battle before everyone else, because every man he loses is a tragedy to him.
What’s interesting is that we don’t really see a specific breaking point for the episode’s ostensible center. We get a bunch of moments where Lipton is put through the wringer, and we get the bit at the end where he races out into harm’s way to score Shifty a clean shot on the German sniper. But we never entirely see him break down, even though we can hear in his voice throughout the narration that he’s been horribly, brutally changed by all he’s been through and seen. What I think we’re hearing—and this is the one thing the narration really adds to the episode—is the thought that he did break somewhere along the line, but he also understood that he needed to hold things together to keep everything from falling to pieces. Because Dike was such an ineffectual leader, someone needed to fill the void, and Lipton just naturally did so. There are always people like this in any situation where a vacuum at the top creates the necessity of strong leadership. Some people will try to seize that power forcibly, but some, like Lipton, will simply hunker down and try to inspire those around them, the better to keep everyone’s morale from plummeting. It’s rare to see a story about these sorts of leaders, and with his softer features and kind eyes, Wahlberg makes a good choice for this kind of tale.
That brings up another of “The Breaking Point’s” chief themes. This is the episode that more thoroughly engages with different styles of military leadership than any other in the series, as we get a look at just how bad Dike is at his job, then get senses of the various characters who could fill that vacuum and why Lipton and Speirs eventually do. Just as Lipton is a portrayal of the kind of unnoticed leader, quietly keeping things humming in the background, Dike is a pretty brilliant look at what happens when an indecisive man is put into a position where all he has to do is make decisions. His complete breakdown when the men are advancing on Foy is as terrifying as anything in the episode, as you slowly realize just how screwed these men are if Dike can’t pull it together or if Winters can’t replace him. But the episode also thoroughly foreshadows what a disaster he’ll be when push comes to shove, yet also explains exactly why Winters can’t can him. It’s a great little lesson in how the perils of bureaucracy affect any leader, and when Winters is finally able to pull Dike, there’s a palpable sense of relief. Maybe, finally, someone will step in who’s worth a damn.
That man is Speirs, and director David Frankel shoots him like some sort of superhero. The shot of him racing across the battlefield, almost daring the Germans to shoot him, to connect with I Company is amazing, but then, he comes back, to everyone’s amazement. It’s the perfect payoff to his speech back in episode three about how he needs to become utterly remorseless and merciless if he’s going to make it back home alive. He’s the one who has what it takes to shell Foy into oblivion and retake the town, and he’s also someone who actively cultivates tales of his own terribleness, who allows the men to think that he killed a bunch of prisoners or even one of his own men, if it will scare them of him just a little bit. But Speirs unquestionably gets results. It’s like the show sets him up as the flipside of Winters, the more ruthless leader who nevertheless performs just as well. Winters is a brilliant tactician, but when he lets thoughts of battle creep in, they wound him. One gets the sense Speirs left that part of himself behind long ago, and he might pick it up after the war and might not.
Ultimately, “The Breaking Point” remains such a powerful episode and one that transcends its mild weaknesses because it finds the perfect intersection between all of the ideas it considers in that old, nearly universal idea that war is hell. The battle scenes are presented with the absolute minimum of tactics, instead suggesting a kind of unrelenting, unending black hole that more and more men keep getting sucked into. The deaths are often random and pointless, as when Hoobler accidentally shoots himself with the Luger he was so desperate to find. And when the episode comes to an end at the convent the men have reached after clearing out town after town after town, the beauty of the girls’ voices mixes with the lost, grizzled faces of the men who seem all but shocked to have found themselves in a place where no one is trying to shell them. It, too, seems like a dream, but a much more pleasant one than the experience of combat.
It’s also much shorter. Lipton’s narration lets us know that this night in the convent would be a momentary respite. The men of Easy wouldn’t get any sort of break for a while yet. Because we live in 2014 and know that the war is very close to ending, we know that they’ll come to a promised rest, in one way or another. But they don’t know that. Sitting there, listening to girls who might as well be angels, it might have been tempting to close one’s eyes and assume the battle had taken another life, and the choir was that of Heaven. Is this why so many of them, like my grandfather, were so reticent to talk? Did they come out of hell and find something just close enough to heaven, then try to leave the broken part there? And, I wonder, did they ever think about picking that part up and examining it again, or did they lock it away as tightly as possible, only to find it again when caught off-guard?
- That’s Battlestar Galactica’s Jamie Bamber as the latest familiar face to pop up in a tiny, tiny role. Bamber’s star hasn’t really risen because of his association with that science fiction program, but he gets a chance to try out his American accent for the first time here. He’d need it quite a bit just a couple of years later.
- It’s worth pointing out that both Guarnere and Toye would lose their legs but would survive the war and go on to lead long lives. In fact, Guarnere just died earlier this year, which seems a little insane to me. The series will miss him going forward.
- One of my favorite things about Wahlberg’s performance here is the way you can watch him thinking as he tries to get all of the men back into a cohesive unit, even as every single one of them threatens to splinter away from everyone else. There’s so much affection and brotherhood in those eyes, but so much desperation, too. He needs to hold Easy together, and he’s pretty sure he’s the only one who can do it.
- One of the things that makes the departures in this episode so shattering is that it’s the first time we really lose any major characters (unless you count Blythe, I guess?). Buck Compton is the one who gets to me most, because McDonough portrays his dissolution so harrowingly.
- Frankel shoots the shelling as a kind of random nightmare, the trees suddenly exploding in violence. I’ve obviously never been in battle, but this strikes me as what it must be like.
- The scene where everybody tries to save Hoobler is both riveting stuff—because they’re all involved and there’s not much they can do—and a nice way to provide a quiet passing of the torch from last week’s episode, with all its medical emergencies and Doc Roe action.
- Women and children alert: The girls in the convent choir are technically both, and Frankel literally frames them as angels, the candlelight creating soft halos on their faces. They are beings who should not exist but inexplicably do.
Next week: Things head toward the end, as we go out on “The Last Patrol.”