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Falling Skies: “At All Costs”

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On a television show, few things are more annoying than when characters make stupid decisions. Part of it is because when you grow invested in a show you want to believe the people you’re watching are capable of making reasonable and informed choices, and part of it because—more often than not—the those stupid decisions are made for the sole purpose of advancing the plot. A stupid character making a stupid decision is one thing, but a supposedly smart character making a stupid decision is a woeful thing to witness, because it makes you dislike both the character for doing it and the writers for making them do it. And the memory of those bad decisions tends to linger on, to the point that you find yourself holding the character accountable until they do something to make up for it.


The characters on Falling Skies have a bad habit of making a lot of these bad decisions, partly out of circumstance—the world they live in doesn’t always allow them time to think everything through—and partly because of the Spielberg sense of decency that governs so many of their worldviews. At various points over the last two seasons I’ve grumbled over characters putting their faith in the wrong people, pinning their odds on long shots that defy logic after a while, and refuse to acknowledge inevitabilities or hard choices that this new world dictates they make. They’ve never broken the show, but they have derailed the show frequently enough that when a serious decision comes up it feels like a coin flip may determine the outcome.

And at this point season three doesn’t look like it’s likely to break that trend, at least based on the events of “At All Costs.” The fourth episode is an episode full of decisions, and unfortunately more than a few of them fall on the bad side of the equation, some characters utterly devoid of foresight when it comes to their actions while others make more reasonable choices or at least have their choices made for them. Thankfully, while some of the decisions are irksome, they do shove a few of the plot lines ahead in a favorable way, especially after the slower pace of “Badlands.”


The most annoying of those decisions is unsurprisingly made by Tom, who claims to have been purged of his academic naïveté by the last two years, but could still use a few lessons in leadership. Following the failure of the Espheni offensive—a welcome return to the show’s action elements, with mech attacks and beamer assaults repelled by Volm heavy ordinance—Lt. Fisher has changed her perspective on Charleston and offers them a chance to open lines of communication with the remnants of the American government, led by President Benjamin Hathaway. Hathaway proposes a meeting at one of their safe houses, which Tom not only agrees to (commandeering Pope’s salvaged biplane for the purpose) but also makes the decision to bring Cochise to the negotiations.

Tom explains this choice to the American remnants as a demonstration of how serious they are in their commitment to the project, which makes sense in some regard but it’s a decision where the cons far outweigh the pros. The attack by Lt. Fisher’s team was largely motivated by the fact that they witnessed the Charleston detachment working alongside aliens, and given the fact that Cochise is regarded with suspicion at best by most of the Charleston residents—Pope makes several impotent protestations about bringing a “bubblehead” on his plane—this strikes me as a pass that could cripple the potential alliance before it starts. And the consequences to the Volm seem potentially even worse, as Cochise is the only member of the race we’ve seen interacting with the humans and should he be taken out by a trigger-happy general that coalition could come tumbling down on everyone.

However, from a narrative standpoint including Cochise does have the intended effect of giving us an impression of the American remnant, an idea I expressed some concerns about when it was first brought up. So far it’s a mixed bag as General Donovan is a stereotypical jarhead in the Gunnery Sergeant Hartman vein, but President Hathaway leaves a more positive impression. Played by 7th Heaven patriarch Stephen Collins, Hathaway feels like the sort of man both capable of getting elected in pre-alien America and having the personal force to hold a makeshift armed force together post-invasion. Thankfully, he also avoids the more stereotypical prejudices by being willing to hear both Tom and Cochise out, even though he does keep the latter chained up for a goodly part of the episode.(The latter decision also has benefits because it allows Cochise to deliver a heartfelt monologue about his own keen longing for a homeworld he’s never seen, proving once again Doug Jones is the right choice for your motion-capture CGI humanoid roles.)

Back in Charleston, Anne’s opted to take a more active role in figuring out exactly what’s going wrong with Alexis, heading below the city to ask Dr. Kadar’s help. Operating under the pretense that she’s doing DNA tests on the deharnessed Charleston kids to figure out how much danger they may be in, she slips a sample of her daughter’s DNA into the batch to see if there are any ill effects. Kadar’s able to whip a test up using everyday household objects—literally, as his shopping list to Anne amusingly includes rubbing alcohol, dish detergent and salt—and he confirms that Anne’s suspicions aren’t just in her head. All the other samples are fine, but Alexis’ genetic material is rife with alien contamination, “like a parasitic jungle vine choking the life out of the human DNA.”


The alien baby plot has so far felt like a large misstep for the show, as its Trainspotting-style imagery remains out of sync with the rest of the show and the conviction of other characters that Anne’s just having a breakdown has further distanced that character from the rest of the narrative. Anne having concrete proof that there’s something wrong with Alexis feels like it could finally give that story some impetus, especially now that she has Kadar convinced of the truth and willing to offer assistance. It could do that, but it doesn’t. Instead the writers opt for further ill-conceived decisions, as Anne cracks Kadar over the head with a wrench, slips a soporific into Lourdes’ glass of wine, and flees Charleston with Alexis in her arms. I understand that fear is a great motivator, and often pushes people to make decisions they wouldn’t do otherwise, but this move simply makes Anne look irrational to the point of stupidity. Given the fact that they just repelled an alien attack and their enemies are known to be watching for them, running away feels like a move that will lead them right into the arms of the skitters—which in fact it does, taking a grand total of 30 seconds.

While other characters may be making bad decisions, Hal’s lost the ability to make any decisions at all. The obsessive “dreams” about Karen have taken their toll, and in the throes of one sleepless night he suddenly finds himself conversing with “himself” in the mirror, a split alien personality that’s been festering since the events of the second season finale. Sleep deprivation and confusion don’t give Hal much of a base of operations, and he eventually loses control to the other part—an Evil!Hal personality with a snide grin who can lie with ease and talk Maggie into bed easily, and then join the skitter force abducting Anne and Alexis. Drew Roy’s performance on the show has been solid if unremarkable for two seasons, and even in the early going it’s clear he’s enjoying the chance to play a different version of Hal and have some potentially meatier material, a move that could reenergize what’s become a somewhat dull character. (Though I do wonder at why no one seems to comment on the fact that he was virtually paralyzed for seven months and has now gone to walking with ease.)


Ben’s also warring with questions of an alien identity, as Lourdes has researched the Volm’s harness extractor and discovered it’s possible to remove the spikes from the original batch of harnessed kids, restoring their full humanity at the outset. Ben’s conflict between his human and skitter side bore occasional dividends in season two, and his inner turbulence at yielding the advantages that the latter provides him gives the character more exposure than he’s had to date this season. He comes to his decision relatively quickly, largely motivated by his fellow deharnessed kid/current crush Danni, but the fact that the ability for him to heal himself adds an additional level to the question of human and alien interface.

And the resistance is probably going to need his skills for the time being, especially given the way Tom’s original decision has turned out. The negotiations with the Hathaway government are stalled by an approaching alien force—which General Donovan immediately blames on the Charleston representatives—and Cochise is forced into a plane with Hathaway while Tom, Pope and Bressler have to follow along in Pope’s twinjet. An assault by an alien beamer ship gives us our first real dogfight in Falling Skies history, Bressler diving in and out of range and throwing Pope around in the back of the plane until an energy blast finally sends them all to the ground. Here’s hoping that if the three manage to survive the crash intact and work their way back to Charleston, they take a little more time to consider their next moves.


Stray observations:

  • Another great tracking shot post-battle, as Matt and the other kids salvage mech parts and discuss the merits of being a skitter—a subject Matt unsurprisingly tries to change given his brother—Tom and Weaver discussing their casualties, and Hal and Maggie fighting once again for Hal to keep his mouth shut.
  • Robert Sean Leonard continues to impress with the dynamic difference between his performances as Dr. Wilson and Dr. Kadar, as the latter continues to betray there’s some heavy scarring in his past. The subject of children and losing children in particular sets him off: “There’s nothing worse than the silence after… it’s a mistake. I don’t want to talk.”
  • While it was good to see a return to action after a more conversation-heavy “Badlands,” the attack felt woefully abrupt—a fact Weaver and Tom wound up lampshading when they talked about how they didn’t expect Charleston’s forces to fare as well as they did.
  • Falling Skies drinking game: Matt quotes his father quoting one of FDR’s advisors. “Those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”
  • I understand Danni was making a gesture by breaking her glasses, but come on! It’s the post-apocalypse, resources are short. Those frames could have come in handy.
  • Cochise pronounces his full name to the American government remnants, and it’s complex enough that I’m not even going to try to enunciate it. That being said, every time I wind up hearing the abbreviated versions I keep wanting to say it as Goat Cheese.
  • “Nobody said anything about a bubblehead and a damn murderer!” Pope is so annoyed these days.
  • “Oh Hal, you seem stressed. How about I take over for a while. Give you a break.” Serious Do No Harm vibe in the way Evil!Hal reacts to the mirror.