Of the varied character dynamics that have evolved over the last two and a half seasons of Falling Skies, my personal favorite is the one between Tom Mason and John Pope. Since the second episode of the series, the two have enjoyed a level of friction that always makes for interesting television, Tom’s moral compass and occasionally pedantic manner clashing with Pope’ anarchistic disregard for authority. And it’s a pairing that goes beyond the stereotypical “snobs versus slobs” dynamic that is often inherent in such a relationship, as both men have had to rely on each other several times and forced acknowledge each others’ skill set even after coming to blows on a semi-regular basis. It works as a good illustration of the slapdash nature of the post-apocalyptic setting, forcing people together who would never find a reason to interact in the modern world.
Part of the reason that relationship works as well as it does is that it’s not one the show has ever overused. Each season has one or two episodes where the two locking horns is a central plot point—Pope’s introduction in “The Armory” began with them his taking Tom hostage, and “Compass” saw the two come to blows over Tom’s alien experience—but it’s a feud that’s allowed to simmer in between those big events. Season three has to date seen some interesting simmering as the settlement’s political dynamics moved front and center to the show, Tom as Charleston president and Pope as mayor of Popetown transitioning the two into a more professional relationship in the style of Deadwood’s Seth Bullock and Al Swearengen.
“Search And Recovery” is the first episode this season to raise the temperature on the two men, and it does so in spectacular fashion. Following up immediately on the ending of “At All Costs,” which saw their plane shot down by an Espheni beamer, the two are left stranded almost 400 miles from Charleston without General Bressler the plane, the former impaled on a tree branch and the latter blown to pieces and picked clean by the aliens. There’s a clear atmosphere of danger established early as the two men duck just out of sight of the beamer spotlights, and it continues as they flee from skitters who leap across trees and move just within inches of their hiding spots. (The latter scene is particularly unsettling, and earns a favorable comparison to the first close-up of a Ringwraith from The Fellowship Of The Ring.) The wooded locations selected by the creative team are perfectly chosen and a good change of pace from typical city ruins, expansive and verdant and with no sign of civilization.
Throwing Tom and Pope together in the woods works partially not just because it returns to an always dependable pairing, but because it converts the show structurally to be about that pairing first and foremost. It follows in the vein of such episodes as The Sopranos’ “Pine Barrens” or Breaking Bad’s “4 Days Out,” the Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead two-character dynamic that strips away all of the complicated dynamics of the show’s world to center around these interactions. Both Tom and Pope have ascended to positions of power in three seasons, but to quote Christopher Moltisanti, right now they’re just two assholes lost in the woods. And there’s plenty of great banter between the two as they argue over who got them into this mess—Pope voicing all of my objections to Tom’s bad decisions in “At All Costs” was deeply satisfying—and berate each other’s survival tactics:
“I just got this image of young Tommy Mason out there in the wilderness with his old man. ‘Behold my son! The miracle of fire.”
“I just got an image of a young Johnny Pope sitting on his ass making wisecracks while the other kids played.”
Importantly, the wisecracks are only part of what their woodland hike involves. What makes the Tom and Pope pairing so interesting is the fact that it coaxes different performances out of Noah Wyle and Colin Cunningham—Wyle’s allowed to get angrier and be more dynamic, and Cunningham’s usual contempt for other people is offset by Pope’s grudging respect for Tom’s knowledge. Tom responds to Pope’s jibes about his childhood by quietly mentioning his father was a drunk, and his existence wasn’t the Mayberry life the other man expects: “Nothing idyllic about my childhood except that I survived it.” And when the two are munching frogs over a fire, Pope opens up about his kids and the event that separated him from them, a moment of violence against a neighbor that his voice is devoid of his usual pride when recounting. Cunningham remains the most dynamic actor in the cast, and the distance in his voice as he talks about not being cut out for “the whole life” only proves the writers could do so much more with him.
But of course, a few campfire stories isn’t enough to wash away the history between the two—lest we forget, Pope once dragged Tom into the woods at gunpoint and told him to get as far away as he could. In a nice twist, it’s Tom who initiates hostilities between the two after an ill-timed prank, a well-shot scene that goes from bare-knuckle brawl to a knife-fight only interrupted by the skitter patrol. Choreography then goes from fight to flight seamlessly as the two men run through the woods, eventually diving off a cliff into a river Butch and Sundance-style and forcing Pope to carry Tom safety when the fall breaks his leg.
It’s at this moment that things narrow down to the climax of the two-person adventure, the moment where both men would rather kill the other but something gets in the way—call it respect, call it a fear of being left alone, or some combination of the two. First Tom’s unable to pull the trigger on Pope after the latter delivers a roundhouse punch to the face, and then when Tom’s broken leg leaves him stranded in an alcove Pope can’t abandon him despite a series of insults carefully calibrated to get under the ex-con’s skin. “There’s one thing on this planet I hate more than you, Mason, and that’s skitters” Pope offers as an excuse when he shows up to blow away two skitters threatening the wounded man in true badass fashion, but the feeling of excuse is all that’s there. People don’t save the lives of those they hate, drag them to a pickup truck and hand them a bottle of whiskey, and then drag them to gates of the city when the truck runs out of gas.
At the end of the event, nothing’s resolved between the two—Pope offers a suggestion that this makes them even, and Tom can’t resist one last jab at the idea of a tie before his family swoops in to bring their adventure to a close. And it ends with a faint air of “to be continued” as Pope references that the next time they clash will be the last, though it’s said so in an air that indicates he’s saying it just because he thinks he should. Obviously, Pope won’t be carving the roast beast at the next Mason family Christmas, but something’s shifted between the two, and it’ll be interesting to see what repercussions this jaunt has going forward.
“Search And Recovery” isn’t the sort of episode Falling Skies should do every week, but it is the kind of episode they could stand to do more of. So far, this season has been off to a shaky start, with enough plots being introduced that it’s felt a bit difficult to invest in any of them—demon babies, Evil!Hal, rival governments and hybrid human angst. Taking a week off to go into the woods has helped things settle down somewhat, and setting Anne and Alexis in MIA territory to be a primary objective for our heroes puts the show in active territory, which is where it always functions best. And if it can keep Tom and Pope in close proximity for that search, so much the better.
- In non-Tom and Pope news, Anne’s rash attack on Dr. Kadar and drugging of Lourdes didn’t stay hidden for long, as Kadar has shared his discovery of Alexis’ hybrid DNA and motivated a search party to go hunting for her. The scenes are mostly unremarkable and a touch schmaltzy—particularly the burial of the anonymous woman—but they do give us a good look at the badlands surrounding Charleston, first signs that Maggie’s noticing Evil!Hal’s new lack of empathy, and Ben and Matt bonding over memories of their mother.
- Some new blood in the show’s creative pool this week. “Search And Recovery” was written by Lost veteran Jordan Rosenberg (who wrote season three’s “Par Avion”) and directed by Sergio Mimica-Gazzan of The Pillars Of The Earth miniseries. Falling Skies has felt a touch static in the start of the season, and some new creative voices are welcome, especially if they’re capable of more installments like this.
- RIP General Bressler. Matt Frewer didn’t have much in the way of substantial material on his few episodes, but he projected a good take-no-shit military attitude that worked well next to the rough-and-tumble aspect of the Second Mass. Plus, he was Max Headroom, and Max Headroom is awesome.
- Mole Watch: My theory that Marina is the mole gains additional traction as she’s going behind Tom’s back to research the Volm device with Dr. Kadar, and seems decidedly rattled at its inexplicable power output. This could just be a setup for political intrigue next week, but I remain a suspicious type.
- The Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid moment is telegraphed from minute one, but thankfully Pope’s there to lampshade it: “Oh, I saw that movie, no way!” Tom: “You got a better idea?!” (Also, while not exactly fitting Pope’s knowledge of classic TV, it still earns a shot in the Falling Skies drinking game.)
- Great character moment: Kadar taking the additional time to explain his kudzu analogy to the assembled group.
- Tom Mason, badass action hero: “One of you doesn’t go home today. Is it you?”
- So, would anyone else watch a prequel series about the adventures of a young Tommy Mason and Johnny Pope?