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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles: Dungeons & Dragons

Image for article titled Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles: Dungeons & Dragons
Image for article titled Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles: Dungeons & Dragons

Last week, I'll admit, I cut this show a lot of slack. But it was an exciting night. We saw a great truck chase and a breathless chess match, the storylines were converging, the characters were coming together, and the series felt like it was finally getting somewhere. And I thought tonight's episode would seal the deal.

I wouldn't exactly call tonight's episode - which has the cringeworthy title, "Dungeons & Dragons" - a disappointment, but it was definitely a step backwards. We're back to their cough syrup style of storytelling, where important clues are tossed on your plate with no suggestion of when they'll add up to anything, while really obvious explanations are dragged out interminably.

Half the episode is spent with Derek Reese, who's lying on a kitchen table bleeding his guts out in 2007 - but his mind is in 2027, where we get the show's first extended look at the post-apocalyptic warzone that follows judgment day. During Reese's flashback/flashforward:

- We learn that while Kyle Reese was helping John Connor discover the secret of time travel, brother Derek was chained to a floor in some weird old house, being experimented on by the Terminators. We do not learn what these experiments were all about - only that they involve classical music, which is how we know they're creepy.

- While he was chained to the floor, he met chess fantatic and computer science genius Andy Goode - the same one who got shot last week after losing that chess match. And in a big reveal at the end of the episode, we discover that Derek's the one who shot him. This doesn't exactly seem like news, since Derek was already the likely culprit, but the show treats the whole thing like lost footage from the Zapruder film.

- We also learn exactly how and when John Connor and the resistance discovered time travel, and watch Derek zap back in time to modern-day Los Angeles with his gang of merry naked rebels, bent on saving the future. Again, this isn't exactly news. We know that the humans have time travel. We knew that back in 1984, when the first movie came out.

- But we do get one other snazzy vignette: right before Derek zips back into the past, he's wandering around a resistance compound and discovers that the rebels are reprogramming the Terminators - and sometimes, the reprogrammming doesn't take. Or as Cameron, shown saving Derek's ass from a haywire robot, puts it, "Sometimes they go bad. Noone knows why."

Back in 2007, Cameron the Terminatrix has one of her best episodes to date. For the last few weeks, Summer Glau has had to act stiff and quirky, and she's often played the robot thing for laughs. Tonight, her otherness is eerie and compelling. For much of the hour she knuckles down and just tries to get her work done. Confronted with the task of skinning and vaporizing an entire Terminator, she breaks out a knife and acts like an old west frontierswoman dressing a deer: She's got God's honest work to do and she don't take kindly to outsiders. And outsiders don't take too kindly to her, either: Charley Dixon, who's coming to terms with the whole killer-robot-apocalypse thing, tells her, "Little girl, you freak me the hell out. On the otuside, you're just as pretty as a picture. But on the inside … ." And seeing that she scares him, she acts even scarier.

On the other hand, the big reunion between Sarah Connor and her ex-fiance Charley Dixon turns into one long snooze. He asks questions. He moans about how he and Sarah never had a chance. He has a couple sensitive moments with Sarah. And at the end he warns her, "There's a storm coming." I guess I was counting on his appearance to advance the show, but instead we get the Hallmark moments. Maybe Cameron should kill this guy; we could use the drama.

Oh, and John Connor, future hero of the resistance, mopes a little and gives a lot of blood. In other words, like most of the show, he's spinning his wheels until the next big thing happens.

Grade: B

Stray Observations:

- Who didn't cheer when The Wire's Andre Royo, aka Bubs, showed up as one of the rebel soldiers? Or how about the Dunkin Donuts ad that featured Clay Davis chowing on a breakfast sandwich? If you wondered whether there's life after The Wire, this hour gave you all the answers.

- When future-Derek meets future-Andy Goode in that ramshackle research lab, we get more clues about Skynet's emotional life as a young AI: "It became angry, and scared. And I couldn't reassure it." Between the psychoanalysis of the Turk and Skynet and Cameron's growing moodiness, the show is doing a nice job of exploring the emotional states of computers. Will it actually take this anywhere?

- Easily the highlight of the night came when Sarah Connor, fearing that Cameron was going to murder Charley Dixon, gave her robot buddy both barrels of whoopass in the garage - and then the second she leaves, Cameron, clearly flaunting the rules, reveals she's still holding on to that T-888 brain chip. I'm not sure where they're taking Cameron - whether she's exploring her own robot identity, following secret orders, or flirting with betraying her human overlords. Or maybe she's just acting like a sullen adolescent who'll do anything to piss off her mom - which could be the coolest option of all.