"Samson and Delilah," the first episode of the second season of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, picks up exactly where last season left off. Cameron and jeep have just exploded, and Sarkissian–the real Sarkissian, played briefly by James Urbaniak–is paying a visit to Sarah and John. He's understandably pissed off. The Connors stole his hard drive in their search for the Turk (an early A.I. that will one day grow-up to be Skynet), and now he wants it back. While Sarkissian tries to beat the truth out of our heroes, Cameron makes her way inside and kills Sarkissian's thug, in the process setting a fire that will destroy the entire building. When Cameron finds the Connors, Sarkissian is dead, but their problems are just beginning. The jeep explosion didn't just damage Summer Glau's eerily pretty complexion; it also reset her programming. She's a real Terminator now, and John Connor is her number one priority.
The Sarah Connor Chronicles shouldn't work. It's a spin-off series of a franchise whose continuity was already wheezing by the first sequel, and like all time travel sci-fi, the more you think about it, the worse the ice-cream headache gets. Hell, even the title is lame. "Chronicles"? What, is Sarah going to travel the earth and fix people's problems by telling them how much she loves her son? (And she'd do it too, in that scary, "I will gut you if you get in my way" voice.)
Watching season one, the first few eps I found myself having a good time without really knowing why. I kept watching, assuming it would fall apart eventually, but it didn't. Sure, the voice-over was lame (but then, so was the voice over in Terminator 2, and I'll take Sarah Connor over Mohinder's bull crap any day), and the logic wasn't always airtight, but I've lived with worse. As the season progressed, I found my ironic detachment slipping away. I started to enjoy myself without turning off the critical part of my brain. For the first time in a long while, here is a genre series that manages week in and week out to deliver exactly what it promises
It doesn't hurt that the cast is solid. Lena Headey is fine in the sub-title role, and Brian Austin Green is convincingly grizzled as John's uncle Derek, enough to make me forget the 90210 jokes. Richard T. Jones makes a sympathetic human antagonist, Garrett Dillahunt is suitably unnerving as Cromartie. But the real stand-outs are Thomas Dekker as John Connor and the inimitable Summer Glau as his robot buddy, Cameron. Glau's no stranger to playing not-entirely-sane young women, and there's an ambiguity to her performance that makes her Terminator unique; where Robert Patrick was wonderfully nasty and Arnold Schwarzenegger just flat-out implacable, Glau seems like a machine that's trying to learn its way into self-actuality. For once, we don't have a cyborg struggling to be more "human"–there's apparent groundwork being laid for her to be something else entirely, and it's a nice change of pace.
As for Dekker… We'll get to him in a moment. T:SCC is a shark show, plain and simple. If it stops, it dies. While individual episodes may flirt with themes and arcs, the real importance is keeping the plot humming, and making sure that plot has as many explosions and robot fights as possible. After the cold open of "Samson and Delilah," the ep splits four ways: we have Charley and Derek pursuing the Connors in Charley's ambulance, Agent Ellison dealing with the aftermath of the Cromartie attack, the reveal that Shirley Manson (as Catherine Weaver) bought the Turk, and Sarah and John's attempts to escape from their former bodyguard. While the first sections are interesting enough, it's that last part that gives "Samson" its strongest moments. In some ways it's just a retread of the standard Terminator climax, but it doesn't feel derivative so much as self-referential. The "Call him" moment, with Cameron torturing Sarah and John ignoring her screams, was excellent, as was the chase's conclusion: Cameron's programming desperately feeding out all the lines it thinks John wants to hear while he tries to remove her CPU. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the series is how often the Terminators behave like actual robots. Glau's panicky sobs are the perfect manipulation, and when Connor hesitates, you can't really blame him, even though you know it's all lies.
A big flaw of the second two Terminator movies is their lack of a charismatic hero. Nick Stahl wasn't terrible in Rise Of The Machines, but the script rarely let his character do much beyond mope; the less said about Edward Furlong, the better. Initially, it seemed like the TV series was going to go the same direction. Dekker had the emo-bangs, the whininess, the self-absorption. The whole crux of the franchise rests on John Connor being the one person with the will-power and ability to lead humanity against the machines. All we saw on T:SCC was a typical teenager; a bit freaked out about his mom, but not exactly setting the world on fire.
As time passed, though, things changed. John's finally coming into his own, and there were moments in the first season that hinted at a developing personality. Those moments finally start paying off in "Samson"'s climax; after killing Sarkissian, John's on edge for most of the ep, until Cameron gets taken down and Sarah tells him she can't let him fix the machine. So he takes control and holds his mother, uncle, and surrogate father at gun-point while he brings a chip-cleaned Cameron back to life. It's a scene that could've made him seem childish or stupid, but instead makes him look stronger than the others. He takes a huge risk handing Cameron the gun, but for the first time, you feel like he made his decision knowing full well the potential consequences. Dekker's Connor has a steel in it we've yet to see in the character. John's finally stepping up to the plate, and it's about damn time.
—Demerits: the opening sequence, while initially striking, wore out its welcome fast. Plus, the urinal gag at the end was nasty.
—Still, Shirley Manson as a T-1000. I can roll with that.
—Forgot to mention; I'm taking over this blog permanent-like for Chris Dahlen, who covered season one.
—How cool was the face stapling bit?