It’s to the credit of The Looming Tower that even when it needs to do some housekeeping, the people making the show look for ways to do more than just check items off a list. Another series might be content to simply move the pieces around, but with “Mercury,” credited writer Adam Rapp and director Ali Selim aim higher. That’s an admirable goal. Whether or not it’s achieved is another question entirely.
In the case of “Mercury,” the answer to that question is ‘occasionally.’ This is an hour of plot development, in which things progress or are reinforced, but it’s mostly about setting the stage for what’s to come. There are few forks in the road, just brief stops on an ongoing journey. Along the way, Rapp and the rest of the show’s writers dig into the power of symbols and rewards, drawing connections between individual threads of the story that can feel a bit forced. The effort alone is worthy of praise, but there are some hiccups in the execution.
Some of those hiccups may arise from sheer symbol fatigue, because my god, there are so many loaded images in this one hour of television. Take John O’Neil’s story. In that one through-line, we’ve got chess, crucifixes, communion, wedding rings, and cigars, all to tell us that he wants to leave his wife but can’t do so without a mess. None of those symbols is unworthy of exploration, and all carry a certain amount of power. But imagine an hour in which we saw O’Neil flip that wedding ring back and forth, then saw the beautiful cigar box he hands over as part of an attempt to squirm his way out of one marriage and into another. When that cigar box has less competition, it becomes more meaningful. But in “Mercury,” it’s just one striking image among many, one object with greater meaning in a big stew full of such objects.
We’ll return to that, but the too-crowded field isn’t a problem exclusive to symbols on this show. For the first time, the balance of The Looming Tower seems seriously off, with significant stories getting lost in the shuffle, or being touched on so briefly that their inclusion feels jarring. We get one brief scene of Bill Camp’s Agent Chesney, terrified in the back seat of a car, here to briefly illustrate how much more dangerous his job has become since the air strike that ended the previous episode. Louis Cancelmi’s Vince Stuart was caught with classified material in his pocket in last week’s episode, but here we only see him twice: first, he’s stopped from reading an email about Ahmad Mohammad Ali al-Hada; second, we see him take a phone call from O’Neil before witnessing the other FBI Agent embedded with Alec chatting in a friendly way with Schmidt’s loyal devotee Diane.
And we spend a significant portion of the episode’s runtime at a new Al-Qaeda training camp, at which almost nothing happens, other than that a pair of new recruits with Saudi passports arrive and begin to train. It’s not that this particular branch of the story is unimportant. Far from it, actually. But there’s so much going on elsewhere that these sequences can easily fade into the background. Nearly every other scene in the episode is character-driven in some way, and these sequences suffer by comparison. The contrast makes the Al-Qaeda scenes feel somewhat less than essential, when nothing could be further from the truth.
There’s always the hacky sack, of course, but in an hour so packed with important symbols and objects, it becomes just one of many, no matter how fraught the circumstances that surround it might be. The same can be said of Ali Soufan’s expensive new shoes, a pair of objects that link him to John O’Neil’s story of excesses and to his own internal conflicts. On the one hand, we have an accomplished man, investing in a new pair of shoes at the behest of his boss, enjoying the beginning of a new relationship with a new (and non-Muslim) woman. On the other, we have a man who wants to protect his religion from those who would corrupt it, who tells his mother he’s just on the hunt for good deals on new clothes, who’s going to mosque and talking to her sister about her choice to cover her hair. Those shoes are important, but again, here they’re just one among many.
There are effective moments, to be sure, including some with the symbols described above. John O’Neil seems to be followed by crucifixes everywhere he goes, and the scene in which he washes dishes and talks to his wife tells us at least as much about their relationship as an an in-depth, one-on-one conversation. Diane’s devotion to Schmidt gets expressed in more concrete terms, here with the presentation of an orange, the most unnecessary symbol in a series that seems to have purchased them for a dime a dozen, but an effective one nonetheless. Both are good scenes, well-written and well-acted.
Yet they both capture things we already knew, as so many scenes in this episode do. It’s not enough to pack a symbol with meaning. You’ve got to earn it, and then give it room to breathe. The Looming Tower does a fine job of the former, but in this hour at least, there’s practically no room at all, and that density results in a finely made but ultimately unsatisfying experience. The upside is that when you’re moving the piece around the board, it’s usually to set up even bigger moves to come. We’ll find out what those might be next week.
- Needs more Bill Camp.
- It might have been a little on the nose, but that soccer ball to the window certainly made me jump.
- Still not on board with Baldwin’s Tenet.
- See you next week!