Tahar Rahim
Photo: JoJo Whilden (Hulu)

There are upsides and downsides to the smart storytelling choices made in “Y2K,” the fifth episode of a series that’s thus far had plenty of the former and a few of the latter. That’s a rough distribution that remains true in this hour. The upsides are plentiful. At least one of the downsides, however, is a doozy, and it makes “Y2K” feel a bit like filler. When you’re on episode five of a 10-episode series, ‘filler’ isn’t a feeling you want to have.

Thematically, what “Y2k” does makes perfect sense. It’s possible, even likely, that when viewed through the lens of the season as a whole, this is an episode that will prove key to the overall arc, in addition to being thematically rich and thoughtful. But on its own, placed as it is right in the middle of the season, it’s a little underwhelming. The problem with telling a story about anticlimax and the anxiety that can bring is that to tell such a story, very little can actually happen. Where there’s smoke, there’s the possibility of eventual fire, but just because there was no fire today doesn’t mean there won’t be one tomorrow.

Almost every thread in this episode leads pretty much nowhere, at least within this specific hour. Director Ali Selim and credited writer Shannon Houston carry that all the way from beginning (O’Neill leaves his Palm Pilot on a train, but it’s locked up by a transit cop and kept safe until he can retrieve it) to the end (Vince prepares to tell O’Neill about a target with a U.S. visa, but changes course at the last minute after his partner at Alec Station waves him off.) Hell, there’s even a scene where it seems like O’Neill is going to wake up Liz, but doesn’t. The biggest buildup to nothing is the titular one, of course. The question is not whether or not there will be a coordinated terrorist attack to coincide with Y2K, because we know that doesn’t happen. The question is whether or not the FBI will actually prevent what seems to O’Neill to be inevitable.

Whether or not they prevent such an act is unclear. We’re shown the arrests, but not any intelligence gathered after the fact; we know, thanks to Agent Soufan’s unauthorized field trip, that at least one of the targets was collecting money for Al-Qaeda, but have no information about what was for. And that’s where “Y2K” stumbles a bit. Had the series chosen to go even further with the idea that this was a time of frustration and inaction, in which little happens and even less is achieved, that might offset the sense that this episode is spinning its wheels. But in the two instances of something actually happening — Soufan making contact with the targets of the stakeout, and the FBI arresting those targets — the results of of those actions remain a mystery.

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Even those plot points, frustratingly muddy though they are, serve a greater narrative function. O’Neill and Soufan are linked in this episode by that aforementioned frustration and inaction, leading the former to lash out and the latter to take unwise risks. They’re linked, too, by terrific performances, particularly in the case of Tahar Rahim, who’s just great here. His appearance at the mosque, which begins as an excuse to track his target, transforms into something else entirely, and watching him experience that proves to be one of the episode’s most gripping segments. Rahim has been terrific throughout the series, but Soufan’s relationship to his religion has become one of The Looming Tower’s most interesting threads, and it’s in those scenes that Rahim really excels.

Jeff Daniels
Photo: JoJo Whilden (Hulu)

His isn’t the episode’s best performance, though. It’s not Jeff Daniels’ performance, either, though as mentioned above, he also does great work. No, the standout turn of the hour comes courtesy of the great Michael Stuhlbarg, who sits at the center of the one scene that keeps “Y2K” from under the weight of its own inaction. The sequences that flash forward to the 2004 9/11 hearings have been a function of the series since its earliest moments, and so far, every single one has delivered a jolt of electricity to the series. With the possible exception of Schmidt’s sneering testimony, none has worked as well as the brief, controlled, and positively alarming Clarke segment seen here. The earlier Schmidt testimony works in part because Sarsgaard’s performance is so perfectly infuriating, but Stuhlbarg, Houston, and Selim pull off something that’s equally as gripping without the fireworks.

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Stuhlbarg’s cool, controlled fury in this scene does more to elevate the episode than any other single element. In the sequence, Clarke states facts, calmly. The camera pulls in, slowly. In under a minute, positioned near the episode’s center, this scene makes clear that some of the many things that don’t happen, some of this episode’s many anticlimaxes, lead up to something huge, something life- and world-changing. In the very next scene, a woman searches a man’s luggage and finds nothing, and so he enters the U.S.

That Clarke scene, and the episode’s only other, in which Clarke interacts briefly with George Tenet, are the exceptions that proves the rule when it comes to “Y2K.” It’s possible to tell a story in which not much happens if there’s a reason for all the anticlimax. Some of what happens here is simply what happened, plain and simple. Some of it, however, is underdeveloped and unclear, leaving behind the sense that those scenes and stories, which otherwise might pack a hell of a narrative or thematic punch, are just filling time. Stuhlbarg, Selim, and Houston make inaction incredibly compelling by contextualizing it, by showing us the cost of that inaction in under 60 seconds.

If there were as much thought and precision to be found throughout “Y2K,” it could be a great, gripping hour of television. Instead, we’ll just have to settle for a good one.

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Stray observations

  • It grieves me to tell you that this will be the last episode review for The Looming Tower. I’ll still be watching, so if you want to chat about it, find me on Twitter.
  • The late ‘90s music in this episode was perfect.
  • Forgetting his Palm Pilot and not waking Liz = exactly as much as I need about John O’Neill’s personal life. Seriously, that’s efficient storytelling. We can tell that he’s hanging on by a thread, and that his feelings for this woman are sincere and potent.
  • Not enough Bill Camp.

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