After several hours of some of the most intense combat scenes ever committed to the TV screen, The Pacific downshifts this evening, cutting away from the story of Sledge (and the still-absent Leckie) to check in again on John Basilone, who was the centerpiece of the second hour and then spent much of the rest of the series bouncing around the United States and increasingly losing his center, a man the nation needed to not be at war so he could help the boys who actually were, but a man who also didn't quite know who he was without the battle. I'm sure many will question just why the series, which had been building up a head of steam, would choose to follow up hours of almost pure intensity with what amounts to a doomed romance, but the hour took on an emotional intensity of its own. I was horrified and amazed by much of the last two episodes, but I don't know that I ever found them as deeply moving as I found this simple story about love and duty.
There is a part of me that wonders if this storyline might have played a little better had we gotten to know Basilone beyond just seeing him at war and at home. Outside of "Part Two," Basilone has been in the series so little that he almost feels like a supporting player, even though he's billed as a co-lead with Leckie and Sledge. But where Leckie and Sledge both get variations on the "innocent goes to war and has his moral compass tested" character arc that's tried and true, Basilone is limited by history to the story of a man who becomes a hero, gets a chance to leave the war for a while, then goes back out of both a need to be in the fight and a strong sense of duty.
To his credit, Jon Seda plays the hell out of Basilone's gradually growing sense that he's got to go back, that he's got to join the good fight again. The episode never does anything so silly as suggest that Basilone knows he will die when he goes back to the Pacific (though he clearly knows it's a distinct possibility), but the episode itself clearly knows what's going to happen on those blackened shores. The music, the framing, the performances … pretty much everything here is setting us up to know that this is the hour when John Basilone dies. Normally, that sort of thing becomes overwrought fairly quickly. Here, though, I was somehow invested in what was going on. The episode was at once over-playing and underplaying this moment.
A big part of this stems from how well the episode builds the connection between Annie Parisse as Lena and Seda as Basilone. There's only a very small amount of time to get the two from her wanting nothing to do with him to their few days of married bliss. Thanks to disarming casting - Parisse at first seems to be underplaying Lena so much that it's impossible to see what Basilone sees in her, but her true sense of the character as someone who's trying like hell to not be impressed by him brings the portrayal back around - the hour finds a way to make this coupling feel like the heart of Basilone's story, as if all of that other stuff he did, while heroic, was only the prelude to all of this. The guy felt a little rootless before, and now he has the thing even we didn't know he lacked. Lena is maybe not as glamorously attractive as, say, a Hollywood starlet, but Parisse brings such a zest to the character, such a sense that this is a woman who's so confident in herself and her wishes, that it's obvious why Basilone was won over by her, even as starlets failed to keep his interest. The fast friendship that turns to love between the two should have been cliche - involving early morning French toast and talks about great cups of coffee - but it somehow works.
I think we need this long respite from combat because the series could have quickly become numbing. While that's a good way to reflect the way these battles affected men like Sledge, Leckie, and Basilone, it doesn't help us keep invested. At some point, we need a little break, and going back to the States to see what Basilone is up to is a good way to do so, especially when the story is as good as this one is. But it's not like the episode leaves behind combat entirely. What sets this just slightly ahead of "Part Three" (which adopted a similar structure, as Leckie went to Australia and met Stella) is the fact that the show contrasts the wrath of battle with the peacefulness of home. The last 10 to 15 minutes of the hour is all Iwo Jima, and it's a good reminder of just how fearless in battle Basilone is. But it's a reminder of something else: The man was a natural-born leader.
There's been some talk in comments about how the series has been missing that sense of the bond that forms between young men and their COs during a war, and while that's not what I'm looking for in this series, I can see why people feel that way. At the same time, I'd say this final segment where Basilone led his men up those hills, the Marines dropping off one by one, as Japanese bullets sliced through them, was as good an expression of this storytelling device as anything else the series has offered. What made this work was that these moments cut both ways. Having seen Basilone training these men, having seen them at his wedding, we could see his sadness as he watched them die but also his sense that he had to keep the others moving, if they had any chance of surviving. And we could also see just how much the men under Basilone respected him, wanted to follow him into the very depths of Hell.
Because, the more I think about this episode, the more obvious it becomes that the California interlude is necessary to make Basilone's death all the more tragic (since it mostly just happens in the midst of battle and doesn't get a huge, heroic series of shots) but also necessary to build his bond with this entirely new unit he brings into battle. I can't say that I would know any of these characters by name, but the relationship that Basilone builds with them as a unit is remarkably well constructed for a relationship that only began to exist in this hour, and it makes the scenes of them following Basilone to their deaths that much more understandable and moving. I'm not sure how I feel about the scene where Basilone chews the trainees out for underestimating the "Japs" - for all I know, the real Basilone genuinely had such "modern" sensibilities, but it definitely felt like a scene constructed to let the audience off the hook for having to hear the word "Jap" so many times - but it accomplished the goal of showing how naturally Basilone took to guiding these men and protecting their lives.
But for me, the episode - hell, the series - is encapsulated by a series of shots toward the end of the California portion. Basilone, lying naked in bed after his wedding night in a cottage just off the Pacific coast, looks over at his wife's naked form. She, smiling back at him over her shoulder, the moon playing across her bare skin, asks, "What?" Basilone is barely able to speak, a vague sense flitting over his face that he could lose so much more now than he might have lost before he met her. He just smiles back, and the camera pans out, the softly lapping waves of the ocean hitting the shore outside. Cut to another shore, another side, another life. There's blood and smoke and the firing of guns. It's another world entirely, yet the same ocean. Here is the fight. There is what he's fighting for, what he will never see again. Here, he takes his last few glimpses of this Earth, of young men charging up a hill before a curtain of white light, their cause true, their fight just, but their lives no less tragically lost.
- How the hell has Penny Marshall not made a movie about women in the Marines during World War II yet?
- Sledge turns up just to mostly pass the baton to Basilone. I'm not sure I can think of much else to say about his bare minutes of screen time.
- It's possible that I liked this episode so much because I have a real affinity for American culture of the period, for things like overly scripted radio programs and everybody pitching in to help "our boys." The early 1940s' homefront strikes me as what people think about when they think about a stereotypical idea of "America."
- All things considered, that "cup of coffee" conversation was really well scripted.
- So. Those of you that knew. Did knowing that Basilone died hinder your enjoyment of the episode? Or enhance it?
- This episode was directed by David Nutter, and those shots of the soldiers running up the hill as Basilone lay dying were very well done.