Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Vick's Chip/What He Beheld

Illustration for article titled Vick's Chip/What He Beheld
Illustration for article titled Vick's Chip/What He Beheld

By now - and "now" means, the end of Terminator's first season - I thought I'd know more about Josh Friedman. Friedman's the guy who developed the show, and the guy in charge of its vision. When I'm feeling high on this show - when a great scene or a deft grace note makes me think, "Hey, this is pretty good" - I start looking for the vision that I found on shows like, to pick a couple obvious ones, Buffy or Battlestar Galactica. I think about Whedon's dream of making a horror movie where the girl and the monster go down the alley, and the girl's the one who comes back out. Or I think about Ronald D. Moore's fascination with the military, and how an arcane point of naval tradition can make its way into his scripts, just 'cause that's his passion. I wish I knew why Friedman cares about this story and these characters. Yes, a television show's a team effort. But itakes a strong auteur to helm the ship - and to stand on a pedestal while all the fanboys and -girls shower them with t-shirts and collectible statues.

I still don't know much about the guy. Friedman, I mean. His curiously Hunter S. Thompson-aping blog talks about the trials of being an ambitious screenwriter in fearful, loathful Hollywood. But he hasn't written much about the show - and if this show and its creator have a passion for anything, it's time to start sharing. Because while much of the series has grabbed my eyeballs and tickled my funnybone, he hasn't sold me on his characters or his nuclear holocaust. The cast has had few chances to bond and come together as a team; in the last few episodes, they just keep getting warier of each other. And who could blame them? They're all tense, nutty, and ready for an Apocalypse. And by the show's timeline, the apocalypse is still about four seasons away.

Okay, but so, the series finale. What do you guys think? Did it bring the show together for you? Make you hungry for a second season? Cap you off and bring you to peace with the show's iffy odds of renewal? Let's recap for anyone who missed it, or joined late because of the early start time.

At the start of the show, the Connor family is about to dig into a roast that's just over 18 minutes and 27 seconds overcooked. But Uncle Derek breaks the quiet when he storms into the room with a metal cylinder - the chip that Cameron the Terminatrix stole from a T-888 Terminator and hid in her room. This raises the stakes in the show's biggest question: can they trust Cameron? Or is she waiting to turn on them?

Loyalties aside, it turns out that the chip has valuable information, and after John hacks it, he discovers what the T-888 had been doing: protecting a woman who was designing a traffic monitoring system - which could become the eyes and ears of Skynet. Naturally they shut it down, but only after a gory scene where they pull Cameron's chip out of her peeled-open head and stick it into a traffic light. Mission accomplished!

The real story, however, lies in the character relationships - which are nuanced and so, pretty excellent. This week's metaphor is about "masks," and how we wear them to protect each other from our true natures - which just makes us harder to love. The characters spend the episode lying to each other, sometimes for their own good. Sarah finds out that Derek killed Andy Goode, the winsome computer scientist that she mighta felt kinda fond for: she confronts him and tells him if he lies again, she'll kill him. The whole subplot's meant to teach Sarah not to trust people, though if they ever gave us the impression that Sarah's a warm, welcoming "love conquers all" type, I must have missed it.

Meanwhile, Cameron - who already lied about having that chip - lies to John after he comes dangerously close to being caught by Cromartie, the Terminator that's still hot on his trail. As usual, Cameron - with her blank stare, stiff upper lip, and weird ability to eat people food - is the most fascinating character. We learn that some of the Terminator models were designed specifically to infiltrate households and live like ordinary people; the woman who was working on the traffic computer spent weeks living and chatting and presumably, banging the daylights out of a T-888. Cameron isn't an infiltration model, but as we know, she's been trying to act more and more human every week. This week is more convincing than most. As she mechanically studies how humans build trust - how a T-888 can seduce a woman through the gesture of rubbing his finger on her lips - she seems to be following a compulsion, not a plan. It reminds me of A.I., where the shmaltzy love stuff is powerful precisely because the movie shows that it's fake: our need to love is hardwired and easy to dupe, which is pathetic, yet it's also fundamental, which is touching. Maybe Cameron doesn't choose to mimic humanity; she's just impelled, and she doesn't know why. And when she shares confidences with John Connor, and then winks knowingly at him on the way out of his bedroom? It's disturbing in all the right ways.

Episode two of tonight's extravaganza was supposed to be number nine in a thirteen-episode order. But thanks to the writer's strike, it wound up capping off the season. Sarah and the gang get closer to the Turk - still assumed to be the brain of Skynet - but it leads them to a bunch of gangsters, who jack them up for two million dollars in return for keeping their location a secret. Naturally they take care of the problem without much trouble and in a way that's not worth walking you through here. But the Turk is still out there, leaving open the possibility that this show may still be a series of MacGuffin's that we'll chase all the way to the Apocalypse.

This time, the best scene surprisingly involves John. Earlier in the episode, he complains about how his mom's probably going to forgot his birthday. Cameron shrugs it off: after all, he was born 16 years ago - who could still care? But Uncle Derek remembers, and treats him to a birthday ice cream - as well as taking him to visit some family. You can talk ad nauseum about the technicalities of time travel and continuity and whatever, but when John gets to see his dad as a five-year old swinging a baseball bat? I know I got misty.

And we end with the series' best action scene yet: FBI Agent Ellison has tracked down Cromartie and sends in a SWAT team to bring him down. And of course Cromartie kills the entire SWAT team, a massacre that we see from the bottom of the swimming pool where he tosses all their bodies. At the end of the lopsided fight, he walks up to Ellison and gets ready to fire - and then without a word, Cromartie walks by and lets him live. Which can only mean one thing: Ellison will prove to be useful.

When I was watching the bleeding bodies floating in the swimming pool to the tune of Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around" - a scene that's awesome in a typical post-Goodfellas way but still, awesome - I finally clicked a little with Josh Friedman. I don't know that he has any great passions in life or any great story to tell, except the story about how he launched a hit TV show off a killer action property and showed up a lot of Hollywood assholes in the process. But he's telling that story pretty well. Like Cameron, maybe he doesn't even know what drives him. But like Cameron, he's surprisingly nuanced - and the nuances are good enough to make me come back next year.

Grade: A-

Stray Observations:

- The jokes are getting better every week. To pick one. Sarah: "We can't blow up City Hall!" Derek: "It's really not that hard."

- Both episodes showed shots of people playing Halo, but Call of Duty 4 would have been a better pick: Craig Fairbrass, who plays the British gangster, was the voice of Gaz.

- And hey, James Urbaniak! What's great about him is that he's starred in terrific Hal Hartley movies, but he's also showed up in a bunch of crummy Domino's ads - so it's anyone's guess when you see him whether he's actually important to the story.

- What's with all the barging in on people in the shower in the first hour of the finale? First someone's approached in a shower; then someone else is confronted; and finally, a nice hot soak turns to murder. Wouldn't it be cool if that meant something?

- While John and Cameron don't get many scenes together, it's touching to see them bond. Which is why it was also creepy when John, after sticking Cameron's chip back in her head and patting her skin back in place, fond himself in an awkward half-embrace with her - and startled, moved away. Cameron's a sister figure: if he starts falling for the robot, I'm outta here.

- We get a few last high school scenes before the end of the year. Unfortunately, John's weird new friend Morris is sorely miscast. He doesn't look like a geeky high school kid; he's more like a creepy Perry Farrell who hasn't slept straight or indoors in a year. But the scene where he asks Cameron to the prom is still sorta cute.

- Tonight was billed as a cliffhanger. How suspenseful it is depends on whether you believe that a simple car bomb can blow up the star of the show. But hey - meet back here if they renew it. We can celebrate, or not - your call!