(Warning: This blog post contains fairly significant spoilers for last night’s episode of Falling Skies, “Strange Brew.”)
Falling Skies aired its 28th episode last night, and it had something that the previous 27 episodes lacked: Noah Wyle’s clean-shaven face.
Oh, and the element of surprise. You can judge which one is more important.
In all seriousness, “Strange Brew” (the eighth episode of the show’s third season) struck me for its willingness to try something different on a show that has remained stubbornly entrenched in neutral gear for its herky-jerky run so far. Unfortunately, the episode fails to deliver on the promise of its ambition, but the presence of that ambition gives me some hope that the Falling Skies writers are working to break out of the reductive storytelling pattern they’ve confined themselves to since the popular TNT series began in 2011.
If you’ve never seen Falling Skies before, here’s a brief synopsis. The show documents survivors of an earthshattering alien invasion as they navigate the United States and its various alien-led war zones. Led by the noble Tom Mason (Wyle) and his three sons, the Second Massachusetts army fights aliens, makes allies and tries to survive in this desperate world while dealing with the possibility that anything can happen at any time. This season, Tom and his merry band of survivors have taken up residence in Charleston, South Carolina, hoping to strike against the alien threat with the help of an alien ally, the kindly Vohm.
One of the show’s distinguishing factors early on was its insistence on skipping the past the alien invasion itself and jumping forward to the war effort that followed months later. The characters occasionally talk about their lives before the invasion, but the show has made a conscious choice to avoid flashbacks of any kind. So the show generated an effective surprise with the first shot of last night’s episode, an uncharacteristically well-lit image of beardless Tom waking up in bed with his wife, who we know died in the invasion. Had the show finally decided to explore what happened before the invasion? If so, why now? For once while watching Falling Skies, I was genuinely curious about what I was seeing and why I was seeing it.
The flashback sequence continues for nearly a half hour, slowly revealing itself to be a hallucination engineered by the evil aliens in an attempt to extract crucial information from Tom’s unwitting unconscious. Characters who Tom never met until the invasion pop up in his neighborhood and workplace. A woman named Anne Glass (Moon Bloodgood) keeps implying she’s having an affair with him, even though they’ve never met. And Tom notices that everyone around him seems to want to talk about the same four cities (New York, Boston, Chicago and Jacksonville) regardless of the context. As past-Tom realizes that he’s not really past-Tom, the illusion crumbles, but not before a jolt of a twist that reveals the depths of the alien’s trickery.
If nothing else, the episode is well-directed by Buffy the Vampire Slayer veteran David Solomon, who convincingly justifies the stylistic departure of the faux-flashback scenes. The lighting is a little too bright, the atmosphere a little too pleasant, the pacing a little too languid. Later, when Tom returns to his pre-invasion home after escaping from the aliens with fewer complications than you’d expect, Solomon returns to the shot of Tom in bed next to his wife, except this time Tom’s got a beard and his wife is a figment of his imagination. A nice metaphor for the invasion’s effect on the human mind, I thought.
Unfortunately, this episode takes too many shortcuts for me to think of it as a more unusual failure than Falling Skies typically offers. The writers seem to lose confidence in the fake flashback too early – instead of building the sense of mystery incrementally over the hour, they immediately reveal details that give a pretty clear idea that what we’re seeing isn’t real (especially given that the last episode ended with Tom falling into the hands of the aliens yet again). The second half of the episode returns to the real world and the darker-toned visual style, a jarring transition after the eerily bright digression in the first half. And Tom’s climactic moment with his late wife lacks impact because we haven’t consistently experienced the pain of her absence in Tom’s actions since the pilot. Had the show laid the groundwork for this episode in the previous seasons, it might have had far more power. Instead, it feels like a move that someone thought was necessary for the sake of a buzzy episode without considering whether the show had earned the surprises or not.
Many of my problems with Falling Skies circle back to its lack of ambition. Or, perhaps, its misguided sense of how much ambition it really has. Even though nearly three seasons have gone by, I don’t have any particular affection for any of the characters except maybe Weaver and certainly John Pope, played by the disproportionately excellent Colin Cunningham. This roguish outlaw is a character we’ve seen many times on this show (he’s a less romantic Sawyer from Lost), but Cunningham’s screen presence keeps the character from growing stale. In fact, Pope is often the voice of reason, as in a recent episode when Pope complained about the bias towards protecting members of the Mason family at the expense of other Charleston residents. Pope could just as easily be calling out the show’s writers, who seem fixated on hackneyed notions of family resilience at the expense of believable, evolving drama in this increasingly lawless society. Wyle’s performance is adequate, but the character hasn’t really changed or revealed greater dimension since the start of the series, despite the many traumatic and terrifying things that have happened to him.
The writing is such that many times per episode, I think to myself, “Why are they talking about this when they should be talking about that?” Even though Tom and Anne had a child together and clearly love each other, we’ve gotten few genuinely romantic scenes between them (or scenes of any kind, really) since the middle of the second season. Maggie’s traumatic history with Pope, so intriguing in the introductory episodes of season one, has been all but forgotten, except in an unintentionally disturbing throwaway scene in last week’s episode. And what about the fact that aliens imprisoned and manipulated the middle Mason child Ben (Connor Jessup) for the entire timeframe of the show’s first season? Now he’s a rational, slightly nerdy boy with spikes coming out of his back who occasionally acts as a middleman when the aliens want to communicate with the humans. The show has taken so many shortcuts to protect the status quo that the most intriguing corners of its world have been long since abandoned.
Whenever I write a negative review, I always expect that someone’s going to ask me, “So why do you even watch the show then?” My answer: negative reviews often come from a place of optimism, believe it or not. I want Falling Skies to fulfill its potential. Its cast, while often poorly utilized and far from stellar, seems capable of delivering far more than it has the chance to. (Doug Jones, a wizard of acting behind prosthetics and computer-generated imagery, joined the ensemble this season as Cochise, the leader of the Vohm. Give Abe Sapien something to do already!) The show’s haunting aesthetics and swooping cinematography are often captivating, and the extraterrestrial-infused action sequences are shockingly well-executed and exciting for cable television. Creepy scenes like the side-effects of Hal’s debugging from two weeks ago demonstrate the show’s willingness to embrace the darker edges of this damaged world. But “Strange Brew” confirmed the biggest problem with this show: we don’t care enough about the characters to be truly astounded by this radical break in form. Falling Skies hasn’t yet perfected its “Strange Brew.”