FALLING SKIES RECAP 4: LOVE AND OTHER ACTS OF COURAGE

FALLING SKIES RECAP 4: LOVE AND OTHER ACTS OF COURAGE

Hey everyone, Rick's back!

nullI've mentioned Rick in a previous recap. In Season 1, he was one of the harnessed kids* who was rescued, along with Tom's son Ben. Rick left the Second Massachusetts, preferring to rejoin the skitters.

*Quick update for newbies: The alien "skitters" capture children and put biomechanical harnesses on them. The harnesses enslave the kids, and seem to eventually turn them into skitters. Ew, gross.

I liked Rick. He had a smoldering intensity that was creepy and stood out among some too-soft characters last season. But I honestly never expected to see him again. I was wrong. Watch:

This scene introduces an unforeseen plot element that will become vitally important (aliens attacking aliens!). But not only that, it brings back the glowing spikes that have been haunting us for three episodes now—if you've been reading my column, you know that glowing spikes has become something of a catch phrase for me—and the appearance of the spikes causes us to think Ben is in mortal danger. Then, surprise! It's Rick! Injured, mysterious, utterly untrustworthy, yet still a vulnerable child. That's a lot of wallop in one reveal, so I have to say "well done."

Falling Skies opened strong this season, but this episode, the verbosely-titled Love and Other Acts of Courage, is the weakest so far. One problem: no strong action. The clip above gives us Tom and his crew heroically checking out a battlefield after a battle is over. There's one scene of hiding from mechs (the huge, incredibly deadly mechanical drones that serve the skitters), two scenes of running away, and two scenes showing drawn guns but no battle. By my math, that's no action, although some of the tension was (as usual) very well-played. Maybe I'm just susceptible to tension, but this show always manages to get me.

The episode succeeded in delivering the creepy, although, after last week's hideous reveal of how harnesses are attached to children, nothing is going to measure up any time soon. But if something could measure up, the opening sequence, where the skitter affectionately known as Red Eye seems to pray or call to the skies, and then Ben does the same in an evil-sounding skitter voice? Well, that will do nicely.

It was so disturbing that I honestly assumed it was a dream sequence. Silly me.

And on the list of creepy things, was there blood in a mech head in that battle sequence? It's in the video above, check me on this—is that blood in the hole blown through a mech brain? Are they biomechanical too? Creeeeepy.

Say what you will about this show (and there's plenty of room for criticism), it goes there. It kills characters you thought were safe; it uproots, rearranges, and endangers its characters; and it pulls the rug of the plot out from under you. This is a dangerous war with serious consequences. I never could have guessed that a skitter rebellion would be introduced, or that Red Eye would propose an alliance. Do I think it's real? I have no idea. But I love the insanity of using this as a story element, and that our friends in the Second Massachusetts have no way of knowing who or what to trust, and that all of this is being played for the highest possible stakes.

Hey everyone, Rick's dead!

Just like that, another serious and important death, right on the heels of his restoration to the group. In some ways, this is an easy death for the writers to deliver; Rick wasn't back long enough for us to get attached, yet this was a child, killed by friendly fire, who embodied the distrust that people feel towards  Ben, and it reminds us again of what is at stake. Watching Rick get killed reminds us of how very precarious Ben's life is right now.

The clever reader may have noticed I said this was a weak episode and then proceeded to praise it. That's unfair of me.

What Love and Other Acts of Courage lacked in strong action sequences it made up for in long, long talks about serious, serious things. Talks. About things.

In fact, the core of this episode was a long, long talk between our hero, Tom Mason, and Red Eye, using Rick as his voice.* The problem with this scene (series of scenes, actually, intercutting with other scenes) was that Red Eye had nothing much to say. Tom kept asking for evidence, and Red Eye kept talking about non-evidence. He kept delivering back-story, and pleading his case, and being all serious. The whole thing honestly felt very 1950s, very Alien Invasion B Movie, as the serious-minded alien appealed to an intelligence absent in humans. Think Klaatu Barada Niktu, and all that. It was a strange tone to take in the middle of a very battered war zone, and Tom was completely right to distrust it. When Tom demanded proof, Red Eye should just have said, "I have no proof! Only time-filling exposition!" But that didn't happen, and Tom, the former history professor, even managed to revert to lecturing about history, something he'd mercifully done little of earlier this season.

*Skitters seem to communicate entirely by radio waves; they vocalize only a little. They sometimes use harnessed humans to speak for them, since the harness allows the humans to understand the radio waves. Or something. Even though the harness was removed from Ben and from Rick, it continues to affect them.

Other conversational scenes went a bit better. Hal and Maggie's burgeoning romance? Not bad. I'm not a fan of Drew Roy as Tom's oldest son, Hal, but Sarah Carter as Maggie is quite interesting to watch, and I love her gravelly voice.

There was one really good fight between Ben and Tom, with some actual father-son yelling. If you're going to do family drama in a science fiction show, you have to make it believable. I believed that little shouting match.

The episode ends with Ben telling his little brother, Matt, that he's leaving. Ridiculously, he asks Matt to keep this information a secret, but I suppose all he really wants is a few hours lead time.

I'm hoping that next week we'll get a lot more action, and I'm sure we'll get more surprises. We are informed, this episode, that the travelers are in Richmond, about two weeks from their goal of Charleston. A lot can happen in two weeks, so stay tuned.

Deborah Lipp is the co-owner of Basket of Kisses, whose motto is "smart discussion about smart television." She is the author of six books, including "The Ultimate James Bond Fan Book."

THE NEWSROOM RECAP 3: THE 112TH CONGRESS

THE NEWSROOM RECAP 3: THE 112TH CONGRESS

As much as I believe Aaron Sorkin is, to some extent, correct about the brokenness of our news system, as I’ve watched The Newsroom, I’m finding myself increasingly sympathetic with the people he’s angry at, the ones who knuckle under to commercial pressure and the terms of their contracts as Will McAvoy and the News Night team rise above them. I absolutely agree that established stars like McAvoy should use their power and influence to emphasize facts and to elevate worthy stories. But it turns out to have been pretty easy for MacKenzie and Jim to convince Will that he should be a different kind of newsman and to give him the words to help him do it. The person who’s going through an internal struggle that turns out to be compelling here, the one who doesn’t have Charlie standing as a barrier between him and pressure from Leona and Reese, and the one Sorkin wants me to hate, is Don, my new favorite character.

nullAfter Will’s epic on-air apology for falling down on the job, Don sits down to have a heart-to-heart with Jim, who has effectively replaced him. “I would have loved to be part of that. I could have done the show you guys want to do. I’m equipped for that,” he confesses. “You’ve got a mandate. Bring viewers to ten o’clock. I don’t . . . I have to cover Natalee Holloway. And you guys set me up to look like an asshole before I even got started.” Don is like Will, to a certain extent, a talented man who succumbed to the pressure to put on a show that was likable rather than substantive. But unlike Will, he’s relatively anonymous. He could be fired and Elliot’s show would keep ticking on without him. If Don is going to live in hopes of being able to make the kind of show that Jim and MacKenzie are making for Will, he has to keep his job. And that means kowtowing to a lot of unattractive people’s unattractive senses of what counts as news.

Jim doesn’t seem to understand that his mandate to do good news is a luxury, rather than something he just woke up and decided to do. He begins telling Don that he can just do a good show if he wants before they’re interrupted. Then, he mocks Don later, telling him “You guys did a good show tonight. I wasn’t aware of what was going on with the McRib sandwich.” I kind of don’t blame Don for telling Jim, “Yeah, go fuck yourself.”

And I’m not even sure Jim gets the message later when Maggie, in one of the few moments in The Newsroom where a woman gets to explain something to a man, tells Jim that Don’s failure has more complex roots than Jim acknowledges. “Don’s hands are tied,” Maggie says. “He got marching orders to get the ratings up at ten. And he’s driving a different car than McAvoy. Elliot’s smart, but he can’t do what McAvoy does. Plus, his salary’s tied to ratings.” That, not a studied, cowardly commitment to blandness for its own sake, is the reality of cable news—and the actual source of journalism’s problems.

Will can pontificate all he wants about the fact that the federal government didn’t insist that the networks provide several hours of ad-free news programming every night. But the reality is that it “failed to include in its deal the one requirement that would have changed our national discourse for the better.” And as gratifying as it would be to watch anchors and their producers get mad as hell and refuse to take it anymore, The Newsroom is a more interesting show when it actually explores what happens to people who buck their mandates and see what they can do within the limits of their contracts than it is when it focuses on Will’s ridicule of Tea Party activists and beauty queens.

We almost see an example of that kind of struggle during election night coverage, when Don tries to fire up Elliot, who’s doing his best not to influence the network’s analysis. “I am in there doing everything I can to get Mac to get him to go to you, and he is doing it,” Don grumbles to his boss. “He is inviting you to become a star. Would you stop being so fucking enthralled with the act of punching a ballot?” Instead of acknowledging that Don has a point, though, Elliot pulls rank on him. And instead of having the two men talk about Elliot’s brand, or Elliot’s desire to occupy the space Will left open with his conversion, the closest the writers give us is Elliot’s telling Don “Let me also say, I’m not the one who wants to be a star, Mama Rose.”— Sorkin has Elliot blame Don’s frustrations not on the quality of the news they’re putting out, but on Don’s romantic troubles. It’s a weird punt of what could have been a fascinating journalistic moment.

We do get some sense later that Will’s new approach may be in trouble, in the form of Atlantis CEO Leona (the allusion to Leona Helmsley cannot possibly be unintentional). “What happened to human interest stories?” she grouses at a meeting with Charlie, who thus far has protected Will from her wrath, and Reese, who we learn is her son. “Obesity, breast cancer, hurricanes, older women having babies, iPhones. He was great at that shit.” I don’t think Sorkin intended it this way, but her reminder to Charlie that “You don’t make money for stockholders, which I have a fiduciary responsibility to do” is a sharp puncturing of MacKenzie’s disdain for ratings, something Will warned Charlie about and that Charlie embraced.

Sorkin, and by extension MacKenzie, Charlie, and Will, may not like that news is a business, particularly not part of a large international conglomorate with interests that require Congressional approval and working relationships with major industrialists. But in the absence of an alternative model to pay Will’s staff and get him access to the airwaves, this is the environment he has to work in. Being obsessed with ratings, as Will was before MacKenzie got to him, may have been unattractive. But pretending that they don’t exist, or that Atlantis is a business rather than a non-profit, is to ignore that Leona’s interests and the show’s overlap. Leona has a duty to the shareholders to keep bringing in revenue, but she also needs her business to make money so she can keep paying out Will’s fat contract and the decidedly more meager salaries of his employees. And as we see in this clip, she’s thought through the business end of this proposition more thoroughly than Will, Charlie, and MacKenzie have:

In pursuing a new approach to news, Will’s been pretending the rules of the business don’t really apply to him. Neither he nor the show acknowledges that their revolution can’t possibly last if they don’t find a way for it to be financially sustainable. Now, in Leona’s parlance, he’s going to have to start playing golf, and find a way to make the machinery of the system work for him, and for the people who depend on him for their jobs.

Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture reporter for ThinkProgress.org. She is a correspondent for TheAtlantic.com and The Loop 21. Alyssa grew up in Massachusetts and holds a BA in humanities from Yale University. Before joining ThinkProgress, she was editor of Washingtonian.com and a staff correspondent at Government Executive. Her work has appeared in Esquire.com, The Daily, The American Prospect, The New Republic, National Journal, and The Daily Beast.

LONGMIRE RECAP 4: DOG SOLDIER

LONGMIRE RECAP 4: DOG SOLDIER

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There’s an important development in this week’s Longmire, though it’s not immediately apparent. For the first time, Walt Longmire hits the barriers of what the law can do, and he is willing to work outside the law for justice. Not only that, but he's doing so because of specific corruption focused on the Cheyenne. Given the show’s previous focus on Walt’s heroism for upholding the law in the face of (justified, but difficult) bitterness from the Cheyenne, that’s an improvement.

null“Dog Soldier” is built around the kidnapping—no murders this week, initially—of some Cheyenne boys who’ve been committed to foster care. There’s possible evidence of corruption in Social Services, of pedophilia, of corruption within the reservation, child abuse, or more. As the loose threads are connected or removed, the reasons for the kidnappings become more and more clear: the children were “kidnapped” in revenge for their removal, on false premises, from the reservation.

This culminates in arguably the show’s best scene, in which Walt confronts the Social Services worker involved, Crystal Shoemaker, at the end of the episode. He carefully explains what happened, and why he knows she’s involved. She lays out her points—all of the evidence is circumstantial, she can talk a mean game about doing what’s best for the children, and oh yes, she’s white. She’ll get away, even if she is corrupt, and a kidnapper and murderer. And here’s where Walt lays down the lack of law. She’s right, of course. The system is tilted entirely toward her. The government has designed a mechanism by which the adoption/foster care system benefits—and corrupt utilizers of that system personally benefit—from making the Cheyenne on the reservation look worse and removing their children. This is an accurate depiction of both issues with child service agencies and legally enshrined bias against Native Americans.

And Walt knows it. So he doesn’t try to use the power of the state to do the right thing. He acknowledges what the Cheyenne characters have been telling him throughout the episode—that the system is unfairly and presently irredeemably working against them. They have their own extra-legal ways of achieving justice, through an enforcer named Hector who gets paid by the tooth. Hector, and the other members of the Cheyenne community, have clearly figured out the scam by which Shoemaker and her former partners have profited from taking Cheyenne from their home. And they will come for her, possibly out of control, possibly overtaken by the spirit of vengeance: “I believe in transformation. I believe we become vessels for forces we cannot control or understand.”

Walt can’t win as a lawman. So he wins as a person. This is, I think, what separates a competent show from an interesting, potentially great show. Veronica Mars had slick, entertaining mysteries each week with equal parts comedy and drama, but what made it special was its examination of class. The powerful had the law and institutions on their side, while the powerless and poor generally had only less savory options to them, and the main character was caught in the middle. That’s the case here, and it leads to more drama than previous episodes have possessed.

It also connects Longmire more directly to its setting. “The west” in American mythology—largely gone in as much as it ever existed, though rural Wyoming is as close as anything gets— exists in an odd conceptual place. On one hand, pioneers are supposed to represent the ideals of American self-perception. They’re hardy, pragmatic, pure of heart, and self-reliant. They built society, the story goes, instead of having it imposed on them. “The government” is a corrupting force, bringing laws and rules and regulations and, in the case of “Dog Soldier,” financial incentives for corruption and treating people wrong. Walt represents that frontier ideal, doing the right thing for people, regardless of whose people they are, or whether it’s part of the law or not (a far cry from previous episodes explicitly connecting him with the power of the state.)

Yet there’s an inherent tension within that mythology. Those western pioneers achieved most of what they did over the objections, sometimes violent and violently put down, of the natives of that region. The Cheyenne in Longmire have regularly complained about their treatment at the hands of white Americans, but for the first time, in “Dog Soldier,” those complaints are justified. Likewise, the socially conservative voting patterns of the western states make the idea that individual liberty is the dominant feature of western American society too simplistic. Longmire’s titular character may embody western stoicism and self-reliance in many ways, but to the show’s credit, he’s also demonstrating the complications of the western mythology.

One of the ways that Longmire does that is by continuing its overt serialization about Walt’s past. We’ve seen the flashbacks about him getting healed with Henry watching before. In this episode, a letter from the Denver PD triggers further flashbacks, but still very little information. While I generally dislike the manipulation of having the main character know about something the audience doesn’t, in order to maintain a mystery and keep viewers, I do like the way it was used in this episode. Walt’s apparent willingness to move outside the law in his past, and memory of this during the events of this episode, make his motivations more transparent to us. Likewise, the events of “Dog Soldier” work retroactively to make whatever Walt happened to do previously more understandable, when we understand them.

And I remain impressed with Longmire’s ability to construct a mystery. While it became increasingly obvious that something in the corrupt Social Services structure helped trigger the kidnapping case, who and why was still a mystery up until the very end. The revelation made sense—we had the same information Walt did—but still has some level of surprise. This is definitely not a show where a random guest star appearance clearly indicates who the likely culprit is. If Longmire manages to add effective serialization to the examination of the American west it demonstrates here, as well as keeping its episodes impressively constructed, it could get a lot more exciting.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance pop culture critic currently living in the Bay Area. He is a staff writer at The A.V. Club, covering television and literature. He also writes about video games for several different publications, including Joystiq and Paste Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser for unimportant musings on media and extremely important kitten photographs.

THE NEWSROOM RECAP 2: NEWSROOM 2.0

THE NEWSROOM RECAP 2: NEWSROOM 2.0

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For Aaron Sorkin’s characters, doing your job and falling in love are often inseparable processes: Natalie schooled Jeremy on television producing and love on Sports Night, Josh Lyman and Donna Moss bantered over bills on The West Wing, and Matt Albie and Harriet Hayes worked out their issues on the set of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. The staff of Will McAvoy’s show, from the big dog himself down to his most junior producers, is no exception to this rule. The staffers all have romance troubles they’re working out on set, this week in the form of bizarrely histrionic public displays of angst. And while it’s grating enough to see competent women reduced to workplace fits at the behest of men, there’s a particularly weird contrast between MacKenzie’s extended meltdowns and her antiseptic approach to what she puts on the  air. She’s supposed to be the strongest female character on The Newsroom, but increasingly, it seems like she exists to mouth Aaron Sorkin’s platitudes and to debase herself before Will.

null“We don’t do good television,” she explains towards the beginning of the episode. “We do the news.” It’s the kind of Sorkinism on the journalism business that sounds good at first but doesn’t actually make sense after any careful consideration: good television and the news aren’t actually mutually exclusive. In the pilot, the staff of Will’s show congratulated themselves on covering Deepwater Horizon as a corporate cover-up instead of as a rescue story. The death or survival of a dozen people apparently doesn’t count as news in this schema, unless there’s a demonstrable government cover-up. It left me wondering how News Night might cover the tornadoes in Joplin, Missouri. Would the victims of that natural disaster be deemed unduly heart-tugging if Halliburton wasn’t somehow culpable.

Tonight, MacKenzie deems a source blogger Neal tracked down as unworthy, a man whose parents brought him to the U.S. as a child and who learned in adult life that he was an undocumented immigrant, a chain of events that led to the loss of his driver’s license and potentially his job. “I’ve got to budget 42 minutes. I’ve already spent 18 minutes on Jan Brewer and La Raza,” MacKenzie insists. “Even if we did have the time, it would be emotionally manipulative. We’d be putting him there to feel sorry for him.” Neal protests, “We should feel sorry for him. He’s getting screwed.” MacKenzie crisply tells him, “I don’t want to feel sorry for anyone. I want the facts.”

Again, this sounds good, but it represents a sterile approach to the news. Sometimes, facts are incomprehensible without faces and stories about how they function attached to them. If Will’s supposed to play lawyer, presenting the best form of each side’s arguments, then he needs to have the best possible clients representing those views of the world. In MacKenzie’s view of things, that’s apparently a talking head from the National Council of La Raza rather than someone whose life has directly been impacted by immigration policy—she never considers the possibility that she could bring both men on the air. Maybe that’s a tiny thing to quibble over, but it furthers a sense that The Newsroom is disengaged both from the realities of reporting, and from the kinds of personal stories that often further social change.

For most of the episode, we see MacKenzie as a hectoring, sometimes condescending, but always stringent idealist when it comes to her vision of how the news should be reported. She’s a schoolmarm, telling the audience what to think more than she’s actually teaching her staff how to do their jobs. Given this characterization, you’d think The Newsroom would want to give her a rich, complex personal life, and maybe a sense of humor, so the audience could engage with her as something other than as a scold. But instead, she comes across as an immature, hystrionic brat who demands that everyone else be riveted by her weirdly mundane problems. When she finds out that economics anchor Sloan (Olivia Munn)—who MacKenzie has asked to anchor segments because “If I’m going to get people to listen to an economics lesson I need someone who doesn’t look like George Bernard Shaw”—thinks that Will cheated on MacKenzie and that’s why they broke up, she goes ballistic. “You need to do this. You need to go from person to person and tell them that Will is an extraordinary man with a heart the size of a range rover,” MacKenzie demands. To her credit, she backs off almost immediately, realizing she’s asked for something bonkers. But I’ve still never loved Olivia Munn more than the moment when Sloan informs MacKenzie briskly that she has no intention of re-arranging her day to rectify what MacKenzie views as a massive injustice, because she has facts to report. We don’t learn much about Munn in this episode, but she comes across as brisk and perceptive, a slightly more realistic Avery Jessup from 30 Rock, and at this point, she’s the only character I’m looking forward to getting know better.

That meltdown alone might have had me wondering whether MacKenzie has a split personality, or is just the victim of being Sorkin’s vessel rather than an actual person. But it’s not as if Sloan’s chat with MacKenzie has righted her ship. “Are people here under the impression that Will is an ass?” she asks her staff in a fit of panic, later. “You’re wrong. It’s wrong. And it’s an injustice.” Then, in a plotline that more likely originates in Sorkin’s well-publicized antipathy towards technology than from any actually plausible experience of a war correspondent who’s been filing stories from overseas for years, she sends an email meant for Will that goes to the entire office, then responds by destroying a staffer’s BlackBerry, demanding that she wants “everyone to delete the email you just received. Honor system,” and begging someone to destroy Will’s computer with a baseball bat in an increasingly hysterical tone.

I don’t particularly blame Will for being upset that MacKenzie broke his trust—he’s a vulnerable, vain, prickly man, and I can buy that he wouldn’t want anyone to know he was cheated on even though it was MacKenzie who transgressed. But when he screams at her “You know how something happens in an instant that is so astonishing you completely shut down? That doesn’t fucking happen to me,” he loses me. “The women who are here exist, quite simply, on the theory that nothing is more dramatically important than a man becoming great, and men cannot become great without women to inspire, provoke, and drive them,” NPR’s Linda Holmes wrote in her terrific review of The Newsroom before its release. Like Linda, I find that worldview inherently unattractive, and there’s additionally distasteful in the idea that we’re supposed to care so much about the fact that Will’s composure has been rattled.

When the lives of undocumented immigrants are at stake, emotion is a pointless distraction. But when MacKenzie’s upset or Will’s been wronged, we’re supposed to believe that their feelings are the most critical thing in the world. I know that The Newsroom wants me to feel more attached to its characters than to their subjects. But after two hours in their company I’d rather be hanging out with an undocumented immigrant in Spokane, Washington, than the supposedly-brilliant, self-absorbed people who snidely dismiss him as less than newsworthy.

Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture reporter for ThinkProgress.org. She is a correspondent for TheAtlantic.com and The Loop 21. Alyssa grew up in Massachusetts and holds a BA in humanities from Yale University. Before joining ThinkProgress, she was editor of Washingtonian.com and a staff correspondent at Government Executive. Her work has appeared in Esquire.com, The Daily, The American Prospect, The New Republic, National Journal, and The Daily Beast.

FALLING SKIES RECAP 3: YOUNG BLOODS

FALLING SKIES RECAP 3: YOUNG BLOODS

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This week's Falling Skies gave us some very earned emotional release. Like almost every episode, the action sequences were kick-ass, but the heart of the episode this week was in its emotional moments. While some of the set-up leading into the key dramatic sequences was schmaltzy, and some dialogue was schmaltzy, I do feel that, if you've been following the series, then the emotion will feel earned and you will have come away feeling the dignity and pathos of these characters.

nullYoung Bloods again proves that Season 2 is a vast improvement over Season 1 of this show. Season 1 faltered mostly in the stupidity area: Characters not taking the war seriously. There was too much sloppiness, as if we were watching an ordinary drama and not a life-and-death invasion scenario. Season 2 is far more serious. There have been some of the same problems this year (leaving the jar with the alien parasite inside it unguarded last week), but the overall effect now has much more gravity. In addition, this week's episode relied too much on sentiment in spots, yet it's definitely improved in that area as well.

What I wish most of all is that the show would trust itself. Guys, you don't have to underline every touching moment with piano music! You don't have set up scenes about the tragedy of disconnection. There's so much terrific drama developing organically that overplayed scenes like Lourdes' discovery that her family's small village has been destroyed, and then playing that emotion a second time for her Love Interest's benefit (and the audience's, just in case we hadn't figured it out), is almost cruel to the audience. (Love Interest's name is Jamil, by the way.) It's so unnecessary; we got it. I like this show a lot; it's got a strong cast and premise, creepy aliens, and is frequently fresh and surprising; for these reasons I recommend it to anyone who asks. But that's like; what I love on TV is a show that trusts its audience to come along for the ride, to understand the nuance, to hear things the first time they're said. Falling Skies hasn't risen to that level yet.

The episode opened with a thrilling action sequence (watch it below). I was fairly sure early on that curly-head Matt was purposely acting as bait, but that didn't take the excitement away. At its best, this show has a killer combination of creepy (the skitter's long fingers coming around the corner), high-octane (the shoot-out), and appealing characters (Matt saying it was "awesome" to get splattered with alien blood). See for yourself:

Last week I called for some hardcore passion between Tom and Anne, consistent with the intensity of the situation they're in. In emergencies and tragedies, people jump into sex and passion to reaffirm their own aliveness. The kissing was a nice start, but they were both a little too coy about the whole thing for my tastes. The scene did remind me, though, that Noah Wyle is a fine actor. His years on ER as John Carter were peppered with dozens of seductions—he was quite the ladies' man, was Dr. Carter. Here we can see why—in the way he tilts his head in towards her, creating intimacy just by angling his body, there's a sweet sexiness that establishes real chemistry.

Anyway, on with our show. Ben has super-hearing, another ability derived from having been harnessed. Man, oh man, are we going to learn that the aliens are from Krypton? Ben's new abilities risk becoming too much of a deux ex machina, but they also inform us who and what the skitters are. It's a fine line the writers must walk. We don't want Ben solving every problem for everyone, but his skitter-acquired abilities are a way of letting us know how well the alien creatures hear, swim, climb, and so on. Fortunately, Ben's angst is becoming more interesting, his isolation more justifiable, and his desire to fit in entirely forgivable. Even if that does mean glowing spikes get a pass for another week.

The theme of this episode was childhood and growing up. Some of it was done with great subtlety. For example, in the love scene, Anne's joy was eloquent when she was given a chocolate treat by Tom—her childhood favorite. Simply by receiving this gift we experienced nostalgia for a lost world, and vivid memory, and visceral pleasure, all rolled into one. Having the scene end with a passionate kiss reminds us that childhood really must end.

At the other extreme was Weaver's relationship with his daughter Jeannie. While their interplay was touching at times and also well-acted, most of it was so heavy-handed, I could almost feel it hitting me over the head. Their reunion was lovely, but their arguments rang false, and her accusations about the divorce were utterly out of place. Hey, Jeannie, you’re in the middle of an alien invasion. Forget about your divorce trauma. The reunion and her eventual departure rang absolutely true by themselves—of course a teenage girl goes with her boyfriend, not her daddy—and didn't need that overblown educational message about anger and communication. In fact, these moments were ones I was thinking of at the beginning when I said the emotional release was earned, so why clutter them up?

Most of the rest of the thematic elements fell between the extremes of delicately subtle and overblown: Tom's struggle to allow his youngest, Matt, some freedom and some danger was very real, and in parts very nicely played, and yet, again, the piano music! That whole subplot could have been done with much more restraint, because, again, with good actors, exciting action sequences, and high stakes, Why add sentiment, when it's already so intense?

Why do groups of kids always band together in warehouses and decorate with old couches? I feel like I've seen that visual a hundred times. I'm reminded of the Miri episode of the original Star Trek, of any number of vampire dens on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, of the episode Vatos of The Walking Dead: Isn't there a way of showing a group banded together like that without resorting to visual cliché?

Later in the episode, everything that happened in the skitter harnessing center was insanely good. The kids face down on the table, the discovery that the harnesses are actually giant, terrifying slugs, the aquarium, the raw fear, and then that battle. Damn that was good television. one thing this show does very well is balancing surprise, effective pacing, and an ongoing education of viewers about its world. This week’s we’ve learned how the harnesses operate: They're giant slugs, kept in aquariums, attached to children like some kind of symbiot. Yuk. .

Jamil ends by saying "Hope's all we got." Too on the nose, but it brings the theme back around; youth and family matter because they're the future, and our heroes are going to have to fight to even perceive there's a future. That's why they're going to Charleston, and that's why giving these characters a quest and a goal—even if Charleston turns out to be a tragic mistake—is the right decision for the show, and for its characters.

Deborah Lipp is the co-owner of Basket of Kisses, whose motto is "smart discussion about smart television." She is the author of six books, including "The Ultimate James Bond Fan Book."

TRUE BLOOD RECAP 4: WE’LL MEET AGAIN

TRUE BLOOD RECAP 4: WE’LL MEET AGAIN

Alan Ball’s a believer. Now on his last season as True Blood’s major domo, he continues to see no reason at all why Big Themes and literary stuff can’t coexist with camp, bodice ripper romance, Hammer gore camp and a Ken Russell-esque free-for-all approach to fantastic filmmaking. This week’s episode added family as a major element and ended up a sweetly, amusingly, and painfully memorable piece of work. 

nullIn genre dress, it playfully explored the pleasures of successful parenting while going very dark on the adjoined subjects of letting go badly, ultimate loss, and the persistent survivor’s guilt.

Pretty heady stuff. Not to worry—there are also state of the art splatter gore and broiling flesh effects. Still, the name of the season’s first episode—“Turn! Turn! Turn!”—continues to define everyone.

Even the non-familial characters were in extreme motion. We finally see the mix of LSD and mass murder in Iraq that caused Terry (Todd Lowe) to lose it. And somehow grief is making Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis) a target for Jesus’ demon. And Jason (Ryan Kwanten) is still trying to sever himself from the childhood sexual abuse that’s sentenced him to a life of empty zipless fucks.

Lately the entire show seemed to be bent on deconstructing its hero, Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), to the point where the show seemed to have nothing to do with her.

I was missing the point.  With the memory of her grandmother fading, and so many people dying for her or at her hands, what she’s really about is survivor’s guilt. 

Yeah, yeah, yeah, she hooks up with Alcide (Joe Manganiello, currently bouncing his wolfie goodness on-screen in Magic Mike). But that bit of oo-la-la is poisoned by Sook’s self-hatred. However, a single sentence at episode’s end changes everything. We’ll talk about that IN a bit.

What rules this episode is family, starting with Pam (Kristin Bauer) mothering Tara, three words I’ll enjoy typing for quite a while, it’s so beyond slash fiction fun.

As you recall, Tara (Rutina Wesley) tried to tanning-bed herself to death. Pam stopped it before Tara totally fried.

"Mothering" pace Pam is still bitchy and, well, Pam-ish, but still, she’s taking care of Tara. The question is, Why?

Easy answer: Eric said it was the right thing to do. And Pam worships Eric. And Eric made it clear last week that when you make someone a vamp, it’s akin to having a child, with all the same responsibilities. 

Interestingly, Pam’s bitchiness fades fast. She may quip of Tara’s reluctance to sink her teeth into a human, “three days and she already has an eating disorder”, but Pam really wants to help. When she finds a willing vamp fetishist at Fangtasia and orders Tara to feed, Pam wraps her arm around her young vampire and whispers encouragement. “This is who you are now . . . the top of the chain.”

Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) is also feeling good about his progeny, Jessica, who’s gone from whiny adolescent to very determined young woman over the span of just four episodes. And unlike your usual overpraised cable TV show where a female character’s “complexity” is defined by her ability to become as cynical and nihilistic as the males she’s secondary to, Jessica, who’s very aware of all the horribleness life (and un-life) has to offer, makes a conscious choice to become more morally centered, supportive, and empathic than the males around her. She’s a born leader as well.

Bill, who always failed at all these things, enjoys a rare happy moment as he regards her and says, “I think I did well.”

And sometimes it doesn’t matter what you do, or how hard you work. Because Pam is going to lose Eric and vice versa.

When Eric and Bill first return from their meeting with the vampire Authority—how about we call it the “VA”?—Pam tries a squirt of playful snark regarding Tara: “Congratulations, you’re a grandfather.”

But Eric is not amused. Instead, he grills her about Russell Edgington (Denis O'Hare), the 3,000 year-old psycho-vamp who, having somehow broken out of the cement prison Eric and Bill created for him, will not only try to kill Eric, but destroy the VA and its goal of mainstreaming vampires into normal human life, for the sheer hell of it.

Eric tells her that whether it’s because of Russell Edgington or the VA, he’s going to die. And so he sets her free, officially, of all and any bonds to him. “I need you to live when I’m gone…you are my child as I was the child of Godric . . . and you’re a maker now . . . our blood will thrive.”

And then it’s done. He sets her free, ending a century-old relationship, but leaving her with child—Tara.

Trust me, True Blood is not my go-to destination for deep emotional experiences but, yeah, I got choked up. But this wasn’t TV-melodrama choked up. This was stranger, more like I felt when seeing, say, Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast when I was 15. Is Ball mining similar subconscious monster archetype energies? Without going full-out Jungian on you, I do think that we don’t care about beauties, and beasts, and bitchy vampires named Pam, and their sudden ‘familial’ feelings towards African American girls who’ve suddenly turned vampire just because. I think there’s always something they represent in a grand passion play happening beneath every surface—and if you’re a grand fantasy master, as Ball has proved himself to be (with the help of with his writer’s room), you know how to work the under-surface stuff.

But onward.

You’d think the cold, 007-ish underground world of the VA would be the last place for anything domestic, but the show’s on a family roll, so here we go.

When VA head Roman and his . . . whatever she is, Salome (Valentina Cervi), are unable to torture ex-chancellor Nora into spilling info on who else is up to anti-mainstreaming, fundamentalist no good, she only cracks because it will save the life of her brother Eric, with whom she’s sleeping. (Ah, incest, what would cable TV dramas do without it?) And after Salome reminds her that for centuries she’s been like a sister to her.  

Meanwhile, out in a grassy field somewhere, Andy (Chris Bauer) and Jason are in a limousine with the obsequious Judge Clemmons (Conor O'Farrell).  The Judge is taking them somewhere really deluxe for serving Bon Temps so damned well. And with a flash of light they’re magically teleported to a Moulin Rouge-y fairy nightclub because in True Blood,a fairy nightclub is always a light-flash away. And frankly, that sort of gleeful disinterest in how the show “logically” gets characters from point A to B is one of its many charms.

Captain Andy runs into Maurella (Kristina Anapau), the spacy girl he had fairy sex with at the end of last season. Jason runs into a girl he knows from some time ago who says he and Sookie are in great danger from the vampires—worse, she tells him that vampires killed Sookie and Jason’s family and will soon kill them all!

Before he can find out anything more, some guards throw Andy and Jason out the cosmic portal—big burst of light!—and they’re on their asses in that grassy field. Run credits to a cover version of Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again.”

So there it is. A smoking gun, why Sook’s been almost predestined to be involved with vamps from the git-go. Or—Ball’s just screwing around with us until something else entirely happens. This is one of the joys of tuning in. But what I’m mostly taking from this is Pam and Eric, the look on both their faces when they realize there’s nothing they can do no matter what they want. Such beautiful flowers are sprouting up in True Blood to soil this fine fifth season.

Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have his articles include Detroit Metro Times, gothic.net, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out New York.

LONGMIRE RECAP 3: THE CANCER

LONGMIRE RECAP 3: THE CANCER

Longmire’s specific focus on its main character can yield some tense results, as last week’s episode demonstrated effectively. But this approach also leads to difficulties when the scope of the episode is wider. Drugs, Mexican cartels, and veterans of the Afghan war are all big issues, with far more relevance to American viewers than the Mennonites or mobsters of the last two episodes. “The Cancer” opens the door to having larger discussions, but nothing comes through except Walt discussing how the drug trade is a “cancer” that’s usually progressed too far by the time it gets noticed.

nullAnd yet in one scene where Walt meets the local pizza/weed delivery man who also works as a confidential informant, Jamie, the dealer, opens the conversation by describing how sorry he is about Walt’s wife’s death. The two men both note that Jamie helped Walt’s wife as she was sick, presumably by selling her marijuana as a painkiller for cancer and treatment. Yet despite this subjectively valuable (to Walt) use of pot, he doesn’t even consider a possible connection to the weed dealers he’s hunting over the course of the episode. What they’re doing is against the law and a cancer, but what he and his wife did was okay.

Part of the reason for this is that Longmire is Walt Longmire’s show, and it depicts a man who’s a platonic ideal of the manly western hero: all action and expertise, no self-examination or doubt. We know from the pilot that his wife’s death pushed him into a serious depression, but we haven’t seen that. We’ve only seen Walt Longmire, Sympathetic Hero. The show is directed and edited to back up this depiction of Walt. Individual shots are fast, getting to the action and then moving quickly. Instant understanding is assumed for many scenes, which occasionally leaves me disoriented—much like Walt’s deputies, who can mostly follow along, but occasionally get annoyed at being left behind while he’s proceeding with a case.

At times, this makes the show feel crisp and smart. The problems arise when Longmire brings up more complicated subjects that uncomplicated Walt Longmire doesn’t want to deal with—so it doesn’t deal with them. In doing so, it doesn’t just ignore wider potential issues, it justifies Walt’s reaction to those issues. It would obviously be too much of a stretch, for example, to have Walt turn against the Drug War and set up a Hamsterdam or the like, but calling fresh, quality pot a “cancer” when he used it to treat his wife’s illness demands some kind of resolution for the dissonance. And it’s not forthcoming.

The implicit justification of Walt’s worldview points at deeper trends in the show’s world-view, though. “I remember when I could count the number of murders in this county on one hand. Two at most,” says Walt, recalling a simpler time, before his peaceful county was corrupted by “cancerous” outside influences. Every episode so far has had a dead body, two this time. Every single one of those deaths can be traced to influences outside Walt's immediate community: underaged reservation girls as kidnapped sex workers, Mennonites oppressing their women, mobsters from the big city, or Mexican drug cartels.

Meanwhile, the tension between the white people at the center of the show is being resolved respectfully and peacefully via an election—that’s the American way. There are oblique references to the white Americans not being perfect—“When Cheyenne get into business with outsiders . . . never ends well,” says the reservation police chief—but again, this is only a source of drama on the show when he stonewalls the heroes in their attempts to do good for the world.

The number of bodies are also an issue. Not every mystery needs to be a murder, and the darker, grittier tone set by murder mysteries can become repetitious. Why not have an episode of Walt investigating an embarrassing theft? Saving a kitten from a tree? As a small-town sheriff, presumably he’s used to a wider variety of cases, and the show has interesting enough characters to pull off a lighter episode. Longmire could stand a little bit more Veronica Mars and a bit less CSI.

With all that, though, “The Cancer” still worked as a mystery on its own. It did a good job of encouraging suspicion on characters who were red herrings: the reservation chief, and the oddly-behaving woman whose property the bodies was found on. That suspicion seemed just a bit too obvious at first, but when the culprit was revealed to be the park ranger, it made sense without having been obvious. The ranger initially attempts to threaten Walt to gain his freedom, but ends up disarmed by Vic’s sudden appearance. What happens to him? Moreover, what happens to the Mennonite boy who killed his sister a few episodes ago? These things lead to more complex ethical (if not also legal) questions, and go unanswered.

This is my central frustration with Longmire so far. It has the ability to use its setting and characters to examine interesting, difficult questions. But it’s so enamored with the straight-shooting point-of-view of its hero that it doesn’t take that step. Sure, it’s early yet, but we’re almost halfway done with the short, 10-episode season. That’s not much time for it to fulfill its potential.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance pop culture critic currently living in the Bay Area. He is a staff writer at The A.V. Club, covering television and literature. He also writes about video games for several different publications, including Joystiq and Paste Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser for unimportant musings on media and extremely important kitten photographs.

THE NEWSROOM RECAP 1: WE JUST DECIDED TO

THE NEWSROOM RECAP 1: WE JUST DECIDED TO

HBO’s been trying to sell The Newsroom to audiences on the strength of its opening scene, when Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), a bland and personable cable news anchor trapped in his own private hell somewhere between a shout-y liberal and a conservative, snaps and delivers a rant about American greatness—which he immediately blames on vertigo medication. This isn’t the first Sorkin show to have its action kicked off by a rant—Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip began with a sketch show executive producer having a public breakdown—but what most people see as temporary YouTube phenomena, Sorkin sees as an opportunity for a national conversation.

nullThe subject of that conversation, and key to that lost American greatness, we are told in the first episode of The Newsroom, is helping Americans overcome their fear of intellect, and some responsibility for their improvement lies in cable news. I know Aaron Sorkin can write a barn-burner of a monologue, but going into The Newsroom, I was curious to see what comes after McAvoy’s meltdown. If Aaron Sorkin is going to argue that the key to America’s salvation is in fact better, invigorated cable news programming, and a return to commonly accepted facts, it seems like he’d place great value on news reporting.

But in this first hour of the The Newsroom, Sorkin’s view of what it takes to do great reporting is . . . puzzling. The staff of Will’s show figures out earlier than anyone else that Deepwater Horizon will be a major environmental catastrophe because Neal (Dev Patel), whom Will has earlier identified as “the Indian stereotype of an IT guy” proves to have exceedingly useful insights into the workings of offshore drilling rigs. He gained this knowledge, possessed by no one else on any staff of any publication in all the land, because, my hand to God, he “built a volcano in primary school.” Executive producer MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), at one extreme on her regular pendulum swings between tough, smart producer and flaky, romance-obsessed girl, declares she didn’t know you were actually supposed to learn anything from mucking about with paper-mache and baking soda.

I wish I were joking, but the rest of the staff’s reporting proceeds with similarly magical ease. Jim, possessed of the world’s most coincidental personal connections, turns out to have a college schoolmate working at BP (who makes time to give Jim a ring in the midst of a massive disaster) and a sister who works at Halliburton. “She’s got a PhD in mechanical engineering and she voted for McCain,” Jim explains, in one of the show’s strained attempts to prove that moderate Republicans are something other than unicorns. Will is disbelieving that Jim’s luck could be so good, not just in knowing these people, but in convincing them to flip on their employers and possibly end their careers.

But instead of validating that suspicion, or showing Jim working to convince his sources to go public, The Newsroom cuts away as soon as anyone on staff has a source on the phone. The show is supremely uninterested in the actual and lengthy processes of source development and research. Maybe it’s a tactic to keep the focus on Sorkin’s fast-talking, fact-spewing sock puppets, or to make sure the show whips through a story from the near-past each week, but it lends an airless quality to the proceedings. Everything we need to know, apparently, is already here in this glass and chrome box. This weirdly antiseptic view of journalism turns reporters into brisk bureaucrats, rather than endlessly curious people reaching outside their own experience. It’s not like this process can’t be made fascinating—the BBC miniseries State of Play made the reporting of a single story a thrilling six hours of television. But it’s not a vision that The Newsroom shares.

If there’s a naivete to The Newsroom in its pilot, it’s not coming from the belief that the news would be better if the staffs of cable news shows cared to make it so. It’s coming from the idea that caring is enough to make people admit their misdeeds and tear down walls of government secrecy. In one of the episode’s most credulous sequences, the Minerals Management Service, which was responsible for inspecting rigs like Deepwater Horizon, immediately agrees to have a representative be interviewed on-air by McAvoy just hours after the disaster, and at the request of Maggie, McAvoy’s newly-promoted assistant.
 

In 2010, the people who broke the news that MMS had failed to inspect Deepwater Horizon as often and as rigorously as their internal standards required were reporters for the Associated Press. In the story in which they broke that disturbing news, the AP writers noted “In response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by AP, the agency has released copies of only three inspection reports, from Feb. 17, March 3 and April 1. According to the documents, inspectors spent two hours or less each time they visited the massive rig. Some information appeared to be ‘whited out,’ without explanation.” The challenge in reporting the truth of Deepwater Horizon wasn’t that no one cared or no one asked how a reckless pursuit of profit and lax oversight caused a disaster. It’s that powerful interests in both the government and the private sector were uninterested in releasing information critical to understanding the disaster and had tools at their disposal to delay providing it to reporters. The Newsroom is plucking the lowest-hanging, juiciest fruit on the vine in sequences like these, oddly unaware that there are bigger targets.

That misdiagnosis of the problem continues when Will gets the Minerals Management Service representative on the phone. Will executes a merciless, snarky pummeling on the guy, full of suggestions for the drastically underfunded agency like, “Would an easy solution be to have oil companies pay for the inspections, like car owners do?” But when it turns out the guy is a trainee four months into his training (something it seems Maggie might have asked about, or at least Googled), Will doesn’t try to draw out what it’s like to be doing inspections you’re unprepared for, or focus attention on a Congressional budget that’s bled dry what turned out to be a critical agency. No, he’s pleased to have delivered a drubbing, no matter that he’s thumped the whipping boy rather the people with actual responsibility and power.

These may sound like quibbles. But Sorkin told New York Magazine recently that having his characters revisit events we’ve already experienced “gives me the chance to have the characters be smarter than we were.” The fact that they face essentially no challenges, that they do by magic and luck what in real life took hard work, sacrifices the potential drama of the episode. It would be much more fun to see this young team of reporters face actual obstacles to getting the information they need, to feel doubt about whether they’ll wrest it from agencies and corporations, and to see them both succeed and fail. Sorkin’s essential uninterest in this process shows how limited his ambition is: he thinks it’s the style in which information is delivered that’s the problem, not the difficulties in tracking it down and the available manpower to do it.

The Newsroom doesn’t have a sense of how journalism works, and its characters aren’t exactly consistent in their approaches, either. The Newsroom tells us that Don (Thomas Sadoski), Will’s old executive producer, previously had a vicious blowout with Will after Don pushed him to be more aggressive in an interview with Gen. Stanley McChrystal. But when Deepwater Horizon starts burning, suddenly Don’s a coward. “You’re going to do an environmental story and you don’t want to at least wait until there’s a picture of an oil-covered pelican?” he asks.

On Will’s first day back, when presumably he’d like to present a respectable night of programming, he and MacKenzie, who apparently love the news, quote Cervantes and speechify at each other while their younger colleagues do the work the bickering senior reporters will later get credit for. Perhaps the most telling thing about the pilot of The Newsroom is how long it takes for Will and MacKenzie’s colleagues take to let them know that a major story is breaking—and the fact that the two journalists are too infatuated with each other to be curious about what’s going on outside Will’s office. Maybe now that MacKenzie and Will have worked out a fragile truce, they’ll start breaking stories themselves.

Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture reporter for ThinkProgress.org. She is a correspondent for TheAtlantic.com and The Loop 21. Alyssa grew up in Massachusetts and holds a BA in humanities from Yale University. Before joining ThinkProgress, she was editor of Washingtonian.com and a staff correspondent at Government Executive. Her work has appeared in Esquire.com, The Daily, The American Prospect, The New Republic, National Journal, and The Daily Beast.

TRUE BLOOD RECAP 3: WHATEVER I AM, YOU MADE ME

TRUE BLOOD RECAP 3: WHATEVER I AM, YOU MADE ME

This week’s True Blood suffered a bit from Game of Thrones syndrome—too many people, parts, and ideas for all of them to properly register—but boy howdy were they mostly fine, fun and full of portent of freaky things to come.

nullAlthough the Season Five hot topic is vampire politics, the stories that gave off the most emotional heat belonged to Tara (Rutina Wesley), Jason (Ryan Kwanten) and Pam (Kristin Bauer).

““Whatever I Am, You Made Me” opens with Tara doing the full Terrence Mallick (!) as her enhanced vamp sense connects her to nature, the stars and the galaxies beyond–before hunger guts her.

Enraged with Sookie and Lafayette for not letting her rest in peace, she turns to Merlotte’s and Sam (Sam Trammell) who feeds her a six-pack of True Blood before she passes out.

Vampire Tara is all about wonder and rage, confusion and hyper vigilance. Wesley is killing false accusations of limited thespian skills. Pre-vamp Tara was two notes: terse and bitchy. I’m loving how she does nothing eerily, how she’ll perch on a table and not watch Sookie so much as scan her.

Ryan Kwanten is also developing as an actor as Jason slowly learns why he’s Bon Temp’s automatic sex machine.

This isn't a pretty process. It starts when he meets his old high school teacher at the grocery store. In a disturbing child's voice, he says, “I remember everything you taught me.”

They have sex. But with the phrase “statutory rape” in my mind, I watched Jason realize his high school teacher’s prior predatory acts have left him scarred and left with a sad brand of compulsive sexuality, with “a hole inside I fill with sex.”

But then Jason meets up with Jessica (Deborah Ann Woll) who, in a lovely, soft scene, realizes that the last thing Jason needs is bodily intimacy. So Jessica flips off her sexy supernatural energies, and insists, strongly and intuitively that what’ll fix what’s ailing him is that he stay puts while she throws on a sweatshirt and grabs them both a beer. That is, even as an eternally teenage vampire, Jessica still has killer native nurturing skills to spare and we’re remanded that True Blood is mostly about one thing: female power.

In just this episode, we’ll see Sook use her fairy light burst to kick Pam’s ass when she fails to perform her maker’s duties with Tara.

We’ll imagine the portent of the powers of Salome (Valentina Cervi) which are literally Biblical. And see Tara’s unguided powers screw her up. The focus on female power both natural and supernatural is more repetitive than an old house beat and has been going on in endless iterations for four years now, enough to where you’d think Rolling Stone and other mass organs would have regular “Women of True Blood" issues.

Oh, how we dream. Anyway. Down in the chambers of the vampire Authority, Roman is dealing with the problem of what to do with Bill (Stephen Moyer) and (Alexander Skarsgård) and the news that Russell Edgington (Denis O'Hare) has somehow broken out of his cement grave.  

Russell Edgington, who as we all recall, is the 3,000 year old psycho-vamp who once ripped someone’s heart out on live TV, and has now somehow escaped from being buried in a few tons of cement by Bill and Eric.

In the first iteration of something we’ll hear several times, Roman explains that the only thing that will help vampires beat the insane Fundamentalism of a “Sanguinista” movement that believes in a future where all humans are farmed for food is ‘mainstreaming’, or simple co-existence with humans.

Russell Edgington, he bellows, is “the poster boy of the anti-mainstream movement . . . it’s Osama Bin laden.”

Bill promises that he is a firm anti-fundamentalist. Eric, who’s totally not into politics, kind of shrugs his agreement.

After this little chat, fans of Veronica Mars get to see Tina Majorino again playing a techie who in this case straps harnesses on Bill and Eric that are like GPS’s that blow you up. Eric: “How’s this work?” Tina Majorino: “There’s an app for that.”

What’s remarkable about this season so far is how peripheral Sookie’s been. Later, after she admits to Alcide that she did indeed kill his ex-wife—which as you’d expect, pisses him off a bit—you could have extracted Sook from the episode and lost nothing.

Especially when we get a whole lotta Pam circa 1905, San Francisco. As a whorehouse madam reaching the twilight of her years as a viable sex industry product. And yes, Bauer adds just enough vulnerability for us to buy the idea that this is Pam from over a century ago and not so much as to ruin the character’s flinty credibility.

The scene also shows Eric meeting Bill for the first time, and of course Bill’s being impossibly, annoyingly gallant.

When Bill’s gone, she explains the uselessness of an aging woman, and begs Eric to change her into a vamp.

In one of the episode’s best lines, Eric says that ‘making’ a vampire is an eternal responsibility. “Would you toss a new born baby in the gutter?” he asks, and we can’t help but think of Pam and Tara.

Pam ends the conversation by slashing her wrists—vertically, of course. “Let me walk the world with you, Mister Northman,” she says, “Or watch me die.”

America swoons as Eric’s fangs pop.

Meanwhile, back at vampire Authority HQ, Salome takes Bill for a seductive walk. She is the Salome, Daughter of Herodias, the Seven Veils, all that, and “from a seriously fucked up family,” she quips.

Of course, lost girl stories are catnip for our Bill. When she practically begs for a reason to trust him, he finds it under his zipper.

Then, after taking a shower, one hopes, she plays Eric.

The best way to Eric’s heart is through his maker, Godric. So she goes there before seducing him.

Bill and Eric meet later and realize they’ve been played but why . . . why?

We get another good teaser from the kitchen at Merlotte’s. It’s Lafayette, suddenly pouring bleach into the gumbo, looking into the mirror and he’s wearing Jesus’ demon-face. (Which freaks him out but cheers me up: Jesus will return!)

Then we’re back to Authority HQ, but a deluxe bedroom that looks like the swankest W Hotel room ever. It’s Roman’s private chambers, and Salome, who’s been a very busy girl today, is very naked because this is HBO.

Salome assures him that neither Bill nor Eric is Sanguinista.

And then Roman goes through the mainstreaming vs. Fundamentalism discourse as if this were broadcast TV before the Internet and major plot points had to be repeated endlessly.

The up side is Mr. Meloni sans shirt is a pumped and ripped side of quality beefcake.

He purrs to Salome, “You’re my secret weapon” which, when purred to someone out of the freakin’ Bible, is worth considering—or not. At this point, we don’t know just how far Ball is willing to go with his trashing of the Christian Bible’s power and so we can’t extrapolate how badass Salome might be. Still, if she’s worthy of Roman’s attention, one imagines her destructive powers must be at least above the average Biblical icon’s.

And then we see poor lost Tara, who started the episode with her mind in the stars, breaking into a tanning salon and sliding into a tanning bed. As her body fries and she screams, we cut to Pam who, as Tara’s maker, can sense this and sighs “stupid bitch” but it’s the sighed “stupid bitch” of an exasperated mom, which is, after all, what Pam’s become.

In every way that matters, in teaching her how to take care of herself, how to feed herself, when to go to ground, when to rise, everything in her new life, Pam is Tara’s new mom. Many a drinking game was played based on what would happen to Tara after she was shot in the head last season. Nobody got drunk enough to see “Pam’s a mom” coming.

Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have his articles include Detroit Metro Times, gothic.net, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out New York.

FALLING SKIES RECAP 2: COMPASS

FALLING SKIES RECAP 2: COMPASS

null

"He is now defined by those of us who owe him our lives."

nullTom Mason, we are reminded again this episode, is a history professor. Over the course of the first season of Falling Skies, he had plenty of opportunity to let us know that, often by using overblown language to teach us all the Important Lessons of the moment. So, it is a great pleasure to note that the best line of Compass was, without a doubt, Tom Mason, History Professor, saying, “God, you’re an asshole, Pope.” BWAHAHA! That’s a laugh out loud line and it typifies the improvements of the second season.

As I said last week, this show will live or die not on the coolness of the skitters (which, by the way, are cool—last week we didn’t see them walking around much and I forgot how cool they are—skittering around on crazy reptilian spider legs) but on how high the stakes are in the post-invasion world. If we are shown a world that’s basically just like our lives, recognizable but in tents and with aliens, then the stakes are ridiculously low. If, on the other hand, it’s really an alien invasion, and humanity is really blown into a state of desperation and deprivation, fighting for survival, then this is a gripping drama in which the moment-by-moment tension of simply surviving alters every relationship, every decision, and every individual. That kind of drama requires consequences.

So, rest in peace, Jimmy.

I’m sad to see the kid go, but we all saw that he was impaled. After Carl’s miraculous recovery on The Walking Dead and Darren’s up-and-about less than a week following a paralyzing injury on The Killing, I think if Jimmy had been back on patrol two weeks after impalement, my television would have had a paralyzing injury of its own, dealt by me, and that can be pricey.

Drama requires consequences, and Jimmy’s death gives many of the other things we’re seeing much more of a sense of foreboding. Red-eye skitter? Foreboding. Glowing spikes? Foreboding! (Watch the crazy action below, glowing spikes, impalement, fireballs, and all.)

Let’s talk about glowing spikes*, shall we? It’s utterly stupid that Pope should find Tom’s presence so threatening while he is comfortable with Ben going on patrol. Tom acts like himself, albeit with occasional mechanical parasites flying out of his eye, but Ben? Ben, like all the harnessed kids, was in absolute thrall to the aliens. Upon having the harness removed, both Ben and the other kid (Ricky) exhibited all kinds of wild physical abilities, including last week's long swim in icy water with no discomfort. Ricky went back to the aliens voluntarily, but Ben, changed so much he borders on superhero, is allowed to patrol with Jimmy while Tom, apparently unchanged, is not allowed to carry a gun. It makes no sense at all. We can assume that Pope’s distrust of Tom is a bullshit gloss on a long-standing enmity, but it still doesn’t explain why anyone trusts Ben.

Whose spikes glow. So far it’s happened twice. The first time, the only witness was Jimmy, who is now conveniently dead, and the second time, there were no witnesses at all. It seems like Red-eye is unique in some way among skitters (he’s also the current host for the creepy mechanical flying eye parasite—holy crap, I can’t believe I just typed that!). No other skitter was able to make anyone’s spikes glow.

*If you’re just catching up, when humans originally tried to remove harnesses from rescued kids, the kids invariably died. Doctors discovered that leaving the spikes from the harness attached to the host’s bodies allowed the kids a good chance of surviving the surgery.

My point is two-fold: One, leaving that kid running around with a gun is inconsistent and a little stupid. Two, glowing spikes are cool and scary, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Despite its intermittent cheesiness, Falling Skies has always tried to Mean Something, sometimes by being self-important, and other times by constructing some nice plot motifs and deploying them with a certain elegance. This show isn't Mad Men (duh), but it has moments where the thematic stuff really works, and this week’s episode delivers in that regard.

"Compass" as a title is simple and effective. Jimmy’s compass functions to define and connect several important plot moments; the fight between Tom and Pope, the moment of intimacy between Ben and Weaver, and Ben’s bedside vigil, for which it's a talismanic object. “Compass” also refers to Anne's keeping track of the calendar, refusing to let go of a world where the date matters; it's a compass that guides her. A compass, a way forward, an arrow pointing in the correct direction, is what everyone in the 2nd Massachusetts need (because no one has a sense of direction, and Weaver and Ben's joke about Jimmy had a larger point), A pilot can come along and point their compass to Charleston, but how can they know it’s the right way to go? (As Weaver alluded, they’ve already been  fooled.) Tom says holing up for the winter will make the aliens think they've surrendered, and that speaks to a broader sort of compass question: Hide and survive, or continue to fight back, depleted though they are?

Pope has been a problematic character since he was introduced. In Season 1 the writers went through all kinds of senseless plot machinations to justify keeping him around, so I guess now we're stuck with him. Having Tom join the Berserkers was both amusing and stupid, yet it worked. Having it all fall apart within minutes also worked. Having Pope take off with a covert guard really doesn't work, because we know some future last minute rescue will be the order of the day and then he'll be back again.

All right, let's spare a moment for the anemic Tom-Anne romance. One thing The Walking Dead has gotten right is that, when the world ends, people fuck like bunnies. I have no actual evidence of this, having grown up someplace where the world has yet to end, but I'm sure. When terrible things happen we reach for flesh, for pleasure, for some affirmation that we're still alive and can feel and be human. The sad little kisses they've shared, the sense that, if only they weren't both so grief stricken and tired and busy, there might be more, strikes me as utterly wrong-headed. They should be clinging passionately to each other and to the sense of aliveness they can provide for each other in the midst of so much death and fear. Come on, Tom and Anne, go for it. Your passion can only improve Falling Skies.

Deborah Lipp is the co-owner of Basket of Kisses, whose motto is "smart discussion about smart television." She is the author of six books, including "The Ultimate James Bond Fan Book."