Spoilers for tonight's "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" coming up just as soon as I tell a third grader a joke...
Wow. That was the first episode of the series I haven't had to judge on a curve. My praise isn't qualified with thoughts like "I don't think there's a long-term series here, but..." or "If you can ignore that John and Sarah aren't that interesting..." That was just an extremely taut, involving hour of television, a rare (outside of "Battlestar Galactica," anyway) episode of a TV sci-fi series that was at least as interested in the psychological implications of the story as in the whiz-bang explosions and technobabble.
(And, I should add, the whiz-bang stuff was awesome. Cameron twisting the latest bad Terminator into a pretzel was as cool as it was funny.)
Now, my daughter's not too far in age from the poor little girl being "raised" by Shirley Manson, and so the notion of her being in the care of a machine was even more horrifying than it might have otherwise been. But even if I didn't have that personal connection to the material, I think my blood would have been chilled by the scene where Shirley gets the girl to pee herself and we realize beyond a shadow of a doubt that the kid isn't some small piece of T-1000, but the real daughter of the real (and dead) Catherine Weaver, being kept around because she helps the Terminator maintain its cover. For the first time, I'm starting to see why the producers cast Manson -- like Summer Glau, she has a physical presence that's really disturbing if you know what you're looking for, but would probably go unnoticed (or dismissed as Asperger's or another spectrum disorder) to anyone who doesn't believe in robots from the future -- and I'm finding myself engaged by her story. At the very least, I really want the season to end with Ellison somehow saving the daughter from an upbringing that would make Sally Draper from "Mad Men" seem lucky in comparison.
And while I cringe when some shows put their characters in therapy -- it's usually a clumsy excuse for characters to monologue about thoughts the writers couldn't find a more elegant way to have them express -- I thought it worked beautifully here. What the hell must it be like to be John Connor, to be told practically from birth that you're destined to be the savior of humanity, to get at the age of 13 incontrovertible proof that your mom's crazy doomsday prophecies are all very real, and now to have all these people from the present and future sacrifice their lives to ensure your existence? Even if he hadn't recently killed a guy himself(*), it'd be a miracle if he wasn't massively, massively damaged.
(*) And the episode's final scene solved the one major qualifier I was going to have -- that John shouldn't be so freaked out by seeing his mom kill someone, given all they've been through in the past -- with the surprising (to me, anyway) twist that it was John who did the deed during the denouement they didn't show us in the season premiere.
I liked that, in the same episode where one robot was struggling to simulate a maternal instinct, the show's human mother was oblivious to her own son's pain while her robotic daughter knew to start looking for the suicide prevention pamphlets. (And, in another neat parallel, Cameron looked at the fused chip and realized that the new line of T-888's are essentially kamikaze pilots.) As I've said many times before, I think it was a mistake to make TV Sarah so relatively well-adjusted, but recent episodes have started to take us in a direction where she seems normal but is in her own way just as disconnected from reality as the Linda Hamilton version. If the writers keep playing on these emotional beats for John and Sarah, I think we may have to stop complaining about Headey and Dekker being weak links.
Hell, I didn't even mind yet another character from the future casually showing up in the past. (How much of Los Angeles' population is made up of time travelers at this point? Is that how Jack Bauer gets so much done in a day?) Anything that gives the Notorious BAG some emotional material to play is okay in my book, and I look forward to finding out exactly why his shell-shocked friend is so interested in present-day John. What might the machines have promised her that would make her want to kill mankind's only hope?
I really, really dug this one. When Fox gave this show a full-season order last week, I was relatively pleased, since I enjoyed it well enough to be glad it was continuing, even if it wouldn't be near the top of my best-of list. But if they can come even close to this intensity level every week (in an episode that was actually fairly light on the action, even with the pretzel-twisting), I may have to reassess the situation.
What did everybody else think?