We're now into the second half of our trip through "Band of Brothers," and if you don't have the DVDs, or missed HBO's On Demand window, History Channel is doing another marathon this weekend, with the first five episodes Saturday afternoon (1:37-8), and the next five on Sunday (12:16-7, and don't ask me about the weird start times).
Spoilers for "Bastogne" coming up just as soon as I go in a dell...
If you polled fans of the series for their favorite installment, I imagine the next episode, "The Breaking Point," would win in a landslide. And while I certainly have a lot of affection for that one, "Bastogne" was and remains the hour that sticks in my head the most. It's the episode that, on first viewing, was the point where I began to feel confident distinguishing all the characters (ironically, in a show that spotlighted a character who had barely any previous screentime), and it remains the episode that does the best job of making me feel like I understood, even on a superficial level, what the men of Easy Company went through.
The Battle of the Bulge, and, specifically, the siege at Bastogne, is where the legend of the 101st Airborne was made, and I've seen some complaints that the series miscalculated by choosing this moment in the war to show through the eyes of the company medic, Eugene "Doc" Roe (Shane Taylor). These people aren't objecting to the idea of a Roe episode so much as its timing.
For me, though, the "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" approach(*) to the Battle of the Bulge works beautifully. There's still plenty of time for exploding trees and other combat in and around the Ardennes in "The Breaking Point," but in terms of the emotional experience of the siege, I think "Bastogne" absolutely nails it. Even more than "Crossroads," "Bastogne" marks the point when the series shifts to a more overt point-of-view narrative style, and these episodes feel more personal -- and much more involving -- for it.
(*) For those of you not up on your literary devices, this is re-telling a famous story from the perspective of a minor character, and only seeing the major events and players as he sees them. There are a couple of breaks from Roe's POV, notably the combat patrol where Babe Heffron has to watch Pvt. Julian bleed to death, but for the most part, we only find out things if Roe is there to eavesdrop.
The story of Bastogne is that the 101st was terribly short on bodies, and even shorter on supplies, and yet somehow they were able to hold off everything the Germans (who had more men and more materiel) threw at them. And therefore, it feels absolutely right that we should see it as Doc Roe's story. It's more of an abstraction, I think, to talk about how many rounds of ammo each man had than it is to show Roe down to his last Syrette of morphine, or being happy Captain Winters captured a German prisoner because the guy had a spare bandage on him.
More importantly, though, "Bastogne" -- through Bruce McKenna's script, David Leland's direction, and Shane Taylor's performance -- made me look at the position of Army medic, a staple of these sort of movies and TV shows, in an entirely new way. On the surface, the medic seems to have it (relatively) easier than the grunts: he doesn't have to kill, he's far less likely to get shot at, etc. But what we see, over and over in "Bastogne," is the psychic cost of the job. In the heat of combat -- particularly combat as intense as at Bastogne -- when a comrade gets shot, the other soldiers can't focus on it all that much, because they're too busy shooting back and trying to save their own skins. But the man bleeding to death is all that the medic gets to focus on. He can't use his rifle as a distraction, because he has to stick his hands into the wound and try to make the bleeding stop, at least long enough to get him back to the aid station. And whether the men live or die, you see the toll each of them take on Roe, and you begin to understand why he seems to hold himself apart from the men -- why he eats apart from them, and why avoids using their nicknames. It's only after his friend Renee the nurse(**) dies in a shelling of the town that Eugene seems to recognize this approach is futile -- that it hurts just as much whether he gets close to people or he doesn't -- and he lets himself call Heffron "Babe."
(**) The scenes with Renee seem to be the other source of complaint about "Bastogne." As Roe is such a minor character in Ambrose's book -- and as Roe died years before the miniseries was made -- I have no idea if there really was a Renee, or if that was just an invention of McKenna's. But I don't have much of a problem with the character, as she allows Roe to open up about his feelings in a way he simply wouldn't with the other guys in Easy, even the other medic. If she's a dramatic device, she's not a bad one.
Some other thoughts on "Bastogne":
• Leland and the production team do an amazing job of conveying just how bloody cold it was in Bastogne, and how much the men suffered for not having proper winter gear. We open with a shot of endless white, then see Roe's purple fingers shivering from the cold, and from there it's one bit of frozen-over Hell after another.
• As I so often make fun of the Louisiana accents on "True Blood" (if only because they all sound different from one another), I have to ask any locals who are reading: how do you think Shane Taylor (one of many Brits in the "Band of Brothers" cast) tackles Roe's Cajun accent? Authentic, or overcooked?
• We're still trying to be vague about who lives and who dies, but as Smokey Gordon doesn't appear again, I can say that Roe and the surgeons not only saved his life, but helped him recover a fair amount of his mobility. (So much, in fact, that, per the epilogue in Ambrose's book, the Army briefly tried to get out of giving him full disability, until Gordon's father threatened to have his son strip naked on the floor of Congress to show off all his wounds.)
• While the other men (Wild Bill Guarnere, in particular) are growing beards while out there in the woods, I like that Winters is still making an effort to shave every day, even if it's with freezing cold water.
• General McAuliffe's response to the German offer of surrender -- "Nuts!" (short for "Nuts to you!") -- would, 60+ years later, be appropriated by Skeet Ulrich on "Jericho," and in turn become the centerpiece of one of the more (temporarily) successful Save Our Show campaigns ever.
• This episode also has one of my favorite end title sequences of the series, though the question of whether Easy needed to be "rescued" by Patton seems more a matter of semantics than pride.
• We get more signs that "Foxhole" Norman Dike isn't up to commanding the company, particularly at this point in time. And between Harry Welsh's Christmas injury ("in a dell") and Buck Compton's increasing PTSD symptoms (check out how panicked he got by the singing), Easy is going to have a major leadership vacuum, which is the subject of "The Breaking Point." But we can talk about that sometime next week, likely on Monday.
Keeping in mind the who lives/dies thing, what did everybody else think?