Getting very close to the end of our trip back through "Band of Brothers" -- close enough, in fact, that I'm going to break my rule about who lives and who dies to discuss the fate of the episode's central character -- so know that there are bigger-than-usual spoilers for "The Last Patrol" coming up just as soon as (and I mean that) I divvy up the PX supplies...
We're close enough to the end of the series -- and Easy Company is close enough to the end of the war, with "The Last Patrol" offering up the last significant combat action we'll see -- that I'm going to violate the "who dies" rule. There are still some casualties to come, but I don't think I can properly discuss "The Last Patrol" without saying that David Kenyon Webster did, in fact, survive the war, but died decades before Ambrose's book was written.
Webster was a would-be author himself, and while he never found a publisher for his combat diaries while he was alive (though he did put out a book about sharks), Ambrose was so enamored with his writing that he helped get them published in the early '90s, under the title "Parachute Infantry: An American Paratrooper's Memoir of D-Day and the Fall of the Third Reich." And before that, Ambrose liberally quoted from Webster's unpublished manuscripts in "Band of Brothers" (several passages of which are turned into voiceover narration here), and talks quite a bit about Webster beyond that -- arguably moreso than any other Easy Company soldier who wasn't with the company for either Normandy or Bastogne.
I say all of this because it's obvious Ambrose had some affection for the Webster he met in those unpublished pages, no doubt finding a kinship with the Harvard-educated English major, and I have this feeling that he looks on Webster more fondly than the men who actually served with him. Ambrose doesn't judge Webster for his refusal to be promoted above Private First Class, or to volunteer for any kind of hazardous duty, or to bolt out of the hospital early to get back to the men -- as we've seen Popeye Wynn, Joe Toye and others do in previous episodes. (Toye lost a leg as a result.) And Ambrose's account of the Hagenau patrol doesn't in any way mention the hostility that Liebgott and others show for Webster upon his return. (Nor does it deal with the switcheroo in who got to lead the patrol, which was actually led by Ken Mercier, who's not a character in the miniseries.)
The way I see it, there are two possibilities: 1)Erik Bork and Bruce McKenna needed an easy way to illustrate how much Bastogne changed the men who were there -- and how much they resented those who weren't there -- and Webster was an easy choice, given the timing of his return from the hospital; or 2)The survivors didn't much like Webster, and when they were talking to the producers, they gave them more dirt than either Ambrose knew or wanted to get into.
Now, I suspect little to none of this matters to your appreciation of "The Last Patrol." But given that Webster will be fairly prominent in these final three episodes, and is one of the more unusual characters of both book and miniseries, I'm curious about which portrayal is the more accurate one.
Either way, "The Last Patrol" works as a sequel of sorts to "Replacements," only instead of showing how the newcomers were in awe of the tested and heroic Normandy veterans, we see how an actual veteran could become so disconnected from the company because he wasn't in Bastogne. And, through Webster's eyes, we see just how devastated the company was in those months while he was away.
Compare the welcome Webster gets when he returns (surprised, begrudging, irritated) to the enthusiastic one given to Perconte, who was not only present for the Battle of the Bulge, but has busted out of the hospital to rejoin the company only a few weeks after getting shot at Foy. Or compare the way Webster still reacts to exploding mortar rounds to the way the Bastogne veterans just shrug them off, because they heard and felt worse out in the forest. Or compare the Malarkey from even as recent an episode as "Crossroads" (where he's giddy to show off his gambling winnings to Skip Muck) to the shell of a man he is after losing so many friends in the Ardennes.
(Though this is primarily Webster's episode, Malarkey is the one who has to symbolize the sorry state of Easy after the Bulge, and Scott Grimes and the hair and makeup team do a terrific job of capturing that. He looks so much older, and emptier -- particularly in the shower scene -- and all the red color has vanished from his hair. He's seen too much, and lost too much, to resemble the enthusiastic, foolhardy kid he was in the early episodes.)
In addition to the depression of the men, what "The Last Patrol" shows is that, despite Speirs' appointment as the new company commander, not all is right with Easy's leadership. Speirs is in charge, but with Lipton sidelined by pneumonia and Harry Welsh not returning until episode's end, they're still so short on experienced officers to lead the platoons (since Colonel Sink kept promoting the best ones to batallion or regimental staff) that newbie Lt. Jones gets sent on the patrol to secure prisoners -- and even Jones has the perspective, after an initial burst of enthusiasm, to realize he's not qualified to do anything but observe.
As the real-life Easy veterans talk about in the introductory piece, they were now close enough to the end of the war that everyone was particularly self-conscious about not being in a position where they could get killed. (Or, in the case of Jones or the soldier from the PX who asked to be put on the patrol, concerned about seeing some action before the war stops.) So "The Last Patrol" focuses more on combat fatigue, and on paranoia, and on the careful preparation each man puts into so minor an action as the combat patrol.
Again, this is the last major action set piece of the series, and it's a good one, suitably chaotic and intense, with the ante upped by Pvt. Jackson's screams as he dies slowly from his own grenade.
And in the end, we find out that Dick Winters continues to look out for Easy Company even though he's no longer their direct commander, as he disobeys Col. Sink's order for a second patrol because he knows it would be as dangerous as it would be pointless. In real life, Winters' promotion to major didn't come for another couple of weeks, but it feels appropriate to see him getting those oak leaf clusters immediately after one of his braver bits of leadership in the war.
Some other thoughts:
• The miniseries isn't exactly consistent on how well Webster speaks German. He can make basic conversation and shout out commands here and in "Replacements," while his command of the language seems far less (if not non-existent) in "Why We Fight" and "Points." And Wikipedia (I know, I know) suggests he didn't speak it at all.
• As with the Jimmy Fallon cameo in "Crossroads," I find Colin Hanks' presence as Lt. Jones much less distracting this time than I did in 2001 -- though in this case, it's because I've seen Hanks do enough good dramatic work elsewhere (most recently on "Mad Men") that I can accept that, while nepotism undoubtedly got him the part, he fits it well.
• Ambrose writes that Webster and another private tried and failed repeatedly to use grenades to kill the wounded German on the opposite bank, before Cobb (who, again, gets the short end of the stick in this episode and is depicted as a cowardly bully) got sick of the wheezing and killed the German with a more accurate throw.
• Rick Gomez has some fine comic moments throughout the series as George Luz, but none may be better than the scene where he's dealing with the chocolate bars and the order to blow up a house across the river.
Coming up next (probably on Monday): "Why We Fight," in which Nixon runs low on his preferred brand of booze, while Perconte makes a horrifying discovery.
What did everybody else think?