We're in our final week of looking back on "Band of Brothers," with spoilers for the penultimate episode, "Why We Fight," coming up just as soon as I borrow your lighter...
There are essentially two halves to "Why We Fight" -- one of the finest episodes of this damn fine miniseries -- that seem unrelated at first by anything but chronology, but which turn out to be inextricably linked in the final moments.
The first half focuses on Captain Nixon quest for Vat 69. To this point in the series, Nixon's role has been primarily to offer exposition (as a battalion strategist, he knows more about the big picture than Dick Winters does), and to function as a kind of Greek chorus (suggesting that Sobel is a better training officer than the men want to admit, reminding Winters of how much good he did at Brecourt Manor). We've learned that he's a drunk, but also that he's brave (he declines the 30-day pass home in "The Breaking Point") and that Winters obviously thinks the world of him, but because he hasn't been a member of Easy Company since before they left America, this is his first real spotlight.
And the Nixon of "Why We Fight" is burnt out. Like all the men, he's been at war too long, has started to forget why it is this all started, and with the lack of action post-Hagenau, he has a lot of time to do nothing but think, and stew, and drink. And because he's not just an alcoholic, but a discriminating alcoholic, he's running out of the one thing he's willing to drink. And when he's one of the few survivors of the doomed jump, he gets to stew some more about what all those boys in the plane died over.
There's this amazing weariness to Ron Livingston's performance. Like Scott Grimes in "The Last Patrol," he's so much older and frailer than he was at the start of the series (when I praised Livingston for this at an awards event, he gave all the credit to the makeup department for making him look so jaundiced). And while he's always going to look and sound like Peter from "Office Space," he has a gravity and haunted quality here that works perfectly in a scene like the one where Nixon gets the Dear Lewis letter from his wife. And that, in turn, leads into the marvelous scene where the entire convoy sings "Blood on the Risers," the unofficial paratrooper anthem, and Nixon reluctantly joins in, then starts singing louder than everyone else because he's so sick of it all.
The episode's first half also offers vignettes of other characters suffering a similar level of bitterness towards their time in the Army. Perconte rants to replacement O'Keefe about how long it's been since he saw America. Webster flips out at a passing convoy of surrendered Germans: "You have horses! What were you thinking?" Replacement Janovec tells Luz that he's reading an article about how "the Germans are bad," and Luz reacts like this is the most hilarious thing he's ever heard. With few exceptions -- like Captain Speirs, who seems delighted to be able to loot everything in sight now that they're in Germany -- the Toccoa veterans are all desperate to get home, and wondering why they wound up here in the first place.
Then we come to the second half, in which the episode's title goes from being ironic to explanatory. Whether the men of Easy Company knew it or not, stopping the kind of people responsible for the concentration camp they find outside of Landsberg is exactly why they fight -- why they've given up years of their lives and risked those lives repeatedly. As the real Dick Winters (who had fewer problems with his resolve to begin with) said to himself after getting a look at that nightmarish place, "Now I know why I am here!"
As good a job as the makeup department did on Livingston, their masterpiece is their work on the camp survivors. (Amazingly, they lost the Emmy to the TNT fantasy miniseries "The Mists of Avalon.") I don't know exactly how they made some of those extras look the way they did, but the sight of them never fails to hit me in the gut, to fill me with horror and despair that this kind of thing can happen -- and I say this as the son of a teacher who specializes in Holocaust education and who frequently brought her work home with her(*).
(*) And who has asked me to put in a plug for her college's Holocaust education center.
The visceral impact of the camp sequence is just amazing. All the little beats are devastating, from the man carrying his emaciated, possibly dead friend to the prisoner who starts showering his terrified rescuer with desperate kisses.
But the most brutal part of all involves Liebgott. The earlier scene with Webster in the truck is there primarily to remind us that Liebgott is the lone Jew in Easy Company. Because he's also the German translator, he winds up in the position to be the first to discover what this camp really is, and that smacks him -- and us -- extra hard. And then an even tougher blow comes when he's asked to order the prisoners back into the camp even temporarily, for their own good. Ross McCall isn't mentioned often among the best performances of this series, but he owns those two moments.
So here's what I'm most curious about, in terms of your reaction: how do you read the faces of the German townspeople in the sequence where they're being forced to dispose of the bodies? Specifically, how do you read the German officer's widow whom Nixon had met earlier when he broke into her house looking for booze? She's furious and disgusted and mortified, but is it at the Americans for forcing her to perform this horrific task, or at her own country's leadership for creating this place (and making her husband die for this)? Or is it a bit of both?
Some other thoughts:
• I'm again going to break the who lives/who dies rule here, as we're so close to the end that it's more or less pointless, but skip ahead to the next bullet if need be. The level of Speirs' looting -- and the other soldiers' awareness of it -- becomes one of the better running gags of these final two episodes, but the miniseries doesn't have room for the big real-life punchline: Speirs was sending all the looted merchandise not back to America, but to a "war widow" he had married during his time in England, and with whom he fathered a son. One problem: the woman's first husband turned out not to be dead, but a POW, and she chose him over Speirs -- and kept every bit of loot Speirs had sent her.
• Webster's command of German in the scene with the baker seems far shakier than it was in "The Last Patrol," and his bloodlust in that scene is in marked contrast to how he'll behave in a similar moment in the series finale. (Let's save discussion on that till we get to "Points," but I wanted to bring it up now so we have it in mind in a few day's time.)
• Don't Luz and Perconte in the opening scenes feel like they could be either supporting characters in a '40s war comedy, or maybe the leads on a '50s or early '60s Army sitcom?
• In case you haven't seen it by now, HBO has released a trailer for "The Pacific," the long-awaited follow-up to "Band of Brothers" that focuses on the Pacific theater of WWII in the same way "BoB" focused on the European theater. A couple of readers expressed concern that the trailer makes it look like "The Pacific" is going to be filled with the kind of war movie cliches that "BoB" avoided, but to that I would point out that some of the promos for "BoB" featured the scene from this episode where Winters tells Nixon what to write to the families of the boys who died on the jump. In context, "You tell them they died as heroes" is about the messiness of war and the necessity of telling noble lies about it. Out of context, in a trailer, it just sounds corny, even with Damian Lewis saying it.
Coming up on Thursday: We come to the end of the line with "Points," in which the war in Europe comes to an end, and yet the men of Easy Company can't get home.
What did everybody else think?