"I cherish the memories of a question my grandson asked me the other day, when he said, 'Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?' Grandpa said, 'No, but I served in a company of heroes.'" -Mike RanneyBecause the war more or less ended for Easy Company with the Battle of the Bulge, give or take some minor skirmishes like the one depicted in "The Last Patrol," there was a danger that these last two episodes of the series could have felt terribly anti-climactic. But "Why We Fight" found power by dealing with the liberation of the concentration camp outside Landsberg (which only merits a few paragraphs in Stephen Ambrose's book). "Points," meanwhile, turns the lack of action into its primary theme, showing both the advantages of life in an occupying army (more free time, gorgeous scenery, grand moments) and the drawbacks (the men all want to go home, and they keep dying or being wounded for stupid reasons). Anchored by Damian Lewis' narration and some of Michael Kamen's most beautiful music of the series, it feels like a fitting epilogue to all that came before.
Though "Points" isn't precisely Dick Winters' story in the way that "Crossroads" was, the miniseries as a whole has been his story, and so it feels right that he be allowed to narrate its concluding chapter, and to tie together all the small vignettes of Easy's time in Germany and Austria in the war's final days. His courtesy interview for a transfer to the Pacific turns into a kind of Dick Winters' Greatest Hits montage, and throughout the episode we get small callbacks to previous events. Winters' closing narration tells us that he eventually bought the farm he dreamed about at the end of "Day of Days." When Easy Company captures the Eagle's Nest, we hear the men yell "Hi-yo, Silver!," which was Sobel's pathetic battle cry, and Sobel himself pops up again so Winters can humiliate him one last time by demanding a salute. (How you feel about that moment depends, I suppose, on where you stood in our discussion about "Curahee" and whether Sobel is depicted fairly.) We hear again about Welsh's reserve chute, Shifty's marksmanship and many other running character points from earlier episodes.
What I love about "Points" is the larger-than-life quality that writers Erik Jendresen and Erik Bork and director Mikael Salomon give it -- drawing heavily, as always, on real events. The Alps look so beautiful in the background of the baseball game, as does the view from the Eagle's Nest balcony. Winters' gift to his buddy Nixon is staggering when viewed from a 21st century perspective -- how do you give an alcoholic the keys to Hermann Goering's wine cellar? -- and yet in the context of the time, and this particular friendship, it makes perfect sense, and is oddly touching. Winters doesn't judge Nixon, doesn't try to fix him, and thinks this is the nicest thing he can possibly do for him. And after all they've been through, who can say they didn't all need some fine German liquor?
Oddly, in a few cases, the stories told in "Points" are actually toned down from the real-life versions described by Ambrose. For instance, the story of Sgt. Grant being shot in the head, and Captain Speirs going to extraordinary lengths to save his life and then punish his shooter, actually took some stranger turns. After Speirs pistol-whipped the guy for failing to call him "sir," a buddy of Grant's not only pointed a gun at the man, but pulled the trigger as he was being held back, only his pistol misfired. Later, Speirs would claim that Col. Sink "said I should have shot the son of a bitch."
Like the rest of the miniseries, "Points" can't possibly hope to cover everyone's story to the fullest, and there are occasional awkward moments where minor players are shoved into the spotlight as the clock is running down. Alton Moore suddenly becomes relevant because he stole Hitler's photo album, and the scene where Floyd Talbert resigns as 1st Sergeant doesn't really work because Talbert -- described by Dick Winters as the best soldier in the company, and the one he'd most want by his side in a battle -- hasn't had much to do in previous episodes.
(In his book, "Beyond Band of Brothers," Winters writes that Talbert actually resigned his position because he and Speirs didn't get along, and both Winters and Ambrose write at length about how Talbert, more than any other man in the company, never quite recovered emotionally from the things he did and saw during the war. At the time the miniseries originally aired, Bruce McKenna, who wrote several episodes of this series -- and is a producer on "The Pacific" -- apparently said on the HBO.com boards, paraphrasing Shifty Powers, "we could completely redo the entire miniseries and focus on completely different men and not repeat one single scene." I imagine this parallel universe version of "Band of Brothers" would have a whole lot more of Talbert.)
There's also the odd sequence with Webster and Liebgott arguing about what to do with the alleged concentration camp commandant, which seems to fly in the face of Webster's behavior with the German baker in "Why We Fight." Much as Ambrose wrote more about Webster than was probably warranted given his role in the company, the miniseries leans on him pretty heavily in these last few episodes, inserting him into events where he wasn't present or wasn't a factor, and changing his characterization based on the needs of a particular scene. In real life, Don Moone was the soldier objecting to the mission (which was ordered by Captain Speirs, on dubious authority).
As for Liebgott, he's involved in the episode's centerpiece, and a fitting capstone to the series, as he translates the German officer's speech to his defeated troops. The German is, of course, saying the same sorts of things to his men that Winters no doubt thinks about his, but Winter isn't the kind of man who would ever say such things, especially not in victory. So the script cleverly puts the words in the mouth of an opponent trying to put a good face on defeat for the benefit of his men. And, don't forget how "Why We Fight" opened with the real men of Easy Company talking about how much they realized they had in common with the German soldiers -- Ross McCall does a wonderfully subtle job of showing how, as the speech goes along, German-hating Liebgott begins to recognize the shared experience.
Rather than begin the episode, as all the others did, with interviews with unidentified Easy survivors (their names withheld, no doubt, to preserve suspense about who lived and died), "Points" closes with them, and finally puts names to some faces. We get confirmation that the thin, confident gentleman with the glasses is Dick Winters, realize that the man who broke down crying in the "Breaking Point" interview was Donald Malarkey, and see just what perfect casting Frank John Hughes was as Bill Guarnere. And (after Carwood Lipton gives us the St. Crispin's Day speech from "Henry V") Winters gets to repeat the closing anecdote from the book, quoted above.
There isn't time to identify all the men interviewed in previous episodes -- just as the baseball scene, by design, doesn't allow Winters to tell us what happened to men who survived the war but weren't with the company at the time, like Guarnere, Malarkey and Joe Toye -- but for that, I highly recommend the bonus disc in the DVD set, which includes the outstanding documentary "We Stand Alone Together," featuring lots of interview material that otherwise would have been left on the cutting room floor.
Speaking of the baseball game, what really strikes me about Winters telling the story of everyone's post-war life is how absolutely normal most of them are. Lipton and Johnny Martin made a lot of money, and Buck Compton achieved some fame as an LA prosecutor, but for the most part these men who jumped through flak on D-Day, who survived freezing cold and exploding trees in Bastogne, who were both very lucky and very good to survive everything the Germans threw at them, went home to be postmen, and handymen, and cab drivers, and to live completely average lives. In "Beyond Band of Brothers," Winters writes about George Luz's funeral, and how even his own family members were stunned to see the medals he had won during the war; it had never occurred to Luz that this was something his nearest loved ones ought to hear about.
And yet, that's the story you could tell about so many veterans who survived World War II, in either the European theater or the Pacific. They saved the world, and then they came back home to live like the rest of us. And in that way, as much as any other, "Band of Brothers" symbolizes the story of all of our troops over there.
Some other thoughts on "Points":
• It amuses me that even the normally squeaky-clean Winters isn't above a little looting, if for no reason than that he knows Speirs will take the silverware if he doesn't.
• Along similar lines, I love the smirk on Nixon's face after Winters makes Sobel salute, like he's happy to see that his perfect friend is capable of being ruled by emotion from time to time.
• Shifty Powers was the Easy veteran whose recent death I alluded to a few episodes back. The story of Shifty's bad luck lottery win was even more frustrating in real life. After he won the ticket home, an officer offered him a large sum of money buy the ticket from him. Shifty declined, wound up injured (as mentioned here), and then all of his backpay and valuables were stolen while he was convalescing in the hospital.
• The officer interviewing Winters about the transfer is played by David Andrews, who was a key figure in "From the Earth to the Moon" as astronaut Frank Borman.
• If you're interested in more detail, I highly recommend reading Ambrose's book, and then "Beyond Band of Brothers," and to do it in that order, as Winters treats his book as a companion to Ambrose's, and deliberately omits details about things he felt Ambrose covered sufficiently. In particular, it's worth it for the section where Winters reprints excerpts from letters he received from men who were storming Utah Beach at the time Winters, Compton and the others took out the guns at Brecourt Manor (or from their children and grandchildren), and who talk about how much easier it was to get across the beach after the guns were silenced. Good luck getting through that chapter without some tissues handy.
Finally, now that we've come to the end, I guess it's time to rank the episodes. A few years after the miniseries first aired, I remember ranking them on a Usenet newsgroup, but that post seems lost to history. Regardless, the order is different now than it would have been at the time. As I said back when I reviewed "Curahee," rewatching the miniseries was a far more rewarding experience than watching it the first time, and some episodes like "Replacements" held up much better once I didn't have to keep asking, "Wait, who's that guy again?"
Maybe the order changes again if I take another look at the series five or ten years from now, but at the moment, I'd rank them as follows:
2) "Why We Fight"
3) "The Breaking Point"
4) "Day of Days"
7) "The Last Patrol"
Feel free to offer up your own rankings, or any unanswered questions you have about the series and the lives of the men depicted within it, or anything you want at this point. We're all done, so everything's game.
Also, for those of you who are Star-Ledger print readers, it looks like we're going to be running slightly edited versions of these reviews in the paper as a summer series, most likely starting Saturday, July 18.
For the last time on this great, great series, what did everybody else think?