A review of tonight's "The Pacific" coming up just as soon as I make a table appear out of thin air...
After three harrowing episodes focusing on Sledge's time on Peleliu, "The Pacific" takes a sharp right turn, leaving Sledge and Snafu behind for a bit (other than a brief cameo at the top of the episode) to spend the hour on John Basilone, who hasn't been a major part of the miniseries for a month.
I can see how that would be jarring to some. "The Pacific" has been a more sprawling, less tightly-focused miniseries than "Band of Brothers" was, but that's been by design, as the creative team has tried to show a broader picture of the Pacific theater than they did of the Atlantic. So that means not only bouncing from character to character as we cover different island conflicts - here with Basilone being killed during the early hours of the Iwo Jima invasion - but also showing how different kinds of characters were affected by the war.
Where Sledge was a naive kid emotionally unprepared for what he saw on Peleliu, and where Leckie was a cynic and iconoclast, Basilone was a career military man (first in the Army, then the Marines) who knew what he was getting into when he went to war, and had no regrets about the fighting, the command structure, or any other part of being in the Corps. Given the man that we saw in the early episodes, and the brief, frustrated glimpses we got of him on his war bond tour, it's not a surprise that Basilone would have declined promotion, a cushy detail or an outright discharge in favor of going back into action. But it was still moving to watch his journey, from bored and out-of-shape celebrity to misunderstood drill sergeant to inspiring leader of men, and to see that even though he didn't survive Iwo Jima, he was every bit as brave and resourceful there as he was on Guadalcanal.
But this hour is as much the story of Lena Riggi as it is of Basilone.
Unlike Stella, Leckie's Australian girlfriend Stella from the third episode, Riggi was entirely real: the woman Basilone fell for, courted and married before shipping back out to the Pacific. So where Stella ultimately was more symbol than character, Riggi gets to be both a stand-in for the many women who lost loved ones in the war as well as her own person, well-played by Annie Parisse in a nice romantic duet with Jon Seda. While the story hit some familiar war movie beats (Basilone and Riggi even huddle up on a wave-swept beach in a scene evoking the iconic kiss in "From Here to Eternity"), the idea of them as kindred spirits - fellow non-coms who feel most at home in the military, and who fully understand the dangers and responsibilities that come with the uniform and the stripes - made it feel unique to them, and compelling.
Now, by the time Basilone pushed his superiors to let him be a regular Marine again, a lot of time had passed since Guadalcanal. Other famous heroes of the war had emerged, and while Basilone still didn't have to buy himself a drink anywhere he went, it's understandable that one of the two young men who form the foundation of Basilone's new squad wouldn't have heard of him, and that both might at first think the hero of Guadalcanal was overdoing it in training them.
But as we see when everyone lands on Iwo Jima (in another Hell-on-earth sequence to rival the airfield crossing on Peleliu), Basilone knew what he was doing, both in terms of training the men and in terms of what he'd need to do to survive. That he died doesn't mean he was wrong - as he told JP back in the second episode, life and death in battle is often a matter of luck and inches - and even in the moments leading to his death, he was still thinking clearly, helping others and not blinking in the face of an unbelievable onslaught.
And for all his heroism and celebrity, the final shot of the Iwo Jima sequence - with the camera pulling up to show Basilone lying among so many other dead men - was a potent reminder of the hundreds upon thousands of less famous Americans died under similar circumstances to the great John Basilone, and how many of them left their own version of Lena behind.
Some other thoughts:
• When Google is not your friend: after Anna Torv turned up in the fifth episode as Virginia Grey, I decided to do some web-searching to find out more about the real Grey. One of my first stops was her IMDb biography, which told me, "During her participation in WWII bond drives, she developed a close relationship with John Basilone, US Marine Medal of Honor winner, who was later killed on Iwo Jima." Whoops. And that, boys and girls, is one of the reasons I've been so strict about trying to avoid spoiling the fates of Basilone, Sledge and Leckie.
• There are, of course, many books about John Basilone. The one I've been perusing for background detail has been James Brady's new one.
• I liked how the gravel falling on Basilone's face after he was shot resembled the pencil shavings that go flying throughout the miniseries' opening credits sequence.
What did everybody else think?