Monday, October 20, 2008

Terminator, "The Tower Is Tall But the Fall Is Short": Suicide is painless

Spoilers for tonight's "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" coming up just as soon as I tell a third grader a joke...

Wow. That was the first episode of the series I haven't had to judge on a curve. My praise isn't qualified with thoughts like "I don't think there's a long-term series here, but..." or "If you can ignore that John and Sarah aren't that interesting..." That was just an extremely taut, involving hour of television, a rare (outside of "Battlestar Galactica," anyway) episode of a TV sci-fi series that was at least as interested in the psychological implications of the story as in the whiz-bang explosions and technobabble.

(And, I should add, the whiz-bang stuff was awesome. Cameron twisting the latest bad Terminator into a pretzel was as cool as it was funny.)

Now, my daughter's not too far in age from the poor little girl being "raised" by Shirley Manson, and so the notion of her being in the care of a machine was even more horrifying than it might have otherwise been. But even if I didn't have that personal connection to the material, I think my blood would have been chilled by the scene where Shirley gets the girl to pee herself and we realize beyond a shadow of a doubt that the kid isn't some small piece of T-1000, but the real daughter of the real (and dead) Catherine Weaver, being kept around because she helps the Terminator maintain its cover. For the first time, I'm starting to see why the producers cast Manson -- like Summer Glau, she has a physical presence that's really disturbing if you know what you're looking for, but would probably go unnoticed (or dismissed as Asperger's or another spectrum disorder) to anyone who doesn't believe in robots from the future -- and I'm finding myself engaged by her story. At the very least, I really want the season to end with Ellison somehow saving the daughter from an upbringing that would make Sally Draper from "Mad Men" seem lucky in comparison.

And while I cringe when some shows put their characters in therapy -- it's usually a clumsy excuse for characters to monologue about thoughts the writers couldn't find a more elegant way to have them express -- I thought it worked beautifully here. What the hell must it be like to be John Connor, to be told practically from birth that you're destined to be the savior of humanity, to get at the age of 13 incontrovertible proof that your mom's crazy doomsday prophecies are all very real, and now to have all these people from the present and future sacrifice their lives to ensure your existence? Even if he hadn't recently killed a guy himself(*), it'd be a miracle if he wasn't massively, massively damaged.

(*) And the episode's final scene solved the one major qualifier I was going to have -- that John shouldn't be so freaked out by seeing his mom kill someone, given all they've been through in the past -- with the surprising (to me, anyway) twist that it was John who did the deed during the denouement they didn't show us in the season premiere.

I liked that, in the same episode where one robot was struggling to simulate a maternal instinct, the show's human mother was oblivious to her own son's pain while her robotic daughter knew to start looking for the suicide prevention pamphlets. (And, in another neat parallel, Cameron looked at the fused chip and realized that the new line of T-888's are essentially kamikaze pilots.) As I've said many times before, I think it was a mistake to make TV Sarah so relatively well-adjusted, but recent episodes have started to take us in a direction where she seems normal but is in her own way just as disconnected from reality as the Linda Hamilton version. If the writers keep playing on these emotional beats for John and Sarah, I think we may have to stop complaining about Headey and Dekker being weak links.

Hell, I didn't even mind yet another character from the future casually showing up in the past. (How much of Los Angeles' population is made up of time travelers at this point? Is that how Jack Bauer gets so much done in a day?) Anything that gives the Notorious BAG some emotional material to play is okay in my book, and I look forward to finding out exactly why his shell-shocked friend is so interested in present-day John. What might the machines have promised her that would make her want to kill mankind's only hope?

I really, really dug this one. When Fox gave this show a full-season order last week, I was relatively pleased, since I enjoyed it well enough to be glad it was continuing, even if it wouldn't be near the top of my best-of list. But if they can come even close to this intensity level every week (in an episode that was actually fairly light on the action, even with the pretzel-twisting), I may have to reassess the situation.

What did everybody else think?


Sara Ann said...

See, I got impatient with the flashbacks to Sarah's and John's fight with whats-his-face, because it seemed obvious John killed the guy; why else bother with flashbacks, and in that incremental manner? Set aside that John shouldn't be that shocked to see Sarah kill; we wouldn't be that shocked. So that part of the episode had me impatient, and made for sort of an anticlimax.

One question you didn't address, Alan: what does it mean that one terminator (Shirley Manson) finds the child shrink helpful in developing what will presumably be Skynet, and yet another terminator (pretzel girl) is sent back from the future to kill him? Or is that what she was sent back for? The kamikaze chip makes it unlikely she's one of John's, but are Skynet's forces at cross-purposes here?

Also, the writers edged toward a question I'd really like to see them address: why is Skynet so much more sophisticated than its minions? Even leaving aside the potential emotional component, Skynet attained self-awareness and self-determination - yet the terminators seem to just be very complex tools, which have no more choice than their programming allows. They've bumped up against this with some of the material they've given Cameron (dancing alone in her room, for instance), and I'm hoping tonight's episode signals they're heading deeper into the nature of sentience and how a terminator fits on the spectrum.

And Terminator writers, if you're listening? If the forces of Skynet are in a civil war, I swear I won't cry "cylon."

Unknown said...

I really liked this one. The Savannah situation is incredibly creepy and came off well, especially with "Weaver's" total bafflement of well, everything emotional. The shrink is a sweetie, though I do wonder how many episodes it'll take to kill him off (I place my bet at three). And I think it's a very good point to make that John would be in need of a shrink- I wish Cameron would have elaborated on that one a bit more.

For that matter, the shrink doesn't find it more odd that the mother ignores her Asperger's daughter in this scenario?

One thing: I keep expecting someone to answer John's "When do I get to have a life" question with "You don't. Ever. Sorry." Poor bastard, but it's true.

Bruce Reid said...

Easily the best episode of the season, possibly of the series (I've not seen every one). I agree that Manson really came into her own here--creepy and funny, and, if Sara Ann's guess about a Skynet civil war is right, in hindsight maybe even touching in her learning curve struggles to mimic humanity. Her pride in having located a strong memory from childhood to fool the doctor earned both a laugh and a shiver with her nonchalant mention of cow's blood.

And Cameron's fight with the Temp Terminator was the exact right mix of tongue-in-cheek and whoa-cool (the nitty gritty grinding sound effect during the head rotation scored high on both meters).

Especially impressive since the episode omitted (Dillahunt, Winters) or barely focused (Green, Glau) on most of the actors and characters who've kept me interested so far. Hope this keeps up.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed the episode. It was the only one that was crafted well beginning to end, including special effects and action sequences, which have been lacking in some previous episodes in terms of their believability.

My wife is a clinical psychologist. She said that the therapy sessions, including the first meeting were very realistic. Sarah asked about the Doc's background and he didn't talk about himself, just his professional experience. He has to prove his bona fides, but maintain himself as a blank slate personally. But, the office was way too open. No therapist is going to have open windows for the waiting area to see into the therapy session. That didn't make any sense.

Perhaps the 888 was sent to kill John not the doc. It seems that everyone in the future knows exactly where John will be on any given day in the present (past).

And, wouldn't Cameron be able to detect from Shirley Mason's voice that she's a T-1000? I expected the review of the recorded sessions to bring that to the surface.

Mrglass said...

This show is just getting better and better. Something tells me the writers are fans of 'Ghost in the Shell' and 'Blade Runner', and it shows!

Now if only more people were watching it and realizing it has improved so much since the pilot...

Rachel said...

I liked how the therapy in this did highlight the mother/child parallels between Sarah/John, Weaver/little Weaver, and Weaver/Skynet. And tying it all in with John's therapy question: just who is protecting whom? And who does that make the real "parent"? Is that similar to Weaver taking on a parental role with the Turk? And if so, isn't that interesting? After all, Weaver is a "child" of SkyNet.

I love the idea also of the Turk getting a child psycologist (although, again, didn't we see that coming a mile away?). With the cryptic message from the future, we get to wonder if a little therapy early on is all it will take to stop the Turk from becoming sociopathic SkyNet. Or if the therapy will help it be simply a faster-developing sociopath.

I agree with sara ann, that the whole editing structure of the fight with Sarcissian in the first episode (and the flashbacks since) were kind of obvious. The writers have been practically nudging us in the ribs every 15 minutes with "See, it's supposed to be ambiguous." And we weren't supposed to think that would pay off, narratively?

I do have a really nitpicky bone to pick. So about Jesse's accent: if she's roughly Derek's age, she either immigrates before Judgement Day (in which case her accent really should be lesser) or there's still intercontinental travel for humans afterwards? The Pacific's a biyatch to cross under the best of circumstances, yo.

555jay said...

I actually went a picked up a copy (finally!) of Terminator 2 the other day. Re-watching that now in the context of 1.5 seasons of this show was very interesting. Made me like Headey's Sarah more and Manson's T-1000 a bit less.

@Eugene Freedman
"And, wouldn't Cameron be able to detect from Shirley Mason's voice that she's a T-1000? I expected the review of the recorded sessions to bring that to the surface."

Remember a scene in T2: John calls home to his foster mom, who has already been mimicked by the T-1000 (Robert Patrick). The T-888 sent to protect him (Arnold) takes the phone from John and mimics John's voice back to the T-1000. Neither one is tipped off until the T-888 asks the trick question about the dog barking. At that point, the T-1000 still goes out to the dog (maybe this scene is only in the director's cut?) to confirm by the dog's collar that he'd been duped. So I would venture that Skynet voice duplication is quite good.

Note also that this episode's terminators seem to take their time assessing each other on the sidewalk to the building, through the doors, in the elevator, and down the hall. That doesn't fit my notions of a T-8XX (not sure if the new kamikaze version gets its own number) in "scan" mode. Terminators' POV shots pretty much seem to analyze everything.

And I got the impression from a scene near the end of "Alison from Palmdale" that flash-forward robot Cameron (hard to keep track of all that Glau!) was implying that there is a machine-based resistance to Skynet. In which case it's going to be even more complicated to keep track of who's sending whom to the past to do what.

Anonymous said...

"what does it mean that one terminator (Shirley Manson) finds the child shrink helpful in developing what will presumably be Skynet, and yet another terminator (pretzel girl) is sent back from the future to kill him?"

As either Sarah or Cameron said, we don't know whether Pretzel Girl was sent there to protect the doctor (so he can develop the AI) or kill him (so he can't improve John's mental state and/or blow Shirley's cover).