Why can’t every “Falling Skies” episode be like “Stalag 14th Virginia”? That’s the question after watching the Sunday, Aug. 16 episode, which features excelling writing, directing, acting, everything. It’s episodes like this one that raise that little bit of doubt about the show ending (though it can’t last forever; the war must be won – or lost – for good at some point). Just like Shelton asks Tom where his speech was during the trial, this episode raises the question: where was this when the show wasn’t its best?
“I’ve never seen so many heroes in one group.” – Isabella, about the 2nd Mass
First of all, this “Falling Skies” episode was written by Jack Kenny, the same person who penned “Pope Breaks Bad” earlier this season, making him responsible for the two best episodes of the season thus far, and it was directed by none other than series star Noah Wyle, who does as great a job behind the camera as he does in front of it. While episodes as of late haven’t been the best, haven’t been exactly what they should be considering this is the final push, there is little to complain about in “Stalag 14th Virginia.”
It’s an hour filled with classic Tom Mason speeches, dramatic cuts between characters that only add to the tension once it’s time for the firing squad, escape attempts and an operation led by none other than Weaver himself. Oh, and it ends with a bit of a twist involving Kate Marshall and a look at just what Pope and Anthony have been up to (and it’s not anything that will help humanity’s attempt to take back Earth from the Espheni).
It’s an hour without any unnecessary scenes, like how the members of the 2nd Mass away from the military base are up to beyond Tom’s escape into the woods and Matt’s drive to rendezvous with the others. There aren’t any flashback scenes to any of the planning after it is revealed just how in control of everything Weaver is (as much as he can be) because it’s all put out there, straightforward, with one talk from Weaver to the soldiers and a few looks here and there from Weaver. A big deal isn’t made of his glances up as Wolf, Hal, Anne and Ben are lined up to be executed. It’s a brief moment, but with it comes a reason for a few of the brief flashes in the beginning of the episode.
Just like the series has been guilty of bringing in new characters (like Isabella and Marty, whose attempt to protest the Masons’ executions is too little, too late and does nothing to redeem him for blabbing to the soldiers in “Everybody Has Their Reasons” or to make him any more worthy of screen time this close to the end) that just take away from time that could be spent on those who have been around since the beginning, the show is once again guilty of something else that is just too common: making a character formerly easily despised become likeable in such a way that his death is inevitable. In this case, that’s what happens with Shelton.
Last week, he was easily one of the characters that seemed to belong in front of a firing squad with Kagel instead of those sentenced to death at the end of that episode (Tom, Hal and Ben). The more time that is spent with him, the more that Tom talks to him in the brig, gets him to open up about his family, to see the true witch hunt going on at the base, the easier it is to understand his position, to want to see him fighting side-by-side with the 2nd Mass against the real enemy, and because of that, the easier it is to also see that he is not someone who is going to make it off the military base alive.
“That’s what we’re fighting for, to get our families back,” Tom explains as Shelton tells him about leaving his family in the middle of nowhere. “When we win, it won’t be in spite of our sacrifices. It will be because of them. I have to believe that. We are so close to victory that the real tragedy would be if we let it fall apart right now because right now, we have the upper hand. Right now, we have the advantage. If we can push that advantage, if we can trust each other, if we can work together, we can win.” It’s so very Tom, and all Shelton wants to know is why he didn’t speak up during the trial. (Little does he know, it wouldn’t have mattered.) “Maybe this is a witch hunt,” Shelton allows as Tom argues he’s no more a traitor than Shelton’s best friend, who was branded a traitor and killed, was. (It’s hard not to wonder what he and the other 38 “collaborators” buried on base may have been able to contribute the final fight if the Espheni wanted them dead.)
Trevor is just another example of putting trust in the wrong person. If a person seems too nice while everyone else around him is armed and is the one who defuses the situation? Probably best not to tell him about the half-Espheni daughter. He can join the list of people who deserve to be in front of a firing squad instead of any member of the 2nd Mass and its allies. And knowing that he’s one of Kate’s “good little soldiers” makes it easy to look back on his scenes with Anne and see just how he manipulated her, telling her he’s saving her life after she saved his and asking for a list of everything Tom and his sons had done.
It’s when Anne is thrown into the brig and Shelton finds out she is to be executed in the morning without a trial that he agrees to act, and with Wolf’s help, the two help the four Masons sentenced to be killed in hours make their way to the weak spot in the perimeter. Knowing who’s facing the firing squad does take a bit out of the escape, as soon as Shelton takes Tom first and then steps up in defense of Tom Mason when the others are rounded up and Kate labels Wolf a traitor and blames the others for swaying him to betray his people. Shelton cannot survive because he calls the witch hunt what it is, speaks up before every piece in its rightful place, and it’s Kagel who kills him because that guy has absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Tom cannot turn back and help his family because it will only land him a spot next to them with a hood over his head.
The firing squad is something that has been teased long enough that it’s almost like a sigh of relief when the episode begins with a tease of it (and it’s one of the best parts of the hour, with the entire scene later in the episode taking home the honor of being the best part). It’s like a promise that the wait for it is over, and everything that follows to show what happens in the seven hours leading up to it is building to something big, even though the likelihood of any of the people lined up to be executed actually dying is close to zero. (Well, maybe Wolf, but that’s only because he’s a good guy from the moment he’s introduced, though his chances of survival increase once Shelton decides to help Tom and it costs him his life.)
Weaver has a plan, Tom says as he’s locked up in the brig, and the colonel does. He’s careful in his planning too, sending Maggie and Isabella to meet up with the others when he finds them ready to attempt to break out the Masons and pulling Wolf, the only one he can trust, off base to show him the overlord he killed after following Kate. It’s only when other soldiers speak up against her orders to not go out to find more of the enemy to kill that he voices his suspicions about the captain and lets Wolf be the one to encourage the others to follow the 2nd Mass to D.C.
Stand fast in the morning, he tells them, and when morning comes, everything falls into place. During the firing squad are the best visuals of the episode, from the cuts between the characters, from those lined up to be executed to the soldiers aiming their guns to Kagel giving the order to Kate, Weaver and the 2nd Mass watching, to the reactions from everyone as those shots never come until the soldiers turn to look to their leader, Weaver, moments before the 2nd Mass takes control. It only takes one shot to put down Kagel and Weaver’s well-placed knife to stop Kate.
Something the episode does well is make it so that, by the end of it, the lines are clearly drawn and it’s clear who stands where. Kate was meeting with an overlord (that Weaver killed using his belt, because he can do it all – move the pieces into place to get the results he wants and kill the enemy all in one night), but there’s more to it than that, and in a way, it’s first hinted at in the message Weaver plays for the soldiers in the 14th. After all, why else have it begin with him talking about killing bio-creations and then have Kate turn out to be a failed biological creation? (Please let this “biological creation” not be a one-off and let this be something that comes into play in the final two episodes.) Kagel was a “diseased pig” that deserved to be killed, but he didn’t have the “excuse” of alien influence. There’s the sense that he wouldn’t have been someone the 2nd Mass wanted around even if everything was on the up and up on the base.
“Stalag 14th Virginia” features a couple of similarities to the premiere. Both offer flashes of a never-before-seen alien so fast screenshots are needed to catch them. The premiere offered a look at the Dornia. As this episode ends, Ben chooses to risk his own life to see what he can find by touching the Espheni device. He sees the shadow plane and the overlords bowing to something, but because the others are pulling him out, there is only a peek of what appears to be the overlords’ overlord. Whatever it is, it’s something Cochise didn’t think is possible. (Not only does it look like maybe the most nightmare inducing of all the aliens on this show yet, but there is something almost regal about it, with the part of it rising up behind its head almost like a royal coat. Maybe that’s reading too much into it.)
In Tom’s “find your warrior” speech, he spoke about it being “the time for overkill.” After he arrives on base with the rest of the 2nd Mass as the firing squad is stopped, he says it’s “the time for [them] to stand together.” This speech, as well as his talks with Shelton in the brig, shows why Weaver is right when he calls Tom Mason “the closest thing to a real hero” he’s ever seen (that, along with Tom’s certainty that Weaver’s working on a plan are clear examples of the faith they have in each other, a strength of the 2nd Mass), why the enemy is so worried about Tom they use an experimental biological creation to try to eliminate him as a threat.
“Cut off the head of the snake, the snake dies,” “Kate” tells Weaver. He knows how to reach his audience, as he does first with Shelton and then to unite the 2nd Mass and the soldiers ready to stand with them: “Look, we’re all soldiers. We’ve all sworn an oath to fight the enemy, not each other. Some of you have been poisoned by fear, conditioned to mistrust, and that’s understandable given that we live in a world where our friends look like enemies [helps Cochise out of truck] and our enemies can look like us. That’s not an excuse anymore. Now is the time for us to stand together, to band together and to march together, all the way to Washington D.C.!”
Being locked up in the brig together allows Hal and Ben to clear the air regarding Maggie, with Ben admitting that he liked her before the spikes but would never have acted on his feelings and expressing his disbelief when Hal claims he’s not in love with Maggie. And even being locked up doesn’t prevent them from joking about their similar taste in women when Ben asks about Isabella. As for Maggie and Hal, with her confessing she realized that her decision to have her spikes removed had everything to do with him, even though she knows he has someone else now, their reunion seems inevitable. They didn’t go through five seasons of pain and she didn’t just risk her life for him to end up with a woman he just met.
Finally, to bring Pope and Anthony back into the plot, it is through Trevor, who manages to escape the base unseen, that Pope finds out that Tom is still alive (bringing Pope back into the picture might be the only good thing Trevor does), and his reaction promises more of what makes having those two at odds one of the best parts of the series. As for how Pope’s getting his kicks since he and Anthony were last seen, they’re not killing any alien enemies. Instead, Pope’s sitting back, watching men fight to the death – and it is to the death, as he tosses his gun to the man defeated on the ground when the one who put him there doesn’t deliver the final blow.
“Falling Skies” season 5 airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on TNT. What did you think of episode 8, “Stalag 14th Virginia”?