Now THIS is the Falling Skies we signed up for

Holy crap, that was a great episode of Falling Skies. Where has this show been the past month or so? The season one showrunner, Mark Verheiden, returned to write a pivotal episode with elements of several great Battlestar Galactica storylines — including the "Pegasus" arc and the "New Caprica" arc. The characters were interesting and genuinely emotional, the drama felt intense and fairly real... and the show actually had something new to say about its central theme of survival after an alien invasion.

Spoilers ahead...

All along, the notion of the safe haven in Charleston has seemed a little too good to be true — the idea that the remnants of humanity in the United States could hunker down in a secure city, presenting a huge tempting target to the aliens, and yet survive somehow with modern amenities. Now that we've actually seen Charleston, we know it's an underground complex where they're at least somewhat hidden and have a modicum of protection from bombing. But still not all that safe, really.

So the moment our heroes show up in the perfect happy sanctuary, the question is going to be how it all goes wrong — and that's where last night's "The Price of Greatness" was really interesting. I was half expecting Charleston to turn out to be the reservation where the aliens proposed to stick the human survivors, back in the season opener. (And it still could be, really.) But also, it seemed entirely likely that soon after the Second Mass. gave up their weapons, the aliens would show up, guns blazing, and catch everybody with their metaphorical pants down.

Now THIS is the Falling Skies we signed up for

Instead, we get a story that's much more about the dangers of jumping from resistance to reconstruction too quickly, and becoming complacent in the face of an ongoing invasion. And most of all, we get a portrait of Arthur Manchester, who becomes Tom Mason's foil — another pompous history professor, but this one is obsessed with his theories about government and the thrilling idea of creating a brand new civil society. To the point where his imaginary political struggles become more important to him — more real, even — than the realities of war.

Now THIS is the Falling Skies we signed up for

This episode didn't just tell an interesting story about the conflict between the military authorities who want to continue the fight against the aliens, and the civilian leader who wants to "play dead" and hunker down. It also delved into the complexities of what happens when people start having that illusion of safety again — people become complacent, but also class divisions start reappearing. It's as though the class system is one of the luxuries that the alien invasion forces you to do without, and Arthur Manchester is trying to restore it in his perfect world.

Now THIS is the Falling Skies we signed up for

So yeah, this felt very much like a replay of some classic BSG episodes — and like a lot of the best BSG, this was about the conflict between military and civilian authority after a horrible apocalypse. Arthur Manchester (Terry O'Quinn, playing the Smoke Monster once again) has set himself up as the Majority Leader of the United States, but he's basically a dictator. He's obsessed with the notion of creating a whole new political system, but he's also already trying to dupe and manipulate what little political constituency he has. Whenever something new happens, he immediately thinks about what it will look like to the voters, even though they barely get to vote in any meaningful way.

Now THIS is the Falling Skies we signed up for

Arthur is a huge proponent of staying under the aliens' radar and not actually trying to fight the invaders at all — not just because it's safer (which is debatable in the long run) but because as long as everything stays focused on non-military matters, he's still the most important leader around. If everybody starts talking about how to fight the aliens, then General Bressler (played by Max Headroom!) will become more important. Plus if Arthur gives in to General Bressler's pressure, then Arthur will "look weak" — so the only way Arthur can be strong is by keeping Charleston weak, and having the settlement play possum.

And meanwhile, anybody who's not part of Arthur's upper echelon is stuck in tiny tents or bunks in dormitories, doing all the shit work — and anybody who complains or makes trouble gets assigned a double shift, as Weaver's daughter Jean explains. (And for a change, Jean is actually kind of an engaging character this episode.)

Now THIS is the Falling Skies we signed up for

Dealing with a whole new set of challenges allows our heroes to be all kinds of badass once again. Anne Glass has a great scene where she tells a stuck-up heart specialist that she's not just a pediatrician, she's the combat medic for the Second Mass, and if he doesn't want to be walking bowlegged, he'll walk her through her patients' charts. (And basically, show her professional respect. Right on.)

Now THIS is the Falling Skies we signed up for

Dan Weaver gets to be quietly strong and show why he's a great leader, including the great scene where he tells Hal that he has to earn his men's respect so they'll believe in him when he leads them into a battle that many of them have never experienced.

And Pope damn near steals the episode, clashing from the outset with the thuggish soldiers who want to make an example of him. His "I'm going to wish you into the cornfield" line was priceless. Pope plots to steal some guns and bail out of there, but gets caught by Maggie — and then they're all arrested together. Later, Pope gets pulled up for a nice dinner with Arthur Manchester, who's trying to make Pope into an ally against the suddenly troublesome Tom Mason. I love the part where Pope starts eating his food faster and faster, because he knows that as soon as he's finished telling Arthur to go screw himself, the meal will be over. (I half expected Pope to go for Arthur's offer — but Pope's not fond of being anybody's pawn, and he probably already knows that this guy is the appeaser-in-chief when it comes to the aliens.)

Now THIS is the Falling Skies we signed up for

The sense of unease, of things not feeling quite right, is built up nicely throughout the episode — and to some extent, it's the clash between the fresh PTSD the Second Mass are all feeling, and the sense of security they encounter. Even if everything really was safe and sound in Charleston, Tom Mason and the others would be feeling weird, because they're used to living rough and being under attack at any moment, and being around people who aren't used to that is bound to fuck with them. But also, there are little hints here and there that everybody is a little too complacent, and that these people have gone too far off course.

And meanwhile, everyone in the Second Mass has finally come around to believing in the Skitter Rebellion, and accepting that an alliance with Red-Eye is their best hope of driving the Overlords off the planet. (One of the main holes in the episode is that General Bressler and Col. Porter seem to come around to believing in it too, even though they've seen absolutely zero evidence.) So the question is not just one of fighting the aliens versus laying low — it's whether to take the single best chance to hurt the aliens where it counts, with powerful allies.

Now THIS is the Falling Skies we signed up for

Just after Tom Mason delivers a barn-burning speech where he uses Arthur's own words against him, a de-harnessed boy shows up with a message — but it's not Ben, it's some other kid. He says that a huge offensive is coming soon, and Red-Eye is waiting nearby and wants to speak with Tom. At this point, though, Arthur has already pegged Tom as a political opponent, even if he wasn't already opposed to any kind of offensive strategy against the aliens. Arthur has the de-harnessed boy locked up.

Now THIS is the Falling Skies we signed up for

Inevitably, the Second Mass leads a jailbreak attempt, with Colonel Porter helping. Oh, and the other nice thing about this episode is that the Hal-Maggie relationship feels somewhat real once again. After last week's culmination of the "Maggie's secret past/Maggie feels she doesn't deserve Hal" storyline, Hal gives a nice speech where he basically says he doesn't know the Maggie who was a junkie thief and had a baby in jail. Hal's not the dumb jock he used to be, and Maggie's not the junkie thief any more either — and this is an interesting counterpoint to the story about Arthur Manchester basically wanting to pretend that everybody is, more or less, who they used to be. The one great thing about the alien invasion is it's somewhat liberating for the survivors, who get to be the people they choose to be and leave their pasts behind — Hal and Maggie's relationship is based on that process of reinvention. And that's sort of the heart of why Arthur Manchester's worldview is so oppressive: He wants everything to be the way it was, in bad ways as well as good.

So in the end, the jailbreak fails, and all the people from the Second Mass are rounded up. But something about Tom and Dan's pleas finally gets through to General Max Headroom, who basically mounts a coup and installs martial law. Umm... yay?

So anyway, this was a return to greatness for a show that's felt a bit aimless at times lately. When Falling Skies actually focuses on the themes it originally aimed to be about — including what kind of society people could build during and after an alien attack — it's a unique and terrific piece of television. Here's hoping next week's finale is equally barn-burning.