This season of Falling Skies has been frustrating. The storylines have felt sillier and more random, and outings like last week's "extended dream sequence" romp haven't helped. But the show's getting a brand new writing staff next season, and last night's episode showcased the main reason it deserves another shot: the rock-solid cast.
So Falling Skies is getting a whole new writing team again, for its fourth season. There was a partial changeover between seasons one and two, with Mark Verheiden stepping down as showrunner and Remi Aubuchon taking over. But now, there'll be a complete changing of the guard, with David Eick (Battlestar Galactica, Bionic Woman) and Carol Barbee (Jericho) taking over. Eick and Barbee worked together on Tim Kring's recent show Touch. They inherit a show that needs a lot more focus.
I guess my biggest problems with this season have been:
1) The Volm, who were introduced in the season-ending cliffhanger last year, still don't entirely feel organic to the storyline. Adding super-powerful alien allies changes the whole show, making our heroes suddenly way less outgunned, and I'm still not sure I believe in the Volm, as anything other than a plot device. Arguably, jumping ahead seven months and skipping over the whole "building a relationship with these new aliens" phase was a mistake.
2) The "mole" storyline, which feels like it's been done a million times before, and only brings up unfortunate questions about why the Espheni don't use their mind-control technology on all of the humans in Charleston. The "mole" thing is only necessary because the humans' new allies have made us too powerful for a frontal assault by the Espheni. (See item #1).
3) The whole "Hal's ex-girlfriend is now the leader of all the aliens" thing, which never seemed like a good idea, and seems less and less like a good idea every time someone talks about wanting revenge on Karen. (Although it's funny that in the early episodes of this show, Hal had a love triangle with Karen and Lourdes, and now they're both evil.) Just like with the Volm, this show doesn't seem to have committed fully to the "Karen is an Overlord" thing, and we went for half the season without even seeing Karen.
Honestly, last week's episode, in which Tom Mason gets interrogated via dream sequence, and then escapes from an Espheni spaceship for like the tenth time, was close to being the last straw for this show.
Which makes it all the more surprising when the show turns around and gives us a quite decent episode, last night. "Journey to Xibalba" was your standard "everybody's trapped and trying to dig out after an explosion" episode — but it was elevated above the material by some super nice character work. Both by the actors and by BSG veteran writers Bradley Thompson and David Weddle.
I feel like a broken record saying this — but when this show allows its characters to breathe and react naturally to situations instead of jumping from one wacky situation to the next, it works extremely well. I never invested in the characters on V, Revolution, The Event and countless other shows as much as I've invested in the Second Mass, for better or worse.
In particular, "Journey to Xibalba" showcases just how far Tom Mason has come — and how far Noah Wyle has progressed in playing him. Back in season one, he was the stuffy/perky leader who stands around citing great lessons from history, and the moments when Tom got angry or showed real passion always rang kind of false. Now, "Xibalba" is all about Tom being right on the edge of losing his shit — and given some great material, Wyle really sells it.
He is a madman from the very start of the episode, believing that Anne and Lexi are dead and being desperate for revenge. The scene where he tells his kids — including his youngest, Matt — that rage is good and you should live for hatred is really powerful, especially when Ben reminds him that he said not long ago that if you have nothing left but hatred, then you've already lost your humanity. The scene where he asks Pope to shoot him if he shows any signs of being compromised by the aliens is sort of a standard-issue thing, except that Tom's rage transforms it. The bit where he argues for attacking Boston, purely because he wants to kill Karen, but dresses it up as strategy, is also pretty great.
Tom is unmoored, to the point where the ultra-nihilistic Matt — who's pretty much become my favorite character on the show — tells Ben that maybe it'll be a good thing if Tom suffocates to death in the rubble after the explosion. Because Tom is so lost, Matt isn't sure he should go on living at all. (And then Matt calmly tells Ben that he'll probably be the only one left alive soon, and he has no choice in the matter. Awesome.)
The crux of the episode is the moment when Tom finally stops just running on pure rage and actually starts using his brain again — first figuring out that Lourdes is the mole, thanks to one of those verbal slip-ups that happen on TV a lot, and then ignoring Lourdes' taunts and using her super-gun to blast everybody out of the infirmary. It's a nice bit of resourcefulness, but it's also Tom ignoring his instinct to lash out, long enough to think clearly.
The episode's "B" storyline is also mostly character-focused: Now that Hal is home, he's reconnecting with Maggie, who's pissed that he went off to rescue Anne and Lexi without her. They get buried together, and are running out of oxygen, and Maggie basically accepts that they're going to die while Hal keeps fighting against it (and wasting tons of oxygen in the process.) In the end, Hal finally processes some of his guilt over being the mole, and promises to go find Maggie in Hell, if there is one.
Oh and we get a few great Cochise moments, including one where he comforts Tom by talking about his dead brother and by saying the human spirit is the most powerful weapon they have, yadda yadda. And then in the end, with the Volm superweapon buried under tons of rubble and all the Volm who knew how to operate it dead, Cochise is ready to give up — but Tom convinces him to stake it all on a last, desperate gamble.
Obviously, we'll know more about how this season has shaped up, in general, after next week's season finale. But even if the final reveal of the Volm agenda turns out to be underwhelming, I'll still have hope that this show can turn around next year — because episodes like last night's prove that there is actually something kind of special about this show. Any show that can pull off having a little kid saying "I hope my dad suffocates to death because he's losing his marbles" without going into either psychodrama or some kind of Hallmark-card moment is worth rooting for.