When Falling Skies keeps its eye on the ball, it's a truly great show

In case you were wondering if Falling Skies is really just a grab-bag of aliens, soap-operatic plot twists and treacly "Hallmark movie" moments, then you really ought to check out last Sunday's episode. Because when this show actually focuses on its characters, it's suddenly a really great piece of television. Spoilers ahead...

The episode "Search and Recover" was basically two really solid character bits put together:

1) Tom Mason and John Pope survive the plane crash from the previous episode, but they're stuck in the middle of nowhere. And they're forced to rely on each other to survive. They actually share a nice moment where Tom talks about his father, a "mean drunk" who owned a hardware store, and Pope tells about the last time he saw his kids before he killed a man who nearly ran over his son, and was sent to prison. For a moment, you think Tom and Pope are going to become friends — but then Pope drops a snake on Tom while he's sleeping, and they wind up having a huge fight. Then they're chased by Skitters, and Tom is injured jumping off a waterfall. But Pope won't leave Tom behind, no matter how much Tom goads him and calls him a fake and a coward, who doesn't have the balls to be the "only out for himself" bastard he pretends to be. When they get back to Charleston, Pope sits by Tom's bedside for two days, even though they kind of hate each other.

2) What's left of the Second Mass goes out to search for the missing Anne and her baby Alexi. And this turns into people — particularly Jeannie and Matt — dwelling on just how much they've lost. Jeannie wonders if the aliens are going to turn the human race into a hybrid, half-alien species, in lieu of conquest or obliteration. The crew finds a random dead woman, and they spend a huge amount of time burying her and trying to make up nice things to say about this total stranger — in a crazy awkward scene that shows how hard Dan Weaver and the gang are struggling to make any of this mean something instead of just being random, horrible death. And then Matt starts obsessing about his own mother, who was killed by aliens when she went out to look for food — and wondering whether she was alone when she died. Ben obsesses over the fact that his mother was missing a shoe when she died, and he never went looking for that missing shoe. "I don't want to die face down, buried by some strangers," Matt says later, and Ben doesn't have any reassurance to offer him. All of this is done in the show's trademark sentimental fashion, but it's also unutterably bleak and does more to show how the aliens have changed everything than a dozen special-effects sequences would have.

Oh, and meanwhile, Miss Peralta (who may or may not have the hots for Dan Weaver and may or may not be evil) takes some photos of the Volm's secret weapon project to Kadar, who somehow figures out that it's way too powerful to be a superweapon. It's not really clear, actually — but the Volm are (not surprisingly) hiding something.