Today, paraphrasing the narrative of Jesus’ birth like nobody’s business, I bring you tidings of great joy.
For unto us today is born, or rather re-born, Falling Skies‘ storytelling mojo!
Granted they did use a well worn narrative trope to regain their joie de vivre – the hero trapped in an enemy-induced virtual alternate reality (see Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Stargate SG1, Eureka etc) -but they use it well and to devastatingly poignant effect.
As “Strange Brew” opens, Tom Mason (Noah Wylie), star of Days of our Masons, wakes up in bed next to his wife Rebecca (Jennifer Ferrin) who is supposed to be long dead, the alien invasion just a bad dream, a particularly nasty nightmare.
You know, that crushing, family-ripping-apart alien invasion that wiped out most of humanity.
Yep, that one – just a very bad dream.
It’s close to Christmas, snow is falling, and Tom wistfully tells Rebecca, who is of course the very Brady Bunch-epitome of the perfect pancake-making, sons’ sports game watching mom you’d expect her to be, that he loves her.
It’s the sort of scene of domestic bliss that Tom, caught up in the cataclysm of the Espheni invasion which claimed his wife’s life, has only referred to in regretful past tense since Falling Skies started it’s narrative in media res (Latin for “in the middle of things”), paying little heed to what came before the aliens arrived, save for nostalgic snippets here and there.
But here is his pre-alien apocalypse life writ in glorious living, breathing colour, and Tom allows himself to go along with a reality he is clearly, and understandably, still clinging to in his heart.
Now lest you think this is going to end up all Bobby Ewing dreamed a whole season of Dallas and disappoint us greatly, rest assured it becomes fairly obvious, fairly quickly that Tom has been sucked down into an alternate reality courtesy of Karen (Jessy Schram), the nefarious human Overlord’s Inception-like scrambling around in his sub-conscious mind.
Content initially to revel in walking son Matt (Maxim Knight) to the school bus after watching son Hal (Drew Roy) drive off with his girlfriend Rita, before heading to his job as a history professor where he is up for the position of dean (Mpho Koaho), Tom soon begins to notice odd discepancies in this all-too-perfect vision of the past.
And no, we’re not talking about John Pope (Colin Cunningham) deftly playing the part of a mischievous, baiting philosophy professor who is fond of talking about Foucault’s Simulacrum (not being able to tell your dreams from reality; see even in a dream Tom is freakishly intelligent) at the drop of a hat.
Or Marina Peralta (Gloria Reubens) or Cochise (Doug Jones sans the CGI Volm face naturally) playing the part of romantically-involved colleagues discussing vacation options.
Or even Maggie (Sarah Carter) playing the part of all-too-flirty history student looking to score big, and we’re not talking perfect test scores, with her professor.
Tom accepts all these familiar faces, none of whom apart from his wife and kids were part of his pre-apocalypse life, as part and parcel of his reality.
That is until … cue drum roll please … he begins to notice a dirty, scraggily homeless man played by Will Patton (Weaver normally) holding up a cardboard sign saying “THE END IS NEAR”, who keeps appearing over and over, intent of getting Tom to heed his message.
He is always led away by the same policewoman, Karen no matter where sees him, yet somehow manages to pop up again minutes later.
And everyone, and I mean everyone, from his geekish son Ben (Connor Jessup) to Anne and her husband and his work colleagues wants to know whether he wants to go to New York, Boston, Jacksonville or Chicago.
Nosy about his travel plans much?
And why the same four unconnected cities over and over and over?
But wait that’s not all, as the plot thickens to the consistency of harness goop.
Almost at the same time, he begins to receive notes, bottles of wine, text messages from a woman called Anne Glass (Moon Bloodgood) whom he has never met and yet with whom he is apparently having an affair, much to his horror since he would never cheat on his wife Rebecca, a point he makes very clearly to multiple people, all of whom seem to know a little too much about Tom’s make-believe private life.
Maybe he is tweeting too much in this Karen-induced reality?
Tom’s faux-social media habits aside, as the discrepancies mount up like dead skitters after a particularly effective rebel ambush, Tom realises that this reality is bogus just as Karen rips off a delightfully mucus-like substance saturated face mask to confront with the, ta-dah!, revelation it was all a Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz dream.
“And you were there! And Pope … and Hal … and Dai … and someone called Anne who I don’t know and wouldn’t sleep with and …”
She’d no sooner started interrogating him the old-fashioned way than Weaver, all the Mason boys and Pope storm in, rescuing him, emboldening him to point blank shoot Karen in the head, something that Tom, good virtuous faithful-to-his-wife would never do.
You guessed it! More Inception-ish behaviour.
Bam! Tom is back in Charleston, injured with son Matt looking in.
Is this real? No it’s not!
Tom rips out his drip, rushes into the war room where Weaver, Peralta and the gang are gathered around maps plotting their attack on the Espheni’s power grid.
Weaver asks Tom to confirm the city they will attack and surprise, surprise, it’s either New York, Boston, Jacksonville or Florida!
(Karen won’t give up on trying to find out which city’s grid tower the Volm and rebels intend to target, but I think makes it a little too obvious towards the end what she’s after; subtlety is not the turncoat human’s strong suit, let’s be honest.)
Wake up you’re still dreaming!
Finally emerging from this dream within a dream with a dream, and this time in the middle of one of the towers that will power the grid, Karen takes him to a great big platform, after some more menacing looks, a revelation that Anne and Alexis are dead (but are they?) and hard questions that Tom refuses to answer, to watch the grid go live.
Yes that grid that will stop the Volm jumping into the fray and possibly saving humanity.
Tom, of course, refuses to have any of that, and grabbing the nearest skitter – like fire extinguishers, there always there when you need them – and leaps off the platform using the skitter as a rather squishy landing pad.
He’s in Boston, of course, and finds himself back in his old street, in his old house where, lost in the recently dredged up memories – thank you very much Karen for reawakening the past without having a therapist on hand to talk it through: the Espheni clearly have no decent mental health policies in place – he lies down on his old marital bed to find his wife next to him.
There follows one of the most genuinely touching scenes I have witnessed in a TV show ever.
Clearly guilt-stricken over moving on from the life he once had, and with new love Anne, he finds absolution in his wife telling him “You were the love of my life … the father of my three boys … and I loved everything about our life together … now you have to leave”.
It is poignant, emotionally-resonant and a beautiful example of background exposition and character development that doesn’t have to eat the scene alive to be effective.
Falling Skies, it is true, is a show in love with the sentimental moment but this was something else – truly, deeply affectingly sad, a stark reminder of just how much the apocalypse has cost everyone.
Back at Charleston, Pope and Maggie fought over whether the mason boys would come back, the Mason boys rode back into town sans, of course Tom, it looked like Peralta was the mole – all circumstantial naturally, something she acknowledged in a conversation with Weaver where she asked him to be her strong right hand and not move against her as Pope was urging; Weaver naturally does the right and noble thing and doesn’t stage the expected coup – and Peralta gave the go-ahead, despite her reservations, to go blast the hell of the now active grid.
They managed to tell a lot of story and advance things nicely in the snippets of non-Tom time allocated to them, and it’s a credit to the writers, with whom I have had my issues in recent episodes, that they managed to move things along as well as they did in the time available.
While not a perfect episode, it did a brilliant job of giving us some insights into Tom’s life pre-apocalypse, the emotional demons that assail him – he obviously feels a lot of survivor’s guilt at living on and with Anne to boot when Rebecca is dead – and advancing the much-delayed storyline to what I hope and pray will be the two action-charged game-changing episodes, “Journey to Xibalba” and “Brazil”, which will round out a wildly inconsistent third season.
Here’s what to expect in next week’s episode …