Lives changed beyond all recognition: Thoughts on Invasion (S1, E 4-6)

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

The second half of 2021 has been a tale of two slowly unspooled series.

Rather counter to the counter, and often well-done trend for huge epic moments in every episode, cliffhangers seemingly falling from the narrative sky like confetti, both Foundation and Invasion have taken a welcome slow-and-steady approach to telling stories that you know from the outset were never going to be shy and retiring.

The difference between the two, until now at least, is that while Foundation, based on the seminal works by Isaac Asimov offers a glacial pace with many a reveal and some impressive plot momentum, Invasion seemed to be stuck in an eternal somethin’s a-coming groove that didn’t seem to be leading anywhere in particular.

As an audience, we knew that the aliens were here on Earth and that all the weird blackouts, and seismic moments and supposed terrorist attacks were simply extraterrestrial invaders flexing their considerably powerful wings.

And it was evident, and this is why this reviewer has stuck with the show, that a great and careful eye for intimate characterisation and for telling a sprawlingly big story, for that is only what an invasion of Earth can ever be, in small, intimately intense moments, was woven into the show’s DNA.

But as Invasion moved into episodes four and five, it began to feel like we were never going to get to any kind of big reveal, that the cleverly-constructed and artfully tension-filled show was going to stay in perpetual tease mode, never to arrive at any sort of satisfying finish line.

The first two episodes of the middle three (“The Kind is Dead” and “Going Home”) under review were not, by any measure, bad pieces of storytelling; they built upon what had been unveiled in the first three episodes, and showed through the eyes of lost-on-excursion British school kids like Caspar Morrow (Billy Barratt), grieving Japanese space administration comms specialist Mitsuke Yamato (Shioli Kutsuna) and bewildered, lone, injured soldier all at sea in the sands of Afghanistan, Trevante ward (Shamier Anderson) what the slow, creeping arrival of aliens on earth, even and especially when you don’t know that’s what they are, would feel like to people in their own small corners of the world.

But it’s in the almost suffocatingly tension-filled surrounds of episode six, creatively titled “Home Invasion”, which focuses on the fourth main character in the mix, Aneesha Malik (Golshifteh Farahani), trapped in a home out in the wilds of upstate New York, along with her unfaithful and cowardly husband Ahmed Malik (Firas Nassar) and their children, that we truly see where everything has been leading … and it’s as terrifying and revelatory as you would want an episode of this sort to be.

Returning to the house owned by a frightened couple who turned out to be not so great under pressure, Aneesha, who found herself going from grocery run to a pillaged store to being effectively kidnapped by a rattled US military for her medical skills as a doctor to see to a slew of casualties in rapidly-evacuating counties, finds herself caught in a horror-filled race to survival after black, slimy, slithery things that seem intent on attacking everyone they come across.

This encounter with the enemy is all their hungry horror is expertly handled, answering many of the questions we had while still leaving a great deal of terror to be explained and showcased in a show that is rapidly feeling War of the Worlds meets Signs meet Invasion of the Body Snatchers (not so much for the actual plotline and more for the creeping menace the aliens, an embryonic version of which Aneesha finds in a patient, represent to a woefully underprepared and deliciously fleshy species).

While you are left wondering, yet again, how aliens who look like really carnivorous worms on a bender fresh from an oil slick could actually come up with the technology to fling themselves across the universe – clearly they can’t be; they must be the instinctive attack dogs for an altogether bigger and more terrifying threat, lurking, so Yamato’s work would seem to indicate, just out there beyond our atmosphere – you are mostly just wondering, hands over eyes, and blankets most definitely pulled over prone and fearful bodies, just how the hell Aneesha, Ahmed and the kids are going to survive this impossible situation.

The reason why it works so brilliantly is not simply that the show’s producers know how scary the unknown can be when it finally reveals its true form, and does so in the dead of night where bumps and thumps and scraping shuffles are your only, highly limited, guide to what’s out there, but precisely because Invasion has gone to so much trouble to let us get to know these people.

They aren’t simply fodder for an invading extraterrestrial force, they are people, with broken lives, rampant fears and a desperate need to have those they love, and even those they once loved, close by to them, and they add an emotional resonance to ever-gathering action that the series would otherwise lack.

Suddenly, and this is why going small and intimate on something so hard to grapple with works so well, what was unknowingly immense becomes fearfully knowable, the alien invasion now not just ships appearing in the sky, though of course that particular Independence Day visual shock and awe has not been replicated here, but a real, palpable threat to people whose lives are known and which makes them feel likably and accessibly human.

You can easily see yourself in the lives of Aneesha and her horrified family, in the confused but determined reactions of Caspar and his friends and one enemy, in the actions of soldiers and space professionals, all of which are, at the end of the day, simply people like you and me trying to come to terms, if they can, with something terrifyingly extraordinary.

What Invasion does in these middle three episodes, which really could have benefited from a few more reveals before this though thankfully their omission was not fatal to the overall show, is bring home that we as a planet are in trouble, and if we can’t fend off the instinctual stormtroopers of the invading hordes, then what hope do we have when the minds and powers behind it all really make their presence known?

To coin a well-used but no less effective phrase, be afraid, be very afraid …

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