"Today is the Day, parts 1 and 2"
by Ashley Miller and Zack Stentz
And that's why I keep coming back. THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES may succeed or fail come renewal time, but you can't deny the show never gives up. There are missteps and occasional stinkers, but when SCC is on, it's really on. Living up to James Cameron's action-adventure is an impossible standard for a TV show, so the solution is: *don't try to do that.* In "Today is the Day," a future war scene includes a sailor bitching about the chess game John Connor's playing against the machines. And that's exactly right; I blinked when I heard it, because I've been thinking about it in exactly those terms ever since the writers introduced that great idea about the future constantly being overwritten by different factions. SCC is not an action movie. It's a chess game. We just don't know all the colors, or how many players there are. And when SCC is about chess-playing, it works.
"Today is the Day" is a case in point. The story has two plots, each of them involving chess, of a sort. In the future -- which is, for Jesse and Derek, their past -- Jesse finds herself on a submarine mission that's a lot more cloak and dagger than she'd expected. Rather than follow the expected course, the ship's Terminator captain, Queeg (who's in charge of naming human-friendly Terminators, I wonder? five bucks says it's done by the same guys who were in charge of Tenctonese immigration), diverts on a secret mission to pick up a box that he's charged to deliver to John Connor, without telling anybody what's inside it. This doesn't sit well with the crew, who don't trust metal. Meanwhile, in the present, the fallout from Riley's death comes to a head, with John thinking through the evidence and following it to its inevitable conclusion -- Jesse.
Direction, editing, and cinematography are all really good here. The show has often looked a little clumsily filmed, but man, this week's was cut and shot wonderfully; did the show get a new DP or something, or did they maybe change recording medium? It looks better to me. Acting is excellent all around: THE WIRE's Chad Coleman is terrific as Queeg (one thing this show almost never gets wrong is the guest casting); and I still think Summer Glau feels a little off to me of late, but man, has Thomas Dekker ever stepped up, huh? First season, I thought he was a drag on the show. I was wrong. Thomas Dekker is a terrific actor. He has gone from being the show's weak link to being its standout, in part because the writers have done a very good job of making John Connor into what he should be -- not in what he should be in the future, but what he should be now.
The very strong scene following John's inspection of Riley's body, in which John asks Derek how feasible fighting Cameron hand-to-hand would be for a human, is a case in point. At this point, John has formed an unvoiced suspicion that Riley's killer was human, based on things he's seen -- but note that he doesn't tell Derek, "I saw X, and X, what do you think?" He asks Derek for an expert assessment, which he uses to add to his own point of view. That's very well-done. It's less expository, and shows John becoming more of his own man.
John's subsequent confrontation with Jesse reveals -- because it has to, because *how else could he have known of her existence?* -- that he'd followed Derek, that he'd known about Jesse earlier. It could feel kludgy -- it's certainly a remarkably convenient infodump; wouldn't Sarah have noticed John sneaking off? wouldn't *Cameron?!* -- but it works okay here, because John *is* supposed to be growing into a cannier individual, so we're inclined to cut the script a little slack here. And the scene itself plays magnificently, so there's that.
(The future war storyline is really good, too; I liked the deliberate acknowledgment of THE THING, and even more liked that the script didn't use that riff as an excuse to haircut the storyline of Campbell's story and Carpenter's film -- just the sense of claustrophobia and paranoia.)
ETA: I forgot to say anything about the Ellison/Weaver/John Henry dynamic. Like it, love it, want some more of it. I don't think Manson is ever going to be a brilliant actress, but she is getting better, and Dillahunt and Jones are just magnificent in every scene they do. The stuff between John Henry and Weaver's persona's daughter Savannah is excellent, too.
My prediction, incidentally, is that this storyline laid pipe for upcoming events. Ellison tells John Henry that it's wrong to keep secrets if people can be hurt by them. Anybody else think about that one rather big secret John Henry's sitting on?
Five bucks says that John Henry's going to tell about Weaver not being human. I just don't know whom he's going to tell first: Ellison, or Savannah. Maybe Ellison, because, as the prepared resignations John Henry found in the computer systems show, Weaver has put into place everything she needs to facilitate Ellison's disappearance. But I can't rule out the possibility that he might tell Savannah, too.
More general thoughts:
-- Quality material for Sarah still is proving to be the hardest nut to crack. John is having the hero's journey; Sarah isn't, so naturally John's development suggests more story ideas. This has the unfortunate effect of leaving the title character out in the cold.
I think it doesn't help that Lena Headey plays Sarah so laid-back and controlled that sometimes it's hard to tell she's got a pulse. She's given very good performances, and I like her a lot in various individual scenes; but she tends to play pretty much every scene the same, so there's not a lot of variety to her performance. (This is part of what made her performance in "The Good Wound" so striking; she opened up a bit, because Sarah was in extremis. Without falling into cliche, it'd be nice to see some more varied sides of Sarah.)
-- I know I've been mentioning this fairly often, but: there are a lot of two-to-three-person scenes in "Today is the Day." They tend to be fairly lengthy, too, unusual for television these days. Both of these features are working very well for the show. Long scenes are often fatal, but SCC by and large does a good job with them, and longer scenes add to the chess game motif; you see ideas chewed over, thought out, angles laid. It doesn't always work perfectly, but it often works quite well.
Might not be the way to go for other shows. But this one, yeah.
-- So, a T-1000cicle was in the box.
...I guess we know how Weaver's going to wind up at the end of Shirley Manson's contract, huh?
Bottom line: really good episode, solid as hell, excellent guest casting yet again, and evidence that Thomas Dekker may well have been the single best casting decision the series has made to date.
Still on the wish list: more quality stuff for Sarah.