Falling Skies: 308 “Strange Brew” Review
Reviewed by James Wynne.
I said of “Be Silent and Come Out” that it was the third season’s pinnacle thus far, and the same man responsible for that episode, John Wirth, has penned its successor to that accolade: “Strange Brew” (we’ll just ignore his only other contribution, “Badlands”, on the basis that it was his first experience writing for Falling Skies). It not only surpasses every other episode to precede it this year, it royally blows them out of the water.
After Tom’s naïve heroics in the closing moments of last week’s outing, here he finds himself waking up to a normal life with his wife and children, free of Earth’s alien invaders – albeit, with vague flashes of his experiences fighting the Espheni still plaguing his dreams. The immediate assumption is that we have flashed back to some point prior to the alien’s arrival, due to Tom’s curiously youthful appearance, but the ages of Matt and Ben put pay to that theory, as well as reflection on the fact that Tom has those memories of events that couldn’t possibly have predated the invasion.
It transpires that Tom is experiencing some sort of Inception-styled, forcibly induced dream state on Karen’s behalf. The normality of his life in the dream world is permeated by a subtle undercurrent of minaciousness from the very start, as people he’s fought alongside against the aliens haunt him like ghosts of his past. Weaver; Anthony; Pope; even Cochise is there in human form, as Mr. C (Doug Jones out of the Volm prosthetics is one for the eagle-eyed). It’s as though all of them are personifications of his subconscious, warding him from succumbing to Karen’s manipulative tactics.
It really illustrates, without the usual gross over sentimentality, the importance of the human bonds Tom has forged. His reliance on his friends to always point him in the right direction is synonymous with the character, and it’s utilised to great effect, even if it is another story beat inspired by Christopher Nolan’s Inception.
What’s remarkable is that all of the usual pitfalls of Falling Skies as a series are avoided here. The Masons aren’t depicted as some sickeningly idyllic family; a trap that would be so easy to fall into for a show that all too often veers down the clichéd route of storytelling. And, as with his stellar central use of Hal Mason in “Be Silent and Come Out”, John Wirth turns in a similarly unrivalled utilisation of Tom Mason. He seems to have a real talent for getting into the very depths of the characters he spotlights and routing out what’s most likely to relate to the audience (i.e. Tom’s compulsive heroism is a consequence of him having been unable to save the woman he loved/loves, which only compounds his unwavering determination to rescue Anne and Alexis).
There’s yet more ‘Inceptional’ storytelling, as the aforementioned film’s motif of a “dream within a dream” is also replicated in the episode. Tom’s initial awakening is not what it seems, as, just with Saito’s polyester deduction, the peculiar labelling of some maps in Charleston’s planning room alerts Tom to the fact that he is in fact ‘still dreaming’.
The Espheni’s means of inducing the dream is decidedly more gruesome than the PASIV Dream Machine of Inception. It’s a wonderful, parasitically stylised, cognitive piece of technology that latches onto the victim’s face with its many tendrils; congruent to the rest of the Espheni’s symbiotic technologies. And poor old Tom is forced to undergo the painful ordeal of its removal not once, but twice.
Meanwhile, Tom’s belief that Anne and Alexis have perished, and his rekindled anguish over his deceased wife, Rebecca (Jennifer Ferrin), should pose some interesting new avenues to be explored with his character. The scenes between him and the hallucinatory visage of his wife were some of the most genuinely touching moments in the show to date. Noah Wyle was on fine form for the whole episode (although, he was briefly overshadowed by Colin Cunningham’s alternate John Pope, hilariously preaching philosophies and still antagonising Tom, but with some uncharacteristic sophistication), but Tom’s pain and torment over losing his wife was conveyed with some exceptional pathos, and is Wyle’s most commendable piece of acting this season.
I do have two very minor criticisms to conclude this review with (so minor as to be almost dismissible, in fact): Tom’s escape – whilst a great display of the character’s intuitiveness – was a little bit too easy (why did Karen not pursue?); the supposed deaths of Anne and Alexis are also an obvious red herring (Falling Skies is unlikely to have killed such pivotal characters off screen). But this episode gets so much so right, that my above criticisms are of virtual insignificance in the grand scheme of things.
Falling Skies has essentially attempted a direct adaptation of Inception with “Strange Brew”, and it’s done it so incredibly well; delineating many of the film’s best elements and harmoniously integrating them with the series’ own motifs. When Falling Skies is this good, there’s no doubt that it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as programmes like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones.