Season one of Falling Skies, TNT's Steven Spielberg-produced sci-fi was a mixed bag: full of good ideas, occasional haphazard execution. Riding the heels of AMC's genre drama Walking Dead in June of last year, the show's first 13-episode run established itself as a beast completely unlike anything on the drama-centric channel. The premiere dove right into the saga of a group of survivors fighting for their lives against alien invaders, utilizing tropes and familiar scenarios to fill in the blanks, while the new set of characters got down and dirty with the emotional throughline. The strategy may not have won over the masses in the same way as Walking Dead, but the combination of action, an above-average ensemble of performers, and an ownership of its science fiction-ness made Falling Skies Season One a show with growing potential. With the two-episode premiere of Season Two, those possibilities are finally being mined — and fans finally have somewhere to turn for hard sci-fi.
Picking up three months after last season's finale, which saw Tom Mason (Noah Wyle) walking head first into the Skitters ship in hopes of saving his son Ben, the double dose of episodes reintroduce Tom back into camp, but with an unsettling twist that inches closer to the resounding dread often achieved by Walking Dead. "Worlds Apart" sets two stories into motion: During a Skitters ambush, Ben accidentally shoots his recently escaped father, who seems to have outsmarted his alien captors. The team races him to Anne (Moon Bloodgood), while Captain Weaver (Will Patton) and John Pope (Colin Cunningham) butt heads over what Tom's sudden appearance means. Intercut into the action is the Tom's story, broken into chunks thanks to the former professor's fuzzy memory. The Skitters, it seems, want to negotiate, offering humans a chance to seek solace in a "sanctuary." That's not going to happen, and Tom lets the Skitters known it by going on the attack. He's quickly knocked out by a Red-Eyed Skitter (who will most definitely be back for revenge later in the season). Eventually, Tom and other prisoners are dropped off, only to find Red-Eye ready to gun them down. Tom escapes, and that's how he made it back in one piece. Maybe?
What exactly happened to Tom may still be up for debate, and the pervading mystery is burning even brighter in Episode 2, "Shall We Gather at the River." Knowing they're being tracked by heat-sensory technology, Weaver enlists his best men to help devise an escape plan. Their plan to cool down their vehicles as they hightail it out of the woods is suddenly thwarted when the wreckage of a shot down Beamer (Skitter ship) takes out a wooden bridge. The structural gap, and a trail of debris that leads Ben to a Skitter antenna and a whole ton of aliens in mech suits, keep the action/plot side of Falling Skies' second episode trucking along, but the compelling slant of the hour is Tom.
World-building is fine and a necessity for great science fiction, but what Season One was lacking was a great character arc. With all of Tom's kids back (albeit butting heads over the return of their dad), the show's lead character needed a new twist. Tom's haunting memories of life during the three month gap couldn't be creepier. Wyle is no longer the gruff, but handsome man we remember — now his eyes are bloodshot, his face worn apart. He's clinging for life in these two episodes, if only for the sake of his children. Multiple times he suggests to Weaver that there may be evil lurking inside of him, ready to pounce at any moment. That's a great promise for the next eight episodes.
The show seems to have ramped up the gross out-factor with Season Two, with bloody action and cringe-worthy biological warfare aplenty (another reaction to Walking Dead perhaps?). One scene in "Shall We Gather at the River" is particularly striking and indicative of the inability to guess exactly what Falling Skies has in store: While inspecting Tom, Anne discovers a silverfish-looking organism buried in his eye. Unexpectedly, she goes fishing for it, plucking it out in all its painful glory. And I thought Tom stabbing a Skitter through the back of the head was going to set the bar...
Falling Skies doesn't toy with sci-fi ideas or stray away from the weird and wild because of budget. It's sci-fi through and through, and while occasionally it borders on SyFy original movie-level hysteria, more often than not it's using its strong cast, special effects and strong direction to deliver on engaging, novelistic storytelling. Wyle, Moongood and Patton appear to return with all the grace and grit they showed off in Season One, while the rest of the cast (especially The Killing's Brandon Jay McLaren as Jamil) get even better by keeping the emotion grounded amidst the otherworldly plot. There's a sequence in Episode 2 in which everyone says farewell as they embark on a mission to take down the alien control tower. Director Greg Beeman sweeps in and out of conversation, grabbing moments of emotion while keeping the show on its toes. The scene is downright Spielbergian, and for a show still in its infancy, a high compliment.
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[Photo Credit: TNT]