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"Heavy Metal" is another of those episodes that I started out thinking that it was nice and workmanlike and self-contained, but as I sat down to think about it and write about it, realized that it wasa more than that... it was just subtle about it.

On the surface, it's a more conventional action-suspense episode than the previous two: the premise of the episode is that Cameron believes that Cromartie survived their previous encounter back in the 1990s and is attempting to rebuild himself. She believes this because of video footage of Cromartie's head having landed with them, and because of suspicious activity surrounding a shipment of coltan ore, which Cameron knows is used in the production of Terminator chassis.

She is both right and wrong: Cromartie is back. He is trying to reconstitute himself. But as they surmise later in the episode, this coltan shipment has nothing to do with Cromartie. Instead, It's an attempt to bootstrap SkyNet's Terminator manufacturing capabilities directly after Judgement Day, because they discover that the coltan is being shipped to the same place that she was built. Hijinx ensure, of course, but they are, on the surface, relatively straight-forward action-suspense hijinx, complete with a hot metal-on-metal smackdown, vehicle antics, and one of the most suspensful sequences of the entire first season-- John Connor trapped in a bomb shelter with a hibernating Terminator, face to face with it as he steals the key to the shelter.

(Trivia: Coltan is a real ore, mined in Africa. So far as I know, it has nothing to do with making heat resistant alloys. On the other hand, it's where we get tantalum from, which is used to make high-capacitance capacitors. Stuff got real fucking expensive around the turn of the century, too.)

The side plot for this episode more of Agent Ellison as he is mystified by some of the events of the past few episodes, is unwilling to let them go, and begins to butt heads with his superiors. He's right about a lot of things, to the extent that he can be right, given the extent of his knowledge. This actually makes him spooky smart, but I didn't find that grating. He doesn't jump to the completely outlandish conclusion that there's a Terminator walking around-- that would be absurd. But his conclusions about someone performing identity theft via plastic surgery is... impressively weird, and impressively right.

In retrospect, I wish I would have included these notes with the previous write-up of "GNothi Seauton" and "The Turk," because they're almost a trilogy: GS is about Sarah Connor's agency and indeterminism. tT is about the inevitability of SkyNet and the Terminators. And "Heavy Metal" is about the border cases. The minor example of this is Ellison, who is admittedly "just doing his job" still, and following his pattern, but he's doing it because he wants to and increasingly against the wishes of his superiors. More importantly, though, the episode is really driven by John Connor. Sarah's initial impulse is to run and not pick this fight with the new Terminator. Cameron agree. It's John, though, who convinces Sarah otherwise initially, and then gets into more trouble through disobedience. It's hard for a fifteen year old boy to be an agent in any meaningful sense-- there are too many constraints even in a normal situation. In John's situation, he's got Sarah minding him more than any normal parent would, and has a Terminator body-guard who won't even let him try to save a suicidal teen-aged girl, because he might get noticed. John may not want to be a hero, but he certainly wants to live his own life. It's an ugly, messy, self-referential paradoxical set of drives: Mom wants him to grow up and be a hero, so he doesn't want that. But Mom wants to be strategic and pick battles very carefully, so he doesn't want that, either. He doesn't want to save the world, but he wants to save his classmate, and when shown a clear and present threat (the Coltan shipment) doesn't want to let it stand.

That's a dilemma for John, but it's a dilemma for Sarah, too. How do you raise a daring war-hero without ever letting him assert himself, when the risk of his self-assertion is his death and the death of the rest of the world? John's and Sarah's problem is every teenager's and parent's dilemma since Oog was showing Uug how to hunt sabre-toothed tigers. This just very skillfully writes it large and apocalyptic.

It's not that this is not a plot-driven and driving episode. There's a lot of plot working, here, showing how SkyNet operates. It's just that the character study feels more important.

"Queen's Gambit," in contrast, doesn't seem intended to illustrate the characters and the conflicts. Probably because We've just spent three episodes with plot in service to character. Now it's time to let character's service plot, so we're back to Andy Goode and the Turk. Poor Andy, in the brief time we've been fighting nameless Terminators with the Connors, has not only managed to rebuild the Turk, but get himself partnered with an annoying Russian and entered into a high profile contest with a military contract being the prize.

So we're back to the theme of inevitability and agency. Now it's not hammered home, because that's been done. Now it's a contest, and I was genuinely surprised to see that Andy's software lost.

As a side note, I've never been all that fond of using chess as an analogy for warfare, at least, not seriously. Chess is a terrible metaphor for war; it's a closed, arbitrated system of very simple rules and pieces which combine to form a tableaux just too complex to be analyzed in closed-form by human beings. But I have admit that in fiction, I do like it, because everyone is glancingly familiar with chess, and there's a certain romanticism about it. I was, therefore, overjoyed to see Sarah first build it up in the opening monologue, and then tear it down in the closing monologue. Sarah astigates it on one very important point: that warfare involves changing rules and goals, which chess does not and cannot. If she had mentioned the absence of luck, it would have been perfect.

Be that as it may, the wirters are using chess as a metaphor, and they're doing it well, and they understand the limitations. The Terminators display a very chess-like style of thinking, especially as we see Cromartie moving relentlessly through an efficient set up steps to rebuild himself and carry out his mission... but we also see SkyNet going beyond any conceivable chess-like analogy to change the rules with time travel. And not just to kill John Connor, but to pre-emptively upgrade its forces by stockpiling Coltan.

And this episode, by the way, does not have a simple, straight-forward plot. We've got Andy Goode's tournament, but we're left wondering who killed him and why. We're left with Derek Reese from the future, on the run from a T-888, and now apparently part of the Connor team. Even a dangling plot thread that seems resolved-- the destruction of the T-888 by Cameron-- leaves us wondering what's going to happen with that memory core she swiped. All of which is good: you can't have a whole season of setting up character sketches and conflicts and then not do anything with them. Characters only becomes important once tested against other characters inside a plot, and this was definitely a plot-episode being used to set up more plot for the future.



Damn, this season was good.
If the second season is as good as the first, this will end up being the best SF show on television for the whole 2008-2009 season.

Also, I think I need a Terminator icon.

Date: 2008-09-08 12:59 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] leighdb.livejournal.com
Nicely done.

And yeah - very much looking forward to this season. I'm trying not to, because of the famed and all-too-often-inevitable sophomore slump phenomenon, but maybe the truncation of the first season will actually help with that.

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