Even at 10 episodes a season, a series built around a large-scale war can begin to feel as though certain character elements or storytelling styles need to be refreshed for the sake of keeping things interesting for both the audience and the writers. In the case of Falling Skies, it’s as though season 3 has become the setting in which – for the writers at least – such experimentation with story structure has become apparent.
Playing around with the normal structure of Falling Skies hasn’t changed dramatically, but there have been instances this season where the writers have tinkered a bit with their focus, allowing for more episodes that felt on the verge of venturing outside the show’s normal comfort zone of patriotic platitudes, sentimentality and the occasional skirmish with the invading Espheni forces. It was seen in the better-than-average episode ‘Search and Recover‘ and again last week with ‘The Pickett Line.’ Although neither were entirely successful in their endeavor to move beyond the typical episode composition, both episodes displayed a willingness to otherwise loosen the grip on the tried-and-true arrangement of the series’ overall structure.
In the regard, ‘Strange Brew’ is certainly representative of a deeper, more compelling departure from the norm that comes very close to being a great bottle episode and showcase for the actors’ ability to portray familiar characters differently.
The principle focus of the episode works in two ways. By having Tom Mason wake one morning to the relatively idyllic life he’d led (minus one Espheni invasion) with his wife Rebecca and their three sons, the audience is given access to a portion of the Mason story that had deliberately been left out as a result of the narrative beginning when and where it did. Secondly, it gives the writers a chance to toy with the notion of setting familiar characters and situations slightly askew, so as to create an eerie, dreamlike sense that despite the outwardly appearance of tranquility and familiarity, something is desperately wrong.
Early on, ‘Strange Brew’ comes very close to achieving the goals that have been set out for it; there is an innate creepiness that begins the moment Tom Mason wakes – sans beard – in bed with his wife the audience knows to be deceased. But rather than be a simple flashback to a time before life was made incalculably harder, the episode presents its situation as though nothing had ever gone wrong – making the apprehension of waiting for the other shoe to drop all the more palpable. Tom wanders through his day meeting various incarnations of people he’s come to know as fellow combatants and allies in the Second Mass. Instead of a wild opportunist with a penchant for violence, Pope is now a fellow professor. Similarly, Maggie is one of Tom’s best students, while Jeanne and Anthony have also taken up quieter roles within the university at which Tom teaches. But elements on the fringe of this picture-perfect existence quickly reveal a flaw, as a homeless Weaver holds a sign imploring “open your eyes,” while a strange woman named Anne Glass is leaving messages and sending gifts to Tom’s office.
Unfortunately, the flaw in Tom’s altered reality is revealed too quickly, and the confusion of what’s real and what isn’t only plays out for about half the episode’s runtime. The rest of the time, the episode falls back into the typical Falling Skies structure, checking in on other elements central to the season’s plotline, like Weaver and Pope believing President Maria Peralta to be the mole and Hathaway’s assassin. The transition from dream to reality, however, is clunky at best, as Tom’s realization that he’s under Espheni control moves into a familiar dream-within-a-dream structure that inadvertently throws certain real elements into question; namely, the bomb left by Lourdes for Weaver, and later, the arrival of the Mason boys, who are so unconcerned about their father’s whereabouts it feels like a continuation of Tom’s dream.
Things get even cloudier when Karen reveals to Tom what appear to be the dead bodies of Anne and Alexis – though the lack of verification seems to be a telling sign that perhaps Karen wasn’t entirely truthful and her intent was to leave her opponent so despondent that he would reveal the location of the human-Volm assault. Tom makes a daring escape and conveniently winds up in his old house for a moment of hopelessness and grief he refused to show Karen. And while this turns out to be a nice moment for Wyle, the road getting there felt as though it had little overall importance to the story and echoed early segments of season 2 too much, resulting in a dramatically lessened emotional impact.
With just two episodes remaining, it still feels as though there is a great deal of ground to cover in order for the season to feel like a complete story. With any luck, the final two installments will be exactly what this season needs.
Falling Skies continues next Sunday with ‘Journey to Xilbalba’ @10pm on TNT. Check out a preview below: