[This is a review of The Last Ship season 1, episode 9. There will be SPOILERS.]

Freed from the burden that was resilient cigar chomping “Big Bad” Admiral Rusikov and his Russian destroyer, the crew of the US Nathan James (and the producers of The Last Ship) turned their full attentions, once again, to Doctor Scott’s mission and the task of helping her test the vaccine. To do that, the Doctor needed six volunteers, but while the trials were started with the best of intentions and were met with an overflowing sense of duty by the crew (who lined up to be tested for inclusion in the trials), things quickly turned bleak as those six volunteers started to get sick.

This was a good showcase episode for Charles Parnell as Master Chief Jeter (who volunteered to set an example to the crew, short circuiting Captain Chandler’s plan to do the same) and Fay Masterson as Chief Engineer Andrea Garnett.

Jeter has often proven himself to be an interesting character. He wears his faith on his sleeve and wraps himself in the comfort quilt of his belief that the US Nathan James is a ship of destiny. It is this belief that seemingly allows him to walk into the quarantine tent, confident that his journey is nowhere near an end, but in his darkest moment, Jeter cries out that he wants to see his girls, springing up from the bed in a delirious stupor with such vigor that he has  to be restrained. He’s begging for death and saying that he is ready.

Unfortunately, Garnett hasn’t had much chance to prove her worth as a character on the show beyond the episode where everything fell apart while she was laid up. This despite her vital role in the function of the ship, but in last night’s episode, ‘Trials’, Masterson did absolutely nail one of the more affecting lines in the show’s brief history as she made small talk with Rhona Mitra’s Doctor Scott about her kid and the Doctor’s lack of a child due to her hectic schedule.

“Better to not have a child than to not be there when they need you” says Garnett, selling the heartbreak of a mother that has been a world away from home while the world has been ending. That heartbreak was later amplified when she was seen doting on Kara, lost in fever induced delusion and clearly thinking that she was her daughter.

As we near the conclusion of this season, we’re inclined to reflect more on the entire run of episodes, and an indictment on this show has been that moments like this – where we are shown the pain of loss and the human sacrifice of being away from loved ones in the midst of something of this scope – have been, not non-existent, but less present and impactful than they should have been.

Also less impactful than it should have been? The deteriorating health of the six test patients and the death of yet another crew member. Why? This show has committed the sin of predictability far too many times for us to believe that a major character is in real peril.

Kara is having a seizure because of either the vaccine or the virus? She’ll be fine because to remove her from the story would deeply damage Danny’s character and that would be too much for this show to endure. These characters can wince and show pain, but only or a moment. Cossetti died a hero last week and no one carried that around for more than a couple of moments after his funeral. This mission moves forward and emotions part in its path like a naval destroyer parts the water.

Doctor Scott’s vaccine isn’t working? There will be an “ah ha” moment and a fix that will make everyone feel better (literally, since she tells the Captain that they have developed a cure as well), save for this week’s Red Shirt, Maya. Maya gets a tremendously sad backstory and a possible crush before she dies in the quarantine tent with the other test subjects. Like Cossetti, who had the benefit of a slightly longer arc before his death last week, Maya is built up to get knocked down and it’s obvious as soon as we start getting to know her.

We’ve said it before, if this show wants to draw us to the edge of our seats, then it needs to surprise us once in awhile. Killing off a major character (and I feel grim for constantly calling for this) would accomplish that and force us to view these tense moments through a new lens where anything can happen.

With only the finale remaining this season, the optimist in me wants to believe that the show will trot out a few surprises to leave people with over the winter, and it seems like the stage is set for a few tough personal choices for Tom Chandler (Eric Dane) and some kind of confrontation between the crew of the Nathan James and whatever it is that Titus Welliver has assembled in Virginia.

We’ve been waiting for a substantial look at the homefront and how the “Red Flu” had decimated our society, and we briefly got that in this episode as we saw Tom’s family roughing it in the woods and struggling to get supplies. You saw season one of The Walking Dead, you get the picture.

By episode’s end, Tom Chandler’s wife is clearly infected (thanks to the presence of a dead infected man at the electronics store that she visits while looking for a part for a radio) and unwittingly spreading the virus to her family.

Armed with the cure/vaccine, Chandler will surely rush to their side, but Welliver’s actions are a little less easy to guess. We can assume that he is a bad guy from the trailer for next week’s episode and his character’s overall Titus Welliverness, but will we get to learn much about him (either in the finale or in season 2)? Rusikov and El Toro were one-dimensional villains whose motives and pathway to evil were barely explained, will this be anything different?

In this episode, ‘Trials’, Welliver’s unnamed character shoots an approaching and pleading sick person while patrolling the streets, but it’s not cut and dry whether that is an act of villainy or self-defense. As we said early on, the rules of the world have changed with the virus’ presence.

In the context of this decimated and frightened world without rules, it really comes down to whether people are trying to thrive or if they are trying to survive, but while the former pursuit is usually reserved for the unquestionably evil (though, that’s not a pass to leave those characters underdeveloped – look at the job that The Walking Dead did with The Governor), the latter path is usually filled with moral sacrifices that leave no one’s hands clean.

Is Welliver’s character trying to thrive or survive? We know that Tom Chandler is trying to survive and complete his mission and we know that he is a decent man who does decent things in an indecent time. To play with that might change this show greatly. Is that where we’re going? When the dust settles next week, we’ll know for sure if this is a western about a man with a steel spine who won’t bend when faced with the tough decisions or a post apocalyptic tale about a good man who is trying to hold onto a part of what he was in a world that spares no man’s moral purity. And when we know that, we’ll have a better grasp on what this show is, what it is capable of becoming and whether it’s worth caring about.

The Last Ship airs Sundays @9PM on TNT