[This is a review of The Last Ship season 1, episode 3. There will be SPOILERS.]
With each of the first three episodes of TNT's The Last Ship, audiences have been given three somewhat different looks at the show. In the effective and entertaining premiere episode, the screen was filled with explosions and action as the series skipped from one locale to the next, tossing character development overboard as we learned that the crew of the USS Nathan James was, quite possibly, humanity's last hope against a global pandemic.
In the second episode, the combat went to land as the crew searched for supplies and we learned a bit more about the emotional toll that this overall survival mission has taken on the crew. Again, the episode was effective and entertaining, but in the third episode, 'Dead Reckoning', the winning streak may be in question.
Teased at the conclusion of last week's episode, 'Dead Reckoning' was very much the tense naval chess match that we thought it would be with two seasoned commanders trying to out-maneuver each other while having, essentially, a staring contest as their very large boats sit separately parked off of the Cuban shore.
Why the standoff? Well, Captain Tom Chandler (Eric Dane) has two things that Russian Admiral Ruskov (Ravil Isyanov) wants: a primordial strain of the virus and Doctor Rachel Scott (Rhona Mitra), a deal that Chandler isn't willing to make. Instead, Chandler offers a compromise - a copy of the strain that he hand delivers to Ruskov during a face to face meeting on the island, but no Doctor Scott. Unimpressed by this gesture, ship mole Dr. Quincy Tophet's (Sam Spruell) offer to go with the strain and Chandler's boast about having all the food on the island, Ruskov flashes his villain badge and shoots one of his henchman with the guy's own pistol - an act of posturing meant to convey Ruskov's unpredictability and dedication to his mission. The trouble is, while we understand what Ruskov wants (the vaccine and Doctor Scott), we're not entirely sure why he wants it, though a Bond-villain-esque desire for world domination seems to be part of the puzzle.
That The Last Ship's first real upfront villain is so poorly drawn and predictable is a shame. While we haven't yet had a chance to mine the depths of Captain Chandler's soul, we feel like we've partially begun the descent, and the same can be said of many of the show's other primary characters (specifically Slattery, who had a mostly event free episode, but not Dr. Scott, who still has yet to captivate or truly open up about her life). When you compare Ruskov to them (and that's a little unfair since this is his first full episode), he almost feels as if he is from a different and lesser TV universe.
While Ruskov is a disappointment, Quincy's less predictable path is a nice surprise. Instead of continuing down the trail to make Quincy another stock bad guy, Spruell gets a chance to really grab hold of the role this time out, scheming to get aboard the Russian vessel (which he assisted) before bungling his attempt to kidnap Dr. Scott. We can tell that Quincy doesn't really want to harm anyone and that he is scared, but it all seems so cut and dry before we learn about the humanizing reason why he has been helping the Russians - they have his family.
There's a great little scene towards the end between Chandler and Quincy in what is serving as the latter's cell after he has been captured. The Nathan James has just scored a tactical victory against the Russians, earning the right to live again, but that victory may have cost Quincy his family's lives and as Chandler lectures him about all that he (Quincy) jeopardized by helping the Russians, Quincy joins in on the shouting and asks Chandler what he would have done if it was his family in jeopardy - a question that the Captain does not answer before exiting. That silence is very telling, especially considering his decision to push on to Cuba and avoid Florida after seeing evidence that his family is still alive. Underneath his gruff exterior, it seems like Captain Chandler is always fighting a battle between his heart and his mind, but it is heroic that he presses on in, what seems like, the best interests of the bigger picture, the crew and ultimately, humanity.
A somewhat thematically similar subplot has been building since the premiere with Lt. Foster (Marissa Neitling) and Lt. Green's secret love affair because we just knew that, at some point, he would be forced to choose between her and the mission (or she would be forced to choose, assuming we get a real chance to see her fleshed out as an individual character), but his determination that he both "loves her" and that she needs to "stay away" from him seemed a bit silly and destined to fail.
As for the mission, kudos to the writers for coming up with an interesting way out of the standoff with Ruskov's ship, echoing the Nathan James' radar signature with a parlor trick before navigating through a narrow and rocky canal after Green and Foster rammed an explosive filled raft into the Russian ship, minorly breaching its hull.
I have no doubt that we'll see Ruskov and his exceptionally weird scientist again, but as this show moves on to the next chapter - which seems to focus on a portion of the crew dealing with some kind of illness (the illness?) - it seems unlikely that it will be next week. With that said, though, here's hoping that Ruskov and further human villains will be a bit more layered and interesting and less tropey. Because, while the primary villain is this virus and, eventually/possibly in-fighting, there is room for outside conflict, so long as it makes sense and provides a real sense of challenge to Chandler and his crew.
The Last Ship airs on TNT Sunday nights @9PM ET.