[This is a review of The Last Ship season 1, episode 5. There will be SPOILERS.]
Part of the enduring appeal of post-apocalyptic fiction is that once unfathomable choices are often made by characters due to inescapable circumstance; tough choices that are not reflexively celebrated or even understood. More than anything, though, these narrative choices represent a risk - something that The Last Ship has, for the most part, steered clear of.
In last night's episode, 'El Toro', we saw the clearest opportunity for the show to make an unpopular yet bold creative choice when Chandler (Eric Dane), Mike Slattery (Adam Baldwin) and their crew were confronted by a low level warlord (El Toro, as played by José Zúñiga) in the Nicaraguan jungle as they searched for monkeys to aid in Doctor Scott's work on the vaccine.
Like Admiral Ruskov, the Russian splinter group leader from this season's third episode, 'Dead Reckoning', El Toro is underdeveloped and cartoonishly evil. Essentially, a yacht (also called El Toro) ran aground and El Toro claimed dibs on a tract of land, enslaving the people that were on that land with the threat of violence and the magnificence of his relative might.
It is interesting to see the show portray the monstrous deeds that some would be pushed toward when the bottom falls out of society, but The Last Ship's globetrotting nature makes it hard for us to get the opportunity to really see these human villains develop properly as they change up weekly. These are snapshots, not portraits. This isn't The Walking Dead. We aren't going to get a version of The Governor on The Last Ship, at least not anytime in the near future. The bad of that is obvious, but there is some good: while The Walking Dead can have periods of stagnation, The Last Ship has mostly avoided that, so far. Every episode has a new challenge, villain and locale - The Last Ship moves too fast to be boring, but it can also be too silly to be entertaining, at times.
Last night, when Chandler found Slattery and Lt. Green (Travis Van Winkle) in custody after they tried to stop El Toro's men from, essentially, executing a teenage girl (the daughter of the subservient mayor) who had spoken out against El Toro, he barked with no bite, accepting El Toro's offer that he leave his weapons and his protective suits but take his men and the monkeys that he needed and go back to his ship. El Toro knew that the US Nathan James could not fully know where Chandler was in the jungle and that Chandler would not authorize an air attack on the island due to the collateral damage. He won, and as Chandler and his men went back toward the ship on their raft, we started to believe that this would be one of those hard losses that the crew would have to accept in the name of their larger mission to save the world. But a funny thing happened on the way back to the destroyer when Slattery led the charge to go back to the island with Green saying, "We're supposed to save the world, shouldn't it be worth saving?" - a heavy handed bit of dialogue that was quickly answered by Chandler's cheesy retort, "We came to hunt."
With no weapons and with a tremendous size force disadvantage, predictably, Chandler, Slattery and Green came out on top in their effort to seize the camp and bring justice to the tiny village. El Toro, defiant to his last, kidnapped another one of the Mayor's daughters before letting her go and daring Chandler to arrest him and take him to the Nathan James. The moment lingered where we thought that Chandler might execute El Toro on site, tossing off another hokey catchphrase as the bad guy laid dying, but instead, the Mayor took matters into his own hands.
Not a surprising end, but a disappointing one. The Last Ship missed a chance to push Chandler in a darker and less predictable direction. The post-apocalypse is made for good guys who occasionally have to do bad things. The rules of that world would have allowed for Chandler to take El Toro down for his crimes, but they also would have demanded that Chandler disregard Slattery's pleas and keep pushing back toward the ship rather than risk everything - the fate of the mission, the crew of the ship and Doctor Scott's ability to make the vaccine and save humanity - to save a small group of survivors and right a wrong. It's admirable that the writers gave voice to those concerns in the form of Master Chief Jeter's strong opposition to the Captain's decision to go back, but they should have heeded those words and not gone back for a hollow victory.
I like that we were left with a vision, on the shore, of a group of infected people that the crew could not help - its a reminder to us and the crew that they can't save everyone while trying to save everyone - but it felt tacked on after the show had just put forth a version of heroism that takes logic out of the equation. Going forward, the writers of The Last Ship are going to have to eschew their tendency to go for the slick resolution while adhering to an over-simplified view of right and wrong. They need to allow this crew to do unsavory things in the name of survival and they need to trust their audience with a more complex definition of heroism, because without that creative evolution all the explosions and tense combat scenes in the world won't be enough to keep people's attention.
The Last Ship airs on TNT Sunday nights @9PM ET.