[This is a review of The Last Ship season 1, episode 2. There will be SPOILERS.]
While the premiere of The Last Ship brought out the heavy artillery to hook action junkies on TNT's new action-thriller about a desperate naval mission to save the world from a pandemic, the second outing feels more restrained as the explosions are minorly scaled back while the crew of the USS Nathan James puts boots on the ground for a harrowing supply run.
Before we get to the action, though, 'Welcome to Gitmo' takes the time to provide us with a bit of character development - showing us the effect of crewmember Frank Benz' death on Lt. Danny Green (who acts recklessly as a result while on a mission), XO Mike Slattery's growing doubt and Dr. Rachel Scott's efforts to repent for the sin of lying to the crew for four months. While those moments certainly add a bit of color to these characters, though, it's the episode's less individualized focus on the the crew and the impact of this mission and the changed world that truly adds a bit of human ache to this story.
From the the unnamed radio operators helplessly listening in as they hear distress calls and the way that the crew gathers on deck to memorialize family members that they pray have not died, it's clear that the The Last Ship is not just an excuse for square-jawed hero types to yell out cliches while firing their guns at the bad guys. With that said, though, a bit of that is also alright and certainly abundant in the second half of this episode.
Directed by Lost veteran Jack Bender, 'Welcome to Gitmo' does a nice job of jumping between the ship (which is being commanded by Slattery as Captain Tom Chandler leads one of the three ground teams as they search separately, for food, medical supplies for Dr. Scott's mission to find the cure and gasoline) and the ground as each team endures their share of complications. This episode isn't, by its nature, one that should earn the kind of praise that the pilot episode did for its visual sense, but there is ample tension extracted from the way that the camera peers through vehicle windows at eye level - with the on-the-ground forces as they survey the island. Everything just feels so eerily calm that the audience can't help but feel on edge.
As for those complications, it seems that the Guantanamo Bay supply base has been overtaken by more than a dozen terrorists who have whittled down the small team of privately contracted security guards that were in charge of the base - guards that dimly freed their prisoners after the breakdown of society.
Captain Chandler (Eric Dane) and his team come face to face with both these terrorists and the one remaining security guard ("Tex") first after an IED blows a Hummer sky high; it's a thrill to see another solid character actor like John Pyper-Ferguson (Caprica) join the cast as Tex, but the Captain's insta-trust in him is off-putting. It may sound like a minor quibble, but after enduring a speech by Dr. Scott about the dangers of being in a "hot zone", it almost feels like the show chose aesthetics over logic when Chandler engages Tex without donning his mask (based purely on his promise that he's not sick) - something he doubles down on by following Tex into a building, where he also shuns the protective gear.
Besides that annoyance, The Last Ship's wooden dialogue finally reaches a groan inducing point in this episode as Captain Chandler, Tex and the "Vulture" strike team work their way to the supply building and come upon the dead and propped up body of one of Tex's fallen comrades, further indication that the building is being held by terrorists and that they mean business.
"Revenge is best served cold" says Chandler while leaning in close to Tex.;"Let's eat" says Tex and "Oy" says the critic under his breath. But while this show can sound cliched at times, there are other times when nothing else will do, like the moment when Captain Chandler tells the man with a gun to Tex's head, "There's one thing from the old world that still applies today, something that will never change - we don't negotiate with terrorists," in sync with an airstrike that Chandler orders with coded directions to Slattery on the ship. It's a bit of a pump-your-fist and yell "Yeah!" moment and a more nuanced approach wouldn't have been as effective, because sometimes it's fun to watch the good guy do something cool and a little cheesy.
Speaking of Slattery, Adam Baldwin is proving himself to be the MVP of this cast so far and the writers are smartly and slowly layering his conflict with Captain Chandler, allowing his displeasure with his commanding officer's approach to manifest itself as skepticism, not full rebellion or insubordination (save for his decision to let Dr. Scott go into the field to save a wounded crewmember and prove herself to the crew). That's a nice left turn, but it's easy to wonder how much longer the tie that binds them will hold.
When or if that tie does snap, though, it will be hard to take sides because the writers have also made both men imperfect and reasonable. The Captain isn't reckless (save for not wearing his mask), but you can understand Slattery's doubts.
At the end of the episode, when the supposed British ship hails the Nathan James, Baldwin need only sell his shock with his facial expression as the Captain welcomes them to Gitmo, no doubt with the idea that he will share some of his crew's hard-earned supplies with another vessel at a time when such an attitude is positively "old world" thanks to the rules of this new and horrible world. In some ways, it's reminiscent of the way that Rick Grimes, on The Walking Dead, hung onto the slivers of civilization for longer than he should have. The only question is, will Chandler change over the course of this season and learn that lesson, and will Slattery push him to make that change?
After a well paced and slightly less action packed episode, though, it seems likely that any further character and plot development will be on hold for at least a week as we play Battleship off the coast of Cuba with the USS Nathan James and these threatening Russian pirates that seem determined to get Dr. Scott and her work (thanks to her duplicitous assistant). And honestly, if The Last Ship continues to be a show that can adroitly shift back and forth from heavy duty action and something a little more grounded like 'Welcome to Gitmo', it will be worth the wait.
The Last Ship airs on TNT Sunday nights @9PM ET.