Thesis: Vengeance is Mine (War of the Worlds 1×19, Part 2)

Previously, on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

Ironhorse killed an innocent woman, and the writer thinks it’s very important that we not blame him for it. Her husband didn’t get the memo and is planning to murder our hero…

With this weapon, no human will stand a chance against us, so long as they are willing to stand still for five seconds while we shoot them.

While Martin has been off writing his manifesto, we get some exposition about the alien plot from over in the Land of the Lost cave. Those aliens back in the opening scene had been stealing high-end optical lenses. The reason, it turns out, is demonstrated when a pair of possessed bowlers tie their unpossessed buddy to the triangular crucifixion jig we’ve seen once or twice before. The stolen lenses are a component in a great big laser gun, which they wheel out and shoot at the guy, burning a hole through his head. The advocates are suitably impressed, and command that the laser be miniaturized and mass produced so that each of their troops can have one. This, they conclude, will allow them to conquer the planet by “the hot season”.

Yes, this is a major breakthrough, a weapon powerful enough to kill a single, unarmed human in about five seconds. With thousands of these, they will be… Slightly less formidable than if they had a thousand of those ordinary uzis their soldiers normally carry. Look, the alien plan in this episode is fractally stupid. Every layer of it is dumb, starting here. Sure, this isn’t even close to the first time the aliens have tried to acquire advanced weapons. In most of the other instances, they were reacquiring the weapons they brought with them in the war, and we have some idea of what those were capable of. But you might remember that I had misgivings about this back in “Eye for an Eye“: the formidability of the “Martian” war machines in the movie came from the combination of their firepower and their invincibility. A soldier armed with a ray-gun is still vulnerable to bullets. If they have the numbers to conquer the planet armed with hand-held ray guns, then they have the numbers to conquer the planets with ordinary guns, which, because they are in America, can be freely purchased in all fifty states and the District of Columbia.

The demonstration serves the opposite purpose to what was intended. Yes, sure, the laser gun is a terrifying weapon in that it burns a fist-sized hole in a person’s head. It’s even more terrifying when you contrast it to the unrealistically bloodless death of Susan Cole. But to evoke Stargate SG-1, the laser is a weapon of terror. Guns are a weapon of war. There’s nothing in the demo that indicates the laser’s efficacy against an armored target. Maybe it can shoot a hole in a tank, but we don’t know that. And even if it can, can it do it faster than the tank can blow you up with its tank-size bullets? It can kill a human slowly and horribly. But the aliens can do that with their bare hands already. There’s a complete reliance here on the assumption that laser guns are Just Better because Reasons, even as it shows us otherwise.

For the next layer of stupid to their plan, each laser requires a high quality ruby. Okay. That’s fair. Rubies are one of the things you use to make lasers. Even by 1989, ruby lasers were kinda on the decline in favor of better lasing media, but it’s a small thing, and besides, this is an alien laser. I’m even willing to call the fact that their design calls for a high-quality cut gemstone rather than an industrial-quality synthetic ruby rod an acceptable break from reality. There’s been lots of media from this general period where someone’s jerry-rigged a laser using a gemstone, including MacGyver and our old friend Tomes and Talismans.

Where the stupid comes in is with how they plan to get the rubies. They can’t steal them because, “Humans hold these rubies in the highest regard. They are under heavy security. Casualties will be prohibitive.” So instead, they’ll have to buy them. Now, to buy them, they’ll need money. So… They’ll steal the money. Because humans don’t hold money in the highest regard, and large quantities of money aren’t held under high security, I guess. Their plan is a string of brazen daylight armored car robberies. So they can get money to buy rubies, because stealing rubies is too dangerous. What?

Almost every shot of her is an extreme close up from a low angle.

They send a clique of aliens to go meet with a gem dealer who — Wait. She looks familiar somehow. Who is that? Oh, huh. That’s Alannah Myles. Her self-titled debut album is the other new album out last week I mentioned before. And almost exactly a year from now, the second single off of that album, “Black Velvet”, will hit the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks. Weird. I’m getting that feeling of deja vu again. It’s probably nothing. Anyway, she shows off three rubies. A cheap synthetic that she claims is mostly used for industrial lasers despite being princess-cut, a Thai stone, and the breathtakingly beautiful Burmese Gemstone, which visibly arouses her to talk about. The aliens, of course, want the Burmese. And this all represents a massive misunderstanding of how the ruby media in a laser works, but whatever. I’m only bringing it up in the hopes I’ll find an excuse to insert a clip from the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers second season finale where Zordon says, “Too much pink energy is dangerous.”

What’s that she’s displaying the ruby against? Could it be…

Alannah Myles thinks they’re having her on briefly when the aliens request a thousand five-carat rubies. But they promise to have the necessary five million dollars within a week and this pretty much causes her to have an orgasm on the spot. The lead alien will return to her halfway through the episode to deliver the down payment and double the order and she will respond by trying to bone him. It may be implicit that she in fact does bone him once the camera has discreetly cut away. No explanation is ever offered for why they don’t just possess her and have her quietly route a bunch of rubies to them and “lose” the paperwork.

In another meanwhile, at the Cottage, Norton gleefully breaks into computer systems to learn about a second theft of high-tech optical lenses, this time in Sacramento, with the characteristic radiation traces of alien activity. Harrison and Suzanne assume Ironhorse will be on board with setting out immediately, but Ironhorse, who is distracted by obsessively drawing little crosshatch patterns in his notebook, is reluctant, and isn’t even sure any more that it’s appropriate to treat their campaign against the aliens as a war.

A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.

That’s an interesting thought, and one that feels very prescient to a person living in the era of Wars on Abstract Concepts (ie., me). But of course they go nowhere with it, because Ironhorse’s misgivings are meant to be symptomatic of his internal crisis, and he’s meant to get over it and go back to being a contented war machine. The shame of it is that it comes so close to actual active awareness of something I’ve been increasingly aware of as we move through this series. We have talked about the cultural neurosis that this show infuriatingly won’t engage that stems from being set in a world where an all-out alien invasion occurred in the fifties. It’ll hint at it, but never really let it properly into the light. I think there’s a strong case to be made that one of the big ways that it surfaces is in that whole “Always think of it as war,” attitude. Has the show ever really addressed just how weird it is that Ironhorse regularly runs military operations on US soil? That Ironhorse seems to be able to pull rank in order to take charge of civilian facilities? That at one point he seriously considers calling in an air strike? This is not normal. The things Ironhorse is empowered to do would normally require martial law, and not only does he do them, but, even ostensibly not knowing about the aliens, no one ever acts as though this is at all odd. People can’t remember that there was an alien invasion in the fifties, but they do think that the US Army occupying a hospital is a perfectly normal thing to happen. Ironhorse is granted a tremendous amount of latitude by civilian authorities simply by saying that he’s investigating suspected terrorists. To you and me, that reads as a largely technical mistake — that it’s the army taking the lead and not the FBI, but we can maybe accept (unhappily) the gist. But think about what this looked like to people in the ’80s, people from a pre-9/11 world. This ought to have been hard to swallow. There’s no real cultural precedent for it. Hell, think about how the deranged anti-Obama conspiracy nuts real true American patriots who Democrats ignored at their peril went nuts over Jade Helm 15, a normal training exercise that was widely mistaken for a vast conspiracy between the US government and Wal-Mart to establish a military dictatorship. We’re supposed to somehow believe that Ironhorse and Omega Squad shooting real bullets at real people on a college campus would be something the civilian authorities would just shrug off? At the same time, though, it was the ’80s. Even with the lack of evidence that anything like this would ever stand, the zeitgeist of the ’80s was still wrapped up in the idea that “soft” martial law — that the military kinda sorta could just roll in and take over our lives whenever they felt like it — was entirely plausible. I mean, the Ruskies might drop the bomb at any minute, after all.

Suzanne and Harrison take turns trying to talk to Ironhorse, who alternates between being polite and being annoyed, but maintains that he’s got himself under control. After advising restraint when Norton reported the second lens theft, he’d inexplicably wanted to roll out to “bust some heads” in Sacremento when Norton picked up four more alien transmissions without any context and without any details that would make the information actionable. This culminates in him shouting about how he can handle killing all the aliens himself personally and punching the elevator door hard enough to make the set wobble. Harrison eventually pulls rank and gets permission directly from General Wilson to order Ironhorse to take some time off to get his act together, and offers him the use of a cabin in the woods left to Harrison by Dr. Forrester (Is this the first direct confirmation on-screen that Forrester is dead? I think it is).

This prompts Ironhorse to go see his therapist again, where, with difficulty, he explains that the reason he’s been so affected by this killing is that, “I just keep expecting her to walk through the door, alive. Not dead.”

Whut.

THAT IS NOT A REASON. THAT IS A RESULT.

Also: Whut? I mean, what does that even mean? He didn’t know this woman. If she’d survived, it’s not like there would be any reason for him to expect to ever see her again. What does it even mean for him to expect her to “walk through the door, alive”?

No, never mind that. Why does he think that? He still hasn’t answered why this killing is affecting him so much. At least Ironhorse himself agrees that this doesn’t make any sense.

I am not sure this Knight Rider/Airwolf crossover is entirely legitimate.

If the therapist has a useful answer for him, we don’t see it, because we cut to Ironhorse returning to his car. Once again, Martin Cole is waiting for him, but this time he gives chase, launching his explosive helicopter after the Colonel. And I won’t lie: this is far and away the most thrilling car-versus-remote-control-exploding-helicopter scene I have ever seen on television. And that is not me damning with faint praise, even though I am pretty sure I have seen no more than one other car-versus-remote-control-exploding-helicopter scene. But it’s actually really good in the sort of Stephen King way that it legitimately makes you feel like this tiny yellow toy presents an actual threat to a decorated special forces officer. Martin eventually forces Ironhorse off the road and he crashes into an embankment, knocking himself unconscious.

He wakes up tied to a chair in Martin’s secret backwoods shack, which makes me feel like the script got confused and that’s why Harrison brought up his own backwoods cabin a few scenes earlier. Martin gives him a very stock pained speech about how his dead wife had been the only one who’d ever cared about him and had helped him through “the hard times”, then retrieves a shotgun and promises to do, “what the bible tells me to,” and avenge his wife’s death.

I… Really wish they hadn’t tried the religious angle. It doesn’t connect to anything else in the story and feels like they’re just throwing in whatever they can think of to flesh out the story. I have no objection to the basic principle of a creepy killer being motivated by his reading of the bible, but Martin Cole has basically no character traits outside of his creepy stalkerness, so it doesn’t feel like it’s showing us anything that helps us understand him better or add any depth to his character. If Ironhorse did some appeal to his religious convictions later, that might be one thing, but as it is, it feels like they weren’t sufficiently confident in having sold the idea that Martin is an unstable, violent man, so they just picked something out of the pile of “traits associated with crazy serial killers”. And look, we’ve got Denis Forest here. If there is one thing we do not need, it’s more convincing that the character he’s playing is a dangerous creeper.

Man, I love watching Ironhorse scare the crap out of this dude. Sure would suck if he ever got revenge by having him killed.

In between being told to shut his trap, Ironhorse points out the numerous flaws in Martin’s plan, such as the fact that Ironhorse will be missed, that Martin is the only suspect, this is his house, and that his recent pestering of the police about his wife’s death means that the authorities already know he’s a crazy, obsessive stalker type. Martin gets sufficiently riled up that he gags Ironhorse and then unties his feet, intent on forcing him out to a shallow grave in the woods. It’s at this point that Ironhorse easily breaks free and overpowers the weasel.

Ironhorse confesses his own doubts about the shooting to the subdued Martin, but he’s had a personal revelation for some reason, and now accepts that he did the right thing under the circumstances, and would do it again if the circumstances repeated. So… Yay?

Look, this is just bullshit. There’s no justification for Ironhorse suddenly getting over it. Is the idea supposed to be that defending his own life against Martin made him decide he deserved to live? I… This episode is shaped like a deep, introspective episode where Ironhorse has a crisis of conscience and has to figure out what it means to him to live with the guilt of having taken an innocent life, but it’s just not there: Ironhorse can’t get over the shooting for reasons we’re never given, then he’s suddenly over it for reasons we’re never given.

I would have loved for this episode to actually go somewhere with this. I’ve loved the idea since back in “Dust to Dust” that Ironhorse might have a personal journey to go on that would find him reevaluating his identity as a warrior. Obviously, there’s room for this to all go very wrong if it takes the form of “The Indian has give up the White Man’s World and get back to tradition,” but I think there’s a middle ground to be found. In context, I shudder to use the word, but I really want to see Ironhorse evolve into a kind of shaman. Not, mind you, in the literal sense of a traditional headdress-wearing medicine man, but rather as a man who occupies a space between worlds. There’s so much potential here with Ironhorse having this very different internal experience of what’s outwardly something he’s faced many times before. This could have led to him reevaluating how to be a soldier in a war like this — and for a pre-war-on-terror audience, an audience whose notion of warfare is still dominated by the model of opposing nation-states, this could have been something genuinely new and different.

Instead, we get a cop-out resolution where Ironhorse decides, “Nope. Actually I’m okay with accidentally killing the occasional civilian.” In a long-running arc, having him back away from something like this could work as something akin to the “Refusal of the call” stage in the Campbellian “Hero’s Journey”, but they compound the sin here by having his conclusion come out of nowhere. Nothing presages it; he just suddenly realizes that he shoudn’t blame himself. There’s no reason we see that he should have come to accept this, and frankly, there’s no reason that I should come to accept it either. Dude shot an innocent woman. He killed the hostage. That’s the sort of thing that should have consequences.

Which brings me to another thing. This episode makes the death of Sarah Cole something that is fundamentally all about how it affects two men. What was Sarah Cole all about? What was she like? What did she do for a living? What was she studying at the university? Did she have hobbies? Friends? Family? We never learn a damned thing about Sarah Cole other than the fact that her creepy husband and the guy who killed her are both very broken up with their manpain over her death. And for all that Ironhorse is torn up with guilt over her head, this episode goes so far out of its way to make this a “good” shooting that they make the grieving husband into the bad guy before finally having him come around and personally exonerate Ironhorse. Ironhorse himself is the only one who questions whether or not the shooting was justified, and even he starts out from a position of, “I know intellectually that I did everything right.” Heck, shouldn’t Harrison, with his well-established disdain for the military, have at least a hint of a misgiving about this? There’s a strong push throughout the narrative to make Ironhorse the victim, and reduce Sarah Cole to a mere prop. Do. Not. Want.

I do all my banking at Trust Reserve Bank, then I go out for dinner at Edible Food Restaurant.

So. Plot. Okay. While Ironhorse was out cold, Norton correlated the alien transmissions to four armored truck heists. Though they can’t work out why aliens would be stealing money, Harrison decides that they should get Omega squad together and head to Sacramento. He does not appear to have any plan for what to do when they get there. Luckily, the aliens decide to call home from their next heist location, giving Norton an approximate location, so Harrison, Suzanne, and Stavrakos drive around the neighborhood until Harrison notices the Armored Truck depot and guesses their plan. Aliens have replaced the head of the armored truck company, and they’re loading a truck up with all the gold in the joint. Omega Squad raids the place, but the aliens see them coming and manage to escape just ahead of the army.

Ironhorse calls home once he’s got Martin restrained, telling Norton he’ll need “a few men for a clean-up action”. Is Ironhorse planning to have Martin whacked? Why is this his purview at all? Shouldn’t they just call the cops and be done with it?

Once he learns that everyone’s gone to Sacramento, he decides to steal Martin’s van and asks him to help blow up some aliens. Not directly; he doesn’t actually explain what he’s doing. But he declares that, “This battle is bigger than me, or you, or your wife; I’m talking about the security of the United States!” And Martin is inexplicably willing to take the word of his wife’s killer that helping him blow up a stolen armored truck will adequately count as, “Revenge against those who were responsible for your wife’s death.”

Martin and Ironhorse approach the armored truck depot just as the aliens pull out, and Ironhorse trusts Martin enough to untie him so he can prepare his spare helicopter. There is a somewhat nice scene with the aliens, who call the advocacy to warn them about the snag in the plan. “We are nothing without your council,” the driver says. “Our council is: survive,” responds an advocate.

The second or maybe third best remote-controlled-helicopter-vs-car chase I have ever seen on TV ensues. There’s some good visual storytelling in the way they wordlessly convey that Ironhorse and Martin are shepherding the armored car into a back alley, away from traffic. Ironhorse taking extra care here to avoid civilian casualties is a touch I wish they’d made more of, but still, it’s clear what they’re doing even without dialogue. Even if the chopper occasionally moves at funny angles because it’s not really flying in most of these scenes, but rather mounted to rod from the end of the camera.

What exactly did he use for an explosive in this? Red matter from the Star Trek reboot?

Finally, the truck turns into an alley. Ironhorse stops the van at the entrance and shouts, “Now!” whereupon Martin crashes the helicopter and… Okay, really? I don’t know a whole lot about how armored trucks work, but I am having a hard time believing that an explosive made in some guy’s basement in a quantity that fits in a remote control helicopter would be able to blow one to pieces like that. Even if it’s possible, wasn’t the whole point of the explosive to force Ironhorse to crash so that Martin could kidnap him? If it did that much damage to an armored truck, how is it that Ironhorse ended up out cold rather than converted into chunky salsa?

And then, to wrap up… Nothing. The episode just ends. Ironhorse calls Harrison and tells him that they took care of the aliens, asks Martin if they’re cool now, Martin nods, and that is just the end of the episode. Ironhorse is over his guilt, Martin’s over his lust for vengeance, and since this one armored car heist was a failure, the aliens will completely give up on the ray guns and will never speak of them again.

As you may have guessed, I am not entirely satisfied with this episode. Historically, I remember every time this episode came around, I expected it to be really interesting, because it was the cool one with the exploding RC helicopters. And then afterward, I would not really remember much about it because it left very little impression. This time, I paid closer attention, and it did not fare well.

The problem, not for the first time, is that the plot is full of seemingly random pieces which are individually very promising, but which are tossed together piecemeal without much consideration for where they should go and whether they fit. Ironhorse has a crisis of conscience because he kills an innocent civilian. That’s an interesting idea. A bystander develops a grudge against the team because his loved one was caught in the crossfire. That’s a good idea. Aliens trying to build a new weapon? That’s… Well, it’s a nice familiar standard sort of plot for this kind of show, so okay. Harrison having to take point in a military operation? That’s another interesting idea.

I think they have one of these at the local Starbucks for blending frappucinos.

But none of them work out. Harrison is written like an entirely generic character with none of his usual weirdness or counter-cultural inclinations. Ironhorse’s crisis works itself out in the least interesting way without even having the decency to happen on-screen. Martin’s breakdown is mostly reduced to “He acts like a crazy stalker, then inexplicably is all better once he blows up some aliens without even really knowing what he’s doing.” And the new weapon plot is just dropped without any resolution. Do the aliens have to call off the deal? Do they show up for the exchange and just off Alannah Myles and steal the rubies? Did she end up boning the alien?

And I’m especially annoyed because this episode isn’t bad at all on other levels. It’s got a lot going on visually. Much of what’s going on internally with Ironhorse and Martin is conveyed not through dialogue but in the actors’ mannerisms. Alannah Myles as a gemstone dealer who gets sexually aroused by large transactions is utterly bizarre, and adds nothing to the plot but I kinda love it for just how weird it is.

And the structure of the episode feels very modern. I untangled the various plot threads for the sake of my own narrative, but the actual episode weaves together four distinct plot threads, in places even managing to convey parity between the threads, say, by mirroring Ironhorse’s nightmares with Martin’s growing obsession.

Denis Forest is given a poorly-written character, but he sells the hell out of it. That goes double for Richard Chaves. I haven’t shut up in months about how much I like his action sequences, but he brings the same kind of strength-yet-vulnerability to the scenes where he’s struggling with his inner turmoil. Even if his emotional issues never manage to make sense, I still believe them. I never really got why Ironhorse was such a popular character in the fandom until this watching. I was locked into the idea of him as the generic stoic-soldier type who keeps refusing to believe in how weird his reality is. But he’s evolved far past that by now, into a character who’s stoic in the sense of doing what has to be done, but who is affected on an emotional and at times even spiritual level by the horrors he experiences on a daily basis. As much as the framing of the show casts Ironhorse as the “straight man” to Harrison’s weirdo, it’s really Harrison who, when called on to do an action scene, is the more traditional action hero. He may not carry a gun, but he faces down aliens with a stiff jaw and unshakable resolve (and, occasionally, a homemade flamethrower), while Ironhorse is the one who actually feels pain, who has to struggle with self-doubt, and whose judgment can be questioned.

It all adds together to make this a very frustrating episode. So frustrating that I kinda want to go do something else for a week or six…


  • War of the Worlds is available on DVD from amazon.

One thought on “Thesis: Vengeance is Mine (War of the Worlds 1×19, Part 2)

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