Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Falling Skies

Falling Skies
Episode 9: Journey to Xibalba
By: Carlos Uribe

Falling Skies is a show about the human war effort, along with it's allies, against an alien invasion force.

Spoilers Ahoy!

The first impression that an episode has is with it's title. A good title offers a clue on what the episode is going to be about. It could cover the plot, the themes, an important character or a combination of all three. It's relevant in some way to what is going to happen. A good title offers a hint but it never actually gives it away. Journey to Xilbaba is an odd name at first because “Xilbaba” isn't really an English word. It sounds potentially alien which could raise theoretical questions on it's own. A quick Google search reveals that Xilbaba is actually the name of the underworld in Mayan mythology. The translation of the word is roughly “place of fear”. This actually fits this episode pretty well. A group of the characters get stuck underground as if they are in an underworld. They are in a place of fear concerning the future. It's two levels is clever enough but there is even a third because the name refers to the Mayan terminology for the great rift in the Milky Way. So there is a connection to space and aliens. It's a clever title that requires some research to truly get it's meaning but even then it only hints at what's going to happen. It's hard to predict that two bombs will go off this week, one that traps characters in the underground mall, and that the characters are going to be struggling with the fear they face. As for the actual episode? The idea behind the episode is nice but it struggles a bit behind it's execution. There is a sense that the penultimate episode of the season is actually only stalling for the major battle that will theoretically occur in the finale. It even sets up a reason on why they don't just fire the Volm weapon: they have to dig it out of the site and the physicist character has to learn how to use it. As it stands, the most interesting part about Journey to Xilbaba is really it's title. The actual substance of the episode is either downright dull or simply frustrating because the stakes are never that believable. What's worse is that despite setting up the finale, the narrative momentum largely grinds to a halt. There is no sense of real urgency at the end that they have to hurry up or their going to be screwed.

This isn't to say that Journey of Xilbaba doesn't have it's redeeming moments. The best part of the actual episode is that it finally closes out that mole story. They manage to figure out it's Lourdes because she let it spill to Tom that she knew his wife died in Boston. This season has been rife with plots that simply ended up flopping. The evil Hal story, the mole, and the alien baby plot have dragged down what was an otherwise grounded story about an alien invasion into over-the-top ridiculous territory. The first half of the season was a pain to get through but then the writers started to right the ship. The evil Hal story was solved, the alien baby largely disappeared, and the mole plot largely comes to a conclusion. There is still a question of what their going to do to her. Will they treat her like a member of the Mason family and try to save her? Will they simply put a bullet in her head? The fate of Lourdes is left to the next episode but I don't really find myself caring. She really hasn't served a purpose in the show for a while which is why making her a mole justified her presence this season. What is she going to do in the next season? The show will just have to find something for her to do and that's worrisome. The show has always struggled at properly fitting her into the show and this would be the perfect excuse to get rid of her. That sounds a bit harsh but she's one of the multiple characters that really haven't made an impression. I could care less about what happens to her. Her fate is up in the air but at least she's no longer acting as a mole. This leaves only the evil alien baby plot to deal with but hopefully the season finale concentrates on what is actually interesting: the Volm weapon and the war on the skitters.

There are two explosions this week that are aimed at weakening the Volm presence in Charlestown. The second explosion is aimed at causing chaos at the underground mall. It traps people inside which gives Lourdes a perfect excuse to pretend to be injured. She is forced to do this so that she can get near Cochise. Cochise was injured in the first explosion but he needs to be left alone so his body could heal itself. She gets stopped before she can finish him off but it does mean we get a whole episode where the characters have to find a way to get out of the underground mall. The people on top have to find a way to dig themselves in while the characters on the bottom have to find another way out. The episode also splits Hal and Maggie into the armory so that their by themselves. It gives them limited oxygen for a long time to pretend to kill them off but it should come as no surprise when that doesn't happen. They get oxygen just as their about to run out and they get rescued. This life-and-death situation allows them to work over any problems the two had when Hal left to go look for his baby sister without Maggie but who cares? Tom is able to find a way out of the underground complex when he uses an alien gun to blast his way out. There was never any question that all of the main characters were going to make it out alive. This largely left the episode to largely have no real tension. It felt like just another obstacle they have to overcome because they needed to do something this week. The second explosion was just a weak plot where the episode didn't really do as much as it could have to explore the character's psyches. I'm not sure how they could have solved the tension issue but the stakes need to be there in order for any plot to work. Finding a way to make us believe that somebody could actually die or that this is an actual setback for the main characters would certainly have gone a long way towards making this episode work. A good idea might have been to put Weaver's daughter in direct danger because we would have actually believed the writers could kill her off. She is a background character after all. Putting the physicist’s life in danger and revealing they need him to learn the Volm weapon at the beginning might have done it as well.

The first explosion was a lot more useful except it's full impact is left until the very end. It actually caught me by surprise when it first happened. It practically comes out of nowhere. The hints of what this means are there as the Volm complex is on fire and many of them are dead. It isn't until the end where we get the full extent of the damage. The actual weapon is fine but all the engineers who know how to use it are dead. It survived the explosion but it remains buried underground. The characters are going to have to dig it out while the physicist character is going to have to figure out how to use it. Now this is actually an interesting development because it has to do with the war while putting us in the forefront. It's not the aliens who are backing us out but rather our own ingenuity. A scientist who has to learn how to use alien technology on his own, without any help, certainly adds a complex layer to the whole proceedings. The whole trapped underground plot adds a delay when they needed it the least but it felt like an added obstacle for the sake of it. Having the volm weapon trapped underground with only one character being able to potentially grasp how to use it? Now that is a real obstacle that's directly related to the war effort and that could really help with the tension. The second explosion was rather unnecessary outside of a stall tactic that flushes out the mole. It has some purpose but let's be honest: this could have worked without it. The main conflict of the episode could be to try to find the mole or to have Lourdes try to pin the blame on Tom. After all, he returns from a meeting with the aliens. He could have the bug inside him. Who wouldn't be suspicious if the Volm complex, which he knows where it is, blows up right after he shows up and nobody could account for his whereabouts? He's even different due to his rage. I'm not trying to write the episode for the producers but to show they could have resolved the mole story without the whole explosion silliness. The first explosion was good but the second one? I could have done without.

Journey to Xilbaba is the penultimate episode of Falling Skies that is important because Lourdes gets caught and obstacles are added to actually using the volm weapon. If you care, Hal and Maggie get together. The status quo gets reverted when Tom leisurely sails back into Charlestown at the beginning of the episode. It's not really an episode you can skip but it's weekly story of them getting trapped under rubble is so pointless and has no tension. A good penultimate episode builds up to the finale so that you have to catch it immediately. This episode simply doesn't do that. There isn't any narrative momentum to hook the viewer, the tension is flat, and we're very removed from the war at this point. When was the last time there was even a real battle? Well, at least this disappointing season of Falling Skies is almost over. We only have one more episode to go and then we can hope that next season improves dramatically.

Other Notes:

Everyone thinking Anne and Alexis are actually dead makes everyone angry but I don't buy they are. This is a family show of sorts: their not going to kill a baby, not even an alien one. Come on Tom! You can't trust anything Karen showed you!

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