By John Keegan and Henry Tran
I think it's unfortunate that "Shall We Gather at The River" aired so close to the season premiere. Qualitative comparisons inevitably crop up, and they come with immediate judgment since the episodes are clumped so closely together. I thought this was the stronger of the two episodes because there was a singular purpose and drive to the plot within the episode.
This is a mode this show, and many shows, do well. We know what is threatening the characters and follow along as the heroes try to get out of their sticky situation. You'd never think there could be much tension to be wrought out of simply crossing a bridge, but the show takes the time to lay out what's at stake and then building some of the mysteries and character development around that. There's a bit of a sense that we're in the middle of a level on a video game once the 2nd Mass. gets to the bridge in question (at least it was like that for me) and the force splits objectives between getting across it while others blow up a communications antenna on the other side, but the tension is quite well-done.
There's also an intriguing storyline being developed with Tom and Ben that stokes the belief that the aliens might be slowly infiltrating the 2nd Massachusetts. They're achieving this by embedding some of their technology into both Tom and Ben's bodies. It personalizes the conflict between the resistance and the aliens, something the show struggled with last season.
This episode probed the darker aspects of the show's overall plot arc. The 2nd Massachusetts is still on the run, but the constant threat of alien patrols and attacks have thinned much of the herd. It keeps the cast down to a few main characters and several periphery characters, but I remember that the show had this civilians vs. military dynamic that has largely been jettisoned now. Three months of war and trying to stay alive for as long as they could means that priorities shift.
They are all for one cause now, even if there are a few stragglers to that mindset, namely Pope and some of his "Berserker" friends (which I think is a cool name for a group of rebel fighters). They are looking for a home base to set up and regroup, and they need to cross this bridge over a river in order to get to an airport that runs beyond the forest on the other side. Like the season premiere jumping immediately into a crisis, this episode does that by having an alien "beamer" aircraft attack the group and damage a part of the bridge. Captain Weaver is determined not to have the majority of the group decimated again, and I like the invocation of history on the show by Weaver's little story about what happened at Fitchburg as well as Dr. Glass being hardened by losing so many patients over the past three months, so he wants to find any way he can to get everyone and everything across that bridge.
I liked that the show kept the logistics of everything clear. Ben is tasked to scout what is in the forest that lies beyond the other side of the bridge. It's in this little scouting mission that we find out that Ben has superhuman capabilities and attributes as a result of the skitter spikes on his back. There's a sense of unease by what alien technology is shown throughout the episode. Not only does Ben have the spikes, but there is some crusty alien skin that is growing around the spikes. Then Tom suspects that the aliens may have done some psychological experiments on him while he was on their ship.
The show doesn't shy away from really creepy imagery, from Ben's alien skin to the little parasite bug that crawls around Tom's eye. I'm thinking the parasite was some kind of scouting technique used by the skitter that is following the 2nd Mass. (an alien I'm going to call "Red Eye" from now on), though with the aliens' true intentions still a mystery at this point, that could be anything. Was Red Eye involved in Tom's "missing time" on the alien ship? I agreed with Tom's decision to tie himself up in the bus for fear that he might turn against his friends and family. That didn't prove to last long, as Matt cuts his ties during the final assault, but it's a tension-inducing point with the leadership of the 2nd Mass., as Pope wanted more extreme measures to be taken with Tom. Hopefully, there's more of that to come in the season.
The resistance's plan seems to work too well, though. They make the decking to get the vehicles and people across the bridge, Hal and his assault force blow up the antenna, which they wouldn't have known about if it weren't for Ben's scout work, then they blow up the bridge as mechs and skitters close in on them. The special effects for the series are certainly improved from last season and the episode doesn't short us on some wondrous sights. The mysterious alien base in the forest, the battle sequences between the mechs, beamers, and the resistance. All of it adds to the overall atmosphere of the show.
The little details matter, though. When Ben walks up to the crashed beamer in the forest, it emits a hum that seems to hurt Ben. What is that? Some kind of homing signal? A subconscious trigger that might accelerate his skitter transformation? While Hal is quickly becoming a capable leader and fighter, Ben seems embroiled in an internal struggle to keep his humanity intact. That may come back to bite the 2nd Massachusetts at the worst time. Both Tom and Ben are potential ticking time bombs just waiting to go off.
Like I said, this is a pretty insidious way for the aliens to subvert the human resistance. If that is indeed what the aliens intend to do here. It would be nice to know if there are other groups out there like the 2nd Mass. to get a sense of the scope of the human resistance. I do also hope that the story doesn't stall when the group gets to the airport. It would be repeating what happened last season when everyone was holed up at the school. Risk is the name of the game here so I think I would prefer more action to all the characters bickering and releasing their emotional baggage on everyone else.
The show makes a smart decision to put the threat out front with Red Eye. We know all about the mechs and skitters so constantly changing up the enemy and stakes will add unpredictability to the course of the story. It keeps the audience invested in what happens. This episode did that very well, even as most of it feels very familiar in the science fiction genre. Two of Tom's sons are characters that are developing into bigger pieces of the whole puzzle, and they don't make me cringe whenever they're onscreen. Matt could use something better to do than to be afraid of his father (though that action was understandable given the fear that gripped everyone over Tom's still-mysterious time with the aliens) and fixing to fire a gun.
All in all, this was a very solid outing for the show. I would feel very good about this second season of "Falling Skies" if it's going to produce more episodes like this one.John Keegan is Editor-in-Chief for Critical Myth, a partner site of SciFi Vision. Henry Tran is Critical Myth's reviewer for Falling Skies.