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'The Event' recap: Impossible choices and stories that make sense

October 19, 2010 |  6:50 am

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"Casualties of War" has a couple of things that put it ahead of every other episode of "The Event" so far: a sense of purpose headed forward and a central question that puts its characters through something like the wringer. It's the best episode of the show so far because it slows down to tell something like an actual story, not just a long collection of events. And it centers that story on the two characters who actually make sense as characters at this point, Sean Walker and President Martinez. To be sure, most of the reason these characters are compelling has to do with the men playing them, not with anything the writers have done with them. But that doesn't mean that this episode isn't a fine showcase for the work of Jason Ritter and Blair Underwood, all the same.

The episode split down the middle like this: Sean tried to finally get Leila back, with the help of his FBI agent pal and, briefly, Vicky, while Martinez attempted to save the people from the plane, who were suffering from some sort of biological weapon and/or ailment. In the process of doing this, both men were forced to make some pretty terrible threats, and we were left to wonder if they would follow through. Meanwhile, the bad guys showed themselves capable of even worse stuff, and we got some nice glimpses into the past of the aliens, specifically their role in helping spur the Manhattan Project. There was some nice storytelling scattered throughout, and although the show continues to over-rely on hacky devices like the nesting-doll structure of the flashbacks, at least the episode more or less broke down into a concrete set of goals for the characters, and at least it didn't force a massive cliffhanger.

Let's start with Martinez. At this point, an idealistic president who confronts the limits of his ideals when he has to make a terrible choice to save the lives of hundreds of Americans is a TV cliche. The presidents on "24" and "The West Wing" both had to deal with these sorts of issues (fittingly, one of the show runners on "The Event" is a "24" alumnus), and numerous other tales of presidents facing down impossible threats have pivoted on similar plot points. So the idea that Martinez would have to confront his own desires to be a good man in the face of having to save the people on the plane was a bit of a nonstarter for me. Furthermore, within the universe of the show, Martinez has already compromised on his ideals. He was bent on releasing the alien detainees from their camp in Alaska, but he put a hold on that when he learned that there were more of them than he thought there were. Because he's already in a moral gray area he doesn't want to be in, I'm not sure his moral struggle had as much resonance as the show wanted it to, particularly when it came to handing over Sophia.

That said, Underwood really played the heck out of this moral calculus, this attempt to decide whether it was better to let everybody on the plane die and not have to compromise with the show's version of terrorists, or whether it was better for him to play hardball with the aliens by threatening to kill all of the detainees. Martinez knows the one option he doesn't have is to release the detainees, because that means that another species with far greater technology than his own will be calling the shots, and that puts him in a terrible position. Without the detainees, he doesn't have a bargaining chip, even as he wants to do the right thing. The weight of the decision to threaten the detainees was handled well both by the show and by Underwood, who played this with a kind of tense remove. The final moments, in which he and Thomas come to a kind of agreement -- he'll just turn over Sophia for the lives of all of the plane passengers -- were among the best the series has done, and I liked that the show let us know just how much these decisions weighed on Thomas as well.

Meanwhile, in Texas, Sean used the one bit of leverage he had to get Vicky to betray her own people. He knows about her son, who's not actually her son but, rather, a baby she rescued from a scene where she was supposed to kill everyone in the building. By threatening to expose her boy, Sean got Vicky to gun down her own men (a plot point that doesn't make a lot of sense, but whatever), then managed to get to Leila and finally rescue her. I'm glad the show hasn't stretched this out any further than needed, and that it seems like we're going to start getting some answers soon as to just why the conspiracy's so interested in Sean. A lot of this plot was pretty implausible -- mostly stemming from Sean's hacker friend's oh-so-convenient powers -- but at least it put Sean in the same place as Martinez, forcing him to make a terrible threat (of exposing Vicky's son) and then having us wonder if he'd follow through.

By far the most interesting development, though, has to do with the fact that the aliens destroyed their ship when they crashed in the 1940s and thus spent much of the 20th century trying to influence human technology in such a way as to reattain the kinds of parts they needed to rebuild their ship. This meant that the aliens got deeply involved in the Manhattan Project (of course they did), but we also got to see how Sophia originally sent Thomas out into the population at large, clearly not really knowing just what he would get up to once he was out there. It was a neat little flashback, and it mostly told one cohesive story of its own, something the other flashbacks haven't done.

I wouldn't say that "The Event" has risen to a level where I'm going to recommend it. This was still a bad episode of television in a lot of ways. But at least it was largely competent and told a story that mostly made sense. Sure, plenty of stuff was pointless and/or stupid, but there were some nice moments for much of the cast, and it gave a template for the show going forward. Plus, the cliffhanger -- which just involved Martinez putting Sophia on a train for Thomas to pick up -- was nicely small-scale, compared with the constant stream of cliffhangers involving the plane passengers. Every serialized show needs a sense that its story line breaks more easily into smaller components. This episode finally suggested that was true of "The Event," and I hope the show follows its lead going forward, especially now that the series has a full season order.

The story, in case you didn't bother to tune in: The president, after much hemming and hawing, finally cut a deal with Thomas to obtain an antidote for the passengers of the plane in exchange for turning over Sophia to the alien separatist leader (or whatever you want to call him). Meanwhile, Sean used his knowledge that Vicky's son was the sole survivor of a massacre that Vicky carried out to gain his girlfriend's safety, though the two were far from safe. Finally, it became clear that the aliens have been messing in human scientific development, the better to fix their ship and return to their home, wherever that may be.

-- Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)

Photo: President Martinez (Blair Underwood) has to make some tough choices on "The Event." Credit: NBC

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