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'Torchwood' recap: In which everybody digs a hole to China

September 3, 2011 |  8:00 am

Lauren Ambrose in "Torchwood" My favorite thing about "The Gathering," the next-to-last episode of "Torchwood: Miracle Day" was that it took place two months after the end of the previous episode. It was almost as though the show's writers realized how many corners they'd written themselves into and how ludicrous the story had gotten, and decided to detonate a nuclear warhead designed to let everybody start over.

There are occasional nods to how the previous episode ended -– with Esther and Jack running from the CIA while Rex prepared to go undercover -– but for the most part, the whole thing takes place far enough away from those events that the show can just do whatever it wants.

On the other hand, this also means a certain devil-may-care sloppiness. How did Jack end up hanging out with Gwen and Rhys in Wales, after we left him last week bleeding out in the back of Esther's car? Well, uh, there are these guys, see, and they can smuggle anyone overseas -- even Oswald Danes, as it turns out. (Everybody's favorite criminal pops up in Gwen's house as well, in a moment that might have felt like a fun "bad guy joins up with the good guys" moment had Oswald's character not been so thoroughly botched.) What's Jilly been doing all this time? She's been waiting for instructions about how to proceed, and it's convenient that she gets those instructions the same day the Torchwood gang starts to put two and two together, so both story lines move forward at roughly the same speed.

Actually, I didn't mind Jilly's story Friday night. Sure, the ultimate reveal that the "Blessing" is a giant fissure in the Earth that runs from Shanghai to Buenos Aires was just a touch silly (not the least of which was because of the special effects), and the visual appearance of said fissure was the sort of thing that, uh, Freud would have a field day with, as the saying goes. But I enjoyed Jilly's increasing confusion over just what the heck was going on, and I liked her stone-faced certainty in the face of the Blessing. (Hearing her say that she was "right" was probably the most chilling moment of the episode.) All of this feels a bit like an underwhelming answer to the question of "what's going on," but, then, anytime you answer that question with "There's a hole in the ground!" there's bound to be some disappointment. Still, it's nice to have Jilly as our eyes and ears on the way into the inner workings of the Family, particularly because she's the one new character I've actually come to like just a bit.

The other stuff is a bit more of a mixed bag, really, but this episode was exciting and propulsive, at least. By the time it was over, I very much wanted to see just how all of this would resolve next week, and that's the first time an episode's cliffhanger has had me that intrigued this season, so that's an improvement.

I found some of the business with Gwen and her father to be rather stupid. (The random government guy would come and search her house twice? Really? Wouldn't he have other things to worry about?) And at the same time, I'm still wondering just why we're supposed to be invested in this whole story line, when her dad spends most of his time laying around, ailing, getting ready to die whenever his daughter can turn off the immortality switch.

The problem with all of this is that it's just a blatant way to stall the story from getting to the next point. That might be OK if the story being told about Gwen and her dad was at all interesting, but it's not. It's just the same two or three beats over and over, which goes for a lot of the stories being told this season. For example, just how long has it been that we've been getting vague hints that what the people behind the Miracle really want is to talk to Jack. And yet the episode cliffhanger -– involving Jack's blood rolling off toward the Blessing in Shanghai -– is yet another expression of this idea, as though we hadn't seen everything before this. The series has gotten too repetitive too often, and that takes away some of the fun of playing along at home.

That said, though, this was one of the better episodes of the season. There were several nice moments, and I enjoyed Rhys realizing that Buenos Aires and Shanghai are directly opposite each other on the globe while playing with his inflatable one. (I don't know why, exactly, he had an inflatable globe, other than the plot requiring him to have one, but it was still a very fun moment.) I liked Rex's crazy method of tracking down the Family, a method that involved, of all things, an old pulp novel. And I liked Jilly's "job interview," which involved her being told that she needed to start thinking about writing history for the Family. All of this was good fun, and it kept things moving along nicely, without straining too hard to keep the audience up with what was going on. And, again, although the final reveal left something to be desired, sending Jilly on the quest to find the Blessing was still a well-told story.

The problem, then, is that all of this is built on a rather elaborate foundation that hasn't been nearly as sturdy as the writers would like us to think it is. There are good ideas here; they're just based on stuff that's hard to care about, such as Oswald Danes' story line. I can see a version of this episode that works like gangbusters; it might even have been pretty close to the episode we actually got in terms of story. But that episode would have been built atop a foundation of solid character stories for the characters we already knew (who've been sidelined far too often) and intriguing stories for the characters we were just getting to know. Instead, this episode feels like a desperation move, something that came along too late to have much effect.

Photo: Jilly Kitzinger (Lauren Ambrose) is given a promotion by the Family. Credit: Starz


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-- Todd VanDerWerff