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'Torchwood' recap: The life and times of Captain Jack Harkness

August 20, 2011 |  6:30 am

Gwenjack I don’t think it’s a coincidence that “Immortal Sins,” by far the best episode of this season of “Torchwood,” mostly leaves all of the new characters behind in favor of spending quality time with Jack and Gwen. Jack’s always been the mysterious man at the center of “Torchwood,” the guy whose whole existence is something we humans can’t even begin to comprehend. And Gwen’s always been our eyes into this world (with all of the shots from her point of view in this episode, this becomes quite literally true). These are two characters we’ve been following since the beginning of the show (and Jack for longer than that, given his “Doctor Who” roots), so we’re naturally more invested in them than Esther or Rex or Oswald. But they’re also just better characters than those new characters, people who are more sharply drawn, more interesting and more compelling to watch.

Tonight’s episode sets up twin story lines, complete with some intriguing parallels between past and present. In one, Jack hangs around in 1920s New York and falls in love with an Italian immigrant named Angelo before things go very, very wrong for both men. In the other, Gwen knocks Jack out, ties him up, tosses him in the back of her car, then drives him out into the middle of nowhere to meet the people who will only give up her family if she gives up Jack. The past story is horrific, building to a climax where Angelo discovers Jack’s immortality, then lets it slip to a neighborhood of superstitious people who string Jack up and regularly stab him, torn between the miraculous nature of his reality (and their hopes that his blood will prove somehow magical) and their fears that he’s the devil. The present story is surprisingly complex and character-based, building off of years of Gwen and Jack’s deteriorating relationship.

Does everything here work perfectly? No. It’s too obvious that Angelo is the mystery man behind Miracle Day, the man who wants Jack brought to him. (And who wants to bet those three strange men who were seen “buying” Jack will have something to do with the whole scheme as well?) And the Esther and Rex save the day climax feels like an instant pressure release valve, a situation where the show lets off a lot of the steam it built up throughout the episode, instead of keeping things rolling right into next week. (Even if Jack is going off with the mysterious people who met him out in the desert to see Angelo, having Esther and Rex save the day rather removes some of the compelling sense that time is running out.) And it’s increasingly hard to escape the feeling that the series has basically hit reset on the whole premise of the season, refocusing on Jack because that’s what it does best, even as the rest of the season didn’t have Jack nearly as close to its center. Put another way: It’s been two weeks since Oswald and Jilly last showed up. Have you missed them?

But those are all quibbles. The two central story lines in “Immortal Sins” were often very moving and were viscerally impactful as well. I can’t think of a moment in the series as fraught with horror and the sense of just how terrible Jack’s condition can be as that long montage of the residents of Little Italy advancing on Jack with their knives and cleavers and slashing mechanisms, bleeding him until he died, then his face popping up with a gasp, alive again, only to endure more suffering. I loved the way Angelo gradually lost centrality throughout this segment, as the legend he’d whispered to his neighbors became something seemingly everyone in town knew about and had to see. And I loved the way that the episode showed how getting involved with an immortal like Jack can only irreparably screw both parties up.

Jack, see, is always at the center of some very weird stuff, just by the very nature of his existence. And by becoming his boyfriend, Angelo naturally invites that weird stuff into his life. The relationship between the two characters was sketched very, very quickly, but it still had a weight to it that made the inevitable moment when things fell apart – when the two intercept a package containing an alien worm meant to drive Franklin D. Roosevelt insane and change the course of history then find themselves cornered by the police, who gun Jack down (seemingly) and arrest Angelo – that much sadder. Jack’s world is not one for a human to get involved in, yet he keeps getting involved with them (as Gwen points out in that scene in the car), almost seeing himself as someone omnipotent. At the same time, though, Jack is just as hurt here. Sooner or later, he says, all of his lovers have turned on him, and he’s had to escape, had to cause himself immense pain just to get away.

All of this is the sort of stuff that might have made for a really solid season of television, particularly if it were spread out throughout the year. Finally, the story is dealing more forthrightly with the mythology of the Torchwood Institute and with the events that occurred in “Children of Earth” (and with Gwen’s slight feelings of superiority at being able to survive where so many have fallen). Rex and Esther are dull, unmotivated characters, but the show felt the need to bring in some new people, just so a series making as big of a move as “Torchwood” has – to another network and another country – wouldn’t alienate too many people right out of the gate. But enough of the scenes in “Immortal Sins” were rich enough to make me wish this story had been teased out longer, particularly if it had given John Barrowman and Eve Myles more to do.

Anyway, we now know why the people behind the miracle are so interested in Jack, and we’re headed into the home stretch of the season. I’m hoping this episode was the course correction the show needed (if I never have to see any of the new characters again, I won’t complain), and even if the arrival of Angelo is a touch forced, this episode gave him the backstory needed to make him an appropriately engaging antagonist for Jack and the gang.

Photo: Gwen (Eve Myles) and Jack (John Barrowman) learn the name of the man behind Miracle Day. (Credit: Starz)

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