Sunday, June 21, 2015

REVIEW: 'The Last Ship' - Chandler and His Crew Fight Back to Regain Control in 'Unreal City' & 'Fight the Ship'

TNT's The Last Ship - Episodes 2.01 "Unreal City" & 2.02 "Fight the Ship"

After the horrifying revelations in Baltimore, Chandler and his fractured team join forces with an underground resistance in an attempt to defeat Amy Granderson. With doses of the cure running low, Rachel tries to do some good for the sick while remaining a prisoner at Avocet. Slattery and the crew are in a race against time to save an injured Dr. Tophet and regain control of their ship.

The first season of TNT's The Last Ship ended on a note of despair for the heros aboard the USS Nathan James. Dr. Rachel Scott had just created a cure to the lethal virus that wiped out 80% of the world's population. That was a moment that needed to be rejoiced. And yet, it was short-lived because of the immediate urgency to head to Baltimore in order to mass produce the cure as well as find and save Captain Tom Chandler's family. Once there, the crew got its first taste at what the political structure of the country whose values they were fighting to uphold had actually become. Society really had changed drastically. That was entirely because of the demented reasonings of Amy Granderson, who believed that the vital, important and good members of society needed to be the ones saved from destruction while the rest needed to be killed off swiftly. It was a horrifying revelation to make at the end of the first season. The United States had been corrupted in a way that was unrecognizable to Chandler and his crew. The subsequent cliffhanger left all of them captured in the new, corrupt system.

It really is a good thing that the expanded second season of the show (up 3 episodes from the first season's order) opens as a two-hour event. These first two episodes have to directly deal with the problems that came about in last season's finale. Everyone is trapped in their own unique circumstances. They are all fighters desperate to protect the world and everyone in it. But it's an uphill battle that they have to wage against the corrupt officials in power. It's a satisfying action set piece for the totality of the two-hour running time. These episodes don't allow much time for the characters to breathe and deal with the emotional ramifications of their actions. They have to fight in order to survive. That gives these episodes a sense of urgency and excitement that was present in the show last season during its best moments. The Last Ship knows how to do action well. These two episodes are almost all action - with the various members of the crew doing their best to stage their takeovers of Baltimore, the ship and Avocet and then proceed to take them. It's not an onslaught without casualties. And yet, it is thrilling to watch. This show isn't aspiring to be a serious and grim take on the morality of a post-apocalyptic world. It's set in that universe but knows that it's heart is in its action. That's what makes episodes like these so fun to watch - even though it's simply unsustainable over the course of an entire season.

Chandler and the Master Chief are able to keep Chandler's father and children safe throughout the opening hours. The momentum of the premiere does come to a halt whenever it feels the need to cut back to whatever Bill Smitrovich and the kids are up to. It builds up the idea that the cure isn't working on the young boy but then absolutely nothing comes from it and he is miraculously better two seconds later. But Chandler largely remains a man of action across these opening episodes. He sees the injustice in the world and is fighting to put an end to it. That is an admirable quality to have especially if the audience is always suppose to be rooting for him. It does make it somewhat laughable though when he tries to insist that Amy will face a jury of her peers for the crimes that she has committed against the city of Baltimore. As idealistic as he is about the goodness of the American criminal justice system, that was never going to be a direction that the show would willingly take the story in. Death was the only kind of resolution coming for Amy as soon as the tables started to turn against her.

It is thrilling to see how much devastation occurs in the wake of Amy's actions as the woman in charge. She is doing her best to bring order to the city. She believes she was right to do everything that she did because she gave society a rational option to continue living. It was a mindset ruled by discrimination. Only the most elite and skilled where allowed into her precious society. She does have a point in saying that she needed to bring order in a time where chaos threatened to end all of humanity. But in the end, she was always painted as the villain of the story. That wasn't going to change in her final confrontation with Chandler. He always had to have the moral high ground. Her leadership was good and reasonable when there was no cure in sight. But he brought her salvation for all of humanity and she still decided to continue down her dark path. That's ultimately what caused all of this destruction. Her ego got in the way of seeing the opportunities that Chandler brought to her. She wanted to take the cure and hoard it in a world that she controlled. As focused as Chandler was in making sure that his family was safe above those of his crew, he still does care about the men under his command. They are all still willing to fight for him. That's true service.

The premiere event also showcases how well and effective this crew can be together in extreme times of duress. The crew aboard the ship have no contact with Chandler or anyone else in high command. They simply have to rely on each other to take control of the ship once more. They have to be patient. But they also have to protect the one thing that Amy's men want the most: the strand of the virus crucial in manufacturing the cure. If Amy's scientists had all of Rachel's research and biological samples, they wouldn't need her cooperation. Amy and Rachel can have a chat about the humanity of this operation while Amy is secret hoping that her team is effective in bringing her lab of scientists exactly what they need without Rachel's skills at all.

Protecting the initial strand of the virus is what ultimately gets Quincy killed. He is the one significant death amongst the regular cast. Amy and resistance leader Thorwald also die. But they were always just fixtures of the action set in Baltimore. Quincy was a (semi-)important character aboard the USS Nathan James. He offered assistance to Rachel while also providing stakes in Chandler's conflict with the rival Russian ship in the first season. He brought about several moral questions in the first season. And yet, those moments of personality and emotion didn't always work. I'm not sure if he ever was fully redeemed as a character after he almost got everyone on the ship killed in order to protect his family. But it's tragic nevertheless that he sacrifices his own life in the hopes of saving everyone aboard the ship - including his wife and daughter.

Everyone really does have a strong moment in this action event that starts the new season. Even if I still don't know a lot of the characters' names amongst the crew, I do still recognize faces. It doesn't make the emotional impact of their work connect all that well. But it's still easy to understand what the show was going for and it largely achieves it. Not all of the characters had a strong purpose in the first season - especially when all they were being asked to do was serve as personal and emotional conflicts. Here, everyone does have an importance because of the urgency of the situation. The Danny-Kara romance was never all that great. But here, her pregnancy gave her so much importance and allowed for the most horrifying piece of tension at the conclusion of the first episode as the mad scientist was getting ready to cut her baby out of her in the name of science. That was horrifying but at least it gave the character some importance. The same happened for Slattery and Danny as they were crucial pieces in keeping the power out at Avocet and navigating the crew through the potential dangers abroad the ship. Even someone like communications officer Alisha had an important character beat. She brought out the emotional humanity in Amy because she was her daughter. Sure, she was still largely just a pawn in order to bring up the emotional manipulation in Chandler and Amy's final confrontation. But it also gives Alisha the strongest character arc in the next few episodes as she has to return to the ship knowing that everything that has just happened was her mother's fault. She has to face the crew and that is terrifying to her.

"Unreal City" and "Fight the Ship" are such strong episodes to start the second season with. However, they largely just bring resolution to the cliffhangers that ended the first season. They don't really establish what the main arc for the second season will be. They are thrilling and exciting to watch. But next week's episode will ultimately determine what direction the series will go from here. 

Some more thoughts:
  • "Unreal City" was written by Hank Steinberg & Steven Kane and directed by Jack Bender.
  • "Fight the Ship" was written by Hank Steinberg & Steven Kane and directed by Jack Bender.
  • A few moments are made at showing the humanity on both sides of this conflict. It wasn't just Chandler and Thorwald's team shooting at glorified extras. Chandler made it a priority to protect the innocent people within Avocet - even if they have been brainwashed by Amy's ways. Kara was able to get some sympathy from a nurse who wasn't nearly as demented as the scientist. Thorwald recognized one of Amy's guards before needing to kill him. It wasn't much but a conscious effort was clearly made.
  • Both John Pyper-Ferguson and Jocko Sims were promoted to series regular status for this season. Tex is memorable while Carlton is just one of those faces that blurs amongst the ship's crew.
  • Chandler does mention to his children that the ship will need to secure the city and then allow the crew to go search for their own families. That's the only kind of direction that the conclusion of the second episode sets up for next week.