Sunday, September 11, 2016

REVIEW: 'The Last Ship' - Chandler Struggles to Take Back the Country and Maintain His Morals in 'Don't Look Back'

TNT's The Last Ship - Episode 3.13 "Don't Look Back"

As the fight for America reaches its conclusion, Chandler must face a challenge that could change his life forever.

Shows that center on an apocalyptic event very rarely move past it. That central idea is so powerful and unique that it needs to be sustained throughout the run of the show. The Walking Dead would be over if the walkers just stopped existing. It's fun for creators to imagine these worlds far removed from our own. They are depictions of just how easily are society can collapse and be replaced by something far darker and horrifying. The Last Ship decided to do something different though. For its first two seasons, the red flu plagued the planet. The search for a cure was the main driver of action. But at the end of those two seasons, a cure was found and distributed throughout the world. That finale felt like it could serve as the final episode of the show because its main mission and purpose for existing was over. And yet, The Last Ship returned for a third season. This year highlighted the struggles that come from rebuilding society after the apocalypse has ending. The red flu is no longer a threat. Governments are rising once more. This major world event happened. And now, everyone is trying to figure out how to move on past it. It's been a fascinating journey. One that's had its fair share of ups and downs. But one that found a really resonate place to end on.

The show did get a little political over these last few episodes of its run. It focused on how easier it can be to spot threats from foreign entities than the ones at home. For all three seasons, the Nathan James has faced off with enemies from foreign countries - the Russians, the English and the Chinese. This has been a very globe spanning show. It's fixated on the strong moral ideals that form the United States of America. Those principles guide Captain Tom Chandler through everything that he does. He took an oath to protect and serve this great nation. When he rode up the Mississippi River delivering the cure, it was a symbol that this wonderful country will rise again. He had a President willing to take on the challenges facing the nation. Chandler was determined to put the nation back together. In the beginning, it seemed like that was true. The infrastructure was small but apparent. There was a functional White House in San Diego with a cabinet surrounding the President and reporters determined to bring the truth to the public. Chandler was immediately sent on a mission in Asia because the United States had regained its position as the greatest country in the world.

Of course, none of this was true at all. The United States government was crumpling from within. Chandler wasn't seen as the hero he appeared to be at the start of the season. The leaders who rose up during the apocalypse weren't willing to restore the country to what it was. That meant they would have to go back to the lives they were living before all of this happened. Power is intoxicating. Chandler feels it as he lords over his ship and his crew. But he has pride in his service to country. He still fights for the ideals that the United States was founded under. The leaders back at home got drunk on their power. They obtained it by being vicious and horrifying beings. They were willing to manipulate and destroy just to ensure they were in charge. Sure, it was a little ridiculous that they worked with Peng in an attempt to eliminate Chandler and the Nathan James. Their association with a madman determined for genocide painted them as evil in some pretty broad strokes. There's nothing extremely subtle about this final arc for the season. And yet, it's still a pretty awesome and complicated way to end things.

Chandler essentially abandoned his country and is surprised by what he finds when he returns. This plan was in motion long before he left for Asia. So, it's apparent he really didn't have a firm grasp on the situation at all. He was powerless to save Rachel when she was killed. And now, he feels responsible for America falling into the wrong hands. So, it's up to him to restore the balance. He has a ship and a fine crew at his disposal. He once again has a President willing to correct these massive mistakes. But they are facing a public that is even more broken and beaten down than when the ship delivered the cure. There has been peace. But that has come because the military has ruled with an iron fist. Not everyone who serves the country is a firm believer in its ideals like Chandler and Slattery are. In fact, Allison Shaw has a Colonel who will do anything - including launching a drone strike against the Nathan James - to have power. It's a precarious situation for the ship. They are doing their best to survive. Armed units are taking all of the regional leaders into custody. But Allison is the big problem. She's the one who has the foresight to know what needs doing and how best to achieve it.

This has been a fairly exciting role for Elisabeth Röhm to play. At first, it seemed like the show was wasting her as just one of President Michener's cabinet members. But the reveal that she was a part of the evil organization hellbent on taking over the country was excellent. Sure, at times the part veered into mustache-twirling, scenery chewing villainy. But that works perfectly fine on this type of show. Nothing Chandler and the Nathan James crew do means anything if Allison is still out there. As long as she's alive, she's stirring up trouble. So, the finale really is a climatic battle to try and capture her. It's a mission to put an end to this reign of terror. The country is more hopeless than it has ever been before. The regional leaders and Allison were doing well under this new world order. But the rest of society was suffering. Chandler couldn't bear to see that. The Navy uniform means something to him. It's an honor to put it on and serve his country. But when people flee upon seeing it instead of getting the help they need, it's clear that Chandler and President Oliver have major battle ahead of them.

The season ends with a tense confrontation between Chandler and Allison. She has kidnapped his children and killed his father just to ensure her safety. That's a horrifying thing to do. But Chandler is willing to make that ultimate sacrifice in giving himself over to her as long as it means protecting his kids and his country. This confrontation is a little awkwardly staged though. Did the Colonel and the dozen of other men in the hanger just forget that Tex boarded the plane but never got off and rejoined Slattery like Kara did? When did Sasha make her way to the roof to provide some sniper protection? Those are key details that ensure Chandler is able to turn the tables on Allison and emerge unharmed. But it plays as something the audience is just suppose to accept. And yet, these are legitimate logistical questions. The show doesn't want us to worry about them though. Instead, it wants us focused on Tex dying in this final shootout. Bullets flying in small, tight places are always precarious. So, it's not surprising that Tex is hit. It's also not surprising that this finale features a death of a major character. It highlights the consequences of this war. How the country is so broken that not everyone can survive to see if it becomes better. However, Tex hasn't been a major part of this season. Yes, he returned for these final three or so episodes and kicked a lot of ass. He reminded us of why he was great in the first place. But the first two-thirds of the season showed that the series can operate just fine without him.

In fact, Tex's death serves as the final motivation for Chandler to actually kill Allison. He went into this operation to take back control of the country simply by capturing the regional leaders and arresting them for their crimes. He still believes in law and order. He doesn't believe it's right to take someone's life because of the crimes they've committed. He doesn't see that as justice. But here, the emotions are so overwhelming and personal to him that he pulls that trigger. He kills Allison. He has killed many times before. But this death is more significant. It changes who he is. He no longer believes he can serve this country as the captain of the Nathan James. It's questionable if he will even continue as Chief of Naval Operations. He can't bear this action that he did. He believes he failed his family because he left them to travel the globe and restore peace to the entire planet when his home needed it the most. It's a lot for him to bear. So, it's understandable why he chooses to part ways with the ship. It creates an interesting cliffhanger for the show. The action is always at its best when Chandler is in charge leading a tense mission. What happens if that is no longer something he's willing to do? More importantly, can the United States ever rebuild itself again? Will President Oliver win the public's trust again? These are the tense questions heading into the fourth season. There's a ray of hope. But is that enough for survival?

Some more thoughts:
  • "Don't Look Back" was written by Jill Blankenship & Onalee Hunter Hughes and directed by Peter Weller.
  • The show really toned down its romantic elements this season. It was a lot better for it as well. That wasn't clear in the early going. It seemed like everyone was destined to have romantic chemistry and longing looks with several other characters. That's not something the show does well. And yet, it was never a main driver of action or story.
  • Of course, Chandler does part ways with Sasha by kissing her. That's a romantic story the show felt it needed to act on. That was never an important part of their dynamic. So, it does feel a little awkward when it happens. He's broken by what he has just done. And yet, he feels this is the appropriate time to kiss her?
  • It's important that Chandler makes a contingency plan for someone to look after his children should he not make it out of the plane alive. And yet, the fact that Tex makes no such plans about his own daughter basically guaranteed that he would die.
  • Kara really stepped it up this season in importance. The White House arc in the early going was pretty rough. But she was a non-essential character in the first two seasons. And now, she more than proved that she deserves to be an important part of the show.
  • There's definitely some weirdness with the time it takes to travel the entire country throughout this finale. Armed soldiers leave the Nathan James in San Diego to fly to four distinct areas throughout the country. Then, they all land in St. Louis for the final confrontation. Chandler makes the trip quickly as well. The show recognizes it's an issue. Kara, Sasha and Burk have no backup when they have to storm the White House. But after that, the show just doesn't care anymore. 
  • This week TNT confirmed that The Last Ship will be back for two more seasons of 10 episodes each. Now, that's down from the 13 produced for Seasons 2 and 3. But both of those years needed some tightening with the main story. So, that could be very good for the actual quality of the show in the future.