Season Premiere: Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles – “Samson and Delilah”

“Samson and Delilah”

September 8th, 2008

The last time I took a look at Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles, you’d think that I wouldn’t be here blogging a second season premiere. Not only was I fairly harsh on the show’s third episode, but the ratings were declining and the buzz was slowly dying. In a strike-damaged season, there was no question that a show like Sarah Connor would just get lost in the wind, a failed attempt to capture a franchise audience with a show that wasn’t living up to its potential.

Well, I had more or less written it off in this fashion, but in the slow summer months I revisited the series and finished off its nine episode run. And while I wasn’t quite driven to blog about my experience, I was quite simply pleasantly surprised: it wasn’t poetry, but the season finale in particular demonstrated a willingness to embrace a larger dramatic perspective, and the episodes leading into it did a strong job of furthering the show’s connection to the broader franchise storyline. As some have taken to saying: it might indicate that we’re living in an opposite world, but Brian Austin Green’s arrival in the series actually coincided with a strong improvement in quality.

So with this new perspective, the show’s surprise second season renewal seems more than justified: it’s a show that was on a definite upward swing heading into the its final episodes, and with the strike limiting pilot development this is one of many shows that deserve a chance to recapture audiences’ attention. So while the momentum is in its favour, and the cheaply priced DVD set likely sold quite a few people on trying the show for the first time, it does need to prove that it can sustain itself in its sophomore season.

The verdict on that front, though, remains iffy: with a rather tepid introduction of the new corporate conspiracy and a chip malfunction that creates a particularly volatile rollercoaster ride of a premiere, “Samson and Delilah” is a heavily action-oriented episode that feels like an organic, but frantic, followup to last season’s cliffhanger explosion. And while I could have done with more set pieces that didn’t feel like one long chase scene, there are moments here that remind us that this show is in better hands than I thought eight months ago.

One of the problems with the episode, although it ends up being a positive in other ways, is that Cameron’s sudden shift into a John Connor murdering psychopath is that it means that most of the episode is about John and Sarah fighting yet another mindless Terminator as opposed to someone they care about. Yes, eventually they start to come to terms with the fact that they will have to kill their “friend” in order to survive, but in the meantime it felt as if they were the same types of action sequences we saw in the finale just featuring a different antagonist.

When we eventually get to the end of the episode, and that pivotal moment as John sits listening to Cameron claim that she’s back to normal, that she loves him, that she doesn’t want to go, it’s where the show needs to be. The relationship between these two characters, John and the robot from the future who is supposed to protect him, comes into the central narrative here, whereas it was slow to introduce itself considering that being on the run isn’t (and shouldn’t be) a time for expository character statements. This kind of brings the whole episode full circle, justifying the earlier emphasis on action by giving it considerably greater meaning in a new context.

And it does seem to signal, as it should, that John is now in greater control of his own destiny. His decision to wake Cameron up from her slumber, knowing that she has every power to kill him, is like him finally taking control: no more emo haircuts, no more whiny high school existence, but a boy who is turning into the man he needs to be. It’s a transition that needed to happen: while Sarah Connor may be in the credits, there was a point where John had to step into a more active and independent role.

I think part of the issue with the transition was the resolution to the cliffhanger was completely silent, giving us no real insight into the efforts of Sarkozy and not allowing for John and Sarah to really voice any of their emotions. The slow motion in the scene was almost jarring, like we wanted more details than the base action, and it felt like we never really got a resolution so much as an escalation. This is fine on the level of Cameron’s abilities, but it is the Turk and its future that are a much bigger concern in the big picture, and where the episode struggles the most.

And while it might be unfair, I do think a lot of this rests on the fact that Shirley Manson is no actress. She is capable of delivering a decent line or two, but for the most part she just brings nothing interesting to the role. When it is eventually revealed that she is in fact one of our liquid metal friends, it feels like a bit of a cheat to attempt to make her interesting. When I compare it with say the work being done on Fringe (which premieres tomorrow night) by Blair Brown, playing a similarly shady corporate figure in charge of a broader conspiracy, it’s just so shallow: she’s being given a lot of really hammy philosophical material, and it just feels lifeless in the hands of a non-actress.

So when I’m trying to figure out just what they want to do with the Turk, this mysterious project Babylon, it’s kind of tough to get a grasp on it when what is already vague ponficating lacks any sort of punch. I do like that we’re getting more of a glimpse into the conspiracy, into the development of Skynet, but I do hope that Manson’s first acting gig improves as it goes along. Also, she needs to get a better kill strategy: the Pinnochio finger trick was honestly kind of lame in execution, even if her morphing out of the urinal was quite enjoyable.

So consider it a mixed bag for the start of the season, although one that doesn’t do anything to derail the momentum we had moving into the premiere. With the emo haircut finally gone, and a John Connor who has finally made a real decision, I’m definitely more optimistic than I was when I last wrote about the series.

Cultural Observations

  • We didn’t spend much time with Ellison and Cromartie, but we did get a sense that Ellison has a new perspective on the whole situation and realizes that the only reason he’s alive is so that he can help Cromartie track down our titular heroine and her son. These two are an interesting part of the show’s equation, and until the very end the FBI side of things felt really quite unnecessary. How much that becomes more pronounced in the year ahead, as they try to balance now three different perspectives, only time will tell.
  • The show is always big on biblical references, in particular the titular reference to John and Cameron and their entire relationship of sorts. The kind of tricks Cameron was playing while trapped between the two trucks seems to be in spirit with the biblical story of Samson and Delilah, as does John using the story as a moral of stepping up sooner rather than later, plus we’ve got the new conspiracy named after Babylon, often considered a pillar of evil within the New Testament. We also have the conversation about faith, and the very idea of it, between Cameron and Sarah in the chapel: faith is an important part of the show, which has proven a strong dramatic element in contrast with its robotic elements.
  • Nice to see the show still has fun with its entire premise: Cameron using the nail gun to put her skin back into place is one of those surreal images that often afford themselves with this science fiction setting, and they always simple little sight gags that have some impact.
  • I presume we’ll be seeing more of Mr. Austin Green next time around, as the show settles into a more normal narrative pattern: how much we’ll see of Dean Winters as Charlie, though, might depend on the way the plot progresses.

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