Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles – “Automatic for the People”

“Automatic for the People”

September 15th, 2008

“That was dangerous. It could upset people.”

This is what Cameron tells John the morning after their season premiere ordeal, a statement that he thinks is about the people he placed into danger directly (Derek and his mother). Cameron corrects him, though, noting that the issue is in the future rather than the present: in other words, John’s future reliance on or relationship with Cameron is clearly a concern for the future.

And this is an episode all about the future, about turning back to a show that is your standard mission-driven action series that uses the various qualities of your main characters. While this is good, as there’s some decent setup for the season ahead here (including a wonderfully contrived plot device), it does seem like a bit of a let down after last week.

When it looked like John was finally going to grow a pair, somehow I didn’t expect him to go all out and…invite a girl over to his house and refuse to make her leave. Oooh, what a badass. In all seriousness, though, it’s a bit of a momentum killer, even if the show still has a good trajectory.

Sure, they blew a lot of their budget in the first episode, but this is a slow episode for more reasons than a lack of money. It’s slow because the show suddenly needs to shift from an action-packed and emotional episode to something that feels more like an episodic series. The issue with this, more than anything, is that the show hasn’t felt like this since its sixth episode last season or so. It felt like an urgent rush, with a Terminator slowly threatening to attack this family and a computer that, if falling into the wrong hands, could prove dangerous.

These two threads, though, are woefully absent here. We don’t get any of Cromartie, and we don’t see Shirley Manson until the end of the episode. The threat here is entirely in the future, and this is one of the things that the show suffered with in the very beginning. The threat wasn’t real so much as it was forced onto the series: SkyNet is part of the show’s intense mythology, but this doesn’t mean the show can take for granted the driving force that needs to be behind these issues. When Derek came from the future, this all became clear: now, he’s so much just another member of this team of misfits that the resonance is gone, even with the little flashforward to what happens at the Nuclear facility in the future.

What we do get is an example of the fact that the show can work: Cameron as the security badge scanning pool shark, Sarah as the seductress, and Derek as the recon man. It’s a much less complicated structure than last week, but it is important that there is a formula here: it’s not quite a procedural, but if it’s going to do a 22 episode season there needs to be episodes like this. The main problem with this is that, while Lena Headey plays the role well, I do think that she isn’t quite Jennifer Garner, if you will, in terms of this kind of undercover work. When she’s pulling the cancer heartstrings, it works…but it could work much better.

The real story with these three is Cameron, who isn’t functioning as normal: the other T-800 model (I think that’s the model) kicks her ass, she barely knows how to respond, and she’s just “thinking” more…and as Sarah notes, this isn’t normal. I do like that, even though she didn’t kill John, something is still very wrong with Cameron.

The major issue with the episode is that John has nothing to do with any of this: he goes to school, meets a girl named Riley, brings her home and does some passive flirting, and then eventually turns it into some sort of rebellion against his mother. It’s a fascinating little turn of events because it goes exactly against last week’s badass haircut and a new attitude: instead, he just softened himself up for a new female companion. I understand the reasoning here: he can’t really enter into the drama in the same way as everyone else quite yet, and if it doesn’t involve much technology he’s pretty much useless.

But it does kind of kill things dead as far as momentum for his character: I think there is definitely some potential here, but the show for the first time shows no clear signs of where it’s really going other than its vague setup. The episode ends with them discovering the season’s bible, a bloody wall of prophecies from the resistance fighter who came back to warn them about the events at the Nuclear Plant. It’s a laundry list of things to stop, and seems pretty long.

What the episode does do well, though, is remind us that SkyNet is a threat – this event was either going to give SkyNet a victory in the present or the future, and that lose-lose situation (At least it wasn’t lose-lose-lose, right Michael Scott?) is a dire warning for the future. The show needs to be really careful, though, that it keeps the present drama reasonably exciting: with care, the show is still on the right track.

Cultural Observations

  • As someone noted over at NeoGAF, there’s a bit of an issue about how they managed to have a Terminator Copy of Ryan Chapelle (I didn’t even acknowledge his new character name, he’ll always be Chapelle to me) ready considering that Cromartie’s transformation took too long. If I would offer a reason, it would be that they were probably planning to do this from the very beginning, and had been preparing it ever since he pulled the plug on the last test. Still, though, they need to address some of this stuff.
  • We seemed to say goodbye to Dean Winters and Sonya Walger this week, as they head off to avoid the chaos of it all. We talked a bit more about Ellison’s faith, but for the most part it seemed like a bit of a waste of time.
  • Still not sure why it was named after the REM album, anyone with a theory?
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