Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles – “Mr. Ferguson is Ill Today”

terminatortitle

“Mr. Ferguson is Ill Today”

November 10th, 2008

At the end of “Mr. Ferguson is Ill Today,” Sarah Connor says that nothing ever changes: that it is the same thing that drives her every day, and that all of her decisions will continue to revolve around that concern. While I don’t doubt this mother’s dedication to her son’s safety, I feel like this statement paints a picture of this show as something repetitive, something that boils down to an action-packed joy ride of destruction at its best and an elaborate holding pattern at its most languid.

And there have been moments when Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles has felt like both of those things, especially in the early parts of its first season. However, like the first season finale before it, this week’s episode (the eighth of the show’s twenty-two episode season) is an example of the ways in which the show has resisted becoming a pure action series, and how those potentially slow-moving sections have given the show a chance to build characters who believe in things, who have complex emotions, and who can fire off some guns while remaining grounded in some kind of reality.

As this week’s episode weaves in and out of everyone’s stories, there was never once where I questioned whether that character had something to contribute to this story (even if the device seemed unnecessary, gimmicky), and each of them reached an apex of sorts in this episode as it relates to their characters. For a season that has spent considerable time tracing the origins of Skynet through the introduction of Shirley Manson’s Terminator model, it is telling that the most action-packed episode so far is all about people (as sucky as they might be, Riley) – it’s also the best episode of the season so far.

I don’t want to spend too much time on this, mainly because I’m falling ill and really need to get some sleep, but what makes this episode work is Cameron. Despite this not necessarily being about her, she is the one who we get the most interesting glimpse of. The best thing the show has done so far this season is the work in humanizing, both in future and present, this robot who has always straddled that line. From the moment her emergency protocol kicked in during the premiere, pleading with John to spare her life, the question of Cameron’s humanity has been an important part of their interaction. This episode, however, took that up a few notches.

First and foremost, we have her scene in John’s bedroom, essentially a preview of the future: a time in which John and Cameron are romantically involved. It makes a lot of sense: it explains why, precisely, John would send Cameron in particular back to protect his mother/self, and it also explains what we saw in our glimpse into her origins as a copy of another girl, Alyson. It isn’t entirely clear what we’re seeing here, but it’s hard not to see the paralells to something like Battlestar Galactica’s Cylons – here, though, there isn’t supposed to be any personality, any traces of any other person, and yet there are pieces of Alyson throughout this episode. That scene on the bed is utterly creepy in most senses, but on one level it rings of truth: an emotion from Cameron that actually feels like an emotion. Coupled with her message, essentially that Riley isn’t there in the future but she is, it’s an unnerving scene for quite a few reasons.

But more unnerving is that moment where Cameron and Derek enter the police station in search of John in Mexico. Her urgency to find John is not robotic in that sense: the camera clearly cuts to Derek, pondering why she is throwing all caution to the wind and searching for John in a way less methodical than suicidal. As Cromartie himself said, Cameron is making mistake: they’re not big ones, as humans like Sarah or John are bound to make, but they are uncharacteristic and they could place John in some danger of, at the very least, philosophical distress.

It’s an extra layer that wasn’t there in the first season to the same degree. Yes, Sarah and John’s relationship hasn’t really advanced beyond its original tensions: he is still a teenager, she is still an overprotective mother, and their run from the law feels on occasion to be a bit repetitive. However, in a moment like this one, their relationship feels natural and understandable. While some have likely found Riley a bit of a contrived influence on John’s life, I find her both charming and refreshing: while it might not be maturing John into a badass overnight (which seems to be the expectation of some), it does give him another outlet, and that at least is taking the characters to new places.

And while he felt extraneous during most of the first season, James Ellison is really playing a bigger role this time around. His belief in Sarah is almost concerning to her: she’s terrified of this man who once hunted her down who now believes that there is something much bigger at play. There’s a lot of unresolved tensions here: we have Shirley Manson’s project, we have word of a SkyNet Civil War of sorts, and we also have Derek’s secret acquaintance who obviously is back for a reason. Plus, this episode added another onto the pile: for what purpose was Cameron making a “small bomb?”

This is the achievement of this episode: despite being in many ways a resolution, of Cromartie as a character (I’ll miss Garret Dillahunt, but it felt like a fitting end) and of this particular chase sequence, it also felt like a good turning point for these characters. We have Ellison making his final choice in his battle to protect as opposed to hurting the Connors, we have Riley learning more and more what kind of boy “friend” she has, and we have the seeds of humanity starting to manifest in Cameron. At the same time, there’s a lot of things unresolved, most of them deeply philosophical and therefore full of potential for the of the season. While the show will still have its slow moments, and it will still have its gun battles, these episodes bring them together in a way that reminds us that this show is, at the very least, better than we would have expected from its pilot.

Cultural Observations

  • I have no way of being sure, but based on first impressions I’d say that the Mexico set was the same one that FOX used when shooting Arrested Development’s scenes in Mexico. I personally found this quite funny, although it only briefly took me out of the episode.
  • I may say this is the best episode of the season so far because of its intersection of these ideas, but I found last week’s episode more shocking and visceral – taken as a pair of episodes, this is some high-calibre television.
  • Last week, it was announced that the show will be moving to Fridays in January – whether its ratings will drop in kind is hard to predict, but with consistent quality I think it can hold onto its numbers, which would actually make it a big improvement for FOX’s Friday lineup.
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