Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles – “Self-Made Man”

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“Self-Made Man”

December 1st, 2008

After catching up with last week’s episode of Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles, I posted on twitter that anyone who was actually interested in science fiction television should be watching this show instead of Heroes (Five episodes behind and feelin’ fine). There are a lot of reasons for this, from the show’s willingness to engage with the human implications of its events to its simultaneous interest in building its characters individually as opposed to en masse as part of broader story arcs. While at times one wishes the show would be less vague in terms of the grand scheme of things, it manages to take that vague setting and find a foundation in the characters and their plight.

At its core, “Self-Made Man” is a procedural mystery: spotting a Terminator model in a photograph from New Year’s Eve 1920, Cameron goes on a journey through the archives in search of a clue to why a Terminator would be sent back to that particular date. But what the Josh Friedman and his staff have been demonstrating all season is that they have a command of this series: even those elements which feel quite simple (in this case, largely inconsequential and without detailed reasoning beyond an episodic context) are executed with such a precise sense of both character and theme that it doesn’t matter when we don’t get the “Why?”

While other shows spend so much time focused on building suspense for that particular question and forget to build characters, Terminator is carving out a niche for itself as the kind of show that uses its characters for more than acting out plots – while it’s still not to the level of some of Lost or BSG, it is nonetheless quality science fiction television at this stage of the game.

First off, to get it out of the way: yes the John/Riley plot was boring, uninteresting, and really quite simplistic. I also felt that the episode could very easily have come two weeks ago: outside of the opening scene with John investigating the dots, most of it tied into events from earlier this season (John’s awkward bed scene with Cameron, John’s struggles with murdering Sarkozy) as opposed to our most recent development (that Riley is a time traveller herself). It seemed odd that we got no mention of that: yes, not having Brian Austin Green and Stephanie Jacobsen in the episode kind of made that difficult, but budget-driven cast issues still made the storyline stand out as really awkward.

There’s an irony in that the storyline about the robotic Terminator and the wheelchair-bound history student was more comfortable than the story about two people will full mobility and emotional capacity, but it’s true: Summer Glau has so completely bought into this role that I am willing to suggest she deserves some sort of recognition for it. No, she’s not asked to deliver the kind of emotional range you’d normally see, but there was some great work with very understanded emotions in this episode in particular.

It was a simple mystery on one side of the coin, but the point I’d make is that it ultimately says more about Cameron than it would about the Terminators in general. She appears to have been doing this for a while, and it’s interesting (and logical) that we don’t get an answer as to why. It’s interesting because it raises the question of whether she’s there for late night companionship (she doesn’t sleep, after all, so solving a mystery all night is a better use of her time than laundry), investigations into Terminator activity (doing as she did during this episode, spotting those periods where Terminators have landed and tried to change the future), or investigations into her own work (whether it’s her bomb building or whatever she wanted help researhing in terms of weapons technology). It’s all interesting ideas that add a certain layer to her mission.

But it makes sense that we don’t get an answer – the whole point of Cameron as a character is that we don’t get her feelings, even if they’re technically there. She isn’t going to offer up her inner most thoughts, even to someone who is in Eric’s position. While her cryptic nature is obviously a sign of her robotic existence, it is also a reflection of what is her form of cancer: whatever happened in that explosion has stayed with her, and she is afraid of what it could become. We know from multiple sources that John ends up emotionally linked with Cameron in some capacity in the future, so her fear of hurting him (and her concern for him) are coming from someplace that might be beyond “programming,” which is something I don’t know I expected from the series when it premiered.

Billy Lush was a good choice to play our bone-cancer strickened scholar, helping Cameron and in the process getting a free if unsolicited medical checkup. There was a nice if simple parallel between them: he living captive by his body’s past and (if she is to be believed) present condition but fully capable of using his mind, and she in completely control of her body but unable to control what her mind might make it do. Lush did some great work this summer in HBO’s Generation Kill, and he was strong here as well: just the right kind of foil for Cameron, someone who would be most intrigued by her abilities but, at the same time also offended by her lack of social aptitude.

While there is reason to be concerned, as Alan Sepinwall is, that these various good episodes aren’t yet adding up to anything substantial, I think this is the better pattern: while we’re answer-free, we’re also free from the time of convoluted storytelling that Heroes implemented in its second season. For me personally, I got what I wanted to get out of this episode: psychological investigation, interesting use of the show’s science fiction setting, and a nice action sequence to boot. Both Cameron-centric episodes this season have been really good, so it’s pretty clear that the “Let Summer handle this one” strategy is something to emulate in the future.

Cultural Observations

  • Okay, I know John transported quite a few years into the future, but it’s still kind of problematic for him to suck at video games. Someone with as much computer skill as him should probably have some hand-eye coordination of some sort even when his internal bloodlust is starting to take over his system.
  • What year is this, in the Terminator perspective – I don’t know why that building would have that placard for a speech so far ahead of time if this is still in 2008, but I don’t think that much time has passed since they first jumped forward to this point. Still, I could be wrong, and that date would make a lot more sense. Regardless, kind of convenient, but the ensuing scene was a lot of fun.
  • While I know that it’s called the Sarah Connor Chronicles, can’t say I missed Sarah – Lena Headey has grown well into the role, and was great in last week’s episode, but the Cameron Chronicles has a nice ring to it.
  • It may have felt like a budget episode in terms of casting, but the enormous period setting stuff required plus special effects likely made this one even out. I think it was worth it, though, episode felt really well constructed on all sides of the camera.

1 Comment

Filed under Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles

One response to “Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles – “Self-Made Man”

  1. Surprisingly, I agree with your assessment regarding this series with “Heroes”. Week after week, I find myself more fulfilled by “Terminator” than the plight of the Patrelli family (although this week with Hiro, made things better). But all in all, I really enjoyed this episode. I especially liked how the show opened with Cameron and the donuts making us think she is (or had) a personal or emotional connection to the cancer-ridden librarian, but to only discover at the end of the episode, she is just using tactics to get what she needs. And just like a Terminator, the show entered us through emotion and got what it wanted to do.

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