Warehouse 13 – “Breakdown”



September 8th, 2009

It may seem weird to a few days out be blogging about a show that’s pretty unheralded in terms of critical analysis, but there were some observations I wanted to make that wouldn’t quite fit into a Twitter comment and so here we are discussing “Breakdown,” what’s really the last “minor” episode of Warehouse 13 before the Michael Hogan guest spot next week and the finale the week after.

One of the things that I’ve discussed about Warehouse 13 is a rather annoying trope wherein the people attempting to solve the mystery (so to speak) end up getting personally tied up in it. Take, for example, a while ago when the life-draining Spine of Saracen latched itself onto Pete as they attempted to solve its various properties. I liked the story itself, bringing in past agents and kind of offering a sense of the self-sacrifice which can be involved in the job, but by placing Pete at the center of the conflict it meant there was only one conclusion: we know Pete is going to be fine, so the threat of his death is a false one. If it were on someone else (say, the female former Warehouse agent), there’s some semblance of uncertainty, and a chance for the show to head into some darker territory.

But the last couple of weeks have demonstrated that there is value to this kind of structure so long as it is handled in the proper fashion. Last week’s “Homicidal Prison” was an example of the show dealing with a couple of lingering story beats (Myka’s boyfriend dying in Dallas and Pete ignoring his second sight (of sorts) and not warning his father against going to that fire) in the midst of a fairly interesting story. It wasn’t that we ever thought Pete or Myka were going to kill themselves, but rather that we needed to see them face off with those struggles. In that context, placing them in the center of everything worked, and the episode felt stronger because of it.

In “Breakdown,” meanwhile, Pete and Myka are once again at the mercy of various artifacts, but in a way that didn’t feel like a forced ramping up of tension, and that captured the fun and enjoyable side of the show without necessarily foregoing the more suspenseful moments. It wasn’t the deepest episode of the show yet, but it showed the kind of potential behind having the show’s leads front and center in the battle between free will and artifacts, and that the producers know what they’re doing heading into the finale.

While in previous episodes the involvement of Pete and Myka as agents of the artifact has felt like a third-act cheat of sorts, here it was the very point: with Claudia having gotten herself lost in the Warehouse, Pete and Myka got on your typical linear adventure narrative to capture her back, facing off with various artifacts in the interim. It’s your classic structure, really: you face off against an obstacle on the road (the multiplying bouncing balls), you get trapped inside a particular location (the house you can’t get out of), and then you’re forced to take a dangerous shortcut to reach your destination (going through the Dark Vault in order to reach the finish). Each solution was a sort of puzzle: catching the dodgeball, the painting being the key to escaping the house, and (in a more rudimentary fashion) brute force allowing them to pass into the Vault and for Pete to get past the typewriter.

It really did feel like an old point and click adventure game, in a way. Even at the end, as they’re trying to figure out how to solve their sticky situation, they use an object introduced earlier without much fanfare (the snow globe). What made it work for me is how simple it was, a smart move considering the somewhat slow-paced nature of the other half of the episode with Artie. It wasn’t a normal procedural storyline being turned into a life and death situation, it was like a short-form adventure film with clear objectives from the very beginning which gave it a real drive forward that I quite enjoyed. Because the suspense was allowed to build slowly throughout the storyline, each stage making things that much more tense, the conclusion felt about as exciting as a procedural on SyFy can be when you know that everything is likely to revert back to normal every single week.

The other side of the storyline with Artie was ultimately a waste of time, or as much of a waste of time as a storyline with Saul Rubinek, Mark Sheppard and C.C.H. Pounder can be. Learning that these regular people are Regents in control of the Warehouse is intriguing, and I think this was a good launching pad for the drive to the finale and thus the drive towards Macpherson, but it really wasn’t necessary. This was a setup episode at the end of the day, and I don’t think the show has gone off in so many different directions that we couldn’t follow a pretty simple plot. It also didn’t actually clear much of anything up: Sheppard’s questions were so obtuse and vague that they didn’t actually give us any new information, and the sequences talked in circles and never really came down to any central point except that Artie now has the green light.

I’ve found the show to really exemplify what makes a good summer show, and I think this episode confirmed that for me. While I thought the Artie stuff was a bit of a waste, it was something they wanted to do to keep things straightforward, but also something which had little to know pace to it. So, they paired it with a blatant adventure narrative that handled the pace of the episode while the more talkative side could piece things together. It was a clever way of handling things, and while I’ve still got my concerns with parts of the show this felt like a fun, energetic and enjoyable way to transition to the final two episodes of the season.

Cultural Observations

  • Mark Sheppard has become ubiquitous when it comes to science fiction television series, but I find it interesting to see how he’s more often than not being used as some sort of authority figure. I think he makes a far more interesting villain, and part of me wishes that he could have taken the role of MacPherson if only because it would mean he’d be around a bit more and have a bit more scenery to chew.
  • I’m excited to see what the show does with Myka’s father (Michael Hogan, appearing next week). I think it’s an example of really good casting, but it’ll all depend (at least for me) on how it integrates with the “mystery of the week” so to speak.
  • The show remains really quite clever in its artifacts: the artifacts were played mostly for humour here, and the idea of Sylvia Plath’s typewriter being the thing which drove her to commit suicide is morbidly hilarious for anyone who’s studied her poetry.

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