March 21st, 2010
The Pacific is a show designed to tell the story of a war through the story of three men, but sometimes this isn’t a particularly easy task. Sometimes war is about the inhumane, the loss of identity and humanity amidst absolute chaos, at which point following characters seems almost counterintuitive. In other moments, meanwhile, conflicts become entirely personal, becoming disconnected from the “why” of the war and the big picture and becoming about one man battling against the enemy, or one company struggling to hold the line against an invading force.
“Part Two” is all about how these two perspectives start to speak to one another, how a large-scale offensive can become a personal tragedy and how the personal struggles of these soldiers are not being done for nothing. It’s not a substantially different story than “Part One,” but it uses the sameness to its advantage by avoiding desensitization and delivering some intense dramatic action.
While John Basilone only arrived to Guadalcanal at the end of “Part One,” he is front and centre here, and the episode is kind of similar to the opening hours of Band of Brothers in terms of demonstrating how a few men could help organize an offensive (or here a defensive action) that is successful against all the odds. By all regards, that line should have broken as soon as a few Japanese soldiers managed to get past the overrun marines, but Basilone’s efforts to hunt down those who crossed the line and resupply his troops managed to keep the airfield in American hands, and eventually “win” the war for Guadalcanal to the point where the American navy is able to return and they’re able to climb back up the same rope ladders they climbed down to get there.
Leckie, as a young private still acclimating himself to his role as a marine, was our entry into “Part One” because he was frightened by every movement, because he was forced to make tough decisions amidst a moral minefield. By comparison, Basilone is someone who is trained enough not to have any misconceptions, and his purposeful nature speaks volumes: he knows that, with his glove lost amidst the battle, he was going to horribly burn himself by picking up the gun with his bare arm, and he knew how many people he was killing as he fired an endless stream of ammunition into the approaching Japanese assault. While he is still hurt to see his friend and colleague downed in the battle, and still struggles with the idea that he could have been one step to the left and survived with the rest of them, in that moment he wasn’t thinking about the horrible conditions or the terrible food, but rather about the mission he was given and the immediate needs in order to defend that airfield and defend his men.
When the opening documentary piece indicated that the motto was basically “pray and hold on,” I was expecting an episode that depicted some fairly dire circumstances, but note that things start in a bit of relative downtime. While everyone is starving in 1st Company, the raids are on the airfield and not on their encampment, and so they’re pretty safe when the army arrives. And so we have some time to soak in the atmosphere of the “Rice without” sign and the raid on the army supplies when the newcomers run for cover at the sight of bombers even when the marines know that the bombs won’t be anywhere close to their current location. However, then the bombs arrive at their current location, and then the marines feel death arrive at their doorstep, and all of their joking around more or less dies: they will no longer be handing out nicknames over peach-induced vomit, instead mourning the dead and dealing with the harsh reality of being undersupplied and on the verge of starvation in a harsh territory.
Basilone’s heroism is able to help them hold the line, in the end, and the troops are able to leave Guadalcanal. The marines, it’s clear, have no idea what they’ve really accomplished: the “why” of the war has not yet been a real focus for them, and the terrible conditions have made their immediate survival their only real focus. And so when 1st Company get on that boat, and hear that they are heroes back home, they realize that they weren’t fighting for nothing. At the same time, though, they know that the newspapers in America have no sense of the price of that heroism, just as Eugene Sledge (now able to enlist since his heart murmur is gone) has no idea what conditions he so desperately wants to place himself in as the war continues. The big picture offers no sense of individual struggles, and the individual struggles often act independent of the big picture, and The Pacific is doing a mighty fine job of keeping both of these elements in focus as it moves onto bigger (and probably more horrifying) things.
- Leckie is all about the found objects: he burns the picture of the Japanese soldier’s family he finds in a bag on the beach in “Part One,” but he steals and uses the officer’s moccasins and his cigars in “Part Two.” We still don’t have a clear beat on the character, but I’m reading that he has more respect for the dead than he has for his superiors.
- This was a bad weekend for the endangerment of dogs in television: luckily, this stray who made his way into the dugout shelter managed to survive the attack, keeping my heart from breaking into a million pieces.
- Jon Seda did some really nice subtle work as Basilone, but the script (and, you know, real life) sold him as hardcore to the point where I consider him an outright action hero. Not even noticing 3rd degree burns? Badass.