May 9th, 2010
Serialized television is more or less defined by consequences: while all television series feature actions and reactions, what defines a series as serialized is when those actions have consequences which extend into the following episodes. We’re meant to remember what happened in the past because it will affect what happens in the future, and the show revels in the ironies or tragedies which result from these remembrances.
The Pacific is effectively a meditation on the serialization of life, or the ways in which war erases one’s memory of anything but the drudgery these soldiers experienced in battles like Iwo Jima or Okinawa; we remember that Eugene Sledge started out as an innocent child because we’ve seen his story in a serialized form, but Sledge himself has forgotten his former self in ways that human beings are not supposed to. At the same time, though, “Part Nine” plays out like a terrifying series of actions and consequences, trapping these characters within an environment where one small mistake leads to a chain reaction of events that leaves men dead and dying.
The only way you can cope, perhaps, is to forget about what came before, to ignore the decisions that brought you to this point and focus solely on the nature of survival. However, as much as you might want to shut off the man you were before as you fight your way through a battlefield more terrible than you can imagine, you can’t help but remain haunted by who you used to be, and “Part Nine” presents a horrifying image of that futility which stands as a series highlight.
There are a number of singularly horrifying moments in this episode that it would be fine as a simple depiction of the horrors of the Pacific campaign: you have Sledge falling into the pool with the maggoty body or walking into the mortared house and discovering the family he may have killed and the child he orphaned, you have the Japanese luring the Americans into a trap and then using civilians as shields, and you even have that moment where you realize that Sledge’s pity for the older woman dying could have killed him as her grenade falls to the floor. The show has been creating moments like this for a while now, and that they still remain impactful demonstrates that the show has done well to pace/stage the depictions of warfare in such a way that we see a certain escalation.
However, the real horror in “Part Nine” comes from the series of events which run through the episode during the 60-day combat period on Okinawa. What seems like a small bit of razzing of a new recruit, as Snafu tricks Pecker into trading for his less-than-useful poncho, starts of a chain of events which leads the show down a terrifying path. It’s one thing to see senseless violence, actions which are out of our control and horrifying beyond explanation, but to actually be able to know why people died is even worse. We see Pecker trade ponchos with the one keeping the ammo dry, and we see the wet ammo force them to dangerously cross the line of fire in order to get more and lose a man in the process. Then we see that lack of ammo force Sledge and the crew into the battle for the horrifying “civilians as shields” segment of the battle, and it all leads to Pecker losing his mind to the point where he snaps and ends up getting Hamm killed through his reckless actions. There’s a moment after that scene where Snafu starts thinking through the series of events and realizes that it was his joke that started it all which just kills you: Pecker was broken by the whole affair (including narrowly avoiding a mortar round after his fight over his wife’s letter), but the people who have been around longer are simply better at shutting out those impulses rather than immune to them.
While I love Band of Brothers and all, what is really pushing The Pacific into more interesting psychological territory is its focus on individuals. I’ll save most of my discussion for next week’s finale, but watching as Sledge continues to struggle with the weight of his actions is nearly impossible. When another soldier comes in and takes away the crying baby after Sledge and Snafu could only stand there, he asks what is wrong with them; the answer is everything, as they are afraid to be too sympathetic but also afraid to lose every sense of feeling. Eugene’s father was terrified of his son losing his soul in the battlefield, but in some ways you need to lose your soul, and the real challenge is whether you can ever get it back again. For Sledge, he tries to keep perspective more than others: he may not be keeping detailed notes of what is happening (for security reasons, likely), but he’s still keeping track of what day it is, and how long they’ve been there. When he learns about the Atomic Bomb being dropped, he still reacts like a human being, but he does so in a guarded fashion not quite prepared for what will come next.
“Part Nine” works so well because it forces us to live through both action and consequences in more ways than just the general serialization of the miniseries and its characters. By showing a clear line of events that results in two dead marines and a host of serious consequences, and by allowing us no escape from those consequences, the miniseries captures the challenges these soldiers faced in ways which went beyond explosions and horrific violence, an achievement which deserves a great deal of recognition.
- Thinking ahead to the Emmys here, do you submit all three “leads” into the Leading Actor category, or do you try to bump someone to Supporting? Considering how strong Jon Seda was last week (and how much that episode focused on his character), and James Badge Dale’s work in earlier episodes, and Joseph Mazzello’s really incredible work here, I don’t think they really have a choice, but I wonder how Emmy voters will choose between them.
- Extending that Emmys discussion for a moment, has there been anyone who has really stepped up in a supporting capacity? I guess Ashton Holmes (Sid Phillips) would be an option, and Rami Malek has been present enough (and great enough) as Snafu to be considered. I’d also suggest that Scott Gibson made a pretty key impact as Ack-Ack, although I’m guessing Malek is the best bet.
- I’m still not entirely sure what the situation was with the woman and the grenade: was this to mean that she could have pulled the pin with her last moments but chose not to, or that she was holding onto the pin as a suicidal punishment by the Japanese and it simply malfunctioned when she died on Sledge’s arm (perhaps symbolic of his decision to offer comfort rather than “putting her out of her misery.”) I thought it was a bit ambiguous and, if the final reading is correct, a little bit cute (in a terrifying way, of course).