Since the beginning of its second season, Falling Skies has been much better than last year's introductory season. That is, until "Death March." The episode was a collection of storylines that mostly failed to hit their marks, and although a couple of them showed some promise, the story was dragged down by clichés. A cliché doesn't have to be bad. There is a reason why we often re-read novels and re-watch movies or TV series. I would argue that in filmmaking, reusing previous (and tested) ideas is not an issue. However, the problem here is reusing them badly. Let us discuss the following two clichés from "Death March."
1. Boy meets girl of the same age who is not accepted by the rest of the community because of some glaring trait (a harness—even a damaged one—would do that to you). He tries to make friends with her and it seems to work. He is heartbroken when she leaves and gets back to her old ways after the harness starts working again.
2. Military man wants to understand what makes an odd cliché-of-man tick. He takes the service man under his wing to keep an eye on him while trying to glean some details. The man turns out to be a soldier who, because of some trauma, has been trying to distance himself from his old life, posing as some sort of punk. After a heart-to-heart talk and some pivotal event, the would-be punk embraces his military past once again and gives a salute.
We've seen such things before and they can make for good TV, especially in a series like Falling Skies that wants to be a touching family story. What makes a particular storyline a cliché is the fact that it's been overused; but each time, it still gets a chance at being the best rendition of the cliché. While Jenny (the girl) somewhat grabbed the viewer's attention, Matt Mason (the boy) failed to be eager enough. The building blocks were there, but the performances weren't. And when you've watched similar stories before, your disappointment is bound to be stronger.
Weaver's storyline with Tector was even worse in the sense that it seemed to have structural issues. I couldn't justify the military salute at the end, no matter how hard I tried. In fact, my rendition (in writing) above is much more moving than whatever happened in the truck. The series writers seem to think that throwing plot elements together will make them glue. That is not how it works. The whole thing has to make sense, then actors have to deliver the material in a way that make it work (even more so if it is a cliché).
If you thought the above was bad, imagine my surprise when they reached Charleston not once, but twice. First it was destroyed, and then Colonel Porter timed his arrival after the little motivational speech from Weaver. Even Tom Mason's well-crafted conversation with Dr. Glass on his reasons for wanting Charleston to be "true" couldn't save the hope-after-despair cliché from falling short.
But not everything was bad. There was Lourdes' grief, which was well portrayed. Her frustration and anger were properly timed, and so were her excuses to Anne Glass, who tried her best to be supportive. There was also the love story that from one week to the next can be either frustrating or just about right. In this episode, it was the latter. The story did well to make us expect the worse from Maggie's past, and then have Hal's reaction as it was. For that to work, Hal had to be portrayed as a "goody two-shoes," which the storyline did very early on in an akward-yet-necessary segment. What the episode got right above everything else is was having Hal take a while to accept the truth, which for a "goody two-shoes," just coming of age is understandably more difficult to face than it is for an adult. This wasn't just throwing clichés to see how they stick, this was a story understanding its characters. All Drew Roy (who plays Hal Mason) had to do was appear distant and sound stiff, which is not too demanding.
The Hal and Maggie storyline was done right, but it couldn't save an episode that felt too much like those in the previous season. An episode that forgot a story as a whole, not a collection of elements given to the viewer without those catalysts that make the whole attractive.