For the premiere of Falling Skies, TNT aired the first two episodes back-to-back. "Live and Learn" emotionally introduced us to the survivors' plight following the alien invasion, and "The Armory" pitted humans against humans in an exploration of human frailty in the desolate post-invasion world.
The extended episode opens with shots of children's drawings of the invasion accompanied by their voice-over descriptions of the events that occurred seven months earlier. This is part of a class activity at a makeshift school in a survivors camp. The narration becomes darker and grows more emotional as they mention the death of family members. The scene ends when one of the kids — talking about his father and his brother — says, "Well, they were OK this morning, but I don't know about now. They are fighting..." This opening worked much better than any live-action shot of the actual invasion. Using children in such a class allowed the show to engage us more effectively with the tragedy of the situation. It also allowed the writers to quickly pass along some information about the invaders ("Skitters") and their actions (the "harnessing" of children). It finally showed us with the closing comments how the events gave the children an almost grown-up sense of reality.
The next two scenes are on the same level in terms of quality. We discover that the actual fight against the Skitters and their robotic surrogates ("Mechs") too often consists only of running from the invaders. After displaying how helpless the resistance is, the story takes us to the war room where the military leader splits the company in smaller units, including the 2nd Massachusetts. Smaller units help the story in that they make it easier for the viewers to focus on an even smaller group of people. The 2nd Massachusetts is home to Tom Mason (Noah Wyle) and two of his sons, Hal a teenager and Matt his much younger brother. The episode did a good job showing Mason juggling between protecting his family and making sure the civilians in the unit are not just considered as mere hindrances by Weaver, the 2nd Massachusetts' commander. Trying to get some food was, I think, a very good way of showing the sort of basic needs and internal conflicts the survivors have to deal with. It also allowed us to see that with so many people dead, the average fighter is much younger than he or she should be. Just like children growing up too fast, teenagers are taking a shortcut to adulthood (e.g. Jimmy, 13, picture above).
The second half of the extended episode introduced some ex-convicts hunting aliens for sport and enjoying it so much so that they are ready to kill other humans to get their hands on better hunting weapons. Just like in the first half, the Mason family was wisely used. Many of the elements here could be considered clichés but didn't always come across as such — even with Margaret's fate and the way she turned on her captors.
Throughout the episode, I liked that the fighting was mostly just a tool used to further other plot points. I liked how the Mason family was developed so that we could relate to them. I also liked everything that passed between Dr. Anne Glass and the Masons — actually, everything that passed between the good doctor and every other character she interacted with. So far, even if personal affinities are obvious, relationships between adults in the 2nd Massachusetts are what you would expect under the circumstances and are very well portrayed by the actors and actresses. Teenagers on the other hand have a soap subplot going on that could have been dealt with differently, or with a less tiresome third wheel. Also, the over-abundance of historical references by Tom Mason was just wrong. To make their point, the writers didn't need so many references or have other characters outline them so often. One might say our writers made up for it with little gems like the shot of Mason weighing which book to pick, and the perfect scene of him sharing his opinion concerning the civilians. The latter was excellent writing.
The episode succeeded in engaging us emotionally both with a specific subset of characters and with the general atmosphere of desperation. We felt for the protagonists during the action sequences and even more during more mundane scenes. The pinnacle of which being, for me at least, Matt trying out his birthday gift. It was obvious that the crowd watching him on the skateboard, with his uncertain footing, wasn't just looking at a kid having fun. They were looking at a way of life that was now out of reach, but it reminded them that the scene in front of them could somehow be reached again. It was a mixture of nostalgia and hope that worked for me.