‘Torchwood’ recap: Missing the big picture

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Here’s a new rule for TV producers: You don’t waste Mare Winningham. The Oscar-nominated actress turned up in tonight’s “Torchwood” as a ‘tea party’ activist who gets drawn into the whole debate over Miracle Day (with her slogan “Dead Is Dead”), and the show had utterly no idea what to do with her, using her as the latest convenient plot point designed to push Oswald Danes into a new position within the storyline. Granted, the way she left the story was pretty great (and we’ll talk about it in a bit), but her actual character was a stereotype of a conservative activist and someone who didn’t really make a lot of sense within the narrative, arriving as suddenly as she did.

But the episode “Escape to L.A.” had its fair share of problems in addition to Winningham, and chief among them is the growing sense that this story has bitten off more than it can chew. Think of it this way: The world has undergone a miraculous event wherein no one can die. There are lots of pros and cons to that development, but they’re turning out to be mostly cons. The story, somehow, is simultaneously not focused enough on the characters, who still feel sketchy and ill-formed (that visit between Rex and his father felt like it dropped in from another show entirely), and not focused enough on the grand, worldwide story of how no one can die. There are plenty of weird conspiracy theories, theories that get a boost in the episode, but there’s been precious little sense of the camera pulling out and dealing with the world as it struggles to bear this new burden.

Here’s a case in point: We hear a lot about the dead who are not dead being relocated to camps where they won’t be bumping up against the living and can, presumably, shuffle around and wait for the miracle to pass. But we don’t go to see one of these or even really get much time inside of one of the hospitals where the “dead” are piling up. We follow Oswald inside, but the scene is far more about him than it is about the weirdness going on in those halls, with dozens of people locked up in a building that hasn’t been used as a hospital in years.

Sometimes, it can be a good thing to only drop in on storylines when the main characters visit them. But here, I worry it’s hurting the epic sweep of the story. No one can die on Earth, sure, but it’s far too easy to nearly forget that, to have that moment when Rex shoots the man who tracked Jack and Gwen, then remind yourself a moment later, “Oh, right. He’s not supposed to be able to die.” The show still gets some mileage out of having these people live eternally -– the thought of Gwen having her throat slit forever and ever was horrible –- but it gets less and less with every episode. Then again, having Ellis (Winningham) end up trapped in a car that was crushed by a compactor was a great, ghoulish moment, and seeing her blinking, still living eye encased in metal at the end was another nice image.


And, honestly, the advancement we got in the master plot wasn’t bad or anything. As just about anyone could have predicted, Phicorp isn’t the end of the line for whatever conspiracy is behind Miracle Day. Oswald tried to find out who owned his new bosses and came up empty. Jack and Gwen chase down some leads but don’t find anything immediately pressing. And when the bad guys start monologuing, they mention connections to Jack’s past and something called the “families.” I’m still betting on aliens (seriously, it’s aliens), but we don’t know their exact nature yet, nor just how their plan will come to fruition.

That plan, however, is coming together a little conveniently, don’t you think? It seems they’ve planned for all contingencies and are rarely stymied by the characters, say, shifting their base of operations all the way across the country to California. (To be fair to the show, the bad guys tracked Torchwood because Esther was stupid enough to visit her sister. But still.) They just immediately fill in the gaps, like they have contingency plans upon contingency plans. There’s rarely anything less interesting than an all-powerful villain who’s prepared for anything, and whoever’s behind Phicorp is skirting dangerously close to this. Still, I enjoyed the brutally efficient way they dispatched of Ellis when she stood in the way of their plans.

But it was the character stuff that felt a little off, just as last week’s series of hook-ups didn’t wholly work. Esther’s story with her sister was a snooze, and Rex’s constant browbeating of her is getting a little tiresome. (I just want someone –- maybe Gwen -– to tell him he could go a little easier on her, even if lives are at stake.) As mentioned, the scene between Rex and his dad wasn’t very interesting, and Gwen’s attempts to keep in touch with Rhys continue to merit only vague interest (though I liked the idea that Rhys and Gwen unknowingly condemned her dad to one of the camps). This is a big, massive story that deserves a truly global scale, but too often the series keeps reducing it to a series of weird, truncated personal stories.

Still, there were plenty of hints and plenty of gruesome moments. And even if the way that Gwen and Jack broke into the server room to get the information they needed wasn’t exactly exciting, at least it let us hear Gwen put on the worst accent in the history of feigned accents (all intentionally, mind). “Miracle Day” has yet to wholly cohere or satisfy, but there are usually enough moments in every episode that I’m suitably entertained. I’m just waiting for the show to pull it all together and start telling the kinds of propulsive stories of which this show is capable.


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-- Todd VanDerWerff