Torchwood: Miracle Day Episode 4 Review

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Clint Hassell reviews Escape to LA, the fourth episode of Torchwood: Miracle Day.

If Esther has remained underground since discovering – mid-workday, mind you – that she and Rex had been framed as traitors by the CIA, then she has been unable to return to her apartment and gather new clothes. Yet, she has changed outfits, an occurrence made plausible in “Dead of Night” when Gwen brings new clothes, cell phones, and food to the Torchwood team. Which means that those fabulous, mahogany, knee-high boots that Esther wears in the opening scene – Gwen bought those. I can only imagine her thoughts. “Oh! These kicky boots are marvelous! They’re not showy at all – perfect for undercover work. And look, a 5-inch heel – ideal for a physically-active Torchwood agent. I’m definitely putting these on Jack’s 105-year-old credit card!” Obviously, Gwen is actively trying to kill Esther.

All humor aside, I did appreciate the opening scene where Esther visits the house of her sister, Sarah, previously described as, “not sick, she just can’t cope,” because it demonstrated how another type of person – here, an already mentally-unstable one – would deal with the fantastic-made-suddenly-real after the “Miracle Day.” It caused me to wonder how other unseen groups are dealing with the “miracle.” What about young children? What about the elderly, now no longer at the “end” of their lives? Would a terminally ill patient still opt for a risky, life-saving surgery knowing that their condition was no longer “terminal,” or would they continue forward because the “risky” surgery no longer posed a threat to their life? I am fascinated by the concept behind Miracle Day and how Russell T Davies and the writers are exploring so many of the social and cultural impacts of such a “miracle.”

I also appreciate how this episode organically lays the groundwork for the major plot revelations in the following episode. In “Escape to LA,” we see the beginnings of the “Dead Is Dead” message – a campaign to treat the should-be-deads in inhumane ways – and the forced seclusion of those affected by the “miracle.” By developing these ideas early, it both softens the blow of the developments in episode 5 (because, really, at this point, can anyone see a way to avoid the “concentration camp” comparison and all that it entails?), and also allows the writers to provide genuine shocks in episode 5 (where even the expected pales in comparison with the horrors we find).

However, I am finding that Miracle Day is not giving its audience enough credit to realize that the concept of shoving sick and dying people away and ignoring them is ethically wrong. Instead, character actors chew the scenery and ham it up, their every line laced with echoes of a cackling supervillian describing his latest plan. For example, hospital tour guide Bisme Katusi, practically twirled her moustache as she spoke of hiding the sick and unwanted in plague ships. (Easter egg: “Katusi” was originally to be Esther’s last name until Alexa Havins, a Caucasian actress, was cast.) Ironically, I do not remember this level of hand-holding in Children of Earth, which I would have expected to utilize such cheap storytelling shortcuts to expedite the plot, in order to cover its grand story in only five episodes.

Another major development in the Torchwood mythology that is readily apparent in this episode involves the number of team members with families. In Series 1, the Torchwood team consisted of young, good-looking, and socially-isolated individuals – – none of whom had families. Yes, we eventually see flashbacks to Tosh’s family in Series 2, and we meet Ianto’s sister in Children of Earth, but, originally, Gwen was considered an unusual addition to the team because she had a boyfriend. The message was that the team was successful because they were solely dedicated to the Torchwood Institute. (Heck, the “live fast, die quickly” policy was practically in their handbook.) When Esther and Rex are sympathetic to Gwen being pulled out of a strategy meeting by a phone call from Rhys, it demonstrates how this dynamic has changed. Now, everyone’s family is relevant in Torchwood. Esther places herself in danger to visit her sister, and is later distracted when she receives disturbing news about her family’s well-being. Rex risks getting shot when he visits his unstable father. Gwen takes a phone call from Rhys mid-heist, and will, in episode 5, abandon the U.S. entirely to rescue her father from an overflow camp.

Even, Jack, whose family has remained unseen in Miracle Day, is chasing Oswald Danes solely based on the emotional fallout from the death of Jack’s grandson in Children of Earth. While I am nervous that Gwen’s line, “Do it, and leave me alone” – an instruction given to Rhys to move her father out of the over-crowded hospital – will cause her (and Rhys, to some extent) to feel directly responsible for Mr. Cooper’s eventual death in the overflow camp (of which I am speculating because I do not see any way for Gwen’s dad to survive Miracle Day), I do realize that this event would further cement the bond between Gwen, Jack, and Rhys; all would feel responsible for the death of a loved one. The development of Torchwood from a sexy, sci-fi series in which every character is seemingly bisexual, untouchable, and living on the edge, to a poignant show that uses science fiction to examine deeply the human condition that often involves love, marriage, family, and death, is bold and revolutionary. Unlike Doctor Who, where everything changes in order to maintain the status quo, Torchwood is unafraid to make lasting changes to its cast, its format, and its message.

This being said, I did not enjoy meeting Rex’s father, who I felt was one crazy person too many in an episode already filled with unhinged family members. Rex’s dad seemed a little too seething with rage, and his skin and hair were too movie-perfect for him to be as derelict as the story wanted me to believe. (Seriously, noir lighting and a screaming baby in the background does not a ratty apartment make. That place had more than one room, working appliances, and furniture. Real estate prices being what they are in Los Angeles, that place probably went for a small fortune. But I digress. It’s not like Rex’s dad was making Metanec in a coffee pot, using degreaser found in a plane.) I do appreciate that Rex is feeling his own mortality and using the extra time he has been given to make amends and say goodbye. There is a positive side to the “miracle” and I am glad that the writers are choosing to show its effects. The allegory that Rex is healing wounds both physical and emotional was not lost on me.

Another poignant moment in “Escape to LA” involved Ellis Hartley Monroe’s delivery of her “Dead Is Dead” manifesto. Monroe believes that segregation of those kept alive unnaturally by the “miracle” is necessary and states that she is only concerned about the safety of people like herself. She wishes that the “dead” would, in fact, die. As the scene plays out, with Rex watching Monroe spew her rhetoric about forced segregation in an interview projected against a wall of the Torchwood hideout, Monroe appears to be speaking directly to Rex. Seeing such a powerful black character literally facing a white woman’s hateful, prejudiced words is revealing, and I’m actually thankful for the American setting as I’m not sure that the scene would have carried the same emotional impact in a country whose history did not involved forced slavery.

I loved that “Escape from LA” took the time to show how excited Oswald Danes would be to break the tamper-evident seal on a carbonated beverage. The moment picks up on a throwaway line from “Rendition” where Oswald states that, while incarcerated, prison officials tampered with his food. More than seeing Danes unaccustomed to the fine linens in his hotel room or to his ability to adjust the thermostat to his liking, this subtle moment demonstrates how trapped the newly-freed Danes still feels.

That moment, however, is the only thing about the scene that makes much sense. A newly-arrived Jilly Kitzinger admits that she doesn’t like Oswald and can’t stand the sight of his hands because they remind her of his murderous past. This feels false after she has spent two episodes enticing him to become his agent. However, even that is more believable than Oswald’s claims that he is Internet savvy and was able to uncover a major PhiCorp conspiracy with but a few hours and a laptop. It would have been more believable for Danes to have pumped Jilly for information about PhiCorp – she, after all, works for them – and to then become suspicious when she continues to dodge his questions. Also, while I appreciate that Danes’ later threats to Jilly of the wrath of PhiCorp demonstrates how out of his league he truly is, and how he is clinging to his new life in every possible way, the moment felt unbelievable since she was instrumental in recruiting Danes to the company. Jilly has had no problem speaking her mind; why didn’t she put him in his place with a well-timed threat?

Other questions I have about this episode:

Who was texting Esther during the PhiCorp heist? To whom has Esther given that cell phone number? I would guess her sister, but Sarah had been admitted for psychiatric evaluation (and, trust me, they do not allow you to have a phone there). Perhaps her nieces? Or her brother-in-law?

Why have Jack and Gwen not explained Jack’s past to Rex and Esther? What, a time-traveling, previously-immortal, alien con man from the future is too much for them to grasp, but the “miracle”-induced immortality of the entire human race isn’t? From a storytelling perspective, I understand why Suzie, Owen, Tosh, and Ianto were kept in the dark in Series 1. Russell T Davies wanted to reveal Jack’s shadowy past over time, and to tell them would mean telling the audience as well. However, not only is the audience aware of Jack’s basic backstory, they are clamoring for even the slightest mention of his connection to the Doctor. Additionally, Jack’s history is pivotal to the plot, as “Escape to LA” reveals that something in his past is tied directly to the “miracle.” Further, since Jack was affected by the “miracle” in a way completely unique to him, it is ludicrous that Jack hasn’t shared the secrets of his past with the new team members. For Rex – and especially for Dr. Juarez – to know that Jack is currently mortal, and to not question why, is silly.

[Oh my God, I just had a thought – how has the “miracle” affected previous companions Ian and Barbara, who supposedly haven’t aged since the 1960s?]

And since we’re on the subject of really random questions that only I would think to ask: Sergeant Andy is in charge of putting Rhys and Anwen into protective custody; did he place them in the same safe house mentioned in “Asylum”? If so, where is Freda? How did things turn out for her? And do I really care since I got to see Rhys in his underwear? (Answer: NO.)