Look, you’re just going to have to suspend your disbelief for a second and go with me.
TORCHWOOD has redeemed itself.
Now if you’ve sat through my bitching and moaning over the last couple weeks you’re probably well versed in my thoughts on why the show has failed to catch on in its hybrid-American incarnation.
Poor performances, weak scripts, endless exposition, excruciating pacing and a host of other problems have combined to kill the show with an abundance of little cuts.
But this week the show managed to put aside everything that wasn’t working and focus on some of the untapped strengths of TORCHWOOD that have been rarely explored this season, namely the acting strengths of its original cast members.
Immortal Sins alternates between the current storyline, set in the present, and one of Jack’s solo adventures in the late 1920s.
In the here and now Gwen kidnaps Jack in order to trade him to the mysterious organization behind the Miracle in exchange for her family. Although determined to deliver Jack she’s clearly torn between family and her loyalty to Torchwood.
The bulk of this episode takes place in the late 1920s. After a misunderstanding Jack falls in with Angelo, a recent Italian immigrant, and the two of them decide to find a rent a room together. Sexual tension builds between the two men before they finally give into their feelings.
Jack brings Angelo along with him to a local church as he makes a contact with a local priest who is supply him with sacramental wine to sell for a little extra money. The proto-bootlegging scandal earns them the attention of some local mafia type, with a mysterious job for Jack.
It turns out the mob boss is hiding a parasitic alien life form which he intends to use to use on Franklin Roosevelt. Jack kills the alien and disrupts the plan but not before getting himself killed (temporarily) and Angelo caught.
When Angelo is released from jail he’s wary about falling in with Jack again since he knows the man is no longer strictly human. Angelo becomes convinced Jack is the devil and kills him (temporarily). Before he can be resurrected Angelo ties Jack up and starts to show his Lazarus routine to other people in the neighbourhood. Soon Jack is reviled as a demon and he is killed over and over and over again by a frightened populace.
Angelo regrets his decision and frees Jack, begging him to run away together. Jack refuses and leaves by jumping off the side of a building, preferring to kill himself (temporarily) rather than stay with Angelo.
This episode has it all. It’s a complete stand alone story that still manages to further the overall seasonal plot arc. Which is a welcome change of pace, considering that MIRACLE DAY is big on set up and awfully thin on resolution.
The whole episode is really an actor’s wet dream. Jack’s relationship with Angelo is handled with delicacy and style. Portraying a homosexual romance is still a rarity on television of any stripe and to see a genre program like TORCHWOOD handle it with grace and composure is refreshing.
Barrowman gets to prove he’s more than just a strutting peacock, preening and joking around whenever possible. Instead, while exploring his relationship with Angelo and his unexpected betrayal, Barrowman gets to show a vast range of emotion, from tenderness and vulnerability to a man on the brink of madness.
Betrayal and heartbreak are two themes that are frequently intertwined in this episode. TORCHWOOD has always been the more adult offering in the Who-vian universe, but while the Doctor always seems to come away relatively unscathed from encounters with the deadliest of opponents, in TORCHWOOD similar encounters always seem to end in tragedy. What makes this contrast even more painful is that here Jack draws a direct comparison between him and the Doctor, striving to live up to his example, even going so far as to mark Angelo as his Companion, but failing to live up to the Timelord’s impossible standards.
If Jack gets all the big emotive pieces then Eve Myles as Gwen Cooper gets to paint her own masterpiece in an understated, but no less impressive, fashion. Gwen’s struggle to keep her emotions in check and to justify her own betrayal of Jack is writ large in the smallest of gestures. It might not be as showy but it is just as effective.
TORCHWOOD has done so many things right in this outing that you can’t help but wonder why all the previous entries have gone so far off track.
The greatest change is the construction of the show’s narrative framework. They’ve finally introduced drama and style into a show that all too often has a propensity to just play it straight and ramble on until the end credits show up. Now we get a three act story, with an escalating tension, a climax and even a resolution. I’m all for defining your own style, and decompressed storytelling has its place on TV. But when you understand and utilize certain basic principles of story and narrative you create a more interesting and enjoyable end product and this Immortal Sins certainly proves that theory.
With this episode TORCHWOOD has finally decided to use their characters properly. Each has been given their own set of easily defined goals and objectives, with high stakes at play for all involved. But more importantly, the outcome of many of the stakes were resolved by the end of the episode, instead of being put over to be dealt with on a future show. How novel! And the questions that are left unanswered only serve to build the suspense for further episodes.
With Immortal Sins TORCHWOOD’s creators have finally given us just enough to leave us wanting more.
What took them so long?
P.S. If I had to crab about one thing it would be the wildly inappropriate and jarring musical choices that continue to populate this show. Seriously, if I’m paying more attention to the music then I am to the story then there’s definitely a problem with one of them.
P.P.S. A surprise cameo by Nana Visitor? You had me at hello…