By Joan O'Connell Hedman
How fondly I recall last week's "Reset," the episode which brought Dr. Martha Jones (Freema Agyema) to Cardiff and unexpectedly killed off Torchwood's resident medical officer, Owen Harper (Burn Gorman). I was worried about whether or not Owen would stay dead, and I was right to be. "Dead Man Walking" oscillates between creepy and campy, and even occasional side jaunts into seriousness can't save it.
It's almost reassuring when the episode opens with Martha dictating the preliminaries to Owen's autopsy. She selects a bone saw, and just as she's poised to crack Owen's chest, Jack (John Barrowman) bursts dramatically through the curtains and shouts, "Stop!" Uh-oh. "Nobody touches him until I get back! Is that clear?" he demands, then spins on his heel and takes off. The rest of the team is speechless. Scenery chewing so early in an episode is rarely a good sign.
Jack takes off alone, annoyingly unquestioned, and hurries into some kind of basement speakeasy, muscling his way past the bouncer. A girl in a white Victorian nightgown, otherwise channeling Wednesday Addams, calls out that it's OK. She holds up a tarot card, a Knight of Swords whose face looks strangely like Jack's; she says she'd been looking forward to another visit from the Captain. Who is she? We don't know (yet), but Jack obviously knows who she is, and what she can do; he's there because she can help him find something. Their conversation is beyond cryptic; ambiguous questions are answered with fragmentary suggestions, and another flipped card, a Church. "They hid it in a church?" Jack asks. No, she replies. "When the people found out what it could do, they built the church on top of it." He rises to leave. The girl tries to warn Jack off using this thing; "If I told you not to use it, would you listen?" He won't be swayed, and besides, he snarks, "Shouldn't you already know the answer to that?" She does, she says softly to herself, and that's the problem. She holds up the Death card, but Jack's already gone.
We're only about five minutes into this episode and already I'm struggling with the burden of what we're asked to accept. Jack stops the autopsy and hies off without another word, and then goes to a pre-pubescent fortune teller to find some mystery object? If the idea was to build suspense, it failed, mainly because of the lame execution. I'm not blaming the actors or the direction, because they are up to their usual snuff. No, I'm looking squarely at Doctor Who alum writer Matt Jones, debuting here at Torchwood.
Among the many things I could criticize: Torchwood has been decidedly anti-mystical, consistently linking typical spiritual events with aliens, thus the use of tarot cards was a poor choice. The cards themselves are misused on screen, revealing Jones as just another lazy writer who failed to do even the most basic research. In the traditional tarot deck, there is no "Church" card, nor is there one that even vaguely resembles a church. And when will writers learn that the Death card doesn't ever mean literal, physical death? It means change, more than anything else, but we can bet that the girl wasn't worried that Jack was going to be moving or finding a new job.
Despite the elliptical nature of his conversation with the fortune teller, Jack finds the church, an abandoned St. Mary's, as quickly as if she had handed him directions from MapQuest. It's not enough that it be in disrepair; it's also a Home for Wayward Weevils; there must be thirty of them sleeping in there, and sleeping very soundly. Jack gamely tiptoes through them towards some sort of shrine, a battered trunk hung about with old dolls and other random junk. He pauses every time a Weevil stirs, and even has to wait a few seconds when one embraces his ankle. It's absurd on several levels, not least: shouldn't Torchwood have already rounded up these violent, unpredictable aliens? Cardiff is positively crawling with them these days. Jack finally reaches the trunk but it doesn't have what he's looking for. Luckily he spies a locked box tucked inside the wall. Of course, unlocking it and retrieving its contents rouses the Weevils, but the scene cuts out so they don't have to show us how Jack managed to extricate himself from that mess.
So now we're ten minutes in and I've been taken out of the story again. I know that Jack's immortal, but I'm still pretty sure that if you cut him into pieces, he would die. I'm also pretty sure a band of pissed off Weevils would be capable of tearing him limb from limb, but Weevils aren't known for their intelligence or ability to work together. Where "Reset" took every opportunity to have fun with Jack's character, "Dead Man Walking" abandons that idea entirely. Wouldn't it have been great to see Jack finesse his way out of that ridiculous situation? That alone could have redeemed the bogus tip-toe scene. What a wasted opportunity.
Back at the Hub, we see what he went to all that trouble to retrieve, another Resurrection Gauntlet, much like the one that Susie Costello abused in "Everything Changes" and the season one masterpiece "They Keep Killing Susie." It's not exactly the same, featuring more tapered fingertips. Plus, this is a left-handed glove, and the other was right-handed. No one's happy to see it, least of all Martha, who doesn't even know what it is and sensibly enough asks questions about it. She's not reassured when no one can tell her where it came from, or how it works. Jack brushes away everyone's objections, including the fact that he could never get the first glove to work. He says he'll make it work this time, and he does.
Barrowman emotes his way through the treacly dialog ("Hear my voice!") that brings Owen out of the darkness. Owen, a smart guy, realizes right away where he is, and he's not happy about the situation. Jack gives everyone a chance to say their good-byes as Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd) keeps track of the elapsed time. Gwen's tongue-tied, but Toshiko knows what she wants to say and doesn't hesitate, "I'm going to miss you. I love you, always have." After that touching declaration, Jack is a complete buzz kill; he asks Owen for the combination of the alien morgue. Owen suspects this is the real reason Jack revived him, but Jack insists, "I know what Death is," which is a complete turn around from last season. He explains he wanted to help Owen prepare, but if we think about that at all, it's absurd. Owen is already dead, how much preparation could he need? Isn't it a little late for that, Jack? Still, it is a nice thought.
With every previous resurrection (except for Susie's, of course), the resurrectee had only a few minutes, and it seems as if Owen has gone the same way when he collapses just after the two-minute mark. Jack, not quite sobbing, won't relinquish Owen's hand—until Owen pipes up with, "I'm really going to need that hand back."
The team reacts as you would expect, with varying degrees of surprise and alarm. Owen's still there even though he's out of contact with the glove, and he's not showing any signs of going anywhere. Ianto notes that this glove is different from the first, and speculates that may be the reason Owen's still "here." Toshiko detects a flow of energy into Owen, but it's not coming from Jack, the way Susie was able to draw energy from Gwen (Eve Myles).
Gwen, taking advantage of the few moments while Owen gets dressed, sneaks away and calls Rhys (Kai Owen), waking him up. He jokes with her about whether she's coming home any time soon ("today, tonight, this week, in time for the wedding..."), but Gwen breaks down. Rhys is immediately concerned, and asks her what's happened, what's wrong. Gwen can barely choke out the words, "Tough day. Tough day." This tiny scene, perfectly played, was lovely and real, and stands out in this episode as a consequence.
From there, we segue to Martha asking Owen quite seriously, what it was like to be dead. Owen, being Owen, completely leads her on with portentous sounding stuff like, "I don't think the living are meant to know," but then it seems as if he really will tell her what he remembers, starting with a bright light that he was following. Martha only catches on when he gets to the Pearly Gates and the guy standing there telling him he hadn't been very good; it's all a big joke until suddenly, Owen's back in the Void.
From his body language we realize that Owen can't see, and the constant murmuring voices, weird camera angles, and distorted images add up to a very creepy scene. Owen collapses, writhing as if there were things crawling all over for him, screaming for Martha. It only lasts a few seconds and then he's back, but he doesn't tell them what happened.
Further analysis reveals that Owen's body is still absorbing energy, and changing. His cells are not decaying, and whatever he's changing into, it won't be human. Toshiko (Naoko Mori) getting Owen alone for a moment, tries to talk to him about her declaration of love, but he brushes it off as an expression of grief and nothing more. Tosh, to her credit, doesn't just let it go, and she's ready to argue it out with him, but he excuses himself to use the loo. It sounds like such a plausible excuse, but Martha reminds Tosh that his digestive system isn't working, so he isn't likely to need a bathroom.
In fact, Owen has had a much more extended fit. While he's lost in the Void, his body has been possessed by something black-eyed and entirely too evocative of the possession Jones' wrote into Doctor Who's "The Impossible Planet". When he comes to again, he takes off without anyone noticing, another head-scratcher. Martha gives a great speech that everyone else ignores, noting that they have to stop thinking of Owen as Owen, because he's becoming something else. Jack says he's harmless, and goes out to find him.
Back to Owen, shot with a similar distorted image, with some great soundtrack music in the background repeating the lines, "Things are getting awfully deep" and "can't get no sleep," almost as if the song had been commissioned for this episode. We see Owen drinking pint after pint of stout, and failing to react physically to a woman who throws herself at him. That's when Jack finds him, and the two get into what amounts to a brawl. A brief, bright spot here: Jack adopting a Welsh accent to taunt Owen, "Special ops? More like special needs." The two of them end up in a cell together. When they both notice the sound of the beer sloshing around inside Owen, he remembers (again) that none of his systems are working, and he'll have to give rid of that beer somehow. There follows the ridiculous scene of Owen standing on his head, projectile vomiting about two gallons of stout. Jack's really disgusted, and he's seen a lot of disgusting things.
The puking provokes some other bodily functions (which technically shouldn't be happening because Owen's body is not decaying, but what's a small thing like consistency within an episode?), which leads Owen to rhapsodize on the wonders of life and the flecks in the concrete, among other things. I'm sorry to sound so dismissive, as Burn Gorman does a nice job in this scene, as does Barrowman. But hasn't this all been done before? Jack, on the flip side of the Life/Death coin, quotes Proust, "Only in suffering do you recognize beauty." Owen's surprised that Jack read Proust, but Jack replies that he dated him, and found him surprisingly immature.
Owen, still serious, tells Jack that they can never tell if he's joking when he says things like that, but Jack replies, "When you've lived as long as I have, you don't make any more up." Then Jack expounds quite nicely on the problems of immortality, about sending your friends off to die when you know you'll be fine, and that subject brings them around to why Jack really revived Owen. "I wasn't ready to give up on you," he says softly. "I was hoping for a miracle. Still am." Another lovely, honest moment, but seeing as it was proceeded by that projectile vomiting, it's easy to lose it in the shuffle.
Meanwhile, back at the Hub, Toshiko went back through the CCT tapes to see if Owen had said anything to anyone about what she said (this isn't Torchwood, it's Degrassi), but it's a good thing she did because she saw Owen's latest and greatest possession episode.
Jack, seeing that Owen is finally achieving some measure of peace, gets the both of them out with a release authorization that he could've given from the outset. I hate that kind of manipulation, but Owen doesn't seem at all perturbed by it. As soon as they get outside, though, they're surrounded by Weevils. Jack thinks they want him because he stole the glove from their church, but it turns out that they're interested in Owen, or more precisely, whatever it is that's possessing Owen's body. I'm not too sure about this use of the Weevils. It was fine when they recognized the undercover alien in "Sleeper," but what are they responding to here? And why were they in that church, anyway? The glove wasn't in the shrine, it was well-hidden in a wall. Weevils are becoming some kind of all-purpose alien detectors and they're giving the writers an easy out, leading to the failure to thoroughly examine some plot points.
Toshiko has dug out another piece of technology we haven't seen since the pilot, the alien scanner. Apparently it also works as a universal translator, although I can't remember seeing that function before. They run the thing on the tape of Owen's last possession, and it translates his speech, "I shall walk the earth and my hunger shall no know bounds." Gwen echoes a major character in every Star Wars film: "I've got a really bad feeling about this."
With the team reassembled (once again, Jack gets away from a troop of Weevils with nary a scratch nor an explanation), Gwen lays out the research she's found, searching on the phrase Owen was repeating. She recounts a story going way back to the Black Death, and a church where a priest brought a young girl back from the dead. Death itself came over with the girl's soul, and harvested twelve souls; with the thirteenth, it would have become unstoppable, but it was defeated by faith.
Now it's Owen turn for the heartfelt speech, where he wonders what's going to happen when he's 100% changed. "What do we do when we're the monsters," he asks, and it's funny to hear him say that, because as I noted last week, humans are nearly always the monsters here. Owen heroically decides that they have to put a stop to what's happening to him, and suggests they embalm him. There's another great little scene between Owen and Gwen. Again, she doesn't know what to say, but Owen says he knows there's something missing, and he doesn't want to be the way he is, since he can't eat, drink, or shag. They embrace, but it's not in the least sexual; they're both holding on because they don't want to let the other go. It really is too bad they couldn't sustain this tone throughout the episode.
Jack and Martha prepare the solution to inject into Owen, but that's not going to be allowed to happen. The Glove, resting unremarked upon a tray, starts twitching. I still can't figure out if they were going for horror or camp in the ensuing scene, which is equal parts the conclusion to the "Day-O" number in Beetlejuice and the lobster scene in Annie Hall. The glove scurries around, half the team shrieking, the other half trying to trap it. There is no sense of menace in this scene whatsoever, what with Ianto and his field hockey stick (not a cricket bat), and the look Jack gives him when he sees it. It's all a lark until the glove attaches itself to Martha's face. The others pry it off her, and Owen eventually traps it under his sneaker. He has to argue for Jack's gun, but Jack tosses it to him even if destroying it means Owen dies for real this time. Owen shoots the glove and it shatters.
Now that that crisis is past, Gwen notices Martha. The glove has transformed her into an old woman. Poor Freema Agyeman is saddled with the line, "It must be Death, because it has stolen my life." She was really strong in this episode, standing up to Jack and questioning his judgment in keeping the glove secret from UNIT. But here she's reduced to a victim, and thus she is silenced.
When Death finally bubbles out of Owen, it looks at first like the late, lamented smoke monster from Lost, but then it settles into a lame CGI skeleton enveloped in a shroud of grey-ish black smoke. This is one time when the reality of the thing, in this case the Grim Reaper, falls short of the terror portrayed in its usual depictions. Maybe it would be more scary if it were actually carrying a scythe. For whatever reason, this thing doesn't do it for me. It rushes at Jack, and then the screen goes black.
Jack comes to in the SUV. (I love this, how the team just automatically assumes that Jack will be all right even though he was apparently just attacked by Death.) They've all rushed Martha to the hospital, Gwen hastily constructing the lie that she's a neighbor they look in on. The doctor reels off how horribly Martha's doing, and tells them not to expect much considering her advanced age.
Jack, gradually regaining his faculties, is alert for the presence of Death (or whatever it is), but seeing several Weevils outside the window, realizes they won't need to look far for it. They initiate an evacuation of the hospital, and Jack presses Ianto for more information. All of this is meant to be very exciting, but it's so very tired: we see Death's random victims; the boy on the loo, plugged into his hand-held video game and thus oblivious; the team running around trying to keep track of how many victims Death has racked up. I have a problem with their body count totaling twelve because I'm confident they were unaware of the nurse who went after the gaming boy, but whatever. They were pretty sure that they had a one-soul margin, and the episode as written gives it to them.
Ianto comes through again: it wasn't small-f faith that saved the town, it was Faith, the girl who had been revived. Come to find out, the girl was revived at St. Mary's Church, the very same one now inhabited by Weevils, where Jack found the gauntlet! Something tells me that the name of the fortune-telling girl is Faith, but that's just irritating. Yes, both Ianto and Gwen confirm that the former St. James parish, 500 years on, has grown into Cardiff.
At this point, I want to throw something at the television, but whatever.
Owen realizes that he's the only one that can confront Death, because he is already dead, and has nothing to lose. He gets to have another heartfelt, meaning-of-life speech with the boy, whose first round of chemo was unsuccessful, and then he gives Toshiko a really convincing kiss, but apparently it was just to distract her so he could boost her handheld detector. He locks everyone else out and waits as Death clumsily, slowly descends the stairs. It's crazy. If that were really Death, would it have to walk down the stairs? I don't think so, but maybe it's just me.
Owen taunts this lame Grim Reaper, wondering how long it can stay around with only twelve souls, and then it attacks him, but Owen fends it off easily. The ensuing fight looks like an awkward waltz, and eventually, Death dissolves into a blur of light, leaving just Owen, just as undead as before.
With Death vanquished, Martha scares the heck out of Ianto by reaching up and grabbing his shoulder from behind. She has completely recovered. They exchange relieved, hysteria-tinged looks.
Back at the Hub, Owen's all serious again, noting that people were killed because Jack revived Owen. He's a doctor, he says; he begs Jack to put him back to work. But we still don't know how long he'll be around; the episode ends on Owen, with the question obvious but unspoken, what do we do now?
There were a number of affecting scenes here, but there was so much that was tired, so much that was clichéd, and so much that was simply lame that the good stuff is hard to remember. For example, I enjoyed Martha dressing down Jack, but nothing ever came of it, just as nothing ever came of Toshiko's declaration (at least this week). It does seem as if Owen has grown somewhat, since he actually apologizes to Martha, scant weeks after telling Toshiko he doesn't "do" apologies in "Adam."
I'm torn, because I enjoy Burn Gorman and I like Owen as a character, but the dangers implicit in being undead have only started here, and they're likely to get worse. I don't want to see Owen's situation devolve into a Death Becomes Her spin-off. Davies needs to man up and kill Owen off properly, or find a true miracle and bring him back to life all the way. This half-life stuff won't stay tenable for long.
Nor will this new "in" Team Torchwood seems to have with understanding post-life existence. Since when does Jack know what Death is? Obviously what came over wasn't Death, but something that medieval minds could easily identify as Death. Couldn't Torchwood, for all its alien gadgetry, do some kind of meaningful analysis to determine what it really was? Some kind of trans-dimensional energy vampire, obviously, but it's not my job to figure that out. If I want vampires and tarot readings, I'll watch classics like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Torchwood should stick to what it does best, aliens and the other-worldly; leave religion and its sidekicks to those who respect them.
Joan O'Connell Hedman sometimes blogs about movies and television. This article's screencaps are from The Institute, a Torchwood fan site.