This week on Generation Kill, the Marines who work for a living remain continually hassled by their bone-headed superior officers, and they go round and round in circles on seemingly pointless missions that go nowhere (such as a plan to rescue a captured marine in an occupied town, which then gets discarded midway through, leaving several characters scratching their heads and saying, “Hey, weren’t we supposed to rescue that marine?”) There are firefights where it’s difficult to tell whether the town, truck, or individuals being fired upon are actually the enemy, bodies line the sides of the road, and detritus and trash scatter on the outskirts of obliterated towns. Meanwhile, our boys sing some songs, tell some jokes, take time out for an impromptu shit, and mutter under their breath about the idiocy of their command. In other words, this week on Generation Kill, we have more of the same.
Is “grinding gears” the lifeblood of this show? When you listen to Philip Glass, you hear repetition upon repetition with slight variation that cumulatively builds to something bigger, and you have to listen carefully to it, or kind of let the whole thing wash over you and sift through your thoughts and feelings afterwards. Even writing this review feels a little like grinding a gear, because how many ways are there to say the same damned thing? I keep waiting for Generation Kill to go beyond being a watercolor painting where one element swirls into the next, all the colors start spilling into one another, and when you hang it up on the wall, it’s incomprehensible.
But take the time with Generation Kill, really sit there and look into it, and moments in time start to emerge, like a discussion about jerking off during the Disney film Pocahontas that leads into a dialogue about Native American genocide that leads into a dialogue about race and its defining aspects, and how race is sometimes used as a convenient way of establishing personality, but easily discarded when inconvenient. Melting pot Americana meets mass murder meets pop culture, all in one five minute sequence, and the string of ideas are compelling, specific, detailed, and surprising.
Generation Kill drifts into scenes like this, side-by-side with ones that are either on the nose or audience pleasing. The episode opens with commanding officer Cpt. Craig “Encino Man” Schwetje (Brian Wade) being told by a subordinate, “Well, sir, it’s just that you’re incompetent, sir.” Shortly afterwards, the moronic Cpt. Dave ’Captain America’ McGraw (Eric Nenninger) is told (again, by a subordinate) to stop firing off his AK-47 because it’s endangering the men, since they can’t tell if it’s enemy fire or not. Maybe these events happened in real life, maybe they were reported in Evan Wright’s non-fiction book, but in this context it feels like the audience is getting what they want: the numbskulls in charge are being knocked down a peg. It’s fun to watch—you feel like someone is getting their just desserts for a change—but it also feels pretty easy.
Look, not for a minute do I think executive producer David Simon is trying to kowtow. For him, it’s all about authenticity, detail, and slow mounting dramatizations that deal with the Big Themes. But if you look at those scenes, there’s really only one way to read them, and that’s the sweet relief of having someone with lower status get to frankly, pointedly say they do not feel a person with higher status is doing their job right. And ooh, if that doesn’t feel satisfying. It’s a water cooler daydream for the white collar crowd, and that daydream gets exorcised for them when they turn on HBO that evening and see marines dealing with a life-and-death situation, strangers in a strange land mustering up the courage to take a stand. If that isn’t appealing to what an audience wants, I don’t know what is.
Generation Kill only runs seven episodes and here we are at the crossroads of part four. Maybe instead of thinking of it as building up to a peak dramatic moment, it should be perceived as pearls hung together on a string, one by one. We don’t see the necklace yet, but each colorful little pearl should be intriguing in and of itself. “What the fuck’s Captain America doing out there?” someone asks when they see their dopey superior officer in the distance, clumsily tearing into the desert sands with a shovel. “Digging a hole,” is the response. And then we cut to a close-up of the captain, looking shame-faced, weary, and self-aware that he’s disliked and not admired. If there are enough pearls like that particular moment in time, maybe there’s something to the slow-grinding, tedious, repetitive nature of Generation Kill.
Jeremiah Kipp’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Filmmaker, Fangoria and other publications.