So now it’s all over, and I suppose there’s some relief in wrapping up a series I thought wasn’t particularly great, for reasons I attempted to outline in each recap. The same week I finished Generation Kill, I also completed viewing Season Five of The Wire. To compare the two shows would be unfair, because The Wire had many years on Generation Kill, and you had more of an opportunity to get to know the various cops, drug dealers, politicians, dock workers, addicts, and survivors. It grew from being a really solid cop show into a vast panorama of urban corruption and decay. Generation Kill, despite its epic tale of the first weeks of a war that has gone on to become a seemingly never-ending nightmare, is actually a smaller story, much of it taking place inside the camps and vehicles of a traveling group of marines, many of whom we never get to know.
There’s something else about the show that feels strange, and finishing Evan Wright’s book (the inspiration for the miniseries) helped me put my finger on it. When Wright is asked by colleagues what war film would shed light on the experiences of soldiers fighting today, he suggests Groundhog Day, the film in which Bill Murray is trapped in the same day of his life again and again. Now, I loved that film, but sitting through nearly seven hours of repetition and routine in Generation Kill was, in many ways, tedious. In the comments section, many readers said they felt like they connected to these marines (on the show) far more than I did, and that they saw the characters evolve and change as they marched from Camp Matilda to Baghdad.
I felt like it was Groundhog Day without Bill Murray learning about himself, only getting a little more frustrated and a little more irate about his situation. When some viewers looked into Colbert and Person and Scribe, they seem to have understood them, but they always felt so far away from me, kept at arms length. In contrast, Wright’s book gave me the details about who the Marines were, where they came from, what they were about, all the stuff that is difficult to dramatize and yet, when done right, results in characters so fresh that we have to admit, since they were drawn from life, to never having seen them in movies or TV shows before. Exhibit A: Omar Little in The Wire.
Things change during this final episode of Generation Kill when Bravo Team finally lands in Baghdad. We’re taken out of the humvee, and Colbert (Alexander Skarsgård) steps into the background, perhaps simmering a little while his friend Lt. Fick (Stark Sands) is reprimanded for speaking his mind, and Kocher (Owain Yeoman) is unfairly punished for “abusing” a prisoner of war while Captain America (Eric Nenninger) walks away clean. The scribe (Lee Tergesen) gets to walk around and observe the Marines, so he does slightly more than just react to the wiseacre comments and wartime horrors around him—he even has to run away from enemy fire at one point, going in a zigzag pattern like he learned from watching The In-Laws. Person (James Ransone), the chatterbox Southerner, is quiet to the point of being wrapped too tight. Things seem like they’re gonna blow up.
Osmosis being what it is, while we haven’t really had the chance to “get to know” the Marines in the television series the way we do in reading Evan Wright’s book, the faces by now are familiar enough that when the scribe says his goodbyes it has some meaning. Generation Kill wisely underplays these moments, as it has underplayed everything else, with no crocodile tears or sentimental hugs. The moments of farewell to the various characters are quiet and circumspect.
Captain America orders his men to go sweep a minefield at night, and it leads to a rare moment of mortifying horror. A soldier winds up so deep in shellshock that he can’t see or feel an injury as plain as the nose on his face. Since so much of Generation Kill revolves around the boring routines of marine life (little sleep, constantly on the move, knowing very little about their missions, occasionally involved in a firefight, figuring out strategic times to run out of the humvee to take a dump), this graphic moment has an affecting power, to the point that even the sitcom idiocy of Captain America takes on a strange resonance.
If Generation Kill allowed moments like this to simply exist, as if they were a pearl on a string, then the show would be a profound accumulation. Little moments in time speak larger truths than the so-called big moments, like when Scribe says goodbye to Godfather (Chance Kelly). The scene would work just fine if it were simply about the reporter attempting to understand Godfather’s theory about why he does or does not demote Fick or Captain America. If it were just about revealing character, that would be enough. But the TV show can’t resist being a TV show, and so Godfather overreaches his point (as if wanting the reporter to not only understand but to agree with him) and the camera lingers on the scribe’s reaction as he shows, in no uncertain terms, what he thinks of Godfather’s theory.
Moments like this hit the nail on the head and the scene is nearly derailed by its message-heaviness. The characters, instead of simply having a personality and point-of-view, become message bearers for the TV show itself, making a statement for the audience to glean. When my editor-in-chief Keith Uhlich, ever patient with my disenchantment with Generation Kill, asked me what I thought of the show (and suddenly making me feel like the scribe having to fess up to Godfather—talk about life imitating art imitating life!), I told him that scenes such as this one were “Almost Good!”
Scene after scene is almost good, and the final sequence, love it or hate it, sums up the series quite nicely. Coming off of a football game where one of our major characters has a stress-related freak out and attacks a superior officer, the Marines sit around watching a movie that one of their teammates has cut together on his computer, incorporating footage from their various adventures. The Johnny Cash song “The Man Comes Around” drifts in, which is surprising, despite it being an obvious song about the apocalypse and destruction (Zack Snyder used it in Dawn of the Dead, which is a similar video-game-meets-violence-meets-modern-times-movie without the self-awareness, and, yes, subtlety of Generation Kill). The marines watch a montage that, in a way, recaps the sights and sounds of the entire seven-episode series. And, one by one, they react to the screen almost as if they were a hive mind, with a chain reaction happening between them, started by Iceman, that announces to the viewer what these marines think and feel about the movie.
Is it a meta-movie moment where the Marines are genuinely reacting to their situation, or are they characters becoming part of that dreaded Message That Is Bigger Than They Are? Would this moment happen in real life, or has the TV show allowed itself the room to take on a Big Poetic Gesture? Like so much else in this series, I file this climactic scene under A—for “Almost Good.” I’m glad the show, at this moment, strives for poetry, but weirdly, it doesn’t come off that way. I felt like I was watching the final song in a Broadway show, where instead of each character jumping into the aria, they wander off behind the curtain until one solo voice is left. Indeed, the last man left watching the video says a lot about the show as well. By isolating this character the way they do, I file it under B—for “Big Statement.” The actors on the show are never better (because when they’re acting in a scene that is so self-aware, it doesn’t matter if we see the acting), and hey, the Johnny Cash song may be an obvious choice, but at least it’s got rhythm and sadness and anger and a kind of open, all-American sagacity.