This week’s cautionary tale falls short in spite of its interesting themes and compelling execution. The failure lies in the decision to reduce Toshiko (Naoko Mori) to a lonely, vulnerable mess, unhinging the entire process. Portraying Owen (Burn Gorman) and Gwen (Eve Myles) as idiotic horny teenagers doesn’t help. Fortunately Jack (John Barrowman) remains true to his save-the-day character, while Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd), reverting to his previous status of inscrutable cipher, evokes a three-word response: Seek professional help.
We open on a balmy evening in Cardiff, 1812, as a pretty young woman (Daniela Denby-Ashe) leads an even prettier, younger redcoat through the woods to a clearing, chattering away the whole time. For a prostitute, she’s excruciatingly oblivious to her client’s attitude; his irritation with her is rapidly overcoming his arousal. “My name’s Mary, like the Virgin,” she smirks, in what she imagines is wit; when the young officer doesn’t respond, she asks if he’s religious. Something snaps in the young man, and he smacks her; she displays a glimmer of intelligence, or at least a self-preservation instinct, and informs him acidly, “I’m not one of your hounds,” and rakes her nails across her face.
The ensuing chase through the woods is brief, as Mary notices something glowing and stops to see what it is; the officer catches up to her, and asks, “Do whores have prayers?” with his pistol drawn; we hear the shot fire, but never learn what happened.
In the present day, the field team has been called to investigate a strange discovery at a construction site. There’s a skeleton, but something else, like two large metal spiders, rusted together. Team dialog includes typical banter, but Toshiko establishes with improbable precision exactly how old the find is; Owen makes a quick assessment and determines that it’s a woman, most likely killed by a single gunshot to the chest. The team packs up the find for more analysis back at the Core; when the camera pans over the crowd, it lingers on a young blonde who looks very much like Mary.
Because, of course, it is Mary, but it will take us a while to find out exactly how she’s managed to stay so young and fresh for nearly 200 years. Back at Torchwood, Tosh is dying a quiet death; Owen and Gwen are goofing around together and manage to kick out the plug of her computer, interrupting an important process. Tosh is justifiably upset, and Gwen has the decency to apologize, but Owen is obnoxious, and wonders why Tosh always has to be so uptight. (“Does the stick up your ass have a stick up its ass?”) Tosh, miserable, gets back to work.
Later, we see Tosh, alone at a pub, still miserable. The hints we saw in “Countrycide” that she had a crush on Owen are reinforced here; she was just as bothered by watching how chummy he was with Gwen as by his unkind remarks. She’s abruptly pulled out of her pity party by Mary, who approaches her confidently and reels off some story about a guy who won’t stop looking at her, and she knows how it will go, and she doesn’t want to be banned from this place because they do the nice olives on the table, and so on. Clearly, 200 years have not diminished her capacity to ramble. Tosh doesn’t want to be rude and tries to disentangle herself from the situation, but gets nowhere, because Mary knows who she is.
Tosh is surprised at the details that Mary apparently has at her fingertips, but even more surprising is that Tosh accepts the explanation that Mary was able to find all this stuff out on the internet. Since Mary already knows all about Tosh, and, apparently, Torchwood, Tosh decides it’s OK to hang out with her. A few drinks later, we see Tosh in mid-buzz soliloquy, passionately going on about the universality of war (weapons are ubiquitous among the detritus tossed up by the rift) and the fundamental relationships of love and family. She’s cute when she goes on like that, but even she knows she’s going too far, and says as much to Mary, but that doesn’t stop her.
Things go from weird to worse when Mary places a small pendant on Tosh, and suddenly Tosh is deluged with the sounds of everyone’s thoughts. Naoki Mori does a great job in this scene, as she does throughout the episode, but this writing of Tosh is problematical. Writer Toby Whithouse gives us a character who is technically brilliant, kind, and caring, but also lonely and vulnerable because of it. The problem is that Tosh isn’t just vulnerable, she’s credulous to the point of gullibility, and eventually she’s reduced to a heretofore uncharacteristic powerlessness. There’s not a smidge of the indomitable Tosh of “Countrycide” here; having identified a potential trap, she walks right into it and locks herself in.
Tosh is far too willing to accept Mary’s explanation of the provenance of the pendant (“It’s been in the family for ages,”), and never stops to ask why Mary would give her something so obviously powerful and precious. Listening to Mary describe the pendant as “leveling the playing field between God and man” should set alarm bells off, but doesn’t. Mary is a classic abuser/con artist, grooming Tosh with extraordinary gifts and special attention. There are hints that both Mary and the pendant exert some influence over Tosh and thus prevent her from using her common sense, but it’s never made clear whether that influence can be chalked up to technology or just hormones.
Tosh reacts to the pendant exactly as Mary predicted she would, and Tosh at least has the sense to wonder about that, and she’s not happy that Mary is waiting for her outside of her apartment. With Tosh pulling away, Mary pours on the charm and seduces her, forcing her to admit that she was attracted to Owen but nothing would ever happen there, now, especially given everything she “overheard” between Gwen and Owen that day.
These two, caught up in the early days of a passionate affair, apparently spend all their time thinking, or trying not to think, about sex, although their behavior isn’t all that different: there has always been a lot of ribbing among the team members, and if there’s a bit more of an edge to the exchanges between Gwen and Owen, isn’t that just because we know what they’re thinking? It’s impossible to tell, but the effect of these scenes is remarkable. (I wanted to smack them both and tell them to grow up, even though they really weren’t doing anything unusual.) Tosh must struggle both not to react to their thoughts and to somehow respond only to what they are saying and doing, and barely contains herself: “I think my desk is on fire,” she announces as she storms off. Owen and Gwen have no idea what her problem is, but then again they aren’t really paying that much attention to her. These scenes showcase the acting skill of all three, with so many layers of interaction and internal dialog, and such great facial expressions. They are easily the best scenes in the episode, even if Gwen and Owen come off as grinning and giggling idiots.
Tosh is appalled to hear how her co-workers think of her, but Mary assures her that they really are her friends, and not to judge others based on very private thoughts. Later, though, when it suits Mary’s ends, she feeds into Tosh’s (rather juvenile) fears that nobody likes her, insisting that they don’t, in fact, like or respect her. Tosh never notices how Mary contradicts herself. When Mary finally reveals herself as an alien (a very nicely rendered, transparent, glowing, be-tentacled humanoid), Tosh’s immediate reaction is to bring her into Torchwood, thinking that the team can help her. Mary says she is a political prisoner, abandoned, the way that Philoctetes was on Lemnos, but she refuses to go with Tosh, saying that ours is a culture of invasion, and that Torchwood could do nothing constructive. By this point, Mary figures she has reeled Tosh in so firmly that she comes right out and asks Tosh what is going on with the artifact that was removed from the site; she tells Tosh it’s a transport, and she needs it to go home. Tosh tries to spy for Mary, but comes up blank trying to read Jack’s thoughts.
Mary’s early coaching regarding use of the pendant—“It will change the way you look at people”—goes forgotten as Tosh sinks lower and lower, trying to please Mary, reconcile what she learns through the pendant with her view of humanity, and do her job at Torchwood. Eventually, it’s too much for her, and she pleads, “Tell me what to do!” Mary orders, “Get me into Torchwood.”
Meanwhile, Owen has been examining the skeleton, which was neither female nor killed by a gunshot. Something triggers a memory, and Owen searches back through the case files at Cardiff Hospital, and finds a patient with a hole punched through his chest, and his heart removed. Further searching uncovers similar mysterious deaths, and finally Owen concludes the victim found with the transporter died the same way, and that none of these deaths can be chalked up to bizarre cults or human sacrifice.
Owen’s discovery dovetails neatly with the arrival of Tosh and Mary at Torchwood; Mary grabs Tosh as a hostage, bargaining Tosh for the transporter. Tosh, wearing the pendant, hears everyone’s thoughts during this scene, and it’s an affecting mix of concern for her, tactics, and all sorts of muddled feelings. Jack takes control of the situation and saves Tosh, giving Mary the transport. The rest of the team doesn’t have the chance to get annoyed; Jack reprogrammed the transporter to go to the center of the sun. “You killed her?” Tosh asks, and Jack’s feral expression as he answers yes is a lovely bit of characterization for him.
Equally lovely is the scene in which the unsettled Owen and Gwen confront Tosh about what she “heard” while wearing the pendant. Tosh apologizes, and says it was none of her business; Owen agrees and huffs off. Gwen remains, and in Myles’ best line of the episode, gently reminds Tosh that neither she nor Owen is in any position to judge Tosh. Sweetly, Gwen tells Tosh that love suited her, and hopes that she won’t be put off by what happened with Mary.
Jack doesn’t have a whole lot to do in this episode, distracted as he is by administrative tasks, but his brief turns here are well played. When Tosh wonders why she couldn’t hear his thoughts, explaining, “It was almost as if you were dead,” Jack’s expression goes from haunted to nonchalant in a fraction of a second, but that glimpse of his fears is extraordinary. They banter about what “regular” bosses are supposed to do, and then Jack leaves the decision of the disposition of the pendant up to Tosh.
When Tosh smashes the pendant, deciding it’s too dangerous to keep, I wanted to throw something at the screen. I was willing to accept all of Tosh’s emotional turmoil and credulity in this episode, chalking it up to alien influence and the triumph of infatuation over loneliness, but this last bit goes too far. Tosh is the tech expert, the one fascinated with alien technology, the one who wants to understand how everything works, the one who can figure this stuff out. And here she has this amazing little piece of technology, unique, and obtained at the cost of significant personal pain, and what does she do? She destroys it, betraying the one fundamental aspect of her character that Whithouse had so far respected.
This action is especially annoying given that we already know what Torchwood does with tech it deems “too dangerous”; we saw the procedure in the very first episode when they put the Resurrection Glove into the permanent archives. I wonder if Whithouse had ever seen the pilot episode? I do know that they may come to regret the decision to destroy the pendant. Next week’s episode has them hauling the Glove out of deep storage; who’s to say what good use the pendant could’ve been put to? (Tim Kring has a multitude of ideas on this topic.)
Nifty special effects and top-notch performances from Mori, Gorman, and Myles can’t mitigate the basic error of characterization. We’re halfway through the first season now, and the writers have to start nailing this stuff down. It makes little sense to see a strong and determined Tosh one week only to portray her as pitiable the next. Can we chalk up Tosh’s lack of judgment here to her trying to resist her usual conservative impulses? Before this, Tosh was restrained, but not to the point of seeming repressed. She made her move on Owen at Christmas, with the mistletoe, and that went nowhere; can anyone blame her for not making a bigger play for him?
Perversely, “Greeks Bearing Gifts” boils down to yet another good-girl-gone-wrong story. Tosh gets picked up in a bar, trusts someone she doesn’t know, and then everything goes wrong. The sex is secondary, but Tosh’s unquestioning faith in Mary substitutes; it’s the misplaced trust that leads to the pain. I’d like to think that a woman as intelligent and experienced as Tosh wouldn’t let herself get set up like this, and I’m not willing to give Whithouse a pass for what they did to her character in this episode.