After the entertaining fluff of “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang,” Season 2’s follow-up effort hits hard. A mashup of the recurrent themes from Battlestar Galactica and 24;, “Sleeper” walks down a checklist of hot-button items, but with grace and feeling, avoids bludgeoning viewers with any particular viewpoint. There’s a lot to be said for a show that lets you make up your own mind about how you feel about what’s going on. Where the season premiere gave us a lot of running around and a few tense situations, “Sleeper” plays it straight and digs deep, asking questions we don’t want to answer, and forcing us to admit that some questions have no easy answers. As much as I enjoyed “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” and James Marsters’ charismatic rogue, “Sleeper” is far superior, and its guest star Nikki Amuka-Bird, given a more complex role, knocks it out of the park. “Sleeper” is not to be missed.
Typically for Torchwood, the action begins at night. Literally being in the dark must mean that we’re also metaphorically in the dark, right? We’re also justifiably still afraid of the dark, as are the two attractive people who are awakened by a noise from another room. Their hushed conversation is the kind of thing you expect on a schoolyard. Wife: “Are you going to go in there?” Husband: “Are you?” Will they dither until it’s too late? No; the wife’s “Grow up, will you?” expression encourages her husband to pick up his cricket bat and go investigate. As the wife dials the police, the husband suddenly comes flying back through the doorway. He falls, unconscious, as two men in ski masks follow him; the wife immediately ditches the phone and tells them to just take what they want. We think we know where it’s heading when one of the men hears the police on the phone, but then everything shifts. The lamp is knocked over, and the camera remains there as we hear men pleading and screaming, then silence.
In the aftermath of the attack, Team Torchwood has been called in along with the police and emergency medical personnel. Tosh (Naoko Mori) confirms that the window was broken from the inside. It appears that someone was thrown through it, which provides the likely explanation for how one of the intruders ended up on a car below.
That man is in critical condition but still better off than his companion, now dead from multiple stab wounds to the chest and one to the forehead. No one has left the scene and there is no bladed weapon anywhere. The husband is still unconscious and the wife, blood spattered, is still curled up and freaked out, disavowing any knowledge of what happened.
The police constable suspects the husband, but PCs aren’t known for their skills at solving nearly locked-door murder mysteries. Jack (John Barrowman) points out the husband’s weapon of choice was a cricket bat, unlikely to have produced such wounds, but admits it must be either the husband or the wife. Tosh doesn’t see how that’s possible, given how tiny the woman is. Jack replies with the simple statement that you’d be surprised what people can do under duress.
Meanwhile, Owen (Burn Gorman) and Gwen (Eve Myles) have followed the injured men to the hospital to see what they can learn from them; each has a theory of his own. Owen thinks it was the wife; Gwen disagrees. Owen dubs her Jessica Fletcher, which leads to a marvelously off-topic train of thought starting with Angela Lansbury and ending with wondering why Sweeney Todd wasn’t referenced in “Countrycide.”; Owen can’t explain how the wife could have done it, anymore than Gwen can explain how it was the husband.
But someone threw that man out the fifth story window. The burglar is in critical condition, but helpfully regains consciousness enough to tell Gwen and Owen that it was the wife. “Keep her away from me,” he begs, just before he flatlines. Owen gloats to Gwen, “I told you it was her.” And so begins a very dark journey for Beth (the previously mentioned Amuka-Bird), and for Team Torchwood.
I don’t remember seeing Torchwood’s interrogation room before, but it looks like everyone else’s: bare walls, table, chairs. Jack’s pressing Beth to give it up: “We know you’re an alien.” Gwen plays Good Cop and tries to comfort Beth and assure her everything is going to be OK, but Jack knows better. When Beth insists there’s no such thing as aliens, they take her on a brief field trip to meet Janet the Weevil. At first Janet’s her usual Weevil self, aggressive and screechy, but after a moment, her demeanor changes completely. She sniffs Beth and then hushes, then bows repeatedly, lowing, backing into the corner of her cell. Even Jack can’t explain that behavior, having never seen it before, but it’s another indication that Beth isn’t what she seems to be.
Having already denied Beth due process and legal representation, Torchwood segues rapidly from harsh interrogation through coercion to torture. When Owen snaps two needles and a scalpel trying to get a blood sample, they move right to the heavy guns, breaking out some alien technology which Tosh notes “we’re not supposed to use anymore.” It’s a mind probe, and it’s excruciating, right up to the point where your head explodes, as Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd) helpfully reminds Jack. Jack doesn’t care.
Gwen’s a mess over all this, and Beth’s “I can’t believe this is happening to me,” is dead perfect. Jack is relentless, though, as he instructs Tosh to go deeper and deeper still, in spite of Beth’s screams. Flashes of images—blood flowing, muscle cells pulsing—effectively convey the idea of drilling down through layer upon layer, until finally, when it seems as if Beth’s head really should have exploded by now, but no, “still safe”—they find what they were looking for. Beth’s right arm morphs into some kind of device, and she clearly enunciates a phrase in an alien language. But that one phrase is all she’ll say, no matter what question they put to her. Beth’s stony expression is in sharp contrast to her agony of only a moment ago; the entire team save Jack had been in agony with her. As soon as they break through to the alien level, that tension dissipates and new one forms: curiosity and fear replace revulsion at the pain they’ve caused. Jack’s expression remains fixed at cold determination.
He’s not surprised. “Name, rank, and serial number, ” he explains, before telling the others he knows exactly what Beth is: a sleeper agent from a particularly lethal alien race. They place their agents and collect their information. Then, when the time is right, they attack, obliterating everything. There’s not enough time for anyone to ask , “How do you know all this?” They go directly to “Now what do we do?”
Step One is convincing Beth she’s an alien. The already traumatized woman is horrified by the video of her performance under the mind probe. She doesn’t feel alien, doesn’t want to believe that she’s a danger. This brief scene is spectacular, and pits what is against what would be: Beth still feels human, believes she’s human, isn’t that what counts? Gwen says yes, Jack—again, knowing better—says no. Even Beth realizes that when her alien persona takes over, she won’t even remember being human, loving her husband, the simple, sweet life they had. Of course Beth doesn’t want to give all that up; no one accepts having her heart metaphorically ripped from her chest without good reason.
Still, Beth agrees to let Torchwood put her in cryogenic suspension to keep her safely from the world until they can figure out what to do with her. Tosh rigs up some tech to short out the force field that had earlier prevented Owen’s blood tests, and Beth is tucked away in her tank in Torchwood’s morgue.
But not for long. When Beth’s force field is shorted, the other sleepers in her cell are activated. In short order we see a middle-aged business man murder his own wife, an EMT abandon a patient in the midst of administering CPR, and a young woman abandon the baby carriage she had been pushing. Meanwhile, Beth has escaped from her drawer in the morgue.
Jack is the one who figures out where Beth has gone: to say goodbye to her husband, still in the hospital. I loved these two characters together, their teasing earlier, their tears now. Beth says she needs to go away, and Mike (Dyfed Potter) tells her that no matter what she’s done, it doesn’t matter, he loves her too much to let her go. Unfortunately Jack and Gwen arrive too late to save him, because Beth’s alien persona realizes that Mike will be troublesome, and she stabs him in the gut. Beth’s screams and repeated punching of the call button fail to provoke any kind of response from the hospital personnel; so much for socialized medicine.
So far, this episode has dealt with secret detention, harsh interrogation, and torture. What else can they throw at us? Suicide bombing, infrastructure attacks, and using our own weapons against us? Check, check, check: the sleepers have palm-sized explosive devices. The young woman blows herself up in a building and cuts out all phone services. The EMT detonates himself and a fuel truck, causing an explosion that rocks Jack and Gwen, still in the hospital with Beth, and prevents access to an underground military route. Meanwhile, the businessman has murdered a father in front of his wife and children.
These three apparently unrelated attacks are quickly correlated back at Torchwood. The murdered man was the City Manager, responsible for coordinating emergency responses. Ianto gets a great quip here when Owen asks how he knew that, “I know everything,” then deadpanning that he read the information off the screen. But the aliens know things even Torchwood doesn’t, yet. With Beth’s help, they track the remaining sleeper’s location, and discover he’s heading for the up-till-now secret cache of nuclear weapons just outside the city. The lack of phone service leads to a nice little comic interlude, with Owen insisting that Tosh rig something, Tosh protesting there’s nothing to rig, and Ianto riffing on that theme to Owen’s detriment. Just as Tosh is reiterating for the Nth time that there’s no way to reach Jack, the man himself calls in on CB radio, which is sufficiently low-tech to escape the aliens’ influence. Tosh fills Jack in on the sleeper agent’s target, and Jack, Gwen, and Beth head after him.
The end of world (the detonation of 10 nuclear warheads) is averted when Jack runs the last sleeper down with the SUV and then disrupts his force field, making him vulnerable. The two men exchange a few lines. “When are the others coming?” Jack asks. “They’re already here,” is the chilling reply. The sleeper detonates his explosive device to prevent Torchwood from learning anything else from him. The crisis is over, for now. Are there more sleepers? We don’t know; if there are, we have no way of knowing where they are or when they’ll strike. They have already amassed enough information about us to beat us. It was mostly luck, in the form of Beth, that let Team Torchwood win this round.
This was a very well-constructed episode, coolly dealing with many difficult issues. The pacing was excellent, as was the injection of brief bits of lighter dialog to help keep the story moving and provide balance for the heavier emotional scenes. The minimal special effects (the arm implants, the flashes during the mind probe scene, the explosions) were well done in that they didn’t call attention to themselves as special effects. The shaky characterizations of season one are distant memories; no one has time screw around in this episode. Once again the team is on, competent in the face of the weird and threatening, and once again, Gwen is the team’s link to humanity. The new spirit of camaraderie is so much more pleasant to watch than the old tensions, but that doesn’t mean that everyone has been washed out. I’m particularly enjoying Ianto’s unleashed sarcasm; it’s so great to hear someone tell Owen to get over his obsession with sex and get back to work with a single, well-worded statement.
Is this meant to be a commentary of conduct in the global War on Terror? It’s hard to think that is; anything goes when you’re literally saving the planet. Like 24, Torchwood justifies the use of torture and invasive methods, but in this case, there was no doubt at all about what Beth was, even if she didn’t want to believe it. Removing the ambiguity may make it all a little easier to swallow, but does that make it right? Jack thought so, but Gwen wasn’t sure. You have to find your own right answer here.
This was the first time I felt that perhaps Gwen is too soft for this job, but not the first time it was obvious that she provides a perfect counterpoint to Jack’s implacable realism. Gwen answers her own questions, “What is it that makes us human, anyway,” with the assertion that feeling human is enough. Beth doesn’t want to be an alien, “that person,” and while Gwen tries to tell Beth she doesn’t have to be, Jack’s response is the correct one, “I’m sorry, but you are.” But maybe Jack was wrong. Beth can’t live with the guilt of millions of potential deaths, and she can’t live knowing that when her alien persona takes over, she won’t even remember feeling guilty. She comes to a decision in what could’ve been an unbearably awkward conversation with Gwen. With these two actresses, though, the dialog felt natural, with both of them struggling, again, with what is versus what could be. Gwen’s hope is no match for Beth’s fear, and Beth apologizes in advance for what she’s about to do as she takes Gwen hostage. Beth stages this in such a way that the rest of the team can shoot her while Gwen remains safe, and that’s the way it plays out, in spite of Gwen’s protests.
Beth mourned that she would never “be human enough,” and this is another significant change in the new season. Season one showed us so much of the brutality of the human race, I was often left wondering what’s the point of defending the planet? But we find the worth of humanity in the strangest places. Here it’s Beth, somehow finding the strength to subvert her alien persona, human by choice. Just an ordinary woman, human enough to love her husband, to see the good in the world, and to sacrifice everything to save it.