From the beginning, we all knew that former police constable Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) would someday be forced to choose between her sweetheart Rhys (Kai Owen) and her dashing Torchwood boss Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman). In Catherine Tregenna’s “Meat,” Gwen makes her choice.
I faulted Tregenna’s characterizations in season one’s “Out of Time”, but I have no such complaints here. The slimmest of plots provides enough structure to support the character face-offs that make up the heart of the story. This episode is not so much about smuggling alien meat into the food supply as it is about the relationships between Gwen and Rhys, and Gwen and Jack. To a lesser extent—and far more painful to watch—it’s also about the non-relationship between Tosh (Naoko Mori) and Owen (Burn Gorman). Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd) contributes more quips and a couple of super spy moves, but the last shot we see of him saves him from being comic relief.
The absolute best thing about this episode is that there’s so much Rhys in it. Rhys has always seemed sweet and a bit goofy, but for Gwen to love him, I hoped that there was something more there, and “Meat” delivers. Gwen’s too smart to love an idiot, and Rhys, for all his apparent lack of ambition, isn’t as dim as Gwen often treats him. When one of his trucks has an accident, and Gwen shows up on the scene to investigate, Rhys finally gets a chance to find out what Gwen’s new job is really all about. He glimpses Gwen, hard-edged and squinty, striding purposefully to the overturned lorry, and she’s a completely different person from the girl he lives with. When she pops by their apartment later on, Rhys waits to see if she’ll say anything about the truck and its confiscated cargo, and doesn’t give a thing away when she lies about not “dealing with traffic accidents.” It’s only a bit of a stretch to think that Rhys could follow Jack and Gwen without their noticing; why would anyone follow them?
I liked how Rhys gets into trouble and manages to get himself out of it again, and I liked how Gwen’s first instinct, throughout the episode, is to protect Rhys, to do anything she can to keep him safe and away from the freaky danger that’s routine for Torchwood. There were times when Jack’s restraint of Gwen bordered on cruel, almost as if Jack were willing to sacrifice Rhys so he could have Gwen to himself—but of course that’s a twisted reading of Jack’s real concern that Gwen keep her head and not do anything foolish that would endanger all of them.
When Rhys smooth-talks his way into a job as delivery man to replace his dead driver, he thinks the operation is nothing more than cleaning up dodgy meat. He does an admirable job of keeping his head (if not the contents of his stomach) when he sees what the source of the meat really is: a huge, shapeless alien, filling the warehouse space, obviously in pain, keening and moaning continuously. The thugs running the operation keep the beastie chained and drugged, and somehow it keeps on growing even as they hack huge chunks of meat out of it.
Jack and Gwen watch as Rhys takes off with a handshake. Gwen still denies that he knew anything about it, but how long can she really hang on to that conviction? By now Owen has analyzed the meat and they know it’s alien, so Gwen has to confront Rhys. She returns to the apartment and the two have it out. Not just what he was doing at that warehouse, but what Gwen’s job really is and why she can never tell him anything about it; is anything in their life real or true? It’s heart-breaking, with both of them suffering, not wanting to give up what they have together, but each needing the other’s trust. Gwen’s relief at admitting, “I catch aliens,” is short-lived; Rhys, like any sensible person, demands proof.
The rest of Team Torchwood look at the relationship between Gwen and Rhys as if it, too, is otherworldly. Certainly it’s outside their recent immediate experiences, although it’s hard to tell what would have happened to Ianto if his girlfriend hadn’t been turned into a homicidal cyborg; it seems as if they really had a chance to make a go of it. Tosh, noting that they’re all alone and miserable, has a fleeting moment of panic when Owen denies it; does he have a new girlfriend? No, Owen has sworn off relationships after the fiasco with Diane (“Out of Time”), and he’s quite happy on his own, he asserts. Tosh won’t be put off so easily, but it is really difficult to watch her throw herself at Owen throughout this episode, as Owen steadfastly refuses to catch her.
Gwen brings Rhys in through the invisible lift, and finally Rhys begins to soften, realizing that Gwen wasn’t feeding him a line. He has the perfect attitude of astonishment and wonder, but none of it makes him think any less of himself. As fantastic and heart-wrenching as the confrontation between Gwen and Rhys was, the face off between Jack and Rhys is even better, especially because Gwen is there to witness it. Let’s face it, Jack is intimidating: he’s smart, he’s gorgeous, and he’s running a team of alien hunters, but when he gets in Rhys’s face for stumbling around at the warehouse, Rhys pushes right back, pointing out that Jack’s arrogance is getting in the way of him finding out how good an “in” they’ve got.
That scene rocked on so many different levels. First, you’ve got the two men, who are both strong, smart, and attractive, although worlds apart in their occupations and ambitions. Then you’ve got Gwen, frantically hovering, trying to wave Jack off his attack of Rhys, and then astonished to realize that Rhys didn’t need her in that role. She’s finally overcome, whether by the possibility that Jack would kiss Rhys (admit it, the thought crossed your mind) or that Rhys would be staying involved with this case, and repeats “No” so many times I lost count. Everyone else is reduced to watching, but Ianto gets to puncture Jack’s ego a bit and acknowledge that the boss is a bit of a show-off.
Jack calls a team meeting and points to Rhys, “You, too.” In the conference room they map out a plan, and it’s killing Gwen because they’re going to use Rhys to get back into the warehouse. Tregenna throws in one of Torchwood’s best pop culture references ever; when Rhys says they can hide in the van, Gwen replies that this isn’t Scooby-Doo. We have to laugh, because on a certain level, of course it is. Jack tells Gwen she doesn’t have to go, but that it’s her decision. Barrowman’s delivery of “You love him,” is ambiguous, part statement, part question, but he clarifies with, “It makes you vulnerable.” Gwen won’t let Rhys go anywhere without her, but threatens to kill him herself if he screws up.
With the rest of the team off to get ready, Gwen reacts to Jack’s determination to save the creature and push it back through the Rift, regardless of the logistical impossibilities (“I’ll stock up on plankton,” Ianto comments.) “So you do have a heart,” Gwen says softly. Jack is startled but his reply is to Rhys, “We see enough death.”
Jack goes with Rhys to pick up his truck the next morning, but he packs enough double-entendres into his flirting with Rhys’s secretary Ruth (Patti Clare) to satisfy a roomful of thirteen-year-old boys. Once in the truck, Rhys comes right to the point and asks Jack why Gwen is at Torchwood. Jack pushes back, saying it was Gwen that chose them, and they needed someone with police experience. Rhys senses that’s not entirely truthful, and keeps pushing. Finally, Jack admits that they need Gwen for her humanizing influence. Eventually they agree on what a great girl Gwen is, and how lucky Rhys is to have her. The conversation wraps hysterically with Rhys’s wishing that Jack were a bit uglier, and asking if he’s not gay by any chance. Jack laughs, but we can see it’s not so easy for him to accept that Gwen has chosen Rhys. As for that, we have to wonder what’s up with Ruth bringing Rhys his favorite Danish when Gwen does the same thing; the men grin at each other but neither says anything about it.
Everything seems to be going according to plan when Rhys arrives at the warehouse for a pick-up. The team slips in undetected, but things start to unravel when one of the thugs stumbles upon Ianto. Ianto handles the situation well enough, but another goon spots him dragging the stunned body of his chum out of sight. Events spin rapidly out of control; the goons grab Rhys, and Ianto insists it was just the two of them. Gwen can’t handle the idea of Rhys in peril and reveals herself, saying that she’s the last. The chief goon threatens to shoot her if she’s lying, and it seems as if they’ll get away with it when a man up on a catwalk spots Jack and Tosh hidden away in the warehouse. The chief, realizing his operation is at risk and willing to do anything to save his literal “cash cow,” makes good on his threat to shoot Gwen, but Rhys heroically takes the bullet for her. In the ensuing ruckus, Ianto, having freed his bound hands, takes out the other goons. Gareth David-Lloyd’s icy delivery of “Pray you survive,” is perfect as he places his stun gun to the forehead of Gwen’s shooter and pulls the trigger.
With the thugs under control, it would seem that Torchwood’s work would be done, but the poor creature reacts badly to the violence around it. We already know that the tranquilizers aren’t working any more, and as the creature freaks out, the man in charge of sedating it tells Owen not to bother trying. When half the team is imperiled by the thrashing creature, Owen changes tactics and quickly mixes a big batch of something, which he injects into the huge beast with a syringe the size of a baseball bat. Within moments, the creature calms, and then is completely still.
Jack, still horrified by the torture the poor creature has endured, immediately wants to know what Owen did. Owen’s torn up but admits, “Mercy killing.” It was the only option. Owen stands, his hand on the beast, repeating, “I’m so sorry.” When Tosh reaches out to comfort him, Owen for the first time responds and covers her hand with his own.
The clean up involves dosing the thugs with the amnesia drug RetCon; they’ll remember who they are, but not what they’ve been doing in recent weeks. When Rhys says they got away with it, Jack reminds him that there’s no case to be made against them, nothing that would stand up in court, anyway. (That’s debatable; they did forge that vet certification that the meat was safe for human consumption.) Really what they’re saying is, they just want to keep it quiet. Jack reminds Gwen that she’ll have to RetCon Rhys, too; Gwen knows, but she insists that she do it herself.
And here is the great turn in the episode, and the series. Gwen’s situation has been untenable since she signed onto Torchwood. How can she continue to lie to Rhys and still live with him, still marry him, especially after he took a bullet for her? How could she take that amazing adventure from him? She realizes she can’t, and goes back to the Hub to tell Jack she can’t do it, and if that means she has to quit, that they have to RetCon her, then that’s the way it will have to be. Jack asks her if she could really go back to her old life. She doesn’t hesitate: “I wouldn’t know any different.” Tears are standing out in Jack’s eyes as he replies, “I would.” The two remain in silent tension for a moment as Jack decides how it’s going to be. “Give Rhys my love,” he says, “and I will see you tomorrow.” Gwen spins around and is away; Jack shares a long look with Tosh, and then stomps by Ianto to his office. Ianto looks as if he has been punched in the gut, uncertain how to interpret what’s between Jack and Gwen. There’s no doubt that Ianto loves Jack, but now Ianto sees that what Jack feels for Gwen is entirely different from what he feels for Ianto.
Jack flops in his chair and flicks on the ctv monitor above his desk. Outside, Gwen meets up with Rhys and they embrace in view of the camera. They walk away while Jack watches, and we close in on Jack’s face, wondering if letting Rhys keep this secret will lead to their undoing.
I always resist when writers ask their characters to sustain improbably huge secrets as their lives spin out of control, and I appreciate that Torchwood addressed Gwen’s problem before allowing her situation to become ridiculous. Telling Rhys about Torchwood does little to resolve the central tensions surrounding Gwen’s life, and may give the writers a juicy new angle to work with: when will Rhys say enough is enough? Gwen is no Peter Parker, forced by unlikely events into a life she has no control over. Gwen has always had a choice. For now, she can keep her love and her job, but how long will that last?
“Meat” does such a good job with the Gwen-Rhys-Jack dynamic that it makes it easy to forgive its weaknesses in other areas. The meat-harvesting thugs are aptly sketched in their few lines of dialog; they don’t strike us as evil men so much as scrappers struggling to make a buck and not willing to give up the business that’s dropped into their laps. They are oblivious to the pain they’re causing the creature, and, except for their vet stand-in, deny that it can feel anything. How they can rationalize away the piteous cries of the thing (excellent sound effects work) is beyond me, but people can convince themselves of anything. These blokes won’t give this creature the consideration they would give a dog, which I suppose we can explain by the fact that it’s so obviously alien.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Tosh’s use of the word sentient to describe the beast seems to go too far. Is she saying that the creature is self-aware, or that it’s awake and can feel what’s happening to it? Naoko Mori delivers the line with a sense of wonder, so I assumed she meant the first, but it’s hard to tell. The second reading is more in line with what they could actually observe. Regardless, the team’s horror and guilt at the agony the poor beast endured, while slightly overplayed, was understandable.
The most uncomfortable scenes for me were those in which Tosh approached Owen, again and again. Would we really see her make so many desperate attempts in such a short period of time? Is Tosh’s new aggressiveness (mild as it is) the result of her losing Tommy? I just have a hard time believing that, once rebuffed, even as gently as Owen was pushing her away, that she wouldn’t take a few days to regroup before trying again. I think she’s right to keep trying with Owen, I just wish she wouldn’t be so pathetic about it.
“Meat” is a relationship story, ignoring entirely the typical Torchwood theme of how interacting with the alien reveals our inhumanity. The team was too busy dealing with their own problems to be concerned with how horrible people can be, or to draw any larger meaning out of these events. The alien story suffered as a consequence. Even if we accept that these guys just found the creature one day, how did they get the idea to harvest it for meat? Why would they even think they could chop it up without killing it first? And how can it possibly keep growing when they’re not feeding it anything? All of these quite reasonable questions are ignored. In any other episode, these would be fatal weaknesses, but Tregenna gets away with it here because of how well-drawn the characters are. I’m willing to give the writers this kind of pass occasionally, but I’m hoping that I won’t have to. It’s not easy achieving the perfect balance between character and sci fi elements, but Torchwood needs to step up a bit to avoid devolving into a sci-fi soap opera.