Last time we looked at the show's main characters and general overview of the show. Today let's look at five of my faves from the first season.
One advantage the first season had over s2 and 3 (filmed in Los Angeles) was that it was filmed in Hawaii. The production took good advantage of the island's lush terrain; every shot from the air or ground is better for it. One episode ("The Good, The Bad, and the Dead," written by Brad Radnitz, his only writing credit for the show) starts with an impressively long tracking shot of a drunken GI careening down what looks like an authentic stretch of Indochine plantation road before being chased down by the Military Police. I'm not saying it couldn't have been done in L.A., but it'd have been a lot tougher.
The regular cast members who only appear in season one are:
|as PFC Horn|
|as SP4 Doc Matsuda|
|Guess I don't need a caption here.|
and one who gets two screencaps instead of one, to emphasize the "mouth-breather"-ness of the character, which they may have overdone just a tad. (I mean, literally every shot his mouth of hanging open, sucking up jungle insects. How did this guy not have malaria over and over again?)
The fates of two of the above will be covered in the episodes below. Pvt. Baker, though, just never comes back in season two. I don't know if they ever mention him again. Soldiers rotate out, that's part of the gig, but perhaps I missed a proper farewell or two. He is a California kid who is always talking about organic lettuce and what not. A fun character though the episode where his real life twin brother is assigned to the same platoon and then he goes AWOL to rescue him from a Viet Cong prison ("Battling Baker Brothers") is a tad much.
Josh Mauer transitioned into production in the years after the show. His portrayal of Horn isn't bad - I suppose he's supposed to be the conscience-stricken soldier or what not. But the Horn-centric episodes aren't favorites. In one, he flirts with Buddhism and when he realizes the monks are only human - eking out a living in a highly compromised land - he gets all uppity. A human, realistic reaction, especially for a young man of Horn's age and temperament, perhaps, but it made me dislike his character. I suppose we were supposed to dislike the monks and religious hypocrisy. But the monk's played by James Hong!
|"Your argument is invalid, Private Horn."|
In another, the season's finale, he refuses to take "The Hill" (the episode's title) because (tell me if you've heard this one before) "Sarge, we already took that hill." i.e. why do we have to keep re-taking the same hill and then giving it back to the enemy? I didn't watch my buddies die face down in the muck to yadda yadda. That perennial bugbear of Vietnam infantry.
Perhaps no other aspect of the Vietnam war proved harder to justify than this one. The original strategy of the war was: go to where the enemy is congregating - and if you do not exactly where he is congregating, hold yourself out as bait to bring him to you - and kill them, until they cannot sustain the losses to carry on the war. As strategies go, it makes sense on paper, right? If you keep killing the enemy and dropping ordnance on his bases and blowing up his ammo dumps, and if you can do it faster than they can re-supply, it should be game over. That's one part of it, anyway. In theory/ absent other factors (such as endless communist re-supply through "neutral" terrain) the math seems hard to argue with.
The strategy was unpopular with both the American fighting man and the American public, but wars have been won over the objections of either. Was it effective? After the war was over the Army Formerly Known as the North Vietnamese revealed just how close to being unable to carry on they came in the headiest days of this policy. (See The Phoenix Program for more. It'll come up - obliquely enough - in seasons two and three.) Close or not, though, it's doubtful an intensification of the policy would have carried MACV and South Vietnam over the finish line. Even if that were the case, though, it was a hearts-and-minds issue where MACV failed to "sell" the policy. It can be argued that it wasn't MAVC's job to do that - its job was to fight the war - and I sympathize. America learned more than a few lessons (at least, it's hoped the lessons were learned) in Vietnam. Among them is: don't let your enemy define your strategy to the American viewing public. No cause is so just, no contingency plan so foolproof as to take for granted the people who need to sustain it.
Okay, back to TV. The season swerves into trope-ihsness here and there (temporary blindness, temporary love-spells, the got-to-rescue-my-brother episode mentioned up there) but hey, so does life. Especially life compressed into such dramatic circumstances as a tour of duty in Vietnam in the late 60s.
Directed by Reynaldo Villalobos.
I forget who desegregated it the first time, but it was Wilson who resegregated it. (Thanks, Woodrow!) I don't know much about integrated combat platoons or rear echelons in Korea. But it seems to be Vietnam where the shared imposition of military life between black and white soldiers, almost all of them drafted, combined with the other changes of the sixties to imbue the whole thing with a zeitgeist not felt in Korea. Give everybody involved guns and military training, then send them off into the jungle to work together towards a difficult goal. It’s against that backdrop that “Burn, Baby Burn” operates.
The episode begins with a group of good old boys led by Pvt. Innes (Mark Rolston) in a karaoke bar, decked out in a country-and-western sort of way. In walks Johnson, Taylor, Tucker (Ving Rhames), and Darden (Ronald William Lawrence). It becomes quickly clear that they are not welcome. Words and shoving ensue. Darden ends up knocking one of the rednecks (Innes) on his ass, and, disgusted, everyone leaves.
The next day, they're all out in the bush and are ambushed on patrol. Innis' gun jams when he is supposed to be covering Darden, and Darden is killed. Tucker blames the events of the night before. When the LT tries to calm things down, Tucker grabs Innis' gun and shoots at the treetops. ("Jammed, huh?")
Back at base, the chaplain holds a service for the men killed on the mission, while Innes and company stew over Tucker’s insinuation in their barracks. The jam was sincere so it’s become about something else. To drive the point home, Innes hangs a big ol' confederate flag outside his hooch, in sight of Tucker and Johnson. Already disgusted, Tucker leads a group of black soldiers over there to demand its removal. More fisticuffs ensue, until Lt. Goldman breaks it up with a pistol and orders the flag come down.
On the next mission, Tucker and Innes escalate their private war. Innes plays the ol' empty cigarette trick on Tam, the ARVN soldier embedded with the platoon, enraging him, which both the black and white soldiers laugh at. Tucker talks of fragging Innes and anyone who gets in his way. Johnson is perturbed by this and goes off by himself. When he wakes, he discovers Innes has been stabbed to death during the night and that the murder weapon is in his sleeping bag. Johnson is arrested for the crime. The mission is blown, and the LT yells at everyone.
Back at the base, both Tucker and Innes' cohorts lead angry mobs to the cell, guarded by the Sarge, who stands his ground when either mob rushes him. Finally the truth is revealed: Johnson didn't stab anyone. He was framed by Tam, the ARVN soldier humiliated by Innes with the prank cigarette.
Later, the Sarge tries to talk to Tucker, but Tucker says save it, he's transferring out to a Long Range Recon Patrol the brigade is putting together. "The real storm is on the horizon." He gets on a helicopter and - to the strains of CCR's "Bad Moon Rising" - lifts off into the sky for some of the grizzliest close-ups of Ving Rhames career. The End.
Let’s switch to bullet points to ride this one out:
- Part of what makes it work so well is the depth of Tucker’s character. In asides to Johnson and Tucker after Darden’s death, he has a great monologue about about how he was the one who talked Darden into coming back for a second tour. “What am I going to tell his mother? Things in the world just got so crazy. (long pause) My God, what have I done?”
- I like too how the status quo is restored, as episodic television demands, but nothing is resolved. True to life, unfortunately. While we’re here, Tucker’s ride-or-die fly-out at episode’s end is completely ruined by the honky-tonk soundalike music of the DVDs I have, wow. I wish I had it to show you, but it undermines every angle of the scene there is to undermine to hear it at that point in the story.
|At one point Tucker looks over the scenes from the Watts riots in Life magazine. I'm not sure if they had happened yet, real-world-wise, for the show's timeline but who cares.|
- There are a lot of points being made in this episode, and one of them you might miss on first pass. The Americans are so caught up in their own dramas that they fail to consider the Vietnamese soldier – their host/ ally/ whole reason for being there – as either victim or suspect. Also a subtle commentary on how the Vietnamese – on both the North, South, and indifferent sides - used the Americans’ own prejudices and preoccupations to settle their own scores.
Directed by Bill Norton.
From the get-go, the network had two weekly memos: (1) lack of female viewers, and (2) spiraling production costs. The first problem faced only mild resistance from most of the vets working on the series. True the show was specifically about a combat platoon, and the lack of “round eye” interaction was a defining psychological feature of their Vietnam experience. But they wanted their show to stay on the air and wanted women to watch it just as much as men and civilians just as much as veterans.
Consider this episode a test run for the set-up they eventually went with in season two. It was hoped introducing a female reporter would bring in some bigger ratings and not be too much of a stretch. As the advisor says “There were a lot of reporters in Vietnam, including some women. But (Steve Smith, effective showrunner) was the only veteran I know to have ever encountered a reporter of either sex. (He drove a male reporter from a helipad to the Division Public Affairs Office, and no words were exchanged.)” So: not too believable, but definitely TV-believable.
As for the other pressure, says Lee Russell (one of the show's military advisors who left behind a plethora of notes on his time with the show): “The character of Captain Wallace had never been written as strongly as it should have been, in my opinion, and actor Kevin Conroy had been limited to some walk-on roles. He was a principle, and was being paid a lot of money and not used.” Agreed. Never bad in the scenes he was in, just never felt necessary. He gets a good send-off here.
Wallace is a good sacrificial lamb to hang this media-theme on, and Vicky interacts well with all the cast. She has confrontational though flirtatious interactions with Myron and with Zeke, whereas she’s basically drooled over by everyone else. Talia Balsam plays it just right. The network was right: there was room for a female dynamic in the show, as we’ll see in Season Two.
A new Captain joins the platoon and is immediately popular with the men. His arrival is fortuitous because there is evidence that the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) is planning a big push right over Firebase Ladybird. Anderson and Goldman, however, are wary of the new captain's tactics.
I think there’s some dissatisfaction among the production staff about this episode, like it didn’t come out exactly the way they envisioned it. They wanted to convey something more like the siege of Khe Sanh, apparently, than what they accomplished. (The action of which - a North Vietnamese Army that was not supposed to be in the area overrunning a firebase - resembles the real life inspiration for the final battle in Platoon, actually) It’s difficult to see how this could have been achieved better, for my money; it’s start to finish great.
The addition of the new officer (Kristofer Tabori as Captain Heath) who thinks the men are too complacent or not aggressive enough and overruling his more experienced subordinates is a common theme in Vietnam – perhaps all military – reading. As is the Colonel who flies in after it’s all done and misreads the slaughter and the shellshocked men around him in his own headquarters-speak rather than the complete (and avoidable) mess it actually was. “With a little luck there’ll be a lot more days like this one.”
This episode is the Doc (Stave Akahoshi)’s last go-round. Another cost-cutting decision and also cutting some dead weight, no offense to the actor. The character just never had much to do. Like Captain Wallace, the only really memorable episode he has is his last one, where we learn just enough about him to make his death felt that much more.
|And of course he’s short, as in DEROS approaching.|
A whole lot of ground is covered in this episode. I'll skip over the parts with Percell's family and the disabled veterans and all that. Not because it's not worth talking about but I think it might overshadow the real beating heart of this episode (for me), which is all the other stuff. Starting with the girls Taylor, Ruiz, and Percell meet:
|Led by Olivia D'Abo, at that time a big star on The Wonder Years.|
The surprise turned into indignation at their assertions - and the matter-of-fact way they're put across - rankle Taylor and Ruiz. Having proven themselves to be fairly capable and courageous hombres, not to mention patriots in an important international cause, they're not prepared to be mocked about any of it. They've run headfirst into the version of the war/ events/ themselves popular among non-draftees their age back in the States.
The cab driver they meet, Joe, is a Nisei (Japanese-American) who, they discover, was fighting the Germans while his family was imprisoned in an interment camp back in California. The convo they have with him on the beach – especially after the conflict with the college kids at the bar – and all the conflicting narratives and feelings here, is rendered quite well.
The ending, where they see the coffins being unloaded, before getting back on the plane is a nice touch.
So many great and pivotal scenes with Taylor in this one: (1) when he talks himself through his dilemma with the hooch mama cleaning the barracks, (2) the idea of his tricking himself into re-upping so he can look himself in the eye as someone not dumb enough to re-up, and (3) the phone scene:
“Taylor calls home to talk with his girlfriend, Louise. As he finally speaks to her, another soldier, Wills, is sitting nearby writing a letter. He can’t help but overhear Taylor’s conversation as Marcus goes from joy to let-down in a matter of a minute or so. It’s as if Wills has heard it all before- a thousand times. As Marcus gets more upset with the fact that apparently Louise is NOT waiting for him, Wills picks up an nearly full bottle of whiskey and holds it out to Taylor without even turning around to look at him. Louise eventually hangs up on Marcus, who is completely disgusted. Taking a gulp of the whiskey, he asks Wills, 'what kind of guy gets into the laundry business,' and then walks away. Wills just shakes his head and continues writing his letter.”
I love that 'laundry business' line. The whole set-up, there.
I love Zeke’s back and forth with the re-up Sergeant (Carlton, played by Marshall Bell). Zeke is very protective of his guys and suspects Carlton manipulated things, but the Sergeant is equally protective of his own honor and record. He’s also got a frank but fair assessment of military life when accused of impropriety: “You’re way out of line, Zeke. The army treats all these morons the same.” I love that he and the Sarge get into this bare-knuckled brawl at the end of it. In fact, I don’t know if there’s any “lifer” on the show who doesn’t get into some kind of fight with officers, NCO or otherwise. Must be some subtle commentary on the psychological profile of those who sign up for multiple tours of duty.
This episode is the turning point for Taylor’s character. The first of them anyway. As the show goes on and he and the others get more exposure to the shadier side of MACV, other arcs present themselves.
NOTABLE GUEST STARS
Rosalind Chao, Tia Carrere, Talia Balsam, Mako, James Hong (who returns as different characters on several occasions), Everett McGill, Marshall Bell, Jon Cypher, Glenn Plummer, William Sadler, Pamela Gidley, Mark Rolston, and David Alan Grier.
|This is Michael Carmine as Rudy, from "Soldiers." My DVD player afforded me this great screencap when paused.|
|This is the last shot of "Under Siege," after the "With any luck..." speech from the Colonel.|