"Sometimes to keep the game going, you have to sacrifice a piece, or pieces."
The eighth episode of Exo-Squad is titled Scorched Venus. Marsala commandeers the space tug and rescues Marsh and DeLeon, setting down on Venus. The civilians go off to fend for themselves, while Able Squad prepares to resume their mission by getting two rusting e-frames repaired. When the Neos attack, they're rescued by the Venutian resistance, who see them as bargaining chips and attempt to trade them to the Neos for food.
Nara's homecoming is short but brutal. The place is destroyed, and her parents are both dead. Her collapse is understandable. She is also quick to grasp the significance of the graves--they were survived by her brother.
I also love how quickly their rescue of Able Squad turns sour. At first, it seems like a cause of celebration, but once it becomes apparent that he intends to trade them for food, "three Exo Troopers for three months food," you realize their desperation. It's also rather grim that the Neos are attempting to simply starve out the humans. Grim and realistic, as armies have used this tactic against insurgencies since the dawn of war. Scorched Venus indeed. It's also rather a nice touch that he speaks in chess metaphors, when Nara earlier remarked how she used to play against him for hours.
Diana explains herself, that the whole reason she betrayed the resistance was based on Neo Sapien lies. This gets her very little forgiveness. "You change sides too easily," remarks Marsh. Later, when she's a sort-of prisoner of them, Marsala notes that they need to modify their newly repaired frames to carry two. DeLeon protests, and Marsh remarks that it's necessary unless someone plans to execute her. DeLeon's response, cut off by an attack, is understated but powerful. "Well, if you really mean that--" I can believe he'd execute her, and I wouldn't fault him for it. Indeed, he attempts to shoot her when she surrenders to the Neos, only to be thwarted by Marsala. Once she's in Neo hands, she manages to score an interview with Draconis. I love the way he physically dominates the conversation, and her reaction. This is a woman who has been the victim of violence before. Overall she remains a compelling character, and the responses she provokes are nuanced and real.
We finally meet Professor Algernon, the actual inventor of the GRAF shield, and he's a delight right from the get-go. He exudes arrogance, painting a picture that only he could see because "only I could possibly appreciate it." And yet, one gets the sense that he's also horribly naive. He threatens to out Xenobius, not realizing what a brutal thug Draconis is and how close he is to a firing squad at all times.
There are a number of nice character moments with our main crew, like J.T. and Marsala figuring out how a Neo Sapien could best perform a thumbs-up gesture, or Marsala saying that he's happy to see J.T.'s "ugly face" as well.
What doesn't: The fight between Able Squad and a Neo patrol feels perfunctory. This episode had enough action for me that tied directly into the plot, with the Marsala fight on the bridge and the resistance versus the Neos. This fight could be cut and nothing else in the episode gets lost.
This episode suffers from some pacing problems. To sell the cliffhanger from last episode, much time is devoted to the deportees falling into the sun, but there isn't all that much tension here. We know Marsala will rescue them so the jeopardy seems staged. Later on, the gang spends a great deal of screen time trying to get the old Neo e-frames operational, but as soon as they do they get blown up. It almost seems like killing time.
Watch for: Bronsky's snarky e-frame is a development that will get a little bit of payoff in the S1 finale, though ultimately that plotline is mostly shelved in S2.
The snake tree where James tells Nara to go will also show up again.
Overall: This plotline remains compelling, though this episode has some structural flaws that we haven't seen before. For the first time I feel like one could cut out a good four-five minutes without losing much of substance. There's still much to recommend it, and taken as part of a four-episode block those flaws don't feel as damning. It's still solid, but a step down from the near perfection of last week.