Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Review: Exo-Squad Season 2 Episode 5--Expendable

"Fool! When the Neo Sapiens have been eliminated, who do you think the Exo-Fleet will fight next?"

Expendable is the eighteenth episode of Exo-Squad, finishing up the Pirate alliance storyline, the first S2 arc. The first half deals with Rita Torres' issues with Chubail, who slaughtered her first squad. She tries to contain herself (and her squad) but ultimately snaps. J.T. calls in his debt from The Embassy to get her out of hot water. In the second half, Barca lets the Neos know about the state of the GRAF shield, prompting a desperate evacuation. Fortunately, Simbacca kept half his fleet in reserve and manages to outflank the pursuing Neo fleet, letting the Pirates and Exo Fleet escape to a hidden planet, Chaos, orbiting beyond Pluto.

What works: As I expected, it was nice to get some Torres development. Making her the sole survivor of a squad is a nice reason for her to be so tough. (I also like her pink Exo-Fleet pajamas. No reason she has to be tough ALL the time.) In many ways, she's a stand-in for the overall Exo-Fleet when it comes to tension with the Pirates. It's good that there is strong tension on both sides, despite how much they need each other.

The two big space battles in the episode are both exciting and high-stakes.  (But see below.) As Hollis says, rather melodramatically (but that's not a flaw, that's his character) "this battle decides the fate of the solar system." Indeed it does. The Neos will never get a better chance to win the war than this engagement, with (most of) the Pirate fleet, all of the Exo-Fleet, and the leaders of the Earth resistance all relatively vulnerable.

Simbacca keeping half his fleet in reserve and using it to out-flank the Neo fleet makes a great deal of sense as well. I also like, from a storytelling perspective, Winfield offering to transfer his e-frames to the Pirate vessels so they can cloak and escape. (I presume the resistance leaders, Professor Algernon, and the various Jump Troopers would have been included in that deal.) One can imagine the series continuing in that way, with the Exo-Fleet destroyed but many of the main characters continuing to operate on the Pirate fleet.

Typhonus has his inspiration, to sabotage the GRAF shield using Phaeton's agent, over dinner. Fun to see the Neos engage in normal, every-day activities and not always be on the bridge in command. (but see below.)

Watching Simbacca, Napier, and Winfield carve up the solar system has a very Yalta feel to it, especially with the Pirates promised Mars. Needless to say, Simbacca gets to be Stalin in this scenario. Speaking of, Chubail is perfectly reasonable to be concerned about the state of the alliance. It's his quote at the top of the review, and envisioning a war (cold or hot) between the Exo-Fleet and the Pirate Clans seems not at all implausible.

The Pirate squad of e-frames shows up again and participates in the battle, which is nice continuity and makes the previous episode feel more relevant to the overall story. (Alas, we won't see them again after this.) I also rather like the dialogue here. Bronsky is completely blase about the whole thing. "Just another day at the office, saving everybodies butts." "Punch your timecard, Bronsky."

Speaking of dialog, the Pirates have some wonderfully insensitive lines. "And then, he tried to surrender," gets a big laugh from the Pirates and many dirty stares from the Exo-Troopers. As it should. I got the sense that Chubail was being intentionally provocative, and why not? He's not in favor of the alliance, and he's shrewd enough to know the Exo-Fleet needs them more than they need the Exo-Fleet.

Poor Chubail, though. For such a good character and honorable Pirate, he meets an ignominious end. Framed by Barca as a traitor. Simbacca's first instinct is absolutely correct: "I would never have believed it." Unfortunately for the alliance, Simbacca never has time to pursue that line of thinking or it might lead them to the real traitor...

Barca! This character continues to impress with his competence and ruthlessness. When he discovers the GRAF shield is inoperative, he words his report ambiguously enough that he can take credit for it without out-and-out lying. (Him overhearing an overblown and arrogant Algernon rant about the system was a good way to do it, as it keeps that character at front-of-mind.) When discovered, he does a halfway decent job at trying to talk Chubail down, and when that fails, well, he's ready with a hidden pistol for a quick spot of murder. He quickly frames the dead man with enough of the truth to be convincing, keeping his cover intact. Fortunately for the side of the angels, his transmitter is destroyed, which will de-fang him for quite a while.

That ending! Wow. It's a powerful scene, building on what we know of Neo Sapien physiology and culture. Phaeton has been freed of all social and legal constraints, and this is our first hint that it extends beyond terrans to Neo Sapien taboos. It's clear Typhonus had NO ide this was a possibility. This scene is just about perfect. There's real desperation in Typhonus' voice, and a hint of sadism in Phaetons'. The off-kilter camera angles highlight the surreal quality of what's happening. Great directing all around.

What doesn't: The biggest flaw in the episode is the structure. This really feels like it could have / should have been two episodes. The first part, with Torres, is a necessary point to address and gives some depth to a character who was previously something of a cipher. The second part, the GRAF failure and evacuation, featured two exciting space battles but each on is only about a minute long. I'd have liked breathing room for the second story. The first story doesn't feel like it got short-changed, but I have no doubt it could have been expanded. The one bit of payoff from Part 1 in Part 2 is Hollis getting Torres out of a jam. This was a nice element and does tie the two parts together a bit.

I'm not keen on the e-frame designs from Torres' first squad. She's not THAT old, I can't imagine that the designs would have changed that much. Plus, they're ugly as sin.

Chaos, a tenth planet in the solar system made of Dark Matter, doesn't quite work for me. I won't complain about it too much but it's a little soft sci-fi for me in what has mostly been a reasonably hard SF series to date.

Watch for: A couple of animation flubs this go. First up, in Typhonus' mess are Draconis, Shiva, and Livia. (Hey, Livia, haven't seen you since early season 1! Interesting that your model pack is still floating around enough to be prominent. Are you going to show up again? Me thinks yes.) The generals in command of Earth and Venus definitely aren't on Typhonus' flagship. I suppose Livia COULD be, but given the other two I'll chalk this up to an animation error.

Speaking of, one of the guys in the mess hall when the pirates are yucking it up is Sandouski. He died rather spectacularly in S1E12, Betrayal.

Bio: none, probably no room in an already packed episode.

Overall: When the biggest flaw of an episode is that you wish it was twice as long, you know the show is doing something right. A great and satisfying conclusion to the first storyline in S2. The show never loses sight of what makes it work, with flawed characters sometimes making bad decisions. There are no easy solutions for the good guys (or the bad guys) and sometimes bad things happen to (more or less) good people. It doesn't feel like our heroes have the upper hand, by any stretch, but it does feel like they've clawed their way from almost certain extinction to a playing field that is at least somewhat level. The alliance was a struggle to put in place, a struggle on both sides to keep intact, and will clearly require sacrifice and compromise. But it doesn't feel like it's going away any time soon. It's a great way to start the season, and plays fair in terms of cleaning up the mess left by the end of S1. I look forward to seeing what the series throws at us next.

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