"I used to hate... the enemy... but not now. How do you fight without hate?"
Under the Skin
is the thirtieth episode of Exo-Squad, and shifts us into the aftermath of the Liberation of Venus storyline. Phaeton has created a Neo Sapien clone of Alice Noretti, the trooper who died under Marsh's command during the Veil of Doom plotline. Her mission, to infiltrate Able Squad and assassinate Winfield. She arrives and attempts to integrate with the squad, which interrupts a nascent bit of flirtation between Marsh and O'Reilly. Marsala comes to suspect her, but too late. She takes a run at Winfield, only to decide to embrace her human identity and flee. As she makes her escape, O'Reilly shoots her dead.
This is an ambitious idea... perhaps too ambitious. A homo sapien looking clone with Neo Sapien organs under the skin is suitably creepy. (But see below.)
I love that, despite Venus being firmly in Exo-Fleet hands, there is still significant Neo Sapien resistance. The trooper that O'Reilly and Marsh chase after certainly is tough, fearlessly tossing a grenade at Marsh's e-frame despite the obvious advantage Marsh has in the combat. (But see below.)
There are a lot of great little bits of characterization and world building in this episode. J.T. seems especially philosophical, musing on two separate occasions about how the problem with Venus is no moon, and how much he enjoys the desert. There's also a casual throw-away line about how there aren't any dogs on Venus, not since the great famine. Think about it. (But see below.)
The writers certainly give plenty of hints to the characters (not the audience, they know immediately) that something is awry. Noretti doesn't sleep, but spends all night up with Marsala. She barely touches her food. A dog Bronsky finds barks only at her and Marsala. She dodges the medical exam that could restore her to flight status. (But, again, see below.)
The budding romance between O'Reilly and Marsh is a welcome element to a series that hasn't touched much on this kind of theme. Marsala and Burns have been circling each other like a moth to a flame, and Weston & Takagi had a brief bit of tension that flared up and then died down hard. Since this show does body language well, I rather enjoy the bit with J.T. helping Colleen out of the e-frame. She holds his arm while dismounting, then lowers it to her side... only to bring it back up to his arm when she realizes he's not letting go of her waist.
The mild jealousy she exhibits when she catches Marsh with Noretti also seems reasonable. She's not freaking out, just expressing some mild disapproval.
Noretti is good at deflecting J.T... almost too good, but it's enjoyable to watch so I'll give it a pass. When he brings up things she doesn't want to talk about, like the medical exam, she's quick to shift the conversation to "don't blame me, I'm a good pilot." Which naturally brings up his guilt.
After Noretti has her change of heart, she flees the scene in Marsala's e-frame. It's appropriate that O'Reilly is the one who gets to take her down, given all that's transpired.
Unfortunately, quite a lot. Big-picture-wise, this is a big plotline to try to squeeze into 22 minutes. Noretti has to be reintroduced to the audience, the cloning needs to be explained, O'Reilly and Marsh begin their relationship, Noretti has to begin to have doubts, Winfield decides to uncharacteristically put himself in a combat zone, and then our climax. I can't help but think that this would have been a better sub-plot to run through several episodes, which would have solved many of the problems.
It's also an odd choice to clue the audience in right from the start. I hate to criticize for doing something differently than I would, but it does turn this from an exercise of "why is Noretti acting weird" to one of "when will our heroes figure it out?"
Many of the details seem off to me this episode. In order to have Noretti come to doubt her cause, the Exo-Fleet is uncharacteristically lenient towards the Neo Sapien resistance. Noretti goes out of her way to not fire on a fleeing soldier, putting herself at risk to pursue him and eventually incapacitating him with a shot to a tree branch. It's much more cartoon morality than the show usually manages, where the good guys mostly blow up their enemies when necessary without too many qualms. At least Butler calls her on it.
In a similar vein, and no doubt for similar reasons, the squad is awfully PC, with Nara correcting Noretti when she calls the Neo Sapiens 'Sapes.
Remember that great line about how there aren't any dogs on Venus? Well, about four minutes later, Bronsky finds a dog on Venus. Very awkward. I suspect that line was originally in the same scene with the dog (sort of a, "hey, you found a dog, I thought there weren't any" kinda thing) but got reshuffled around.
The way that Marsala outs her is problematic. The idea is introduced, after-the-fact, that e-frame computers need to be reconfigured from terran to Neo Sapien users. Marala's frame did not need to be reconfigured after Noretti used it, his proof. Casting aside the idea that maybe absolute proof wasn't needed, we've never seen this before, and Bronsky commandeered a Neo e-frame as recently as last episode. Also, if that's the case, one imagines that it'd be easy to lock e-frames to one species or the other. Very clumsy.
Winfield's trip down to the planet is awfully coincidentally timed. She's only been with the squad a couple of days, it seems, when down he comes.
I also have some issues with Neo Noretti. Since all they had was some DNA "recovered from the crash site" I'm skeptical that they'd be able to even identify the trooper, much less program her in a way that's even half-way convincingly Noretti. I don't see how Phaeton could possibly know that she had only been with the squad a short time... for all he knew, Noretti and someone else on the squad were lovers. It's a plan that seemed doomed to failure from the start, or needed better hand-waving.
Noretti's picture goes back up in the frame at the end of the episode, a poignant moment. We'll continue to see it occasionally.
Livia again shows up, helping to cement her more important role in the second half of the series.
When Butler (again, deservedly) chews out O'Reilly for putting herself at risk to save a fleeing Neo Sapien combatant, Marsh intercedes and Butler aggressively pulls rank. This scene will get reprised towards the end of the run.
Great idea, poor execution. At least it moves the plot along and introduces the O'Reilly/Marsh relationship.