Jingo All the Way: A Review of The Last Ship Season 1, Episode 2 “Welcome to Gitmo”

Posted: June 30, 2014 in Reviews, The Last Ship, TV
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Episode: 102
Airdate: June 29, 2014
Directed by: Jack Bender
Showrunner: Hank Steinberg
Written by: William Brinkley (based on the novel by), Josh Schaer (written for television by), Hank Steinberg (written for television by)

You need to expect, when watching a show about a Navy destroyer, that you’re going to get a certain amount of jingoism. But when the constantly reiterated theme of the show is the breakdown of command hierarchies, and the beginning of a new world that, in CO Commodore Tom Chandler [Eric Dane]’s words, has “no good guys and no bad guys,” you wouldn’t be far amiss to expect that maybe, just perhaps, the cheer-leading might get tempered down a bit. But so far, two episodes into The Last Ship, it appears that the writers and actors can’t quite figure out what they want this show to be.

<<Spoiler Alert: This review of The Last Ship Season 1, Episode 2 “Welcome to Gitmo” will include minor spoilers and plot points.>>

Tonight’s episode has the USS Nathan James heading toward a refueling depot at Guantanamo Bay. They arrive, only to find the base deserted, and get down to work acquiring food, fuel, and laboratory supplies to help Dr. Rachel Scott [Rhona Mitra] with her race to find a cure. This gives us our first extended action off the boat, which is something the series will need to do regularly if they’re going to maintain long-term interest. A destroyer is only so large, after all.

As I mentioned in my preamble, a bit of jingoism should be expected in this kind of show – after all, if you’re made uncomfortable by patriotism and militarism, why watch a show that’s set on a US Navy destroyer? The problem that I have is with how it’s presented. I expect the Commodore to be patriotic, but if the audience is to trust him, don’t put lines like, “It’s a different world. There are no good guys and bad guys anymore” into his mouth, and juxtapose them fifteen seconds later with, “One thing hasn’t changed. We don’t negotiate with terrorists” as the Nathan James unleashes a five-inch shell just behind the bad guys.

There is a fundamental problem with this scene (one in which the Al Qaeda leader at Gitmo has taken a hostage, and CDR Chandler is trying to talk him down), one that takes the viewer right out of the suspension of disbelief: if Chandler is intending to blow the guys away, he has a very easy opportunity to do so when the terrorist leader knocks his prisoner down – a totally open shot with no guns pointing at anyone, except for those held by US Navy sailors – a freebie, if you will. But no, he doesn’t take the shot, instead allowing the terrorists to reposition and increase the tension, and opening up the opportunity for a scene of the Nathan James bringing in the big guns. This leads one to believe that he was really trying to talk down the terrorist, so when he calls in the shot to XO Slattery [Adam Baldwin], it jars against the actions he just failed to take. Rather than decisive, it comes across as confused.

Speaking of fundamental issues, where are the Cubans? Gitmo is abandoned, evacuated according to a former prison guard they find, so why wouldn’t the Cubans walk right in and repatriate the base? Use its fuel? Take its food? This is huge and glaring plot hole that basically undermines any credibility the episode attempts to have.

There is, predictably, a fair bit of character development tonight, some that comes across well, and some that feels rather forced. Among the better moments has Lieutenant Green [Travis van Winkle] dealing with packing a fallen comrade’s gear, and facing his grief and confusion at what’s been happening while they were incommunicado in the Arctic; unfortunately, one of the worst involves him as well, as he goes from being openly hostile toward Dr. Scott, to glowing admiration after she saves one of the men under his command. A grudging respect I’d believe, but the look of almost adoration he gives her is a little over the top. There is also a bit more development of our resident Russian spy. Quincy [Sam Spruell] has a chance to undermine things, but it is almost laughable the way each of his plans got inadvertently undermined, save for the last that manages to delay the Nathan James long enough for the Russians to get close. There is also a (frankly weird) conversation between Chandler and his XO, in which he basically tells Slattery that he wants his support, but he doesn’t want his support, but could he have his support? Seriously, that’s exactly how their conversation plays out, and the confused look on Slattery’s face as he leaves Chandler’s ready room is an accurate imitation of the faces of viewers everywhere.

The best parts of the episode involve the action, particularly the close-quarters firefights that several sailors get into with a group of escapees from the Detention Center at Guantanamo. There are a couple of opportunities for the Nathan James’s guns to get put into use, but while it’s a good device – using the destroyer’s firepower makes for some exciting moments – the shots of shells shifting into position and the turret rotating already have a recycled feel from the first episode. And the action also brought some of the silliest moments, as well as jarring discontinuities that really pull the viewer out of the show.

First, the silly: when facing an ambush in a warehouse full of food, why is it that the Al Qaeda men would allow the navy soldiers to have all the hard metal barriers – barrels and such – while hiding behind cardboard boxes? Pretty ineffectual at stopping bullets. Then the discontinuity: when a second group is ambushed at the hospital, the terrorists fire through a door at them. From inside, the entire door is like Swiss cheese, riddled with holes; in the next shot, from outside, the bullet holes are only along the top half of the door. And the best part? The hallway full of soldiers on the other side of the door are somehow missed by every single bullet.

The writing in tonight’s episode had a lot of low points. The “negotiate” comment wasn’t even the nadir – and that’s just looking at the Commodore’s lines. Other gems: “We can knock an ICBM out of the sky, I think we can handle this,” said to Dr. Scott when she expresses concern that Chandler’s men won’t know what to look for in the hospital – because, you know, non-existent missile technology has a lot to do with recognizing medicines; another from Chandler, when he says, “Revenge is a dish best served cold” upon seeing a dead prison guard – this, to calm down one of the guard’s colleagues, but it makes no sense in the context – it’s not like they go and wait a couple of hours for the other guard to get over his anger before they go kill the terrorists – and the follow-up comment, “Let’s go eat,” is just plain cheesy, and not the good kind; and another, this as Dr. Scott instructs the sailors what to look for by saying “any broad-spectrum antibiotics you can find” – because sailors are obviously familiar with medical jargon, and will be able to differentiate between broad-spectrum antibiotics and, well, the other types I guess.

There were also some weak moments that weren’t dialogue related:

  • Dr. Scott, after being told a man was bleeding out, sticking a pair of forceps blindly into a bullet wound, and coming out seconds later with the bullet, and then seconds after that, blindly managing to clamp an artery shut with those same forceps. Medicine doesn’t work this way.
  • The Commodore himself leading troops into a potential fire zone. He’s not trained for that, and he wouldn’t be allowed to put himself at that kind of risk. A very <i>Star Trek</i> kind of error.
  • Lt. Green a) wasting precious oxygen rallying the troops who are worried about their dwindling oxygen supplies, ignoring b) that they could easily come back for a second supply run, should the base be cleared. Attempts to falsely raise tension simply fall flat.
  • Dr. Scott claiming to be a trauma specialist due to a year spent in Mogadishu – this rings false when considering her specialization as a virologist.
  • Again, where are the Cubans? There’s no way they’d let a completely stocked American base just sit there unguarded on their island – this is a case of the writers treating the viewers like idiots – it’s almost as if they’re saying, “Oh, nobody will notice.”

The show is full of too many convenient inconveniences as well – too many small things going wrong in ways that are obviously intended merely to heighten tension, or to set-up yet another glamour shot of the five-inch turret in action. And man, if the Navy were as full of stupid as the Nathan James is, the US would never have won a war in its history. There are angsty moments of dealing with orders; there are moments of easy understanding, and inexplicable emotion (Dr. Scott nearly getting teary when explaining to a lieutenant that she was “under orders” – done in front of dozens of enlisted, thus completely undermining any authority she may claim to have); and there is not nearly the level of paranoia and care for attention that should be evident in a ship that knows it’s alone, with rogue elements of the Russian military in pursuit. The ending of the episode emphasizes this, with CDR Chandler making jokes with what he believes is an incoming British ship. Any Commodore worth his salt would, under similar circumstances, 1) ask the ship to turn on its identifying radar, 2) order the ship to stand-off until the James was ready to get underway, and perhaps most obviously, 3) send their helicopter to investigate whether or not the ship was what it claimed to be, long before they were within firing range.

I’m going to continue to give this show some time each week, with the hope that it can find its sea legs before TNT decides to pull the plug on this leaky ship. But if the first two weeks are any indication, it is just another derivative filler series to try to keep numbers up for the network in the weak summer period.

Steve’s Grade: D
A very weak second outing for Commodore Chandler and the crew of The Last Ship. If they don’t get better writing and less confusion soon, I don’t see this show going past its ten episode run.

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  1. C Page says:

    1. I haven’t yet figured out the “Commodore” reference. Commodore is not an actual rank or pay grade. A commodore is a post-(ship)command naval officer holding the rank of Captain (O-6), who commands a squadron of ships. Chandler is a Commander (silver oak leaves), and as CO of DDG151, is addressed as “Captain.”
    a. The XO is normally a Lieutenant Commander (gold oak leaves). Slattery being a Commander is certainly an oddity.
    2. While I spent my 21 year career on fast-attack submarines (all nuclear powered), I know that the non-nuclear fleet sucks some serious fuel. It would take YEARS before those pier side fuel valves would be so difficult to turn, that the handle shaft would twist off. Even if it did, the operator could simply de-energize the pump – wherever it was miraculously getting its power from.
    3. The Cuban side of the fence could be just as bad as the US side of the fence, but admittedly, not even so much as a helicopter coming over the fence?
    4. Agreed on the CO going ashore with an assault team. Additionally, typical in just about all military related tv and movies, there are entirely too many officers. While all ships have a Weapons Officer (department head) and a JO as the division officer, a Gunners Mate would be the Master-At-Arms, doing the team training. Certainly, if specialized resources were available to enhance the standard training, those resources would be used.
    5. The doctor is a “rider,” or guest aboard ship. While she has an important mission, she would never be viewed as anything of a leadership component. That entire bit of “I was following orders”/”we understand orders” dialog would never have taken place. This is simply one of many instances of dumbed-down story for the tv audience.
    6. You’re entirely correct about the incoming Russian ship…it would never been permitted to get so close without a positive identification, even with the correct call sign authentication. Further, EMCON is EMCON. EMCON is not radio silence except for the rider’s personal satellite phones. DoD directive or not, once the first engagement on the ice happened, there would be no sat phone calls without monitoring by an appropriate crew member, and nothing with EMCON in effect.
    7. The “we can shoot down an ICBM” reference is probably based on Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD)…. See USS Lake Erie and Operation Burnt Frost.

    In conclusion – there are plenty of holes in the show, but it goes with anything. Being retired military I usually end up picking every military movie apart. My wife is a psychologist, and couldn’t stand “Analyze This” or “Anger Management.” I would imagine the it goes with any profession, but we have to add drama and excitement, and it has to be dumbed-down enough to be understood by the average viewer.

    • Thank you very much for your comments, Mr. Page (I’d address you by rank, but it isn’t in your signature). I really appreciate having someone with your experience clarifying a few things for me.

      1. In my first review of the show, I referred to Chandler as Captain, but changed that for the second episode when I noticed people referring to him as Commodore (or I misheard it). I did think it was odd, but didn’t know why – you’ve cleared that up! In future, I’ll just refer to Chandler as Captain and Slattery as XO, to keep things consistent.

      2. I wondered at that as well – wouldn’t they at the least use weather-proofing? Interestingly, I’ve read that in Brinkley’s novel, he has them aboard a nuclear powered destroyer – I’m guessing the choice to go with conventional power allowed them to focus a lot on the need to refuel, as well as reflecting the current ship complement. I knew a fellow who’d been a captain aboard conventional subs in Sweden, who ended up as a sales representative for the Swedish navy. He had some tales to tell of encounters with the Soviets over the years (I met him in 1990). I bet you have some interesting stories as well! I’d love to hear your take on sub-related novels and movies like The Hunt for Red October, and how close they come to the experience of being aboard a sub.

      3. I agree re: the disease hitting Cubans just as bad. My thinking was that if the base was evacuated, like Tex told Chandler, then it was likely early enough in the event that the Cubans would still have some C2 over their forces – retaking Gitmo would seem a natural.

      4. Gotta have a recognizable face on the mission, I guess! And I’d like to see more of the enlisted roles – they’re the blood of the ship.

      5. Cool, good to have a term to put to her. When I used the term “authority,” I think what I was trying to get at was respect. Not that the crew has any for her, as they seem to blame her for taking them away from their families (although it was never under her orders).

      6. I had to look up EMCOM – interesting articles on that. Would there be a likelihood that the comm. personnel on the ship would be able to detect Quince’s transmissions to the Russians? Or Dr. Scott’s communications via satellite phone while they were in the arctic? I’d be interested in knowing if those were additional cases of dumbing down.

      7. Thanks for the clarification re: Aegis capabilities. I hadn’t realized that they’d been boosted to be able to intercept ICBMs – the technology is pretty amazing. I do recall that Japan was moving one of its two Aegis cruisers into the straights between them and North Korea a couple of years ago, during one of the DPK’s ubiquitous tests – imagine how that would have played into the tinpot dictator’s rhetoric if they’d shot it down.

      Again, thanks for your detailed and thoughtful response to the review. I have high hopes for the show as a piece of entertainment, but as a layperson I had a pretty good idea we were being written down to – now I know how much. Maybe they’ll take a cue from some of the better television out there, and get themselves a proper script adviser to go through the paces with them.

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