“Beware of the Man Who Can’t Die” Torchwood Episode Guide S3 E4 (Spoilers)

If you watch no other episodes in the mini-season, you need to watch this one. Underneath the basic SciFi plot of aliens coming to Earth and demanding something in exchange for the continued survival and sovereignty of the planet, is a complex discussion of the role of government (the privileged and the “peons”) and what ongoing investment in unearned privilege means to the world’s citizens. Women once again play a pivotal role in this episode as do those continued problematic questions about reproduction and parenting.


Torchwood 2009/BBC

Episode 4 of Children of Earth opens with the team assessing the revelation that Jack helped hand over 12 orphan children to aliens without even asking what will happen to them. While Clem’s impassioned plea:

The man who sent me and my friends to die, can’t die

provides some painful energy to this moment, the scene lacks the usual intense pathos and anguish that has typified the hard decisions in the series to date. While it’s true that Gwen is clearly confused by the image of the man who “saves people tcoedisappointmentfrom aliens” and the man who hands them over, and Ianto is heartbroken over the revelation, Barrowman seems more disconnected from this moment than he has been in any other such scene during the run of the series. His response is done in flat affect, perhaps meant to show shell shock at his own culpability in both the past and present situations. Without that powerful investment from Barrowman/Jack, the scene plays out far less well and the quick shift back to heroism seems disingenuous.

Particularly telling is that Ianto’s major concern about the revelation of the 456 mystery is that Jack did not tell him about it. His complain that they are “merely scratching the surface” with one another, is part of an ongoing thread that will end in tragedy tonight. Ianto worries that if Jack does not lean on him or show him the complex pieces of himself that they really are not as committed as he believed. And yet, there is irony in his disappointment, in that with every piece of Ianto’s past that is revealed in this season/series, we find out no one on the team really knows him either.tcoeevil

Tonight 456 reveals that they want 10% of the world’s children or they will destroy the planet. Where series/season 3 drops the ball on these questions with Jack this time out, they put them in startling relief in a discussion about who should be sacrificed and why in this and the next installment of the mini-season. Thus as world leaders debate who should be sacrificed eugenicist arguments abound. Taking charge of the discussion is a British woman whose position in the government is undefined, but who plays on both the power that position affords as well as her status as a mother to silence non-parenting participants around the table who call for reason and even challenge fathers’ rights to speak. In a particularly mercenary move, she says their “first responsibility is to the best interests of this country [Britain]” and then defines that as saving the privileged while culling from the rest.tcoeiantossis

Ianto’s family and the multi-culti working class neighborhood in which they live stand in stark contrast to this discussion. While the government sits working out how to protect their own and the unearned privilege at the top, Ianto’s sister and brother-in-law work to watch over the children in the neighborhood and make sure all of the families are safe and well-informed. Their efforts will be the shining moment in an otherwise bleak concluding episode tomorrow.

Ultimately, the government, led by the nameless woman in question, determine the following eugenicist criteria for selection:

  • low performing students from “lesser performing schools”
  • homeless youth
  • children with chronicle illnesses or diseases
  • immigrant children and the children of asylum seekers/those granted asylum
  • children on the dole

As if excusing this list, she adds “God knows we’ve tried and we’ve failed” arguing that low performing students are destined for the dole and prison.

Yet Ianto’s own valiant effort to help save the planet from the 456 contradicts her elitest assumptions. Ianto, who has proven to be a key component of the Torchwood team throughout the series run, came from the very working class tcoegoodbyebackground she is vilifying. Despite being an abused child from the wrong neighborhood, he was entrusted first to watch over the world, first as part of Torchwood London then Cardiff. His invaluable efforts are part of the reason that the people of the world are alive and the government is still functioning to face the current threat. And yet, if they had their way, it would be children like Ianto who would be sacrificed.

As if to drive this home, Ianto and Jack head to Thames House guns blazing to save the planet. Everyone, including the world’s governments, believe Torchwood will save the day as they always have. To underscore how powerful Jack is, both his daughter Alice and Ianto explain how much fear a man who cannot die should inspire. Alice uses it as a warning to Johnson while held captive; Ianto tells it to 456. Both of them will be surprised by what happens to each of them next.

I cannot discuss the end of this episode except to say that I am still heartsick over it. I’ve sat down many times to discuss the changing perspective on “alternative” sexuality over the course of the series and the important ways that Torchwood has committed to showing a same-sex relationship over a life-cycle and simply gotten stuck at the first and only thought that occupies my brain: the way tonight’s episode ends. Having seen this moment twice now, I am unsure that I can sit through it a third time tonight. Whatever you do, do not get up until the show is over. If you leave the room, you will regret it.

3 thoughts on ““Beware of the Man Who Can’t Die” Torchwood Episode Guide S3 E4 (Spoilers)

  1. Barrowman seems more disconnected from this moment than he has been in any other such scene during the run of the series.

    If you think about it, in some ways Jack is going to be disconnected from that event. From Clem’s perspective, the events of 1965 are four decades in the past. From Jack’s perspective, he handed over Clem two thousand years in the past. (The question, of course, is what being buried alive actually meant to Jack; “Exit Wounds” treats it as though Jack was pretty much in a state of hibernation.) The other thing to consider is that handing Clem and the other children over was just one action Jack took of many in his long service with Torchwood, while for Clem that moment was, in many ways, the defining moment of his life. It simply wasn’t as important to Jack as it was to Clem.

    • welcome to the blog Allyn. My criticism is not of Jack’s sense of time vs. Clem’s. I don’t disagree that for Clem this is the defining moment of his life. I think the season makes that pretty clear; and I think Davies also said that exact thing last night in the “inside the hub” segment.

      What I said in the post was that Barrowman, the actor, handled the scene differently, and in my mind, less effectively, to other comparable scenes about Jack having to make hard decisions and living as a “fixed point in time” throughout the entire series of Torchwood (S1-3). Given how critical these concepts have been for the series, and how much depth Barrowman has usually shown in playing Jack, I don’t think it is a given that his response this time would be “flat affect.” At the same time, I acknowledged yr pt that Jack’s sense of time was likely the reason; this is why I titled the post “beware of the man who cannot die.”

      For me, what draws me into the series is the complexity that Barrowman and the writers bring out in Jack’s character (that and all the fun snark and flirting, which is also toned down this time out). Torchwood is at its best when addressing the time issue through dramatic form and I don’t think this scene lives up to its past accomplishments. Obviously, we will have to disagree on that.

      The question, of course, is what being buried alive actually meant to Jack

      These are two separate and unrelated incidents with equal import. In my mind, one person’s suffering does not negate another’s.

  2. Please, I would love to read “your thoughts on sexuality from the first exciting exploration of multiple versions of bi-sexuality and/or same sex attraction in the first season to the “family romance narrative” ending of season/series 3″. I’ve been thinking a lot about that myself, and I need another perspective to dialogue with. Been really enjoying your Torchwood readings!

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