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Cable Television Rundown: Moral Relativism in The Pacific (A Kneejerk Review)

This Winter and Spring has brought to us a plethora of excellent television dramas, most of those presenting to the viewer many a moral dilemma. It started with this winter's season of Big Love, in which Bill Hendrickson became a mini-Tony Soprano style state senator that allowed his co-workers to be thrown under the bus. It has continued with the final season of Lost, where good characters do bad things, and bad characters do badder things (but might only do those bad things because they had mommy issues, but that's another story). Recently, Brigitte, Lady Amy, Chris and I arrived at the penultimate episode of the second season of Breaking Bad, in which Walter White does some, um, morally ambiguous things. (Bad, bad, bad, bad, bad things!)

Which leads to the partially stodgy, partially joyless, partially horrendously disturbing, wholly beautiful production value, mostly perfect HBO miniseries The Pacific, which ended its ten part run last night. The things that the central characters did in the war were at times heroic and at times horrifying.

The miniseries did a fantastic shot depicting how war causes people to lose their humanity in a way both familiar and fresh. It's an oft-done template to take a few soldiers, show them what their life was like before the war, put them in some war action, and bring them home. But what sets this miniseries apart was the sheer brutality of war, depicted in a grueling, demanding, horrifying way not seen in any other war movie (even the oft-compared Saving Private Ryan), especially parts five through nine. The battle scenes were aided by excellent overall lead performances by James Badge Dale, Joseph Mazzello (yes, the kid from Jurassic Park) and Jon Seda, and especially the supporting performance by Rami Malek as the effed-up soldier named Snafu. And, that $200 million budget was well spent on the many, many explosions, bullet holes, blown-up brains, and stunningly gorgeous shots of beaches and sunsets. Yes, parts five through nine had more blown-up brains per capita than your average Evil Dead movie. (It goes without saying that the superb musical score by Hans Zimmer helped out quite a bit.)

For as steadily as parts one through four of the minseries set the stage for the three stories that were followed, parts five through nine are an absolute chore to watch, a seemingly never-ending mashup of war action that is less exciting and more simply grueling to watch. Parts of part seven and part nine rank amongst the most gruesome productions I have ever seen, movie or television. Certain sections of the war drudgery, both involving Mazzello's Eugene "Sledgehammer" Sledge, are not likely to leave my brain any time soon. (Without spoiling too much, they both involve lots and lots of blood.) Our ironic brains are trained to handle ultra-violence with a wink and a nod to irony, but there's no winking and no irony in the way the violence of the Pacific theater were fought.

And, as corny as our ironic brains initially interpret generally any historical fiction such as this, it cannot be stressed enough how well this miniseries does in presenting plainly the sacrifice American soldiers made not just for the good of the country, but for the good of the world. Naturally, that does not mean everything the soldiers did in the miniseries was good and noble -- in fact, the soldiers did some despicable things, Walter White-level things (but, in some ways, more plainly horrifying.) The point, then, is that war strips away a human's dignity. And, a war rips apart families, from the families that stayed home after soldiers shipped off, to families that were ripped apart between the battles of war.

And it may not be an easy thing for we ironic people to admit, but, damn, we should be grateful for the majority of us not needing to be caught in a situation where we have to make morally ambiguous decisions. Where shows like Breaking Bad clearly set out the reasons why we choose to either make a morally right or wrong decision and there are clear rewards for doing the morally wrong thing (like, millions of dollars, or the possibility that you won't get arrested, etc.), The Pacific presents those decisions in a way I would expect them to be presented in real life: no incorrectly redeeming reason for doing something wrong. When a dude from Mobile, AL, who previously had never seen anything too horrifying in his life, is suddenly in the situation where he either should or should not cut out the gold teeth from the corpse of a dead Japanese soldier just for fun, you know there isn't a whole lot of reward in the situation.

Which is what makes The Pacific so rewarding. It takes the standard "war movie" template and both follows it and inverts it to show the real insides, the guts of war. Folks, they ain't pretty. And they aren't scrubbed somewhat clean by a Spielbergian sheen, nor are they a completely inward experience like a Terance Malick film. It rips your soul out, twists your body inside and out, and spits you out, expecting you to go home after it like nothing happend. "They taught me how to kill (Japanese soldiers)...I got pretty damn good at that," Sledge said in last night's finale. This miniseries does a pretty damn good job of showing us that.

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