It’s rare for network television to take chances, especially on serial dramas—true serials, that is, which don’t revolve around the “case/monster/trial of the week” formula. But Last Resort is, thankfully, the exception to the rule this fall. ABC is betting big on the Shawn Ryan and Karl Gajdusek drama, against all odds. The alphabet network’s become known for its female-friendly lineup, from Desperate Housewives to Grey’s Anatomy, to its newest hit Once Upon a Time. So, a drama about a U.S. navy sub crew that goes rogue and runs some high stakes games against its own government doesn’t just break the mold; it shatters it.
Ryan, creator of The Shield, Terriers, and Chicago Code, and Gajdusek, a former story editor and writer for Dead Like Me, have created a tense, action-movie scorcher of a pilot. Imagine someone taking the nuclear war conflict, military background, and moral questions of early Battlestar Galactica, melding it with Homeland’s incredible intensity and terrorism hysteria, sprinkling a dash of The West Wing’s political maneuverings on top, and then mixing it all into Lost’s stranded-in-paradise trappings.
If you’re thinking that’d be one hell of a show, you’d be damn right. And in addition to all of that going on, there are an abundance of strong characters and interesting, complex relationships set up in this first episode. Most of the plot is shaped by the kind of men and women the leads chose to be. Will they act with integrity? Even if it means defying orders and taking ruthless action?
A small motorboat filled with U.S. Navy SEALs, one wounded, roars across the ocean, calling for a pickup. The camera pans out and a massive submarine breaks surface right under the lifeboat. The USS Colorado rescues the SEALs, and we see our first familiar face, Felicity’s Ben Covington (Scott Speedman), dressed in naval blues, and looking good! He’s all business though, ordering the Chief of the Boat (Robert Patrick from Terminator II!) to get the men onboard as fast as possible. A sonar operator, Cameron Pitts, cuts in to say he’s getting a big signal on radar that’s unidentifiable. We narrow in on the back of an older African-American man’s head and he turns to reveal himself as Homicide’s Andre Braugher! Oh, and he’s the commander of the ship.
Commander Braugher, whom we’ll come to know as Commander Marcus Chaplin, wants to get out of there, but the signal has been identified as coming from a Pakistani frigate. Marcus and Scott Speedman, who we learn is XO Sam Kendal, exchange some tense looks and Sam orders the boat to submerge again. Marcus leaves command in the visibly nervous hands of Lieutenant Grace Shepard (Daisy Betts, from the short-lived mystery series Persons Unknown) and they head off to see to the Navy SEALs.
At sick bay, Sam inquires about the frigate chasing the SEALs, wondering what they were up to. For his trouble, he gets a dirty look and complete snubbing from the SEAL mission leader. But after Marcus and Sam leave, the mission leader asks one of his SEALs, James King (Aussie newcomer Daniel Lissing), “What the hell happened back there?” Hmmm.
We observe the daily routine on the Colorado, which includes a hefty dose of strained sexual politics it seems. Sam tries to do mandated “sensitivity duty” by asking some female crewmembers for a daily check-in as to whether they’ve been harassed or assaulted. Spitfire officer Pilar Cortez, jokingly smarts off about him using the term “rack” while he’s doing sensitivity training duty. Then two crewmen (one of whom is Max Adler, better known as Glee’s Karofsky) bitch about Grace getting the con because she’s an admiral’s kid (with a dose of misogyny in there for good measure). Grace and Sam both overhear this and Sam tells the Chief (who snickers about it) to take care of this situation. These sequences seem a promising setup to some real exploration of the strained sexual politics of a co-ed military crew and I hope future episodes revisit this tension.
Back in his quarters, Marcus is looking at a photo of a young man in desert camo, his son, Jeffrey, whom Sam asks after. Marcus smiles and says his son is jealous of him, not a lot of water where he is. We also quickly learn that “D.C. is falling apart”, when Marcus shows Sam ground transmissions revealing the U.S. president is facing impeachment and several four-star generals have quit. He follows it up with a short story about Ronald Reagan that seems irrelevant, but lets him deliver the key quote: “If there’s one absolute truth to being the man with your finger on the button, that’s it: they have to think you’re crazy.” He and Sam drink to being 500 miles under and away from it all, then he tells Sam that after this tour he needs to take a desk job and start a family with his wife Christine. Sam starts to protest, but Marcus adds that whatever Sam thinks he owes, he’s paid Marcus a hundred times over.
The Chief approaches Grace to say he gave the two men talking shit about her a week’s latrine duty, and that it’s not that she’s a woman, you see . . . Grace nods and says “It’s because I haven’t earned their respect.” He’s taken aback by her understanding, but one beat later, she firmly orders they get two weeks latrine duty and goes on to tell the Chief to address her by her rank or Ma’am, not her first name, thank you very much. Snap!
Marcus comes onto the con, some time later as all hands are present and accounted for, and asks for a position report. They’re crossing the equator, Grace tells him, and he nods to Cameron and La Bamba floods over the loudspeakers. Newbie Grace looks on in shock as everyone starts dancing, Cortez struts into the con with a leather jacket and sunglasses, which she slides on Marcus’s laughing face. As general revelry reigns, Sam returns to the con and shares a look with Marcus. He snaps off a slow salute to a verklempt Sam, who returns it smartly. All in a day’s work on the Colorado.
A loud beeping interrupts the partying, and everything gets serious right quick as a message comes in and Grace announces it’s a firing order from an Antarctic command channel. Sam wonders “Antarctica?” But Marcus and he run off to take their firing keys from a safe, and follow elaborate and strict procedures to authenticate them. As they bustle about, Grace, our audience proxy, helpfully points out that the Antarctic channel would only be used if…. the main command station had been taken out by a first strike, Sam finishes grimly.
They’re on the verge of firing, but have misgivings. Sam repeats Grace’s concern about the order coming from Antarctic instead of D.C. command, and urges Marcus to just take a look first. Marcus hesitates, considering, then asks the communications officer, Chris Cahill, to do so. Cahill pulls up some TV channels: the weather, a talk show, Hannah Montana. No reports of D.C. in trouble.
Marcus gets on the phone and asks for a firing order by proper channels. They are none too pleased, insisting he has a firing order. Marcus resists, they push. Then the commander launches into his first of many rousing speeches: “I’m sitting here watching Hannah Montana, so I’m not going to annihilate 4.3 million Pakistanis without hearing directly from someone whose authority I recognize!”
We cut to a couple stumbling into a hotel room amid kisses, and the woman’s breathless recitation of some features of heavy duty war weaponry that’s onboard the Colorado. It seems she’s designed a prototype weapon that also masks a sub’s electromagnetic signal, rendering it undetectable. (No doubt that will come in handy, eh?) She aggressively undresses and straddles her date on the bed, all the while suggesting he could get “his senator” to help hook her up with the Navy, which is going to want lots of these after tomorrow’s testing. Her smitten date agrees and they commence with the outmaking for half a minute, until our girl gets a text that simply says “472 Chaplin” and she runs out the door.
Back on ship, a deputy secretary of defense calls Marcus and relieves him of his command, instating XO Sam as commander and asking him to complete the order. Sam has a nervous Grace take Marcus’s key, but he can’t pull the trigger either, and in the end, asks the firing command to be sent over the proper channel. The line goes dead.
With perfect timing, the Navy SEALs charge the con, demanding to know why the commander’s refusing orders. Marcus and Sam try to order them off the con, and the SEALs draw guns on them. Then another ominous beeping starts: a missile has a lock on the ship and it’s 20 seconds out. Sam and Marcus jump into action, and everyone holds on tight as the missile hits. Crewmen go flipping around the con, sparks fly, and the ship goes rushing into the ocean floor. Water has breached several compartments, including sick bay. Sam and the SEALs rush back there, to save the wounded SEAL. In the commotion, Sam’s picture of his lovely young wife goes floating off in the water all metaphorically. But water’s still rushing in, and popping the nails right out of the boat’s ironsides . . . one of which tragically nails the SEAL mission leader right in the forehead, killing him instantly.
In the midst of this chaos, we cut to a lush tropical island, and blaring pop music as a dark-skinned man in a jeep drives through a small village. He’s observed by another familiar face: Dollhouse’s Sierra, Dichen Lachman! The jeep heads on to a NATO early warning station on the island. The folks inside have seen the missile signature—an American Tomahawk. The NATO station commander, the French-accented Sophie Girard, tensely commands an underling to find out everything he can. Meanwhile our jeep driver, Mayor Julian Serrat has arrived in the station. Sophie tries to shoo him out but he’s brought her a birthday gift, a jar of Nutella. She tries to pay him but he suavely and ominously says “It’s a gift, Sophie. Someday you’ll give me a gift.”
Back on the ship, Sam is distressed; Marcus has retired to his quarters listening to Mozart. Sam says the crew needs Marcus, and Marcus asserts that “They have a captain. You.” Sam returns to the con, and takes the loudspeaker, urged by Grace to say something. He haltingly rises to the challenge, telling the crew to do their jobs so they can get home to their families. Then intel comes in: the missile came from the USS Illinois, a fellow U.S. submarine. Everyone’s aghast. Chief Cobb and Communications officer Cahill accuse Sam, saying that they were fired on because they failed to follow orders, and a tense stand-down ensues as Cobb challenges Sam’s authority.
But then Marcus comes in and inquires if they were shot by an American boat. Sam wonders how he knew, and Marcus simply orders the helm to come to new coordinates. Silence prevails as the crew wonders if they should obey the order. Sam enforces the order and Cahill protests. Sam orders Chief to remove him from the con, which he does after a moment, then hands the reins back to Marcus, who orders Grace to bring them to new coordinates and says “I think I found our oasis.”
Back on the mainland, we see Sam’s wife, Christine, at home. She answers a knock on the door and finds two stern naval officers there. She knows this can’t be good news.
At the capital, folks are watching news broadcasts saying Pakistanis fired on the Colorado, possibly killing 150-plus Americans. Our sexy weapons expert is there and introduces herself to an Admiral Shepard. Kylie Sinclair, from Sinclair Dynatronics, tells him they had a prototype onboard the Colorado, then pauses for a split-second to add “I’m sorry about your daughter, Sir.” He thunders about the propriety of this when they’re at Defcon-2. She has no time for posturing though and calls him out, saying they both know the Pakistanis didn’t sink the Colorado and gives him an ultimatum: if he wants her to keep quiet, he’ll put her equipment on the next boat that goes out. She shows him the text, which refers to the order to remove Marcus and says with 18 Tridents on board, no one was letting a rogue captain mutiny, so they tried to sink him. “You son of a bitch,” she grits, emotional now. “You sank your own daughter’s boat.” This is news to the Admiral though. He looks at her in shock, and Kylie wonders what the hell is going on as his staff hustles him away.
Sam takes a moment to decompress alone, and we flashback to his wife asking him to go AWOL before he shipped out. They’re clearly supposed to be the big romance we’re rooting for, all smoochy and doing the forehead bump of true love, but then Grace comes along, interrupting his reflection as he fumbles for his missing picture (foreshadowing perhaps?). She asks Sam what they do now. He says to be a strong example, she starts to leave, then turns back to thank him for not making her fire that key. But she adds that she would have done it, if he’d told her to. It’s not hard to imagine a little something developing between these two pretty senior officers. Just saying.
The boat goes topside, crew invading the tropical island oasis Marcus found. The SEALs head for the hospital, except James who has Hopper in a body bag over his shoulder. He approaches Lachman’s barkeep, Tani Tumrenjack, and pays her to let him store the body in her freezer, and to open a tab drinking her best scotch. She’s not sure what to make of him.
Marcus and Sam take over the NATO station, much to Sophie and her crew’s chagrin. She protests that the station belongs to NATO, but Marcus insists it belongs—along with the sub parked outside—to him now. Marcus calls the Admiral and hands the phone to Grace who assures her dad she’s okay, and she hopes he’ll be proud of them when he learns what really happened. Marcus takes the phone back and explains that when they questioned the against-protocol firing order, the Illinois shot at them. The admiral says the White House blamed the Pakistanis. “We’re at war!” And then soldiers come into his office and the line goes dead.
Back at Tani’s bar, the mayor is questioning James about the new influx of “tourists” on his island. James smartly tells him what’s what: “Up until about an hour ago, you ran things here.” But, he explains, it’s no match for the boomer in his harbor. The mayor insists it’s his island, and if he allows their presence, it’s on his terms. James calmly tells him how he’ll kill all of the mayor’s men and then the mayor himself, unless he leaves him in peace to enjoy his drink. The mayor’s irked, but smirks at him. “Americans, such confidence.”
Sam calls his wife, who is under guard by the military. He promises to explain it all, over-“baby”ing the entire conversation. The military guys steal the phone away just as the power cuts out at the station (clearly as sick of their schmoop as I was) and Sam goes with Sophie to examine the power supply. He comes up on one of his crew members speaking into a phone saying he cut the power and rendered them blind, adding “No need to thank me, sir. It’s our duty.” Double mutiny is afoot! Sam pulls a gun, ordering him to step back, but then Karofsky comes out of the shadows with a gun on Sam. He’s loud and threatening to shoot, clearly a bit unhinged by all this, and lifts his gun to Sam . . . and then a shot rings out, dropping him! It’s Grace in the shadows. Chief Cobb comes running in, kneeling next to his downed officer and looking back at a shaken Grace and snarling “What the hell did you just do?”
The power goes back on, and Cameron tells him there are two bombers headed for the island. Marcus orders them all back to the sub, but then Grace says Cortez and another officer, Brannon, are missing. It’s seven minutes till the Bombers hit. Sam says they have to dive anyway, but Marcus says they’re not leaving crew behind and they’re not going to hide in the ocean. It’s time to change the game. He orders them to spin up missile one. Marcus and Sam put their keys in, and this time there’s no hesitation or fuss, they turn them, launching a missile. The islanders see the missile rise out of the ocean and into the air, and James snarkily adds, all Sawyer-style, “That’s not good.”
Marcus calls D.C. and says calmly and authoritatively that he’s got a nuke headed toward D.C. if they don’t turn their bombers away. They think he’s bluffing and order him to self-destruct it. He refuses and gives them a two-minute warning. It doesn’t work. The bombers keep coming. Marcus laughs and shakes his head. He takes the loudspeaker and addresses the crew, saying an attack is imminent and they won’t survive it. He assures them it’s his honor to serve with them all and there’s no one he’d rather be with. They’re about to self-destruct, when the bombers turn back. The call comes in with confirmation the planes have been called off and asking Marcus to self-destruct. He refuses.
Sam freaks, ordering him to put his key in and self-destruct. Marcus tells him that if the government believes they won’t follow through, they’ll be dead in a week. Sam insists and Marcus asks for his trust, questioning whether he has ever done anything that wasn’t in the best interests of “this boat, this crew, and our nation?” The missile streams past the Washington monument and into the water. Cameron tells us the bomb detonated 200 miles off the coast of Washington, far enough so no one will be hurt.
Marcus gives his final speech of the episode, to a camera in the NATO station. He explains what happened, the non-protocol order and the government’s retaliation. We cut away to Chief Cobb confronting Lieutenant Shepard in sick bay.
“You little bitch, Grace.”
“It’s ‘you little bitch, Lieutenant,’ ” she snits as soldiers rush in to hold Cobb at gunpoint.
He leaves, and the wounded Navy SEAL comes to in a nearby bed, muttering “The order was wrong. We killed the wrong people.” Grace looks at him in shock before another SEAL hustles to close the curtain.
Marcus keeps talking, the music keeps swelling. Major Julian opens the doors to a van, revealing a bound and gagged and roughed up Cortez and Brannan. Back at home, Admiral Shepard visits Kylie Sinclair at her apartment. At the island bar, the TV shows fire from the nuke burning near Washington, and a very drunk, distraught James sobs “See that? That was my fault. I made that happen.” Tani rushes around the bar to give him a hug as he’s overcome, muttering “It was me. It was me. What did I do?” over and over.
We return to Marcus as he winds up his powerful speech (and damn, can Braugher speechify!). He warns that they have 17 more nukes and they’re not afraid to use them, should the government continue to try to kill them. “Test us and we will all burn together,” he finishes. “You’ve been warned.” His crew looks on, and a visibly moved Sam says “cut” quietly. Marcus looks at him, now looking just the slightest bit uncertain, and Sam says. “Just crazy enough, sir.”
Sam and Grace stand separately and far apart on the station’s balcony looking out at the sub in the harbor. Marcus walks up next to Sam and hands him the picture of Christine lost on the ship. Sam thanks him and after a beat, Marcus wonders what happened to the country he grew up in. “We made it all a mess. We could do better. Right here. Starting from scratch.” Sam and Grace both look at him like he’s crazy and Sam says he thought they were doing all this just so they could clear their names and get back home. Marcus is utterly serene, as he answers, “Maybe this is home now.”
That’s the end of the incredibly densely packed first hour of Last Resort. If there’s any flaw to this pilot, it’s that you wish the network had given them 90 minutes or even two hours to unfold this all with a bit more breathing room. It’s a massive cast, and we don’t get the chance to know some of the characters that well (thus, for example, it doesn’t mean much when Cortez and especially Brannon are taken hostage.) The second mutiny seemingly comes a bit out of nowhere (why would Karofsky be the unhinged gunman when Cahill was the strongest protester against Marcus defying orders?). The Sam-Christine epic relationship we’re supposed to root for feels a bit miscast (Jessy Schram could pass for a teenager and seems an odd match with late 30s Speedman, IMO) and there’s a powerful bit of motivation for Marcus that was in the original script but not in the episode. That was likely cut for time and will absolutely surface in a future episode, but would’ve made a few beats even more resonant if they kept it.
But all of that is nitpicky stuff, and it stems from the impressive scope of this story trying to find a home on network television of all places. One could argue Last Resort makes more sense as a feature film or a cable drama, or, assert, as I’ve seen many critical essays do, that the premise is unsustainable for a whole series. But as far as I can tell, the beauty of this show is that it doesn’t conform to formula and it can go anywhere Ryan and Gajdusek choose to take it. Last Resort’s ambitious, and that’s an adjective you don’t often hear when it comes to network drama. Hell, if they’re willing to commit treason in the pilot episode, then how completely bananas might the season finale be?
Just crazy enough, I’d venture.
Tara Gelsomino is a reader, writer, pop culture junkie, and Internet addict. You can tweet her at @taragel.