The Unit

[3 October 2006]

By Cynthia Fuchs

PopMatters Film and TV Editor

Bad Juju

That’s what you want, a head shot, because it’s more sincere.
—Bob (Scott Foley), “The Kill Zone”

Early in “The Kill Zone,” third episode in this new season of The Unit, word comes that Charlie Company has had a man killed. “Where?” asks Kim (Audrey Marie Anderson), still vaguely fresh-faced, still imagining even after her first year in the Unit, that she’ll get straight answers. Molly (Regina Taylor), wise and weary wife of Unit leader Jonas (Dennis Haysbert), knows better. “I heard South America,” she says, shaking her head even as she speaks. “Who knows?”

This is always the question in The Unit and the Unit: who knows? Even those who do know can’t admit it. Pondering the allowable pay-out for Billy’s death, the women see that even the definition of death in a “combat zone” was tricky. Kim, ever the optimist, notes ruefully, “Anywhere they go, they get shot, someone has a gun. I’d call that combat.” And yet, Billy’s been killed in a place where he’s not officially engaged in combat, which means the definition is slippery—for the government and for his survivors.

Kim looks briefly deflated, and the women set to work. They need to contact the dead man’s fiancée, help her to organize the shards of her life now that she’s no longer considered part of the official family. No matter that she was set to marry Billy in three weeks, or that she’s raised his two daughters since his wife died years ago: the military “takes care of its own,” and she’s no longer included. She has mere hours to vacate her home. She’s also supposed to leave “the girls” behind. The military plans to keep Gill’s daughters on base, because, Colonel Ryan (Robert Patrick) doesn’t quite explain, they’re legal dependents, part of the military’s “own.”

The news leaves the Unit’s women simultaneously frustrated and unsurprised. They know that “its own” means “itself.” As The Unit often does, the episode goes on to track two stories: as the wives finagle through a morass of unhelpful rules to find a rational end, the men do the same. This time, Jonas—aptly codenamed “Snake Doc,” because he must conjure schemes and solutions out of air—and his team, on their way “eliminate” a militia leader in Paraguay, are diverted to pick up Billy’s corpse, as well as his still living, pinned-down partner (Matt Gerald). Here the absurdity of the code comes once again to the surface: the military is better equipped to recover the dead body than to accommodate that body’s unfinished live business. In this case, that business involves a partner in “South America,” still alive, still shooting, so “in the zone” that Jonas’ team has to incapacitate him in order to extract him along with Billy. (The image of this guy’s fingers fluttering over his chest as Jonas drags him to safety is, in a word, brilliant.)

The Unit regularly provides such moral and political puzzles. Smart, perverse, and superbly shot, it remains, in its second season, the most intricate and satisfying series on network TV. That’s not to say it delivers easy solutions for its many dilemmas, but instead, that it showcases the tradeoffs demanded of Unit members, painful and unfair.

Co-created by David Mamet and Shawn Ryan, The Unit probes masculine mythologies, never simply celebrating even a seeming triumph. “The Kill Zone,” written by Mamet’s sister Lynn (who also wrote “SERE,” one of last season’s most disturbing episodes), follows on this season’s two previous hours, the adeptly man-soapyish “Change of Station” (would Mack [Max Martini] really leave the Wnit?) and the smartly brutal “Extreme Rendition.”

All these episodes expose the messiness of so-called “zones.” Though the military is renowned for naming and defining codes, conducts, targets, and spaces, the Unit comes across blurred borders everywhere they turn. “Change of Station” followed Mack’s efforts to define his own boundaries, as he tried to leave the Unit, in order to accommodate wife Tiffy’s (Abby Brammel) desires. While Tiffy has long resisted the Unit’s edicts (or maybe not, as she and Colonel Ryan engaged in a complicated affair for most of last season), here she faced her own loyalty dilemma. When a young student showed up with bruises consistent with abuse—as well as a drawing of “George Washington fighting the Iraqis,” a concept derived from a school lesson concerning Washington and the Iroquois—she found out yet again that the military offered no recourse. As the doctor looking at Sam reported, “We don’t have counseling for kids, so of course it falls to you.” The mystery only deepened when Tiffy discovered that, though Sam said his father beat him, both his parents were deployed to Iraq.

The episode opened on an action scene on the Afghan/Pakistani border. Arriving at their seeming safe house, Jonas and crew—including Hector (Demore Barnes) and Charles (Michael Irby)—faced down a deep-deep undercover CIA agent dressed like a suicide bomber (with “enough C4 on her to sink the Bismarck”), Firefly (Bahar Soomekh), so sick with smallpox she didn’t know what day it was. “Darlin’,” said Jonas, “You came to the wrong door.” Worse, the source of her illness was a scheme in which a bus load of “tourists” were infected and sent forth to pollute whoever they could before they showed signs and died.

No surprise, the unit found a way to thwart the bad guys (“That bus has got to cease to exist”), their solution almost as grim as the original plot, as Jonas mounted a near-suicide bomb run at the bus. Jonas’ escape from the area—undertaken just as a truckload of killers was coming to get him, of course—produced a signature understatement: looking at the balloon that was supposed to lift him into range for pickup, Jonas deadpanned to the device, “It would be a good idea if you were to work now.” You have to love this guy.

Jonas’ wit was on display again in “Extreme Rendition,” written by Sharon Lee Watson (The Unit, like Ryan’s The Shield, is premised on intelligent writing, including dialogue that owes something to Mamet), focused on ex-Unit member Deckard (Lee Tergeson) turned global gunrunner, currently incarcerated in Bulgaria. Assigned to break Deckard out of prison (a small irony here, putting Oz‘s Tergeson back in prison) in order to thwart a missile components deal with Iran, Jonas asked Ryan, “Do we wanna jump in this all half-baked sir?” Oh yes, came the answer. And so they did, via a complex plot involving Bob’s (Scott Foley) death and resurrection. Ryan showed up while the men drank beer back at the base, congratulating them on an “impossible assassination accomplished.” Jonas asked a pertinent but also irrelevant question, concerning U.S. strategy: didn’t they just set up for one nefarious gunrunner to take over the position vacated by the dead guy? Indeed, Ryan nodded. Next question. And so the men started with a new hypothetical: how to kill the next one.

“The Kill Zone” offers up another set of “impossible” scenarios, and includes a startling intervention by Ryan’s frankly extraordinary, pill-popping wife Charlotte (the excellent Rebecca Pigeon). Mad, shrewd, and relentless, Charlotte embodies and also foils the sorts of absurdities that The Unit exposes weekly. She’s figured out how the men negotiate the zones that do and don’t exist, the parameters of death and life. A surprise when she appeared at the end of last season, Charlotte has achieved her own balance, at once utterly practical and effectively outrageous. She knows.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/the-unit/