Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

Terminator 2 was my movie… I was young, disenfranchised, I wanted to be Linda Hamilton. I wanted to be empowered. I wanted to be able to kick ass. I wanted to push back against the people who I felt weren’t treating me right.

Shirley Manson

On its face, casting Shirley Manson in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles appears a masterstroke. She brings to her part — a military-corporate monster named Catherine Weaver — exactly the sort of shiny coolness that she perfected as the vocalist for Garbage.

She’s arrived on the Sarah Connor set after a first season that was tenaciously focused on tracking the stop-and-start maturation of its young hero (Thomas Dekker). Weaver’s entrance is neatly set up by the fact that John’s development was figured primarily in his relationships with two different and rather creepily entwined female figures — his way too experienced mother (Lena Headey) and his high-school-girly cyborg protector, Cameron (Summer Glau). As much as John was inclined to like the robot, Sarah was inclined to distrust her. And as much as Sarah was determined to train up her son to be save the future, Cameron was just better at keeping him alive. Weaver, visibly malevolent in her crisp white future-suit and frighteningly sculpted red hair, adds another dimension: call her the evil stepmother.

The full force of that dimension doesn’t become clear until the last few seconds of the second season opener, “Samson & Delilah.” But she suggests that force whenever she’s on screen, directing her weaselly minion Walsh (Max Perlich), restructuring her research company to ensure the evolution of Skynet, and even, briefly, pondering the relationship between chance and fate.

In her showcase scene, Weaver gazes out the window of her high-rise office, her pale countenance looking almost watery behind reflections of passersby. “They flow from street to street at a particular speed and in a particular direction, over and over, orderly, all day” she muses, Walsh seated uncomfortably in the background. “I can watch them and know with a great deal of certainty what they’ll do at any given moment. But they’re not orderly, are they, up close? Any individual: who knows what they’re gonna do? Any one of them might dash across the street at the wrong time and get hit by a car. When you get up close, we never follow the rules.”

Weaver’s interest in rules — specifically, in the ways humans don’t follow them and computers do — is of a piece with the series’ own. The premise of the Terminator franchise, of course, is the disruption of definitions incarnated by Skynet, the computer that doesn’t follow rules, then generates a series of computers that, in Weaver’s terms, “cross against the light.”

While Weaver spells out the thematic stakes, Cameron spends the episode acting them out. Per usual, Sarah and John are on the run, escaping explosions and crashing cars, hobbling away from piles of twisted metal. In this episode, they’re even more on their own than usual, with Derek (Brian Austin Greene), sent from the future by his brother Kyle, and Sarah’s ex Charley (Dean Winters) both hustling to catch up but a few steps behind for the duration. At the same time, Agent James Ellison (Richard T. Jones), recent convert to Sarah’s story, is more determined than ever to resist the future she has described. As the series continues to complicate the relations among past, present, and future, Ellison’s part in any of them is increasingly difficult to frame: at the start of the season premiere, the T-888 Cromartie (Garret Dillahunt) spares Ellison’s life, yet another suggestion that the by-the-book agent plays a part in Skynet’s future, or, as he phrases it, “the devil’s work.”

The bulk of the episode’s action concentrates on Cameron’s “crossing against the light,” or, as Sarah tends to see it, a “reversion” to the bad terminator form, that is, following a rule she was originally programmed to follow. That John sees in Cameron a more “human,” less mechanical being has to do with the ingenuity and optimism that make him, we presume, such a legendary leader. Sarah’s resistance to this outlook is born of her job — as mother. It’s not that she can’t be compassionate, it’s more like she’s convincing herself not to be.

Though they do not cross paths here, Cameron and Ellison are both wrestling with Christian narratives, and how they might fit in. While Ellison’s struggle appears to be isolating (his efforts to find community and meaning in the chaos that’s chasing him are routinely frustrating), Cameron faces a more daunting task. Unable even to conceive “faith” in a mundane sense (it “isn’t part of my programming,” she says), she seeks explanation. “Do you believe in the resurrection?” she asks Sarah. Asked again and again to play mom to all these lost children, Sarah sighs, gives a half-answer. You see the significance of the question even as Sarah’s distracted; you know that each episode involves some sort of resurrection, for her, John, or the terminators. What’s never quite clear is whether this is breaking or obeying the rules.

RATING 6 / 10