The Unit

You’ve got the hair on your belly. Let’s see if you’ve got the gravel in your guts.

— Jonas (Dennis Haysbert)

“You guys have an eye out, but you’re looking for things you can see. What you need to do is look for things you can’t see.” As Jonas (Dennis Haysbert) trains up his team to go into a school hostage situation, he offers advice that seems simultaneously obvious and absurd. His regular squad members nod sagely, while the SWAT guys assigned for this special mission in Washington DC look briefly mystified. And then they do what they’re told, peering up at the rafters.

Jonas’ cryptic-poetic speak is familiar to viewers of The Unit. In this evening’s episode, “In Loco Parentis,” he’s leading the guys into an elite high school, where the 100-plus hostages are the children who “belong to Forbes 400 families” and “Washington insiders and foreign diplomats.”

Assembling the team in a warehouse near the school — they’ve got loads of trucks and weapons and surveillance equipment in minutes — he wonders how many kids are inside. Over 100, Mack (Max Martini) reports, “according to the TV.” Jonas doesn’t miss a beat: “Yeah, according to TV, FBI’s running the whole show. Believe that if you want.” A shot of the TV (a made-up “International News” station) displays the sort of thing you during such crises: a long distance image from a helicopter, with a ticker running along the bottom of the screen. And then they get their own intel from a student who escaped. Jonas gets details: learning that the kid plays free safety in football, the “parent” in Jonas suggests he’s “able to read an offense” and so, report on who’s where inside the school.

Jonas’ unit typically distrusts institutional sources, of information and directive. Which is not to say he and his men are renegades. Rather, they’re hyper-patriots who work “real-world” situations daily, their cynicism born of experience, their idealism a function of their faith in one another, and their extraordinary success rate the result of the wondrous machinations of TV. “Believe that if you want.”

“In Loco Parentis” revisits the most usual Unit formula, wherein the men undertake an impossible mission while their wives run a parallel plot back home. In this case, while the men plan their assault on the bad guys and rescue other people’s children, while Tiffy (Abby Brammell) and Kim (Audrey Marie Anderson) contend with minor calamity over Tiffy’s daughter Lissy (Danielle Hanratty), who develops a crush on another base kid, David (Randall Bentley). The fact that the boy’s mother is a captain and Mack (Lissy’s dad) is enlisted means they’re not supposed to “fraternize” (“Just a fact of Army life,” says the captain). Recalling Tiffy’s own past affair with Mack’s commander, Col. Tom Ryan (Robert Patrick), the episode smartly complicates questions of “moral authority,” as all the moms make different choices with regard to Lissy’s youthful desires, none of them faultless.

This complication makes the episode’s focus on “protecting children” — a favorite, unimpeachable theme for U.S. media and policy makers — more of a problem than a done deal. Of course, the men’s efforts to save the students is all good, and Jonas announces as much when he’s informed that unseen higher-ups are imposing a time limit. “Tell them,” he says, all growly, “Fools rush in, and we won’t risk children’s lives.” He and Tom (pacing, as he tends to do, before a bank of monitors back at HQ) discuss their non-options over sat phones, whereupon Tom makes his own pronouncement: “This is that day we always feared.” That is, the day when trained terrorists — not tormented students — have taken kids as hostages, Beslan style.

To gather more intel, he sends in Kim’s husband Bob (Scott Foley), posing as a math teacher and equipped with a pair of surveillance glasses. Inside, he finds IEDs, laser trip wires, and a couple of frightened women, the daughter of the Deputy National Security Advisor, Nina (Marcella Lentz-Pope), and a nervous English teacher (the always excellent Cathy Cahlin Ryan, wife of The Unit‘s co-creator Shawn Ryan and Vic Mackey’s ex on The Shield). Captured almost as soon as he walks in, “Cool Breeze” (Bob’s code name) bonds with his fellow hostages and scopes the scene, the episode building toward the sort of actionated climax for which it’s famous — violence executed incisively, working out a brilliant choreography amid surrounding chaos.

Even as the kids cause or suffer trouble, the episode keeps sight of the parents, not quite resolving the mistakes they make. Though Bob and the other guys “manage their expectations” on the job as a matter of course, “In Loco Parentis” makes the case that it’s harder for parents to do right. Even when the action plot provides expected, TV-series-style results (the mission rarely fails, the main men tend to survive), The Unit repeatedly messes with their emotional lives. As in so many melodramas, it’s the female characters — wives, mothers, and daughters — who contend with and clean up such messiness while the men get to act out with guns and surveillance devices. Jonas, also known as Top, is as gruff and peculiar a professional savior-killer as you’ll see on TV. Recrafting his impossible-missions world in twisty-turny language and, it seems, sheer will, he’s not exactly the sort of parent who saves the world and leaves the sorting out of family business — whether his own or the team’s extended version — to his wife Molly (Regina Taylor) (and as usual, she comes up with the episode’s primary words of wisdom: you can recognize “the truth” precisely because it’s not pretty).

And this is what The Unit gets right: while Top and the men’s violence can fix any given crisis (per genre, there’s a new one every week), domestic effects — of that violence, of political and emotional duplicities, of the military hierarchy — are perpetual. The betrayals that shape Tiffy, Kim, and Lissa’s story this time have different kinds of consequences than the abuses inflicted by the black-masked (anonymous) Chechen villains. The risks for kids are multiple, sometimes unseen, and rarely completely resolved.

RATING 8 / 10