The Unit

I do your dirty work.

— Sergeant Jonas Blane (Dennis Haysbert), “Play 16”

War means death. For the often troubled and generally steadfast men in The Unit, it usually means dispensing death. Sent each week into some exotic mission impossible-style circumstance, they face down an opponent, support one another in mostly admirable fashion, return home to the States, where they find still more support in the arms of wives and girlfriends, who worry and maintain, understanding that every mission entails the risk that their men will not only dispense death, but may also suffer it. For them, war means dread and waiting. Kim (Audrey Marie Anderson), married to Bob (Scott Foley), describes her own dealing with death in this way: during every mission, she says, “I pray that if someone has to die that it won’t be him. If someone dies, I feel relieved for my baby, for my family that it wasn’t him.”

Kim’s dilemma provides context and distraction from the death that shapes a two-episode arc in The Unit. While death is ever lurking and most often bloodily evident in the series, thus far in its three seasons, it has maintained the usual TV series distance from death, keeping its core group alive. And while it’s too easy to call this arc “very special,” the episodes titled “Five Brothers” (which airs tonight) and “Play 16” (next Tuesday), the plot shift is rightly disturbing. The unit loses one of its own, and the members deal with the loss, anger, grief, and frustration in ways that range from recognizable to unfortunate to extraordinary.

“Five Brothers” begins in Beirut, and it begins with shooting. Sergeant Blane (Dennis Haysbert, sans this season’s new facial hair) and his team are extracting a “package,” a kidnapped journalist named Granger (Ori Pfeffer). They make their moves through bleak hallways, their aim exact and their timing down to the usual wire. The “bird is on the way,” as it typically is in these situations, but the distance between the men and their destination is increasingly perilous: on lookout, Hector (Demore Barnes) reports the locals have initiated a “block party,” as the camera cuts to show a band of hostiles approaching, all bearing large weapons and angry faces. A series of quick cuts and mobile frames, laid on a percussive soundtrack choices all mark the pressure. Oh dear oh dear.

Suddenly, Charles (Michael Irby) is shot, and the plan changes. They bust into an apartment, hold their guns on the family members inside, and proceed to set up an operating table, so that Hector can remove the bullet, stop the bleeding, and somehow stabilize his best friend until they can get him safely away. The situation is complicated by the fact that one son, Aabid (Dave Marlin), is “sick” — at least this is how Bob describes him: he rocks and murmurs and shouts, his upset uncontainable and, for the men of the unit, too loud, as it will give away their hiding place. While this means the team spends long edgy minutes trying to shush the boy, it also means Aabid’s mother (Anne Bedian) and adolescent brother (Nick McDow) — who speaks English, it turns out, owing to a summer in Cleveland working at his uncle’s electronics shop — are compelled to protect him from the American thugs who have burst into their home with automatic weapons drawn.

As is often the case, the cameras reveal both the family’s horror and the unit’s unease, as the sides must negotiate, even as they seek essentially opposite ends. War means death, and both sides — even if they don’t want to be “sides” — know it. The Americans value their wounded comrade’s life above any one of the family members’, while the Lebanese civilians would rather the invaders be hurt than one of their own.

The situation never gets much better, as the episode takes a classic “Perils of Pauline” format. While Hector, following Charles’ instructions, makes incisions and worries about lost blood and cut arteries, Blane insists Charles stop groaning in agony (“We are under siege: you need to be quiet!”), and Mack (Max Martini) keeps watch out the window, reporting on the nearing search party. Aabid makes noise, Bob threatens his brother, their mother defends her boys, just as Kim would defend her and Bob’s children, fiercely.

On cue, the episode cuts back home to show Mack’s estranged wife Tif (Abby Brammell) making more and still fairly predictable trouble: in need of money to support her daughters, she’s taken a job at a pole-dancing club. It’s not one of the series’ more convincing parallel survival stories (men and women face different hardships on different fronts, even as home and war front increasingly resemble one another, etc.), and yet, it makes the point. Molly (Regina Taylor) and Kim arrive at the club before Tif can do more self-destruction (Molly with her usual aplomb: “I’m just trying to figure out why the mother of my godchild is behaving in this fashion”). They spend some quality time with Hector’s new girl Annie (Yara Martinez) — a bartender at the club and ex-Army medic — and proceed to take on a big boring lout of a customer who deserves all the abuse the women deliver.

But The Unit is not about deserving. It’s about the veneer of moral order. In this episode and in “Play 16,” the desire for order is thwarted almost by definition. Back at Dogpatch, Colonel Tom Ryan (Robert Patrick) barks orders and attempts repeatedly to get his men extracted, mapping coordinates, playing pack leader though he feels helpless and angry. By the time an NSC rep shows up, Ryan’s patience is at a near-end. As usual, the government suit — doughy-faced and pale white — claims that the White House, though it ordained the Granger mission, must now have nothing to do with it. The unit’s actions are disavowed, the men’s injuries or deaths covered over by some story, and Granger, the “precious cargo,” is turned into a heroic figure for the media, rather than a putz who almost gets the real heroes killed. (Bob’s debriefing of the much-resented journalist occasions a familiar debate about truth and ethics, as Granger believes the U.S. has done wrong and Bob must divorce the national identity from the mission identity: everyone knows the admin is prone to error.)

Ryan and Blane know the drill. War means death and death means lying. They know that their work is secret, that their deeds will be unremembered, that their bodies will be dealt with as minor tribulations, reframed by narratives that uphold a semblance of order in the universe, especially, an order in which the administration looks good. (Kim, for all her whiny annoyingness, has learned this much from Molly: the appearance of “good” is just that, an appearance.) In the field, another sort of order holds sway, and as Hector and Charles work out the details of blood loss and bullet extraction, they share some standard homosocial love-talk, an exchange that leads pretty much directly to Blane’s plot in “Play 16,” a one-man takedown of a villain called — rather unimaginatively — The Butcher. While the men head back to base with a dead body, accepting and resenting the grim and melancholy rituals that come with it, Blane enacts another ritual, macho and vengeful.

When Blane approaches a band of locals who share his interest in defeating The Butcher, they look on him with some disdain: “American!” Ah no, Snake Doctor counters, “Citizen of the world.” Sad but resolute, he knows that retribution is universal.

RATING 7 / 10