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Look, look - the wonderful chaila of underline everything has agreed to return to Lady Business!

chaila's fan-vids, commentary and just down right, over flowing love were the driving influence behind Jodie's rapid consumption of the first series of "The Sarah Connor Chronicles", so we're excited to host a new post by her about this very cool, ruthlessly cancelled program. Come with us if you want to live...or at least have an interest in seeing ladies and robots and lady-robots shape the future.

On a purely descriptive level, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles sounds a lot like a standard part of a sci-fi action movie franchise: Sarah Connor, her son John, and their allies attempt to prevent Skynet, a computer network that destroys the world in the future, from being created. Time travel exists, fighters come back from the future to help them, robots come from the future to hunt them, and sometimes things blow up. But TSCC spins off from its action movie franchise roots to tell a deeply human story that interrogates the basis of all "hero myth" type stories. What I want to focus on in this post are these deconstructive elements, the way TSCC explicitly and implicitly challenges the themes and tropes common in similar stories about "one chosen hero destined to save the world."

One way TSCC does this is by focusing on the surrounding characters, particularly on Sarah, which changes the entire shape of the story. Once the narrative is established as Sarah’s, the show introduces, or increases focus on, several regular characters in season two who in some way question or challenge the dominant myth: Jesse Flores, Riley Dawson, James Ellison, and Catherine Weaver. All of these characters have different viewpoints and beliefs about John and Sarah and about the future. This group of characters, who are not on Team Connor, add so many layers of depth and complexity to the show, and elevate it from a pretty good show about soldiers and family preparing for a future robot apocalypse, to a truly compelling, complex, graceful piece of television that deals with war, loss, robots, the preservation of what makes us human, and how who and what gets written in the book of myth is only a fraction of the story.

To keep this to a manageable word count (haha), I’m going to break it down by the characters I think engage with these ideas the most: the five (FIVE) major female characters in season 2--Sarah, Cameron, Jesse, Riley, and Weaver--and James Ellison. These characters question the recorded history of the future (which is a phrase that makes sense only in a show about time travel), and provide different perspectives on the present and the different options for preventing or fighting the coming war.

Note that this post covers the series as a whole, with spoilers!

Sarah Connor: "I’ll stop it."

Sarah Connor in a black leather jacket

The most obvious way that TSCC subverts a typical boy hero myth is by telling the story from Sarah’s perspective, which is an entirely different point of view on the story and the future. Not only does the title take her name, but the show is actually in her voice; her voiceover starts and ends almost every episode, narrating a story from the past, a fear or a thought of hers, a story or myth she’s read, or a snippet of history. This lends the show a literary quality, as the themes of the voiceover resonate through each episode, with Sarah as our storyteller. As Jodie said in her earlier TSCC post: "I’m not sure there’s ever going to come a day in our world with our history where the act of putting a woman’s voice into a story won’t be a very basic feminist act." What’s additionally significant is that it’s Sarah voice in this story, the story we’ve heard a million times about a boy hero destined to save the world. But Sarah’s telling this story, and the course of it will be determined by what she does now.

Sarah is the protagonist and the show treats her as such. It spends time exploring elements of Sarah’s identity, damaged and forged by war and loss. She carves out space to make choices in a story that may have already been written, based on what she thinks is right or true. She trusts herself in an almost desperate way, because she has to, because there’s nothing else she can do. Her feelings, motivations, and choices--even her dreams--are treated as deeply significant, possibly world-affecting things. The back half of season two has an ongoing arc, including two entire episodes (2x14 "The Good Wound" and 2x16 "Some Must Watch While Some Must Sleep"), entirely devoted to Sarah’s psyche, her fears about how much of herself she has to give up to fight a war, her reticence to open up to other people, and her fears of her own mortality. This close examination is rarely given to female characters, and it makes her feel central and dynamic to me, even when what she’s doing is digging in her heels.

An important part of Sarah’s character is the fact that she’s John’s mom, but this is not all that she is. She’s a full character in her own right, with her own thoughts and feelings, her own insecurities, her own fears and mistakes. Think about how different the Christian version of the messiah myth would be from the POV of Mary as a flesh and blood person with conflicts, feelings, and motivations of her own, someone who sweats and bleeds, who does not passively accept her destined fate. Sarah’s actually pretty terrible at the traditional fictional notions of motherhood; the nourishing, the comforting, the loving reassurance. She loves John fiercely and he knows it, but her motherhood is a lot more rooted in the trenches of reality, the emotional and physical labor of raising a child alone compounded by the fact that she must also protect him from killer robots and prepare him to fight a war.

Sarah is also a leader and a general, and John is a future soldier. He may lead the fight in the future, but she leads it now. Though there are of course moments of disagreement or disobedience, for the most part all the characters, even Cameron the killer robot and Derek the soldier from the future, treat Sarah as the person in charge and view her as a capable leader, a legend in her own right

My favorite thing is that Sarah’s not content to just prepare John for the future fight, to prepare him to take his place in this myth; she also actively attempts to prevent it from occurring, to change the future and prevent the apocalypse. In the pilot, she agrees that she will preempt John’s future by stopping Skynet in the present. Not only is Sarah the figure driving this alleged boy hero myth, she actually explicitly takes the savior role for herself, attempting to create a whole new future where she is the hero. In the future war--if she is unable to prevent it--the myth might be about John Connor as the heroic leader, if that’s what they need him to be, but TSCC knows that the author of that story is Sarah.

Plus, look at all this manpain. We can always use more female characters with such manpain:
Sarah Connor brooding, resting her forehead against a handgun

Cameron: "You said it yourself, John, I’m just a machine."

Cameron holding a bird in her hand

Cameron is a Terminator who was reprogrammed by John in the future to be on the side of humanity, to protect him and other humans from other Terminators. In a bit of neat parallelism, she is then sent back to the past by John-in-the-future to protect John-as-a-teenager, where she plays a huge role not just in protecting John, but forming him into the person he will become. Sarah and Cameron are, in a sense, extremely uneasy co-mommies, together protecting and preparing John and hunting Skynet, while perpetually at odds about how to do this.

Sarah, John and Cameron sitting on a couch

Cameron is initially presented in a sort of sidekick and bodyguard role for John, and it really is a special kind of fun to see Summer Glau beat up robots twice her size. But in season two, the show makes Cameron’s potentially deteriorating programming--and potentially increasing free will--into a complex character-focused storyline. She malfunctions and defaults back to programming that makes her try to kill John, and the implication is that she eventually chooses not to, though that choice ought to be beyond her capability. She starts to experience flashbacks to being Alison Young, the human girl who she was made to look like and replace, and the two consciousnesses seem to bleed together. By the end of season two, Cameron is not automatically doing what’s physically best for John, as her programming would dictate, and not even she understands why. Is her programming changing as she learns? Is she becoming more complex? Is she malfunctioning? Is she just becoming more human-like, and thus more prone to indecisiveness or mistakes?

One of the most interesting things about Cameron--as a robot and as a character in general--is how aware she is of the effect she has on John, and others, and how she uses that to manipulate people. More than once, she uses the fact that she appears to be a pretty, small, white teenage girl to get close to people, to get information or just so she can punch them more easily. She also does this with John. While it’s not clear whether she is capable of really caring for people in the way that a human does, she can certainly mimic it. And what’s the difference, really, if she’s a convincing mimic? She also obviously knows that John cares for her, and uses this to attempt to get him to do what she wants, with sometimes mixed results.

Because of Cameron, the future leader of the resistance against killer robots becomes more and more used to machines, more comfortable being around them, to the point where his closest friend and most trusted confidante is Cameron, a machine. And it’s Cameron, in cooperation with two other machines, who leads John away from Sarah to his unknown future at the end of the series. It’s unclear how much of what happens in season two is part of her original mission (never fully disclosed to the Connors), how much of it is glitching, and how much of it is her learning to make her own decisions, which is perhaps the most threatening development of all.

James Ellison: "I just want to know my role in all this."

James Ellison standing against a white wall, looking conflicted

James Ellison is introduced as the FBI agent working on Sarah’s case, tracking her down for murder and domestic terrorism. Initially the most skeptic of skeptics, he doggedly chases a long line of clues to the truth that Sarah is alive, and that she was right about the killer robots. James is shown to be willing to reevaluate absolutely everything he thought he knew, about Sarah, about his own investigation and conclusions, about the world, based on what he sees with his own eyes, even if what appears to be true is actually impossible. James is also a religious man, and quite devout in his Christian faith. TSCC shows how his faith defines him and frames his view of the world and of the robot apocalypse in some really interesting ways, without making him preachy or dogmatic, and without simplifying his point of view. Let us pause to note that he’s also a black man who survives a sci-fi show!

While James’ story in season one is him discovering the truth, season two is an even more interesting exploration of what he does with that knowledge. James watches Cromartie gun down his entire SWAT team, then leave James alive to be a pawn in his plan. After this stark confirmation of the truth and with a heaping pile of survivor’s guilt, James is compelled to attempt to stop the robot apocalypse, by whatever means are available to him. When an impossible, alive, untrusting Sarah spurns his attempts to help Team Connor, he turns to Catherine Weaver (secretly a robot, see below!), the only other person he knows who’s offering him a plan of action. What she wants him to do is teach her baby AI--who inhabits Cromartie’s face and body--ethics and a respect for human life; essentially to co-parent this robot child. James does this, because he is the sort of man who believes that this can be done. The more I think about this, the more interesting it is to me. Do you have to prevent or defeat the robot apocalypse with brute force, or can you. . . persuade it? Can you avert the apocalypse by teaching the robots compassion? This is a particularly interesting story for James, who sees firsthand the destruction that a robot like Cromartie can cause, and yet still has some faith in the idea of building a robot to be better, in the idea of redemption.

James holding Savannah, standing behind Catherine Weaver

By the end of season two, James develops a complex web of connections to the robots. Even if some of it is unwitting or reluctant, it hasn’t left him unchanged. In a fairly explicit mirroring of the Sarah-Derek-John-Cameron quasi-robot found family, James occupies the role of a father figure to John Henry and Savannah, and is Weaver’s co-parent. I don’t think this can be accidental. Still, James is not on anyone’s side. I think this is perhaps one of the (many, sigh) reasons why James is so often ignored in discussions of this show, despite the fact that he’s a regular character from episode one. James is someone who is part of this apocalyptic story simply because he is trying to do the right thing, not because he believes he’s fated or destined to be here, not because he has a long-term plan himself. He is simply trying to act in the best way he can, based on the best information he has at the time. He becomes a believer of Sarah Connor but he doesn’t become part of the team. He works with Catherine Weaver, but he is not a full participant or believer in her plans or methods. He remains always willing to re-evaluate based on what proves to be true. He is in many ways the lone objective truth-seeker. He is the witness. From that position, his story questions a lot of the assumptions that drive the Connors, as well as complicating Weaver’s ideas and plans.

Jesse Flores: "I’m not here to stop the war, sweetie, I’m here to win it."

Jesse Flores pointing a gun, a wisp of smoke in front of it, with a tear on her face

Jesse is a resistance fighter in the future who comes back in season two, ostensibly because she’s done fighting and has left the resistance. When she was first introduced, I was prepared to be frustrated. She is Derek’s love interest, and the show took several early opportunities to get her into a bra or bikini. However, by the end of season two, Jesse has become a major player in the show’s narrative and themes, the main driver of several characters’ stories, and one of the most complexly drawn antagonists on television. It is impossible to talk about Jesse without massive spoilers, so those will follow!

Of course, Jesse has never stopped fighting, but is actually back on her own mission to separate John from Cameron, and thus prevent John from becoming so trusting of, and reliant on, Terminators. Jesse is perhaps the only person on the show who expressly no longer believes in the myth of John Connor. She did once, and views his actions in allying as closely with the machines as he did as a betrayal of those who did believe in him. The show could so easily turn her into an evil antagonist, someone who is wrong, someone to contrast with the goodness of Team Connor, someone to hate. Instead, the show fully explores her motivations, point of view, and backstory, until we see that Jesse’s story is a series of losses and sacrifices, a tragedy all its own. Jesse has taken her rage and pain targeted it into a very precise mission, a course that she does not deviate from, because she’s still a soldier.

Jesse is here to make us question the myth of John Connor, to make us question whether it’s true, and if it is, whether that’s a good thing. We get two episodes after she kills Riley explaining her actions to us and showing us exactly why she did what she did, and just how dangerous she believes the machines have grown to be. And she’s not wrong. She’s not right, but she’s not wrong. It’s not a story about how Jesse is misguided or evil, but a serious meditation on John’s future actions and choices as a leader, and even on his close alliance with Cameron and other machines. The show uses Jesse to question John’s myth--the version of it told by Sarah--not to reinforce how right John and Sarah will be. And oh, Jesse is heartbreaking.

Riley Dawson: "It’s not a poster of a bear. It’s a poster of a fish being caught by a bear, just swiped out of the water totally at random."

Riley Dawson with a bright, sunny smile

I don’t want to give short shrift to Riley, who has a heartbreaking story all her own. She understands only that she is to separate John and Cameron, but does not understand until too late that Cameron is supposed to kill her. Riley is revealed to be brave, resourceful and smart and, perhaps most tragically, full of love. She is an explicit subversion of two usually awful tropes: manic pixie dream girls and women in refrigerators.

Riley seems to drop into John’s life from nowhere, posing as a somewhat troubled foster child who makes John smile and takes him to do normal teenage things like shopping and parties. Underneath it all, of course, she knows exactly who he is and is manipulating him. She’s playing someone who might draw him in, someone who likes him for John Baum, not John Connor, someone who smiles and has no idea the world is ending. Someone who might be attractive to John, someone who might make him care about her. She is playing his manic pixie dream girl as part of her own mission.

When Riley figures out the full scope of Jesse’s plan, and that it will involve her death, she actually fights back against her own fridging. She fights back against the death that Jesse says will give her life meaning, fights back against a death that will motivate a male character. By making Riley so aware of the situation, and so aware of her functions within Jesse’s story and and John’s, the show allows her to react, to fight for her own agency and life, for her own story and the way she wanted it to go, even if she ultimately fails. And of course, Riley’s full bravery and resourcefulness isn’t revealed until the end of the story, because we didn’t know how much she was acting, how new and bright the whole world must have been to her while she was figuring out how to accomplish her task, until her story’s too late to change.

Catherine Weaver: "Your John may save the world, but he can’t do it without mine."

Catherine Weaver, all in white, striding down a hallway

Catherine Weaver is first presented as an advanced robot who the show wants you to think is probably building Skynet. (Another character vying for the role of the mother of the future, get it?). Weaver’s plans are quickly shown to be much less straightforward than we thought. She sets herself in opposition to Skynet by destroying one of their factories. Then James brings Cromartie’s Terminator body to Weaver and she basically makes herself a baby AI. To show her mythic awareness and meta knowledge of the themes and thesis of the show, Weaver names him John Henry:

Weaver: In folklore, John Henry raced a steam drill through a mountain. One man alone challenged the machine, armed with an iron hammer. They say he was born with it in his hand.
James: His heart gave out and he died. I know.
Weaver: John Henry defeated the machine, but he couldn’t stop progress.

She asks James to teach ethics to John Henry, perhaps having learned the proper lesson from her parable about one man, alone, with a hammer against the machine. Along with John Henry, Weaver learns to care for Savannah, or at least to mimic caring to maintain her human cover--and as with Cameron, does it matter if human sympathy is real or not, if it’s convincingly mimicked?--forming a fascinating mirror to Sarah’s rather fraught maternal relationship with John and her fake daughter Cameron.

In the end, it’s clear that Catherine Weaver has the biggest plan of all, and has been moving everyone around like chess pieces all season (though she has possibly been experiencing some boundary-pushing from her robot son). Note: when Sarah’s son steps away from her in the finale, she lets him go because she’s done what she can; when Weaver’s steps away, she goes with him because she’s just getting started. We don’t get enough show (*spits on Fox*) to know Weaver’s full plan for the future and for John Henry, but she’s making active efforts to recruit John, because she believes that whatever John accomplishes in the future, he will need John Henry to do it. Her version of the future war is a whole different one, possibly with humans and a subgroup of machines allied together against Skynet, the bad machines, or possibly just a war waged by Catherine Weaver for reasons we do not fully know. Love her and despair.

I will now end this unforgivably long post with two general observations about why TSCC is among my favorite shows ever. First, as I hope is now apparent, TSCC is one of the most female-driven shows I’ve seen, with multiple amazing complex women driving and determining the course of the story. Second, I’d argue that TSCC on a meta level can be read as one giant deconstruction of myth, a meditation on the way that myths or cultural stories function in our lives, particularly in war or times of conflict, how they get built and used and how they differ from historical truth, particularly how they ignore the messy and inconvenient parts that make the story richer and more complicated and more beautiful. TSCC puts all these parts back in, and it elevates the story to something else entirely. The show doesn’t have to be read this way; it can also be watched and enjoyed more straightforwardly as a show about humans fighting against and cooperating with machines, with multiple amazing, complex women. Either way, it’s pretty awesome.

Other Links

The Sarah Connor Chronicles - Series One by Jodie

Episode recaps and discussions at [livejournal.com profile] sccchronicles_tv

Observations about performance and camouflage, femininity and domesticity, among other things, in season one by [personal profile] sanguinity

Vid: there’s a war going on for your mind, sarah by [personal profile] beccatoria

Date: 2013-11-01 03:17 pm (UTC)
goodbyebird: Sarah Connor Chronicles: Promotional image of everyone. (SCC)
From: [personal profile] goodbyebird
OH MY HEART. You're just dipping into so many things that make SCC the amazing show that it is. I don't think I'll ever get over the cancellation of my beloved, complex, feminist sci-fi show *sniffles*

Date: 2013-11-02 07:35 pm (UTC)
chaila: by me (tscc - soul)
From: [personal profile] chaila
Yay, I'm glad you liked the post! NEVER OVER IT.

Date: 2013-11-02 02:56 pm (UTC)
pellucid: (Sarah fire)
From: [personal profile] pellucid
Oh, show!!!!!!! You make me want to go rewatch the whole thing right now. Just...all of this! So much love!!!!

Date: 2013-11-02 07:37 pm (UTC)
chaila: by me (tscc - full of grace)
From: [personal profile] chaila
Oh, show! <3 I fell into an accidental rewatch while writing this, and it was very satisfying, so I can wholeheartedly recommend that course of action.

Date: 2013-11-04 11:14 pm (UTC)
beccatoria: (i'll go wherever you like james)
From: [personal profile] beccatoria
Ugh, reading this reminds me just how much I still genuinely adore this show. It really was so beautifully layered in ways I really don't know I've seen in any other serial. I think what strikes me is how clearly it managed to communicate its artistic statements without ever seeming to draw attention to them in a way that breaks the verisimilitude of the world. It just was, and it was basically perfect.

Date: 2013-11-08 01:08 am (UTC)
chaila: by me (tscc - i lived)
From: [personal profile] chaila
Meeeee toooooo. Honestly sometimes I can't tell if it really was this thematically coherent and layered, or if I've just examined it enough that I'll see intention and meaning everywhere. BUT I definitely do think you're spot-on about the artistic statements; it put a lot of interesting stuff out there and didn't make everything about how smart or interesting its ideas were. Nothing was too simplistic or anvilicious. So there's plenty of room to infer meaning and there's just plenty of room for interpretation and thought. Which is nice. It wasn't all in the service of Plot; there were lots of beautiful or neat visuals, or an incisive phrase, or a resonant theme, that didn't necessarily *go* anywhere specific, but complicated the story and my thoughts about it, and added to the richness of the world and the show and its ideas. *draws hearts*

Date: 2013-11-09 08:52 pm (UTC)
raincitygirl: (Natasha dove (otherpictures))
From: [personal profile] raincitygirl
Thank you for writing this. I have no coherent feedback to give beyond, "thank you for writing this" and "Waaaahhhh! It's still CANCELLED!"

Date: 2013-11-10 07:33 pm (UTC)
chaila: (tscc - sarah)
From: [personal profile] chaila
Yay, glad you liked it! Why is it is still CANCELED? Waaaahhhhh, life is so unfair. :(

Date: 2013-11-10 10:08 am (UTC)
chani: (Default)
From: [personal profile] chani
Great essay! You made a lot of relevant points. Apparently the show, at first, was supposed to focus on John but they changed their mind which made it more refreshing.

And there's the ending scene in the future, with nobody actually knowing who John Connor is, which continues to question the myth, after John himself finally embraced it (during his conversation with Jesse).

BTW I'm here via raincitygirl.

Date: 2013-11-10 07:50 pm (UTC)
chaila: by me (tscc - once in a lullaby)
From: [personal profile] chaila
I actually didn't know that it was supposed to focus on John! I am glad they changed their minds. It was so refreshing.

And there's the ending scene in the future, with nobody actually knowing who John Connor is, which continues to question the myth

Oooh yes, how have I not made that connection?! So great. Now I'm sad about the lack of season 3 all over again.


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