Today, Scott and Drew are discussing Letter 44 6, originally released April 23rd, 2014.
Scott: Season finales are a time for change. Stories that have been building over the course of many episodes finally reach a climax, and life for the characters will never be the same. Babies are born, elections are won, villains are sent packing, and that couple that was driving the show’s sexual tension finally gets married. It’s a time for heroes to get a victory, and those victories usually come as the result of personal growth by the characters. Letter 44 is often compared to a TV show, so the end of its first arc could be thought of as the season one finale. Both President Blades and the crew of the Clarke have defining moments that will alter their trajectories going forward. Unlike the most satisfying finales, however, the decisions the heroes make aren’t the result of personal growth. Everyone is playing it safe.
Gomez and Pritchard make their way back to the Clarke, where they learn Hayden has given birth to Major Drum’s daughter, whom she’s named Astra. Kalani examines a piece of the alien creature and decodes what looks like a blueprint for a giant gun. Back on Earth, President Blades meets with former President Carroll, who insists he hasn’t done anything wrong. Blades leaves Carroll with “Letter 43”, in which Blades promises to clean up the mess Carroll made in office and imposes a zero-tolerance policy for any future interference from Carroll.
This issue is billed as the end of the first arc. Blades’ letter to Carroll provides a sense of closure, like the series has come full circle, at least in one respect. In contrast to the letter Carroll leaves for Blades in the first issue — which basically throws Blades to the wolves — this letter shows Blades finally taking control of the situation.
The boxing analogies Blades uses are half-fitting. Elected President at a time of political unrest and inheriting two misguided and resource-draining wars is the boxing equivalent of being backed up against the ropes. The additional burden Blades learned of with Letter 44 was like a barrage of hooks and jabs that nearly knocked him out cold. Blades’ letter is his way of coming out swinging, but I can’t help feeling it’s a little anti-climactic. When Blades arranged for a face-to-face meeting with Carroll it seemed like he was being the bigger man, doing what Carroll didn’t have the guts to do when he left office. Really though, Blades seems to let his predecessor off the hook, exiting their brief meeting by thanking Carroll for coming in, and leaving Carroll to find the scathing letter on the desk. Blades had the opportunity to be the bigger man, but went for petty retribution instead. Considering at least one person was killed in the effort to bring Carroll to the President — a meeting Carroll ultimately attended willingly — Blades comes off looking like a heavyweight chump.
The biggest dilemma this series faces is that the Washington-based half of the story isn’t nearly as intriguing as what’s going on in outer space. Political dramas are a dime a dozen, but there isn’t anything quite like the mission the Clarke crew is tackling. Their discovery that the Chandelier is designed like a gun provides another, rather sobering, sense of closure to this arc. The personal moments are also more effective in the Clarke half of the story. As cliched as the idea might be, Soule and Albuquerque provide possibly the best “surprise black baby” reveal I can remember.
I knew there was a reason the crew was so perfectly diverse! Eyes are an important part of Albuquerque’s art, especially in this dialogue-heavy issue, and this is my favorite example. Taking off his glasses to get a clearer look, it’s obvious just how unprepared Pritchard is for this moment. He was banking on the possibility that he is the child’s father, and now that possibility has vanished. But even for Pritchard, it’s impossible to look at that cute baby and truly be upset. Like Overholt says, they now have incentive, both to rescue Major Drum and to return home safely. Having a baby on board the ship changes the priorities of the crew drastically, and it’s easy to see how they could start making decisions that compromise the objectives of the mission.
I’ve heard quite a few people say that Letter 44 would make a great TV show, and I have to agree the potential is there. It’s a genre mashup that would be amazing on the small screen if done well. This series thrives on mystery and suspense, the same elements that drive the best TV dramas. Unfortunately, those elements are mostly missing from this issue. Instead, it relies on moments of surprise, most of which fall a little flat. The gun blueprints aren’t a revelation so much as an affirmation of what everyone already feared. The FBI director getting called off at the end of the issue indicates he might have been working for Carroll all along, but that threat is over as soon as it’s introduced, robbing it of any real impact.
Drew, I’ve been pretty into this series so far, but this issue doesn’t do much to ramp up my excitement for the next arc. I’m not sure what obstacles Blades is really facing anymore, aside from being generally stressed out. I’m typically more interested in the Clarke’s side of the story anyway, but with a newborn baby it seems they’ll only be less daring in their pursuit of alien-related answers. I don’t really care to see a bunch of astronauts playing it safe. I don’t know, am I missing something?
Drew: It’s interesting — I’m actually really looking forward to seeing what Blades does next. Blades has been so passive and reactionary throughout this series, it’s thrilling to see him take some decisive action (and explain that any perceived weakness was tactical). You’re not wrong to suggest that leaving Carroll the letter could seem cowardly or hypocritical, but I see it more as a reflection of Carroll’s own cowardice. Blades is taking care of business his own way, but he’s also showing Carroll that he can beat him at his own game, too.
For me, this is an extension of the agency he showed when he basically banished/threatened Michter in issue 5. Blades may have been on the ropes since the start of this series, but it’s looking like that was more rope-a-dope than exhaustion. He has basically all of his fight still left in him, and is strongly asserting his dominance here.
While the action on Earth seems to be heating up, the action in space is decidedly cooling off. After an issue of exploding killer alien things, it’s hard to maintain that fever pitch while keeping the focus within the ship. Protecting the baby is more of an abstract concept at this point, and while some exposition about the alien technology/physiology is interesting, there’s little in the way of incident here. Even the big reveal that what they’re building looks like a gun isn’t so much new information as it is a distillation of what they’ve all known since they first saw the chandelier.
Like, they have blueprints now, but are still operating under assumptions made based on how the thing looks. I mean, by that logic, shouldn’t they be pretty sure the thing actually is a chandelier? I get that we’re now meant to be a little more certain about the purpose of the chandelier, but there’s got to be a better way of stating that then “it sure looks like a gun.”
I agree that Albuquerque is generally pretty solid this issue, but one shot left a particularly bad taste in my mouth.
Not sure why she thought to pack such midriff-bearing tops for her years-long space expedition (though I suppose she saved a bunch of space by only choosing half-shirts), or why she wouldn’t choose to put a jacket on when she’s so obviously cold, making it seem like this image is crafted more for sexiness than storytelling, which is basically a cardinal sin in my eyes. There may be some kind of lust/love thing going on beyond the cabin fever, which may make her representation a bit more subjective, but as a single panel, I’m not sure what drawing her this way is supposed to tell me about the story.
Scott, I’m intrigued by your suggestion that this issue functions as a season finale of sorts. Of course, there are lots of ways to end a season — from tense cliffhangers to big life-altering events to barely even acknowledging it — and it’s not entirely clear to me what type we’ve got here. This feels more like it’s going to flow into the next issue quite naturally, making me wonder what truly defined this arc. First contact with the aliens? Blades getting his sea legs? We may need some perspective on this arc to understand how it functions within the narrative at large, but for now, we have basically what we started with: a fascinating premise and a writer gifted enough to explore it thoroughly. That’s enough for me for now, but I’m curious how everyone else feels.
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