Welcome to TV Flashback Reviews, part of our TV Flashback series, where we do in-depth, episodic looks at shows from the past! With Terminator Genisys in theaters, we’ll be looking back at the 2007 Terminator TV show from beginning to end every Flashback Friday.
Episode 2: “Gnothi Seauton”
Originally aired: January 14, 2008
Travelling through time is probably very daunting on the psyche. But typically, the time traveler is so focused on the changes to the timestream or their mission that those questions get overlooked. The rewritten timeline plot of Terminator Genisys is actually a good example of this — in those time-hopping action flicks, fixing the timeline or stopping the villain takes precedence to dealing with the repercussions of the actual time trip, and the story is over when the mission is completed.
T:TSCC takes a different approach, though. The time-jumping Connors are sort of on time crunch to stop Judgement Day, sure, but it’s still an event that’s four years away and in a setting where, as this episode points out, even Skynet doesn’t know they’re still around. That means things are going to be much slower than the chaos and the running the Connors are normally used to; Sarah doesn’t even know how to not be constantly on the run, given how she left Charley as soon as they settled down. Even the difference between the pace of this episode and the premiere is night and day; the hefty exposition and non-stop nature of the pilot is nearly brought to screeching halt. But that’s a good thing, as it makes “Gnothi Seauton” an exceptionally good character-centric follow-up to the Terminator films and new start to this story. With all the exposition out of the way, there’s time — too much time, perhaps — for John and Sarah to contemplate their new place in life.
John moves back and forth between trying to move on to his new identity and getting hung up on his old one. True to a teenager, the kid can’t make up his mind; he’s irritated about being cooped up in the house and wants to start his new life, but as soon as he gets out of the house, his first stop is to Google himself and look up Charley Dixon. It’s not a particularly good episode for John in that respect, given how completely oblivious he appears to be to the new world around him (see: the giant screen in the computer store, a very silly moment.)
John also reveals himself to present day Charley, in a very stupid moment for the future leader of the resistance, but completely understandable for a teenager desperate for a father figure. That particular mistake, even though we know it’s not a smart move, isn’t out-of-character for John — we saw his craving for a father figure back in T2 as well — and that’s a testament to the spot-on characterization. We’ll see John grow exponentially as the series continues, which makes his rookie mistakes early on appropriate set-up for comparison later on. Cameron directly comments on this, telling Sarah that the John Connor whose orders she follows and this 1999/2007 John are not the same person…yet. John Connor is a single human being, but one made up of multiple identities he’ll have to sort through in his growth.
The meat of the episode, though, is Sarah. “Gnothi Seauton” sets the stage for how this show plunges into the depths of Sarah’s psyche, and while this is nowhere near where things go with her later, it’s a wonderful introduction to the storytelling that’s to come. Looking at the Terminator mythology, the 19-year-old waitress who couldn’t get a date or balance her checkbook is a completely different person from the hardened shotgun-weilding, and borderline-sociopathic warrior Sarah Connor is over the original films’ ten-year period. Having the same name doesn’t mean you always know who you are, and the Connors’ conflicting past, present, and future identities are complicated even more by the fake names and lives they take on while on the run.
As such, Sarah goes through the emotional wringer, even though the people around her don’t necessarily see it. In this hour, she learns she was (and maybe still is) destined to die of cancer, she learns about 9/11, and he suspects her dear friend of betraying her only to see him die as soon as her suspicions subside, all while going through “time-lag,” a term which John coins. Sarah has been through horrors in her life, but there are no distractions this time — no dire chase from a Terminator after her life, except for the brief one she and Cameron incidentally run into. This is about as “normal” as it gets for Sarah, and that means she gets lots more time and space to contemplate the world she’s in than she probably prefers.
This isn’t all perfectly handled, of course, particularly in that the “know thyself” theme of the episode is hammered in to an absurdly heavy-handed extent. Sarah’s monologues, which are a vast improvement over the cheesy ones in the pilot, set the stage and summarize the themes nicely, but they’re coupled with even more direct talk of identity within the dialogue that makes it somehwat overbearing. I don’t recall if the show ever gets better about how directly it lays out theme themes, or if the plots just become so dense that it masks them, but things are definitely not subtle this time around. In this case, it’s not a huge detriment to the episode, as it helps reassert how much of a character-driven piece this show will be. There are a couple of nice, even if brief action scenes to supplement it, but the bulk of “Gnothi Seauton” is all about Sarah’s headspace.
One of the show’s more memorable moments exist here, where Sarah reflects on learning about the existence of 9/11. Here in 2015, it’s a bit hard to judge; because the episode doesn’t make a big flourish about Sarah learning the news, it doesn’t feel emotionally manipulative. In fact, it’s incredibly ballsy to confront that concept head-on, considering it’s something an American time-traveler would surely have to face. It ties into how well this episode handles the “time-lag,” and it’s nicely tied into Sarah’s character, with her finally having a baseline to imagine the apocalypse (though it does contradict that she did imagine the apocalypse in a very famous scene, but I can see what they’re trying to do.)
It seems like a sequence that could have only been done at that time — in 2008, it had been long enough to address the event directly without being controversial, but was still recent enough that even vaguely talking about would be powerful to see. This is a very good issue to address — and from a sci-fi and sociological standpoint, it’s simply interesting to explore how a character would react to a cultural event that no person could ever be unaware of. The major problem is that it doesn’t feel terribly essential to the episode, which is otherwise extremely tight in its themes. It lightly supplements Sarah’s arc, as it briefly complicates her identity issues by putting her role in a grander perspective, but not enough to feel like an imperative piece.
Lena Headey continues to work wonders, especially as the centerpiece of the episode. Headey nails Sarah’s quiet, subtle reactions to learning about her cancer, which becomes an important grounding of humanity for Sarah, and a nice juxtaposition to the death wish she seemed to have in T2 and the pilot. There’s a difference between dying in combat or self-sacrifice and dying of an incurable disease, fighting an enemy that you were never trained to fight.
Headey owns it in some of the comedic material, too, nailing some sarcasm and snark to both Cameron and John. Even better is Sarah improvising a suburban mom routine with “Jennifer the spoiled stepdaughter” to protect Cameron from the cops, in one of the episode’s funniest scenes. Headey’s best scene is in the episode’s climax, as she grapples with Cameron’s murder of Enrique despite knowing she very well may have been right. As much as “Gnothi Seauton” is about who the Connors are, the grander arc of the series is the broader idea of Sarah questioning her own lines and humanity, and it starts in this moment.
It’s a reason why this episode really functions better as an introduction to the series than the piece-moving pilot did: “Gnothi Seauton” is all the set-up for what’s to come in the show, and mirrors the tone, style, and structure we’ll be familiar with. There are appearances and elements that will come into play later — that T-888, Carlos and Chola, all the Wizard of Oz references, and the time-travelling resistance fighters all play a role as it goes along — and it’s fun to see how well-structured this show was from the beginning. And the Cromartie arc kicks into full gear, as the Terminator that does know what present day John looks like and has a mission to kill him still exists, unbeknownst to the Connors. But it’s best when the Connors’ internal conflicts are at the center, particularly whether or not they truly know who they are, and that shift in focus makes this a vast improvement over the first episode.
Odds & Ends
- Here’s Craig’s original advance review of the episode and Derek Russell’s Terminatorsite review. Even with seven years separated, we all tend to agree on this one.
- The opening montage at the beginning, particularly the CGI construction of the T-800 head, is really nice. I remember Sarah’s line describing Skynet as “a computer system programmed to destroy the world” being a point of contention online, considering Skynet wasn’t technically programmed to do that. But the opening is cool nonetheless, considering there isn’t an opening credits sequence.
- The recap shows Cromartie’s head flying through the timeline in another angle from the pilot we didn’t see, which is an odd and rare case of the recap providing new (and vital!) information. That particular plot point was also contentious among fans at the time, since it seemed to directly contradict the “organic material only” rule of time travel. Josh Friedman eventually clarified that the intention was to have a flesh-covered severed head fly through and the skin would burn off, but that was a big no-no for the studio execs. So the best assumption (suggested by Friedman) is that the flesh just burned off really, really quickly as soon as it passed through time. It’s not perfect, but it’s understandable given the circumstances, and forgivable considering the eventual results are worth it.
- Sarah’s move with rolling off the motorcycle so it slides into the Terminator is probably the most badass stunt this show has pulled off thus far.
- How Cameron handles a family seeing her get hit by a car and plunging her head into their windshield: “Please remain calm.” It’s the funniest gag next to Sarah’s improvised mom bit.
- Adding to the Cameron mystery, the T-888 scans her as an “Unknown Cyborg” and subsequently bolts. They definitely packed in the hints and questions about her early on.
- I like this idea of the Cult of Sarah Connor, where she has “believers” of Judgement Day, despite Judgement Day never having happened when she said it would. And as this episode points out, being a “believer” doesn’t make you trustworthy. There’s a lot of overt religious allegory in the Terminator franchise that doesn’t always work, but I like the subtlety in the commentary here.
- “Just move the food around, and the turkey will reveal itself to you.” – Always loved Lena Headey’s delivery on this line.
- “Why are diamonds a girl’s best friend?”