Thursday, October 06, 2005

Sacrifice Done Right

One of my biggest pet peeves in any sort of story is when one character makes the supreme sacrfice for the sake of another - usually out of love - and no one ever learns of this selfless deed. The hero uses his meager savings to pay the mortgage on the heroine's farm so the evil rancher next door can't get his hands on it, but the heroine never finds out who it was that forked over the cash. The heroine agrees to marry the evil baron if he promises not to reveal that the hero is really a bastard imposter, but the hero never discovers this and assumes the heroine is just a skanky money-grubbing ho.

It drives me nuts when someone makes a grand, amazing gesture and no one ever finds out how wonderful that person really is.

Usually the case is that the giver doesn't want the givee to know what he or she has done. He isn't expecting thanks or gratitude, so therefore his sacrifice has to remain un-credited. This is the ultimate symbol of love and heroism. Because if the heroine found out about that mortgage paying deal, she'd feel beholden to the hero. We'd never know if she loved him for himself or out of gratitude. And if the hero told the heroine what he'd done, well his effort loses a lot of meaning. He looks like he's out for something more than simply helping the person he loves.

Last night, on the show Over There, I saw an instance of supreme sacrifice done absolutely right. The giver gave without expecting anything in return, yet his actions came to light enough that he was thanked. The whole thing brought tears to my eyes, and I can't stop thinking about it. That hasn't happened to me in ages; being haunted by a story.

For those of you who've never heard of the program - it is kind of obscure - it's about a group of American soldiers stationed in Iraq. It follows both the soldiers' various assignments as well as what is happening back home with the loved ones they've left behind. I've enjoyed it immensely although there has been some controversy over the idea of depicting a war that is currently being waged. Something about exploiting the situation, although I've only found things educational.

Anyway, in this particular episode, Sgt. Chris "Scream" Silas, played by the amazing Erik Palladino, who has come a long way since his ER days, is given the task of evicting a group of orphans so that the new Iraqi government can use their building for some official purpose. The orphanage is run by a French woman who very adamantly refuses to uproot the children yet again simply because the American Army says she has to go.

We don't know much about Sgt. Scream, save that his tour in Iraq is almost over; in fact, ten days more and he's out of the Army altogether. His superiors are trying to talk him into re-enlisting for another six years, but Sgt. Scream wants nothing more to do with the Army. He's even resigned to managing a carpet store if that's what it takes to move past this phase in his life. He's seen too much by far and he just wants out. Since his first introduction - yelling at his new platoon - we've been shown that he's a hardened soldier who does what it takes to get the job done, willing to talk back to superior officers when their commands put his men in danger. But he's in Iraq to complete his missions, and that's all there is to it.

However, for some reason, the idea of evicting the orphans proves to be too much for Sgt. Scream. I think - though it is never directly stated - that Sgt. Scream may be an orphan himself. He clearly has no one back home who he feels misses him as evidenced on previous episodes. You get the feeling that Sgt. Scream is very much alone in this world.

The show starts off with Sgt. Scream determined to do his job. His entire platoon comes off as very uncaring when they blow apart a suitcase-like box carried by a young boy that they suspect might contain some kind of bomb. It proves to contain a chess set. And we are given a glimpse into what this episode will involve when Sgt. Scream gives his own travel chess set to the boy to make up for the mistake even though he and his men had been acting perfectly rationally given the situation. When you are at war with a country whose citizens are willing to be suicide bombers, a boy carrying a mysterious box can't be assumed innocent until proven guilty.

So Sgt. Scream and the French woman - Frenchy if you will since I don't think we are ever given her name - butt heads over his demands that she move the orphans out of the building. She refuses. He feels bad and comes up with an alternate location; an apartment building outside of the village could be used to house the orphans. Again, Frenchy refuses, and by now you would expect that Sgt. Scream would have had enough and just started pointing guns. But something about this woman and the orphans affects him deeply.

So deeply, in fact, that Sgt. Scream makes a deal with his superiors, offering up the only collateral he has; himself. In return for keeping the orphanage where it is, Sgt. Scream agrees to re-enlist. He'll give the next six years of his life to the Army - remain in Iraq and go God only knows where else that he might be killed - so that these kids can stay where they are.

OMG. What a sacrifice. In an indirect way, he is laying down his life.

And of course, you know that he has no intention of telling the French woman what he's done. He doesn't expect anything from her. In fact, when she asks him what he's done to make this happen, he denies he had anything to do with it at all.

But Frenchy is a smart one. She figures it out. Or at least, she figures out that he's agreed to stay in Iraq rather than go home as he had told her he was doing. I don't thing she fully understands the degree to which he has now committed himself, but she knows he gave up a lot for her and for the children.

She's suitably thankful. In fact, she and Sgt. Scream end up sleeping together. Which in most circumstances would contain a healthy dose of "Ewww" factor, like she was only sleeping with him to thank him. Except throughout the episode, we are shown how similar these two characters are to each other. That they both have nothing left at home, and this is why they continue to work in Iraq where they feel they are useful and needed. Even as they fight with each other, you can feel a level of respect and attraction.

Plus, the morning after their tryst, Frenchy hopes that Sgt. Scream will be coming to visit her often. Clearly she viewed their relationship as more than a thank-you-roll-in-the-hay. Sgt. Scream gallantly declines, reminding her that American soldiers on her premises brings a lot of danger to the children and that it would be best if he stayed away for a while.

Another sacrifice because you know that it has been ages - if ever - that Sgt. Scream has cared about someone in this way.

Through all of this I was giving Erik Palladino mad props because he played it all so well. He maintained that hardened-warrior exterior while allowing us glimpses of a vulnerable man who can't help caring for these people and their plight. When Frenchy goes to touch his cheek in a tender display of gratitude, he almost flinches, as if he is afraid of allowing himself to feel anything but numbness.

The entire episode was amazing. It was the perfect example of sacrfice done right. The motives behind the sacrifice were real, and the characters' reactions to it rang true. I'm ignoring, for now, the fact that I can't imagine how Sgt. Scream's willingness to re-enlist would be enough to change policy because to point out the implausibility of such a deal ruins the story for me. I'm going to go with the flow of suspended disbelief on this one, thank you very much.

In the meantime, even if you don't like "war" shows or soldier stories, I recommend you watch this episode if you get the chance. It'll haunt you.

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