The final struggle for Peleliu begins in the latest episode of The Pacific, and it is, by far, the most visually and psychologically grim depiction of the war yet, and possibly ever in a mainstream show.
After securing the airfield in an explosive encounter last week, the Marines are now sent into the hills to flush out the remaining Japanese, only to discover that they are hidden in a series of underground fortifications. Faced with a literally unseen enemy, and one who refuses to surrender, it is questionable how long Sledge can keep it together.
Episode 7 begins with what seems to be an anti-Rocky montage, which, instead of showing us inspirational images, browbeats both Sledge and the viewer with images of death, destruction and despair. All of which serves to somewhat undercut Sledge’s previous patriotic resolve and enthusiasm.
Luckily however, he has the upstanding Capt. Haldane to guide him through the worst of it, and to stand in as a father figure for a troubled Sledge.
As demonstrated with his speech last episode, Haldane is a lone authoritative moral centre-point in the maelstrom of the war. He never fails to bolster Sledge’s morale, and to offer him advice when needed.
A prime example of this is his talk about how mere generations before in the American Civil War, his and Sledge’s ancestors were probably at war with each other. The obvious unspoken point here was how war had previously divided the country but now unites it, and all those who serve. Haldane then nicely undercuts this grand point with an intimate anecdote about his father supplying the military with blankets.
Despite his hard won ‘Sledgehammer’ status, the type of conflict which Sledge is put through is traumatic in the extreme, and so completely new to all the Marines that their individual reactions are entirely unpredictable. Case in point: experienced soldier Gunny breaks down after yet another harrowing confrontation with the Japanese. The faces of the Marines returning from the hills before Sledge is sent up tell the whole story of broken men who can no longer fully embrace the brotherhood offered to them, and who are fundamentally changed by their experiences.
It is clear that, despite all they have been through so far, it will not compare with what is to come.
It is through the eyes of Sledge that we witness the horror, as he witnesses the looting and murdering of defeated Japanese soldiers following an attack on a bunker which, in another theatre, would have earned him a medal. Instead, he gains a Japanese sword from a fallen soldier, one he had killed himself after a literal encounter with the face of the enemy.
However, surrounded by the dubious and criminal actions of his fellow Marines, he decides to not take a trophy, thereby asserting his humanity. It is a defining moment, and one that Capt. Haldane supports. All of which makes his inevitable death even more of a defining moment for Sledge.
Trudging through apparently endless landscapes of death and decay, with corpses and flies buzzing everywhere, it is no surprise when Sledge finally snaps, and attempts to loot a Japanese corpse himself. However, he is pulled back from the brink by none other than prime looter Snafu, who, moments before, had been lobbing rocks into the exposed mess of a dead Japanese soldier.
Once back to ‘civilisation’ Snafu then looks on as Sledge fails to engage with nurses handing out lemonade, instead muttering, “What are they doing here?”, as the war and what it has made him cannot co-exist with what he views as humanity and normalcy.
It is this topsy-turvy morality that had underpinned the whole of The Pacific, and obviously continues to do so. After all, the series’ ultimate aim must be an exploration of why US high command authorised the use of the nuclear bomb against Japan, and how they saw that as the lesser of two evils.
By its very nature, the layering of The Pacific‘s moral questions cannot be subtle, but it has been effective. The series has been relentlessly grim, and the death of a noble character combined with the breaking of another only aids this sombre mood.
For a viewer to remain untouched by the sheer ambiguousness of what has been presented is almost impossible, and surely must spark debate upon the rights and wrongs of both sides’ actions throughout the conflict.
Read our review of episode 6 here.
The Pacific is screening on Sky Movies Premiere and Sky Movies Premiere HD.