It’s August 12th, 2011. “Party Rock Anthem” will never die. Never. In news, in the UK at least, it’s all riots, as protests over the death of Mark Duggan expand into riots in Tottenham, which in turn spark riots across the country. Cameron’s government responds with a strong law and order platform that includes such reasonable things as a six month prison sentence for stealing a case of bottled water. In the US, meanwhile, it’s mostly just reeling from the aftermath of the latest debt ceiling showdown.
While on television. More perhaps than any other episode of Miracle Day, “The Middle Men” is a sequel to the previous. We’ve talked already about how Miracle Day is in many ways an expanded version of Children of Earth’s structure, with each pair of episodes serving as a distinct phase of the operation. But with “The Categories of Life” building to the cliffhanger it does, “The Middle Men” ends up having very little to do except to resolve its plot lines. And so we get the final disposal of Colin Maloney and the Cowbridge camp.
What’s odd, then, is how much of this episode feels at a slight disjoint to the previous one. Certainly they have dramatically different themes. “The Categories of Life” is straightforwardly an attack on particular political trends that builds towards a shock death. “The Middle Men,” on the other hand, is making a more philosophical point. The phrase “middle man” appears twice, once in reference to Colin, and the other time as a self-description of Ernie Hudson’s character. The thematic implications are in classic Miracle Day fashion, crashingly unsubtle.
Although the particulars of how this is put together are, to say the least, elusive. Ernie Hudson’s character appears to be intended as a suggestion that the evil is not, in fact, individual actors but a fundamentally corrupt system. And yet Colin is equally clearly held up as an individual evil. And the larger message of the story, hammered home in Gwen’s monologue before blowing up Cowbridge, in Ralph’s intervention to save Esther and Rex, and, in one of the story’s few moments of grace and subtlety, in the nameless camp worker who silently aids Gwen’s escape, is the power of individual actions and defiance in fighting institutional corruption. And in many ways this is a strong point of the episode. It is, after all, a sensible transition – “The Categories of Life” is about institutional horror, and “The Middle Men” offers a meaningful response to it.
Which ought to render Ernie Hudson’s character a more substantive villain than he is. His entire speech about a vast and faceless system, after all, cuts against the moral message of the story. Everything else is declaring that, actually, the system isn’t what matters, the willingness of individuals to take a stand or to remain violently complicit with the system is. And yet he’s not really challenged – instead he’s given a fairly significant voice within the narrative, serving as the major bit of exposition for the story, even if that exposition amounts to little more than a contextless word that could mean anything. Given that his only two jobs are to say “the Blessing” and to give a speech about middle men, it’s difficult to get him to make sense in the larger context of the episode. Which in turn ties in to the strangest thing about this middle section of Miracle Day, which is that Captain Jack is essentially sidelined in both episodes, left to chase the for-the-moment pointless Oswald plot in “The Categories of Life,” and relegated to a disconnected subplot with a total of three scenes in “The Middle Men.” Although this, at least, can meaningfully be called setup for the next episode.
For all of this, though, “The Middle Men” is fairly competent and effective. Colin’s mental collapse, particularly in his scene with Rex as he looks around for something to use to attack him, is delicious. Gwen’s scene blowing up Cowbridge is triumphant and gratuitous in all the right ways. Even Rex and Esther get some good bits, and the decision to keep Esther completely horrified by the realities of violence and killing people is a sound one that adds nice details to the character. Plus, no Oswald. It pales in comparison with Children of Earth, sure, but if we’re making that the standard Torchwood has to rise to then everything that isn’t Children of Earth fails pretty miserably. The fairer standard is the one it sets up for itself. Miracle Day isn’t a bad show. It’s not a good show. It’s a middle show. In every sense of the word.