Episode 4 flips the script on Masters of the Air without relying on battle scenes, and the result is the best episode of the series so far.
Episode 4 is the best of Masters of the Air so far, and not just because it features a cameo from the wonderful Joanna Kulig. (I’m a big fan of her performance in 2018’s Cold War). Maybe it’s a coincidence, but it also contains the most women on screen all season, and has exactly zero action scenes. It’s a solid, if imperfect, episode because it takes a long, hard look at the reasons why these pilots we’ve been following are in the war in the first place.
The episode noticeably takes a break from its usual air combat scenes – which I’ll talk about more in a moment – and allows us to explore other facets of the war. First we have the celebration back at the English air base, as a member of the platoon celebrates his 25th successful mission – a rare feat. I may be alone in this, but I almost always enjoy when entertainment gives a hyper-specific fact about a certain field that those of us on the outside would never have known, like how the air force treated those that survived 25 missions essentially as celebrities. In this regard it’s a reminder that, for all the rah-rah posturing done by the American soldiers throughout World War II, it was a terrifying time when many of them were lucky to complete even a single mission.
The party that takes up the bulk of the first half of the episode provides some interesting thematic material, but I was suffering from a bit of character whiplash every time a new face came into the picture. I’ve talked before about how disposable most of the secondary characters in Masters of the Air are – in otherwise, almost everyone that isn’t Austin Butler, Callum Turner, Barry Keoghan, William Quinn or Anthony Boyle – so I don’t know how wise it is to introduce even more boyishly handsome white men in episode 4. How much will we be expected to remember their names, their character traits, their experiences, et cetera? Not to mention, and I still have to mention this: the Tuskegee airmen (or whatever regiment they belong to) still have yet to make an appearance on the show after episode 4.
Thankfully the scene, and those that follow, contain some sharply written dialogue that gives some insight into many of the soldiers, and how they view their place in the war. For most, World War II was an adventure, a chance to prove their American pride, and that includes Helen (Emma Canning), an American who upended her life in order to help in the least tangible way. But it feels like, in the waning days of 1943, it’s finally hit home that they’d be subjected to the horrible reality of war. It’s not terribly nuanced stuff, but it’s welcome character development for a series that’s been lacking in these early goings. The post-coital scene with Bucky (Turner) and Paulina (Kulig) as they watch the London bombings was fine enough, but I liked the scene afterwards as Bucky walks down the street witnessing the tragedies of the war first-hand much better.
The material with Sgt. William Quinn (Kai Alexander), as he traverses through Belgium after the events of last week’s episode with the help of the Allied underground network, is the highlight of episode 4 for me. Here’s a character all alone in a foreign land – enemy territory, no less – who has to not only navigate his way into safety but navigate his grief and responsibility over the death of his friend. If I have one complaint about this plotline, it’s in the early reveal of the Nazi spy. Perhaps if the show had drawn out the tension a little more, as Quinn gets to know him better, it would have had a longer-lasting emotional impact.
It’s an incredibly bold decision to kill Austin Butler’s Buck Cleven off-screen – unless it’s a fakeout. Buck has been a bit of an uninteresting character whose charisma has mostly been because of Butler’s movie star persona. Even more baffling is Buck’s tepid attitude in episode 4. I couldn’t exactly get a read on his emotions during the celebration – was he jealous, nervous, embarrassed, something else? I’ll be totally fine if future episodes don’t explicitly show the mission that ended Buck’s life, unless it is some sort of a misdirection and it’s revealed that he did survive. I don’t know where the rest of the series will go from here, and for a show that’s been mostly routine so far, it’s a refreshing feeling.
Episode 4 of Masters of the Air is now available to watch on AppleTV+.