Band of Brothers, produced by HBO, is a series that entwines deep with the very essence of what it is to be me. It is a series I watch at least once a year, including its follow-up, The Pacific, a series I continuously talk-about and celebrate, and often trade quotes of with my family, even now, almost twenty years after its last episode aired.
It’s a series full of cameos, bit-parts for now A-list actors such as Micheal Fassbender, Tom Hardy, James McAvoy, Dominic Cooper, Simon Pegg, Jimmy Fallon and so, so many more. Originally conceived by Stephen Speilburg and Tom Hanks, based on the historical book by Stephen Ambrose, it follows the European Campaign of Easy Comapny, 501st Airborne, as they embark on missions throughout Normandy, Market Garden, and through to the very end of the war.
As you can imagine, with that kind of pedigree and talent, combined with HBO’s ridiculous budgets, every episode plays as a war-movie, with a continuous arc. Each and every episode is full of memorable set-pieces and character moments. I don’t think I’ll ever stop talking about this series, or thinking about the real-life men who were portrayed here, and I am very excited to analyse the writing behind the best episode in this series.
The seventh episode in the mini-series, The Breaking Point continues the events that happen in the previous episode, as Easy company are forced to entrench in the forest near Bastogne, overlooking the town of Foye, surrounded, outnumbered and outgunned, and lead by the incompetent and absent L.t Dyke.
After following the characters for six episodes, over the course of multiple campaigns and years, The Breaking Point presents us with their very real breaking point. As we have grown to love the characters in the foreground of this episode, we are faced with multiple deaths and harrowing moments, from reoccupying their positions to the constant and imminent threats of bombardment and attrition.
The Breaking Point isn’t a perfect episode, and we’ll explore some of the faults of the writing, but the pure spectacle, character dynamics and stellar acting make this one of the most hard-hitting episodes of TV ever presented by HBO, or by any other series for that matter. Needless to say, there will be major spoilers ahead. If you haven’t watched Band of Brothers before, you really owe it to yourself to go in as unaware as possible. It isn’t 100% historically accurate, many changes were made to ensure it is as coherent as could be, but it is 100% amazing.
Defeats and victories
Where The Breaking Point succeeds is its constant ebb and flow of tragedy and hope. Whenever one presents itself, we are pulled into a sense of false security, before being sucker punched by the other.
The first glimpse of this happens in the first 15 minutes of the episode, as Corporal Hoobler takes down a German officer on horseback, and retrieves a Luger pistol he has sought after since the first episode. Moments later, we watch as he passes from a gunshot wound from the very same pistol, accidentally unloaded while holstered in his trousers.
This scene continues to be harrowing, even after multiple views, because we have had the time to watch the mild-mannered Corporal interact with the other principal characters, he was well loved by his comrades, and an easy-going presence on screen, and when he finally acquires the object he wanted more than anything, we feel that triumph, after everything he had been through up to this point, like something was finally going their way. Then he dies, amongst friends, in the freezing snow.
We watch as Easy Company are bombarded in unimaginable situations, losing friends left right and centre, but are treated to moments of levity as the soldiers try their best to keep morale up and keep each-other alive. We watch as the maligned L.t Dyke freezes in the midst of the climatic battle, causing unwarranted casualities amongst his own men, but then, finally, he is replaced by resident-bad-ass L.t Spiers. After the battle, our characters celebrate their victory by singing in the very town they had been staring down for months, breathing in their moments of relief and satisfaction, only for a German sniper to open fire on the exposed group. Shortly after, Sgt Lipton sits in the chapel with his men as a heavenly choir reverberates throughout the survivors heads as he reflects on their well deserved peace, watching the faces of the men we had lost fade from the scene, only to watch as Spiers offers him a battlefield commission.
These events contrast themselves so well due to their differences in severity. After watching the almost apocalyptic bombardment, we feel a sense of relief when the characters experience even the tiniest semblance of relief, when Luz is sharing an impression or when Lipton re-homes the pistol that killed Hoobler. We feel the losses not only because we’ve had six episodes to bond with them, but because the episode takes time to showcase each of them before hand. A loss is devastating because it takes the place of where hope once was, and the episode is superb in giving us that. It gives us hope that the characters will keep each-other alive somehow, that it will be okay in the end, but as we find out in the devastating and frank talking-heads with the real survivors of Easy Company in the beginning, that isn’t how things end up.
Up until this point, we had watched Easy Company fight through many victories, and some defeats. We had come accustomed to the idea that these guys can take everything the war has to throw at them, but now we are finally seeing the toll that takes, on the company itself, but more importantly, each individual man.
The characters of Easy Company were always well defined, if not always accurate, but The Breaking Point takes its time to show a new side of the ones in the focal point. The men of Easy Company were always shown to be close, but we see that pushed to its limits, how that bond keeps them together, through attrition, bombardment and all other adversity.
This episode has almost a constant bombardment (That’s a slight pun, sorry) of emotional moments, in terms of narrative it sets up multiple events to be explored in the next three episodes, sowing the seeds of how the events in this one episode change them forever.
What we can learn
The Breaking Point may not focus on spectacle, sentiment or action like other episodes, but it’s magnificence lies in it’s blending of the three. It offers us crushing dismay and warming catharsis with expert pacing, however it’s not perfect.
Where this episode fails, is with it’s particular Voice Over, provided by the episode’s central character, Sgt Lipton, portrayed expertly by Donnie Wahlberg, who goes above and beyond to prove that it should be him and not his brother in the spotlight. At first, you may notice his narration is dry and worn, but soon you may come to realise this is completely the point; Sgt Lipton has given everything he has to give, and is a shell of a man trying to keep his friends alive. It’s a wonderful choice of direction, it adds to the feeling that we are witnessing this tale happen in real time, and Lipton is talking to us with exhausted reluctance to be reliving the moment.
However, if this episode removed the voice-over entirely, it would be a much stronger episode. Not because I dislike the idea of narration or Donnie Wahlberg’s performance, quite the opposite, it lies in it’s execution. Every line in the narration for this episode states the obvious. We know L.t Dyke is going to get men killed from his actions int he previous episode, we know l.t Compton is devastated by seeing his friends torn up, it’s all over his blank stare and how his voice breaks when he calls for help.
Occasionally studios and writers will panic and be unsure if the audience can follow the subtext, but even if it takes six viewings, they will, it’s up to you to make it worth watching or reading six times. Emotion exhibits itself in interactions, naturally, not from one character telling another, and thus the audience, how they feel. The rest of the series excels in this, however The Breaking Point seems to struggle with the weight of its expectations to really pull at the audience’s heartstrings, but it’s unwarranted.
This episode, and indeed series, is lucky enough to be propelled by such a phenomenal cast, who give their everything to have us believe they are the men from East Company. This episode could have done more to trust their performances, and even within non-visual writing such as novels, leaning into your characters and trusting yourself (and them, I suppose) to deliver your intended emotion can be such a difference.
Are you a fan of BOB? Do you have a different favourite episode? Let’s talk about it!