It can be a cheap trick for a popcorn flick or its TV equivalent to mine real-world tragedy for pathos. It’s so easy for the relative tastelessness of that kind of entertainment, much as I love so much of it, to read as defilement of something that should be held sacred. When it goes wrong, it does so in spectacular fashion: Marvel attributing the authorship of Hiroshima to one of its Eternals, say, or Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer” playing over the memorial for Emmett Till in Lovecraft Country.
These are not accusations you can level at any project in the Godzilla franchise. Godzilla is inextricably linked to the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki specifically, and to the threats of nuclear war and environmental devastation generally. So when the third episode of Monarch: Legacy of Monsters depicts a Japanese woman trying to physically stop the detonation of a nuclear bomb while screaming in terror and grief, all I can do is respect it. With a paraphrase of “My God, what have I done,” writer Andrew Colville and director Julian Holmes underline what’s really going on here, though they respect you enough to catch it without anyone bringing up Dr. Keiko Miura’s nationality. In this franchise, they shouldn’t have to.
That’s the thrust of the flashback action in this week’s episode, at any rate. Kei, Billy, and Lee enlist the help of Lee’s old C.O., General Puckett (Christopher Heyerdahl), in securing enough uranium to lure out the colossal radiation-devouring beast we eventually come to know and love as the big G. Does that uranium get delivered in bomb form? You bet it does.
Credit, however, to the show for making it clear that this isn’t a matter of one military man’s mania, as it often is in these stories. (Including with Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Kong: Skull Island, for instance.) Puckett takes pains to point out to Shaw that a decision of this sort is four levels above his pay grade, meaning it would have happened no matter who brought the news to the brass. Sure, he takes pleasure in the bomb, as a character of his sort ought to, but it was a system that pressed the button, not a man.
Puckett redeems himself partially by refusing our trio their funding request…in favor of a blank check. It’s through the clout of the guy who first tried to nuke Godzilla that Monarch, the organization responsible for such creatures’ preservation from here on out, was created. Credit here belongs to Heyerdahl for showing just enough awe in Puckett’s eyes when he sees Godzilla’s spikes first break the water to make this decision plausible, by the way.
And so a little arrangement is made. Lee tells Kei that he can’t lie to his commanding officer about what’s going on, even if that means Puckett will nuke another titan. But Lee can only report what has been reported to him, hint hint wink wink nudge nudge say no more. It’s a nice bit of business that explains a lot of the contradictions of Monarch’s institutional culture, as it’s been revealed in fits and starts by a phalanx of writers and directors across the franchise’s five live-action projects thus far.
As for the present, the older Shaw — whom it’s pointed out looks 70 but should be about 90 — and a buddy lead May, Cate, and Kentaro from Japan to South Korea to Alaska, where Cate and Kentaro’s father was last headed. There they find a campsite, some airplane wreckage, and a giant wolf-armadillo with tentacle lips and lethal frost breath. Some other stuff gets said about Hiroshi but get real, the ice monster is the real attraction here.
I wouldn’t say “that’s the problem,” because that would be frankly inaccurate — “the ice monster is the real attraction in the show about giant monsters” is a feature, not a bug. But to take things back to Kong: Skull Island for a minute here, there’s a world in which all the characters other than Kei and Shaw are, if not unique, then at least vibrant and consistently engaging screen presences. So far at least, that’s not the world we’re inhabiting. Kentaro and Cate come across as petulant rather than genuinely grief-stricken by the revelation of their father’s deceptions. May is a bundle of ‘90s hacker clichés in search of a skeleton to hang them from. The Indiana Jones ally–style character who flies the gang to Alaska, played by Bruce Baek, is more entertaining than the three of them combined.
But the bottom line is that this remains a television show with one Godzilla scene per episode, plus an additional scene featuring a giant monster or monsters to be named later. When there’s every possibility that the show will shake off its initial creative lethargy, whom am I to complain?