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Torchwood Series 2: Love, Loss and Our Humanity

Going beyond physical desire, Torchwood‘s second series tackles the big questions of our human identity. What makes us who we are? And if we feel human, does that make us so?

While Series 1 was all about sex and mortality, the next collection of thirteen episodes takes an increasingly serious turn. Death is always part of the picture, but each character further examines what makes a worthy life. We get to know everyone better as more complete people, and we better understand how they came to their present existence. Sex may be a way of processing and alleviating their losses, but how does one carry on when the losses keep coming?

Torchwood: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (aka Captain Jack Harkness and Captain John Hart make out action)Series 2 also gives the supporting cast more weight, rather than merely being problems-of-the-week. From the beginning, the effect that Torchwood has on the rest of the world becomes more clear. In Episode 1, “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” Captain John Hart reenters Captain Jack Harkness’ life as a mysterious, untrustworthy, yet charming former lover. The two were together for five years back in Jack’s time agent days, and initially, the two are torn between snogging and fighting. Jack and Ianto have just started a more official relationship, and Ianto is noticeably jealous, while everyone is once again having trouble imagining the scope of Jack’s centuries-long, universe-spanning life.

Episodes 2 and 3 (“Sleeper” and “To The Last Man”) both concern one-off characters who are deeply traumatized by their apparent purpose in life. One woman, Nikki, discovers that she is no longer human at all, but an alien sleeper agent among many who are programmed to wipe out a large percentage of Earth’s population. The other, Tommy, a WWI solider, has been kept frozen in the Torchwood vaults and is reawakened every year (“Once a year for you, every day for me,” he says) until he will be useful to the team. 1918-era Torchwood left a message for future members saying that he will be needed, but they do not clearly indicate how, only that he is vitally important. In this time, he and Tosh have developed an atypical relationship, and it pains her to know that when he goes back to 1918, he will once again become shell-shocked and executed for cowardice. He will not remember their time together.

Tommy: All this time I’ve had, it means nothing.
Tosh: Listen, you’re a hero, do you know that? Because you stop the time shift and save us all.

In Episode 11, “Adrift,” a mother’s son, Jonah, goes missing under mysterious circumstances. She searches for him for months, and her life becomes all about that hope of reuniting with him. When she discovers that he was one of the many people who are taken into the rift and returned to the present severely damaged (and in Jonah’s case, aged forty years), she realizes the cruelty inherent in knowing that kind of truth. Without her search, her longing, what is left of her life? More than one episode deals with this different type of grief.

Rhys is confronted with an actual alien; a whale-like creature whose eye is nearly as big as Rhys.

The team itself has their own battles to face, both personal and professional, and how those two sections of life often tangle together. Episode 4, “Meat,” has Gwen’s fiancé, Rhys, learning what she actually does for a living when his trucking company unwittingly becomes involved in an alien muscle-harvesting scheme. A giant, whale-like creature that keeps growing has been tortured and cut into by a group of men who are selling the meat under false labels. Its pain, followed by its mercy killing, reminds the team that not all alien lifeforms on Earth are nefarious, and that part of their important work is remembering their compassion.

By letting Rhys in on the details of her job, Gwen’s relationship with him becomes more stable, but what would happen if Gwen could no longer remember being with him in the first place? Episode 5, “Adam,” an alien that has the ability to manipulate memories has inserted himself within Torchwood, and everyone believes he has been there for the past three years. Adam and Tosh are dating (poor Tosh can’t get a break when it comes to love), Owen is meek and pining after Tosh, and through a manipulation error, Gwen does not remember Rhys at all. This episode basically poses the question, if memories are what make us who we are, then what happens when they are made false or are jumbled?

Rhys: I always wondered if you’d settled for me. That if you met me now, with all the crazy stuff that goes on in your life, would you even look at me twice?
Gwen: Don’t say that!

She doesn’t even want to consider that he might be saying something true.

As they begin to realize that Adam is not who he says he is, both Tosh and Jack have trouble deciding to ret-con themselves to forget him. Tosh doesn’t want to lose what feels like her first “real” relationship, and Jack has now more fully re-remembered losing his brother, Gray, when they were children. Adam himself knows that using others’ memories are what bring him into existence, so that when they all forget him, he will no longer be anything but a non-entity within the Void. His life will be meaningless without the acknowledgment of others.

Jack’s relationship to his brother is another example of this show’s way of presenting different forms of love and loss. Everyone on this show experiences such intense loyalty that when those ties are questioned, it is all the more painful. Jack doesn’t know who to trust and how much he can reveal of himself because he hasn’t yet figured out how to keep on living knowing what he does. Gray’s pain is his pain, the whale’s pain moves him to tears, and the thought of going back to his own time and losing Ianto makes him never want to leave.

All these little story strands, and many that I’ve not mentioned, point towards the biggest existential crisis of the series, the death and resurrection of Owen Harper. After shutting down The Pharm, a research facility using alien parasites to cure diseases within patients, Owen is shot by the head of the company. The team is unable to revive him, and in the following episode (“Dead Man Walking”), Jack uses the resurrection glove to bring him back. Unlike with previous uses of the glove, Owen does not slip back into being fully dead. He is awake, talking and moving, but otherwise clinically deceased – no pulse, no breath, his body at room temperature. If he injures himself, he cannot heal. He is now the opposite of the immortal Captain Jack.

Owen: “I came back different. Like I’m missing something. I don’t want to be like this.”

Owen looks into an empty refrigerator, having cleaned it out since he can no longer eat or drink.Yet, he must continue being like this. Despite everyone’s insistence that he is still human, still Owen, without being able to eat, drink, shag or be a proper member of the team, he wonders, How? He is numb, bored, and angry. “Broken,” he says. He is afraid of the never-ending darkness that he saw on the other side. It takes time for him to feel any sort of passion for his work again, much less his existence. If part of existentialism is about “the focus on the feelings of anxiety and dread that we feel in the face of our own radical freedom and our awareness of death*,” then Owen must also choose how he reacts to his present. Though no longer existing as what most would recognize as “living,” he is still a conscious being, and though he understandably feels much despair, he eventually decides that existence precedes essence.**  He remains human, even without a pulse.

The idea of humans and of Earth being special and worth saving is all foreshadowing for the coming series, “Children of Earth.” Having Owen die again and with Tosh dying via gunshot in the finale (“Exit Wounds”), we now know that no one is safe from sacrifice and that we reveal who we are in our most fragile moments. It’s heartbreaking, honest, and yet still does not adequately prepare us for what will come next. All we have is the present.

I believe happiness is the complete mindful attention and bliss found in the present moment; the present moment is beautiful and fundamentally perfect. Therefore, one must choose to be happy right now in the present, because this is all that exists.
Gaia Mori

What can we do with the present?

Jack: Now we carry on. [“¦] We all can. The end is where we start from.

By Sara Habein

Sara Habein is the author of Infinite Disposable, a collection of microfiction, and her work has appeared on The Rumpus, Pajiba and Word Riot, among others. Her book reviews and other commentary appear at Glorified Love Letters, and she is the co-manager of Electric City Creative.

4 replies on “Torchwood Series 2: Love, Loss and Our Humanity”

I know some shows wouldn’t hold up to the same sort of scrutiny (though that would be a different sort of essay), but yes, it’s been interesting to think about this show in this way. You couldn’t do it episode per episode though, for most shows — the whole arc of everything is much more clear when taken as a whole series package. When I wrote this one and the essay for Series 1, I had rewatched every episode and I made notes along the way, anything that seemed interesting or majorly thematic in some way, as well as dialogue that illustrated it, so that when I went to write, I could just look at my notes and not have to jump and pause all over Netflix.

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