China Beach (“Waiting for Beckett”)

Season 1, Episode 5
Date of airing: May 18, 1988 (ABC)
Nielsen ratings information: 11.9 rating in Households

After “Home,” this is the second episode for which the writers have decided to follow a specific story and have it angle itself around a few characters, including them in the premise of the episode, before they were either forgotten due to the proceduralized nature of the show, or not included because there wasn’t much time for them. Cherry and Beckett might have been the focal points of the episode with their own narratives, but midway through the episode their narratives joined together and suddenly there was a moment during which you could have believed the characters were dealing with the same problem. All this made for an entertaining hour of television, and one can only hope the future of the show will be similar, and even includes some serialized storytelling or even character development. Because at one point, Cherry must come out of her shell, since she would end up with the most experience of all, as she is witnessing the terror and horror that is Vietnam when she is still a teenager. And let’s not forget she is still a teenager. Nan Woods doesn’t look like one, but her character is one. Her status as a teenager gets lost repeatedly during the show, probably because the writers never knew what kind of teenage-ish stories to tell for a character that is part of the Vietnam war.

Beckett is thinking about learning how to surf.

I loved the premise of desertion in this episode, as I was hoping for it to be a premise of the show sooner or later, since I can only imagine how much of an issue it must have been during the war years American soldiers found themselves in. The story itself might not have been much of a burner, let alone exciting enough to give this episode all the awards, but there was something about the character of Cross that made me both think he was for real, as well as he was a piece of crap who decided to use another person to get what he wants, and only what he wants. And here I was, wondering during the beginning why he was talking about Rick, and why Cherry was suddenly “in peace” that her brother was safe, and alive, and living the life somewhere. Kind of like I was wondering how McMurphy and Natch were suddenly dating, even if they just kissed once in the middle of the episode, but it did look like they have been smootching around for a while now. But it turns out that Cross was a clever-enough character to fool his way into a young woman’s heart, just so he can use her to get out of this hell hole. He decided to be a liar and a cheater and a fraud to save his own life and his sanity. It’s a conflicting character arc, especially when an MP lieutenant comes around and decides to talk about deserters like slave owners talked about slaves in the 1700s.

Anyway, Cross was the bad apple Lieutenant Price might have talked about, when he was talking about bartender Kim, who has gotten her own miniaturized story arc thanks to the deserter angle. It’s funny though, as soon as he mentioned “bad apple,” the next scene had Cross in it, following Cherry, reading the letters she got, making me think that Cross is the “bad apple” of this episode, probably because he is a traumatized guy about to do something horrible after being sequestered to horrible things in the jungle, and judging from the real-world terrors, my mind was instantly going towards assault and rape. Because it’s not like Cherry is gonna be able to defend herself. She might have been lucky in the pilot, when she ran away from the creep working in the embassy, but a mindless, traumatized and scared soldier attacking her? That’s a whole ‘nother level of dangerous darkness for a teenager like Cherry who has a bit of a difficulty to open up, despite the fact that she was almost dancing with all the other soldiers in the beginning.

Cherry learns what Vietnam is really about.

But Cross didn’t turn out to be that kind of “bad apple” and instead he just became something of a con man, using Cherry for his attempted gain of freedom. I loved how some of the other main characters were involved in the story, and how Cherry has won enough confidence to even ask all of her new friends to help her out in that regard. On the other side of the aisle, Lt. Price seemed like an asshole, even when he proved himself to be a little lifesaver at the end, showing up at the perfect time, before Cherry would have ended up as a hostage or with a bullet in her body. But really, assuming that no black guy ever deserts was kind of racist. Then again, there was some truth to Kim’s quote when she said that blacks get killed first, therefore they don’t get the chance to desert the war and save their own lives or sanities. I’m wondering what that might have done to Beckett’s psyche — if he had attempted to run away, would he have been killed instantly? Death by military police? Could that have been a real-life parable to unarmed black people getting shot to death by police? Could that be a fictional parable to the real-life problem of police killing black Americans?

By the way, I can only hope Beckett is about to crack, because it would be the only story of his making sense at the moment. He is already very confused and scared, and no one on base is really listening to him, even after some of them are starting to get worried about him. It makes for an interesting character arc, but the fact that the show hasn’t dwelled into character arcs yet makes me wonder whether this will be part of the show. And it would be dumb to get rid of Beckett first, since he is the only black token character of the show right now.

Finally, I have to say that I really loved the closing montage of people in need of some light moments in their life, accompanied by Laurette’s singing, Boonie’s harmonica and the guitar that came out of nowhere. It was a great song and it fit with the imagery of the final moments.

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