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Pop Torture: The Band of Brothers
Prepping for The Pacific, our writer marathons ten straight hours of World War II brutality.
By James Brady Ryan
Welcome to Pop Torture, a biweekly column in which I embrace my pop-culture masochism and search out the most painful ways to experience the movies, TV, and music that fill our lives with such ecstasy and agony. (Needless to say, I’ll mostly be focusing on the latter.) Each time, I’ll take on a new challenge, and each time I’ll share my adventures with you, provided I survive them.
Challenge: To watch all of HBO's epic, emotionally devastating, ten-hour-plus World War II miniseries Band of Brothers in one sitting.
Readers, I am something of a WWII history buff. While even admitting that much makes me worry I come off like the main character of Apt Pupil, it's true: I may be far from an expert, but give me a book or a movie set during the time period and I'm all over it. So I've seen Band of Brothers before. I even own the DVD set. But, like tequila shots, Band of Brothers episodes should be carefully spaced out. Because, also like tequila shots, if you have too many in a row, you'll be an emotional wreck, sobbing into a comfort foodstuff in a corner somewhere. But in anticipation of the companion miniseries The Pacific, which premieres on HBO on March 14, I've decided to see what happens when you take all ten episodes without a break.
Episode One (9:10 AM)
The theme music itself — and the interviews with real-life WWII vets — can make my eyes water, but I've decided I can't cry until episode three. Since the first episode takes place at boot camp, and features a Friends-influenced performance by David Schwimmer as a sadistic-if-effective captain, I should be safe. It occurs to me, though, that I might have built up a tolerance for this stuff, because while I'm fine throughout, my roommate Meghan and her friend Melissa watch the beginning with me, and quickly set off to find an open liquor store. You'd think they'd never seen obstacle courses covered in pig guts before.
Episode Two (10:25 AM)
While I stay strong for the theme music, I do get a bit misty when the vets talk about D-Day, this episode's main concern. Old people crying gets to me. This is the first episode to feature detailed and realistic violence, with images apparently designed to hit everyone's soft spots: heights, fire, blood, injured animals, explosions, guns, knives, etc. Even though I've seen this before, the violence is shocking whenever it breaks out. (There are also disturbingly tense silent patches.) But the soldiers — and the girls, who have returned with the goods — don't yet realize how bad it will get, so the tone isn't quite so bleak.
Cry count: one (veterans crying)
Episode Three (11:25 AM)
As this episode progresses, I find myself playing a fun game I call "explain the battle maneuvers to distract myself from the gore." I'm also constantly explaining who is on screen at any given point, since there are over twenty major characters who are all wearing the same thing. I wonder if ignorance is bliss, as Meghan feels a lot worse about seeing Pvt. Tipper suffer a horrifying face wound now that I've explained to her who he is.
Cry count: two (theme music)
Episode Four (12:28 PM)
Me: "Jeez, you can really see the detail in that neck wound."
Meghan: "Give us your laptop. We're going to watch Enchanted in my room."
Episode Five (1:30 PM)
Heading up to the halfway point, the wear and tear is starting to show. When the guns go off, I flinch. When a pile of snow unexpectedly falls off my roof, I shout. When my glass is empty, I start in on my third mimosa. Episode five is when things take a turn from the merely awful to the horrific. Without anyone else to distract me, I am caught between watching the screen (on which the most sympathetic character has just shot a very young German soldier) and dreading what's to come. Luckily, I do get one brief respite: Jimmy Fallon momentarily appears as a supply officer. Dude cannot act, taking me completely out of the moment.
Cry count: three (veterans again!)
Episode Six (2:23 PM)
A confession: one of the things I like best about Band of Brothers is that every guy — down to the extras — is hot. This version of WWII is strictly fought by eights and above. And so, four mimosas deep, the only thing I have left to get me through an utterly bleak hour is the episode's central character. Or rather, his face. Sadly, this character is also a medic. Imagine yourself in my place: you're admiring his strong cheekbones, his thoughtfully pursed lips, the dark brown of his eyes... and then his forearm probing a man's chest cavity.
Cry count: five (once when a young soldier suffers a particularly awful neck wound, once when a friendly French nurse dies in a bombing)
Episode Seven (3:34 PM)
The problem with a story based on real people is that sometimes characters die in ways that are utterly random, like when Cpl. Hoobler shoots himself in the leg by accident. This is the second episode set during the grueling Battle of the Bulge, a period so desperate and traumatizing it causes one character to dig a foxhole in the frozen ground with his fingers. In turn, I have launched a vicious biting assault on my own fingernails.
Cry count: eight (once for the theme music, once when Hoobler dies, and once when not one but two men lose their legs)
Episode Eight (4:45 PM)
This is the one break in the back five, which are mostly unrelenting. It follows one character returning from hospital who acts like kind of a prat, and Tom Hanks' son as an inexperienced but high-ranked officer also acting like kind of a prat. I use this period of relative ease — which means I have to watch only one soldier scream out "I don't want to die" over and over — to eat a burrito.
Cry count: nine (aforementioned "I don't want to die" incident)
Episode Nine (5:29 PM)
I'm just going to cut to the chase: in this episode the company liberates a concentration camp. While the crying count is only going to increase by one, this particular instance lasts for literally fifteen minutes.
Cry count: ten (the Holocaust)
Episode Ten (6:21 PM)
What could be so bad about the end of the war, right? For one thing, after over nine hours of an intense WWII miniseries, I could probably shed a tear or two over Dora the Explorer. But here's the other problem with a story about real people: their lives go on after it's all over. And I know this because the end of the episode details the men's lives after the war, all the way up to their deaths. Even the characters who survived? Yeah, they're mostly dead now too. Roll credits!
Final cry count: twelve (once when I hear about how everyone died, once when the veterans talk at the end)
Result: When I mentioned this particular challenge to friends, some people told me it wouldn't count as Pop Torture — for one thing, this is a well-respected piece of television, and for another, I'm on the record as being a fan. And even I wondered if this would be much harder to watch than your average Law & Order marathon. But there's a reason that the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan are only the first twenty minutes, and there's a reason this series was spaced out over ten weeks. To return to my earlier metaphor: ten shots of tequila could be great over two days, not two hours. Which is why I only had four after I finished this challenge.