I have this theory about “Enlisted” and why no one watched it through its brief run on FOX. It has nothing to do with the terrible time slot and the out-of-order airings. It has everything to do with the show more than occasionally presenting things most people don’t want to admit exists. It’s not just the fact that the United States has countless men and women in harm’s away all around the world while we have the luxury of bitching about the lack of cellphone service in elevators. It’s also the fact that most of us live haunted by fears of inadequacy, guilt, and the sneaking suspicious everyone else has figured things out while we wallow in unsure silence. And perhaps, just perhaps, that’s too much for most to take.
That’s what makes the “hands on heads” gesture, introduced in the pilot and once again deployed in tonight’s season/series finale “Alive Day” so potent. It’s a reminder that people aren’t alone, that brotherhood isn’t defined by blood by shared compassion, and that people can reach out at the most unexpected of times and bring you back from the precipice. Pete isn’t on a literal ledge while sitting on that beach, but he’s at a crucial point both geographically and psychologically. The intersection of sea and sand offers the perhaps tempting option of simply drowning. Instead, the sea serves as the opportunity for a kind of baptism, in which fear isn’t so much extinguished as temporarily defeated.
It’s the temporary nature of this win that makes “Alive Day,” and the key emotional moments in “Enlisted,” resonate all the more. Pete isn’t cured by Read D coming to his emotional aide the morning after Cody’s ball. He’s simply given a chance to once again re-engage with society without his guilt utterly preventing him from participating in society. There are wins in “Enlisted,” but they all come with the all-too-real caveat that they are not permanent. There’s isn’t a happily ever after for Pete, but there are things that will come after. And that in and of itself is a victory, and should be treated as such. Pete will never vanquish the memories from Afghanistan, but through a combination of therapy, comraderie, and brotherhood can learn to incorporate them in a way that won’t permanently cripple him.
Those lessons come across Geoff Stults’ face in those final moments, but what really sells that reality is the man looking back at him on the shore. In many ways, this is Keith David’s episode, and Cody’s finest hour in the season. I’m not sure how David got approximately eighteen emotions to cross his face over the course of a few seconds, but that mixture of pride, anguish, terror, and paternal love sells the moment even more than the score (which was spiritually soaring) and the cinematography (which had a hand-held, jittery nature that belied the show’s more formal camerawork). Cody, more than anyone on this show, understands Pete. He’s lived Pete’s live for decades, with the false foot a daily reminder of his own alive day. Cody understands that Pete might end up on the beach more often than night in the Alive Days to come. He helps Pete make it through this one, but understands all too well there will be more.
That makes Cody’s overall function in Fort McGee more resonant in retrospect. There will be a day in which Cody won’t be around to help Pete or others through such ordeals. As such, his function is to instill the desire for those in Rear D to follow his example even when he’s no longer there. Those that come to the beach aren’t following orders, any more than they were following orders when Pete enlisted their help to throw Cody the impromptu ball. The line between duty and moral imperative simply vanish in those moments, even for those who have largely functioned as pure comic relief this season. Those in the circle on the beach with hands on heads are a tightly-knit yet ephemeral group. Soldiers such as Cody provide opportunities for such groups to exist, but there’s a specific alchemy that needs to happen on its own, no matter how conducive the atmosphere around it may be.
When talking about television shows and their overall success, I often try to think in terms of applicability. By that, I mean, “What does this show have to teach me about my own life?” It’s a semi-selfish way to think about TV, but I can’t understand why anyone would devote a chunk of time to a piece of entertainment that was hermetically sealed from their own existence. That does NOT mean the events onscreen have to literally reflect my own day-to-day life. My two favorite shows of 2013, “Orange Is The New Black” and “Enlightened,” could not have less reflected what happens to me between the time I wake up and the time I go to sleep. Similarly, I have not idea what life in the Army is like. But “Enlisted,” plus the two shows I just mentioned, offer up a glimpse of how the simple act of opening oneself up to the world (with all its pain as well as possibilities) is the only way life itself can hold anything resembling meaning.
The searches for “meaning” and “happiness” aren’t inherently contradictory, but it’s almost impossible to get to the latter without first jumping through the hurdle of the former. And simply achieving a moment of clarity doesn’t guarantee happiness: As stated above, we’re not seeing the end of Pete’s journey when he runs into the ocean. We’re seeing him successfully overcome an obstacle at this point in his life. That probably makes him more likely to overcome the next one, but he also might fail. If he fails, however, we know that Derrick, Randy, and others will be there to pick him up. And even if we never meet the soldiers that might have appeared in subsequent seasons, there’s a good chance they would be on the beach should the need arise on Pete’s Alive Day in 2017. That’s what Cody instilled, what Pete and Jill pass on, and what the other soldiers in Fort McGee absorb. Brothers might come and go, but brotherhood remains.
This is all a horrifically pretentious way to analyze a show that once featured a poo gun as a primary plot-driving mechanism. But it’s important to understand why certain shows stick to the ribs in ways others don’t. So while it’s probably more fun to talk about all the “Officer And A Gentleman” references, the Lori Loughlin cameo, the Jamort/Tanisha make-out session, and Derrick’s Mr. T impression, those aren’t the reasons those that connect with this show will miss this show. If anything, the humor is an added bonus, something atop what really makes this show special. The show understood that life can be hard, and embracing its difficult aspects rather than pushing them away is the only path towards any type of happiness whatsoever.
It’s telling that Derrick, a man who once systematically crushed the dreams of everyone in Read D for the sport of it, gets the big romantic moment of the finale. He embraces Erin, who shows up at the ball after he makes a silly Internet video for her, all while knowing it will cause him that much more pain later on. The Derrick that existed before Peter returned from war would have continued to listen to “Angela’s Ashes.” Hell, the Derrick that existed then might not have even called Erin after she gave him her number at the AFO show. Everyone gets a small win in the finale, even if they aren’t as obvious as Pete’s victory. That butterfly effect is passed on from head to hand, throughout the circle, until that energy is ultimately amplified and distributed outward. It’s not about paying it forward, but simply one person paying respect to another. The energy that exchange creates doesn’t solve everything, but it makes the lives of those it touches inherently better.
And with that, I’ll stop talking about “Enlisted” for now. If this was indeed the last episode, those involved left everything out on the table. If “Alive Day” taught us anything, it’s that setbacks are inevitable. This show only getting a single, truncated season might be one of those setbacks. But rather than curl up Derrick-style and wish I’d never watched the show in the first place, I’m glad I let this show in. It changed me, and changed me for the better. And that’s all I can ever ask a television show to do.