Simply put, Episode 6 is a complete mess, save for one stellar sequence, and even that has its share of problems. For the most part, Catch-22 has been a good-not-great series, complete with its share of high points and foundational flaws. A few key performances and solid direction across the board have mostly rendered it a watchable curiosity. But the last episode all but undoes most of my goodwill toward it. The finale is charitably muddled and often completely confounding.
The episode begins with Yossarian hanging from his parachute caught in a tree, still grievously injured from his previous mission. He finds his way to a small Italian village where an Italian doctor confirms that his testicles remain intact. While he’s recovering, Yossarian enjoys some good food, beautiful sights, and the company of an attractive woman. But this brief respite comes to a close when Aarfy and some soldiers track Yossarian down and bring him back to base.
Abbott gets a good moment when he has to pantomime “uno, due” testicles to the Italian doctor using fruit as a prop, but other than that, the whole sequence feels like a pointless diversion. It ostensibly shows Yossarian a glimpse of a beautiful world outside of the Army Air Force, one where “family” means something, but it never carries any weight of its own. It mostly scans as an excuse to shoot a gorgeous Italian villa for a few scenes.
Back on base, Scheisskopf continues to wreak havoc by forcing all the men to practice parade formations, providing the same speech he gave Yossarian and the rest of the cadets in basic training. (I suppose this counts as symmetry?) Meanwhile, Doc tends to Yossarian’s wounds, admiring his spectacular luck, for the shrapnel merely split the soft tissue of his scrotum but missed both testicles. If even one of his balls had been blown off, then he could have gone home. Now, he’s holed up in the hospital while the mission count continues to rise. The longer he recuperates, the longer it takes for him to get home.
But as Catch-22 has laboriously established, Yossarian is never going home. He’s pulled every trick and scheme imaginable. He even got Cathcart to agree to send him home on the basis of a nasty deal. However, with Scheisskopf in charge, there’s nothing to be done. Yossarian might fondly remember his time spent with Scheisskopf’s wife, but it’s the reason why the guy personally checks his testicles so that he can get back up in the air as quickly as possible.
As depressed as Yossarian is at the thought of returning to the sky, he couldn’t possibly expect what was bound to happen next. He sees a young recruit waiting by the plane, puking from the nerves. His name is Christopher Snowden (Harrison Osterfield), and it’s his very first mission. Yossarian provides him with a few reassuring words and even tells him that it’ll be fun. Just as Snowden plans to set up in the tail-gunner spot, Yossarian tells him to sit on the side instead, believing he’ll be safe there. The nature of Nately’s death probably still lingers in his mind.
What follows is the series’ most harrowing sequence, one that Davies and Michôd faithfully lift from the book and director George Clooney films with aplomb. After the plane takes a bit of fire in the rear, Yossarian hears, “Help him! Help him!” over the intercom. After a brief miscommunication over who to help, Yossarian heads to the rear and finds that Snowden’s leg has been badly wounded. “I’m cold,” Snowden keeps repeating, barely clinging on to consciousness. Yossarian tends to his leg, trying to comfort him by saying that he’s going to live because no arteries were nicked. Snowden keeps repeating that he’s cold. After he bandages the leg, Yossarian lifts up Snowden only to see three holes punctured in the side of the plane. He opens up Snowden’s bomber jacket to find that his guts are falling out of his body.
Abbott and Osterfield’s work in this scene deserves some acclaim, especially how they play the shift in perspective. Snowden knows that he’s about to die but can’t convince Yossarian because he’s too focused on his leg. Osterfield conveys his character’s fear as well as his wish to keep Yossarian in the dark. After Yossarian realizes the extent of Snowden’s injuries, it becomes a matter of keeping him calm and comfortable. The way Abbott keeps Osterfield’s face pressed up against his so he doesn’t actually see his stomach is touching and upsetting in equal measure. He eventually envelops him with his body as Snowden slowly succumbs to his wounds. His blood is painted on Yossarian’s body as a reminder of what he’s been fighting against the whole time. No one should have to die like this. Not for any war.
On some level, Catch-22 couldn’t possibly screw up the Snowden scene if someone gave Davies, Michôd, and Clooney a million opportunities to try. The entire novel hinges on that scene. It’s the basis of Yossarian’s transformation, the moment when Yossarian becomes permanently disillusioned with the entire military-industrial complex. Heller doesn’t detail the complete context of Snowden’s death until the penultimate chapter, but spends the entire novel repeatedly returning to it, meting out new information bit by little bit. When you finally learn what happened, you understand why Yossarian will do anything to stay alive, why he’d rather stay in the hospital than fly any more missions, why he’d go AWOL instead of serving his country. There’s a reason Yossarian walking around the base in the nude serves as such a resonant image. It’s not just protest but a complete disavowal of a uniform that sanctioned that moment.
Though the Snowden sequence in Episode 6 is immensely powerful, the aftermath is slightly disastrous. Yossarian walks around the base nude in a catatonic state as others gawk or express concern. He watches Snowden’s funeral from afar as the chaplain gives a heartfelt speech about how the men aren’t buried at base but rather “vanish into the sky.” He learns from Milo that Orr didn’t crash-land but actually rowed his way to Sweden, like Yossarian once dreamed about. Yossarian accepts his Flying Cross medal completely naked in front of General Dreedle, Scheisskopf, Cathcart, and Korn. Scheisskopf makes a stink, but Dreedle awards him the medal anyway, pinning it on his hat. He has a vision of his dead friends playing in the ocean carefree. He accepts a new bunkmate into his tent, hugging him tenderly. And then … he goes on another mission. This time in the nude. The last shot is of Yossarian muttering to himself, “… And release,” over and over again.
I’ve spent some time trying to comprehend this change in ending and what could possibly have motivated it. In the novel, the news of Orr’s escape inspires Yossarian to make a run for it as well. In the series, he rejects the military’s uniform and, by implication, the ideals carried with it, but still continues to fly missions, supposedly on his own terms? Is it possible that he’s following Nurse Duckett’s lead and decided to finish his tour of duty regardless of how many more missions he has to fly? Is he doing it for the memory of his fallen soldiers? Is he thumbing his nose at Scheisskopf for forcing him to stay? Is it somehow, in some way, for Snowden?
I suppose all of these options are plausible, and it’s likely that Davies and Michôd decided to keep the ending ambiguous so that people will ask these questions. But, frankly, this represents another character betrayal. It made little sense for Yossarian to quickly finish his missions in Episode 4. It makes no sense that he would voluntarily return to the sky after witnessing Snowden’s horrific death. By capitulating to the brass, Yossarian renders his protest completely meaningless. By staying on base, Yossarian gives the senior command exactly what it wants. He’s going to be flying missions until he’s dead or the war is over.
Maybe that’s the point, that he’s given up on trying to stay alive in the face of such senseless death, but what a way to miss Heller’s point: The human spirit’s resolve depends on the individual’s ability to recognize when it’s in peril. As Marlene Dietrich’s “Let’s Call It a Day” plays over the final scene, we see Yossarian recognize and fully comprehend his own peril and decide to go back into the breach anyway. It’s possible some will find that moving. Personally, I think it’s inconsistent with Yossarian’s characterization at best and a befuddling deference to the U.S. military at worst. It bothers me so much that I’m forced to imagine that Yossarian keeps flying that plane until it runs out of gas, crash lands in the ocean, and rows to Sweden to join Orr. Seeing Yossarian become a lobotomized cog in the Air Force’s machine is too much to swallow.