Now that the introductions are out of the way, “Episode 2” focuses more acutely on fleshing out Catch-22’s setting — the base at Pianosa and the residence in Rome — characters, and general tone. Though it’s possible to simply streamline the plot of Catch-22 to miniseries length, doing so would ultimately detract from the funny digressions and compelling moments that aren’t narratively tied in. This episode demonstrates that Catch-22 can captivate with a much looser rhythm, one driven by character instead of story.
Davies and Michôd establish the episode’s tenor early on with Colonel Cathcart providing an inept but confident congratulatory speech to the men for hitting their targets, punctuated by a brief rage moment when he sees one territory spared only to be informed that it’s Vatican City. (“Gotta respect that neutral territory,” he says. “Gotta love those Catholics, huh?…And the Jews.”) Riding the high of such a successful day, Cathcart raises the mission count to 35, infuriating Yossarian, who only had two missions left to complete before going home. This knowledge drives him to take refuge in the hospital and, later, flee to Rome for some much needed R&R.
As Yossarian drifts in and out of the frame, Davies and Michôd turn their attention to other characters in his orbit. There’s Major Major (Lewis Pullman, perfectly befuddled), a sergeant who gets promoted to major because the brass read his name and assumed he was senior command. It turns out that Major’s father, a practical joker, named him Major (first name) Major (middle name) Major (last name) as a gag. Not wanting to look foolish by bringing a sergeant to a high-level meeting, Colonels Cathcart and Korn promote him to major right away despite his lack of nerve or qualifications. Soon, Major Major Major Major is whisked away from a pleasant pickup basketball game and given an office he can’t fill and responsibilities he doesn’t understand.
Then there’s Nately (Austin Stowell), a sweet young boy who falls in love with an Italian prostitute while the men are on R&R in Rome. Nately waxes poetic about how much fun he had with her, not just in bed but also trying to communicate in spite of the language barrier. His musings play in voice-over over scenes of the men cavorting with sex workers in a brothel. This represents Davies and Michôd’s attempt to reframe some of the characters’ crass sexism in the novel by showcasing the carnal excess while maintaining a positive, light tone. While that’s certainly a valid creative choice, it also sands down some of the spikier edges on a character and story level. In the book, Heller refers to the prostitute as “Nately’s Whore” and she’s defined by her indifference to Nately’s affections, only laying with him out of financial obligation. In the miniseries, the prostitute still goes unnamed but she’s charmed by Nately’s innocence and the brothel provides him two free hours with her. Later, Nately can be heard yelling at his fellow men calling the woman a whore. The change in tone and language might be valid, but it feels a bit like 2019 whitewashing of a 1961 story about 1944 wartime.
Finally, Milo returns again as a full-blown war profiteer. He capitalizes on the senior command’s cravings for good food by starting a one-man syndicate in which “everyone has a share.” He convinces Cathcart to lend him a plane so that he can travel to places like Scotland and Poland to trade goods and services so that the men on base can buy them from the syndicate. A fast-talking con man, Milo embodies capitalism at its most devious, confusing ignorant men with promises of equality that really only benefit him more than anyone else. Right now, it’s Colonel Cathcart, an arrogant commander whose hankering for ripe tomatoes clouded his judgment. Tomorrow, who’s next?
But in the end it all comes back to Yossarian, who does everything in his power short of going AWOL to keep from flying back up into the sky. He convinces Nurse Duckett to let him stay in the hospital for a little while so that Major Major Major Major can have time to learn his new rank in the hopes that he can send him home. Unfortunately, he’s kicked out after picking a fight with a Texan who won’t stop talking to another soldier completely covered head to toe in gauze. He finds relief in the brothel, but becomes distraught after learning from Milo that Cathcart raised the mission count to 40 while they were all in Rome.
Though many scenes in “Episode 2” are ripped from the novel, Yossarian’s discussion with Clevinger about their duty is lifted almost directly for a reason. It lays out Yossarian’s worldview clearly while also providing an Establishment counterpoint. For Clevinger, it’s not up to them which targets must be destroyed or who’s to destroy them or for how long, because men entrusted with winning the war are in a position to make those decisions. Yossarian, on the other hand, has no interest in dying because Cathcart wants to make general. After all, it doesn’t matter to a dead man who wins the war for whatever reasons. Both Clevinger and Yossarian are recklessly operating on principle at opposite ends.
Though Heller’s pitch-black perspective necessitated a certain amount of distance from his characters, he still sympathized with the anxieties and fears of many of them. Yet oftentimes in Catch-22, characters died or disappeared suddenly with only casual or offhanded mentions of their demise. To do so in a televisual context would be daring, but alas, it’s not meant to be. When Clevinger’s plane does disappear in the clouds, there’s another contrived music cue and a lingering shot of Yossarian’s pained face and an acknowledgment that he was “good.” None of this is objectionable in and of itself, but it just adds a somewhat sappy layer to an unsparing story about the unsparing nature of war. When the owner of the brothel questions America’s sustainability, Clevinger defends it and its countrymen vigorously. He believes in concepts like “honor” and “service” and “the enemy” with sincerity. And what does that get him? A spot on the Missing in Action list. Davies and Michôd strive to make that exact point, but it falters because they can’t let his disappearance be unremarkable. It has to be treated like a tragedy.
Clevinger’s disappearance only strengthens Yossarian’s belief that complying with orders is a death sentence. Anyone who blindly follows Cathcart’s authority will be summarily disposed of without a moment’s notice. Cathcart all but admits this when he informs the men of a new mission to Bologna, where he makes clear that some won’t be coming home alive. “And if in your final moments,” he says, “you see Death coming for you, think not of Death, think of the living.” Yossarian thinks of the living every day and he doesn’t want to give Death the chance to come for him. If the enemy is anybody who’s going to get you killed, then the enemy has spoken, and all there’s left to do is run.
• The scene with the old man at the brothel is one of the very best bits in the book and in the series so far. His belief that weaker, poorer nations are ultimately more sustainable makes a sick amount of sense. Plus, it’s hard not to get chills when he says, “All great empires are destroyed. Why not yours?”
• At one point, Yossarian talks to a little Italian girl selling wares outside of the brothel. He eventually buys a magnifying glass from her. Is this supposed to be Nately’s Whore’s Kid Sister, a girl whom Yossarian tries to protect?
• For those who’ve read the novel, it’s downright creepy the way Arafy tries to chat up Michaela the maid. We’ll see how that plays out in the series.
• It’s kind of a bummer that the soldier in white, a.k.a the guy covered in gauze, actually speaks in the series. The whole point of the character in the novel is that no one ever heard him talk, so it was always unclear whether he was actually still alive.
• Music selections in Episode 2: “Any Bonds Today?” by the Andrews Sisters opens the episode; Rosemary Clooney’s “No Love, No Nothin’” scores the scene when Yossarian remembers Scheisskopf’s wife and jumps into ocean; and “I’ve Got My Fingers Crossed” by the Mound City Blue Blowers closes out the episode.