“I’m the bravest fuckin’ man you know.”
So says Yossarian to McWatt after destroying his plane’s intercom midair to avoid following through on the suicidal Bologna mission. It’s his latest, most desperate attempt to avoid flying any more combat missions. Before that, he convinced Milo to poison the tomato soup with laundry flakes so the men would be too sick to fly. Then he moves the bombline on the colonel’s map 60 miles to the north of Bologna to trick the brass into thinking the ground troops have already taken the city. Is it really any crazier to sabotage the bombline on the map than it is for Cathcart to keep arbitrarily raising the mission count? “Insanity is contagious,” Yossarian calmly tells the chaplain, illustrating his own sanity in the face of a system dead set on seeing him killed.
I mentioned in the premiere’s recap that Yossarian’s legacy endures precisely because Joseph Heller frames his actions as noble rather than selfish. So much time has passed since WWII and Catch-22’s first publication in 1961 that it can be difficult to clock the radical nature of that characterization. A WWII veteran, Heller thumbed his nose at abstract concepts like “honor,” “bravery,” and “sacrifice,” all of which are tied to a manipulative brand of nationalism. (Though McCarthyism and the Korean War framed the novel’s release, it’s remarkable that Heller still chose to set it during WWII, the “good war,” demonstrating that the issue remains the same regardless of national intentions.) He had no illusions about how the military uses “patriotism” as an excuse to send countless men to their untimely deaths, so much so that the word itself had lost all meaning. Yossarian knows that the war will be fought with or without him, that it will be won with or without him, so all he wants to do is stay alive, because his life is all he has left.
Episode 3 is a true showcase for Christopher Abbott, who excels at conveying Yossarian’s stubbornness without negating his weaselly nature. He captures Heller’s acid morality perfectly by reading his dialogue, often ripped straight from the novel, with true conviction. Abbott shines in the scene when Yossarian appeals to Major Major Major Major to be grounded because he acutely understands Heller’s position: It’s no more arbitrary for him to stay on the ground than it is for him to fly just because Cathcart wants to be general. “Stand me down,” he demands. “Suppose everybody felt that way,” Major responds uncertainly. Yossarian shoots back, “Then I’d certainly be a damned fool to feel any other way, wouldn’t I?” There’s a way that can be read as condescending, but Abbott taps into the foundation of that retort beautifully.
The problem is the series’ tonal confusion can’t fully support Yossarian’s beliefs. Writers Luke Davies and David Michôd extend the novel’s irreverence only to the machinations on the ground, but things become deadly serious in the combat scenes. This is somewhat understandable, but that ultimately throws Yossarian into a much more disloyal context. Take the scene when Cathcart embarrasses Yossarian’s crew in the mess hall after discovering they turned back because of the broken intercom. He pins the decision on McWatt, the pilot, singling him out for humiliation despite his being against Yossarian’s actions. Director Ellen Kuras lingers on Abbott’s guilty visage, and Davies and Michôd clearly want to communicate the unfortunate side effects of his crusade. But there’s no distance between Yossarian’s righteousness and his guilt, so this ultimately recontextualizes his prior sabotage as treacherous rather than subversive.
Davies and Michôd occasionally seem to want their Catch-22 to be a standard war miniseries, one in which Yossarian learns his seditious efforts are wrong because good men like McWatt take the fall for them. At the same time, they also want to embrace the source material’s complicated morality, which views Yossarian’s behavior as the only sane course of action. Thus the whole tone of the series becomes muddled. It’s half-satirical and half-solemn when the satire and the solemnity should be one and the same.
On top of that, Davies and Michôd’s efforts to foreground McWatt so his death has weight feel quite forced. His conversations with Yossarian are supposed to illustrate his contentedness with the insanity of the war effort. If they’re both going to end up dead, why should he worry instead of being happy? Sure, it establishes his joy-flying over the ocean as whimsical and prankish, but the whole scene turns mawkish when he can’t pull his plane up in time and butchers Kid Sampson on the dock. It’s obviously a tragic moment, but because Sampson and McWatt are not fleshed-out characters, the score and the horrified close-ups have to perform the heavy lifting. Mike Nichols’s 1970 adaptation frames this scene from the perspective of Yossarian on the beach, as it is framed in the novel, and it’s much more disturbing than the way Kuras stages it. While the straight-ahead shot of McWatt just before he flies into the mountain has some power, the whole scene feels like an artificial attempt to goose up the drama on a macro level. It’s a problem that runs through the whole series up to this point.
• I may have spoken too soon regarding Davies and Michôd’s whitewashing of Catch-22’s depiction of the prostitutes: Although they’ve given “Nately’s Whore” a name (Clara), they also depict her wily bids at extorting money from him and, later, her general indifference toward him.
• While Yossarian and the men are evading death, Milo requisitions German planes for his syndicate, M&M Enterprises, so he can make more food runs. He also turns the German soldiers flying those planes into “delegates.” Naturally, this confuses the officers on the ground, who initially believe they’re under attack.
• As a result of Yossarian’s bombline sabotage, Major de Coverley travels to Bologna to requisition some property and gets captured by the Germans off-screen. Spoiler alert: This is the last we see of de Coverley in the series. What an utter waste of Hugh Laurie’s talents.
• The brothel owner chastises Aarfy for his story about extorting two girls for sex by threatening to tell their parents about their promiscuity. Gee, I wonder if the show is trying to communicate that Aarfy is bad news.