The best episode so far of this high-budget Netflix Original comedy gets Space Force to the midsection of the first season with some deft commentary on the balance of science and power in our military. Bluntly, the system favors the latter in every way, but needs the former to win the game. While even the point structure of the war game that takes place in this episode makes it clear that it’s all about who wins on the battlefield, the decisive move comes courtesy of tech and science, in the form of Dr. Mallory, General Naird’s aide-de-camp. Funnier and smarter than the first four episodes, “Space Flag” makes it feel like Space Force may be turning a corner by avoiding thin political satire of the current era and reaching for something more timeless about the balance between intellect and force.
It helps that “Space Flag” just has more laughs than the first four episodes, too. The opening scene, in which Naird basically acts like General Patton while talking to a bunch of cadets about a war game that relies on BB guns and duct tape, sets the tone. And the revelation that this combat exercise that Naird takes so seriously is really just designed to pick the best exoskeletons for the Space Force adds to the commentary. None of this really means anything. It’s an equipment test designed as a war game exercise, and the suits the soldiers will wear aren’t there to save people but to protect an investment. The blatant statement that high-priced equipment is more valid than human lives as they develop “high-tech body bags” is as sharp as this show has gotten yet.
Naird asks Mallory to be his aide-de-camp, or, as Mallory calls it, “Make Believe Assistant with No Real Power in a Fake War.” Clearly, Mallory is reluctant to accept. The best part of the first half of the first season of Space Force has been the development of the Naird–Mallory dynamic. Not only are Carell and Malkovich strong actors, they have very different comic styles. It’s a classic Odd Couple pairing of Carell’s goofy antics and Malkovich’s withering dry humor, but it already feels more refined than it could have been in lesser hands. There’s already more to it than just “dumb military guy and smart scientist.” And that comes through in the hysterical scene in which Naird criticizes Mallory’s walking (his arms move like noodles) and says that he looks like Annie Hall.
The jokes continue as they get to the actual game, which Mallory compares more to Hungry Hungry Hippos than mental chess. As Naird prepares for one of his biggest days of the year, he reminds Mallory that “Freedom is what allows you to talk that sass.” The truth is that Naird comes to life during things like war games way more than in the control center or the labs under the base. He needs this silliness. He even looks happy pumping a BB gun and doesn’t grasp the insanity of comparing what they’re about to do to what the Minutemen had to do in the 18th century to prepare for a potential space war.
Officer Angela Ali gets some weak development as she and a Staff Sergeant prepare for the war game against the Air Force, underscoring the biggest complaint about the first half of this season: the writers seem to have no idea what to do with their female characters. Lisa Kudrow is off in prison and reserved for cameos; they’re struggling to develop Diana Silvers into this show’s Aubrey Plaza (cynical but lovable); Tawny Newsome has basically no character yet, seemingly existing just to react to what happens around her. Despite all that, “Let’s hope we never face a battalion of empty cans” is a funny line. As is the fact that Angela Ali was top of her class in Intro to Combat Theory. Sounds like fun.
As it becomes clearer that Space Force is probably going to lose to Air Force, Naird even suggests that Mallory picked the wrong exoskeleton on purpose. He sings “Big Girls Don’t Cry” to soothe himself — Naird’s musical taste appears to have stopped in 1990 at the latest — and runs into Kelly King, another character played by a talented female comedian (Jessica St. Clair) who hasn’t been given enough to do yet. As Yuri tries to flirt with Erin across the base, the actual war game commences.
The general insanity of fake lunar combat in the middle of a desert on a hot day adds to the farcical nature of the episode. Men and women in robot pants with balloons strapped to their bodies that indicate life and death — it’s undeniably silly and yet just believable enough that it could actually happen. That’s when Space Force works, when it blends the goofy with the human. Honestly, that’s when all Greg Daniels shows are at their best: highlighting extreme, often stupid behavior that viewers believe in because of the character work. And that all of this is just a test for equipment that’s more valuable than the human inside it adds just enough satire to the mix to make this the best episode yet.
After watching his team get decimated, Naird calls Mallory disappointed in his failure. Mallory gives Chan a code to enter and goes to the field just as Naird is the last man standing. Chan enters the code and hacks the enemy’s exoskeletons, freezing them in place. Science and tech actually do save the day. That and a pair of scissors.
• It was surprising to see Dee Rees directed this episode! She’s done great work on films like Pariah and Mudbound, but neither had the tone of this show by any stretch. Maybe it was some sort of Netflix deal wherein they paid for her Sundance drama The Last Thing He Wanted if she agreed to do this episode (which is actually better than her last movie).
• I kind of love references to network sitcoms that no one remembers and so I laughed at the idea that the Russians think Yes, Dear is a part of the American experience.
• Another good line in an episode full of them: “The mission’s over for you but those pants live to fight another day.”
• Do I actually like Space Force now? I definitely liked this episode. Let’s hope they keep it up.