The Bloody One Hundredth has been in England for only three weeks as Masters Of The Air Episode 2 opens, and in that short period of time, the bomber group has already lost six B-17 Flying Fortresses. That’s three “forts” shot down, three lost to soured training missions, and 66 crew members who’ll need to be replaced. There’s also a new commanding officer, Major Chic Harding (James Murray, aka Prince Andrew from The Crown), so that’s one more guy with a pencil-thin mustache to keep track of in Masters of the Air’s unwieldy cast. And in the after-action interrogations for the group’s initial mission, where German air cover and zero visibility forced them to jettison their bombs into the English Channel, John “Bucky” Egan realizes he can’t stand being grounded in a supervisory role as the 100th’s air executive. Like his friend and fellow pilot Gale “Buck” Cleven, Bucky is at his best when he leads from the front. And so one of Harding’s first official acts is to demote Egan to squadron leader. He’ll be back in the cockpit, commanding a combat box of nine to twelve aircraft. It’ll be up to Egan and Cleven to lead their boys through it.
“It” is the US Army Air Force’s continued focus on insanely dangerous strategic daylight bombing of German military targets, in order to establish air superiority over the Luftwaffe in time for D-Day, which is a year away. After just a few short weeks, Cleven knows the missions are “suicide runs.” But he won’t give any satisfaction to the throng of RAF officers who challenge the Americans one night at the pub. The night-bombing Brits can’t understand why the Yanks stick to daylight missions, but their disrespect for the 100th BG’s fallen air crews leads to Curtis Biddick punching out the RAF’s mouthpiece in an impromptu outdoor boxing match. Masters is already establishing a balance. One one side are the missions, which begin in the predawn with a grand breakfast ruefully known as “The Last Supper,” accelerate to cruising speed, and bring the squadrons over bombing targets like the heavy industry at Bremen or the German sub pens at Trondheim, Norway. And on the other are the airbase activities that attempt a reprieve, like cocktails and dancing in the officer’s mess, where Egan is inspired to sing along with the big band jazz.
“The Hundredth will be leading the wing on today’s mission.” The briefing revealing Trondheim as their target is a raucous one, because despite the danger this is what they’re here for. But when the original navigator is scrubbed at the flightline, Harry Crosby is put in off the bench. He’s a brilliant navigator, but prone to violent airsickness, and this mission offers more of the same as he’s soon puking into a steel pot helmet. But Cros manages to locate the “IP” (initial point), which is an identifiable landmark a ways out from the target. From there the formation will fly level, with no evasive action and with bomb bay doors open. “Roger, my aircraft,” reports James Douglass (Elliot Warren), and the bombardier sights through his Norden device’s crosshairs. Bombs away! And the group makes a sweeping turn for home.
Crosby manages to improvise a route that will allow them to fly sooner over safe ground – Biddick’s fort has engine trouble, but this way he’s able to make a controlled crash landing. Despite the threat from German Junkers JU 88s, Egan made the declaration that they don’t leave anyone behind. At least this time, that edict holds – instead of ditching in the sea or worse, crashing behind enemy lines and being captured as a POW, Biddick gets the chance to safely drop his B-17 and crew on an unsuspecting garden shack in Scotland.
Soon enough, Biddick is telephoning Egan and Cleven from the farmhouse in Scotland to say that everyone’s okay, and thank them for shepherding the bombing wing. In the background, farmhands and family eat and drink around a lively dinner table with the flight crew – it’s a small scene, but a good example of where Masters of the Air finds time to portray the peculiar landscape of wartime Europe. Suddenly, a 27-ton machine with a 100-foot wingspan and ten Americans inside might fall out of the sky and land on your farm. And back at the airbase in Norfolk, area women might drive their cows across the runway en route to pasture land, while kids displaced from England’s larger cities befriend the ground crew. (Sergeant Ken Lemmons makes eager junior assistants out of two little boys, one of whom has a prosthetic limb.) During the Second World War, so many of the American pilots and crewmen had never traveled very far from home, let alone to another country. But here they were, and it was kind of a spectacle. Douglass the bombardier discovers this at the dance, when he chats up two members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. The patient Englishwomen look at him like he’s a curious lab experiment.
With its action, the writing and directing in Masters can combine seamlessly with the acting and visual effects for sequences that move the story forward with expression and increased spatial awareness. (Cary Joji Fukuaga directs the first four parts, while John Orloff writes all episodes.) But while all of that is a thrill, the quieter character moments in the series have not hit with the same verve, and at least so far, have not offered the insight of similar scenes in Band of Brothers and The Pacific. Toward the end of part two, the officers’ dance evolves into a spur-of-the-moment indoor bicycle race, with our two majors out in front, leading the pack. But the energy dissipates once an air raid siren squawks, and Egan and Cleven are left murmuring to one another in the glare of explosions on the horizon. (Is Austin Butler channeling the delivery of a young Brad Pitt here?) We are learning a bit about these character’s lives, about the influences that informed who they are as leaders and men. But on balance, it’s Bucky and Buck’s time in the cockpit that’s offering the stronger side of Masters of the Air.
Johnny Loftus (@glennganges) is an independent writer and editor living at large in Chicagoland. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, All Music Guide, Pitchfork Media, and Nicki Swift.