Television

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles Is Unexpectedly Cathartic Pandemic Viewing

Lena Headey and Thomas Dekker
Fox Network

Despite being a childless, science fiction–loving grad student with nothing but time on my hands back in 2008, I somehow missed Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles when it was on TV. Created by Josh Friedman, The Sarah Connor Chronicles was canceled after two seasons and 31 episodes, despite mostly positive critical reception. Bingeing it under pandemic conditions, as I have been doing recently, has been unexpectedly cathartic. This is a show about people living in a sunny, beautiful, Southern Californian present day while haunted by the knowledge that a grim future might be coming unless they change it by their actions. It’s also about parenting under stress and feeling constantly under siege by inescapable circumstance, which—well, if that’s too real, you can always focus on the nifty killer cyborgs instead.

The haunted, hard-pressed characters on this show are nonetheless fun to watch. The Sarah Connor Chronicles stars Lena Headey as Sarah, the monomaniacal mama bear originally played by Linda Hamilton. Sarah Connor has a bit in common with Game of ThronesCersei Lannister, now Headey’s most famous role, in that both characters are driven to protect their families, but compared with Sarah Connor, Cersei is a beam of sunshine. Sarah Connor has but one single purpose, or at least a related set of them—worry about Skynet, find out Skynet’s plans, thwart Skynet—and that makes her understandably a little bit of a tough hang.

Luckily, the other main cast members are delightful. John Connor, played by Thomas Dekker, is a teenager who’s growing into his charisma and strength, all the while wishing there were some way out of his fate. Summer Glau, who put in some serious time in the science fiction TV mines in the 2000s and 2010s with Firefly, Dollhouse, The 4400, Alphas, and Arrow, might be my favorite Terminator in the whole Terminatorverse—she’s so icy and strange, with perfect skin and an intense, deadpan gaze. The casting director was clearly great at picking actors who can tap into the uncanny valley. (Garret Dillahunt, a wonderful “hey, it’s that guy” actor who plays the first season’s Big Bad, also has this gift.) And when John’s uncle Derek Reese appears, sent back from the future to help the Connors survive, you can enjoy the sight of Brian Austin Green convincingly playing a battle-hardened, tattoo-covered resistance fighter, offering world-class “handsome uncle from out of town” vibes.

The episode I recommend to the Sarah Connor Chronicles–curious out there is the second season premiere, “Samson & Delilah.” The action starts with an explosion: Glau’s character, Cameron, the Terminator assigned to protect John, has been car-bombed, and her chip is damaged, causing her to turn on him and try to kill him. “Samson & Delilah” showcases Glau’s creepy, quiet strength as well as plenty of run run run, shoot shoot shoot, drive drive drive. There’s a lot of action in “Samson & Delilah,” including some cool callbacks to the surprise special effects that made Terminator 2: Judgment Day—the best Terminator movie, don’t @ me—so memorable.

Working together, John and Sarah figure out how to trap Cameron and force her to reboot, giving them some time to access her head, open up her scalp, and take her chip out. John cuts into her, but before he takes her chip out of her head, she begs him not to, saying over and over, in a girl’s robotic voice, “I love you! I love you!” John goes ahead, then cleans her chip, and in the episode’s climactic scene, as every trusted adult in his life warns him not to do it, reinserts it. John—who knows he will one day be the leader of the human resistance—often struggles to understand how his “future self” would handle a problem, a dynamic that’s not as well explored in the other Terminator films. What would it do to a person to know that he’s going to grow into a leader everyone trusts—somebody whom people will willingly die for? A future John Connor (this show posits the existence of multiple timelines) sent Cameron back to help his younger self survive. But his family tells young John that no “metal” can be trusted. Who is right?

The rest of Season 2 will see a lot of tragedy unfold because of the mistrust between Cameron and the adults who are protecting John and fighting Skynet. There are deep meditations about the meaning of humanity, tests of familial bonds, and revelations about people’s capacity to collaborate with evil. But most interesting of all is watching John, a dippy kid with messy hair, become “John Connor.” I’m just sorry this show got canceled before we got to see where it would’ve taken him next.