Season 2, Episode 7: “Fallen Angel”
Original airdate: November 3, 1984
Sidant: Now, it’s time for the roundtable to leap ahead a couple of decades into the 1980s.
The 1970s didn’t offer as much memorable secret agent-themed programming as the 1960s did.
The Watergate scandal likely left a sour taste in many people’s mouths when it came to espionage.
It took the imperialistic and jingoistic spirit of the Reagan years to revive the spy genre.
And as we step into the 1980s, there’s no better way to embrace the decade than with the glorious synthesized beat of the greatest theme song ever for any television show (and one I wish I had nominated in our controversial Hall of Fame category): Airwolf!
This is, of course, not our initial foray into the helicopter-centric adventures of Stringfellow Hawke (Jan-Michael Vincent) and Dominic Santini (Ernest Borgnine) here at This Was Television.
Earlier this year, our colleagues Cory Barker and Myc Wiatrowski delved into the show as part of their excellent series of discussions on masculinity in 1980s television.
They explored the two-part pilot ‘Shadow of the Hawke’ and later Season One episodes “And They Are Us” and ‘To Snare A Wolf.’
If you haven’t read those pieces yet— and you should if you haven’t— you’ll find that Airwolf is a series that manages to work despite its ludicrous premise.
It exists in a curious realm, where it brilliantly and awfully incorporates real-world seriousness while also having some notable issues in its portrayal of women.
I’ve seen all four of those episodes, and I concur with Cory and Myc’s assessment of the show’s strengths and weaknesses, although I must admit I have a soft spot for those moments when the helicopter soars up and the synthesizer music kicks in.
‘Fallen Angel’ is an episode brimming with such moments as Airwolf embarks on not one but two assaults on an East German castle.
Yet, it’s also an instalment filled with espionage intrigue. Unlike the series’ recurring plot thread concerning Hawke’s missing brother, “Fallen Angel” places its focus on the Firm, the enigmatic government agency responsible for Airwolf’s creation.
It’s at the Firm’s request that Hawke and Santini carry out their missions. Hawke’s contact, Archangel (Alex Cord, channelling a blend of Tom Wolfe and Sammy Davis Jr.), has been captured during a mission to extract a double agent.
He’s just 36 hours away from being disavowed for good.
Despite the Firm’s refusal to support the operation, and despite both of them being badly injured in a mishap involving a stunt plane, it falls upon them to venture behind the Iron Curtain and rescue Archangel from captivity.
*A stunt for a film whose director is, interestingly, played by long-time Andy Kaufman collaborator Bob Zmuda.
However, this mission proves to be even more intricate. Archangel’s abduction is intertwined with a convoluted scheme involving triple agents and a serum that nearly transforms Archangel into one of them.
It’s a well-layered plot with numerous twists and diversions that prevent the episode from becoming monotonous.
I initially suspected Maria would meet a tragic end, so her betrayal of Hawke and Archangel was a satisfying twist.
The episode effectively explores the history between Archangel, Maria, and Krüger, culminating in a violent resolution due to Hawke’s swift action despite his injured state.
Jan-Michael Vincent as Stringfellow Hawke and Camilla Sparv as Maria von Förster, Airwolf, “Fallen Angel” The episode also highlights the isolated nature of Airwolf’s missions.
In most of the previous instalments, our protagonists could rely on the resources of their respective agencies or their own skills, as seen in The Avengers.
However, in this episode, the support system is tenuous at best.
Hawke essentially holds Airwolf hostage until the Firm provides the information he seeks, and he undertakes these missions out of a combination of pragmatism and reluctant altruism.
Archangel’s abandonment by the Firm reflects the recurring threat of being disavowed if a mission goes awry, a promise familiar to fans of Mission: Impossible and one that reinforces the absence of assistance.
As Santini succinctly puts it to Caitlin O’Shannessey (Jean Bruce Scott), who questions why they would avoid friendly NATO fighter jets: “In Airwolf, we ain’t got any friends.”
*This resulted in a satisfying rant from Santini in the conference room and Archangel’s fury as Zeus coldly rebukes him.
While he’s being brainwashed, his anger in that scene still feels very genuine.
Speaking of Caitlin, this is, of course, the main difference from season one episodes, as she was introduced at the behest of CBS executives who wanted to broaden the show’s appeal.
Caitlin suffers from the show’s previously established tendency to look down on its female characters, and the scenes where Hawke tries to teach her to pilot Airwolf in Santini’s absence are painful in the extent to which they portray her as befuddled at the controls.
(Also painful is her reaction after they evade the East German patrols: “Hey guys, this is fun, I think we make a pretty good team!” “NO.” “Just a thought.”)
But at the same time, they’re not playing her for pure chauvinistic humor, as after those early bumps, she successfully aids Santini in the two raids on the castle, and there is the scene where she judo flips a nurse without breaking a sweat.
Given this is the episode she’s introduced to the Airwolf secret—after a few episodes I assume being kept in the dark by a series of comedic misunderstandings—I’m assuming some of those issues are remedied as she becomes more of an active part of the team.
At least I certainly hope that’s the case.
Kriti: I’ve been avoiding this. I watched Airwolf religiously when I was a small child—I have a vivid memory of playing “Airwolf” with my friends around the patios and balconies of our apartment complex, wearing my oversized laser tag helmet and pretending to fire missiles at the opposition.
(My friends always insisted on playing on the side of Redwolf, Airwolf’s laser-equipped evil twin. Rogues!)
But I remembered astonishingly little of the series itself and was certain that revisiting it would only lead to sad disappointment.
Thankfully, that wasn’t quite the case—Airwolf is still a load of fun, even if it shows its age in a lot of places.
I was mostly pleased to discover that there was actual espionage happening since all I remembered about the series was the helicopter itself.
The episode coasted a little bit on (what I assume to have been?) recurring villains, but I thought the story was properly twisty.
I would have liked to see the post-brainwashing part of the story drawn out a little, perhaps—to crank up the suspense around Archangel’s impending assassinations—but it was a pretty solid piece of plotting.
I also liked the brief flashes of style we saw from Airwolf, primarily the way the FIRM’s conference room was cloaked in shadows, rendering the entire cast into silhouettes.
Further, I also got the impression this was a series stretching its budget to the maximum—with all the money spent on hero shots of Airwolf and staging prop plane crashes and massive firefights, I don’t begrudge them the somewhat bare-bones set design.
(Though I swear I’ve seen that castle before—an episode of Star Trek, maybe?)
Of course, the real cringeworthy stuff was with Caitlin, as you pointed out, Sidant.
And Maria didn’t fare all that much better, really—she was allowed to be competent in baiting the Airwolf crew, but she came across as little more than bait and a tool for the evil Germans to use.
And she was so obviously doomed from the moment she appeared on screen, fated for a death that, again, was really about Archangel’s reaction, not Maria.
After The Avengers last week, it was disappointing to reenter a boys-only club like this.
Cameron: I don’t know, guys. Watching this episode was a challenge for me, and I typically have an open mind when it comes to anything that has ever graced a television screen.
(Feel free to quote me on this when “The Fast and the Furious” becomes a TV series.)
Generally, I don’t mind shows that wholeheartedly embrace militarism or masculinity, which Airwolf seems to do.
However, beyond the visually appealing helicopter and the thrilling gunfights, there wasn’t much substance to keep me engaged.
While there were moments of good banter, I couldn’t form any emotional attachment to the characters.
The action sequences were undeniably cool, but the plot felt like a mere afterthought, existing primarily to justify those scenes.
Moreover, Airwolf presented problematic depictions of women, which is concerning because, thanks in no small part to characters like Hermione Granger and “So Weird’s” Fiona Phillips, I tend to connect more readily with female characters than male ones.
Unfortunately, this show didn’t provide any well-developed characters to connect with.
Perhaps if I had given the show a fairer chance by watching more episodes and gaining a better understanding of its storytelling approach, I might have a greater appreciation for this particular episode and the series as a whole.
However, from the very first montage of upcoming scenes (a trend that should have remained in the past), I found it difficult to connect with the show.
While the action-packed moments were mindless fun, the rest left me feeling disengaged.
Wait, you’re telling me this was supposed to be a spy show?
Well, the ratio of aeroplanes to people in each scene seems a bit skewed for a genre like that. Airplanes don’t have feelings!
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