Written and produced by Mark Boal, the mind behind Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker, the series is deeply strange, if certainly memorable. And it shows Apple TV+ heading in a new, possibly suspect, direction.
Echo 3 recap: First three episodes
Season 1, episodes 1 to 3: As Echo 3 kicks off, Amber Chesborough (played by Jessica Ann Collins) has gone missing. She was a scientist working along the Colombia-Venezuela border, and the scene left in the wake of her disappearance is not encouraging.
Her new husband, Prince (Michael Huisman), and her brother Alex, aka Bambi (Luke Evans), both have military backgrounds. Prince met Amber through Bambi, and the weirdness of their circumstances being so different never quite went away.
Prince is rich. Amber is not. Their parents are all disappointing, which maybe explains why Bambi is extremely close to Amber. Some of that is his militaristic, comrades-first attitude toward the world, and some of it is he knows no one else will keep her safe. However, now that she’s got another jarhead looking after her, he’s going to have to figure out what their relationship means.
Prince is equally duty-bound. He left their wedding to go deal with a hostage situation with the rest of his unit – though you do have to wonder what exactly Amber assumed was going to happen when she married a guy like this. Her most important words to her brother on her wedding day are, “Make sure my husband comes back from these missions you all go on.”
So, when their next mission goes awry and Prince winds up stranded from the rest of the unit, Bambi makes sure to save him after they’ve completed their objective, which leads to another member of their unit getting killed.
Prince gets bent out of shape about it when he comes back. Each guy blames the other for what happened to their comrade, and that’s the note they leave it on when Amber goes down to South America to do research into drugs. She’s only there three days before she gets kidnapped, along with her co-workers, by a local militia.
What she neglected to tell her husband is that she does a little work on the side for the CIA. When Prince and Bambi discover she’s been kidnapped along with her colleagues, the two men hitch a ride down there themselves to see what happened and save her.
Mark Boal and military dramas
Mark Boal was a journalist who used to tell really grim and upsetting stories about America’s foreign interventions. He wrote about men who couldn’t fit back into civilian life after being embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq, and he leveraged this into hit, award-winning movies like In the Valley of Elah and The Hurt Locker.
It’s not surprising that he made the switch from nonfiction to movies. They pay better for one. Plus, you don’t need to tell things exactly the way they happened if you can dream up a more interesting way to depict things. Hence the creation and truncation of characters in Zero Dark Thirty, another film Boal wrote.
The trouble is … Boal isn’t really all that creative. Elah and Hurt Locker work because they’re very bare-bones screenplays given to directors with little interest in sensationalism and more concern for texture and verisimilitude in their depictions of the soldiering life. At their best, they’re pretty simple procedural movies. When Boal decides to really swing for the fences and editorialize and say something, he gets lost in the weeds.
His worst scripts — passages of Zero Dark Thirty, Triple Frontier, Detroit — veer wildly from hyper-violent, jingoistic conjecture to utter banality. (He also helped turn director Kathryn Bigelow from one of our best artists into someone boringly literal, which was a huge bummer. J.C. Chandor was already one of our most boring filmmakers, so that’s not on Boal.)
Echo 3: Very strange relationships and military culture
Echo 3, I gotta say, is really, really odd. The brother-sister relationship drawn between Luke Evans and Jessica Ann Collins is borderline sexual. Plus, she seems more comfortable with all the military jargon than a scientist (who can afford one of the nicest houses I’ve ever seen) ought to be. There’s a lot of talk about “redneck” and military culture and all that, because her brother basically raised her, but it’s just very strange. And the show never explains their dynamic in a satisfactory fashion (at least not yet).
The directors of the first three episodes are Pablo Trapero and Claudia Llosa, which is just as weird as everything else here. Trapero is a great director of violent arthouse projects (the best of which may be 2010’s Carancho or 2015’s The Clan), but since helming a few episodes of Italian crime drama ZeroZeroZero, he’s taken to directing ultra-violent American TV.
Echo 3, based on the novel When Heroes Fly by Amir Gutfreund (and the Israeli TV series of the same name). is certainly that. Llosa’s presence here I can’t even begin to explain. She makes absurdly solemn art movies about loss and sexuality. What on earth she’s doing directing espionage and gunfights I couldn’t tell you. But hey — nothing wrong with branching out.
Still, maybe it’s their newness to this milieu that accounts for the really bizarre family and sexual dynamics in Echo 3. (Trapero handles a drug trip scene better than anything else here.) Neither of them direct action set pieces in a particularly inspired way, but I’d argue that’s just not where their strengths lie. I don’t want to judge them too harshly for trying something new.
A new direction for Apple TV+ … but is that a good thing?
Indeed, this whole show feels like something new. It’s Apple TV+’s first American military procedural (unless you count sci-fi/alien series Invasion). This type of thing is practically all Amazon Prime Video makes these days. So Echo 3 seems like a bold step toward competing with the other streamers.
I’m not sure it’s the right move for Apple TV+ yet — it’s still early in the series. But man … a show about how it’s a good thing there are heavily armed paramilitary guys with an endless budget to go kill cadres of people who happen to not want the CIA in their country? Not a great look.
Watch Echo 3 on Apple TV+
The first three episodes of Echo 3 premiered on November 23. New episodes arrive on Apple TV+ every Friday.
Watch on: Apple TV+
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.