Masters of the Air episode 3 review: "A singular, formidable piece of television"

 Masters of the Air episode 3.
Masters of the Air episode 3.

Spoilers for Masters of the Air episode 3 follow.

The high point of Band of Brothers, the 2001 spiritual predecessor to Masters of the Air, was undoubtedly 'Bastogne'. A breathless masterpiece that simultaneously acted as a thundering shock to the system and a testament to its heroes during the Battle of the Bulge, the miniseries’ finest hour stood alone as a triumphant benchmark few have dared to reach since.

The Masters of the Air’s third episode may not eclipse its big brother, but it is a similar statement of intent – with a rousing mission as daring as any that Easy Company pulled off.

The Bloody Hundredth are tasked with flying deep into German territory to bomb production targets and factories. Their getaway? A one-way trip to Africa – if they can survive.

As opening acts go, Masters of the Air does away with the slightly more methodical, intimate pace of the opening two entries. In its place, the human bravado of its flyboys is blended with a daring Hollywood-style premise that wouldn’t look out of place if Tom Cruise’s Maverick was busily conducting the briefing.

Of course, that electric machismo soon fizzles out. Once the gravity of the situation drops – one which requires coordination with multiple task forces in the biggest air armada in human history – director Cary Joji Fukunaga wisely lets each fond farewell and slap on the back sit in the air a little longer than usual; each silence and knowing glance backed by heavy fog, giving off the feel of a horror movie.

As pea-souped skies stall take-off, there are people praying and pilots delivering cryptic riddles about being caught at a crossroads between Valhalla and Hell in purgatory. "It’ll be like a holiday," Major Bowman boasts of his squadron’s final destination in Algeria. He couldn’t be more wrong.

Fog of war

Masters of the Air
Masters of the Air

As Bucky, Buck, Cros, and Curtis take off, it’s clear that it’s not always going to be smooth sailing – and that includes some stutters from the episode itself.

As thrilling and tense as the airborne action is throughout 'Part Three' – bolstered by a moving score, that only heightens its quality – it intensifies the limitations of an incredibly talented clutch of actors being handcuffed by acting behind masks and muddied ADR lines.

The dogfights, while clearly strongly storyboarded with a clear sense of space, time, and purpose, feel too often like you’re watching a video game; when everything feels slightly weightless and restricted in the small cockpits and gun placements, it’s hard to get as emotionally invested.

Still, Masters of the Air overcomes that shortcoming in fine style as the mission goes awry. With the majority of pilots forced to bail out, the episode smartly fractures the final act to focus on the tragic – Barry Keoghan’s Curtis surely didn’t survive that crash landing – and inescapable horror of war. Babyface’s plight is worth a particular mention, with the panicked, guttural screams sure to echo for many long after the credits have rolled.

Crash landing

Masters of the Air
Masters of the Air

So much happens here, it’s to the show’s credit that it manages to stick the landing. If there was a downside to the multiple deaths and casualties, though, is that they arrived a little too soon in the show’s run to really have a lasting effect. I thought as much last year with Bill and Frank’s episode 3 detour in The Last of Us: a singular, formidable piece of television, but something that ultimately does away with any sort of gradual build up or pacing by dropping it smack bang out of nowhere.

I suppose, though, that’s the point. As defeats go, there aren’t many more crushing and sudden than what the Bloody Hundredth go through here. 'Part Three' sees large scores of the crew killed, wounded, or scattered across continents. In truth, its hidden quality might reveal itself in the weeks to come: the emerging split narrative should give Masters of the Air ample room to dig deeper into its soldiers’ inner lives as they fight to return home, especially Quinn's predicament. Until then, the Apple show can salute itself for a job well done – even if it doesn’t quite up to the highest of standards set by its HBO forebears.

No, it’s no 'Bastogne'. It never could be. Masters of the Air, though, earns its wings in other ways: namely, the extended aerial sequence and its ability to drop a megaton of plot points without losing any of the desired emotional impact.

As Bucky crashes his way onto African soil, it’s 'mission accomplished'. In a cruel, twisted way, it is: a terrifying, towering 45 minutes that blows the show up and starts again. What comes next is anyone’s guess (unless you’ve been hitting the history books, that is) and the show is all the stronger for it.

Masters of the Air is now streaming on Apple TV Plus. You can fill out your watchlist with our guide to the best Apple TV shows.