Spoilers for Masters of the Air episode 4 follow.
Last week, Masters of the Air revolved around a heart-stopping, bloody battle in the skies that split the squadron and saw some familiar faces tragically killed. Episode 4, however, takes the action from the air to the ground, reminding us that what's going on beneath the clouds can be just as dangerous as the dogfights above. It makes for a moving, mournful episode about different kinds of heroism.
This instalment picks up in Algeria in the aftermath of episode 3's daring mission, but we don't get to spend any time in this fabled paradise the men were promised. Back in East Anglia, we're reminded of the cost of the war not through a dramatic aerial battle, but through a raucous celebration for a crew returning from their 25th mission. Clearing that hurdle means you can go home – and, as we learn only 12 out of the original 35 crews remain, the party becomes an eerie reminder of just how fatal these skyward trips truly are.
Love and death
It's during this celebration that we meet some fresh faces, including Lt. Nash (Laurie Davidson), a new pilot. He strikes up a sweet, burgeoning romance with Red Cross member Helen, complete with slow dancing and a fleeting pre-mission meeting over coffee. Naturally, it can't last. This episode is about heroism, yes, but it's also about love and loss. At the end of the episode, the returning Lt. Rosenthal takes a brief moment to tell Helen that Nash was lost in battle. We get just a glimpse of her stunned, devastated reaction before we move on – because, in the war, there's simply no time.
Egan's storyline picks up on the same themes. He gets a coveted weekend leave pass and travels to London, but there's no respite to be found in the city. Just as the party on the base strikes an uneasy balance between joy and death, Egan's experiences are similarly queasy – he dances with a stranger as the distorted sound of the air raid siren blares in the background.
This stranger tells Egan that her husband was lost in the war – quite literally, as she has no idea if he's a prisoner or if he was killed when his plane went down. It's for this reason that the stranger wants only a night with Egan; there's a real wistfulness to the moment she hesitates at the door and Egan looks up, hopeful, before she leaves and that door closes for good.
It's another reminder that the war wounds everyone, driven home when Egan walks a street that bears the scars of the Blitz. In a truly gut-wrenching moment, he passes a wrecked home and a woman screaming in grief for her daughter, killed in the night's bombing raids. The war is everywhere.
In keeping with that idea, the episode also follows Sgt. William Quinn's attempts to make his way back to England after he was stranded in occupied Belgium. The seriousness of his predicament is swiftly established by an intense grilling from the man who will help him escape. The stakes clearly couldn't be higher for this underground network; it turns out Bob, an apparently downed airman, is an undercover Nazi. He's quickly, brutally shot dead in the forest, and we learn that the Nazis have been trying to infiltrate the network for some time. This is a group of ordinary people risking everything in impossible circumstances; it's painfully tense later, too, when Quinn tries to make a run for it upon arriving in Paris. Luckily, another member of the network is there to defuse the situation, but the sight of uniformed Nazi officers is a chilling reminder of the sheer risk of the whole operation.
Quinn, too, makes a tentative connection akin to Nash and Helen – and just like their brief time together, it can't last. Louise, one of the people sheltering Quinn, bids him goodbye with a kiss on the cheek and a letter. The letter, though, is quickly confiscated and burned, and Quinn is given an intense reality check: what did he think would happen to Louise and her family if their actions were ever discovered?
The emotional climax of the episode comes when Cleven and Crosby are apparently killed in action. Of course, since Cros is our narrator, we have an inkling that he might survive – meaning the duo are either stranded or prisoners of war. It's the unknown that hurts the most, as is drilled into us throughout the episode: Egan still doesn't know his friend Biddick was killed crash-landing, and the men must count planes and parachutes to see if their comrades have escaped with their lives.
The real cliffhanger here is in Egan's reaction; he and Cleven share a deep bond, another example of love shattered by war. Egan is determined to fly the next mission, which is bound to lead to recklessness. No doubt he's also feeling some intense survivor's guilt, too, considering how consistently keen he is to be in the air alongside his men. The fallout remains to be seen until next week, but Callum Turner once again steals this episode with his portrayal of Egan: there's always an edge lurking beneath the Major's easy smiles, and in the phone booth, that pain broils to the surface.
"Courage took many forms during the war," Cros tells us at the start of the episode, an idea displayed over and over again throughout this installment, which deftly throws tender sentiment up against the cruel reality of conflict.
Masters of the Air continues weekly on Apple TV Plus. You can fill out your watchlist with our guide to the best Apple TV Plus shows.