I'm worried 'Masters of the Air' might crash and burn before it sticks the landing — here's why

Austin Butler in Masters of the Air
(Image credit: Apple)

After watching the first episodes of "Masters of the Air," I was sold. Was the show as incredible as HBO's "Band of Brothers"? No, but in my review of the first two episodes, I felt confident that the show had successfully recreated the magic of its predecessor.

Unfortunately, what initially felt like a majestic World War II miniseries hit some turbulence following those first episodes. In fact, there's a big reason why this show might crash and burn before it gets a chance to stick the landing in "Part Nine."

I'm going to get into that reason in just a second, so consider this a friendly spoiler warning if you haven't seen the first five episodes of "Masters of the Air."

An image indicating spoilers are ahead.

(Image credit: Future)

Spoilers for "Masters of the Air" beyond this point

'Masters of the Air' has a main character problem

Before people get mad at me — yes, I am aware this is an ensemble cast performance. As were "Band of Brothers" and "The Pacific." But they also had main characters that each miniseries primarily followed. The former focused primarily on Major Dick Winters (Damian Lewis) and Captain Lewis Nixon (Ron Livingston) while the latter focused on three storylines, each with its own point-of-view character.

Initially, it seemed like "Masters of the Air" would follow the former's example, making Major Gale "Buck" Cleven (Austin Butler) and Major John "Bucky" Egan (Callum Turner) the focal points of the show. And it worked. Both characters are charming, their chemistry together is great and the two actors put on the strongest acting performances of the cast.

Which makes what the show writers did in "Part Four" absolutely baffling. They killed off Cleven.

Callum Turner and Austin Butler in Masters of the Air

(Image credit: Apple Studios)

Now, this miniseries is based on real-life events, which I'm deciding not to spoil. I can tell you for certain whether or not Cleven indeed dies in the bombing raid over Bremen in episode 4 because that's publicly available information. But I won't.

Regardless, it's not whether or not Cleven is dead that's the problem. The problem is that it happened off-screen.

Yes, you read that correctly. The showwriters decided to kill off their main character off-screen. Not only that, they decided to skip the entire Bremen battle sequence and instead focus on Egan having a night off in London. While that storyline does have poignancy, skipping a major battle sequence to explore it is a poor decision for a World War II epic about a group of bomber pilots in a unit known for having its members die in combat.

That decision is egregious enough on its face, but the fact that they did it to the main character — and one of the consistently best performances — is what truly has me ready to rage-quit the show. The show gave Barry Keoghan (Lt. Curtis Biddick), in what hasn't been a great performance, a glorious, on-screen death in battle. Kai Alexander's Sgt. William Quinn, a recurring character, has an entire plot line devoted to his escape from Nazi-occupied Belgium, though the show weirdly forgets that in "Part Five."

The show even treats its other main character appropriately. Egan goes down in episode 5 and it seems like he just dies without further mention, despite seeming to be alive and descending via parachute when his plane is shot down. But thankfully, the show gives us a teaser at the end that shows us Egan is alive and now must escape enemy territory.

So then why not treat Cleven's end with the same level of deference? Why is this character seemingly written off rather than showing his fate on screen? 

If the answer is to build suspense or tension — because he's (potentially) actually alive — then that's an unforced error. At the very least, the show should have given us a hint that he survived or given us a sense of finality regarding Cleven's fate at some point in episode 5. There's no excuse for leaving a main character's story unresolved for an entire episode.

'Masters of the Air' is in serious danger of not landing the plane

Maybe I'm overreacting. Maybe there's a plan and the decision to seemingly kill off Cleven off-screen will eventually pay off or was merely an error in an otherwise enjoyable show. But I'm very concerned that this problem is a symptom of a greater issue than a one-off occurrence.

I'm open to "Masters of the Air" sticking the landing, but it seems like it's taking flak from all directions right now. And unfortunately — it's all friendly fire.

First of all, Egan nearly suffers the same ignominious end as Cleven, which suggests that the writers are being intentional in how they end certain characters' fates with ambiguity.

Secondly, the show already is having issues juggling its multiple storylines and plots. It built all this tension about Quinn's escape from Belgium in episode 4, only to completely ignore that plot in episode 5.

We only have four episodes left to get closure on Cleven's fate, see Egan escape Germany and Quinn escape Belgium, all while continuing to follow the fate of the rest of the 100th Bomb Group. There's even an entire storyline about The Tuskegee Airmen led by Robert H. Daniels, Jr. (Ncuti Gatwa) that we haven't even begun to explore yet.

I'm open to "Masters of the Air" sticking the landing, but it seems like it's taking flak from all directions right now. And unfortunately — it's all friendly fire.

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Malcolm McMillan
Senior Streaming Writer

Malcolm McMillan is a senior writer for Tom's Guide, covering all the latest in streaming TV shows and movies. That means news, analysis, recommendations, reviews and more for just about anything you can watch, including sports! If it can be seen on a screen, he can write about it. Previously, Malcolm had been a staff writer for Tom's Guide for over a year, with a focus on artificial intelligence (AI), A/V tech and VR headsets.

Before writing for Tom's Guide, Malcolm worked as a fantasy football analyst writing for several sites and also had a brief stint working for Microsoft selling laptops, Xbox products and even the ill-fated Windows phone. He is passionate about video games and sports, though both cause him to yell at the TV frequently. He proudly sports many tattoos, including an Arsenal tattoo, in honor of the team that causes him to yell at the TV the most.

  • NickinFrance
    I totally disagree! I thought Episode 4 was one of the best. Whilst the air battles are brilliantly done, there's only so much of it that can be shown without it getting repetitive and potentially dull.

    What episode 4 showed very well was the experience for the many others involved in the campaign - the mechanics, ground staff, pilots not on mission for whatever reason as well as friends and lovers - they see the planes go off, and then its just waiting anxiously to see who comes back. And not knowing whether someone is dead or managed to bail out and survive. Trying to piece together from fragmented reports what happened.

    Not knowing what happened to their comrades was a key part of the experience, even for pilots on the mission (also covered in episode 5 where the sole surviving plane couldn't understand where the others were).

    It may not fit a neat narrative, but so what?
  • havebass
    I'd have to disagree as well.

    The whole premise of episode 4 was showing the reality that a lot of crews and forts just...disappeared. They took off and never came back. They were replaced and somehow everyone just carried on.

    IIRC, Clevens has 2 opportunities not to fly that mission but did it anyway, because that's what they did, and he'd still need to fly his tour regardless. Egan didn't fly, had a night off and a party, but still got shot down later. it's just how it was. a welcome bit of nuance missing from a lot of "ACTION" shows now.