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Point of view is so important to storytelling. Why does so much TV struggle with it?

The miniseries The Long Road Home’s attempts to distill the Iraq War only somewhat succeed.

The Long Road Home
Darius Homayoun stars as Jassim in The Long Road Home.
National Geographic
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for November 26 through December 2 is “The Choice,” the fifth episode of Nat Geo’s miniseries The Long Road Home.

The thing that most separates film as a medium from TV as a medium isn’t size or spectacle or even typical viewing situation. It’s point of view.

In the best films, there’s real thought put into how to convey the perspective from which the story is being told, whether that’s a singular character’s point of view or a larger ensemble. There are more obvious ways to pull this off — voiceover narration being the most overused — but a great director can situate you in point of view through careful shot selection and composition.

This doesn’t mean, say, shooting everything like a particular character would see it (though that can work in some cases), but rather finding ways to shoot scenes to convey the proper emotional experience of those scenes, whether that’s something a particular character is feeling or something a whole group of characters is feeling.

This takes time and purposeful direction, something that TV doesn’t always have room for when it comes to crafting episodes. There are obvious exceptions, but it’s telling that many of them (from The Sopranos to Girls to The Leftovers to Westworld) are on HBO, which often allows its episodes around double (and sometimes triple) the amount of shooting time compared to other networks.

When creators are just trying to get through an episode as quickly as possible, most scenes will be shot from a dry, omniscient point of view — observing the events, but relying heavily on the script for emotional commentary and catharsis.

This, ultimately, is where “The Choice” — a genuinely engaging episode of National Geographic’s Iraq War-set miniseries The Long Road Home, a fictional account of a true story — falls short of greatness. It’s situated in one character’s point of view, to be sure — but mostly on the page.

“The Choice” follows an Iraqi man who joins the US military as an interpreter

Every episode of The Long Road Home is structured, Lost-like, as the story of one person whose life is connected to the early battles in Sadr City, a suburban district of Baghdad. The battles there began in April 2004 but stretched on into 2008, as first US-led coalition forces and later Iraqi government forces tried to put down an insurgency led by the Mahdi Army, a local militia controlled by a powerful Shia cleric named Muqtada al-Sadr.

The series is based on Martha Raddatz’s nonfiction book of the same name, and if it doesn’t quite achieve its goals, it does an admirable job of attempting to humanize characters above and beyond its American military members, who are played by the most recognizable actors (including House of Cards’ Michael Kelly and Parenthood’s Jason Ritter).

The series can never quite escape its larger American-centric point of view, one that often reduces the Iraqi insurgents to faceless enemies, but it tries to set up a complicated moral order that better reflects the quagmire that was the Iraq War. And in the grand scheme of the series, “The Choice” is incredibly important to setting up that moral order.

The Long Road Home
Jassim’s choice drives “The Choice.”
National Geographic

Centered on Jassim al-Lani, an Iraqi translator working with US forces, played by Darius Homayoun, “The Choice” depicts in its flashbacks how one man makes the voyage from sympathizing with the insurgency and nearly joining it to working with the US military. Homayoun’s performance underlines how war tends to turn normal civilian lives into an unending attempt to make the least-bad choice among several terrible options. Jassim doesn’t decide to work with the US-led forces because he deeply believes in their cause; he just believes in the insurgents’ cause even less.

The script for “The Choice,” by Mikko Alanne (who served as showrunner for the adaptation) and Scott Gold, presents Jassim’s choice to join the US-led coalition effort as its central decision. But it also layers in several other choices, made by almost all of the characters, in ways that build steadily to the gravity of the episode’s final moments, when US forces begin firing on advancing insurgent forces who have unarmed women and children among their number. Jassim makes an impassioned plea to the insurgents in Arabic that no innocents die, hoping to appeal to them via quoting from the Quran. But it’s not enough. Gunfire erupts, and the battle begins.

The Long Road Home’s storytelling has been hurt, somewhat, by how far it’s had to extend the story from Raddatz’s book (which might have made a better feature film). But the decompression really works for “The Choice,” which largely takes place over a couple of hours (outside of the flashbacks, of course) and drills down into every little decision that led to the episode-closing battle.

The flaw of the episode on a writing level is the flaw of the whole series — there’s little attempt made to get inside the heads of the opposing force. By centering on Jassim, who once hated the American occupiers with every fiber of his being, the episode tries to get around that problem, but it can never quite escape the fact that Jassim turns his back on the insurgents and signs up with the Americans. To make a shift that huge, something terrible had to have happened, and when we see the death of a loved one at the hands of the insurgents, everything clicks into place.

But it also means that the episode’s largely omniscient directorial point of view becomes a hindrance to truly making Jassim’s point of view the episode’s center. We need to be inside his head, feeling what he’s feeling, but the images onscreen keep pushing us away.

Television often affords more time for technically complex sequences. That hurts The Long Road Home.

The Long Road Home
The battle scenes throughout “The Choice” are beautifully executed, but often to the episode’s detriment.
National Geographic

At the center of “The Choice” is an escalating series of skirmishes that culminate in the battle that erupts at episode’s end. As directed by Phil Abraham, these skirmishes are well handled: You always know exactly where the various forces are in relation to each other and where and how the bullets are flying. Since the gun battles happen at night, situating the characters geographically is even more difficult, but Abraham pulls it off.

This is not terribly surprising. Abraham is a remarkably consistent TV director, responsible for terrific episodes of everything from Mad Men to Bates Motel to Halt and Catch Fire. (He’s an Emmy winner for his work as a cinematographer on Mad Men.) And on those shows, his work always made viewers feel exactly what they were supposed to to be in the characters’ shoes, whether it was Don Draper’s anomie or Norman Bates’s murderous rage.

I don’t know that “The Choice” gets there. Jassim’s flashbacks aren’t framed as something he went through, but as something that happened to him — the difference between experiencing a scene from inside the character’s point-of-view and watching it from the outside. Some of this is on the script, which turns Jassim’s march from near member of the insurgency into US military interpreter into its most basic self, stripped down to the bare minimum of steps. But some of it is also on the direction, which never really conveys the chaos of Jassim’s life in flashback, instead leaving much of it offscreen.

This is undoubtedly because when it came time to prepare “The Choice,” much more attention was lavished on the various battles that pepper the episode. That attention shows onscreen, but the battles also aren’t as important as Jassim’s journey when it comes to making this particular hour of television emotionally engaging. Right when the miniseries has a chance to depict why there was an Iraqi insurgency — even if it frames that question in American-centric terms — it pulls focus to something else entirely.

None of this ultimately makes “The Choice” fall apart. It’s still an hour worth watching, if only to see American television grapple with the life of an ordinary Iraqi civilian during a war seemingly tailor-made for 24-hour news channels.

But I always wanted “The Choice” to hit harder, to cut deeper. It settles, instead, for secondhand feeling, for the sadness you feel when a good friend is hit by grief, tempered by the relief that, thank God, it’s not you falling apart.

The Long Road Home airs Tuesdays at 10 pm Eastern on Nat Geo. Previous episodes are available on the network’s website.