"Self Made Man" is all Summer Glau. She is the lead in a rather cerebral episode, as she works at the Library at night with an unsuspecting research assistant named Eric, who is wheelchair-bound. Ms. Glau's acting is riveting, in spite of the perception that showing no emotion and dispensing with all human characteristics would be easy - you just act like a robot, right? Only when I began looking more closely at how she pulls this off did I begin to appreciate her acting ability.
While Sara has John continuing to research the three dots she has seen in a dream and on a bloody wall, Cameron is doing night work, unknown to them. Eric has plenty of opportunity to notice that she's, well, different, but she adds just enough mechanical smiles to keep him convinced of her...humanity. And a couple flashback answers to his questions about the thieves who hit the Connor house are humorously macabre, when she smiles and replies, "Everything worked out fine." (She shot the thieves.) Then she quotes Othello.
We get a hint about what she is looking for when she identifies a T-888 terminator in a 1920-vintage photograph in the library archives. He tells her it's from a speakeasy fire, apparently arson, which caused numerous deaths. Then we get an amazing flashback of the fire, a street scene loaded with extras, period vehicles, authentic costuming, a slight b&w tint to the photography - this production staff has gone to great lengths (and considerable expense) to create an arresting scene. Amidst the wounded and the grieving, the T-888 looks skyward.
The side plot has Riley calling for John's help in the middle of the night; she's at a house party where the mom is supplying the beer for the boors. Riley needs no help at all - the call was just a ruse to get him there. He's steamed but stays.
"I'm interested in the past," Cameron says to Eric. "It affects everything in the future." And that's always a good tagline for the Chronicles. Watching her expression-which-is-not-an-expression and listening to her double meanings for everything makes one feel like a clever puzzle-solver. She identifies another photo of the T-888 on a fiche, but without using a reader. The terminator is identified as Myron Stark, a contemporary of Rudolph Valentino. The producers have come up with an intriguing paen to the silent film era, and it works just right in these scenes, which include several more flashbacks to Stark/888 as we begin to learn what it was doing in that era.
She heads to the basement records for more research on Stark, annoying Eric when she breaks the lock and just ignores his protests. She found nothing on Stark prior to the fire. He suggests Stark may have been an immigrant...or a bank robber - cue the quick flashback of a stereotypical machine-gunning thief mowing down the police, again as amusing and authentic as any early-30s gangster flick. And they find an early recording of radio news of a bank robbery then - eight citizens cut down, 30 rounds into the uninjured perp is unexplained - but Cameron knows.
More records shows Stark began buying up properties after the robbery, building a real estate development machine to rival another San Fernando Valley land tycoon named Chandler. Remind anyone of John Huston in "Chinatown?" Cameron drops something; Eric picks it up and asks, "What is this?" She answers in a completely honest and mechanical way, "A 17-round Glock 9-millimeter semi-automatic." Hey, it's dangerous out there. She offers to let him fire the weapon - now he's intrigued. Blam! Into the phone book.
Riley's friends are L.A. lowlifes; the only downer in this episode is the appearance that the producers are pandering to the tattooed-gamer-boozer crowd of degenerates. But we feel better when John pounds one to the floor after he accuses Riley of stealing his lighter - she did.
Cameron and Eric dig up more news about the recent discovery of the body of Chandler's assistant, who disappeared in 1925. This flashback to the murder includes a good old Model A (or maybe a Chevy) motoring along and stopped by Stark - using his superstrength, he just pitches the car and driver into the woods somewhere. Chandler had also lost his son in the 1920 fire, so why is Stark/888 out to destroy Chandler?
Back to Riley and moody John - she's unapologetic but admits she's a wierdo and approached him for the same reason - he might "get" her. He reveals his mother was in a mental hospital. He's still struggling for some kind of "normal" relationship; it may be his undoing. This sounds a bit like Smallville's Clark and Lana.
Cameron finds Chandler's obit - believing that Stark killed him. But first, she asks Eric about suicide. "Why?" "Because there's something wrong with you," she answers. Next is the film vault - no handicapped access but Cameron cooly lifts him out of the wheelchair. "I work out," she explains simply. He speaks favorably of the old silver nitrate film days, as they find a filmed interview of a fire victim - who did not see a bomb, but a flash of light, sparks, and a naked man. Sound familiar? It does to Cameron. And the next flashback in the speakeasy shows us the classic transition of a terminator into that time, and the cause of the fatal fire. And newly-arrived Stark/888 even says, "Give me your clothes," to a clubgoer, similar to Arnold's "Your clothes - give them to me." Close enough that we get the reference.
Now Cameron realizes why Stark/888 was looking at the sky - "measuring the stars' radial velocity, the distance in parsecs, and the cartesian coordinates." A bit of astronomical mumbo-jumbo here, but it means Stark was calculating the year to which it had transported. Stark/888 made a "temporal error."
Chandler's eulogy about his son talked of his dream of building a new tower - on Pico Blvd. in Los Angeles - it was his son's dream, and Chandler would never part with the land, even though Stark/888 offered twice it's value. Stark's appearance in 1920 had resulted in the son's death, thwarting Stark's mission to do something in the Pico tower, so he destroyed Chandler, bought the property, built it himself, then disappeared.
Cameron now guesses the reason, and goes to the recently-restored tower, finding a convenient poster about Governor Wyman's upcoming speech there on New Year's Eve. She enters the hall - the stage - calculating the angle of an assassin's shot - finding a hollow wall - she punches it in - it's Stark! Hiding there, waiting for it's mission to unfold, waiting for over 80 years. A brief but intense battle ensues, until Cameron drops the elevator on him, (like the hydraulic press in "Terminator?") and unseen to us, maybe unscrews his brain chip. How the building damage is undone or how she disposes of Stark - no time for that in the script.
Back to the library she goes - "I'm fine," she tells Eric - and she knows he is ill - his cancer is back. She does understand his anger and frustration at her lack of social skills - "It's like a bomb. Ready to go off." She should know. Next visit - Eric is gone, but her donuts get her admission from the next attendant.
Anyone else think Ms. Glau should be up for an Emmy or something similar for her performance in this and other episodes? The Chronicles continues to be one of the best-produced shows of this decade. Name it - acting, photography, special effects, colorful and authentic flashbacks, compelling plot twists, intelligent dialog, and the overarching threat of the annihilation of the entire human race. That should keep us all coming back for more - every episode. Almost always a 9 or better.