The War on Terror is the latest epic in the long-running World War franchise. The previous serial in the franchise, World War II, was slammed by the critics for its cardboard-cutout villains, unrealistic hero and poor plot-lines, although it actually achieved decent ratings.
The first season of Terror started with a retcon. At the end of World War II it looked like the Soviet Union had been set up as the Evil Empire for yet another World War, but the writers seem to have realised that replaying the same plot a third time wasn't going to wow the audience. So at the start of Terror we get a load of back story exposition in which the Soviet Union has collapsed for no readily apparent reason, leaving America running a benevolent economic hegemony over the allies from the previous series and also its former enemies, Germany and Japan. There was also mention of a very one-sided Gulf War, apparently to emphasize that America's economic power was still matched by its military, even though it didn't seem to have anyone left to fight. Then in the second episode a bunch of religious fanatics from nowhere flew hijacked airliners into important buildings. While the premise may have been a bit thin the episode managed a level of grandeur and pathos that the franchise hadn't achieved since the Pearl Harbour episode, with the special effects being used to build drama rather than just having huge fireballs. But after this promising start the rest of the season became increasingly implausible, with a buffoonish president launching two pointless wars on countries whose governments turned out to have almost nothing to do with the attack he was trying to revenge. The weak plot and unsympathetic characters make the last few episodes of the season hard to watch.
However in the second season the series grew a beard. The writers replaced the old president with a good looking black guy who clearly wanted to do the right things, finally giving the audience someone to root for, and the focus switched sharply from armed conflict to corrupt politics. Instead of huge set-piece battles featuring ever-more improbable weaponry, the drama now focuses on the political situation within America itself. The battles and weapons are still there of course, but no longer driving the plot. Instead the president is shown as a tragic figure as he tries to stop wars, free prisoners and sort out his country's economic problems, but every time some combination of corporate executive, greedy banker and/or General Ripper will block his reforms, sometimes with an obstructive bureaucrat thrown in for comic relief. He has his hands on the levers of power, but in contrast with his predecessor in World War II those levers don't seem to be connected to anything any more.
Although each episode stands on its own as a story, several plot arcs are becoming clearer as season 2 draws to a close. Events seem to presage the Fall of the Republic, a plot similar to the Star Wars prequel trilogy, but much better done. Whereas Lucas' Old Republic was destroyed by a single corrupt ruler who wanted to become The Emperor, the American Republic in Terror is being destroyed by the very things that made it strong in the previous series: its industrial capacity, financial power and military strength. This is most clearly seen in the episode Drone Strike, where the president was asked to authorise an attack by a remote controlled aircraft against a suspected terrorist convoy on the other side of the world. America is one of the few countries with the technology and money to field these unmanned warplanes, and they have become an important part of American power. Then we saw the president's face as he was told that the supposed convoy had actually been a wedding party. At the end of the episode he was reduced to defending his actions at a press conference because the people who had got him into this mess were too powerful to sack.
At the same time there are stories of individual determination and hope set in contrast against the darker backdrop. The recent episode Watching the Watchers showed a soldier and a bureaucrat in different parts of the secret spy agency (or agencies; America seems to have several) independently deciding to rebel against the system they are a part of, by releasing embarrassing secrets to the public. At the same time the episode revealed a hidden factor in previous plot lines. Fans are now reviewing old episodes, even back into the first season, looking for the throwaway lines and improbable coincidences which only now make sense.
The vision of the writers of Terror is now becoming clear; the real war on terror is not the one being fought with guns and robot aircraft, it is the one being fought in the shadows against a loose and ever-shifting coalition of rich, powerful individuals who have discovered that a terrorised population is willing to give them even more money and power, and therefore want to keep it that way. The president's initiatives aren't being blocked by some grand secret conspiracy, its just that all of these people know how to work together if they want stop something happening. But this actually makes them more dangerous; in a conventional conspiracy story the hero just has to find the conspiracy and unmask them, but that isn't going to happen in Terror. In one chilling scene a club of bankers get together for a party to laugh at the rest of the country for continuing to pay them huge amounts after they have wrecked the economy that they were supposed to be running. A journalist sneaks in and tells the story, but it doesn't make any difference because throwing a party is not a conspiracy.
So Terror goes into its third season in much better shape than it was at the end of the first. The writers have escaped from the constraints of set-piece battles between huge armies, and found instead a solid theme of individual heroism in a believable world of ambiguous morality and complex politics. It all makes for powerful drama and compelling viewing.