The following article contains major spoilers for Masters of the Air episode 3, “Part Three.”
In war, death can come for you at any time. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you look like, nor your muscle mass or formidable IQ. Despite the action-hero grandeur that plenty of film and TV shows love to spoon-feed us, death hardly discerns. It doesn’t matter, frankly, if you’re Barry Keoghan.
Up until this point, Keoghan—who in the wake of his bold turns in Saltburn and The Banshees of Inisherin, is arguably the cast’s biggest name alongside Austin Butler—had been set up as one of Masters of the Air‘s key players. His Lt. Curtis Biddick is a cocksure airman with a Noo Yawk accent who seems to believe he’s invulnerable, so we assume he’s invulnerable, too. Of the three boys— Keoghan’s Biddick, Butler’s Major Gale Cleven, and Callum Turner’s Major John Egan, the latter of whom are both confusingly nicknamed variations of “Bucky” — he’s the last you’d think would kick it.
But such comes to pass in the newest episode of Masters of the Air, “Part Three.”
We begin with a Top Gun: Maverick-style mission briefing: they have to fly deep into Germany to bomb a factory in Regensburg, testing the limits of their brittle bombers. (As one expert on the subject told GQ UK, their fuselages were as thin as a can of Coke). Easy enough – nothing they’ve not done before, if on a bigger scale. What’s the rub? As it turns out though, it’s a catastrophe; not for the first time, the air group’s macabre nickname is justified by bloodshed. Dozens perish as their planes fall out of the sky.
Cut to Biddick’s predicament. His co-pilot has been shot in the throat, their B-17 been sprayed to bits by Nazi machine-gun fire, so everyone has to evacuate. But he won’t leave another airman in the lurch. Refusing to parachute with the rest of his squad— and leave his co-pilot to surely die—Biddick valiantly tries to land their B-17, saving both of their lives. And he almost makes it. “Right over there, do you see it?” he says to his incapacitated partner, looking to a landing spot: “That long field!”
Then the plane clips a forest of trees, and nosedives into oblivion. Keoghan’s last look—his confident smirk vanishing in close-up, replaced by a lip-quivering look of panic; “Oh, God,” he says, because what else is there to say—is haunting.
It’s a brilliantly played shock to kill off one of the series’ two most famous actors so early. For a show like Masters of the Air, centrally about the brutal cost of warfare on the lives of a generation of young men, many of whom were extinguished before their time, it’s almost essential—both dramatically, raising the stakes, and for historical authenticity. Because no one should have plot armor. As in war, all characters are vulnerable. And of course, Keoghan’s bow wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who has read Donald L. Miller’s Masters of the Air, the history book from which the show is adapted: the real-life Biddick died on the Regensburg run, too.