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The Globe-Trotting 'Masters of the Air' Finale Is Downright Thrilling

I hate to say this, my fellow copilots, but Masters of the Air ends this week. Thankfully, Apple TV+ just made a graceful landing on the World War II drama's final flight. The irony of the limited series about a group of airmen, however, is that most of our boys have been grounded over the past few weeks. Gale Cleven (Austin Butler) and John Egan (Callum Turner) have been confined a German prisoner of war camp since episode 6. Even the Tuskegee Airmen only lasted half an episode last week before they were prisoners of war themselves. But one pilot remains in the skies: Robert "Rosie" Rosenthal (Nate Mann).

If you're a history buff, maybe you already knew that Rosenthal would be the secret hero of the series—but for most of us, it was a complete surprise. Learning more about Rosenthal has been the highlight of the Masters of the Airsecond half—and the finale doesn't disappoint on their front, either. Even though Rosenthal also goes down over Berlin at the beginning of the series finale, but he quickly finds himself among Russian allies. In fact, enemies shot down Rosenthal twice during his 52 missions for the 100th Bomb Group—and he made it back to the London base both times.

Back at Stalag Luft III, our captured heroes are waiting for some help from Russian allies, too. The Winter prison is, as Egan calls it, an absolute "icebox." Escaping is an impossible option in the snow—you'll probably freeze to death, even if you can make it out alive. So, the boys bide their time and hope for a miracle. One night, the prisoners wake up and are told to start marching out of the camp. "The Russians must be nearby," Cleven guesses. It's time to move.

The prisoners eventually arrive at Stalag XIII in Nuremberg, Germany, where Cleven meets an old friend from back home. "Only guy I've ever met who knows more about baseball than you do," he tells Egan. Do I spot a bromance competitor? "Cubs," Cleven's friend responds. Nope. A born loser. "There's always next year," Egan reassures him. Sorry, bub, you'll have to wait another 70 years.

masters of the air
... cold? Robert Viglasky

As for Rosenthal, he makes a stop on his trip through Poland at the deserted Zabikowo forced labor camp. According to the Holocaust Historical Society, some 21,624 prisoners were brought there throughout the war, before they were sent on death marches to concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Ravensbruck. Russian troops, like the ones who transport Rosenthal back to safety in the series finale, liberated the camp on January 26, 1945.

Much like what was depicted in Band of Brothers' horrifying concentration camp episode, many German forces abandoned the camps after hearing word of approaching troops—killing every prisoner on their way out. What we find at Zabikowo in Masters of the Air seemingly portrays one of those violent, hasty retreats. "Everyone was already burned before we arrived," a Russian officer tells a harrowed Rosenthal. "Our comrades found even bigger camps than this." Rosenthal then meets a Jewish survivor, who tells him that the Nazis forced him to bury his own family. His faith shaken, the pilot resumes his quest to find his way home.

masters of the air
On his way back home, Rosenthal witnesses something unspeakable.Robert Viglasky

Marching into a town deep into Germany, Cleven and Egan find absolute chaos. A fight breaks out between the German troops, the prisoners, and the townsfolk, which provides the group with a means to an escape. Cleven vaults over a wall and survives, even under enemy fire. Sadly, he only gets away because Egan gave him the opportunity. With our two heroes now separated, it would take the end of the war to bring them back together.

Rosie makes it back to London and shares a drink with ol' Harry H. Crosby, who informs him that he's going to be a father. That's right, sir, it's time to stop cheating on your wife and get on back home. "You know, Rosie," Crosby says, "sometimes I wake up and I don't even recognize myself in the mirror." Then he quotes Nietzsche: "Whoever fights monsters, should take care not to become a monster himself." Rosenthal, who just saw a bit of the Holocaust, corrects him. "No, they got it coming."

When Cleven and Egan finally return home at the end of the war, Cleven swiftly married his girlfriend, Marjorie Spencer, with Egan serving as his best man. The two remained friends for the next 20 years, with Egan eventually rising through the ranks to become the Director of Air Force Operations for the entire Pacific. "Ultimately," Masters of the Air co-producer Kirk Saduski told Smithsonian, "these guys [kept] getting back into the planes for each other." Couldn't have said it better myself.

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