About halfway through tonight’s episode, “Home”, Alara Kitan, chief security officer for the Orville, is sitting on a beach at her parent’s summer home. She briefly closes her eyes and indulges in a fantasy where —decked out like a full-on druid princess— she rides a space hippogriff across a shell pink beach at sunset as great arcing planetary rings and moons swirl behind her. The scene, which is part airbrushed conversion van painting, part backdrop for the song title scroll of an as seen on TV, 6 CD/12 cassette collection of rock ballads, is supposed to represent a longing for the freedom that tugs at an otherwise literally and figuratively entrapped Alara. It was also, in its earnest, befuddling cheesiness, the highlight of an otherwise very mediocre episode.
There’s been a lot of online (well, not a lot; a lot within The Orville online community) discussion about actor Halston Sage either leaving the show or at least taking a sabbatical for most of season 2. There hadn’t been any official word, but tonight Alara received enough protracted hugs (and clinical acknowledgement-wave from Isaac) that it sure seems like this is it. For the time being, at least, she’s off the show. In that regard, it was nice that her final episode granted the opportunity to explore her character further and resolve some of the emotional turmoil she’s been bearing. But unfortunately, despite an armed home invasion, some high-gravity can crushing, special guest appearances by not one but two Seinfeld alumni buried under layers of prosthetics, and the return of one Voyager alumni, “Home” was a fairly bland experience.
When Alara breaks a bone from arm wrestling Isaac, Dr. Claire informs her she’s been steadily losing bone density and muscle mass due to all the time she’s spent in standard earth gravity. Her species owe their great strength due to the high gravity of their home world Xelayah, and having been away for so long, Alara is slowly weakening. This throws her into a state of existential anxiety since she still believes her superhuman might is the only reason she’s qualified to be security chief. This anxiety has been explored a couple of times, most notably in last season’s excellent “Firestorm”, but here, her uncertainty ties back into her family’s disapproval of her work. Because, as it turns out, the only reliable way to cure Alien Strength Loss is for Alara to return back to her home planet and reacclimatize to the higher gravity. Unfortunately, this means Alara will have to go stay with her parents, who think the Union is a crude, militaristic organization beneath her. Lacking any other option, Alara returns home, her dignity bruised and her body stuck in a hoverchair until she can gain her strength back. We meet her father Ildis (Robert Picardo) and mother Drenala (Molly Hagan), who we’ve only previously seen on a comm screen. We also meet Alara’s sister and the family’s figurative and literal golden child, Solana (Candice King) who bears all the academic and professional success Alara lacks. Ildris and Drenala resume exactly where they last left off and oscillate between trying to guilt, shame, and reason with Alara to return to school and finish her degree –despite her frequently alluded to inferior intelligence. In an attempt to make Alara’s convalescence more enjoyable, the family flies off to their island beach house. It will be quiet there in the off-season, everyone tells each other at least half a dozen times.
And it’s here where Alara has her Heavy Metal cover art daydream. Earlier in the day she sat and watched as her sister petted some beaked, horse-like creature native to the island. It’s not enough that she be academically accomplished, but like a veritable Disney Princess, Solana exudes such goodness, she can just go around snuggling nature’s creatures. Alara can only sit at the chore and imagine herself living so freely, accompanied only by the wind in her hair and a persistent, unrelenting score.
Somethin’ fishy is happening on this totally empty island, though, that eventually culminates in a couple taking Alana’s family hostage. The invaders reveal they want to discredit and probably also kill Ildis because he used his professional leverage to pull a scientific paper published by their son who couldn’t bear the rejection and committed suicide. While Ildris insists their son’s work was sloppy and it would be unsafe to publish his discovery, it hints at an idea that the value Xelayan culture places on high-mindedness and superior intellect only masks an underlying system just as combative and merciless as the military organizations they decry. We already see some of this, after all, by the condescending way with which Alara’s parents treat her. The Xelayans aren’t Vulcans. They prize knowledge, but they’re not clinical about it. They glory in it and they’re petty about it. So much so, perhaps, that many of them succumb to the pressure to succeed.
What I found most frustrating about this episode is how it set up multiple opportunities for Alara to prove her capacity as security chief weren’t just her physical strength. She could have been the one to discover the plot against her family. But instead they just showed up to the house, Space Funny Games-style. She could have devised some cunning plan to trick her captors, but she just stood up and kung-fu’d them without bearing any indication that until that moment she’d been incapable of supporting her own weight, much less leg-locking a gun-wielding maniac into submission. I’m certainly not above the satisfaction of watching a deserving person getting their ass kicked, and Alara’s calm dedication and perseverance to saving her family are as good traits in a security chief as cunning, Batman-levels of resourcefulness, but I’m just a little let down by how frequently The Orville chooses the narrative path of least resistance instead of playing around with its stories. Actions are all reactive, never active. After all, the hero losing access to what they consider their greatest strength, and either revealing other, less obvious talents —or just realizing that’s not what made them a hero after all— is a pretty well-established character arc. Here, Alara loses what she thinks is her greatest strength (her great strength) and still just beats everyone into submission.
After she murders some people, Ildis comes to his senses and finally realizes how wonderful his daughter is. The two have a tearful heart-to-heart next to the murdered island caretaker who’s been lying dead in their backyard unbeknownst to them for at least a day and Alara finally has some closure with her family. Back aboard the Orville, Alara decides she needs to reconnect further with her family. I was somewhat surprised by this since the show even went through the trouble to create the requisite gobbledygook method that would allow Alara to keep her strength intact outside of Xelayahn gravity. But it’s true. For now, she’s gone. But she remains in one or many of our hearts, depending on what species we are.
- Cambus forcing Ildris to place his hand in the boiling sauce was brutal. The whole lead-up to that scene was pretty well done, in fact. Ed getting his legs crushed in high gravity was brutal as well. Good job on the physical trauma tonight, Orville!
- I don’t even want to talk about Patrick Warburton’s completely squandered appearance as the interim security chief, Lt. Tharl. Of all the infinite possibilities how you could approach alien behavior, having every single goofy-faced resident of the cosmos talk like Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High will apparently never not be funny to MacFarlane.
- The jar of pickles was a nice call back, and good parting gift.
- Fashion Corner: The Xelayan fondness for rust and hunter green clothes were making me very sentimental for the early 90’s. Between those and The Roxy Music album cover daydream, this episode made me nostalgic for my youth.