Dr. Rosen and the team are visiting a special hideaway for Alphas, and the second the leader—Claude—tells Rosen that this is a place of peace, where Alphas are allowed to live in harmony, it becomes obvious that the very act of visiting this place will mean it’s destruction. It’s as if Rosen has never seen an episode of Star Trek where Kirk and company visit a so-called “perfect society,” then by the very act of visiting tear it down before the very eyes of those who live in it. But at least there, those perfect societies were more often than not built atop something awful. The summer camp hideaway at the center of “Alphaville” is literally just what Claude wants it to be, so far as I can tell, and once Rosen brings his rambling roadshow of destruction there, it ends up forest fired into oblivion. Is it any wonder so many Alphas hate Lee Rosen?
“Alphaville” is ultimately too scattered to be among the show’s best hours, but I like the growing sense the second season is creating that this cold war between Rosen and Stanton Parish is something most Alphas want no part of, even as they keep getting inexorably drawn into it simply because of who they are. The Rosen of the first season was a fun character, but he also wasn’t nearly as interesting as he is this season. This season, Rosen seems to be spreading destruction and death everywhere he goes, even though he doesn’t mean to. Every step Rosen takes to protect Alphas seemingly serves only to put them in more danger, and he’s completely unable to see that the mole who keeps leaking his movements is his own daughter. And once he does realize that—as he surely will soon, since Bill’s about to vet everybody—it just might break him.
It’s that sense that Rosen is no longer the best advocate Alphas have that makes “Alphaville” work, in spite of itself. The rest of the episode veers wildly from idea to idea, rarely holding together. We have, in short order, the whole story of what this little community is supposed to mean, the strain in the mother-daughter relationship of Skyler and Zoe, Gary’s attempts to find a signal out in the middle of nowhere, and Skyler’s examination of the photic stimulator. Add to that the three minions of Stanton who lurk around the edges of the camp, and you have a recipe for an episode that could turn into a big ol’ mess and does on frequent occasions.
To the episode’s credit, it eschews lots of this once Stanton’s forces attack in their attempt to get the stimulator back. Gary and his quest for awesome pulsar excitement move to the background, and the irony of Rosen indirectly bringing calamity and war to this peaceful community is allowed to mostly exist in the audience’s mind. (There’s a little bit of people saying, “You! You did this!” to Rosen, but not so much as to drop the anvil on our heads.) What the episode decides to rest much of its action on is, instead, the relationship between Skyler and Zoe, and while that’s an interesting choice, it’s still one that relies on two guest characters.
Summer Glau is actually quite good as Skyler, and I say that as someone who finds her hit and miss. It’s fun to watch her normal brittleness prickle with warmth for the daughter she freely admits is a handful, and while the bit where she says something awful about Zoe just as the kid walks in the room is the sort of thing TV has hauled out millions of times, the cliché still works. This allows the episode’s climax to nicely dovetail its action scenes—Hicks and Bill rescuing Zoe—with the more personal story of Skyler reaffirming her bond with her kid. Granted, it’s difficult to imagine that Zoe would be too broken up about this, since she appears to be 5 or so, but the episode does a fine job of heightening this tiny, interpersonal conflict into something much larger. It also helps that the final scene between the two—wherein Stanton makes his offer to Skyler (an offer I can only assume she takes)—shows us how they are when the action’s in a lull.
The rest of the episode sidelines the team a bit too much to be wholly successful. There’s an attempt to play up how Rachel’s ability is kicked into overdrive by the photic stimulator that is fine, as these things go, but doesn’t really qualify as a storyline. Gary and Nina mostly disappear once the camp starts to burn down, while Hicks and Bill are just there to help Skyler retrieve Zoe. The majority of the action rests on Rosen, who gets to watch as he gives the Alphas even more reason to find him detestable, and while that’s interesting—and terrifically played by David Strathairn—it’s also not so much a story as a long, downward spiral. It doesn’t help that the first two acts are largely devoid of conflict, what with the way that they seem to be entirely designed to show us how peaceful and beautiful this community is. That’s probably necessary for its destruction to have any emotional effect at all, but it gets a little boring here and there.
On the other hand, I like the way this season is building the serialized storyline of the war with Stanton. Every episode leads to a new piece of the puzzle, and the photic stimulator is the kind of plot device I haven’t seen before in these kinds of stories. The show is managing the neat trick of having every episode be its own entity, even as the storyline is ongoing. It’s not as seamless as some other serialized shows, but it’s also a sizable step up over the way that season one simply had various hints of a larger mythology. The battle with Stanton is still primarily a battle of wits, but the show is nicely ramping up the tension, so when everything spills over, it will feel suitably epic.
If “Alphaville” was sort of all over the place, at least it managed to keep things humming along, anchored as it was by two strong performances. Strathairn’s work on the show is always good, of course, but I like the way he’s giving Rosen more and more of a haunted feel as the season progresses and the man realizes everything that he’s helped escalate. (The scene where he watched the camp burn and asked if there was anything he could do to help was particularly good in this regard.) But I was especially impressed with how Glau held this episode together and was often the only thing doing so for long stretches of time. Her Skyler is a rather unique creation: an Alpha who just wants to be left alone to raise her girl in peace. Yet there come times when such things are impossible, when everyone will have to choose sides. Glau made what I assume will be Skyler’s choice eminently understandable, in an episode that could have fallen apart without her.
- John’s Alpha power is really being there for you, baby.
- The episode did have plenty of nicely horrific moments, particularly in the Alpha who can move without anyone hearing him (and, thus, appear out of nowhere) and in the bits where the other Alpha was starting fires left and right, his ability heightened by the photic stimulator.
- Dr. Lee Rosen, worst therapist in the world: There’s not much in this category this week, but the man did take a device known to heighten Alpha abilities and use it on an Alpha who can start fires with his hands. Not his finest hour, even if he was desperate to help Skyler.
- Adventures in ADR with David Strathairn: That whole scene in the office at the episode’s start, where Rosen was talking about how they had to take the photic stimulator to Skyler, was so obviously added in post, and good on Strathairn for giving all that exposition reminding us of shit we already knew his all.
- Claude’s Alpha power is pretty useless when he’s not near the camp, huh? I mean… if the war with Stanton takes place in a major metropolitan area, how’s he going to find enough bees to be at all effective?
- I still think this show should add Glau as a regular. She really fits in, and she can construct and repair super fire extinguishers from parts conveniently laying around a basement.
- Gary, on bees: “They have evil intent!”