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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Alphas: “Need To Know”

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I sometimes think one of the worst things that ever happened to genre storytelling is the idea that being “dark” or “edgy” somehow equals being “good.” I’m sure all of us can come up with numerous examples of genre stories randomly including elements meant to make everything mean that much more because they’re so super-serious and adult. All too often, this can come off like something very, very goofy, like a little kid playing dress-up in his dad’s clothes, because the attitude can be that simply depicting, say, rape is enough to make the story mature. And, of course, that’s not the case. Maturity comes from understanding that when you introduce an element like rape into a storyline, you have a certain responsibility to that material, a responsibility to not just make it another spice you add to your storytelling. You have a responsibility to see through the consequences and ramifications of that awful act, to attempt to understand what your characters would be going through in that moment.

The same goes for torture. Lots and lots of genre stories—particularly action stories—toss in some “super cool” torture moments, moments meant to make us realize just how bad-ass the hero really is. Leaving aside that this normalizes behavior that shouldn’t be normalized, let’s just look at that in storytelling terms. Torture too often becomes just another storytelling crutch in this sort of genre tale, and it becomes an easy, lazy way for the hero to get what he wants. Plus, it doesn’t actually prove the hero’s a bad-ass, because the deck is already stacked in his favor in this scenario. Forcing the hero to be clever or resourceful or something would be better; the torture in this scenario just becomes a narrative shortcut.

All of this is long preamble to say that the second season of Alphas is ending in impressively dark fashion, but it has yet to really ping my radar in terms of the show writing checks it can’t cash. The moments where serious consideration and mature storytelling are required generally have those things, and the moments where the series screws up in this regard are few and far between. The season still has a bad case of over-ambition—tonight’s episode was just the latest to feel like it had about 60 minutes of plot crammed into 42—but I’m impressed with how evocative and, for lack of a better word, adult the show has gotten with a storyline that’s been done in dozens upon dozens of comics. A superhero war is the easiest storyline to turn to in these sorts of scenarios. Alphas has been good enough to peel back the floorboards and show us the darkness beneath.

Let’s start with tonight’s torture scene. It’s, frankly, tough to watch, and it’s one of those things where the show may be writing itself into a corner in terms of rehabilitating Rosen. (At this point, I’m almost wondering if the show isn’t going to kill him off next week, though I have trouble imagining the series going ahead without its greatest selling point.) Yet the show also takes that scene seriously. Rachel’s refusal to be a part of Rosen injecting Cipio with adrenaline so he starts burning himself gives the scene a touch of moral weight, and the whole thing doesn’t result in Cipio miraculously telling the team where Stanton is hiding out. Instead, Gary achieves this by continuing to pursue the unorthodox method he comes up with for tracking Skylar. Rosen’s torture of Cipio is horrific and awful, and the show is aware of this at every turn. His decision has the appropriate amount of weight, and the show doesn’t look away from the horror of what he’s done. I’m honestly impressed that the show handled this as well as it did. (It’s been known to flinch from these sorts of things.)

If the storytelling in “Need To Know” is a bit messy, well, that’s probably just a natural offshoot of being the penultimate episode in a season that seemed obsessed with keeping dozens of balls in the air at any given time. I’m still not sure how Mitchell’s supposed to be important, other than giving the show a promotable guest star in Sean Astin (and a convenient way to ladle out exposition when the series needs to), and while I can respect the way the series gave us the cliffhanger of whether Skylar would join up with Stanton weeks ago in “Alphaville,” it also felt a little like the series poking us to try to remember that moment when she turned up tonight. Every so often, these episodes also feel like they’re checking in with some of this season’s storylines by rote, as when “Need To Know” opens with Bill and his wife pushing their new son around, only to wander into the middle of an attack by Stanton on the power grid.

I also find myself a bit disappointed by Stanton as a villain, on the whole. A comment last week got me thinking about how the show is often at its best when its characters exemplify or express certain aspects of mental illness (look for more on this next week), and Stanton’s a weak villain in that regard. But even if that weren’t true of the show, he’d be a weak villain. He’s mostly wandered around, delivering a monologue here and there, then murmured about his ultimate plan. And after all of this buildup, we find that his ultimate plan is… pretty much what we might have expected: He’s going to use the photic stimulators to trigger enhanced Alpha abilities in millions of Alphas, and he’s going to use them to kill off billions of garden-variety humans, like me and you.


To be fair, I love the way the show plays all of these moments in “Need To Know.” The episode has a terrific build to it, and by the end of the episode, the act breaks are escalating in nearly perfect fashion. (I’m particularly fond of Summer Glau staring straight at the camera and telling us she’s built the “end of the world.”) I also love the way the season has gradually brought this team together, so we now have lots and lots of people crowding around in the mission briefing scenes, all with thoughts on what should or shouldn’t happen. It gives these scenes a palpable sense of excitement they could be missing in earlier episodes.

I realize it sounds like I’m complaining a lot about this episode, but I quite enjoyed it on its own terms, particularly when it came to the show continuing to follow its own logic down into darker and darker depths of people treating each other poorly. Where I think the season is falling apart a tiny bit is in its larger story, which makes sense but hasn’t had the added emotional resonance this series has at its best. Still, there’s another week to tie all of this together, and even if the season doesn’t manage to do that, it won’t take away from the great individual episodes scattered throughout. The thing is, telling a coherent season-long story is incredibly difficult. If Alphas falls just short, that’s not the worst sin in the world, particularly when so much of the execution has been as good as this season’s finest moments have been. This is a show that takes its dark moments seriously, and if nothing else, we should be grateful for that.


Stray observations:

  • Zoe asks Skylar why she has a chip in her arm. “Are you a Terminator?” Ha, ha, Zoe. Next thing we know, you’ll be singing Joni Mitchell’s “River” to your mom.
  • It’s the triumphant return of Dr. Lee Rosen, Worst Therapist In The World! Could he have sounded any snippier when he brushed off Nina’s concerns about Kat by saying she would just forget all of this in two weeks? What a guy!
  • It is a rather light episode for Gary, all things considered, but he does get to save the day and pay his cabbie. I would call that a win-win.
  • Nina looks really scary when she has trouble breaking through the block in Cipio’s head. (Also, that is just my best guess at Cipio. If you know better, please enlighten me.)
  • No, seriously, doesn’t it seem like this season could really pull a lot of things together by killing off Rosen? I still don’t think the show will do it, but if that wound he’s suffering from at episode’s end turns out to be fatal, you heard it here first.