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Alphas: “The Unusual Suspects”

Illustration for article titled iAlphas/i: “The Unusual Suspects”
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Can we just discuss for a moment how bizarre it is that David Strathairn is starring in a SyFy drama about superpowered crime fighters? Don’t get me wrong: Strathairn’s Dr. Rosen is one of the top reasons to tune into this show, and he’s turning in incredibly compelling work, week after week. But if you were going to say, “Hey, David Strathairn is going to do a TV show!” a year ago, no one would have ever guessed he’d end up on this show. An HBO drama? Sure. Some sort of AMC or FX thing? You bet. But the leader of a super-team on SyFy? What, exactly, do the producers and/or the executives at SyFy have on the guy? And exactly how well do they pay? And can I get some of that cash?

I think of all of this because tonight’s episode simply wouldn’t have worked without Strathairn at its center, but it did end up working quite well, thanks to him. The basic idea here is one the show’s been building to very quietly: Someone on the team is a traitor who betrayed knowledge of a bunch of old guy scientists (who worked on the MK-ULTRA human experimentation projects back in the day). They apparently shared the locations of these scientists with an Alpha who can kill people just by touching them, and now the whole team has been rounded up to Binghamton, where they get to sit in small white rooms and eventually tear at each other’s throats in anger. This is all a pretty typical set-up, but it’s well-executed, and I quite liked how the show telegraphed—but not too heavily—that Rosen was the one behind the leaks, the traitor that Nathan was looking for.


Except he wasn’t, not really. It turns out that an Alpha who can change his outward appearance was impersonating Rosen, leaving the real article passed out on his couch, surrounded by drug paraphernalia, just waiting to be killed after the order was given. Instead, he woke up just in time and took out the assassin before hightailing it back to the office and confronting his imposter. (Gary, the only other member of the team there, was a bit baffled by the two Rosens, and almost didn’t trust the right Rosen simply because he’d been given a haircut, presumably by the bad guys of Red Flag.) It was a neat showcase for Strathairn, who got to play the concerned, ultra-intelligent Rosen in both personas, but then also got to play the shape shifter, who spend much of the hour breaking down from the strain of holding his Rosen disguise in place for so long. (Doesn’t it seem like the show has gotten away from the vaguely realistic powers that marked it in the early going? This may be a discussion for another time.)

Anyway, “Unusual Suspects” wasn’t an episode that completely worked. It was like a series of bottle episodes, strung one after the other, with the best scenes being the ones where the whole ensemble was together in one room and at each other’s throats. The show finally started to pay off its Red Flag mythology in earnest, but I was surprised by how little tension the episode had in some scenes. At various points, Rosen would introduce a ticking clock of one sort or another, and it was never entirely clear just why he was doing so, other than to give the episode a little forced drama, I guess. (You could make an argument that fake-Rosen introduced the ticking clocks to keep anyone from discovering his true identity, and I think that’s probably accurate. But it’s still something that felt like a writers room gambit, especially at first.


Still, it wasn’t like this was a bad episode or anything. There were lots of great moments, but the tension never ramped up as effortlessly as it did in “Blind Spot.” (Though I will say that the ending of the episode, with the two Rosens and eventually the two Garys, was a ton of fun, and I could have done with a whole episode about trying to defeat the shapeshifter without knowing which members of the team were being mimicked. I also thought the fight scene between Hicks and Bill was very exciting and a heck of a lot of fun, to boot. It nicely spiced up a segment—the latest scene of the characters accusing each other of being a traitor—that could have felt far too repetitive, considering how many scenes before it had been just that.

All of that said, however, the episode struggled to pull off something earlier episodes did more effortlessly. All season long, the show has been selling us very gradually on the idea that these people form a kind of ad hoc, workplace family. That’s not a new idea in the world of ensemble dramas, and the show has done a good job with the episodes where the various team members realize just how important they are to the team as a whole. But this episode—the obligatory “everybody is at each other’s throats until they realize the threat comes from without”—suffered because it was blatantly obvious that no one was going to be the ultimate bad guy, particularly after the cold open. (Yes, I realize death-by-touch guy could have been called in by someone else, but does it really seem like he’d be in close touch with one of our team members? Probably not. The episode didn’t even let us think Rosen was the big bad (which would have been an awesome twist, though one that would have been impossible to justify) for more than a second. As soon as Rachel realizes the blood on the ground isn’t Rosen’s (thus making him the traitor), we’re on to the next thing. Granted, this is the most exciting part of the episode, but everything here felt a little preordained, with none of it overcoming the fact that, well, the show wasn’t going to abruptly make Gary or someone a bad guy.


But I do enjoy me a good episode set in a confined space, and “Unusual Suspects” had quite a bit of that. And I liked the little expansions we got to the show’s world here, from the look at Binghamton—which is exactly what you’d expect it to be—to the mention of “building seven,” the building that no Alpha comes out of once he or she has entered. (And how much do you want to bet that will play into the series’ overarching plot.) And it was also nice to see the show continue to play up its more serialized aspects, even as the episode tells us that we’re leaving behind some of the “freak of the week” aspects from previous episodes. “Unusual Suspects” wasn’t last week’s episode, but it aped a lot of kinds of TV episodes I like, and that made for something entertaining, even if the parts didn’t all gel.

Stray observations:

  • Gary was in fine form tonight, particularly when he got upset about Rosen throwing up in the flower pot.
  • I spent a huge amount of time in this episode considering how the show would have been able to make Rosen one of the bad guys. I ultimately couldn’t come up with anything, but I still think it would have been an awesome twist.
  • I liked some of your theories last week about why Rachel had to be the mole. At the same time, I’m glad Rachel, everyone’s favorite super-smeller, continues to be a part of the program.
  • "It's the greatest love bar spy tuxedo movie ever made."
  • "I'm agitated. I have a bad attitude."
  • "It couldn't be the UPS guy."
  • "Vomit is the body's way of telling us we're not fine."
  • "It's delicate. It's a philodendron."

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