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Since we last left the quarreling semi-emo mutants of Fox’s X-Men offshoot The Gifted, the show’s ensemble and storylines have become more fractured than ever. In any given episode, we’re following the Strucker family (minus wayward son Andy); at least two different factions within the Inner Circle (plus or minus Andy); Blink and Thunderbird working for the Underground with optional Eclipse add-on; and Jace Turner and his dalliances with the Purifiers, the anti-mutant hate group.

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Also, Polaris now has a bitchin’ new Magneto headband.

All of these different groups, sub-group factions, uneasy alliances, and Evil Mutant fashion choices have made the show’s storylines more manageable, even if it sometimes reduces them to a series of one-on-one or one-on-two arguments (and even those are more likely to arrive in shorter bursts rather than tedious episode-defining debates). The usual number of subplots also makes an episode like tonight’s midseason premiere, “eneMy of My eneMy,” feel significant simply for actually tying the story threads together more tightly than usual; pretty much all of the action serves one broader plot. At the end of the last episode, Thunderbird was captured by Jace and the Purifiers, so now our Underground heroes (mainly Eclipse and Blink) go to their ex-comrades in the Inner Circle (Polaris and Andy Strucker) to propose a brief alliance and rescue mission. And for some reason, the rest of the Strucker family comes along too.

In that semi-inexplicable move and plenty of others, “eneMy” plays like a Season 1 episode of The Gifted. The show hasn’t exactly gone through the kind of radical transformation that makes its second season worlds apart from its first, but it is notable that “eneMy” momentarily drops Reeva, the Cuckoos, and the Morlocks to re-focus on a bunch of characters who were there from the beginning. Even Baby Dawn has been sidelined (presumably for the rest of the season if not longer). This back-to-basics approach is flagged immediately by the episode’s flashback to Polaris, Eclipse, and Thunderbird back in the early days of the Underground. Because this has become The Gifted’s modus operandi, the scene is both wonderfully concise (does any other show on TV adhere to the principles of a proper cold open this well?) and pretty clunky. The scene can’t just inform the characters’ psychology or actions in the episode, but directly affect it in an overly literal way, as the three make a promise that must be referred to, once Thunderbird is in trouble and the Underground folks aren’t certain about reaching out to Polaris for help.

Blink and Eclipse have to do most of the clunking, as they volley back and forth with rephrases of two of the least interesting internal-struggle storylines on modern television: “you blame yourself, don’t you?” and “can we trust her?” The Struckers, meanwhile, have their own reprise to sing: another variation on can-Andy-be-saved-from-extremism bickering. The parents’ relief and happiness as seeing Andy again gives way to horror when, during the rescue mission, he has to be stopped from murdering a disarmed Purifier who took a shot at his sister—sort of a whiplash-y scene, given that we just recently saw Andy (accidentally) kill his girlfriend Rebecca to stop her from exacting the kind of revenge he really wants to commit here. Lauren, who has been seething during the entire reunion, is furious over the trangression, and her parents are shaken. The Strucker parent stuff is still deeply dull and unimaginative, but at least Andy and Lauren are a little more interesting when they’re directly at odds, whether in real life or the occasional conversations they have in each other’s dreams (“at least he’s reaching out,” Reed says about their superpowered dreamchats that end in violence, a dorkily quasi-optimistic dad to the end).

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All of this makes “eneMy” an odd outing for a midseason premiere. For all of its fast-paced and unified plotting, this is one of the weaker episodes of the 10 we’ve seen so far, slightly past the halfway mark of this 16-episode run. In general, the show hasn’t been retreading this Season One ground too heavily as it sprints through Season Two. The Inner Circle, which started off as a poor man’s Hellfire Club Redux, now has some of the most interesting character conflicts—Polaris and her protective instincts for baby Dawn, Esme’s more pronounced empathy versus other Cuckoos, Reeva’s idealism swirled in with her sneakiness—and least muddled set-piece missions (even if their heists tend to be smash-and-grab operations heavier on power-strutting than actual subterfuge). In this company, even Andy Strucker has become moderately more tolerable, especially compared to his departed love Rebecca. Anjelica Bette Fellini played Rebecca’s stunted immaturity well, but she had a gee-whiz energy that never quite squared with either side of her character’s upbringing, as a teenage rebel or a long-term torture victim.

Speaking of torture: Jace Turner! Both a practitioner of it, and a fine example of it, too. Turner, spurned by his former employers at Sentinel Services and still consumed with a desire for righteous vengeance, has gone full-on hate group. The Purifiers themselves make a fine bunch of villains, replete with a sinister cable news yelling-head played by Peter Gallagher in such a clear swipe at The Gifted’s corporate “news” sibling (soon to be separated by new adoptive parent Disney) that the obviousness becomes part of the fun. It’s a fine example of the show pivoting to give the social metaphors of the X-Men more contemporary juice—and if the particulars of those metaphors aren’t particularly smart of insightful, at the very least they’ve given the show a reliable batch of bad guys as the Inner Circle becomes more shaded.

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I wonder, though, if quickly making Jace Turner the face of this group (both to the show’s audience, where he’s the character we know best, and even, weirdly, in the world of the show, where he seemed to make a leap to keynote speaker pretty quickly in recent episodes) has been a mistake. Turner could serve as a fascinating portrait of a descent into fanaticism, but he comes off like such a goddamned idiot; his interrogation of John/Thunderbird in “eneMy” is thunderously stupid, especially considering that he’s supposed to be the ex-law-enforcement guy amidst a group of yokels and dipshits. His major breakthrough: What if two mutant groups? (Thunderbird tells him about the Inner Circle relatively quickly, and it still takes Jace a while to puzzle through the significance of this revelation.) If Turner was convinced that all mutants must belong to the same resistance group forever, why was he even bothering to dig for details about an attack that already happened? Why wasn’t he trying to use Thunderbird to, you know, get intel on the Underground’s other members? (Maybe because he also knows who most of those people are, too.)

Look, tonally speaking, The Gifted is basically a serious show, and I think the people making it want to try to do right by both Jace Turner as a haunted, screwed up character and the menace of contemporary hate groups as a chilling idea. But like the X-Men feature films, The Gifted works best when it can work in some pulpiness and some levity alongside its willingness to take the material seriousness, something that’s all the more important when the material is, in general, not as good as most of the X-Men feature films.

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A lot of Season Two has been fulfilling this promise. The show has become more stylized, with more low-angle and canted-angle shots, giving it a slightly cartoony energy, especially in the episodes directed by Michael Goi (and other directors on the show seem to be taking some cues from his more eye-catching compositions). “eneMy” doesn’t adapt much of that, beyond the visual consistency of having the Purifiers’ environment always look as color-drained and brownish as possible, basically like a late-period Clint Eastwood movie. What it does have is a semi-swoony Polaris/Eclipse kiss, which turns out to be a real necessity in an episode where even Blink, usually the most plainspoken and wisecracky of the core crew, is stifled with grief and worry. At its best, The Gifted has become an energetic, sometimes dopey, sometimes soapy serial—a show that’s rarely great but often fun. “eneMy” works pretty hard to deny its recent heritage.

Stray observations:

  • Hi, welcome back, however briefly, to some Gifted coverage here at The A.V. Club! I’m just dropping in on the show for a mid-season check-in, and I hope to be back for the finale in six to eight weeks.
  • First order of business: Guys, what the hell happened to the pre-break story turn where the Inner Circle destroyed the functionality of all anti-powers collars worn by all mutants everywhere? A server that can be destroyed and will shut off a valuable mechanical tool used all around the country is a baldly ridiculous idea (even if I love how it proves my theory that The Phantom Menace has been much more influential on current entertainment than anyone will admit!) but the payoff, where imprisoned mutants everywhere realized their powers were no longer inhibited, seemed like it, I don’t know, might be a huge topic of discussion in the world at large, with the mass breakouts and riots and such. Even though this episode’s purview was intentionally limited, it felt like a major thread to drop entirely. Obviously they’ll pick it up again later, but it’s just one more decision that makes this one an odd point to re-enter the series.
  • Although I generally have enjoyed the show’s expanded style, there’s one tic I wish they’d ease off of: It seems like every week, more and more superpower flexes feature angry, contorted screams, as if everyone is Reeva, whose power still looks the stupidest. I feel a deep swell of pity every time poor Grace Byers has to suffer through one of those cheesy music-video shots.
  • Looks like we’re back to the Strucker drama that had lessened (or at least gotten easier for me to ignore) for next week. While I enjoy pissed-off Lauren, and try not to speak in memes, the family’s conclusion that the only way to get Andy back is to destroy the Inner Circle gets a big ol’ “this ain’t it, chief” from me. How in the world does it follow that if Andy is alienated from his family’s values, destroying other people who share his values will send him back to them?
  • Also, not to be a jerk about it, but why do they want Andy back?
  • Seriously, love the Magneto headband.

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