Once again, Helix’s music direction is one of the best parts of the show. Tonight’s episode is called “Black Rain,” and it refers to what is the most interesting set piece of the episode—a vector-spit tainted sprinkler system, raining down on the hunkered down remaining scientists in the lab. (There are still people who aren’t Alan Farragut in the lab, which confuses me as much as it does you.) The whole scene is scored to the cheerful, sexy strains of “Raining In My Heart,” which as good as unnatural juxtaposition gets. The terrified scene in the glowing-blue sunroom looks a tiny bit like a glow-in-the-dark rave, if you’re not paying close attention. Neon paint and trance-like screaming.
What struck me most about tonight’s episode is how badly structured it is. The scene I described above is the episode’s theoretical climax, but it doesn’t have the emotional weight of a climax. It’s just not scary enough—Helix has undercut what the virus does to people enough times that the idea of more infected patients doesn’t immediately scare me, though it’s also possible that I don’t follow exactly which virus is going where.
Helix is trapped in a perpetual second act, which befits its nature as a science-fiction soap opera. Each episode introduces a new thing to stay just a few steps ahead of—in “Black Rain,” it’s both Peter’s vector army and Ilaria’s mercenaries. It makes sense that our heroes would feel they are trapped in a waking nightmare, but one of the reasons Helix is more campy than scary is because the nightmare never feels real—gruesome special effects aside. (Odd that both True Detective and Helix would use the microwave-as-murder-weapon plot device, just a few weeks apart. The two shows could not have less in common.)
And much of that is due to story structure. I’ve said this before—Helix has a lot of great ideas and poor execution. It can’t quite decide what the most interesting parts of the show are, and it isn’t leading the viewer through precise character arcs or plotlines. Which is unfortunate, because there’s so much good material here. Even Sarah’s resurrection in this episode, which was heavily telegraphed last week, is good material that gets a little lost in execution. You could argue that the story is getting weighed down by a lot of scientific details that aren’t very clear, or by badly written characters. But really, it’s that there is no episode of this series, except perhaps the pilot, that has any sense of itself as just a single installment of a story.
And yet this episode is also the first time I caught a glimpse of what Cameron Porsandeh is potentially trying to communicate with this story. In the middle of an otherwise innocuous scene, Farragut and one of the scientists in the lab (who might as well have “redshirt” tattooed on his forehead) are coming to terms with the kidnapping of another scientist. Alan says: “Speaking off the cuff, I think these vectors represent a new step in evolutionary virology.” “You make that sound like it’s a good thing,” responds the redshirt. “Far from it,” retorts Alan.
It’s hardly scintillating conversation, but it’s a fascinating little exchange. Alan is expressing an anxiety, but the way he does it makes the redshirt think he’s excited—and why not? Alan is a scientist, after all, and scientists do get excited about new, unexpected things in their field. I think that Helix is trying to tap into the mingled terror and excitement that accompany a scientific discovery that is so bizarre that it is essentially magical. I mean, “scientifically improbable” is as close as these guys get to admitting that they are scared shitless. Alan is scared shitless (not that his face would tell you), and so is the redshirt, but it’s also, secretly, super awesome.
It becomes a lot easier to parse what the other characters are feeling when you project it through the lens that they are all, also, totally stoked about how cool everything is. Sarah expresses real excitement about her cure; Julia is getting delusions of grandeur with her special powers and spinal taps; and Hatake has always been on the edge of crazy, right? They’re on the event horizon of evolution, and they are loving it, a little bit.
What’s also interesting is that the show is a little critical of this scientific advancement. Thats something that struck me in seeing the vectors first incapacitated and then forcibly injected with the vaccine. It’s not like we expect a crazed, diseased monkey-person to give consent, but… did they want to be vaccinated? What is this advancement doing to the people it purports to protect, and what is it doing to the scientists who hold all the power?
Just so you don’t think that this is all in my head, Miksa voices a lot of those same concerns when he confronts Hatake—in a rather unexpected turn of a events that had me agreeing with the solid guy who I used to call Probable Other Bad Guy. Meegwun Fairbrother hadn’t been the most impressive actor over the last few weeks, but he works well against Hiroyuki Sanada’s Hatake—especially when Hatake is overwrought and emotional, as compared to Miksa’s relative calm. Hatake is even more erratic and secret-plotty than usual in this week’s episode, taking mysterious trips down to Level X (or so) and shoving aside vectors that get in his way while badass music plays in the background. Hatake’s secrets are catching up to him, and once Miksa learns that Julia is Hatake’s daughter—and the only goal for Hatake, this whole time—he gets (understandably) bitter. In response to his indignation at being manipulated and used (in addition to kidnapped and brainwashed!), to being experimented upon, Hatake says: “Life is an experiment.” It’s hardly subtle, but that’s a theme that feels relevant, in a show that otherwise rarely does.
Now everyone in the base is dead except for a room full of recovering vectors and the six or so scientists in the bunker that looks like Montana. And there’s a Scythe on the loose. Two episodes to the finale. Let’s see how this goes.
- Today in implausible Helix shortcuts: I mean, I know the CDC is super-talented and stuff, but those vaccines worked really fast.
- I’m not so moved by Scythe, because he and his minions seem to be just another plot device to step over. (Though next week’s episode is called “The Reaping,” so I could be wrong.)
- Team Banana Update: Team Banana is in the “previously on,” but that’s it. #moreteambanana
- Sonia’s Speculation Corner: I’m going to have to throw this out to the crowd; I’ve got nothing. I guess Julia and Sarah are now one of the 500 immortals? But that probably means that some of the 500 have to be killed, right? Is that why Ilaria keeps trying to kill everyone at the base? And do we know yet why Ilaria wants the Narvik-A and -B? Is it to infect the whole world to profit off of global devastation?
- I am at the point where I’ll be disappointed if Alan doesn’t end up dead by the season finale.