With this season of Heroes promising little and delivering even less when it comes to the kind of compelling plot that drove the first season, many of you have made your displeasure known, including threatening to abandon the show altogether. While I may grouse every now and again (and again), I've yet to be anywhere close to quitting–and even if I wanted to, I'm not really allowed–but I can certainly sympathize. The big problem is that thus far Heroes hasn't really seemed to be heading anywhere but further up its own ass. Little mysteries like the Hooded Killer subplot and the exposure of Parkman's dad as the Nightmare Man were interesting (for all of an episode or two) but are ultimately too little to hang a season on, even one broken up into easily digestible volumes.

We need an endgame, and tonight the final five minutes of "The Line" finally gave us what we've been waiting for, a glimpse of what will presumably be the season-defining plot. As it turns out, though, we've seen it all before: An apocalypse now-ish New York of the not-too-distant future (June 2008, conveniently; nice how the world always ends just before summer recess), and only Peter–and whoever else the NBC announcer was referring to as "The Good"–can save it. Of course, it's not exactly the same scenario as last time. Instead of a bunch of bombed-out skyscrapers, we saw the after-effects of a viral outbreak (which in turn looks a lot like 28 Days Later) that apparently killed off 93% of the world's population–Shanti's virus, most likely, which means someone at The Company either really screwed up, or they're more evil than we ever thought.

So far I'm not sure how I feel about this. I've sensed the writers digging at something here with all the talk of genetics and viruses this season, but I'm not sure I have total faith in the way it will all play out. It's a theme that's been hinted at since the show began, this idea that abilities spring up unwanted and without warning, not unlike a disease. It's what gives the show its pathos: Yes, having the ability to fly or read minds or regenerate toes makes these people special, but it also makes them different from everyone else, and not being able to change that is scary. In a way, it's no different from being born with autism or Tourette's or any other hereditary disorder in that they have zero choice in the matter (no wonder the heroes are always bitching). Unfortunately, X-Men has already pretty much exhausted the idea of superpowers as a form of evolutionary mutation, so Heroes has had to hedge its bets with an increasingly convoluted mythology and hints of the supernatural, when choosing to be one or the other would probably serve the story better. Still, despite my reservations, I have hopes for the virus plot. It's not as big and flashy (or fun) as trying to stop an exploding man, but it could finally revive some of the deliciously darker undercurrents of the show that have so far been shunted in favor of soapy melodrama.

And those unexpectedly dark moments are really what this show does best–better than light and fluffy romantic subplots, anyway–which is why it was nice to see Claire get a little taste of being evil tonight thanks to Captain Emo, who seems to have studied the Christian Slater-in-Heathers manual on how to turn a good girl bad. Step one: Focus on a common enemy, in this case the stock bitchy cheerleading captain who wouldn't let Claire join the squad despite her impassioned routine about the importance of recycling. (P.S. WTF?) Having Claire use her abilities toward a shallow, self-centered end is hopefully just the first step on her road to corruption, which can only be followed by a disastrous break-up and–this is just my fantasy–a tear-streaked Captain Emo flying directly into the sun. Of course, we still have a ways to go before she finally wises up to "cool guys" (and I'm still pretty sure West was the one holding the gun in that painting of a capped Bennet) but I'm just glad that the hint of sociopath I saw in Captain Emo wasn't just wishful thinking. Big Fun.

And really, it can't be that hard to turn Claire evil. After all, she was raised by Bennet, who–lest we forget after all those weeks of playing overprotective Daddy–reminded us why he used to be considered the show's villain by torturing his former mentor before killing him in cold blood. Bennet got what he wanted (the remainder of Isaac's paintings), but at the cost of turning himself into enemy number one to the Company he's been hiding from–"condemning himself to hell," as Ivan put it, although I don't really think it made much of a difference either way. At best, Bennet has been stuck in a Purgatory of his own making ever since taking Claire into his life, and it's not like he didn't off Thompson in last year's finale, so what's one more dead former partner? Although his way with bosses has pretty much ruined his chances of getting hired anywhere else; maybe he should have asked for letters of recommendation before blowing their brains out.

Also taking a walk on the dark side tonight–albeit in a totally expected way–was Kensei, who betrayed both Hiro and Yaeko after he witnessed them kiss. Of course, any dramatic change in their middling little subplot can only be a good thing, and now we know from the paintings Bennet unearthed that a showdown is ahead for Hiro and Kensei, which should finally spell the end of his little misadventure. Here's hoping that we actually get to see it; tonight we once again caught the beginning of an epic samurai battle, only to have it yanked away from us at the last moment–literally freezing the action–in favor of rehashing the exposition for Ando's benefit. If I didn't know any better I would say the Heroes writers are deliberately fucking with us–but they can't possibly be that cocky yet, right? Anyway, Hiro's quest is winding to a close, and even Peter made the first step towards being interesting again by leaving Ireland. Of course, he dragged that damn barmaid along, he's still suffering from amnesia, and he's only uncovering more and more questions in Montreal instead of regrouping with people who could actually help him, but hey, at least he's trying something new besides roll-neck sweaters.

Now while I don't generally like to discuss sources besides the episodes themselves, I couldn't help Googling "Adam Monroe," only to find out that he's been mentioned before outside of the show: Heroes: The Mobile Game names him as one of the original founders of The Company, so it seems as though either he's turned against his former colleagues, or he's one of many who's caught on that manipulating Peter is super easy (not to mention fun!). It's probably too soon for such speculation, of course, but what the fuck…Who wants to play a round of wild guessing? Monroe is the Hooded Killer! Monroe is Darth Veronica's father! Monroe is Kensei! Monroe shot Mr. Burns! Whee! Please don't turn out to be totally lame!

Considering this show is running low on mysteries, Monroe couldn't have come at a better time; hopefully his revelation will be more like the first time we met Sylar than the first time we met Pa Parkman (and if he really does turn out to be Kensei, I'm going to be pissed). Speaking of Sylar, we got far too little of his oily charm tonight, but seeing him put the moves on Maya and then calmly tell Alejandro that he was going to kill him reminded me of just how much is at stake when Zachary Quinto reports to the Enterprise bridge later this year. Really, this show needs to introduce a worthy villain and fast–and I mean an out-and-out, unapologetic villain whose sole motivation is to hurt and kill, not an "is she or isn't she?" enigma who toes the line like Niki. While I think having her around to spy on Mohinder certainly ratchets up the tension–and it also cuts down on the number of moral high roads he can take in every episode–there's just no way she's going to go black and never go back. (Obviously that didn't even work with D.L.) She has a kid, for Christ's sake. Her redemption is just sitting out there waiting in New Orleans, like a big storm system threatening to flood the show with sappy, tear-filled hugs.

All in all, "The Line" was a nice hint of dark things to come, but still somewhat lacking in forward motion. I miss that rollercoaster rush of the earlier episodes, where it felt like everyone's individual plot was careening towards the dizzying peaks and crushing lows together; so far this season is more like the bumper cars, which everyone knows are way more frustrating than they are fun. Next week we'll learn about the new end of the world, we'll supposedly be closer to a conclusion to Hiro's journey, and hopefully we'll get one of those decent cliffhangers that have been missing this season before we jump back to "Four Months Ago "(which may or may not undo some of the ill will the writers generated with the premiere). I'm going to cautiously say that this episode marked the season's ascension–and hopefully it won't prove to be just another plateau.

And damn it, I knew I painted myself into a corner with last week's "B." If there were a mark between B and B+, I would use it. How about

Grade: B*

Where the "*" represents one of those "Grape Job!" scratch-and-sniff stickers.

Stray observations:

— That was a nice plug when Company Bob handed over a "fully loaded" video iPod to Monica–too bad NBC and Apple don't like each other anymore.

— What cellular provider do these people use? First Darth Veronica checks in from Ireland last week, then Claire calls her Dad in the middle of the Ukraine. I can barely go 50 miles west of Austin before my service cuts out.

— Mohinder's "dramatic character makeover" this season is more or less him just being a real dick: Yelling at people, throwing them up against walls, smashing lab equipment. I think maybe I liked him better as a gullible dupe. At least that made sense.