This is a purely anecdotal feeling on my part, completely uninformed by any actual data or research; but I feel television is perfecting the art of making a season finale that can double as an emotionally satisfying series finale if need be. Maybe it’s just that I tend to follow shows that are perpetually on the verge of being cancelled that have writers and show runners who are intimately aware of their precariousness, but it’s always impressive to see a finale provide some drama, some spectacle, an emotionally resonant ending that encapsulates the key themes of the show while at the same time (ensuring the favor of the renewal gods) keep things sufficiently open-ended to leave room for further adventures and hijinks. All of which is to say, the finale has aired, The Orville has yet to be renewed for a third season, and if it doesn’t, “The Road Not Taken” was as worthy a story to end the show with as any the series has done.
I certainly hope the show is renewed. This second season has been an exponential improvement over the first in pretty much every way. Generally it’s been smarter, more tightly scripted, pushed outward on the bounds of its universe, and provided plenty of moments of grand spacefaring spectacle. Sure, a few of the episodes were duds —but overall, The Orville has more than proved worthy of the chance to keep refining its strengths. And one of those strengths is to take last week’s middling episode and build on it to make this week’s very fun episode. Granted, “The Road Not Taken” was still ostensibly about Ed and Kelly’s romance, but I’m not bothered by it simply because I love alternate universe stories. I just love them. I love how in the absence of order, the world immediately becomes filth and leather and bent —but not broken!— steely eyed determination. I love the reconfiguration of characters and places and, as wonderfully demonstrated tonight by the brief return of Alara Kitan, I love how alternate timelines provide an enjoyable, if brief opportunity to reconnect with departed characters.
We learn the full weight of Kelly’s decision last episode to turn down Ed for a second date. In one world, you’re a little lovesick, but still able to enjoy the full benefits of civilization. In the other, you’re running across a snowfield trying to escape murderous flying robot heads just so you can secure yourself the means of synthesizing a Twinkie. In the absence of Ed and Kelly’s marriage, the Kaylon invasion of earth was successful and they have continued their pogrom against biological life that has successfully eradicated half of the galaxies population. Ed and Gordon are a couple of space rats trying to survive with nothing but a beat up old Union shuttle they use to scavenge through the wreckage of Union space. They assume they’re going to be eaten when a tractor beam pulls them aboard a pirate freighter, but it turns out to be Kelly. She retains the knowledge of the original timeline future and has been trying, since the Kaylon war, to get the old crew back together. The deficiency of a certain type of protein in her brain caused the mind wipe to fail, and now she’s hell bent on securing the protein and returning to the Orville to send Dr. Claire through time to ensure Ed and Kelly have that second date. After all, it was only Kelly’s guilt over her infidelity that compelled her to push extra hard to get Ed his post on the Orville.
It would be easy for a story like this to pin the original timeline’s success on Ed being the captain. As the one in charge he should be the one unique and clever enough to outsmart the Kaylons in a manner other captains could not. But as Ed himself put it, “I had to swim with my shirt on until I was 20.” So it was a welcome continuation of the show’s core concept of average people in space that it wasn’t Ed’s genius, but instead the almost incidental relationship Isaac formed with Dr. Claire’s children that proved to be the key to holding off the Kaylon invasion. Isaac and the kids growing friendship were handled naturalistically enough that it never seemed like a giant neon arrow pointing to Isaac’s newfound humanity. And while that certainly was happening, the relaxed humor that defined their time together kept the relationship from feeling too portentous. It’s a nice confirmation on how important seemingly small things can be, and a good example of the show’s capacity for showing, not telling.
The crew locates a source for the protein at one of the few remaining resistance bases opposing the Kaylon. There, a sufficiently Mad Max shoulder pad-adorned Alara Katan trades a few grizzled barbs with her former crew mates before forking over the protein and ultimately giving her life buying them time to escape from the arrival of Kaylon troops. The freighter escapes, and evades the pursuing Kaylon ships by hiding out in a black hole. I’m no space genius, but I just don’t feel like a black hole event horizon is a thing you can amble around as though it were a shrub you can duck behind. I just can’t picture a ratty old freighter being capable of escaping what light can’t. I’ve said before that I rarely get hung up on the hard science of sci-fi, but that was a little goofy. But goofy or no, the Kaylons finally gave up their search and the freighter departs to find the Orville.
For all the urgency in the front half of the episode, things slow down a surprising degree in the second half. On the way back towards earth, Ed manages to wrangle together a bunch of candles and the means of creating a spaghetti dinner for two. Kelly explains her reason for turning down a second date, citing the pain she saw both of them living with. But that pain feels increasingly abstract, especially in comparison to how comforting it is to have a connection with another human being at the end of the universe.
The ship makes it to earth, now a gray, dried-up husk orbited by a broken moon. The Orville had the good luck of surviving the Kaylon attack in one piece, but the bad luck of doing so at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. While the shuttle nearly collapses in the process, the crew is able to manage to get on board. Ed gets clocked across the jaw by a hermit Bortus. It’s pretty swell. The Orville returns to space where John informs the crew the only way he can get the time travel cone to work is by interfacing with the Kaylon neural net in order to dredge up Isaac’s identity and the data he holds. Doing so will provide a solid lock on the Orville’s location. Obviously, they do so anyway, and John is able to get the time travel apparatus working again. However, the Kaylon aren’t even able to get there in time to kill everyone, because the strain of the device on the ship’s engines cause it blow up spectacularly. Fortunately, not before Dr. Claire is able to return to the past and set things right.
So who knows what happens now? Hopefully the show gets renewed. If not, it remains a positive, optimistic contribution to a television landscape that frequently feels lacking in both; and a welcome example of how quickly and well a show can grow beyond its lackluster origins. Either way, thanks to all of you for watching with me.
- Yaphit’s snout poking out of the resistance base was as overt a Star Wars reference I’ve seen from the show yet. The score even had a playful flute trill almost identical to Return of the Jedi.
- Again, some lovely spectacle this week. Gordon and Ed’s flight through the ice canyons as they evaded the Kaylon ships in particular was gorgeous.
- Isaac’s matter-of-fact “We have found you.” was chilling and a good example of how frightening an otherwise deliberately unfrightening-looking species can be. Also the disembodied gun heads.