Photo: Greg Lewis (Hulu)
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Finally, some fresh blood... sort of. A lot of the running time of “Old School” is devoted to Topher. What’s his deal? Where’s he from? Why do his eyes glow like Molly’s? And should the other Runaways trust him? If you’ve read the Runaways comic, you know that the answer to this last question is “probably not,” but you also could have figured that out by being a human who consumes a bare minimum level of media in this oversaturated year of our Lord 2018.

Let’s get this out of the way: Jan Luis Castellanos is hot. It’s fun enough to watch him smolder at Nico, or preen at Alex and Chase, or even worm his way into poor Molly’s heart. But so far, Topher isn’t that interesting. He presents himself as a street-smart homeless kid who knows things about the world the Runaways couldn’t imagine—which would be a cool way to integrate a new character into the group, if it seemed like that was going to be his main angle. Instead, that gets very quickly undermined “untrustworthy junkie,” which is a much less compelling character type with more predictable outcomes.

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Everyone is deeply suspicious of Topher, for good reason. Besides the fact that all of the kids have been given plenty reasons to be distrustful of everyone else, there are just too many possibilities. Topher could have been sent by their parents. He could be an undercover cop. He could just be a random criminal looking to ransom them. When he gets food for the group, he claims he’s doing “urban foraging” from trees in the area and bakeries getting rid of their day-old products, but it’s way more likely he’s been stealing. He has a suspicious sore on his arm. Even when he helps out with their heist at the end of the episode, it’s just a display of skills that could easily be put to use as an infiltrator.

By far the most compelling thing about Topher is what everyone else thinks about him, which comes into focus as a philosophical argument about what the team’s values are. Molly and Karolina are committed to the idea that they should accept Topher as someone who claims to have a similar background (and definitely has similar abilities) to their group, while Chase, Alex, and Nico want him gone. My personal take is closer to what Gert describes as a “hundred-yard dash between my anxiety and my idealism,” which resolves in favor of anxiety. Don’t let yourselves get betrayed again, kids!

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This is, to be fair, also a smart way to force the main characters to reengage with the show’s class politics. Everyone is committed to no longer being spoiled rich kids (and, of course, it would rule if part of the Runaways mission ended up including blowing up the exploitive companies that built their parents’ wealth), but the temptations of their old lives are strong—and, no matter what, it’s going to take them a long time to change.

It certainly took Geoffrey Wilder a long time to change. And even now, he comes close to reverting to his old way of conducting himself. In the wake of Darius’ murder, he is, understandably, furious with his wife. Catherine’s line on this is tough: She claims that Geoffrey’s commitment to Darius was a fantasy, an illusion about what his life was when he was younger. Angel Parker has had a lot of fun with this icier incarnation of Catherine, and I really hope she gets to say more stuff like, “Did I not meet you because you killed your boss?” It might happen soon, since everyone in Pride is now committed to the idea of killing their new boss and never seeing each other again.

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After the Victor and Janet material in the last episode, it’s time to check in on a different couple’s plan to kill Jonah. Dale and Stacey go to the dig site to test out a serum they hope will kill him, which, tentatively, seems to have the desired effect: Necrosis on material that, for some reason, is probably the same type of organic material as Jonah. Girl, I guess! It’s a mostly successful endeavor, except that in the process the Yorkes run into Jonah and Karolina.

Besides introducing Topher, Jonah and Karolina’s big father-daughter hang is probably the second-biggest plot of the episode, and it goes a long way toward something I didn’t think the show was even going to attempt: humanizing Jonah. He’s clearly very sick (he needs a new sacrifice), and wants to spend time with Karolina before he either revives or dies. When he calls her and stops himself in the middle of a demand (“I need to—I’d like to see you”) Julian McMahon’s generally excellent villainous smirk softens before our eyes. I doubt the show is going to go out of its way to suggest that Jonah actually should accomplish his goals, or that he should be forgiven for any of the horrible things he’s done, but I do appreciate the extent to which everyone is given some degree of moral and emotional shading. (They didn’t have to do that!)

On the other hand, Jonah feels like a literal incarnation of the trope that a man can only perceive women (or, in this case, humans) as being people after he has a daughter. He hits a bunch of the tropes pretty hard, including trying frantically to offer money to Karolina and giving her an ultimatum: If she doesn’t follow him, she’ll never know what she really is. (Again, I feel like we’ve heard this one before.) In any case, the episode ends with the two of them descending down the hole, so we’ll be finding out what’s actually at the dig site pretty damn soon.

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While Jonah and Karolina are getting their quality time in, the rest of the kids start work on their own plan to mess with the dig site, which necessitates a very fun and good Runaways heist: They have to steal a computer from Atlas Academy, their old high school.

The theft is great, both because it’s an opportunity for the kids to run around frantically and do goofy lookout stuff and because it forces them all to confront the lives they’ve lost and the priorities they’ve been forced to abandon. In some cases, this is extremely literal: Gert tries to sneak into the school infirmary to get her medication, only to be stopped by the nurse. She notes that she used to take central air and heating for granted, but some things are harder to replace than others—at some point her mental health situation is going to become dire.

For the rest of the kids, we just get a sense of what’s missing from their lives now that they’re squatting in an abandoned mansion and literally fighting with their parents. They tell Topher not to take the side stairs because they might run into the “vape team.” (Cue Molly: “Sick clouds, bro.) Unfortunately, this answers my earlier question about which Runaway vapes... sadly, the answer is “none of them,” even though Chase definitely still blows thick cotton in secret. There are more than a few jokes about the history of the women’s bathroom, which got turned into a gender neutral bathroom after Gert successfully started a petition. Before they leave, Chase looks wistfully at the lacrosse team. Their new values and goals are certainly more righteous than their old ones, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t lost something.

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Stray observations

  • “Old School” is written by Tracy McMillan and directed by Patrick Norris.
  • Tina: “Congratulations, our kids are no longer wanted for murder.” Robert: “We brought scones.”
  • Lyrica Okana is great in the exchange where Topher tries to quasi-hit on Nico, only to be met with variations on “I don’t care.” It doesn’t matter what he says, Nico isn’t thinking about him!
  • I get that they’d be afraid to go on another mission to one of the parents’ houses, but couldn’t one of the other kids have demanded that Dale and Stacey hand over Gert’s meds? They definitely would have done it.
  • I didn’t have a good space to talk about it up top, but the runner where Pride tries to interrogate volunteers at the soup kitchen (and eventually the guy who stole the Fistigons) is very funny, and effectively shows how jarring it is to see these weirdos interacting with normal people.
  • Runaways Dad Of The Day: Jonah! I’m absolutely thrilled to be able to give this award to Julian McMahon, one of my favorite genre actors and long-time prince of my heart. Please, continue to be a weirdly effective and sinister dad on this show.

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