That? That was an Alphas episode to make viewers feel justified in sticking with the show this long. It’s not that the show has been bad or anything, but that was an episode of TV dedicated to digging in deep and playing out story arcs you know the writers have been patiently waiting to deploy all season long. Now, with just two episodes left (after this one) in the season, the series finally started clarifying a bunch of mythological questions, and it managed to make an episode that felt huge, even as it was something deliberately small-scale. Indeed, this was the very smallest type of TV show episode there is: a bottle episode. But it was a hell of a great idea for a bottle episode, and the twists and turns eventually came so frantically that the whole thing gained a great deal of awesome momentum. And as a bonus, it finally started to pay off some of the stuff that’s been hanging over the series all this time and suggest some intriguing new directions for the series’ mythology.
Also, Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation broke through his handcuffs using the power of sound. Yeah. It was that kind of an episode.
The basic setup is a good one. A prisoner—our aforementioned Data, OK Brent Spiner, OK Dr. Kern—is brought to DCIS headquarters, and the team is tasked with keeping him there until such time as he can be remanded to the government, which will bring him to Binghamton. What did he do? Well, he tried to introduce Alpha DNA into human fetuses, which is, in and of itself, a pretty creepy idea. And he’s also part of Red Flag, the group of Alphas that’s slightly more militant than Dr. Rosen and pals. (This would make Kern the Magneto to Rosen’s Professor X, I suppose.) But as the team drags Kern up into the offices, something else shoves the elevator door open again, and it’s something the camera can’t see. We in the audience know there’s a presence there—possibly an invisible one—but the characters cannot.
From there, this thing is just on the rails. As premises for a bottle episode go, trapped in a small space with a creepy, militant bad guy who’s not above doing anything to advance his causes and an invisible monster who may or may not be working with him (or might be the one thing the bad guy’s scared of) is an awesome one. And the episode does everything right for a bottle episode, too. It doesn’t force the issue of keeping the team trapped in the offices until it absolutely has to. (Before that, they’re all just there catching up on a little late-night work and making sure Kern stays put.) It comes up with a great number of creepy moments that make the episode feel bigger than it actually is. And it ramps up the tension so gradually that it can go from a “ho-hum, just another day at the office” feel to what feels like Armageddon breaking out, all on the show’s standing sets. This is an episode confined to one area, but it never feels limited by its scope, and that’s true of all of the best bottle episodes.
But, again, the best thing about all of this is that it’s just got a ton of cool moments. For my part, my favorite just might be when the team realizes that whoever is causing all of the chaos is also somehow glitching out the cameras. Now, this whole thing could feel very convenient—she’s got an Alpha ability that lets her stay in someone’s blind spot and a way to fuck with cameras?—but the show immediately goes for broke in the very next scene, when Gary taps into the camera feed from across the street. See, the cameras in the office building across the way peek into the DCIS offices every 15 minutes, and Gary realized this long ago. So he taps into them to see what, exactly, they’re seeing, and that’s when everybody else realizes that on those cameras, there’s a woman standing in the room that none of them can see. It’s just an effortlessly cool idea, pulled off with panache, and it really ratchets up everything that happens next, as she (named Griffin) attacks, and things devolve into utter chaos.
Griffin is played by Rebecca Mader, and she’s not really in the episode, but she more than makes an impression when she is. (One gets the sense that she’s being set up to be a recurring character here, and I think that would be a good choice.) She’s not there to free Kern, nor is she there to knock off the other Alphas. Indeed, she and the DCIS have the same goal: to neutralize Kern. But she wants to take him to her employers, and DCIS can’t allow that. So this means she stays trapped in her chair as Kern frees himself using his powers of sonar to make sound waves resonate in the little room he’s trapped in, thus shattering the walls and cutting through his handcuffs. And then he’s after Griffin, and she’s tied up, and Bill is trying to jump-start his own power (still dormant after the events of the last episode), and… oh, it’s all very exciting and terrific.
What’s amazing is that all of this could feel very hokey—indeed, there were a few points where I was worried the show was going too far—but it always dials back at just the right moment. Kern utterly destroys the office with his powers, and it could feel like too big of a climax, but the episode rightly ties it into Bill’s struggles to regain his power. Griffin’s assault on Gary could feel ludicrous, but the episode chooses that moment to bring Rachel in out of nowhere to knock out Griffin and ask us if we’d totally forgotten Rachel was still on the playing field (granted, she spent most of the episode trussed up and stuck in an air vent, but she did free herself). And the structure of the episode—which spends a lot of time letting us know just how bad of a bad guy Kern is before showing us whom he’s afraid of before blindsiding us by returning Kern to the primary villain slot—is very smart about keeping us guessing.
I’m sure if I tried hard enough, I could find some quibbles here and there with the episode. (For all of the sturm und drang, Bill’s struggles never felt as present or real to me as some of the other character arcs.) But for the most part, this is exactly what I look for out of sci-fi TV. It was viscerally entertaining, it was paced like a rocket, and it was filled with great little character moments to boot. I’ve been waiting all summer for Alphas to unleash an hour this good. I knew it was capable of it, and I believed it could bring all of this together, but I’m more than thrilled to see it actually happen. Really fun TV.
- The scene where Rosen and Kern talk about terrorist groups and fringe elements was one of the better scenes of the season and a relatively quiet one. Watching Spiner and David Strathairn toss conversation back and forth was a lot of fun. I’m almost sad Kern died at the end.
- The mythology gets further clarified: Binghamton is not a nice place. Red Flag’s ultimate goals (crazy as they are) are more concretely spelled out. Griffin works for some unnamed third group that’s been hinted at before. (Much as I don’t want this show to overcomplicate the mythology, I am intrigued to see who’s pulling her strings.)
- The scene where everyone was trashing the office to make it easier to spot Griffin was another very good one, particularly for Gary’s consternation at the mess.
- "Do not disturb! That's my IM chat status! I should get a sign."
- "I can't run around abducting people with my voice."