One of the best things science fiction can do is push us to confront questions of morality. When a work of realistic fiction asks us to consider what it means to be a good person, it can feel cloying or forced, unless the author is a strong writer. Science fiction, however, traffics in stories where opportunities to express one’s ultimate good or evil pop up nearly every other day. One of the uses of this genre—and the other genres, actually—is to allow us a safe space to confront the wonders that humanity is capable of, right alongside the horrors. It’s one of the things the genre has in common with the religious fiction and mystery plays of the Middle Ages, which are more like this genre than you’d expect. But where religious fiction posits that there is a God who will judge us, science fiction often leaves us with only ourselves, left to make the right call and often stumbling toward the wrong one.
“God’s Eye,” the second season finale of Alphas, works perhaps slightly too hard to wrap up all of the story threads it has floating out there. (There’s, for instance, a reunion of the Nina and Hicks flirtation that comes largely out of nowhere.) Yet I’m impressed all the same that the show has been able to bring as many of these storylines to a head as it has. This hasn’t been a perfectly constructed season of television, but if a season of TV is going to be flawed, I’d rather it skew toward over-ambition than doing the same old thing. The second season of Alphas was an often challenging piece of work about a group of people perpetually on the edge of shattering apart, and it was a season that went to some truly dark places, places I didn’t really expect it to go every time it came up to the edge of them.
Take, for instance, the conclusion of tonight’s episode, which sure seems to depict a mass murder of every human being in New York’s Grand Central Station. I’m sure that next season could begin with some sort of “just kidding!” reversal, but in the moment, as Gary wanders through the crowds of people lying dead on the ground, it achieves the horror the show is looking for. (It’s somehow not blunted by having Simon and Garfunkel’s “Only Living Boy In New York” on the soundtrack either.) This is a big, terrifying moment, and the show, to its credit, doesn’t shy away from it, instead choosing to show just how terrible this would be, the sheer audacity of Stanton Parish’s plan finally gaining the texture it’s been missing all this time.
When the season began, perhaps my greatest hope for the show was that Stanton would be a villain worthy of the series’ heroes. I’m not sure he ever quite was. He mostly wandered around and philosophized some, and then we got some cool flashbacks with him. However, in the finale, he finally became something more than just a garden variety supervillain. His reasons for wanting to wipe the Earth clean of humanity weren’t the soundest, but they at least made a certain amount of sense—he’s apparently really, really concerned about climate change. If we had gotten more of this guy throughout the season, then his final attempts to wipe humanity from the face of the Earth (while saving Dr. Rosen) might have had even more resonance.
That’s not to say they were lacking entirely in said quality. Much of this comes from David Strathairn, who is handed something all but impossible to play—wandering around Manhattan and talking to someone who’s not really there—and somehow makes it deeply moving. Poised on the brink of death, Dr. Rosen attempts to figure out how to stop Stanton’s plan with only a couple of words—“God’s eye view”—to go on. He’s joined on his quest by a hallucination of Dani, who helps him put the pieces together. It’s hard to state just how wrong this could go, and I won’t blame you if you didn’t like it. To me, it was surprisingly poignant, as the two of them slowly figured out that the place Stanton was hiding wasn’t the Empire State Building, as originally thought, but Grand Central Station itself, where the mural painted on the ceiling shows the stars “from the other side” (so, basically, how God would see them if He were looking down). It’s a neat twist, and it sort of redeems the fact that this clue just falls into Rosen’s lap (as does the fact that Stanton apparently wanted this to happen).
If I have a minor complaint with the finale, it’s that it’s the Dr. Rosen show, to the exclusion of almost everybody else. Yes, Nina and Hicks get that out-of-nowhere moment, and Rachel and Jon get to realize they’re in love or whatever, but the episode is almost all Rosen all the time, in a way very few episodes this season have been. I’m conflicted about this, because I really do enjoy the team banter on this show, but it also feels appropriate that this all comes down to this one guy trying to stop his arch-nemesis. There are some beautiful moments sprinkled throughout, too, as when Rosen goes to the hospital and, believing himself to be dying, thanks Gary for all of the time they’ve spent together. (Gary, not getting it, says that he knows Rosen liked working with him because he’s “amazing.”) The other characters are supporting players in the Rosen story in a way they haven’t really been since early season one, and while that’s not such a bad thing, I did want a bit more from all of them before they all apparently died.
Because if there’s one reason to recommend this finale, it’s those haunting final 10 minutes, as Rosen finally catches up with Stanton and pulls back from what he’s become these last few weeks, realizes there’s a choice to be made between being a monster and a man. Would he be justified in killing Stanton? Sure. But he’d also have sunk to his level, at least a little bit. It’s a corny idea, and you could see it coming from a mile away, but it’s still surprisingly moving when Rosen talks Hicks out of killing Stanton because it’s not what Dani would have wanted. And then, when the show figures out a way to have Stanton’s evil plans carried out without killing everyone in New York, it becomes something else entirely, a grim-faced look at what the stakes are for these characters. In the end, what I most like about Alphas is that it’s willing to dramatize those differences between good and evil, and it’s willing to do so in a way that doesn’t blink.
- There’s still no renewal notice for the show, but its ratings picked up once it moved to the earlier timeslot, so I’m expecting it to get the third season, though I’m guessing having everybody but Gary “die” is a nice way for the show to write a few characters out if it needs to cut budget. (If you kill Kat, show, I will never forgive you. Just remember that.)
- It was fun to watch Skylar act as part of the team. In an ideal world, Summer Glau would become a regular, but I just don’t imagine that’s going to happen.
- The image of Rosen and Stanton lying next to each other on the cold cement at the end said as much about the weird duality between the two as the show ever has.
- If you haven’t read my piece on this series’ depiction of mental health issues—inspired by your comments!—it’s right here.
- One final Gary-ism for the season: When accepting Rosen’s apology for not being around as much recently, Gary says, “You kidnapped someone and held him prisoner. That takes time.”