One of the things that’s making me think Alphas is a cut above the usual sci-fi TV show is the fact that the solutions to the mysteries, such as they are, are pretty clever. Granted, a mother who’s grieving her dead son—a son who committed suicide because he was being bullied—and thus takes out that grief on his bullies isn’t the most original idea in the world (it’s fueled many a C.S.I. episode), but the way she carries out her plan is what makes this episode intriguing and surprisingly emotional. Procedurals often live or die based on how well they flesh out their worlds and how well they figure out a way to parallel the regulars with the mysteries they’re investigating. In this episode, the story of a woman who could make people feel too much love, in essence, was nicely paralleled with the fact that Rachel’s unsure she’ll ever be able to be anything other than “a walking crime lab.” On the nose? No doubt. But it was also a cool way to dig into Rachel’s issues with closeness to other human beings.
The core of the story involves a small town where a variety of men—many on the high school football team—have been dying in curious fashion. The cold open is a bit of a disappointment, involving as it does a couple of teenagers making out on the local football field’s bleachers, then discovering a zombie-type man who clutches at the girl, pulling her away, before her boyfriend decks him. It turns out he’s the guidance counselor, and it turns out that he’s not a zombie, as it might seem at first. He just might as well face it: He’s addicted to love. (Honestly, it might be interesting to go back and rewatch that cold open knowing what happens later in the episode, and see the counselor’s actions viewed through that prism. Now, we can tell he’s just longing for the girl’s touch, if only to stave off his need for affection for a bit. But it would still feel unfortunately generic, I’m afraid.)
Anyway, the team gets called in to investigate this string of unusual deaths, and the episode does a handful of misdirects here and there. Rachel smells that the townspeople are living in fear, so it almost seems like we’re being prepared for a fear-based virus of some sort, but as soon as we learn about the mysterious fifth death in town, it’s clear that everything will have something to do with that first victim, and once we meet his mom, it’s clear the answer will also run through her. This isn’t a bad thing. A little predictability in a mystery like this can be helpful, provided the writers still have a few twists up their sleeves. And in this case, they do.
The notion that the mom can stimulate high levels of oxytocin—a chemical that bonds people together and more or less creates the feelings of love—is a clever one, and the episode builds to it nicely, with Dr. Rosen first surmising that the victims were addicted to something, then deciding it might have been a person, all the while accompanied by his new friend from the CDC, the Bionic Woman. But once the other members of the team conclude that, yeah, mom was creating these feelings of dependence in her victims, then creating withdrawal by pulling herself away, the episode’s on the rails. Rachel, see, is with the mom, trying to suss out just what might be happening. And she’s also a girl who’s already had to push away a man in the midst of a kiss in this episode, because the experience was just too intense for her. With her extra-heightened senses, how will she ever be able to love?
It’s often very important in team-based shows like this one to create the sense that every member of the team belongs, so that the writers can eventually start to chip away at that sense. It’s not enough to just say that everybody feels comfortable with each other and have them banter wittily with each other. You really do have to put them through hell and high water and reinforce that bond over and over. In this episode, Rachel gets her shot at feeling like she doesn’t belong, then feeling like she does, when her new surrogate mother pumps her full of love, then immediately pulls it away by saying, “I don’t love you” and slapping her in the face. It’s a surprisingly brutal moment, particularly when it involves a character who was just introduced a couple of acts ago, but the episode makes it count by having it dovetail in a way with Rachel’s overall struggles that doesn’t leap immediately to mind. It’s unpredictable, but it’s also perfectly predictable, and it makes the moment work almost perfectly.
This leads to the lovely scene where Dr. Rosen and the other Alphas come across Rachel’s body on the side of the road (after Bill chased after the car she was in using super-speed and cheesy effects). Rosen leans over her and makes sure he’s touching her as he tells her that she’s like a daughter to him, that everybody on the team loves her very much. It could feel forced, since this is only the fifth episode, but the episode builds to the moment so well, and the series has done such a good job of establishing how Rosen feels about these people that it mostly works. It certainly doesn’t hurt that David Strathairn’s a hell of an actor, making the most of every little bit of the dialogue. Plus, the writers understand they don’t have to push too hard to be flowery or over the top. Hearing Rosen matter-of-factly declare that he loves Rachel will be more than enough. (Naturally enough, our villain screws up her escape by having to stop one last time to kill one last victim, and that makes the ending feel a bit rote. But that doesn’t matter, really. The climax is the scene with Rachel, and that was terrific.)
Every week, I sit down to watch Alphas and find myself worried that the episode won’t live up to my hopes for the show. And every week, I find myself won over by whatever the episode is, while still chalking up a handful of flaws here and there. Honestly, “Never Let Me Go” might have been the best episode yet, starting in one place and ending up somewhere wholly unexpected, in a way that tied virtually everything that happened together in a satisfying, intriguing way. If the show can keep doing episodes like this—episodes with unexpected reveals, episodes that solidify the team, episodes that start one place and end up another—then it’s going to more than live up to its potential, no matter the occasional nitpicks.
- Thanks to Simon for ably filling in last week on another very solid episode.
- I did really enjoy the fact that the football team was called the “Panthers” and had blue and yellow as its colors. It’s nice to know that the villainy of the Dillon Panthers in seasons four and five of Friday Night Lights has an alternate explanation.
- I sometimes feel like the show isn’t quite sure what to do with Gary, given how often he ends up sidelined in these episodes. Still, his attempts to guide Bill and Cameron when they were in pursuit of the suspect were very funny.
- Lindsay Wagner got disappointingly little to do. Here’s hoping she turns up in future episodes (as she almost certainly will, given how they seemed to be setting her up as a Rosen love interest).
- It looks like the show’s ratings are stabilizing a bit. Still, they’re rather low for basic cable, and it wouldn’t hurt the show to have higher viewership. If you like it, it might be worth telling your friends to check it out. (It does hold on to a lot of the Warehouse 13 audience and sometimes bests that show, so it’s not in imminent danger. But higher numbers never hurt any show.)