You could tell that tonight’s episode of Alphas was going to try to accomplish something more ambitious than the show’s last two perfectly adequate episodes based solely on the pre-credit sequence’s sampling of The Doors’ “People Are Strange.” The song is a rallying point for the show’s mutant characters and a good table-setting introduction to what is, within the context of what we’ve seen the show’s writers are capable of thus far, a pretty decent mythology episode. “Rosetta” introduces us to the Red Flag, the group responsible for the terrorist attacks in the last three episodes and the ones that brain-washed both Cameron and Bill in the show’s pilot. Tonight’s episode is also a Gary-centric episode, one of what I hope will be a series of character profile-type episodes. It’s not what you might call a real game-changer but it is a significant change of pace after last week’s fairly underwhelming episode.
I heavily qualify my praise of “Rosetta” because I think Alphas still has a ways to go before it becomes anything more than an entertaining but un-ambitious scifi show. No matter how tense or involving the show may be, its characters’ motivations are still largely generic. Tonight’s episode strives and kind of succeeds at further developing Gary’s character. We first see Gary brushing his teeth at home. This is just before he stumbles upon the cell phone signal that leads him to Milos Kosar, the person Dr. Rosen and his team of Alphas believe is ultimately (though not directly) responsible for turning Cameron and Bill into “ghost” killers.
This opening scene sets up the most nuanced and interesting thing about Gary’s character arc in “Rosetta.” Gary’s mother brings him a glass of water to rinse his mouth with after he brushes. Though she’s taken great pains to make sure that the water is not too cold and not too warm, Gary tells her that the water is not warm enough. She gently tells him that he could just pour his own water since only he knows exactly how he likes his water. He tells her that he knows he could and lets the issue drop there.
This isn’t just a slight joke: it’s a telling and potentially rather interesting acknowledgment of a hidden side to Gary’s character. His cognitive disabilities, the ones that make him slightly autistic, are a product of his powers as an Alpha to see and interpret different waves of information. This makes him unreadable as a character after a point. I didn’t say that he complains that the water is too cold because that would imply that we can read a clear-cut emotional response from Gary when he says, “It’s too cold.” We can’t. Moreover, when Gary tells his mother that he knows he could do more for himself but simply doesn’t, there’s two potential motives behind that response. There’s the innocent, self-satisfied aspect to this comment. And then there’s the underlying suggestion that Gary likes to be in a position of power.
That suggestion of greater depth to Gary’s character is not given much traction in “Rosetta.” Nevertheless, the fact that that quality is so slight is not only what I like about “Rosetta,” it’s what makes it such a limited character study. All of the chase stuff with the Red Flag and with Anna, an autistic girl that communicates using a coded language that she speaks using everything from the slats on her closet door to the bristles on her hairbrush—all of that was fine. But the most interesting part of “Rosetta” is its two most ancillary and otherwise negligible scenes. This is a problem that shows like Fringe have too often: they pack almost all of the emotional payload of any given episode into the opening and closing five minutes of footage, making the rest of the episode feel like filler material. These two appetizing bookend segments are willfully isolated from the events of the episode. Nowhere else in “Rosetta” can you see Gary acting relatively maturely. For the most part, he’s just a kid that wants to be friends with Anna, to correct her when she’s wrong and to understand her better. His motives are, for the most part, fairly readable, in other words. But during the opening and closing scene of “Rosetta,” they’re not and that’s where show-runner/episode writer Zak Penn proves why Alphas is a fun procedural show with a superheroic twist.
By the time we get to the episode’s last segment, Gary knows a lot about Anna and what she’s been doing with the Red Flag. Though Dr. Rosen tells Nina that he knows that Gary’s confusion about Anna is motivated by “juvenile” emotions, he’s wrong. Gary knows more about Anna than he’s telling the Alphas and that forbidden knowledge is what makes him smile when Anna tries to contact him later. Anna’s spiel about being how he needs to be more independent has affected Gary. This makes the scene where Gary tells his mom that he can pour his own water more important than it might initially seem. But it also puts a lot of stress on a solitary gesture and the symmetry of the first and last scene of “Rosetta.”
One thing I like about “Rosetta” is the way that Gary’s dark side, the side that will inevitably wind up biting the Alphas in the ass, is not over-accentuated. The viewer, like Gary, has to do a little digging and keep their eyes pealed to notice the way he responds to his mother. It’s not exactly a subtle power dynamic but it is subtle enough that you might just write off the fact that something is happening in the first and last scene that isn’t as innocent as it initially appears. Considering how blunt and over the rest of “Rosetta” is, these two scenes especially stand out and show just how different “Rosetta” is from Alphas’ last three episodes. It also shows how limited the show’s intelligence still is, preferring to make a lot out of two little scenes and not spreading out the episode’s emotional pay-off throughout the episode. I’m curious to see where Penn leads the show after this but I hope he really tries to do something really ambitious with his characters.