“The Devil Will Drag You Under” is what I like to call an onion episode. It starts out in a place that seems weird, where all of the characters seem to be behaving out of character—Rosen is letting Dani walk free for no real reason; Hicks is working with Stanton Parish!—then it slowly fills in the gaps, until everything makes sense. Inevitably, an onion episode involves some sort of undercover mission, and “The Devil Will Drag You Under” is no exception in that regard. However, this doubles up the onion episode with a stealth flashback episode, where a series of short shots at the beginning of the episode ultimately keys us in to the fact that something tragic is going to happen at the end. (How can you look at David Strathairn’s stricken face and not know this is heading somewhere awful?) In short, “The Devil Will Drag You Under” is a highly ambitious episode of television, the sort of thing nobody should write a review of after only watching it once. But let me try, and consider that grade provisional.
My biggest problem with “Devil” is that, as an onion episode, it’s all too obvious that Hicks is undercover. Indeed, even when the show tries to throw us off its scent by having Dee from Battlestar Galactica (who’s sadly underused here) read Hicks’ thoughts to see that he is, indeed, loyal to Stanton, it’s too obvious that Nina has built up some sort of shield to defend the guy against any mind invasion tactics Stanton might have up his sleeve. There’s also the fact that the show needs to show that Stanton means business, which means somebody’s gotta die, which essentially marks Dani as the one Rosen’s so distraught over at the episode’s start. (Kat’s not in the episode. If she had been, I would have been a lot more worried.)
Now, none of this means that the episode isn’t exceptionally well executed. I’m impressed by just how thoroughly the episode pivots between its two basic episode types, so that the disclosure that Hicks is undercover—and Dani’s in on it, to some degree, as well (I was honestly a little skeptical of her motives until she was on that phone call with Stanton)—is coming around the episode’s midpoint. Alphas is doing a good job this season of trusting its audience to keep up with some complicated, convoluted story structures, and even if it has a slight tendency to overexplain stuff for those who might be just tuning in (in the weekly “David Strathairn Does ADR” segments), it’s still a show that’s playing some of its cards close to its vest. Yeah, I was able to predict where much of this story was going, but that was okay because the emotional beats were landing, for the most part.
This is something that’s a little underrated about Alphas, I think. Even when the show is full of incredibly complicated plotting, it usually does its best to find some emotional arc to pin that on. Sometimes, that feels a little forced, as in that “Alphaville” episode, but when the series nails the emotions, there’s not really anything else like it in the genre TV world right now. Tonight’s episode works because it retroactively puts a lot of emphasis on the relationship between Dani and Hicks. This is a smart choice because where previous episodes just showed the easy chemistry the two had when hanging out, this one reimagines that as the foundation of a surprisingly deep and abiding love. Dani and Hicks hanging out and sharing a kiss isn’t just some part of his life. It’s the only part of his life. The episode doesn’t try to push this relationship harder than it needs to, so that makes the moment when Kandyse McClure (who’s the perfect Alpha with her crystal blue eyes) pulls back and is impressed by the depth of Hicks’ feeling all the better. Relationships aren’t just made up of moments of grand passion; they’re made up of moments of perfect mundanity as well, and the episode understands that.
This also, oddly enough, makes Dani’s death more moving than it has any right to be. Since her death has felt preordained since the moment we learned of her existence—how else is the show going to push Rosen to the point where he finally completely loses it?—Dani’s been something of a ticking clock ever since she was introduced. Kathleen Munroe has created a surprisingly nuanced character out of bits and pieces this season, but that ultimately wasn’t enough to save her. Still, the episode made her death count by showing us the reactions of the three men who loved her most: her father, her lover, and Stanton Parish. The show hasn’t been using John Pyper-Ferguson as well as it might have this season, but the weary regret in his voice when he gives the order to blow up the grenades with Dani directly inside the blast radius sells the moment and his relationship with Dani, as does an earlier scene where she tries to confront him and just gets in deeper trouble.
More than anything else, though, this episode suggests just how thoroughly the team is outclassed by Stanton’s plans. He’s got greater numbers than Rosen does, and he’s also got the advantage of ruthlessness. The season has played up the similarities between Dr. Rosen and Stanton Parish, but it’s also found one key difference: Rosen is driven by a certain level of empathy both for Alphas and humanity. Stanton has looked at the way humanity is clogging up the Earth with more and more people, and he’s concluded the future lies in leaving the planet to the Alphas. That’s going to mean the death of humanity, but he’s okay with that as collateral to his ultimate plan. Again, it’s exactly where you likely expected this story was headed the second you learned Stanton was building an army, but the execution of it—and the emotional arcs contained therein—keep it from flying off the tracks into completely bland predictability.
It also doesn’t hurt that “Devil” is one of the biggest episodes the show has attempted in terms of action sequences and stunts. Hicks running his motorcycle directly into the truck, then timing his leap so he vaults up the top and runs across the truck’s back, momentum carrying him the full way, was one of the cooler stunts the show has pulled off, and I liked the “bad situation getting much, much worse” vibe of the scene in the warehouse when Hicks was trying to make his escape with Dani. The show relies too much on false drama in these moments—Hicks obviously wasn’t going to blow his own brains out (and putting Dani in danger there might have made more sense)—but it has a great sense of how to build an action sequence.
And a season, really. After a slow-ish start, the second season has built to a place where I think I know where things are going, but the show is constructing its moments so well that I don’t really care that I’m always outguessing it. At the same time, the series is surprising me just enough that I want to keep coming back to see if it can prove me wrong. Alphas has built up a nice head of steam. Now that it’s committed to the giant moment of killing its protagonist’s daughter, here’s hoping that it has the guts to do the dark and necessary follow-through.
- There’s not a lot of anyone who’s not Hicks or Dani in this episode, but Gary gets some great moments back at headquarters when he’s trying to reroute the electrical blast elsewhere, so it doesn’t fry out the city’s electrical circuits. His search for someone to celebrate with was well-timed comic relief.
- Stanton’s plan has apparently been put into motion, even if the sum total of the grenades’ damage is Danielle Rosen. Still, I hope there are more grenades, because the effect of the electrical pulse traveling out from them is really cool.
- The fight between the team members, before Rosen fills Bill in on what’s really happening, is very well done. It’s nice to see just how much they don’t like being kept out of the loop.