Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Alphas: “When Push Comes To Shove”

Illustration for article titled Alphas: “When Push Comes To Shove”

I’m of two minds about “When Push Comes To Shove,” which started out rather desperate and clumsy, then abruptly transitioned into something surprisingly stark and beautiful at around its two-thirds mark. The episode is also indicative of the kinds of episodes I would like the show to do, ones where the show focuses more on character than casework, even if I don’t think it’s wholly successful. But then I come to the central question of why I didn’t find it successful: I’m just not much of a fan of Nina, nor of her power. Yet the episode was essentially conceived to make those like me feel a brief moment of sympathy for the woman, to realize that we had misjudged her because she wasn’t as immediately and viscerally exciting as everybody else on the show. So if the episode did, genuinely, make me feel something for Nina, especially in its exceptionally wonderful final scene, then shouldn’t I commend it for doing what it set out to do?

My problem with Nina has always been that the show teased out this incredibly dark back-story for the character, but didn’t seem to have the guts to go into it as much as might need be. That changes in this episode, when we finally get the details (and they are, indeed, dark). It doesn’t change the central fact that Nina is the one character the show has to work overtime to balance. The rest of the Alphas are fairly well-balanced by their inherent weaknesses or by how their powers are only useful in extraordinarily specific circumstances. You’re not going to enter last week’s brawls with Hicks, and you’re not going to be able to have Rachel track down someone half a globe away with her sense of smell. The powers are believably limited, just enough beyond normal human ability to make the show sci-fi, but not so far advanced that they court disbelief.

That’s not the case with Nina, whose power is so strong that the show actively needs to come up with reasons for her not to use it half the time. Now, granted, if she’s in the middle of a gunfight, she’s not strong enough to tell someone to stop firing their gun across a room flying with bullets. So the show has balanced her in that fashion. But in the middle of a not-yet-threatening situation, she’s pretty much all-powerful, at least so long as she can make eye contact. And rather than trying to depower her, the show is just making her stronger and stronger. It’s a curious choice, given the history of every other superhero show ever—particularly Heroes—but her pushes are lasting longer, and other people are feeling more of an effect. No one’s immune, and nobody gets out clean.

And in addition to that, well, I just find Nina sort of boring. The other characters have strong interpersonal conflicts, but Nina’s driven by such a dark mystery at her core that there’s really nothing to latch onto. I suppose the show is asking us to consider what happens when someone is overrun by such power. Can they control it? Even with help? But as a question to ask myself, it’s quite a bit down the scale from the situations that are faced by the other Alphas, who all seem to be in recognizably human situations. Don’t get me wrong. The larger-than-life aspect of the show and the character arcs is one of the things that keeps it fun, but I’ve found Nina’s arc mostly impenetrable. Whether that’s my general dislike of her power or the actress or the way the show has written her, I don’t know. But for roughly the first half of this episode, I couldn’t care less about the adolescent boyfriend Tommy she’d loved all this time.

Yet the longer the episode ran, the more I began to be sucked into her story. At first, I found the device used—in which we get little snippets of flashbacks to Nina’s childhood—annoying, because they all stopped just as they seemed to be getting into some really fundamental questions about who Nina is. Yet as the episode went on, I was put in mind of one of my favorite hours of TV ever made, Battlestar Galactica’s “Unfinished Business,” a brutal episode that flashes back to an ill-fated year spent planetside and fills in the gaps of the story to let us know why the characters were so shattered, even before the Cylons landed and occupied. “Push” isn’t to that level—or even close, really—but it uses these flashbacks in the same fashion, elliptically, the way real memory might work, where certain events stand out and others you desperately try to ignore. The next-to-last act, in particular, is masterful at this, as the team corners the runaway Nina on a roof, and the fragments start to become a whole picture.

It would have been easy to give Nina a cliché back-story about a lost love or something like that. And at first, I thought the series was heading that way with Tommy. Yet the longer it went on, the more the flashbacks started to center on Nina’s crappy home life as a child, the way that her parents fought and the way she abused her ability to keep them together against their will. The notion is chilling, yet incredibly understandable: What would you do to keep together the only thing you knew as a child? And Nina’s efforts grew more and more troubled. She eventually had to give her father permission to leave for work, and the more Tommy saw of her gift, the more he wanted nothing to do with her. It all culminates in two incredibly powerful images: young Nina seeing her father dead on the floor, of a self-inflicted gunshot wound (the only way out of the prison his daughter had trapped him in), and Nina staring into a car’s window, pushing herself to let her know she’s okay. It’s a beautiful depiction of the way that mental illness can root around in your brain, can make you feel like you don’t know what’s what, and it’s a wonderful way to show that Nina’s been carrying this around with her for years, and the only medication she could get was from herself. (It’s also a wonderful metaphor for addiction.)


The episode ends with Kat picking up a Yes album, popping on “I’ve Seen All Good People.” The throughline of the episode was Kat trying to make memories, and while this was all a little twee, to be honest, it provided a nice thematic counterpoint. Good memories are worth it, sure, but are they worth all the pain endured to get to them? The episode cuts in Gary screaming in the office—reliving the pain of Binghamton—and it seems to suggest that, no, no they’re not. But the final moments are reserved for Rosen and Nina, as he finally removes her blindfold in her hospital bed, showing the measure of trust in her she probably doesn’t deserve. It’s a beautifully bittersweet image, and I hope the show doesn’t gloss over her recovery in the weeks to come. “Push” may not have been perfect, but it finally gave us a reason to care about Nina, and in its finest moments, it was as good as this show ever gets.

Stray observations:

  • I love the scenes where the characters aren’t talking about the case of the week and are, instead, just joking around. They have a wonderful, lived-in feel to them, and they really do sound like co-workers shooting the shit.
  • I can’t give this episode the top marks for a handful of reasons, but chief among them is the flirtation between Rachel and Jon, which continues to move at lightning speed. They’ll probably have a baby next week.
  • I’m giving this episode a high mark, but I could just as easily be tempted by, like, a C. The first half was often clumsy, and there was a lot of bland dialogue in that first half as well. Plus, the kids were often bad actors, and that lesbian kiss was horribly exploitative (though I liked that the show at least played around with how awful it made Rachel feel).
  • On the other hand, I love that the episode didn’t shy away from the awfulness of much of what Nina did. Robbing a bank is one thing. Convincing a man in a stable family life that he actually loves you and wants to be with you only is some desperate shit. This does feel like the show might gloss over it in the weeks to come—and I’m not clear in the slightest how Rosen somehow prevents her from going to Binghamton—but in the moment, it’s all powerful.
  • Dr. Lee Rosen, worst therapist ever: He just gives away that Nina told him in therapy that she had a boyfriend named Tommy. Nice work, Lee.
  • I really like Kat. The energy she brings to scenes is engaging and fun.
  • Gary calls it his fruit. Just so you know.