Photo: Eliza Morse/FOX

One story prompt that has yet to be fully explored in the X-Men movies (and must have come up in the comics, but I’m not nearly as well-versed there) is the question of dedication to the cause as related to mutant abilities. That is, if these characters were suddenly denied their mutant powers, how willing would they be to charge into battle? X-Men: The Last Stand attempted a storyline about a “cure” for the mutant gene, clumsily adapting a better story from Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men run (I did read that one; I just didn’t last once Whedon and John Cassaday left and the action moved into space). The Wolverine explores a relatively de-powered version of its character – and so does Logan, for that matter, with the latter coming close to posing the question of whether an established fighter has it in him to keep going after his superhuman specialness starts to diminish. But for the most part, depowering the mutants is more of a story device than a question unto itself.

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The Gifted doesn’t exactly turn that device into a full-fledged hour of wartime philosophy. This is still a poppy Fox show about mutants doing cool shit, after all, and the late-in-episode addition of a mutant show can function as a sort of human power-dampener is very much a complication to the vaguely heist-y plot of “eXit Strategy.” But it does prompt the question pretty directly: How willing is the Mutant Underground to keep on fighting even when they can’t shoot lasers or weird plasticky things, or create portals, or use their awesome tracking skills?

The occasion for this heist gone semi-wrong is more prisoner transport. Reed Strucker and Polaris are both about to be transferred to another secret/isolated facility (I know where they are now probably technically isn’t secret, but when they’re moved from mostly-isolated cell to mostly-isolated cell, it’s hard for that difference to really land). The Mutant Underground (especially Eclipse) wants desperately to rescue Polaris before that happens; the Strucker family wants desperately to rescue Reed before, yeah, ditto. And Reed, unsure if help is on the way, is trying to make nice with Polaris, especially if they’re both on their way to a terribly new prison (and double-especially since they were semi-inexplicably placed in adjacent cells where they have plenty of time/space to talk) (maybe this will turn out to be an J. Lo-at-the-end-of-Out Of Sight-style subversion but I kinda doubt it)

Reed’s attempt at forming an alliance retreads some material from earlier in the series, but the chilly reception Polaris has for him better-positions him as a frustrating white dude than almost anything else so far: Like a lot of well-meaning but essentially self-centered guys faced with social crisis, Reed wants a fair amount of handholding and help just for figuring out, as Polaris puts it, that he was one of the bad guys at one point. At the same time, Stephen Moyer’s relative stoicism in these scenes is about as he’s good on this show so far, and Emma Dumont remains one of the most immediately interesting performers in the ensemble. In this episode, she has a little moment of hesitation amidst her no-bullshit insistence that Jace call her by her superhero name that drives home the fear beneath her bravado better than most dialogue could.

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Which is a relief, because goddamn, The Gifted is doing itself no favors in the dialogue department. I could do a whole other Stray Observations of bad lines; suffice to say that the show’s quip machine still needs fine-tuning. Polaris sarcastically asking “what is it, my birthday?” upon learning she’s a de facto cell-mate of Reed is about on par with “what do you want, a cookie?” in the clumsy, overused sarcastic phrases hall of fame. Later in the show, wouldn’t it be better to rely on Dumont’s performance to convey her realization about the return of her powers, rather than just have her say “I can feel my powers… they’re back.” I know this is a network TV show based on a comic book, but good lord. Let your actors act.

There’s better news in Eclipse’s subplot, which is very much in keeping with the logistical challenge in the show’s final 15 minutes – and if I’m going to play the “well, it’s just a network TV show” card, I ought to give credit where it’s due: that heist/hijack sequence at the end is pretty crackerjack stuff. I really appreciate The Gifted’s knack for creating action sequences that consistently exceed my expectations in terms of excitement, special effects craft, and lack of shameless cliffhanging. I thought for sure the episode would end either before we get to the proverbial fireworks factory, or mid-scene to extend the action into next week. But no, “eXit Strategy” delivers what it promises, and the action is well-directed by TV vet Karen Gaviola.

Before we get there, Eclipse has to find out where and when exactly to intercept the convoy (it’s always a convoy to it, isn’t it?), which means going to his ex-girlfriend Carmen (Michelle Veintimilla), now running the drug cartel that she used to wish her father would give up. This material has plenty of spoken clichés, too, but Veintimilla gives a fun enough performance that I hope we see more of her; the way she pronounces the “stupid” in the phrase “stupid in love with them” elevates the line rather than laying its weaknesses bare. Also: I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard a movie club owner, even one who uses her club to launder money, make reference to not liking the music they have to play – an odd but nice touch. It’s revealed that Eclipse used to work as muscle for this cartel, and is willing to briefly resume that gig if it means saving Polaris – another seedy corner of the mutant life we haven’t seen before.

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It’s Eclipse who really insists on fighting on, even after the mutant Pulse (seen in the nicely brief cold open, appearing to get killed while busting some mutants out of a “relocation” facility) saps everyone’s powers. He’s willing to draw fire to help Shatter (Jermaine Rivers) and doesn’t want to run without Polaris when the mission goes haywire. Of course, everyone’s powers come back when Pulse gets knocked out of the picture. But they’re out long enough for Eclipse’s intense dedication to register. The dude is clearly ready for a fight, and I have a feeling that won’t go away just because he’s been reunited with Polaris. I wouldn’t go so far as to call The Gifted a vital piece of art about the mechanics of a resistance/uprising, but it’s been weaving individual character dilemmas into its action with a lot of deftness, even when it sounds like crap.

Stray observations:

  • Decent Strucker Kids business this week, even though I didn’t mention it in the review: both realizing their powers can complement each other, and seeing Lauren goad Andy into action by bullying him. Truly, that is a power siblings are uniquely prepared to utilize.
  • “Really? You’re going to use my own words against me?” Oh, man, Amy Acker, I am sorry you have to deal with some of these lines.
  • One more bad line: “This isn’t corn muffins.” I admit that out of context, that sounds like it could be funny; too bad Natalie Alyn Lind has to say it with utmost gravity.
  • When the Mutant Underground asks for a show of hands regarding who’s “in” for a Sentinel Services attack/breakout, they make a big deal of only a few people (read: only the main characters) joining the fight. But they’re mostly just asking to see if Blink will help them, right? I mean, I know X-Men and pseudo-X-Men are all about teamwork but Blink’s portal-making seems like the lynchpin of almost any Mutant Underground operation. It’s basically the Animated Batman’s grappling hook of this show.
  • Now imagine if Robin and Batgirl played some dangerous mindgames with Batman’s grappling hook. That’s what’s going on with poor Blink right now. (Sorry, Blink, I don’t mean to dehumanize you. Your power is the coolest. And for that matter, Jamie Chung seems to have the best handle on giving her lines an offhand reading that doesn’t overemphasize the drama, intensity, sarcasm, etc.)
  • Do you think Sage’s probability powers (a.) get super-insufferable and (b.) ever lead to any of the other mutants checking her math?
  • Pulse! Sacrificed early on for gravitas, only to be revived later on, seemingly different than his original self! He’s sort of the Morph of this show, huh?

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