Photo: Eliza Morse/Fox

I don’t know a lot about the X-Men. I mean, I think of myself as knowing more than the average person, because I have seen all of the X-Men movies multiple times (even the bad ones), and own them all on disc (even the bad ones), and watched the ’90s cartoon series, and have read a some X-Men comics – never more than a couple years’ worth of a particular title, but a decent variety of those titles, of which there are a million... and there’s the problem, as stated in these reviews of The Gifted before. There is so much X-Men lore that no matter how much stuff I glean from how many sources, there’s always something I’m missing.

As such, I perpetually experience X-Men movies and shows in a weird in-between state where I know a little more than a viewer going in completely cold but vastly less than a genuine hardcore fan. Sometimes that makes it difficult to figure out how moments in The Gifted are playing – especially as it embraces its comics roots more and more, becoming less of a (repetitive) family saga and more of, well, an X-Men adventure. I knew – thank you, comments sections! You’re more fun to read than Wikipedia! – that Esme (guest star Skyler Samuels) is probably a comics character who is somehow related to mostly-bad mutant Emma Frost (I also read the Whedon comics where Emma Frost was a good guy and I forget and/or don’t know if she went bad again since then). So even without the show’s depiction of copious slinking and skulking on her part as she’s welcomed into the Mutant Underground, I had vague reason to suspect her intentions. But I do wonder how the revelations of “eXploited” would play to someone watching the show without any outside knowledge or nerd assistance. Or is it fair to say The Gifted isn’t trying to court that audience? And if they’re not, why does the show try so hard to be relatable in that kinda boilerplate network-drama sort of way?

These aren’t questions I necessarily have any answers to, in large part because I think Esme is a case where the show could have given us more information once it decided to reveal once and for all that she’s neither a friend to the Mutant Underground nor a Sentinel Services-affiliated mutant going undercover. She is her own thing. Times three. (We’ll get to that in a moment.) But I can tell you that as an episode of television, “eXploited” might have benefited greatly from a format break. I know that’s not really the kind of thing The Gifted has done so far (though it wouldn’t be a format-breaker if they did it every week), so it’s probably not a fair request. But the episode’s super-cool cold open, starting on stump speech from a Senator Montez (who seems to be compatible with the late, liquefied Senator Kelly in terms of platform: “mutant crime is at an all-time high and it’s getting worse”) before revealing that Esme, known by Montez as Stephanie and by other staffers by her actual alias of Stacy, has infiltrated his campaign.

Her ruse doesn’t last long—Sentinel Services puts in a call to warn them, and Esme is off and running before they can apprehend her, and then we’re back to the present day, just two months later. But it hints at a fascinating backstory for this character, especially in a medium apt to simplify the bizarre knots that X-Men comics tie themselves into (especially when, as Esme apparently did, you have Grant Morrison inserting you into years of already-tangled mythology). I would have loved to see an episode that just follows the journey of Esme from infiltration to infiltration, showing how she arrived at what was clearly a long-game plan involving the Mutant Underground.

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Again, that’s not what The Gifted is. But I think I’ve figured out why Esme is an appealing character (to me, at least) at this juncture in the first season run. It’s not because the show has yet given her a great backstory (which was even murkier before this episode, and remains mysterious) or personality (she shifts strategically, always trying to appear reasonable), but because she never indulges in the most endlessly repeated arguments that the main characters have over and over. “eXploited” makes it clearer than ever, even before her big coming-out party, that Esme is manipulating everyone around her, back and forth, moving pieces around the board, and frankly, it’s kind of a relief not to have to deal with another clunkily expressed Point of View.

Of course, to make it all look natural, these arguments have to continue, and “eXploited” doesn’t waste much time getting to more fussin’ and feudin’ between the Strucker parents and Polaris’s more impulsive instincts. Because the Strucker kids, Blink, and Dreamer have been captured, Polaris wants to launch a full-scale attack (though to be fair, most thing make her want to launch a full-scale attack). Reed and Caitlin, terrified that such an attack would make things even worse for their kids, want to try something less violent. It’s basically a less engaging, less well-acted version of the same Professor X/Magneto conflict we’ve seen before, until Esme swans up in her triplet form towards the end of the episode, freeing and re-kidnapping the prisoners and revealing herself as closer to the classic Brotherhood of Evil Mutants model in the process.

Esme’s plan, which involves getting the Struckers to convince Agent Turner to take back his prisoners from Dr. Campbell’s facility, and also getting the Mutant Underground folks to attempt to rescue those prisoners during the transfer, depends on a lot of variables that she barely treats as such. It’s not one of those elegant moments where a bunch of disparate plot threads come together in an unexpected way (see also: shots of Samuels slinking and skulking). I do think this could have felt more accomplished, both trickier and less like an actual trick, if the episode had tried to stick closer to Esme’s point of view. But it’s still a satisfyingly strange development.

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And due credit: The stuff at Dr. Campbell’s lab is grimly compelling, as Campbell presses the Strucker kids to cooperate with his experiments and show off their powers—and, when they’re initially reluctant, he shoots and kills Dreamer in cold blood. The Gifted has so many cast members that this kind of death should not be especially shocking, and it’s not, but the Mutant Underground characters have been interesting enough that any of them getting knocked off is startling. I know characters get killed off and resurrected in X-Men comics all the time; for all I know, Dreamer has been beyond the veil and back on a semi-annual basis. But I think I have a pretty good handle on what it means when Dreamer gets shot in the chest; less so with Esme (in the comics, she’s… quintuplets? Are the other two somewhere else or are they just trying to make this 8 percent less bizarre for TV?). I suppose on a show that doesn’t always have the snappiest writing or the most consistent emotional hooks, that mixture might be more of a help than a hindrance: Here’s some stuff that makes clear sense, and here’s some more stuff that might make sense later.

Stray observations:

  • Strucker brainstorms include contacting an appeals court judge from New England. Polaris brainstorms include sulking in her room. Props to the show for making both sides of this argument appear pretty incapable of producing any results without Esme’s tweaks.
  • In the experimental cell, the Strucker kiddos are outfitted to look like they’re ready to give some sweet mocap performances.
  • Speaking of that cell: It’s fortified with adamantium! Found in Canada!! That Stryker, never cleaning up after himself, possibly on account of getting killed, depending on what timeline this is. (And that Campbell, offering a weirdly specific explanation of where he found adamantium to his prisoners.)
  • Wait, the guy at the fence seriously has a “turn off all collars” button?!
  • You guys know Mitch McConnell, the repulsive and morally corrupt senator from real life? I know everyone says he looks like a turtle, and he does, but I can’t look at him without thinking of Senator Kelly a few seconds before he turns into a disgusting puddle in the first X-Men movie. For more references to this scene, please see my Twitter feed.
  • This is the last episode of The Gifted for 2017, so I’ll see you guys in 2018, by which point this show may be owned by Disney! I can’t even deal with how many ways I think this Fox-Disney deal is bad news – I don’t even cotton to the “great for fanboys!” line of thinking, because I think the XCU and MCU work just fine on their own and I have no fanatical compulsion to see the X-Men movie action figures lined up perfectly with the Avengers movie action figures (and also that thinking is incredibly myopic).
  • Also coming in 2018: a Dark Phoenix movie that, so help me, that stupid and nakedly promotional Entertainment Weekly preview made me really excited about, against my best instincts.

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