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

Helix: "Single Strand"

Illustration for article titled Helix: "Single Strand"

Helix belongs to a genre of storytelling, particularly popular on television, that might be called “competence porn.” The focus of this kind of story is on watching people who are really good at their jobs do their jobs, even when it looks like it may appear impossible. Most of the time these are hour-long procedurals, probably focused on cops or doctors, which has helped to give the form something of a bad reputation for repetition.

Things look very different when the story is stretched over nine episodes. With that much time, it becomes quite plausible for the “impossible” situation to be really impossible. And with the show treated as a mini-series, actions can have major consequences. So of the five main competent characters who were introduced, one is looking pretty dead, one infected, one lying about a tumor/addiction, one is evil, and only the main character remains relatively uncompromised. The shit is hitting the fan, and right now, it's looking very unlikely that anyone (good) is getting out alive.

That relative unpredictability is a major strength for Helix, because it really does feel like it could do anything. It probably won't, but an act like killing Doreen, less than halfway through the season, still manages to be shocking enough.

But, as Helix demonstrates, that can also backfire. If the show seems like the impossible situation is more manipulative than actually a problem, then the artificiality breaks through. In Sonia's reviews, she's talked about a general feeling to the show that's really appealing, and I feel the same way. I think it's the feeling of watching smart people go at an interesting problem intelligently, but if the problem isn't interesting, or the people aren't smart, then Helix isn't good. In both this week's episode and last week's, there's a notable fraying of the good feeling because of that manipulation.

The manipulation happens in three respects. First, there's how the story is conveyed. One of my biggest pet peeves on TV is when characters discuss an issue where they clearly have information that the audience wants to know, but the show makes them dance around that information because it doesn't want the viewers to know. Helix isn't as bad as some shows with this, but every conversation between Ballesteros and Hatake where they mention their “employers” instead of any particular detail falls into that category.

Another variation on that is when characters do stupid shit just to move some kind of plot forward. Sarah's refusal to mention her tumor issue, even if it (maybe?) caused her to totally blow the biggest science moment the team has had yet, the Rapid Response Test. It becomes difficult to take the competence porn seriously when a character is demonstrably incompetent, especially when she refuses to talk about it.

Julia's refusal to admit she was infected last week seems to fall under a similar category, but I think it was actually a bit more complicated, and falls into the second issue of manipulation: when the way the show is put together gets in the way of the story that it's trying to tell. We, the audience, knew that Peter had infected her, and the hallucinatory flashbacks we “saw” after her infection seemed to be a totally factual recollection. The show did not do a strong enough job of making it clear that she couldn't comprehend those flashes, thus making her appear incompetent instead of confused.


“Single Strand” misses slightly on grounds of technical incompetence as well. The single-episode premise is that the infected on the quarantine level decide to halt the flow of clean oxygen into the base, giving everyone two hours until they get CO2 poisoning, and probably six hours until death. That's a big deal! Yet none of the characters treat it like a big deal, because the episode spends far more time on the people who aren't trying to fix it than Hatake, who is. So we go 15-20 minutes with barely any mention of the oxygen, let alone major progress on the most direct crisis facing the base. This gave the episode a disjointed feeling, like its priorities were in a different place than mine as a viewer, which generally wasn't the case with the first three episodes. In other words, competence porn isn't just about the characters being competent, it's also about the show being competent at depicting that.

Both of those manipulations are, if not necessarily minor, at least something we could possibly expect to be fixed as the season wears on. But there's one aspect of Helix that makes it too predictable, and which “Single Strand” doesn't break away from at all: its reinforcement of stereotypes. The five main characters sent to investigate the base? Well, one woman deceived others, or at least herself, about being infected. Another woman is engaged in a longer-term deception, and is weak because of that. The brown-skinned man has turned out to be charismatic and evil. The fat woman? According to Helix, she dies first, because she's disposable. The only one left to potentially be the hero is the straight white male in charge, the patriarch.


Those aren't even the worst of the character tropes. That belongs to Hatake, whose inscrutable East Asian villainy would have had him twirling a Fu Manchu moustache had Helix been made a few decades ago. I keep hoping for more depth from him, and I keep just seeing the stereotype the show has presented to me.

I don't bring this up to go on a rant about social justice or whatever, but because it isn't good storytelling to have an apparently twisty show where the characters who you'd expect to survive are the ones who survive. Killing off marginalized characters is normal. Having the Asian corporate kingpin be evil is predictable and boring. Having the guy who was supposed to be the hero look and act like the hero the whole time is boring. It's like a Star Trek episode where three cast members and a redshirt beam down—it's not surprising storytelling for the redshirt to die. A show like Game Of Thrones made waves because it killed off as many patriarchs as it could in its first season; Helix appears to want to be relatively predictable. Obviously there's still time for it to change, but I think it's worth asking whether the twist would have been stronger had it been Allan on the receiving end of Ballesteros' needle, instead of Doreen. I would say “very much yes.”


One way that “Single Strand” surprised me pleasantly was that it continued the process of adding depth via recurring base characters. The paranoid Russian scientist from last episode got his day as a major character, and the random doctor that Allan rescued got to attempt to use his cure on Peter. I'm not exactly certain why I find this appealing. Perhaps it's that I'm used to seeing the strings on TV shows that hire guests for just one episode, where Helix's re-use of the characters indicates that it's more interested in telling a coherent story than it was in keeping its actor budget under control. It also helps make the base seem like a real place.

There's still a lot to like about Helix, despite this review's relative negativity. Since I've been watching it, I've been somewhat torn between wondering why I like it as much as I do, and wondering why I don't like it more. “Competence porn” suggests that it shouldn't necessarily be judged according to the usual metrics of good actors and characters and so on, but instead at creating a form and a story and sticking with it. Despite the relative difficulty, Helix is maintaining that through four episodes, but with “Single Strand,” its struggles at maintaining that form are a little more apparent.


Stray observations:

  • Part of me wants to believe that the Rapid Response Test failure is a deliberate nod to Battlestar Galactica, whose naturalistic tone is a huge part of Helix
  • “Am I the only one alarmed by this?” Apparently?
  • I really liked Sarah using confident science talk in order to con both her co-workers and the audience.
  • “I did this. I've been here before.” MYSTERY ATTACK!
  • And if I really wanted to go on a social justice crusade, I might suggest that the reason that the patriarch is the only uncompromised character is that he is the patriarch, and competence porn requires that we trust in our institutions and leaders.
  • I’m stepping in for Sonia, who’s celebrating her birthday, I believe. Happy birthday Sonia!