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

Helix: "The White Room"

Image for article titled Helix: "The White Room"

Whatever story Helix is trying to tell us, it needs to get better at telling. Five episodes in, there are so many open questions that trying to parse the episode is so difficult as to be not worth it. I still like some of the hints I get from the show—including tonight's episode, "The White Room"—but the mystery at the base is overpowering the already flimsy plot.

Last week, Rowan offered a fantastic outline of what Helix is trying to accomplish. I'm going to frame it in a different way, but I think our points are the same. Helix suffers from having only a mystery, without much of a plot. Most of the suspense of the last few episodes has arisen from characters discovering things that other characters knew already—or, worse, characters discovering things that we, the audience, knew already. It's a suspense with quick, unsustainable payoff—Helix gets to play with suspenseful strings humming in the background as someone stumbles in the dark, but then we have to wait what feels like hours for someone else on the show to figure it out.

And of course, that someone else is almost always Billy Campbell's Alan Farragut, because he's the only person that matters. (Admittedly, he is in charge, but after reading Rowan's review, it's hard to not be frustrated at how only Alan manages to have any agency out of the Good Guys. Especially because even if he is super-determined, it takes him forever to figure stuff out.) Julia's infection, Sarah's malfunctioning test, Doreen's research—these all only entered "general" consciousness once Alan knew about it. To a culture unfamiliar with television tropes, Ballesaros' fight with Alan out in the snow looks like a fight for pack dominance—who will be America's Next Top Alpha Male?

It would work better if Alan's character moved forward more aggressively. In "White Room" he makes a few important steps that way, by figuring out Ballesaros' betrayal and following him into the whiteout. It's still not quite enough—it seems to me a little obvious that Ballesaros is probably doing the "right" thing by preventing the spread of the horrible helixy thing, especially because he's against Hatake and Security Bad Guy, but Alan is only too happy to send his righteous indignation careening off into any ill-calculated direction. But anyway, now Military Probable Bad Guy is dead (or at least, most likely he's dead, maybe he survived the arctic even without his coat and with an ice pick through his stomach! but he looks dead so we're going to act like he's dead but he's totally not dead).

The main problem with Helix is that there isn't forward movement counterbalancing the mysteries of the past. Arcane knowledge and the scientific method can be really good narrative devices, but they need at least some sense of story to make them feel like something more than a textbook. Helix has fallen into a horror-movie trap—it's made the base into a haunted house, and tells stories by opening another door and meeting the monster inside. It works for Scooby Doo, but it's not really storytelling. Helix still hasn't given us enough reasons to care about its characters—and it hasn't given them enough of a sense of the stakes of their lives here on the base.

I hate to bring up Battlestar Galactica in every single episode review of Helix, but it's important to point out that the older show never suffered this particular problem. Battlestar's characters always knew the stakes—it was that urgency, paranoia, fear, and desire that drove them all over the universe trying to keep the human race alive. I'm not wholly convinced that Helix's characters even want to keep themselves alive. I got a sense of strong purpose from Doreen, who was the best character on the show. Also from Ballesaros, in his mustache-twirling plotting. Naturally, they're both dead. So I don't know what to make of this show's current forward momentum.


I will say that I'm finding the mystery more intriguing, even as I wish everyone would just sit and talk about their feelings so that everyone knows the truth once and for all. (And then Helix becomes a soap opera, where Hatake struggles to come to terms with his addiction to genetic modification, and Sarah tries to kick her morphine habit. At night, the ice monkeys traverse their dreams, glowing with petroleum-fueled fire.) Julia's adventure below-stairs is taking on new and terrifying dimensions. I had to rewind to wrap my head around the fact that Hatake stabbed himself in order to get closer to her—he might be totally insane, but you have to admire his dedication. I had suspected, as many of you did, that "J" was a hallucination, but the idea that the virus produces hallucinations of real or imagined people is kind of interesting. It explains why Peter was stalking Julia and babbling to Alan, and gets into the horror of how the transmission of the virus is also a perversion of the intimate act of kissing. There could be a lot there, if the show chooses to get into it more. It's a tricky area, though—it would be so easy, even three episodes from now, to have a group of blinking Army soldiers show up and proclaim that the virus was all in their heads—a mass chemical delusion, nothing more.

There are just too many questions for the show to be wholly satisfying at present. The details of the virus aren't totally consistent, from what I can tell, which is a huge tell in a science-fiction story that suggests the writers don't know what they're doing (or are deliberately confusing us, which is equally annoying). Whatever Peter has seems to be significantly different from what, like, Dr. Sulemani had, which is different from what Julia has, and different from Hatake's crazy silver-eyes thing. I don't really believe anyone's assertions about the disease, which is part of the problem. And: What the hell is going on with Sarah? Why is she now addicted to morphine? How does the scar on her back relate to migraines, which in turn may or may not be related to a brain tumor? And why is she lying about it? And how did she get past the CDC's physical for field-testing, if Doreen passed it?


So: The episode ends with Peter regaining brain function, Julia and Hatake alone together, Sarah a newly minted murderer and junkie, and one Probable Bad Guy dead. Aliens? Aliens.

Stray observations:

  • This show is hard to write about. Thanks to Rowan for making it look easy last week.
  • Oh yeah: Alan and Sarah kissed while she was high on morphine. I'm not familiar with morphine personally, but doesn't it mess you up way more than just pinpointed pupils and avoiding eye contact? Also, does it really make you want to kiss other humans on the mouth?
  • That shot of dead Doreen, half-eaten by rats, with one coming out of her mouth was horrific. And also amazing. Doreen was the best, and I'm sad she had to go, but I'm glad she also got the most indelibly awful moment of Helix to date.
  • Sonia's Speculation Corner: Julia, as a kid, got to that basement somehow. So either a) she was drugged or is amnesiac or something, or b) they cloned her? Put her DNA into a monkey? Or she herself is a clone of Hatake's daughter? I'm thinking clones. Does the virus make anyone with a certain genetic marker, like related to Hatake maybe, more powerful? Maybe Julia is never in danger from the vectors because she's related to him. They certainly are playing the father/daughter foreshadowing heavily this week.
  • Sarah: Does she matter?