Photo: Eliza Morse/FOX

So far, The Gifted has been surprisingly strong in an area where you might reasonably expect a weekly network television show to fall short: special-effects depictions of mutant powers. Though it sounds like a superficial quality – how many movies are knocked precisely for great effects with nothing underneath? – the effects are so closely entwined with so many of these characters’ personalities that a chintizier treatment of them could hurt the show’s credibility. That said, in translating X-Men stories to live-action, little mutant-power moments are as important as big, splashy ones. In “boXed in,” for example, there’s a moment where a reunited Polaris and Eclipse spot a drone from their vehicle, looking to pinpoint their location. They use their powers to take out the drone together: Polaris (who can’t affect the drone on her own because of its distance) tears off a rearview mirror and hovers it outside of the car to take aim, while Eclipse bounces his light powers off of it to bring it crashing to the ground.

The initial explosion that results happens off-screen, and the major destruction is seen only in the background. In another show, shunting a big part of the cool action further from the audience’s field of vision might feel like a money-saving cheat. Here, the camera stays in the car, with the characters, because that’s where it belongs. Instead of an effects showcase, it’s a character moment.

I wish there was similar grace in the quick cold open this week, another flashback. This one belongs to Jace and his family on 7/15 “four years ago,” during an event we later learn seems to have 9/11 significance in terms of shorthand (as several characters refer to it as just “7/15”), and major mythology significance in terms of the show’s background (Polaris refers to “thousands dead” since then). Jace is in what looks like Central Park with his wife and daughter, overhearing a mutant-rights march that quickly (and weirdly audibly) grows out of control.

We knew that his daughter was killed in a human/mutant skirmish, and while the flashback drives home just how far removed she was from the situation, it’s also awkwardly staged. It offers little new information about Jace or his relationship to his family (except, you know, he loves them), and for me primarily raises further logistical questions: What mutant power is so formidable and hard to control that it can radiate into the middle of Central Park from what seems like at least a mile away and cause major fatalities? In the comics, of course, there are tons of absurdly overpowered mutants, and the one interesting thing about this flashback is that we don’t see exactly what the escalation into violence was. The point is, Jace’s daughter previously felt a little like a plot detail more than a person, and in this scene, that barely changes despite putting a human face to the tragedy.

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Back in the present, Jace is still hard-charging to find the Mutant Underground, or Reed, or anybody (“bodies,” as he puts it) in the aftermath of the semi-successful assault on his convoy. But things get worse for him when he stops Polaris and Eclipse at a roadblock, and in a turn that genuinely surprised me, they wind up taking him hostage (the way Polaris tosses one of the cops into the van and slams the door is, as the Fassbender version of her dad might say, perfection). Seeking information about the presumed brainwashing of Pulse, they bring in Blink, via portal, who has Dreamer with her, ready to extract stuff from Jace’s memory (and ready to give herself away to Blink, who spends a lot of the episode giving particularly green side-eye as her suspicions about her own mind-fuckery eat away at her).

This is all compelling stuff, as Eclipse and Polaris re-enter the murky waters of mutant revolutionary morality, this time with Polaris taking the lead. It deepens their relationship – it’s clear that they share a certain take-no-prisoners attitude (or rather, a take-what-prisoners-you-need attitude, at least in this case) but won’t always necessarily match up in terms of how far they should go. The conflict manages to be considerably more subtle than the amped-up rehash plaguing Reed Strucker. He’s finally back with his family, but he struggles to convince other members of the Mutant Underground that he’s really a trusted ally, given his recent-past relationship with Sentinel Services.

The questions this subplot raises are not especially urgent. Can Reed be trusted?!? Well, we’re pretty sure having seen him over the past few weeks that he probably can. So can other mutants learn to trust Reed?! Well, probably, because there won’t be much of a show if not, and an uneasy alliance is probably more dramatically fruitful than separating Reed from his family again. So... are there actually any compelling questions here? “boXed in” sure tries to convince us that there are, as Reed volunteers to lead the ongoing manhunt away from the Underground’s headquarters, with the understanding that his invisibility-powered ride will pick him back up before he can actually be apprehended. Of course, his driver is one of the mutants who that he was previously this close to betraying the Underground to get his family back.

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At least this externalizes the trust conflict into something like suspense, but it’s the kind of suspense where neither outcome is especially interesting. Either Reed is burnt and he’s back in Jace’s custody (which would be both daring and repetitive), or he earns the trust of the Mutant Underground (which is what happens, but isn’t especially surprising). It’s significantly less interesting than watching Caitlin perform impromptu surgery on poor gut-shot Trader (whose name I got wrong last week… sorry, Trader!) with the help of her kids. And none of this is as good as the Polaris/Eclipse/Jace stuff.

In fact, that particular story leads into maybe the most horrific moment of the show so far: After his rushed encounter with Dreamer (who absconds back into a Blink portal when the cops surround the mutants, again), Jace arrives home safe and sound... but without any memory that his little daughter is dead. Just as soon as Dreamer seems appropriately contrite about what she did to Blink’s mind, we see far worse repercussions. Jace has to re-experience that grief, and his wife has to re-experience it along with him as she breaks him the news. This doesn’t make the pre-credits scene much better, but it does land – for me, anyway – harder than anything else this series has thrown out so far, and with its nominal antagonist, no less. Sometimes it really is the smaller stuff that matters.

Stray observations:

  • “We’re gonna have a weird kid,” Eclipse says, basking in the glow of his Mini Northern Lights with Polaris. Moreover: that kid is probably going to grow up super-attractive, right? They’re just too polite to say so. Kid’s gonna look like some kind of Oscar Isaac/Christina Ricci hybrid.
  • Polaris wants to name the baby Aurora if it’s a girl. Does she know Storm?!?!? Or did the Storm of X-Men: Apocalypse become a symbol of mutant freedom and resistance the way that version of Storm took her cues from Mystique?
  • I like Sage’s control room, which we’ve seen before but gets more screentime in this episode.
  • Hard to tell how intentionally topical this is, especially because the execution is a little muddled, but one of tonight’s debates about mutant rights includes both “#NotAllMutants” (OK, no hashtags, but still) and “both sides” rhetoric. But both of those phrases, which are traditionally deployed defensively by white dudes of varying cluelessness, here are wielded by the oppressed party. So either the writers are being really clever, or a little bit oblivious.
  • We’re halfway through Season 1, guys! I’ll say this again, I’m sure, but I’m really enjoying watching this show with you all. Thank you for your patient corrections when I screw up a mutant name or three.

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