To say that the stakes were high for Heroes' third season premiere would be an understatement: Perhaps never has a show squandered its early promise so egregiously as Heroes did in its middling-to-painfully bad second season. In a sense the writers' strike that cut it short was a mercy killing, saving us all from an extended storyline where–according to various reports–the Shanti virus got loose in Odessa, the town was placed under quarantine, and Maya discovered that only her power could save the… Look, I'm bored just recapping this, and it didn't even happen.
Here's what did happen: The immortal known as Kensei/Adam killed Kaito but failed to end the world; as punishment, Hiro had him buried alive. Peter spent the entire season chasing after Betsy O'Barmaid and generally becoming the show's least likeable character. Parkman spent the season working through his daddy issues. Claire diddled around with Captain Emo, watched her dad die (briefly), and had a little catfight with Darth Veronica that I still think about from time to time. Bennet made some sort of nebulous deal with the Company that he alluded to cryptically before doing something vague. Mechanically inclined Micah met his cousin Monica and the two set off on some sort of wacky adventure involving a stolen backpack that ended with Niki ostensibly getting blowed up real good. (Hurray!) Toxic Twins Alejandro and Maya–whose power involves secreting a special ooze that can destroy any show's momentum–fell in with the evil Sylar and inadvertently brought him straight to Mohinder like the contrived plot devices they were. As a result, Alejandro died, Maya almost died, and Sylar got his maleficent mojo back. Oh yeah, and Nathan was shot just as he was about to let everyone in on their super secret.
All caught up? Too bad, because none of that really matters. As Hiro says midway through this episode, "I'm never going to the past again. You saw what happened last time!" (We did, and you're right.) Tonight was, as Jack "Bennet" Coleman reminded us from the red carpet circle-jerk that preceded the show, a chance to "start fresh," and judging by the way so many cliffhangers and longstanding questions were dispatched with tonight in favor of new beginnings, it seems like Heroes is just as eager to forget the muddle of last season as we are. First the big reveal: Nathan's assassin is none other than Future Peter, a scarred survivor of a post-apocalyptic world set four short years from now, a grim age where heroes are hunted and experimented on and everyone wears tight black leather, just like in The Matrix. Things are so fucked up, in fact, that Dark Phoenix Claire tries to off Peter despite the fact that she's "always loved him"–a line that would have creepy incestuous connotations even if Milo Ventigmilia and Hayden Panettiere weren't doing it off-screen–and thus Future Peter has to freeze time and zip off into the past to fix things, a rashly devised plan that involves shooting his brother before he can launch into his stirring rendition of "I Believe I Can Fly."
Oh, but if only it were so simple as killing your brother! Unfortunately, Future Peter's tinkering with the timeline is going to prove to have dire consequences this season, as Mama Petrelli so helpfully reminds him. Speaking of which, we finally found out what Angela's power is beyond some particularly wicked passive-aggression: The ability to see visions of the future, something she passed on to Peter long ago. (This, by the way, finally explains his dream in the pilot; remember when Heroes still had mysteries that didn't automatically make you think about how anticlimactically they'd be resolved?) She knows Future Peter doesn't belong here, and she can see the way things are unraveling because of it. Once again Peter doesn't care because he's on a shortsighted mission, oblivious to the damage he's causing. Again. Did I mention again? Because it's happening again. But at least Peter is back to acting nobly in the service of saving the world rather than just a random girl, which is much easier to sympathize with, even if he is still looking for a quick, "save the cheerleader"-style fix.
And as we learned tonight, it's never going to be as easy as "Save the cheerleader" again. In fact, as the newly "touched by the hand of God" Nathan puts it, the first step toward saving the world is "saving ourselves." One of the consequences of Nathan's death and quick rebirth is that he's become "born again" in more than just the literal sense, nattering prayers to himself at all hours, convinced that he and the rest of the heroes are angels here to "do God's bidding." Of course, in this case God appears to be working his mysterious ways through Malcolm McDowell (something I've long suspected), whose amoral industrialist Linderman has returned as a Shakespeare-spouting, career-counseling apparition that only Nathan can see. Is he, as he claims, a divine messenger? A run-of-the-mill g-g-g-ghost? A shameless crib from Lost? We don't know yet, but I will say it's great to have McDowell back in any capacity, corporeal or not. Even Nathan seems to have forgiven and forgotten that whole being-manipulated-into-bringing-about-Armageddon thing, as he actually takes Linderman's advice and accepts the office of junior state senator offered by Governor Tron (Bruce Boxleitner).
Governor Tron, meanwhile, has a familiar face to do some bidding (and bedding) of his own: A buxom blonde named "Tracy Strauss" who looks an awful lot like a certain frustrating character who supposedly died in a very satisfying fire at the end of last season. Whether this "Tracy" is actually the same person as "Niki/Jessica" remains to be seen–Linderman insists she's not, though her overbite says otherwise–but Nathan seems to think so, insisting in his, um, newfound religious zeal that he knows her "biblically," if you catch my drift. (That means they fucked.) She's also called out by a smarmy reporter played by a bloated-looking William Katt, in a sly nod to his Greatest American Hero days. If "Tracy" isn't Niki/Jessica, she certainly has something in common with them (besides an intense attraction to legislators): She too has a power. When she's upset, she can freeze things instantly—like Katt, who turns blue right down to his soul patch before he smashes to the floor in one of the better special effects sequences in the show's history. (Even if Jason X did it first.)
In addition to turning his brother into an evangelical loon, Future Peter's "butterfly effect" also has consequences for Claire, who's back in Costa Verde dreaming of Nissan Rogues and sensitive flying boys with meticulously arranged bangs while mourning the disappearance of her father for the umpteenth time when she's suddenly rudely interrupted by Sylar. Asking how the über-villain managed to sniff out their address would just lead to a lot of boring exposition, so instead they just cut right to the cat-and-mouse game that most of Season One spent building up to, with Sylar's reinvigorated telekinetic ability serving as no match for Claire's awesome "braining you with a trophy after telegraphing it with my overly obvious body language" technique, which leads to the two of them playing the home version of Halloween for a little while. As Claire's cowering with a butcher knife, Sylar runs across a box helpfully labeled "Plot Points: Season 3," in which he discovers a dossier on all the yummy villains he can't wait to absorb. After a brief tussle, Sylar gets down to what he does best–namely some of that Man With Two Brains-style screw-top surgery–and the audience finally finds out how he acquires his powers: He, uh, digs around in there for a while. (Claire: "Are you going to eat my brain?" Sylar: "Eat your brain? Claire, that's disgusting. Got any more retarded fan theories you'd like to share?") After he gets his hands properly slimed with Claire's special regenerative cells–or whatever; look, do you want to write this show?–he reveals to Claire that she can never feel pain, she can never be killed, and now, thanks to her, neither can he. (Unless Star Trek really takes off.)
While most people would probably be thrilled to learn that they're impervious to both pain and mortality and go off and, I don't know, be a superhero or something, Claire instead uses it as a jumping-off point for one of Heroes' patented pseudo-philosophical musings on the nature of humanity. "If you can't feel anything, do you still have a soul?" she says just before throwing herself in front of a train. (Claire, most teenage girls just put on some Evanescence and cut themselves.) Luckily Peter saves her, but he refuses to stick around and play mentor so he can help her learn to use her powers for good. Poor marginalized Claire. Meanwhile, Sylar uses his newly acquired +infinity hit points to go ape-shit at the Primatech lab in Odessa, tearing open the head of Company Bob (Stephen Tobolowsky, we hardly knew ye) and getting into an electric squabble with Bob's vengeance-seeking daughter, Darth Veronica. She manages to subdue him with a burst of adrenalized energy (more on that in a minute), but in the process she accidentally fries the power grid and lets loose all of those Level 5 prisoners Sylar was pining after–though not before freeing Bennet, who fires a few ineffective rounds into Sylar and vows some vengeance of his own. That sets us up for yet another tearful reunion between fake-father and adopted-daughter, and Claire once again tries to make herself useful by offering to become his partner in hunting down the escapees. Bennet refuses in accordance with the show's guideline that Heroes needs at least one tearful father-and-daughter reunion every six episodes or so. Instead he leaves her under the watchful eye of her negligent, manipulative, human torch birth mother–because that's bound to work out great.
Criminy, all this blathering and we still haven't caught up with Hiro! I suppose this is payback for complaining about all the inertia and slow reveals of last season, because just about everyone (save Micah and Monica, whom nobody cares about, really) got an update in this episode. Anyway, our favorite time-traveling comic relief has inherited Kaito's company–including his fleet of private jets, something that no doubt comes in really handy for a guy who can teleport anywhere he wants–and he now finds himself bored stiff. (I suppose there's an interesting commentary somewhere in there on the difference between wielding corporate power and more tangible but less profitable power, but it's getting late I'm too tired to make it.) The guy craves a quest–and who can blame him, because the last one was so much fun for everyone involved! Fortunately, his dad pulled a Brewster's Millions and left behind a mysterious DVD message from beyoooond the graaaave entrusting him with the security of a secret formula that could have dire consequences should it end up in the wrong hands. It then immediately ends up in the wrong hands–those of super-thief Daphne the "Speedster," played by Friday Night Lights' puckish alterna-girl Brea Grant. (Austin reprezzant!)
While I like the way they've set up Speedy Hot Topic as a comic foil for Hiro–and lord knows this show could use more cute-and-sassy blondes–as usual this show struggles with tone whenever it focuses on Hiro's subplot, which always comes off as so bubbly and whimsical it may as well be scored by Alain Romans. (I just pulled off a snooty Jacques Tati reference at 1:30 a.m. Eat it!) Even the glimpse of Evil Ando felling Dark Hiro with a burst of very unmanly pink lightning in an apocalyptic future felt slightly comic. But of course, we're not meant to laugh at the imminent destruction Hiro spies raining down on Tokyo; we're meant to be galvanized just like we were in Season One, when we saw the exact same special effects ripping through a model of New York. Yes, the end of the world is coming, and once again only Hiro–and Peter, who will undoubtedly just make things worse until undergoing a dramatic growing experience in the final episode–can save the day from… um, you know. The formula and molecules and stuff. [Awkward cough.] On a far more interesting note, we also saw that things have been set in motion for Ando to eventually betray Hiro, which makes Hiro suspicious of his friend and gives their relationship an unusual tension it's never had before–though it does result in some of the most on-the-nose, "this is the theme!" dialogue of the night:
Ando: "But I am not a villain. I am your best friend."
Hiro: "Maybe today. What about tomorrow?"
Elsewhere, we got to see very little of Parkman, whom Future Peter banished to wander the African desert, chatting about Britney Spears and the awesome coverage provided by Sprint cellular phones with a mysterious man who seems to know much more than he lets on. Parkman's former live-in life partner Mohinder, meanwhile, has sent Molly packing to the Land Of Former Plot Contrivances That Have Outgrown Their Usefulness and has settled into Isaac's blood-soaked apartment with Maya. Actually, when we first see Mohinder, he's convinced himself that he too has outstayed his welcome–and judging by the way he phoned it in with that passage from Yeats instead of coming up with his own usual pseudo-intellectual twaddle on the narration this week, I'm inclined to agree. He's packing to leave for India when he finally has the epiphany he's been working toward for two seasons now—and just in the nick of time!
Yes, through a very scientific application of listening, Mohinder realizes that Maya's powers are triggered by her body's fight-or-flight response, which through the further magic of TV chemistry enables him to isolate the gene that's the source of all her powers. While the Mohinder of Season One may have spent two to three episodes tiptoeing around this revelation, turning over the deep moral quandaries of its meaning and wondering whom he could trust with it, the new "man of action" Mohinder–who, let's face it, has stood around watching everybody else bitch and whine about their powers while acting as the show's de facto punching bag–says, "Fuck it" and simply jabs it into his arm, giving him a powerful shot of super-strength, heightened senses, remarkable agility, and the ability to look good shirtless, which he puts to good use in finally bedding Maya. Unfortunately, he forgot all about The Seth Brundle Effect: One minute he's scampering up walls and tearing up the bedsprings, but the next his skin is peeling away like the casing of a MacBook. Things don't look good for our favorite chump.
So does this finally signal the beginning of Mohinder's long-in-the-making turn to "the dark side"? Probably not, considering we've already got a roster of dyed-in-the-wool villains to deal with, all with sufficiently eeeeevil names like "The German," "The Flamethrower," and–scariest of them all–"Jesse." Of course, the latter is currently inhabited by the soul of the true-blue, present-day Peter Petrelli, who's suddenly found himself working unusually deep undercover as the various Level 5 baddies set off to wreak havoc. The last time we see him he's getting into a stolen van while his new gang lays waste to a gas station, and away we go with the first genuinely pulpy storyline in the show's history.
And here I say "pulpy" as a compliment; in my opinion, nothing has been more detrimental to Heroes' success than its insistence on taking itself so damn seriously. At times I even get the sense that its writing staff actually looks down on comics as a bourgeois medium, something they've adopted as a framework but are trying extra hard to rise above. Instead of storylines about good triumphing over evil, the characters of Heroes spend most of their time battling each other, battling themselves, and battling the fickle finger of fate that dared to make them "different"–which is all well and good for adding subtext, but where's the fun in that? As this summer's box office demonstrated, it is possible to tell superhero stories that aren't insultingly simplistic. The trouble with Heroes in the past is that it's been so afraid of being black and white that it often ends up dishwater gray. Anyway, at least from what we've seen so far, the "Villains" volume has the potential to change all that. And if it doesn't, well, who wants to volunteer to go back in time and step on a bunch of butterflies to fix it?
Grade (both): B+
- Nice little quasi-reunion there between Veronica Mars and Weevil (Francis Capra, who plays "Jesse"). God I miss that show.
- Also nice to see Blake Shields ("The Flamethrower"), who was my favorite part of the occasionally great, often ponderous Sleeper Cell.
- Speaking of Darth Veronica, what do you think happens to her now that she's been fired from the Company? Does she join the forces of good and lend them all the Company knowledge she's acquired over the years? Does she go rogue and seek her revenge on Sylar? Or does she have to take up temping for a while? Can you put "the Company" on your résumé?
- We almost made it to the end of two hours without any obvious product placement, Heroes, and then you had to slip in that line about Sprint.
- Spotted in the crowd during the "Countdown" special: A sign reading, "I Shot Nathan."
- How smarmy and self-congratulatory was that "Countdown" special, anyway? Both Masi Oka and Jack Coleman came off like they'd been studying tapes of Billy Bush.
- While the premiere was blessedly light on creating new loose threads of mythology, here are the two new big unanswered questions of the night: 1) What's the deal with that painting that Mohinder saw at the docks and Parkman saw in the desert?; and 2) Is Angela Petrelli really Sylar's mom? I'm guessing that last one will be answered sooner rather than later, but I for one hope not. It would take away all the emotional impact of one of the first season's most resonant scenes, when Sylar goes home to visit his mother (played by Ellen Greene) and accidentally kills her.