Photo: Eliza Morse/Fox

How much of our lives do we spend in fear of one sort or another, especially when we’re young? One of the reasons the X-Men interest me more than many other superhero and superhero-adjacent comics (and comics-adjacent) characters is that some of them seem genuinely afraid of their own power. Obviously there are plenty of Marvel heroes who feel conflicted about their powers: how to use them, when to use them, whether to regulate them, whether they come with great responsibility (spoiler: usually) and what that responsibility entails. And I’m sure there are plenty of Marvel characters I don’t know about who are more actively fearful of what they can. But for mutants, the fear comes built-in, just as the powers usually do, and those powers tend to emerge at an emotionally vulnerable time: adolescence.

I’m not saying anything that X-Men fans both more casual and more intense than I am don’t already know. I’m also not necessarily talking about anything The Gifted does especially well a lot of the time. It does focus on two characters, Andy and Lauren Strucker, who are at that awkward, fearful age as their powers have begun to manifest, but the Strucker family has rarely been the most compelling element of this show—not with the Mutant Underground and its litany of cooler powers and more charismatic personalities. That hasn’t even really changed with “outfoX,” in that many of the episodes best bits don’t have much to do with the Struckers.

But the episode does capture something affecting about the Strucker kids. In “outfoX,” they learn that they are kin to the von Strucker twins, who were mutant terrorists with ties to the Hellfire Club (many exclamation points!!!!); their mother Caitlin also learns about Reed’s mutant-heavy family history as the son and grandson of mutants who had his X-gene suppressed only to have it re-appear in his kids, and Reed, uh, re-learns that stuff too, as a few brief flashbacks restate what was explained in the previous episode. This information is new to Andy and Lauren, but maybe not 100 percent new: the cold-open flashback reveals that they did, in fact, feel a surge of power when they took each other’s hands a year before the events of the series (answering a question I certainly had after the last episode). But when they try out their teamed-up powers again, they get more of a bead on what Reed refers to, with unintentionally amusing bluntness, as their “massively destructive” potential.

The road to this scene is paved with plenty of strifed-out conversations about family secrets that feel as tedious as the information is revelatory (funny thing, how quickly deep dark secrets can start to sound boring when characters fuss over them). Even the immediate run-up to the Strucker kid power test is predictable: Andy seems more interested in testing the boundaries of his abilities, which the episode subtly hints at by having him clarify: “I actually want something to happen” when the hand-holding initially doesn’t produce any results.

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But once the Struckers do start to realize that yes, if they hold hands a little longer and really direct their power, they can totally level buildings and shit, the episode finds some nuance in the idea that it’s not as simple as Andy goading on his powers while Lauren keeps hers in control. They’re both excited, and they’re both scared, and there’s something vivid about seeing both characters try to balance out those conflicted feelings that almost describe their power in terms of a possible addiction. For a few minutes, they seem less like types, and more like kids who haven’t developed their sense of self well enough to feel either completely confident or completely terrified by what they can do.

This being an episode of The Gifted, these revelations lead into a pretty familiar dynamic: the Mutant Underground needs to plot an attack (in this case to rescue the mutants at the Sentinel Services-affiliated lab); the Strucker kids can help better than anyone; their parents are reluctant but ultimately willing. We’re at least spared most of the hardcore hemming and hawing this time around. At first, I assumed, in a meta sort of way, that the Strucker parents had simply come to accept this as part of their regular routine: Express concern or even outrage about their kids being dragged into the Mutant Underground antics, then understand that it’s the only way, and watch from some distance or another as their kids comport themselves rather well in a sticky situation. But I have to hand it for the show for having this be the episode where it turns out the Struckers finally get captured – the kids, anyway. The parents watch helplessly from their undercover van, knowing that if they rush in after their kids, they’ll all be screwed.

This also messes with a more enjoyable part of the Gifted formula: that it’s been fun to see mutants going out on missions full of breathless escapes. But as inevitable as it probably was that someone would have to get captured on one of these missions, I felt a palpable oh-shit moment when the Strucker kids silently decide not to blow the place sky high and accept, for now, their dire situation. It’s the kind of cliffhanger this show has largely avoided, but “outfoX” does an admirable job of finding its way through a familiar situation to a relatively standard non-conclusion in a way that feels exciting and, in its best fleeting moments, kind of true.

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Stray observations:

  • Also: they got Blink! Those bastards got Blink!
  • Over on the Mutant Underground side of the story, vaguely suspicious telepath and semi-terrible amateur spy Esme (Skyler Samuels) is still around, peering through blinds feet away from Dreamer and Thunderbird, lurking outside Polaris and Eclipse’s door looking suspicious, and generally telegraphing a lot but not exactly everything. I think we’re to understand that she may have planted Polaris’s nightmare (in which Eclipse and their baby are both imprisoned, presumably awaiting experimentation) in her head, or at least manipulated it to some degree. And it’s heavily implied that she’s undercover in the Mutant Underground to get (maybe) revenge on (presumably) Polaris for (I guess) hurting one of the Sentinel Services guys who came after the mutants in an earlier episode. But she’s a for-real mutant so it’s a little tricky to figure out a situation where tricking Mutant Underground folks into attacking Sentinel Services would be the best play, especially because Sentinel Services was not tipped off about this attack. I guess I’m a little impressed that despite the clunking damn obviousness of Esme skulking around the whole episode, I didn’t feel like the whole thing was completely given away. This may be less of a stray observation and more of a major plot point. But just like the show’s writers, I insisted on giving way too much time to the Strucker kids!
  • My interest in TV show tie-in books waned sometime around an incomplete X-Files episode guide, but I would read the shit out of that mutant history textbook.
  • That is, I would read the shit out of that mutant history textbook if it was properly produced in a manner that was up to the standards of a professional textbook, and especially if it included a strong feature program and a robust supplemental website.
  • OK, I admit it: I edit textbooks professionally.
  • Polaris got do a bunch of cool little powers-related stuff in this episode, like wreck up her bedroom during her nightmare and make a brass knuckles-style punching implement out of a spoon.
  • The occasion for the spoon knuckles is Polaris and Dreamer flirting with a Sentinel Services security guy long enough for Dreamer to invade his head. It’s a security seduction that starts out with a slightly lighter touch than what Mystique does in X2, only to take a suddenly heavier hand with Polaris’s face-punch.
  • This episode’s director is Liz Friedlander, who has made a bunch of music videos and also the dance-centric feature film Take The Lead, which I fully intended to see when it came out in 2006 but never did, despite the presence of at least one Degrassi cast member.

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