About a year ago, the great Noel Murray made a splendid observation on Twitter about TV plotting, contrasting “X must get Y, locked up at Z, requiring acquisition of A/B/C” with the less interesting “X needs Y’s help but must regain Y’s trust.”
The Gifted, entering its final run of episodes with “3 X 1,” has often employed a kind of blend of those two approaches. The show at its most kinetic has gone to the acquisition-style plot of Option 1 plenty of times, and even its version of Option 2 isn’t quite on Noel’s model of trust that must be regained. When characters on The Gifted ask each other to trust them again, it’s often not in the sense of returning to each other’s good graces, but to trust them one more time after trusting them in a previous episode (and not usually getting burned on it). Before it can get to its heist-y acquisition-adventure stories, it has to go through the motions of characters debating whether it’s a good idea, and whether they all sign off on it. (And then my reviews go through the motions of complaining about all of this discussion.)
To some degree, these kinds of conversations are built into the X-Men mythos, with its debates between Professor X and Magneto endlessly refracted, echoed, and rehashed, largely amounting to the question of offense versus defense. But there’s more than a touch of TV-plot wheel-spinning to the way that The Gifted comes back to the Strucker parents arguing with the Strucker kids, the Strucker parents arguing with the Mutant Underground, Polaris arguing with Eclipse, and now the Mutant Underground arguing with the nascent Hellfire Club revival. Even if the discussions aren’t always about regaining personal trust, per se, they have that formula: We need to talk about this before we can finally agree to do that. Or as Caitlin puts it to her son in this episode just before some shit goes down: “Andy, we’ve already talked about this.” Yeah, we have.
I think that’s what makes the Cuckoo Triplets, as one of their comics-referencing alias allows them to be called, so refreshing as they barnstorm their way into the main storyline—even though they ultimately feature in another TV plotline I tend to find irritating, where we watch characters manipulate the main characters who don’t understand the full extent of the manipulation. (Maybe I react against this because TV and movies and stuff are inherently manipulative, so I don’t necessarily find it all that mind-blowing when they reveal that the characters don’t know what they’re in for.) The Triplets may currently feel too all-powerful to get beyond gimmick status, but boy, what a gimmick.
As the Mutant Underground picks up the pieces of the previous episode, wherein Esme both assisted with a Trask Industries break-out (rescuing the Strucker kids and Blink) and hinder the Underground’s cause (releasing her sisters and murdering a bunch of humans), everyone’s back at the Mutant Underground HQ (save Dreamer, killed by Campbell last time out). Naturally, the episode turns to debate over whether the Mutant Underground should accept the help of the Cuckoo Triplets, who share with them some broad goals (rescue mutants) but have a bit of their own agenda, too (restart the Hellfire Club; maybe kill all humans?), along with methods much of the Mutant Underground, including Eclipse, opposes. Polaris is more like, eh, maybe give murder a chance.
So yeah, the Cuckoos bring with them a non-fresh list of stuff to debate about. But they also change the rhythms of the show, from the way they’re strikingly framed together, in stylishly outfitted triplicate, to the cuts between one-shots that sometimes accompany the weird, slightly stilted speech patterns that mix unison pronouncements with finishing each other’s sandwiches... er, sentences. (I figure if Frozen can steal that joke from Arrested Development, it must be fair game.) They bring in a stranger, more stylized sensibility to this corner of the XCU, and they’re a lot of fun to watch and listen to.
Is that enough to fuel “3 X 1” and its endless torrents of warmed-over debates? If it’s not, it’s only because this is all happening again so late in the season. While there’s effective cross-cutting between the funeral of Agent Jace Turner’s colleague and the smaller affair conducted by the Mutant Underground for poor Dreamer, the emotion is undercut by the way these events are used to have the characters retrench into stances that looked, in recent episodes, to be softening. It’s a particularly galling kind of boring to watch Agent Jace Turner totally use a legit funeral as a platform for talking about how he’s sick and tired of mutant fighters, a move I would describe as “sub-classy.” Another reason the Cuckoos are so compelling is that the series bad guys have, in the back half of the reason, weakened without gaining much dimension.
So if “3 X 1” isn’t entirely too little too late as a whole, maybe the big action sequence in the last 10 minutes is. Despite some adjusted shutter speeds and low-angle close-ups lending it some extra intensity as the mutants come ever closer to a devastating defeat, it doesn’t erase all of the non-triplet tedium that precedes it. As The Gifted heads into its final two episodes, the real conflict brewing may be between the showmanship of its best, pulpiest moments and the obligatory earnestness of its endless trust plots.
- In Blink’s cold open, she and her normie boyfriend are exiting a movie theater whose marquee advertises only Fox productions (or, as it’s now known, Disney IP). Most of them are real (and not very good) movies, so it’s sort of neat that they stuck in a fake Alien sequel called Xenomorph in there (unless I misread that and Xenomorph is just the name of one of the stars of The Maze Runner; I’m allowing for this possibility because I fell asleep during that movie).
- Speaking of that cold open: Yes, all sympathy to Blink for her douche-y guy’s capitulation to terrorism, but also, a question for the terrorists: Why would you spraypaint a car right before you torch it?
- Both dude Struckers get an “ugh, this guy” reaction shot to the re-appearance of Wes (I’m not sure if this is even the intended message of either reaction shot, but that’s how both of them play).
- Magneto allusions! Magneto allusions! Did you guys imagine Fassbender or McKellan when the Cuckoo pestered Polaris about her real dad? I know timeline-wise, it would probably have to be McKellan, and he certainly fits the “king” distinction better than Fassbender. (It’s also harder to picture the Fassbender version tomcatting away from parental responsibility, although I guess he’s already done that in the prequel movies with Quicksilver.)
- And yeah, the Cuckoos are in on a plan to rebuild the Hellfire Club! Sweet! Who’s in charge of buying a cool club hangout?