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

Undercovers: "Xerxes"

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Oh terrific, Undercovers, that’s just great. I do hope you’re proud of yourself. You wait until the sixth episode in to suddenly get awesome, after weeks of anemic ratings and middling-to-terrible episodes, having poisoned your chances for an audience rebound and full-season pick-up. And on the last week I’ll be recapping the show here. Seriously, that’s perfect. I couldn’t be happier.

Actually I am pretty happy to be recapping this episode as my last. Had last week’s dull blade been the last episode of the show I recapped, it would have also very likely been the last one I watched. But out of duty to The AV Club, I soldiered ahead to “Xerxes,” and I’m so very glad I did. The episode affirmed my suspicions that, somewhere shuffling around in the drab burlap sack of a show Undercovers started off as, there was another show. A fun, sexy, suspenseful spy thriller that was as enjoyable to watch with the sound on as with the sound off. (‘Cause seriously, Boris and Gugu just don’t stop being hot, do they? They just don’t ever stop.) “Xerxes” was, at long last, that show, an episode I enjoyed watching as much as a solid episode of Burn Notice or Leverage.

Is this a case of the show winning the expectations game? Has it lowered my opinion of it such that I can’t help but grade on a curve? Perhaps so, but if my grade for this episode is inflated, it’s certainly not by much. The upgrades were glaring, starting with the mission, which was head and shoulders above anything we’ve seen from the show before. It kicked off with an incident: an Australian Outback tour went from bad to worse when one of the bus riders deployed a biological weapon and killed all the inhabitants. The cold opens we’d seen prior to this were good for introducing us to the bad guys and beginning to sketch out the mission objectives, but weren’t very good at quickly establishing the stakes. This sequence did that in a very elementary way. There’s a weapon. It kills people. It’s on the move.

On the move to a painting, to be precise, which was being auctioned off in Tuscany to an elusive weapons dealer who goes by Xerxes. Following an uncharacteristically brisk mission briefing from Major Dad, Sam reassumed Amanda Yorn, an identity from an earlier cover. But Amanda was married, and her husband was Clive Garrity, a MI-6 operative with whom Sam is reteamed with for this mission, leaving Steven to play an unusually good looking bell hop. (Steven and Clive have an acrimonious history, naturally, but more on that in a bit.) Hoyt is also positioned as a bell hop, and Clive’s back-up is a cutie named Tessa, who Hoyt instantly falls for. The reason this mission worked so much better than in weeks prior is because of how it was structured. The plan was to figure out which painting contained the formula for the weapon, duplicate it and swap out the real painting for the fake, then intercept the buyer. But in order to target the painting, Sam and Clive had to break into the auction director’s office and download a file containing details on all the lots. The extra step made all the difference. Hoyt got to be gadgety and there was a security scare with a near escape. All standard stuff, but well executed.

After locating the painting, Steven and Hoyt print out the fake, but when they try to swap it out they are intercepted by the same older gentleman who killed the guy who delivered the painting, and who we were led to believe was Xerxes. Now of course he wasn’t Xerxes, but there was enough misdirection that while I was sure the blond wasn’t Xerxes, I wasn’t sure quite who was. It was shrewd to have Hoyt bump into the blond and linger in a way that let you know he was going to be significant later. At the moment it seemed a little obvious, but between that, the shot of Tessa being shady, and Clive’s general mischief, it was hard to predict who was involved, who wasn’t and who was working for whom. My initial assumption was that Clive was Xerxes and Tessa was either working with him, or would reveal that she was trying to get close enough to him to take him down. (Perhaps that’s because I liked the idea of a love interest for Hoyt.) Alas, Tessa turned out to be Xerxes, who had stabbed Clive, then eliminated the painting and the buyer. What followed was fairly straightforward: the phone numbers for Tessa’s “sisters” were in fact coordinates for the buy in Hong Kong. There was a foot chase which bounced Tessa between Steven and Sam before finally leading her to an unforgiving Hoyt. But we got a totally solid mission which contained an honest-to-goodness action sequence (when Steven and Hoyt hijacked the truck) and some nice twists.

But better still, there was finally a smooth integration of Steven and Sam’s relationship with the mission in a way that wasn’t corny and didn’t feel shoehorned in. Clive sweeps in and stokes the subject of the Blooms’ decision to keep their past missions and covers a secret from each other, which still seems like a great idea to them until Clive starts hinting around trouble Steven had while in the academy. Instead of ending the conversation as she should have done, Sam probed deeper, and Steven found out when he demanded to be patched into the communication channel. The whole situation felt like it grew organically out of the characters and the situation they were in, a striking difference from “You men sure do like gadgets! It’s too bad you never read the instructions, tee hee!” And it culminated in an incredibly sweet moment. I’m not ashamed to admit I swooned a little when Steven told his side of the story, which was actually kind of creepy, but forgivable since they ended up together.


All this isn’t to say “Xerxes” was without its flaws. For one thing, is Leo Nash still a character on this show? Two weeks now without any mention of him seems weird. I can’t recall anyone mentioning anything about him not being around. The Lizzy scene was also mercifully short this week, which is a good thing in the short run, but in the long run it’s not going to work for the show to be at its best when it’s pretending two of its regular characters don’t even exist. But the larger problem is with Sam, who I’m increasingly finding hard to like or defend. It was established by her tense conversations with Leo during “Jailbreak” that she was keeping a major secret from Steven, and using confidentiality as her excuse. Here, she’s still holding fast to the idea of secrecy, so long as Steven is the only one being forthcoming. Seeing her not only needle Clive for details of Steven’s academy unpleasantness, but then allow him to give extra details later lowered my opinion of her. I’d like to see her be a little more conflicted about whatever secret she’s keeping from the man she loves, especially as she allows him to violate their pact to give her warm fuzzies.

Stray observations:

  • Just to reiterate, no more weekly recaps for this show. But if it sticks around I may drop in at a later date.
  • I was in the market for an oversize printer, and now I’m pretty sure I’ll be making mine an HP. I’m kidding.