On ALPHAS and X-MEN

At the end of “Catch and Release“, Dr. Lee Rosen, when given the technology to create, essentially, Cerebro, decides to destroy Skylar Adams’ device rather than put it to use in his search for Alphas. After watching Alphas, I (like many, I’m sure) often think about X-Men, and the extent to which the new series is lifting parts of its narrative from the established franchise, but also where it is recasting familiar ideas. This moment from Monday’s episode is a good entry into that discussion.

The primary difference between the program that Rosen could run and Cerebro is that the latter is in mutant hands whereas, as Rosen and his team are learning, it is not entirely clear whose hands would ultimately be holding any tracking device he might make from Skylar’s computer core. As much as Rosen and his group of Alphas are to the show what Charles Xavier and the X-Men are to the Marvel Universe (and Red Flag is effectively the Brotherhood of Mutants), Alphas are at once in a more fragile position and less part of the social consciousness than are Marvel’s mutants.

In the X-Men universe, mutants are constantly under attack or stress from non-mutants, but they also have allies and their own place, their own “nation” even, from which to build (relative) safety and solidarity. “Mutant” is also a recognized social category in the Marvel Universe (as poignantly, and recently, explored in Generation Hope #9). By contrast, the only people who seem particularly aware of the existence of Alphas are government intelligence agents and Dr. Rosen. In the Alphas storyworld, I might have an extraordinary ability, but would have no way of placing myself in relation to others. While Rosen may represent an ideology of integration between Alphas and non-Alphas, his team do not stand as a symbol of identification as the X-Men do. When and if I am identified as an “Alpha” I run the risk of being warped into a tool for the government or locked away at “Binghamton”. My best choice might be to get accepted onto Rosen’s team, but, from some perspectives, as the series has made clear, that choice  is, so far, little more than another way of being made into a government tool (this is precisely the pitch that Rosen uses on Cameron to get him on the team; be sent off to scary place or join me, either way, we own you).

One of the qualities that makes “Catch and Release” one of, if not the, best episodes of the series so far is that it raises the issue of individual rights for Alphas, or the right to choose a life that involves neither being in Rosen’s group nor in Binghamton. Rosen’s decision to enable that choice for Skylar is a sign of the more tenuous position that known Alphas find themselves in relative to mutants in the MU, which is to say, Rosen is starting to think that it might be safer, for some individuals at least, to go underground than for them to be held too close to the intelligence agents with whom he works. I have a hard time imagining Charles Xavier or Scott Summers taking a similar posture towards most mutants and the X-Men, or, certainly, Utopia. Again, I think the idea of mutants having self-determination is the crucial difference here. Alphas, as far as we know, are scattered and relatively rare, even compared to mutants post-M Day.

Another difference I have noticed between the show and X-Men in its various forms, is how the series is crossing Alpha abilities with mental conditions like Gary’s and Anna’s (“Rosetta”). In X-Men, “mutation” has become a metaphor for difference; mutant/non-mutant is the fundamental divide in the world. Being a mutant is, in the relevant contexts, like other forms of subordinated identity, but mutations generally present as their own conditions. Alphas suggests that being Alpha may present as a form of “disability”, at least when following existing norms for brain function, and for ways of communicating with others and relating with the world. To most people, or, at least, in North America, Anna and Gary already seem “special”, but the meaning of that category changes radically when you move from thinking of those individuals as “disabled” to seeing them as “super abled”, something that current social prejudices would prevent most people from doing. The fact that Rosen is a psychiatrist bolsters the idea that Alpha-ness is associated with mental illness or disability, and we know that Rachel’s parents think of her as having a disease or sickness, that Cameron has been unable to “fit in”, and so forth. As a metaphor for difference and discrimination, the x-gene is understood more in biological terms, as akin to race or sexuality, than it is understood as psychiatric or neurological.

In addition to being a psychiatrist, Dr. Rosen is also notable for not being an Alpha, and for that reason is a kind of liminal figure on the show, neither fully trusted by Alphas nor by non-Alphas. Xavier for all of his belief in homo sapien and homo superior living in cooperation, is a mutant who advocates for mutants. Rosen’s position is more ambiguous, as he himself seems to be realizing.

A lot can change on the series, particularly as the number of known Alphas increases, and if and when their existence comes to be more widely known. I think that the show has done an interesting job in giving the central cast a set of abilities that can go unnoticed or be explained away, but after too many scenes like the rescue in “Bill and Gary’s Excellent Adventure” or the Red Flag operations in “Rosetta”, it will stretch credulity to think that no one outside of government intelligence and a few known Alphas would know about people with superpowers. In either case, these are the narrative directions that will push Alphas even further onto the same ground as X-Men.

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