ALPHAS and GRIMM: tweaking tropes

Last night’s episodes of Alphas and Grimm, “Alphaville” and “Bad Moon Rising” respectively, both yielded interesting turns on genre conventions.

In the main, Alphas has been built on the fundamental structure of the X-Men universe, making being an Alpha into a choice between integration/peaceful co-existence with the rest of humanity and waging war. The one notable exception to this narrative was shown in last season’s “Catch and Release”, wherein Rosen decides to give Skylar Adams a pass on both joining the team and being shipped to Binghamton. In “Alphaville”, directed by Nick Copus and written by Michael Chamoy, we are shown a whole community of Alphas who just want to be left alone, and who have no desire to be be part of the conflict between Rosen and Stanton Parish. In fact, Rosen is pretty universally reviled for having outed Alphas to the world, an event that compelled many in the camp to seek shelter in the first place.

In X-Men, there is no prominent third way; the different alliances and political permutations in the overarching narrative have stayed within the bounds of peace vs. war. The closest analog I could think of to the community in “Alphaville” is the Morlocks, but there are important differences between the two groups.

First, the Morlocks came to be because of discrimination, or fears of discrimination, against mutants with visible mutations. While there is the suggestion that Rosen’s broadcast forced at least some to drop off of the grid, we have yet to meet an Alpha who couldn’t pass for ‘neurotypical’, to use a term increasingly in circulation on the series, or who, like Gary and Anna, could pass as having some kind of ‘disability’. Second, the Morlocks, while in hiding, are nonetheless living underground in Manhattan and in close proximity to mainstream society, including the different mutant factions on the surface. The members of Skylar’s community are trying to be as remote as possible from the world at large and while their motivations are not dissimilar from the mutants who make the Morlocks, achieving some kind of socio-political independence and making their own ‘normal’ seem more important than simply staying out of sight.

The main point here would be that very few mutants who did not feel that they had to would join with the Morlocks, while the community in “Alphaville” could be attractive to many different kinds of Alphas. In this particular episode, it rang true to me that Nina and Gary would contemplate dropping out.

Clearly, at the end of “Alphaville” the continued viability of a third way for Alphas is meant to be questioned. I can clearly see where at least some of the members of the community would decide to join Parish’s cause, but it is hard to imagine a character like Claude, at least based on the glimpse we got here, doing anything but continuing to seek some kind of independence. What the episode illustrates well is the difficulty of remaining unaligned when caught between agents in a conflict who tend to see the world in an either-you’re-with-us-or-you’re-against-us way. Rosen seeking out Skylar in the first place shows that he sees any kind of ‘non-alignment’ as purely temporary or as an indulgence, and not as a realistic choice for an Alpha. Clearly, Stanton Parish sees things the same way. Showing the similarities between those two men is, I think, an important narrative purpose of Skylar’s character and the independent community in “Alphaville”.

While Alphas addressed the dualism derived from X-Men, on Grimm last night, “Bad Moon Rising”, written by Richard Hatem and directed by David Solomon, finally provided some resolution to one of the critical sources of tension in supernatural TV drama: how the protagonist deals with their knowledge of the supernatural in relation to those who are ignorant, especially with family, friends, and colleagues.

Generally, the emphasis is on encouraging ignorance, or enabling denial, but there are always a few characters who have to be brought into the fold: Willow and Xander, later Joyce and Oz, on Buffy, for example, or Kensi (and, in some way, Bo) on Lost Girl, for another. On Grimm, Hank and Juliette are the characters around which this question has been most relevant. Juliette remains difficult and complicated for many reasons, and not just her mystical memory loss, but because she highlights many of the reasons why the protagonists on these shows want to keep all the magic and monsters, and their knowledge of same, hidden. There is always the risk that the people will think you’re crazy, or trying to hide something else with wild stories about demons and witches, or that sharing what you know will make the people you care about vulnerable in ways they wouldn’t be otherwise. Of course, that second point cuts both ways, which is one reason why, I think, Nick tried to being her in at the end of last season.

Thus far the series has been inconsistently written as to what gets treated as a serialized element, and what is played for effect in a single episode. As a result, until last night, I had not given much thought to how Hank had been dealing with what he’s seen since Nick became aware of what he is and what he can do. “Bad Moon Rising” is primarily devoted to Hank’s trauma and feelings of being unmoored and isolated by his anxieties.

Where you have a cast of characters divided between those who know about supernatural creatures and forces and those who don’t, the tension that creates is one that ultimately needs to be released. There are only so many ways to have one character hide these kinds of things from another before the situation starts to seem ridiculous. More to the point, the fun and drama that can come from this tension largely comes from wanting to see when, and not if, the characters out of the know get to be in on the action.

When that moment finally comes, this is what typically happens. After witnessing something that is hard to ignore, the main character, or some other already initiated figure, tells or affirms to the other character that monsters and magic are real. The formerly ignorant character is either so cool that they just readily accept this fact (see Kensi or Oz) or they accept after an initial denial (“Have you tried not being a slayer?”).

In the context of these kinds of shows, these responses work because the world tends to make more, and not less, sense once you know that there are vampires, demons, and whatnot. Again, the drama and humor comes more from the build-up than from the resolution.

The one exception I could of think of to this pattern is Kate Lockley from Angel. In that case, Kate ends up feeling betrayed by the one person who should have been her guide, Angel, and the fact that Angel is also the same kind of creature as the one who tries to kill her casts her revelation about the supernatural in a different light that the other examples, where this is a certain detachment from what the character learns or where the person who guides them to the truth is clearly seen as an ally or protector. For the balance of Angel, up until her final appearance on the series, Kate accepts what she now knows, but would prefer not to know it (later, in the IDW comics, she is a committed monster hunter and fairly well adjusted).

What makes Hank’s learning and acceptance of the supernatural different is his sense of relief. “Bad Moon Rising” shows us a character who is falling apart at the seams and who feels alone. Knowing that he isn’t alone, and that there is a strange, but straightforward, explanation for the images he has in his head is not just “cool” or “ok”, but is actually therapeutic for Hank.

The reason that Hank finds himself in this position is that Nick has spent very little time even thinking about him and what he might have seen. Whether from insensitivity or from inexperience, it seems likely that Nick just assumed that Hank was willing to accept whatever sloppy explanation he came up with for some of their recent cases because who, in their right mind, would believe the truth. As it turns out, Hank hasn’t been in his right mind and the fact that Nick wasn’t ready for this moment is another way in which last night’s Grimm twisted convention.

This turn in the narrative is new, and there is still potential for a lot of tension between Nick and Hank, and we’ll see where the series goes from here, but having both characters in the know opens up all kinds of possibilities. It should be easier to work cases, and as suggested last night, to bring Wessen into the justice system. On the other hand, the stakes are raised in other areas, notably involving Captain Renard, as well as with cases that are less easy to present as normal crimes, and with Nick’s family, especially mom. I’m also looking forward to Hank learning specifically about Monroe. In short, as is often the case, bringing more characters into the loop should be good for Grimm.

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ALPHAS Season 2: “Alpha Dogs” & “When Push Comes to Shove”

The X-Men have always been used as metaphors for difference, opening discussions of discrimination and fear of the Other that can be refracted back onto the positions of different identities in ‘the real world’. Mutation is a complicated and heavily negotiated category in the Marvel Universe. A good argument can be made that the social significance of that category is the primary theme of the X-Men across all media. Less commonly explored is mutation as a form of personal identity, or what being a mutant means for the individual. There are hints of this in some stories involving Rogue, her decision to take the ‘cure’ in The Last Stand, for example, but overwhelmingly the concerns that animate stories featuring the X-Men are about how mutants are regarded by non-mutants.

The personal aspect of identity, what being different means for me, is emerging as a central theme in the current season of Alphas, and is a good example of how the series not only appropriates from X-Men, but also spins in different directions. The issue of personal identity and Alpha-ness is central to both episode three of season two, “Alpha Dogs”, and episode four, “When Push Comes to Shove”.

The narrative in “Alpha Dogs” revolves around the idea of a fight club for Alphas. This premise is repeated across science fiction and fantasy television. In just the last year, I’ve seen episodes of Lost Girl and Grimm founded on some version of a fight club for super-natural or super-powered beings. Invariably, these clubs are shown to be wrong somehow, either because bloodsport is inherently inhumane or because the event is corrupt. “Alpha Dogs”, written by Eric Tuchman and directed by Nick Copus, surprises by departing from this formula.

While there is corruption at the heart of the procedural part of the narrative in this episode, it is not shown to be intrinsic to the fight. Rather, the arena is shown to be a place where Alphas gather to be with other Alphas and to explore their abilities. For Bill, the effect is therapeutic and the episode ends with him showing up to throw down even after the case is closed.

Bill’s ability to do this is rooted in whatever mediation technique it is that he learns from Kat, a technique that frees him to use his powers without his usual fear of debilitation or death. The return to the fight club is a way for him to see what this freedom means, not for Rosen, or for his job, but for himself.

“When Push Comes to Shove” focuses on Nina, and the way that she has been written up through this episode reminds of how Grant Morrison wrote Emma Frost for New X-Men, at least in her willingness to work her will on others. However, whereas Emma Frost acts with a casual confidence about her abilities, and station, Nina is acting from insecurity. For her, her Alpha powers seem to carry the paradoxical fear of both getting and not getting what she wants from others.

It isn’t uncommon for super-powered characters to have personal tragedy come from, particularly, not understanding their powers when they manifest. Again, Rogue is a good case in point, Bo in Lost Girl is another, as is Liz Sherman from Hellboy/BPRD (there’s probably some significance to all of these examples being women, but I’m not prepared to think that through here). In most of these cases, the incidents tend to involve quick and deadly results. While Nina’s dad ends up killing himself, what I appreciate about how writer Adam Levy and director Omar Madha handle this story in “When Push Comes to Shove” is the way that Nina is not directly responsible for the outcome, but indirectly through her naive use of her power as a kid who just wants her parents to stay with her.

The revelation that Nina has been pushing herself is interesting, but I’m glad that the episode does not dwell on this notion as it opens a lot of questions about how her power works that I’m not sure the series is prepared to answer. As a metaphor for how deep her sadness and insecurity goes, the single shot of her engaging this move is effective.

In “Alpha Dogs” we also learn more about Stanton Parish, and while narratively he is primarily the Alphas analog to Magneto, making his personal story and power more like Wolverine’s is an interesting idea. There is clearly some significance to his being, in effect, the ‘first Alpha’ and how he responded to learning of his difference from others. This story, however, brings us back around to the social significance of Alphas. There are other indications, such as Kat’s awareness of being an Alpha before encountering Bill and Cameron, that the series is building toward more of an exploration of the social as well as the personal aspects of otherness.

In regards to the latter, I could also comment on Rachel and her efforts to cope with her heightened senses, or Gary and his mother, as well as looking at Bill and Nina. What I appreciate about Rachel’s and Gary’s stories is how they show Alphas as perhaps having been grown from Chris Claremont-era X-Men in dealing with the interpersonal relationships of the characters and incorporating aspects of soap opera into a superhero story (the kind of love triangle between Nina, Cameron, and Danielle also, obviously, reflects this influence, too).

Thus far into the second season, to the extent that Alphas can be read as an X-Men clone, it is at least being made from the stronger parts of the latter’s DNA, while also showing itself to be something other than just X-Men by another name.

See also: “On ALPHAS and X-MEN“.

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.