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“.

Music subscription and the failed fan (well, me, at any rate)

From about age twelve to twenty-two music was an important part of my life and how I identified myself. My teen and young adult years were marked by a host of cultural obsessions – roleplaying and strategy games, soccer, comics, science fiction, political fiction – but music was always the most public and probably the most constant pursuit for that decade. In middle school and high school, in particular, what I listened to and what I didn’t, and attendant signifiers in dress and hair, grounded friendships and associations, sparked heated debates, and defined how I spent much of whatever spending money I had. For the record, punk, new wave and ska were the primary genres that I trafficked in, with some early dips into what is now called alt country, and, in college, neo-folk. Examples of important artists for me, c. 1982-1994, include: The Clash, The Jam, The Style Council, Echo & the Bunnymen, Lone Justice, Simple Minds, ABC, The English Beat, The Special AKA, World Party, 54-40, the Indigo Girls, Talking Heads, U2, and Crowded House.

Once I moved from college to graduate school, though, music began to recede in importance, and while I have made attempts to change that, mostly I haven’t recovered my interest in music, even as I have rediscovered other passions like genre fiction and comics.

Why music has remained on the fringes of what I do as I’ve settled into ‘proper’ adulthood is something I’ve thought about, sometimes intensely, at different times, often ending with a dissatisfying visit to iTunes.

Anne-Marie and A recently started using Spotify and that initiated another round of introspection, and while I think that there are a lot of reasons why music receded and has remained in the background for me, I think that there are three which are of particular importance.

  • The standard I set as a teen was, and is, particularly hard to maintain going into graduate school and settling into post-student adulthood. When I first started acquiring music to listen to at home, I would buy records and then record those albums to tape so as to limit the amount of wear and tear on the vinyl. I would spend whole days making mix tapes, both for myself and for others. I was, and still am to a degree, an ‘album person’. My primary mode of listening was to put on a record and play it from start to finish. Not surprisingly, this led to me to be something of a completist, at least when it came to favorite bands and artists. When I’ve thought about getting back to music in a serious way, this is the level of engagement I have in my head as for what that would mean, and I think that has caused me to stop short. I am, of course, not the same person with the same interests that I was when I was fifteen, but this is still my frame of reference.
  • That relates to another problem, which is time, notably listening time. As a young adult, I turned into a public radio junkie. I’ve been listening to shows like Talk of the Nation and This American Life since their inception. For many years, that kind of programming has been my background of choice for reading and work. More recently, podcasting has fed the completist impulse that used to be fulfilled by albums. In addition, going to movies and watching TV have also taken up more of my time than they did when I was younger, and, for whatever reason, sharing those activities has been more of a foundation for Anne-Marie and I than has music.
  • I think that the decline of American radio and of MTV as a serious place for music programming has also played a role in putting distance between me and music. In retrospect, my teen years, mid-80s to early 90s, seem like the last era both of vibrant locally-owned and managed radio and MTV’s association with music. Both were reliable media for discovering new music and for making music part of my day in a way that was simple and convenient.

This last point is why Anne-Marie’s and A’s use of Spotify started me thinking again about why I don’t listen to music in even an approximation of the way I used to.

The unspoken issue above is money. I think one reason why movies and TV are more of the glue that holds Anne-Marie and I together than is music is that it was (and is) more efficient economically for us to pool our resources and share a cable or satellite subscription, and to go to movies together, than it is for us to buy music together. Obviously, I’m not meaning to reduce these choices to economics, there are other personal taste and cultural issues at work, too, but one thing that music subscription services do is to assign a stable, and for our family, reasonable, cost to the buying of music.

Nicholas Schiller has an excellent summary and discussion of the most recent round of debate over paying for music in the digital world, and I don’t want to rehearse that matter here, but I also can’t avoid it. So, here is my piece. I want to pay for music, but I’ve drifted away from buying and listening to a point where I can’t imagine going back to paying for it in the way I did as a teen and a young adult, which is to say, buying all of the albums by all of my favorite bands and whatever miscellaneous artists and albums caught my attention. So, for many years that primarily meant disconnecting from music or at least being very very casual about my listening. While I recognize that there are critical questions to be posed about the compensation artists get from my use of a service like Spotify (or MOG, the service I’ve chosen to use), my monthly payment will add up to more than I have been paying for music the past fifteen years or so, when, honestly, I could go the better part of twelve months without buying any music (I have never pirated music. To the extent that I have tried to reintegrate music into my daily life, I have done so through podcasts, like those from CBC Radio 3 and KEXP, occasional use of Pandora, and the even more occasional purchase from iTunes, or of a CD).

One reason why I haven’t wanted to buy albums (or songs, though I don’t see myself ever being someone who buys primarily by the song) is the lack of robust ways to discover new music. Looking at what you can do with Spotify alerted me to the possibilities of subscription services that combine access to big catalogs with tools for recommending new or related works and artists. It isn’t the same as old school radio or original flavor MTV, but it fills many of the same functions. As a result, I suspect that, in the long run, MOG will lead me to buy more music than I would have otherwise because I’ll know more and hear more, and with things I really like, I’ll want more secure ownership than a streaming service can provide.

My being clued into services like MOG also comes in a moment where my tendency to want (need?) to listen to every episode of every podcast I subscribe to seems to have been broken, albeit primarily by reasons unrelated to wanting more time for music.

The first thing I did when I installed the MOG player on my laptop is to make a playlist of “New Stuff”, that is, songs from albums and artists that I had been saving in places like GetGlue and Pinboard. The second thing I did was to start listening to that list. I also began favoriting artists, many of whom I already have in my iTunes library, but usually not their complete catalogs. There are a few people I’ve become aware of during my musical dark age, e.g., Neko Case, Lucinda Williams, The Weakerthans, but my collecting and listening of their work has been less than completist. MOG lets me fill gaps (for the most part; I’ve noticed in some cases, particularly with bands and performers who became prominent before the 90s, that there can be a more limited selection of discs. This is understandable, I think. How many musicians have really made full albums that bear repeated listening decade after decade? Still, I am disappointed that I could not find this in MOG).

The point is, my use of MOG suggests a lot of pent-up demand on my part for new (to me) music, whether songs and albums from people I already know and love or from performers from whom I’ve only heard bits and pieces or read reviews. Without a service like MOG, I’d still be saving up that demand.

I describe myself here as a “failed fan”. I’m sure I could have done better over the past decade and a half, but I also think that drifting away from music happened for reasons that can’t be reduced to money or to having the right tools or resources. I think, in particular, that the identity aspect of music became less significant as I began my professional education. To the extent that I am coming back to music now is both a result of changing economics and new options for listening and discovery and a built-up desire for music as music, more than music as a signifier of self (although I don’t think you can ever fully detach cultural activities like listening to music from identity. We are what we do, or to follow a new favorite, “You are what you love and not what loves you back”).