Thursday, December 11, 2008

Heroes 010: Let Them Eat Cake

OK, let me just get it out of the way right now: I liked this episode of Heroes. By which I mean to say, it didn't suck out loud. It was all right; almost reminiscent of the sort of thing they used to do back when they were kind of good.

I should also say that I have no expectation that this will continue. I've been burned before.

But I'm feeling charitable, so I'll just mention my quibbles in passing. Haitian and Peter getting back from their stranding in what seems like 3 hours, the relative pointlessness of the Parkman/Ando/Speedylou segment, the Cal Ripkin-esque streak of unabated idiocy from Mohinder, and especially Sylar's lack of interest in harvesting Pa-treli's powers. OK.

Now to the more problematic question of why this episode worked when so many other failed.

1) Sylar's a psycho again. Sylar can -- maybe even should -- be given greater depth, but it needs to spring from what we know of him. And let's face it, what we know of him is that he likes to saw people's heads off and poke around in there. What is the point, really, of putting him in an apron and having him find some kind of sudden cheapened redemption, when clearly what that character was meant to do was brain-pokey? Was it just me, or did Zachary Quinto seem to relish being let off the leash? Also, I see he's stolen a muppet's eyebrows. Good for him.

2) Humor. I mean real humor, not embarrassing stuff like Hiro doing a pee-pee dance. Most of this sprang this episode from Sylar. Quinto really was having fun. Cake!

3) Death matters again. Elle actually was killed. Now, you could argue the wisdom of this in the larger picture, since we were just starting to get to know the character, and now what on earth was the point of all that time we spent in ham-fisted development of Elle? It's the cherry on the "we wasted the last four episodes" sundae. But at least we were shown a major character's death that actually resulted in death. None of this Claire's blood transfusion nonsense. And Pa-trelli appears to actually have taken the dirt-nap, though of course he has regeneration so that makes very little sense once the Hatian leaves.

4) Emotional resonance. This really is the big one. We've seen the funeral of Hiro's mother, and seen his character react to that loss, so when his mother unexpectedly appears, it means something based on what we know of the character. And, even though Claire changing her own diaper is odd (at least), we got an insightful look at a younger, more career driven, and much more wary Bennett. And -- dare I say it -- an actual understated moment when Bennett realized that he was looking at his adoptive daughter all grown up. They didn't beat us over the head with it. They just showed it. It added depth to the relationship in a way that another seven in the endless iteration of I LOVE YOU CLAIRE BEAR / I NEED TO LEAVE NOW TO TAKE CARE OF SOME BUSINESS CLAIRE BEAR just doesn't. Well played, Heroes. Now don't get cocky. Another 17 or so of these in a row, and I'll forgive you for crapping over one of the better starts in serialized TV drama history.

Here's the thing. My issue with this show is not that I can't believe it. Time travel? Fine. Flying guy? Cool. Super heroes? Great. Suspension of disbelief is par for the course in any fictional story, and you'll never hear me whingeing that people can't REALLY shoot fire out of their hands.

My problem is with a story that doesn't believe in itself, which is exactly what's happening here. See, if the story bothers to spend time setting up a plot point and a situation, and then either abandons it or flatly contradicts it -- if a character is given an arc and development, and then that development is ignored in favor of moving plot item A from point D to point Q (or, even better, if character simply behave very, very, very transparently stupidly in order to move that plot item), then what you have is a story foul. It mocks the audience for having suspended it's belief in the first place. "Ho ho ho! None of this really matters! Silly you for having allowed yourself to be invested in these people and what happens to them."

See, either Hiro has turned into a hero worthy of his father's trust, or he's a spoiled prat who can't accept real responsibility for even a second. If he's both, it's fine, but then there has to be tension to dramatize the disonance. It can't just happen, and then Hiro goes on being a great hero who has saved the world. He just can't. Otherwise, it is a story foul.

Either the Company is a shadow government operation (as it appears to be when Bennett is involved) or it is a front for organized crime (as it appears to be when Linderman is running the show), or it is a private concern (as it seemed to be when Ned Ryerson was in charge), or it is a completely abandoned prison/warehouse with only Bennett and the Hatian working there (as seems to be the case this season). In any case, if it is all those things or neither, some sense has to be made of it, or it becomes clear that it's all nonsense. It's a story foul.

Either the powers are given by an eclipse (as we were recently told), or they weren't (they weren't if you have a longer memory than a lab rat, or Matt Parkman).

Either Sylar is on the path to redemption or he's not. If he's in conflict about that, that's fine, but you need to see the conflict. You don't do this by having one episode where he is good and another where he is a psychopath again. It's bad chess. It's not sporting.

I could go on. The point is this. You as audience member can suspend your disbelief in the material -- any material, whether it is a JLA comic or Moby Dick -- only to the extent to which the artist involved has suspended their own disbelief and committed themselves to their own material. When nothing adds up to anything but contrivance, then you can either notice or start making up your own convoluted reasons why such-and-so might make sense if this and this and this and this were the case, and happened off screen somewhere. This is know as "fan-wanking."

If Moby Dick has set up a story that is all about the clash of two forces of nature (the hatred and lust for revenge of Ahab vs. the horrific majesty of the white whale), and then suddenly Ahab says, "You know what? I hate the sea. Let's all start a vegan farm in Norway", and they all go do that, and then Queequeg turns out to be a ballet impressario and they all put on a universally lauded version of Swan Lake, then Herman Melville is a hack, and the story has lost all meaning, and pointing it out does not mean that the critic is incapable of enjoying densely written 19th century seafaring novels, but rather that the critic is incapable of enjoying poorly-told stories. Poorly told, not because there is no such thing as a white whale the size of a mountain, and one is incapable of suspending belief in one, but because that suspension of belief has been made, and then betrayed. Ahab is not what we've been told he was, and thus Moby doesn't mean Dick.

So, in summation, Mohinder is an idiot. And so are the Heroes writers. But they've somehow managed to turn their ship, however briefly, away from the Norwegian vegans. Here's hoping they can hold that course. I'd enjoy enjoying the show again.


Matt said...

I totally agree. While this episode may have been one of the worst if it was in Season One, it was probably the best of this season. However...

I thought Arthur's death undermines whatever tension was building with Pinehurst and the pursuit of the formula. Calm yet menacing, he was the force behind the "evil" this season, and now that they've got the forumla...he's gone? Of course, we may find out next Monday that his other power is to turn real events into dream sequences and throw away everything from this episode, who knows. But I'm sad to see him go since it looks like this is shaping up to be another Peter vs Nathan showdown, and we've already been there before. Many, many times.

Gunslinger said...

Excellent write up, goat. I, too, hope they can salvage the mess they've made the last two seasons.

Anonymous said...

Yeah I guess it seems unlikely that Elle will be brought back from the dead, but you never know. She is cute, so I'm hoping at the very least the writers will introduce her identical twin sister as a new character. Either way, really.

Khonshu said...

Excellent meta-analysis and explanation with your Moby Dick example! I couldn't agree more!!