Here it is, folks — the battle royal we’ve been waiting for. In one corner: Hiro Nakamura, the time-stopping, samurai-sword-wielding comic-book nerd from Tokyo. In the other: Sylar, the watchmaker-turned-mutant serial killer destined to become the shape-shifting tyrant president of a genocidal dystopian America. It’s a titanic collision of good versus evil, hero versus villain, and, yes, geek versus geek, and it’s about to get under way on a Los Angeles soundstage…right after Sylar’s mommy gets done stabbing her son to death. Just another day in the land of Heroes, NBC’s cult-pop smash about an imperiled planet bursting at the genetic seams with superpowered peeps. Here, inside an ersatz New York apartment, work is proceeding on the three-part season finale, which begins airing on May 7. Looking more Beaver Cleaver than Hannibal Lecter with his severely parted hair and homely sweater, Zachary Quinto is rehearsing a scene in which Sylar confesses to his mother (Ellen Greene) that he has a nasty habit of murdering others of his freaky new ilk. (He spares her the part where he might be eating their brains, too.) Naturally, Mom is disappointed, so she grabs a knife and tries to gut him. The actors struggle — then they freeze. The physical universe has ground to a halt. It’s Hiro time.
Slipping into the scene, Masi Oka withdraws his sword from its sheath and prepares to bring it down on Quinto’s head. Does the noble hero have the stones to decapitate a defenseless, time-paused soul, even one as nasty as Sylar? ”I’m sorry,” says Oka. Then, breaking character: ”Don’t worry. It’s not sharp.” Quinto, steely brown eyes unflinching, doesn’t laugh. His response: ”Bring it.”
As for what happens next — well, Sylar advises us not to reveal. And since this reporter likes his brain where it is, he’ll comply. But it’s intense. In fact, judging from the three days (covering all three episodes) that EW spent on the Heroes set, it is safe to say that the whole season-ending sweep blazes with intensity — an appropriately urgent pitch to a marvelously madcap season that has seen the series nudge aside Lost and 24 as the standard for serialized storytelling. Here’s Hayden Panettiere, waving away offers of a stunt double as she runs and vaults through a fake window — the front end of a stunt that will send her indestructible cheerleader Claire out of a skyscraper and leave her splattered on the sidewalk. Here are Ali Larter (the schizoid superwoman Niki/Jessica) and Leonard Roberts (the walk-through-walls ex-con D.L.) flooded with emotion over being repeatedly manipulated by an underworld puppet master, Mr. Linderman (Malcolm McDowell). And here’s the behind-the-scenes ringleader of this fantastic flying circus, Heroes creator Tim Kring, sauntering onto the set just minutes after writing the final sentence of the season’s final episode, in which the show’s sprawling, far-flung cast of next-gen X-Men will finally come together Super Friends-style in an attempt to save New York from being torched by a human A-bomb. ”The fifth act is ridiculous,” chuckles the 49-year-old Kring. ”It’s like a $90 million movie. It’s just…big.”
Yep: Stakes are high. And not just in the budget-busting kind of way, either. The finale — right down to its eye-popping last scene — sets the stage for a second season designed to expand the show’s creative horizons and commercial potential even further. The cast of Heroes will proudly tell you that they feel like they’re riding a wave of change that is transforming television. Unfortunately for some, that wave is about to crash. There’s a wall in Heroes HQ dotted with photos of dead characters (Isaac, Simone, Eden…) under a banner that reads ”In loving memory.” Expect a face or two to be added soon. ”I thought I was signing up for a show called Heroes,” says Adrian Pasdar, whose morally shaky politico Nathan Petrelli will make a choice in the finale that will affect the destinies of every character on the show. ”I didn’t know I was going to wind up on Survivor.”
NEXT PAGE: ”Even me, as a fan, was like, ‘Oh, come on! Get on with it!”’ Oka says.