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“This whole night was like a bad Fellini film,” was how Gretchen summed up the most recent episode of Heroes. Okay, she was actually talking about her and Claire’s night in the Sullivan Brothers carnival. But either way, she was wrong, because a bad Fellini film would have been perfection compared to last night. Federico Fellini made plenty of bad movies, but his bad movies were never boring, mundane, or static. They were completely bats—. Just look here. Or here. Or here. Or here. Context doesn’t help! I’ve seen Satyricon five times, and I still can’t tell you what the hell is going on ever. (The movie’s also got a minotaur fight and a hermaphrodite heist; seriously, go watch Satyricon!)
If you ask me, Heroes could take a page from Fellini. Because considering the fact that this is a show about people with superpowers, it never really feels all that crazy. It feels like the most sanitized way to make a dark entertainment; like someone walked out of Batman Begins and said, “We want that, but nicer!” The only character who ever seems to have any fun on the show is Sylar, and what’s funny is that he’s not even really the villain anymore. He’s basically just there to keep things spicy. Instead, we keep getting a faceless parade of Big Bads with shadowy motivations who literally seem to be improvising their entire existence every two minutes (Bob Bishop, Papa Petrelli, and now Samuel Sullivan.)
Really, the show almost seems to be punishing Sylar for having any fun. Last night, yet again, somebody pulled the ol’ power drain on Sylar. “What the hell did you do to me?” Sylar asked. That’s practically his catchphrase. Peter spelled it out for Sylar/us: “You remember our Haitian friend?” A Haitian friend? I don’t think I remember him. What are his character traits? Where’s he from? I think I would remember having a Haitian friend. Does he have any nicknames?
Let’s run down the three plotlines:
Noah and Lauren: Detecting Detectives
Samuel had a task for a Carnival minion, a fellow with the ability to project copies of himself. (I marked down “Duplicater?” but Lauren later called him a “Multiplier,” which unfortunately recalls the Michael Keaton film Multiplicity.) Samuel: “I want you to go to the home of a man named Noah Bennet, and steal a box marked Primatech.” It’ll be right next to the box marked “Top Secret” and the safe marked “My Life’s Savings, the combination is 1-2-3-4, Stay Out Please.”
Noah was busy getting ready for his date with Lauren. Lauren showed up, they exchanged some banter (He: “I skipped over the sexual revolution.” She: “Who said anything about sex?”), but when he figured out that Claire stole his magic compass, they sprung into old-timey Company action to track her down. Bennet decided that now was the best time to tell Lauren about their retcon affair of the heart. (Line of the night: “I Haitianed myself?”)
Then Michael Keaton, sorry, the Multiplier attacked. I thought that his power meant that he actually duplicated himself, creating twins and then triplets (etc), but when Noah shot one of him, the body disappeared like a dead body in the PS2 Grand Theft Auto games, so I guess the copies aren’t autonomous beings? Noah and Lauren fled to the bathroom to plan a counterattack, but by the time they came out, Michael Keaton had already ran off. And he took the box marked Primatech! Noah hit himself in the head. Should’ve put those files in the box marked “Totally Unimportant Stuff,” they would’ve never looked in there.
Nathan and Peter: The Least Twisty Death Twist Ever
I’m going to skip over the vast amount of stuff that happened in the land of the Petrellis this week, because most of it was bad. Okay, okay, quick recap: Mama Petrelli had a complete personality makeover and told Peter to just move on already about his dead brother. That’s last year’s news, Pete! Yesterday’s tweet, you feel me? Peter wouldn’t have it, though: he wanted his brother back. Sylar surprised him in the hospital elevator, and because extras cost money, him and Peter fought on the one abandoned floor of the hospital. Peter totally Haitianed Sylar, and then nailed him into the ground, and then Haitianed him some more, until Sylar morphed into Nathan.
Peter was happy to have his brother back, but Nathan just looked miserable. “I’m tired, Pete.” Peter tried to cheer him up by bringing him back to that same old rooftop from way back in season 1, the one that Peter fell off of, right before Nathan learned that he could fly. I can still remember that moment – it was the show’s first cliffhanger, and it ended the first episode with a moment of zippy revelation. You felt like anything, absolutely anything, could happen on this show.
So I got a genuine pang of nostalgia during this scene. How could you not? Especially since so much of what Nathan was talking about – regret, exhaustion, a fond yet sad remembrance of better times – feels just about right for a show this far into a downward spiral. Even the dialogue had some of that season 1 pop! Nathan: “I told you we could both fly.” Peter: “You denied it.” Nathan: “It was an election year.”
Nathan decided to throw himself off the building. Peter grabbed him, and as they held hands, Nathan literally yelled out every Go On Without Me cliché in the book. “Tell Mom I love her! Take care of Claire! You can do anything, Pete! I gotta feeling the world ain’t seen nothing yet!” And down he fell.
Here’s the thing: even though the shot of him falling looked silly and green-screeny, there was something addictive about it. As he fell, he slowly morphed into Sylar, and even though the specifics of it all didn’t make much sense, the beautiful weirdness of the image – seeing Nathan’s reserved, peaceful face fade slowly into Sylar’s dark grin – was, frankly, breathtaking. I wish the show were brave enough to do more things like this: real emotion, instead of aimless plot teases that go nowhere.
The Carnival of Shadowy Motivations
Speaking of shadowboxing! Over in the Carnival, nothing was making any sense. Samuel didn’t seem worried at all that Hiro disappeared into thin air last episode. Nor did he seem concerned that the Tattoo Lady knows that he killed his brother. Nope, the Morality Switch on Samuel’s back was switched to Good this week, and he spent the episode in full-on Santa Claus mode.
He welcomed Claire and Gretchen into the Carnival like a practiced Ringmaster. “Free passes! The whole night’s on me! Everything!” The bulk of the episode was spent on Claire learning all about the Carnival. And what did they learn? Well, I’m still kind of sorting it out. The treatment of the Carnival changes every other week on this show. One week, it’s a safe haven for harmless superhumans who just want to live in peace. The next week, Samuel calls up any one of his random minions and says, “Go, do crime!” and they do it, no questions asked. The next week, Samuel seems to have an incredibly fragile hold on his people. The next week, he seems to be their unquestioned emperor.
I’m genuinely interested in the Carnival, and I’m willing to admit that, in this one situation, the writers might possibly be a bit smarter than us. So let’s examine this like we believe the truth won’t turn out to be stupid. Samuel says that the point of the Carnival is for his folk to live out in the open, and “To make money, the most honest way we can.” This seems to be like flawed logic, based on the workings of the carnival. We saw a telekinetic guy purposefully ruin a loutish former Minor League pitcher’s throw in the old Milk Bottle game, but then give a cute girl some help so she could win a pink unicorn.
Why would a loutish former Minor League pitcher care about a pink unicorn? And more importantly, isn’t that just another form of dishonesty? It’s not as if any of the carnival folk are really living “out in the open,” as Samuel regularly suggested; they’re allowed to show a bit more of their powers, but only because they’ve trapped themselves in the carnival. Heck, as we saw, even the subtle use of telekineticism was enough to incite violence: the loutish former Minor League pitcher gave Samuel a good beating.
If I’m to understand the end of the episode, Samuel’s big long-term goal is to build a Promised Land for superpowered people, which, again, isn’t the same as living out in the open. A Promised Land is great if you want to hang out with earthy pseudo-hippies and follow the orders of anyone named Sullivan, but what if you want to live anywhere else on earth?
Listen, one of the hardest things in serial narrative television is believably filling the actual existence of a society of characters who were invented to seem mysterious. For the first two seasons of Battlestar Galactica, the Cylons mostly existed as space phantoms with spider-like ships who could jump into orbit at any moment, plus a few sleeper agents who looked just like us. In the third season, the show worked hard to establish a believable system for Cylon society, and it changed the entire central conflict of the show.
Conversely, on Lost, the third season took the viewer into the society of the Others, another phantom band of villains, and the result was ruinous, because the whole society made no sense. The Others seemed to run on a system of government based half on Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery and half on Beneath the Planet of the Apes. The show only really recovered when it sent the Others to the Temple for the entirety of the fourth season. (Unfortunately, the fifth season was all about the Dharma Initiative, another shadowy organization that made hardly any sense at all when some light was shined upon it.)
Based on the end of last night’s episode, we’re only going to see more of the Carnival folk, and I’m cautiously optimistic that, with a bit of actual narrative forward momentum, they might become a bit more sharply focused than they have been so far. But let’s be fair; this half of the season ended pretty miserably. Samuel was back at his brother’s grave, giving a speech that was practically a carbon copy of the speech that started this season. As if daring us to turn away, the show then did a mid-season finale montage of all our favorite characters, including a completely non sequitur shot of Hiro running with Mohinder and Ando through the woods. Oh also, that deaf girl who sees sounds was playing some music. I forget if we saw Parkman, but I’m sure that when the show returns he’ll be useless yet incredibly important for some random reason.
I’m trying to think of something nice to say, but honestly, Nathan Petrelli was my favorite character. I’m having a hard time trying to be optimistic. I hope that Claire turns evil, because that would be crazy. I hope that when the show returns, all the Heroes will join together against Samuel. I hope that the show’s narrative can become more focused. I hope that Sylar never has to suffer from power blockage, memory loss, or any other power the Haitian comes up with to sap all the energy from the plot. I hope that Mohinder will die again, this time for real. I hope.