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'Heroes' recap: This isn't a court! It's a diner!

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Somewhere in this crazy world – perhaps below the ocean floor or at the top of a very tall building – there is a room made entirely of chalkboard. The ceiling is chalkboard, the floor is chalkboard, the eight walls (yup, it’s an octagon) are all chalkboard. And the chalkboard is almost completely covered in chalk. Lines skip madly across the room, zig-zagging back and forth. The lines map a series of events, but the events don’t appear to follow any coherent order. Different colors of chalk describe various reality-altering shifts: time travel, amnesia, resurrection, imaginary resurrection, premonition, post-monition, power exchanges, power drains, whatever the hell it is that keeps Ali Larter on Heroes. Because this is the Heroes writing room, and it is a mess.

In the middle of this room, there is a table. The people sitting at the table haven’t slept in months. Their hair has turned gray and fallen to the floor, accumulating in ugly, maggot-infested clumps. The room has no doors anymore. Were there ever doors? No one can really remember. They only know who are they, and why they’re here. They are the Heroes writers. And they have to make some freaking sense of it all.

Last night’s episode of Heroes was the best episode of the season, precisely because those poor subhuman wretches in the Heroes writers’ room tried desperately to retroactively apply motivation and dimensionality to characters who’ve had neither all season. The episode, like pretty much every episode of the show now, was split in three. One part was awkward but fascinating, one part was extraordinary, and one part was so cartoonishly overripe that it was actually enjoyable, kind of like watching a snake try to eat its own tail but accidentally eat a stick of dynamite instead. Kaboom!

The Prime of Ms. Claire Bennet

Claire Bennet is one of the saddest characters on television. She’s not really tragic, because tragic characters have flaws and complex motivations and some control over their destiny, and Claire doesn’t have any of those things. She’s completely flawless. She doesn’t really want anything. And her destiny is to be perpetually controlled by everyone while being ignored by the people whose attention she desperately wants.

It’s depressing to watch, frankly. You constantly get the sense that Claire’s best days are long behind her, like she’s one of those people who peaked in freshman year of high school. The fact that she hasn’t done anything interesting in the last four volumes doesn’t help. But you have to remember: back in Season One, Claire Bennet was the very best of Heroes. Sure, her superpower was borrowed from Wolverine, but it didn’t seem so crazy when Wolverine got beaten into a pulp; he looked like the kind of scrubby Canadian guy who could survive a thousand barfights, even without a mutant healing factor.

Claire, though, was a blonde cheerleader, the kind of post-clique teenager who hangs out with computer geeks and wants something more out of life than high school popularity. (She probably would’ve played field hockey instead of cheerleading, if she lived in the northeast.) She was the show’s ingénue, it’s Annette Funicello, and the fact that she got beaten up, stabbed, thrown out of buildings, and set on fire every episode felt positively revolutionary. Remember when Claire Bennet walked out of her destroyed house at the end of “Company Man,” and her body slowly healed from a miniature nuclear blast? That might have been the most joyfully addictive image of crazy wonderful American tenacity since Harry Truman held up a newspaper with a headline claiming “Dewey Defeats Truman.”

Those days are long gone now. At this point, it only really makes sense for Claire to be a villain. And that seemed to be Sylar’s theory last night, too. “We’re both adopted,” he explained, “abandoned by parents who didn’t want us, and raised by parents who didn’t understand us. Both of our dads are cold-blooded killers. We have the same building blocks. Yet here we are: content college coed, and me.”

Sylar was talking to Claire because the tattoos told him he should, because he doesn’t want to die alone, because the Heroes writers spun the Sylar Character Arc Wheel and the pin landed on “Doesn’t want to die alone.” (Remember when the pin landed on “Is actually a Petrelli?” Am I the only one who wishes that had actually been true? Why do I like the Petrellis so much, anyways?)

Did this set-up make any sense? No, but the pairing of Sylar and Claire turned out brilliantly. I think it’s because the show finally confronted the deep depression of Claire’s existence head-on. “You’re the indestructible girl who can’t put herself out there to get hurt,” said Sylar, who would make a really great superhero psychotherapist if this show actually gets another season.

The end of this subplot dovetailed on one of those awful “gotcha!” moments where one character shapechanges into another character. It left Sylar looking to become powerless, which has always led to fantastic plotlines in the past. It also left Claire hanging out with her roommate in the most abstract way possible. The writers don’t really seem to have the guts to follow through on that kiss. But is it weird of me that I’m just happy to see Claire be happy?

Samuel Sullivan: His Dream Was Already Behind Him

In the Heroes writers’ room, right next to the Sylar Character Arc Wheel, there is a very large dartboard labeled “Samuel Sullivan’s Motivation.” There is currently a dart nestled right in the middle of a block that says “Doing it all for his long-lost love,” and holy crap if that dart didn’t have the right idea. Listen, like all of you, I’m a little bit bemused at the sudden revelation that Samuel Sullivan, who’s been some kind of combo cult leader/gene fascist/evil genius/tormented loner/cold-hearted killer/master manipulator/idiot all season, has been planning all along to build a charming summer cottage for his lady love. But as long as that lady love is played by Kate Vernon, you had me at hello.

There were too many things to enjoy about this subplot, but I think the best thing was how small-scale it felt. No one’s life was in the balance. Nobody had a tumor. Instead, for the vast majority of last night, all Samuel Sullivan was trying to do was remind Vanessa why she fell in love with him. Even the little details felt right: the careful way Samuel shaved around his soul patch, the slow transmogrification of Vanessa’s frown into a helpless smile as Samuel offered her a strawberry milkshake, the way she finally admitted that she still had “a hint of fondness” for Samuel and held her fingers apart by a tiny distance that nevertheless seemed like a whole lot more than a hint. “How do you do it?” asked Vanessa, after Samuel had somehow seduced her all over again. “How do you do it? Every single time?”

Finally – finally! – Robert Knepper is getting some juice to work with on this show. When he took Vanessa to his beautiful desert Eden and showed her her perfect dream cottage, I thought for a second that I was watching an actually-good screen adaptation of The Great Gatsby. (You ever seen the one with Robert Redford? This was better.) “It’s what you talked about! It could be our life!”

But for once, a character on this show seemed to have grown up past the age of 12. Vanessa pointed out that Samuel didn’t build this whole dream for her: “This is your fantasy. It’s beautiful, and I’m happy for you… please don’t tell me this was all for me.” Vanessa was dropping truth bombs all over Samuel’s fragile little dollhouse world. He scampered away for a good cry. The interaction between these two was so perfect that I thought, once again, how much better this show would be if Plan A had been followed and most of the original cast had left after Season 1.

Then Samuel went back to the ice cream shoppe. He got a strawberry milkshake, but only got one straw. A waitress asked him if he was all right. He started screaming things at her, but they were meant for something else: “You think I’m different? Looking down your nose at me, like I’m not good enough. I’ve been trying to play by your rules. From now on, you’re all gonna play by mine.” The room started shaking. The camera did a close-up on the milkshake as it tumbled to the ground and shattered. It was just like in Potemkin, but not lame and Russian.

Cut back to the Idiot Carnival: The carnies are all running out onto the mountain. Down beneath them, an entire town is falling away into the depths of the earth. Viewers, if you could edit together just the Samuel & Vanessa stuff from last night, you’d have one hell of a Twilight Zone episode.

Hiro Nakamura, This Is Your Stupid Life!

Because you cannot create matter from nothing, the most mesmerizingly subtle and compelling plotline on this season of Heroes had to trade screen time with a kangaroo court from beyond thunderdome. Hiro had a near-death experience, and he was put on trial to decide whether he would live or die, and three characters were brought back to life, and his dead mother told him she loved him, and there was a sword fight, but maybe it was all in his head. That is a genuine perfect compilation of terrible plotlines.

Near-death experiences that don’t result in actual death are always cheap. I have a theory that all trials in non-cop/lawyer shows are invariably stupid (see: the series finales of X-Files and Seinfeld, the two worst episodes of the otherwise-stupendous Lost. My theory does not apply to Battlestar Galactica, Arrested Development, The Prisoner, or any other shows that prove my theory wrong.) Bringing characters back to life for cheap pathos is always a terrible idea, especially when they’re only brought back as imaginary friends.

I’m tempted to say that the Heroes writers delved whole new levels of badness with this plotline, but two things stop me. First of all, this exact plotline actually happened years ago, on Grey’s Anatomy, when Meredith almost drowned, had a near-death experience, met a bunch of dead characters who stood in judgment over her. And her dead mother told her she loved her! All that was missing was the sword fight. (Coincidentally, Grey’s Anatomy was never good again.)

More importantly, this plotline was actually kind of enjoyable, as long as you put your brain in deep freeze. Why did they bring back David Anders as Adam Monroe as the prosecuting attorney in “The World vs. Hiro Nakamura?” No idea, but he had a great time chewing the scenery: “Objection, your honor! He’s reciting the opening to Quantum Leap! We got to see that cheerleader that Sylar killed a billion years ago: she was standing in the corner of the room, with her forehead bleeding.

We also got to see the umpteenth incarnation of Imaginary-Sylar. Imaginary-Sylar is basically Season One Sylar: adorably psychopathic, always ready with a deadpan quip. Cherish the way that Zachary Quinto stumbles, almost bored, over a list of people Sylar killed in season one: “There was the cheerleader, and Eden. Ish. Two primatech guys, some guy named Ted Something… Sprague! Ted Sprague.” What other actor could make “ish” sound so threatening? Can the show just be all about him, please? It would be like a reverse-Fugitive: instead of running from the law and solving the problems of new people every week, Sylar would be running from the law and ruining new people’s lives. Every week!

The whole point of this plotline was to ask a question: Was it wrong of Hiro to use his powers to change time? Viewers, we finally got a definitive answer, and the answer is: “Reply Hazy, Try Again Later.” It’s wrong to change the space-time continuum, unless you had good intentions, but the universe will still punish you, unless you can defeat a limbo version of your old enemy in a sword fight, and the sword fight will take place in front of a doorway that leads to the afterlife. You might think this is silly, but Stephen Hawking actually made that exact hypothesis in A Brief History of Time.

“Some things are more powerful than science,” said Hiro’s dead imaginary limbo mom. “Like destiny.” You know what else is more powerful than science? Writing. Writing managed to cure Hiro’s brain tumor: let’s see you wimpy scientists do that! Writing also managed, at least last night, to do something scientifically impossible: turn Heroes into a watchable show.

What did you think, viewers? Did you swoon as much as I did for Samuel’s milkshake flirtations? Do you think poor Sylar will ever find a friend?  Was that purgatory-diner trial the stupidest thing ever, or what? And more importantly: aren’t you freaking happy to see Samuel go full-villain, already?

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