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'Heroes' recap: The best season never

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The fourth season of Heroes ended not with a bang, not with a whimper, but with a collective synchronized shrug. You could see everyone involved with the show – the actors, the writers, the cameraman who’s developed a nasty shoulder tilt after a season of those nauseating carnival camera angles – join all together, raise their shoulders, and mumble “Meh” under their breath. Until the very last scene, I thought this might be the first episode of Heroes with truly no redeeming value whatsoever. Even the worst show about superpowers is bound to be interesting, even if it just accidentally trips over “interesting” on the long road to “awful.”

But first, we have to talk about the badness. Ideally, a season finale of Heroes should give we the viewers a pleasant feeling of seeing everything all come together. We become aware that every tiny subplot we’ve seen over the course of a year has led every character together for a final reckoning. But the trouble started right with the “Previously On.” Mirror flashbacks! Brain walls! Limbo trials! It’s like Plato, Dante, and Freud collaborated on an episode of Davey and Goliath.

Last night’s episode was called “Brave New World,” which was also the title of the show’s Volume Six. The very existence of a Volume Six suggests that there’s a lot of magical thinking at the Kring household. But before we leave Volume Five behind, let’s just run down a quick list of Things That Made No Sense in this go-go season of Heroes, all of which were on perfect display in last night’s finale:

The Title of the Volume

Who was being redeemed in Heroes: Redemption? Sylar became a hero instead of a villain, but that certainly wasn’t the main plotline of the season, and I don’t even think you could argue that he’s really been redeemed, per se. His “redemption” basically came down to being imprisoned in his own brain for five years and reading The Pillars of the Earth, which should now become required reading throughout the American penitentiary system. Samuel Sullivan was arguably the main character of the season, to the extent that he was in every episode and that his plotline formed the fragile backbone of the season, but he wasn’t redeeming or being redeemed.

Really, Redemption only makes sense as a meta-commentary from the writers about what they were looking for from this season. I know that Heroes fans hate it when I point out how the show seems to be commenting on its own badness, but yeesh, here was the last bit of dialogue in Volume Five:

Noah Bennet: “I gotta say, I never liked Carnivals.”

Peter Petrelli: “Yup.”

Lines like that make me worry about the self-esteem levels in the writers’ room. Can someone make a documentary about a therapist talking the Heroes writers out of their depressive spiral? It would be like Some Kind of Monster, except terrible.

Samuel Sullivan

I loved the new Star Trek movie. I think it might be the zippiest adventure movie since Raiders of the Lost Ark. But even I have to admit that Eric Bana’s villain, Nero, made no sense. He’s a tormented father seeking vengeance, but he’s also an evil genius with plans to destroy every world he sees, but he’s also a grinning mastermind who playfully terrorizes hostages, but he’s also the last survivor of a dead world, but he’s also a proletariat leading a workers’ uprising…  it’s almost like the writers mashed together every villain who’s ever appeared in the Star Trek universe, then depended on Eric Bana’s admittedly-impressive forehead to hold it all together.

Samuel Sullivan has the same mash-up quality; it feels like every episode of the season was written by someone who had a very different notion about Samuel’s origin. The fuzziness of Sullivan’s background wasn’t helped by the fact that the character’s motivations were shadowy for 3/4 of the season (you’ll recall, dear viewers, that he was Doing It All For His Lost Love.) Also making matters more painful: Robert Knepper could never quite decide on an accent.

Still, maybe the worst thing about Samuel Sullivan was that he was never really all that villainous. I understand and admire the impulse to create a villain with more than one dimension, but too many dimensions is just as bad as too few. Look at Season 1 Sylar: You knew exactly what he wanted (more power!), what he had to do to get that power (kill!), and what would happen if he weren’t stopped (apocalypse!). Now look at Samuel Sullivan. He wanted to build his childhood dream home, but he also wanted more power, but he also wanted his carnie family to be safe, but he also wanted to avenge himself on the world of Man.

I actually think that two versions of Samuel were really cool. Purely because of his chemistry with Kate Vernon, I liked the “Doing It All For Love” angle, even if it nonsensically turned Samuel into an overgrown teenager. More intriguingly, the notion that Samuel is a leader who literally gets his power from his citizens feels like the kind of cool metaphor great fantasy novels are written from. In a democracy, a President is infinitely more powerful than his constituency, but his constituency has one ultimate check over him: the power to take his power away. So there was something deeply fascinating about seeing Samuel scream, powerless, at his departed flock, “You’re nothing without me,” when the reverse was clearly true.

Half of the Characters Did Not Need To Be Here

Tracy Strauss. Tracy Strauss. Tracy. Freaking. Strauss. Last night’s subplot about the Buried Bennets had all the makings of a Hitchcockian thriller: Would Claire have to watch her father run out of oxygen, and then spend months digging herself out? But suddenly, a little bit of water trickled in, and hello Ali Larter, haven’t seen you in weeks!

The resolution of this plotline was so silly, such a complete Deus Ex Machina situation, that the scene literally ended in ellipses. Noah Bennet and Claire were freed – I guess Tracy turned them into water, or something, what? Noah’s galpal Lauren said, “I called a helicopter!” A helicopter appeared, right on cue. Noah looked down into a pool of water: Where’s Tracy? Claire: “She said you owed her one.” And they left. So I guess Tracy Strauss is just chilling out in the buried trailer now? Is that her new home?

Literally half the cast of Heroes is extraneous now. Matt Parkman started the season just wanting a normal life, and ended the season wanting the same. He had a Sylar brain tumor, but then that was cured. Mohinder Suresh made a few very brief but time-consuming appearances. His whole contribution to the season was to put Samuel on the path toward genocide, and to fix a compass. Tracy Strauss wanted her old life back, but then she didn’t, and now Noah Bennet owes her a favor. Ando is basically just there to give Hiro someone to talk to in Japanese and to supercharge his powers, because Hiro is only the freaking master of Time and Spaces. Oh, and Emma played her cello.

The worst misstep of the season, though, was Hiro Nakamura. His whole entire purpose, his raison d’etre this season, was to teleport Samuel’s Special Army away, because they couldn’t run fast enough. That was the complete end result of a season of slow-tumor-death and time traveling and idiot amnesia and diner courtrooms led up to. The subplot on last night’s episode about Hiro and Old Charlie seemed to come out of the worst episode of the UPN version of The Twilight Zone. They couldn’t even bring back Jayma Mays? If Hiro’s plotline from this season were its own show, it would be the worst TV show ever.

The Carnival

The Sullivan Bros. Carnival was populated by lobotomized idiots who looked like hippie hoboes from the planet Neptune. Except for when they got all dressed up, at which point they looked like a gaggle of struggling actors auditioning for the role of the Artful Dodger in your local YMCA’s performance of Oliver! Everyone had shadowy motivations, which is a nice way of saying that no one ever did anything that made any sense. Edgar was Samuel’s right-hand man, until he betrayed him, until he came back, until he betrayed him again. Everyone at the Sullivan Bros. Carnival was a quadruple agent. Can we officially outlaw all Carnival plotlines on television, forever?

And yet…

You know what? I got a real charge out of that last sequence. As Claire ascended the Ferris Wheel, every character raised their heads and asked basically the same question, “What is she doing?” Then Claire re-enacted for the news cameras her very first scene ever: the fall, the nonchalant resetting of her broken arm bone, the “I’m Claire Bennet, and this is attempt number…” line. Hayden Panettiere’s knowing smile was so casual-yet-meaningful that you could almost believe that this was the perfect conclusion to a great TV series, instead of a hopeful cliffhanger for a flailing one.

Ever since the end of season 1, Heroes has been stuck in between two potentially great stories. After Kirby Plaza, the TV show tried to hit the reset button and go back to the story of People Trying To Be Normal. That never worked; normality became a weird plot fetish, with Noah Bennet recast as a paranoid obsessive desperate to make sure the rest of the world never learned the truth about the superpowered people, especially not his Claire Bear. Finally, that veil has been pierced. Finally, maybe, the show can move beyond Kirby Plaza.

Viewers, we have no idea if Heroes is coming back. The buzz is deadly, the ratings are miserable, everyone seems tired. Then again, Heroes is currently battling Nothing for a place on the NBC schedule, which is encouraging. If they fire half the cast, if they get a better villain, if they ban the words “time travel” and “premonition dreams” and “the power to control other people,” and if they agree to never mention the Carnival again… could Heroes possibly become good again? Can greatness, once lost, be rediscovered? Can we really go home again?

No. But isn’t it nice to think so?

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