Best of 2017 (Behind the Scenes): How The Gifted put mutants into the health care debate

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Amidst an ongoing national debate about health care, the second episode of The Gifted showed how the problem affects its mutant characters, who are already constantly hounded by police but also have superpower-related health issues they can’t always handle by themselves. EW talked to showrunner Matt Nix about how the show decided to explore this issue. 

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There were a lot of superhero shows on the air in 2017. But Fox’s The Gifted took a different path from CW hits like Arrow and The Flash, instead centering its comic-book action on real-world issues. The Gifted exists in the world of the X-Men, but there are no colorful costumes here. Mutants unlucky enough to be born with powers are hated and feared by the rest of the population and hunted by Sentinel Services, a government organization that looks and acts a bit like immigration police — if they also had spider-robots at their disposal. As The Gifted has gone on, the battle between these two sides has come to resemble real-life refugee struggles much more than the typical superhero/supervillain tussle.

Real-world parallels were particularly prevalent in the show’s second episode, “rX,” in which the portal-making mutant Blink (Jamie Chung) falls into a coma. Eclipse (Sean Teale) and Caitlin Strucker (Amy Acker) need to get medicine for Blink before her uncontrollable powers destroy the mutant headquarters… but unfortunately, health care is hard to come by as a mutant. As Eclipse explains, “We’re all born with the ultimate pre-existing condition.”

“The X-Men’s origins were not in action for action’s sake. The idea of the comics was always to see the world through this lens and grapple with contemporary issues. That was really important to me,” showrunner Matt Nix explains. “I wanted to make it clear to everyone that this wasn’t just going to be a show about the endless battle between Sentinel Services and the mutants. There are elements of that, but this could also be a window to a different kind of social commentary. We could shed light on a lot of different issues and not restrict ourselves to one aspect of the mutant experience in America.”

“rX” came in a year where health care has been on the minds of many Americans. President Donald Trump’s Republican government tried and failed repeatedly to repeal the Affordable Care Act, while progressives argued instead for a universal system of health care. This all sparked an ongoing debate about who deserves health care and who doesn’t. Do mutants? After all, unlike their real-world parallels, mutants actually possess powers that could make them a real danger to others. 

“It’s not an entirely straightforward argument,” says Nix, whose previous TV show (USA’s Complications) revolved around an emergency room doctor. “It’s true that a hospital might not be very well-equipped to deal with mutant patients. It’s true that it could be legitimately dangerous to treat mutant patients in a hospital. It’s a short step from that to saying, ‘Oh, we shouldn’t treat them at this hospital because it makes no financial sense or there’s a safety issue,’ until only the hospitals of last resort will even admit mutants. That puts mutants in a terrible position whenever they need to get any sort of health care, especially as an oppressed population. They’re in a position where getting health care often means exposing themselves to police action.”

There’s also a scene in the episode where Caitlin tries to sneak into the hospital to steal Blink’s medicine by pretending the injured Eclipse is her boyfriend. Seeing a mark on her face, the doctor asks Caitlin if she’s been the victim of domestic violence from her mutant partner. Nix explains, “I thought that was also important: The subtle racism, the assumptions made, all of the little things that can add up to a systemic bias against a population that can drive people to do really desperate things.”

One reason health care is so important to these mutants is that, on The Gifted, superpowers can backfire just as often as they work properly. By basing the abilities in the characters’ physical being, Nix and his team made them feel visceral.  

“One thing that was important to me from the beginning was that the powers have a physical basis. They’re mutants with a genetic basis, not wizards with specific spells they can cast,” Nix says. “What really gives you insight into the powers comes from when something’s wrong. So how would Blink’s power work? Presumably she has to think about where she’s going. It has a physical basis, but also a mental aspect. So if you were delirious, what would that look like?”

It looks like a storm of portals opening uncontrollably in the headquarters where Blink lays unconscious, interrupting traffic and threatening to bring a squad of police down on the mutants. But after risking life and limb to secure the proper medicine for her, Caitlin is able to nurse Blink back to health. Mutants may be dangerous, but they need access to proper medical treatment as much as anyone else.

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