The difference between pilot episodes and second episodes is always a tough one to judge. Sometimes they are written with little difference and time in between them. But other shows, as is the case with “Alphas”, there can be some pretty significant differences. The transition in this case is a little rough around the edges, but the narrative is strong and David Strathairn gives an excellent performance and the foundation is laid for an excellent season long arc.
The episode begins with the escape of a former patient of Dr. Rosen, Marcus Ayers, escaping in a rather dramatic, butterfly-effect style fashion from the back of an ambulance. Ayers ability to see and influence physical cause-and-effect isn’t consequence-free however; as Rosen says in the episode, because Ayers and control so much and understand so much cause and effect, he cannot understand how others cannot see it. This results in some pretty significant paranoia on top of what appears to be mild autism, similar to Gary. Which brings me to a point I wanted to make after watching this episode: these powers aren’t consequence-free in the ways a lot of other superhero powers tend to be. Ayers power influences his thought process to the point of excessive (though apparently not without cause) paranoia; Gary’s inability to filter out the electromagnetic spectrum gives him autism; Bill’s constant reliance on the flight-or-fight method appears to make him testy and hostile; Cameron’s power is hugely reliant on his fragile confidence. It’s a nice change of pace that helps create the more realistic world of the Alphas.
That being said, the characterization in this episode was a little hit-and-miss. David Strathairn hit his role out of the ballpark. He displayed the frustration with the way his team is being turned into essentially a black ops team while the Alphas he had worked to protect turned into human pin cushions and lab rats. But he also bears some responsibility for the situation, and he portrays that quite well. One of the best moments of the episode is when Ayers accuses him of willfully ignoring what was going on at the facility in Binghampton because he didn’t want to deal with it. That fully fits within the characterization of his character as someone who wants to get out of the ‘game’ and just focus on helping the Alphas in front of him. It’s a remarkably subtle and layered portrayal of a character in any medium, and it really gives the series a strong foundation to build upon.
Unfortunately, the rest of the package was a little rougher around the edges. The episode’s focus on Rosen came at an unusual time. Usually, a series waits a couple of episodes before diving into such a deep storyline. Those episodes usually flesh out the other main characters, usually the heroes, and the choice to skip out on those episodes makes this one feel weaker to me. It was pretty clear from the pilot that Rosen had been involved in the Alpha scene for a while yet, and Strathairn’s excellent acting and reputation and the character’s role as mentor and leader all but guaranteed a fascinating backstory and deep character.
The other characters…well, not so much. The weakness of the episode is that the supporting cast isn’t given enough definition to really warrant the focus on Rosen. Bill and Nina both demand exploration of their character dynamics. Bill for his place on the team as the only trained agent on the team and his constant frustration at the lack of training and field knowledge of the team. His frustration was something that I really enjoyed in the pilot, and found the cursory glance over his character to be frustrating. Nina too was a character whose power and constant flirting with the ethical boundaries of power usage and bond with Dr. Rosen demand some exploration. Only Cameron got a little exploration in the episode as a foil for Ayers.
Another little niggling issue with me was the production of the episode. There were a lot of instances where the use of a power was overlaid with some post-production effects and CGI. They weren’t low quality, but it really took me out of the more realistic world that “Alphas” is creating and sucked it back into a more comic book feel. Not necessarily bad, just more of a personal taste issue than anything else.
But these flaws are minor compared to the huge promise that “Alphas” is showing. The strong writing and plot is really strong for such a young show. There is a sense of purpose and broader, underlying narrative that really helps push this show over the fence. The strong performance by Strathairn is a joy to behold, if not entirely unexpected. Now the only thing the writers need to do is round out the remaining characters and they’ll have themselves a fascinating and remarkably mature show.