There’s a short window for a new TV show to find its footing these days. Most TV shows don’t, crashing and burning under the monumentally difficult task of telling a good story. However, when a show does take flight, it’s pretty gratifying to see.
After two thoroughly mediocre episodes, The Gifted has proven itself one of those rare shows that has worked out a winning formula early on in its run. “eXodus” was everything an X-Men TV show should be — a story of prejudice and found family — and if it continues to hit the high mark this episode just set, then this show will be one of the best on network TV.
“eXodus” excels by doing two things well that previous episodes have tried, but ultimately failed to do gracefully: One, it crafts compelling relationships between characters. Two, it successfully parallels the show’s mutant struggle to the real world.
Let’s talk about the character work in this hour first. It was much more subtle and effective then what we’ve seen previously from this show. In general, the actors seemed more comfortable in their roles, perhaps because the dialogue was less expository and more natural. Andy and Lauren argue about a moldy game of Monopoly. Clarice cracks jokes about hot yoga. Marcos is frustrated, though not surprised that Caitlin isn’t woke to the reality of anti-mutant sentiment after a few days on the run from the law.
Even Reed, a character who is relatively isolated in his storyline, got to have some character-building moments by playing off a mutant mother and daughter who think they are on the same side. The Gifted uses dramatic irony to torturous effect here. We know what Reed knows: that he is selling out these desperate, innocent people for his own family. We’re still finding out who Reed is at this point and what kind of show The Gifted aspires to be, so there’s some definite suspense inherent in Reed’s dilemma.
How do we decide who is worth protecting? This is the question this episode was all about and, hopefully, this show will be all about. For Reed, he ultimately decides that this family of strangers is worth protecting — something he never would have thought before his own family fell into the “wrong” side of society. Danny, Caitlin’s brother, ultimately decides that his sister and her family are worth protecting to a certain extent, even if it means potentially upsetting his cushy lifestyle and status at his club. But, really, what are connections worth if you can’t use them when people you love are in trouble? What are you saving it for? What are you saving any of your privilege for?
Which brings us to our second point: Any good X-Men story parallels the fictional world’s prejudice against mutants with the real world’s prejudice against [fill-in-the-marginalized-group]. The Gifted has never seemed more authentically topical then when a group of (mostly) white men show up on Danny’s lawn with guns, demanding that he turn over his sister and her children to their justice… or else.
John calls them “the local mutant-welcoming group,” but they also get described as a militia. Whatever you call them they are all too familiar in our country’s narrative right now and also historically: angry men who are afraid of people they perceive to be threatening their power. When Danny refuses to give up his family, they punch him and storm the house themselves. When Andy, a kid they’ve seen grow up, demonstrates his powers, they aim their guns.
This is what it takes to convince Caitlin (and Danny with her) that anti-mutant sentiment is serious; her children, and other innocent people like them, are not protected by the system. The reality is the complete opposite, in fact: the system actively works against them in small to very big ways.
“You were right. I’m sorry,” Caitlin tells Marcos later in the episode, when they’re back at the Mutant Underground’s headquarters. She didn’t understand. Not really. It took seeing to believe. “She spent her whole life believing in the system,” John explains to a frustrated Marcos earlier in the episode. It takes more than a few days and a few conversations for someone who has spent her entire life benefitting from a system to see the injustice of it.
This X-Men story isn’t just about those who are oppressed by the system; it’s about explaining to those who think they are safe, those who have always been safe, how quickly that can change and why you should consider doing something to change it while you still have relative power.
I’m not sure if I appreciate The Gifted implying that the only way to care about a cause is to have it affect someone you love. I want to believe that people can care about something enough to want to be a part of changing it simply because they have empathy and a certain set of values.
However, at this point in the show — i.e. three episodes in — I also understand that there is only so much nuance an action-driven drama can get into its thematic exploration of social responsibility, so I’ll let it slide. However, nowhere was this equation more simplistic than in Blink’s storyline, which saw the mutant unable to use her powers until she had the proper motivation: romantic love. When John, Marcos, and the Struckers are running from the militia men, Dreamer tries to get Clarice to create a portal to help them escape. Clarice is unable to… until Dreamer gives her one of her memories of being in love with “Johnny,” making Clarice believe that she herself is in love with John.
It’s a thematically lazy device, but one that works incredibly well on the plot and character level, so it’s probably worth the sacrifice. Now, Clarice thinks she’s in love with John. John only just met Clarice, and is pissed at Dreamer for the subterfuge. Meanwhile, Dreamer is seemingly in love with John, but has made someone else fall in love with him to save his life. #ItsComplicated
The other mutant love story we get more insight to in this episode is the one between Marcos and Lorna. We see, in flashback, how they first got together. It’s pretty cheesy, and honestly the worst part of the episode, but also tells us more about Lorna’s relationship to her powers. Unlike many mutants, Lorna has seemingly always seen them as a source of joy. As Magneto’s daughter, this makes perfect sense. It’s also why it’s so heartbreaking to see Lorna sitting in a prison isolation cell, unable to use her powers, various pieces of metal mocking her.
Lorna ultimately gives herself a nosebleed just so she can use her powers to open the door. It’s not about escape. Not really. She knows she won’t be able to get further than the hallway. It’s about proving that she can. It’s about finding that part of herself again. It’s about the joy of her powers, even if it’s not a particularly joyful experience.
That flashback at the beginning of the episode may have been cheesy, but it was also from Lorna’s point of view. It’s what she is choosing to remember while she’s locked inside of a prison cell. That tells us everything we need to know about who Lorna considers family and what she thinks is worth protecting. It also leads to some interesting questions about if she’ll decide to take Agent Turner up on his offer.
It would be unexpected, indeed, if Lorna was the one to sell the Mutant Underground out for her family, and Reed Strucker was the one who sacrifices his freedom and a life with his family to keep the Mutant Underground safe.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good