‘The Gifted’ And Righteous Anger

I have mixed feelings about The Gifted. Acting-wise, the disparity between the quality of some of the performances is jarring. Writing-wise, it’s so inconsistent my general reaction is meh. I’m still bitter about Sonya and all the ways she could have been used.  My feelings about the Struckers are best left unsaid. But when it first came out, I loved it.

The Gifted started off as smaller, more intimate look at the X-Men universe. That was why I was so excited to watch every episode. The marketing for the first season revolved entirely around the point that these people aren’t special. They’re, for the most part, mutants without any kind of extraordinary powers or ties to any of the major factions, no access to the resources those factions have. They’re people that have to get by in a world that hates them for existing. Each episode explored a different aspect of discrimination against mutants, all of them relevant to the real world. It was a nuanced take on what it means to live in a society that discriminates against you. Now it appears to be falling more into the same trap most X-Men material eventually falls into – trading substance for bombast. Because these people are special! They do have extraordinary powers! And those factions are involved in the show, and their resources, too!

Andy and Lauren are descendants of the von Struckers, who in this universe, were members of the Hellfire Club’s Inner Circle and are so super duper powerful that everyone wants them. Reed is coming into mutant powers late in life. Caitlin is a nurse that can perform field surgery without breaking a sweat. The Inner Circle is going to be playing a major role in the upcoming season. And all the promotional material for said season is focusing on mutant underground vs Inner Circle, good vs bad, rather than the wide range of ideas in between. Which I think is just missing the point.

What I loved about season one was there was some element of moral ambiguity. Lorna was treated as Lorna, not Magneto 2.0.  But by the end of the season, Lorna was isolated as the “angry” member of the underground, which I find deeply unfair, because part of what I enjoyed about the show was how much it showed that none of the characters were into passively sitting around to ~show humans that they don’t mean them any harm. They weren’t “ideal victims” by any means. They were full of righteous anger and even if they weren’t “fighting back” in the sense of planning assassinations and killing the people that attacked them, they were still resisting. They were going out to rescue mutants from people that were hurting them and fighting those people in the process. They were breaking laws and protecting fugitives. Sentinel Services classified them as a terrorist group.

Marcos revealed plenty of his own aggression, to the point where Lorna was bothered by how much he’d enjoyed torching a truck for Carmen. Sonya may have been more pacifistic than the others, with no desire to physically harm anyone, but she also had no qualms against using her powers against someone if it meant keeping more mutants alive. Clarice was obviously ready to fight, because her reaction to meeting Lorna, Marcos, and John for the first time was to throw stuff at them. John physically broke things or shouted at people on multiple occasions when he was mad and he allied with the Cuckoos to go after Campbell partially because he wanted to avenge Sonya. And that’s just the core characters, not getting into characters like Fade, who also demonstrated their anger at baselines. Lorna was not even remotely the only one. She may have been angry, but her anger wasn’t treated as something that made her a bad person, because everyone else understood it and felt the same way.

Exploring Lorna’s character and darker impulses could be fantastic. Because it makes sense that her learning she’s pregnant would lead her to be more ready to fight for her baby! But the way the writers seem to be going about it is by taking it to the extreme. They’re taking a very broad, complicated topic that encompasses a lot of smaller problems and a wide range of perspectives, and looking at it as a single black and white issue. They’re ignoring how much the mutants resonate with minorities that are angry to instead focus on the simplistic idea that Lorna giving up on hiding and choosing to fight back is her crossing the moral event horizon, not her being justifiably done waiting for more mutants to be killed and bringing down a private plane where the only people on board were those that were associated with Montez and Campbell, not random civilians.

It’s been a longstanding problem in the comics where anyone that gets angry and starts to actually do something to stop mutant persecution is claimed to be acting just like Magneto. This was most obvious with Cyclops – after fighting for years for peace and coexistence only for more mutants to be experimented on or murdered, he decided enough was enough and founded Utopia. He drew his line in the sand and stuck by his principles – sure, he’d still protect humans from mutant criminals and fight for those that valued mutant lives, but he refused to sit by and let his people be slaughtered. Seems perfectly reasonable, but according to comics writers, that means he’s essentially Magneto. That’s what the writers on The Gifted are doing with Lorna – they’re so desperate to have her be in the wrong, they’re not exactly doing a good job proving she is wrong.

Lorna is by far the most interesting and well written character in the show. She’s layered, she’s consistent, and out of the characters in the show that originated in the comics, she’s probably the closest to her comics counterpart. Even though the writing that’s supposed to convince me she’s in the wrong is weak, the writing for her and her decisions is still believable. Without her? I wouldn’t bother to watch season two. As it stands, the only reason I’m still watching is that it has to do with the X-Men. Had it been an original property, I’d have probably given up a long time ago, but I love the X-Men and have to hold on hope that it can improve.

Substance and bombast don’t have to be mutually exclusive. And stories where factions are pitted against each other can be great. There could be a wonderfully layered story featuring different groups that disagree on the how but agree on the what – mutants deserve safety and freedom from persecution – coming together to get things done, where both sides realize that neither militant pacifism nor offensive violence is the solution they need. They could do all of that with bigger action sequences and dramatic uses of mutant powers than in season one. But instead, the season is being marketed as a pick a side, underground or Inner Circle. It’s veering away from the actual point and into the cliché of infighting.

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I saw the Tweets to the left a while back, and it strikes me as very relevant to this discussion. The way Lorna – and, to a lesser degree, the other members of the underground – behaved for most of the first season was like Emma, not like Xavier or Magneto. She started teaching combat so the kids would be ready for a fight because the world is a dangerous place for mutants. She wasn’t portrayed as in the wrong for that. Even when Caitlin got mad, she pushed back, rightfully pointing out that Caitlin had no right to be criticizing her for teaching mutant children to protect themselves, that Caitlin had no right to come into their home and tell them how they should be behaving. By the finale, she was veering away from that practicality.

The plane made sense to me. It felt true to Lorna’s established character, and it was easy to understand why she did it and support her. But after that? Ending up in a more subservient role to Reeva Payge, rather than as a leader in her own right, while still veering towards the Magneto side of these four options? Less so. What would be more interesting to me is a Lorna, disgusted both by the underground being so passive and the “Inner Circle” – who’s more Brotherhood than Hellfire Club here –  not helping matters. going towards the Cyclops end of the scale. Where she decides she’s going to change the world while still training kids to defend themselves. Where she has complex goals and ways of achieving them. That more than anything would prove to me that they care about Lorna and aren’t just using her because they’re not allowed to use Magneto. Her actions so far have felt authentic enough…but they’re also those that Magneto would take. They don’t feel unlike her, but they feel more like him. I want to see Lorna, see where she falls in between the poles of the “how we live our lives when people want us dead” spectrum.

My feelings towards the show are pretty much the same as my feelings towards the X-Men movies – just about every episode is good for at least a watch, and I don’t realize the problems with it until I start really thinking about it. But once I start thinking about it…it makes me seriously question whether I’ll be able to enjoy future instalments. The Gifted still has room to recover. For all my complaints, the first season still had enough that I enjoyed that I know it’s close to something great. But with all the focus on the Hellfire Club standing in opposition to the mutant underground…I’m not sure it’s going to get there.

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