Alphas 1.04 "Rosetta" review

A column article, Shot For Shot by: Paul Brian McCoy
While trying to thwart a Red Flag operation, Rosen and his team find a captive woman, Anna, who can translate any language. While the others try to track down the Red Flag leader, Gary bonds with Anna over their similar conditions.

Alphas airs Monday nights at 10:00PM EST on Syfy.

Episode 4 of Alphas shoves us directly into the oncoming path of Show Mythology and was written by co-creator Zak Penn. I know, I know. The mere sound of his name causes some of you to cringe and begin convulsing like you’re having the DTs, and yes, he is not always on his game.

Unfortunately, he’s been off his game more than he’s been on it, when it comes to his superhero writing. Sure, X2 was probably the best of the X-Movies, but he also wrote X-Men: The Last Stand (which I know you all hate, but I still say was just as good as the first film) and Elektra (which was about as bad as bad could be). The Incredible Hulk wasn’t great, but it was a solid little film. He also developed the story for The Last Action Hero, if you want to go way back.

But honestly, I couldn’t care less about his superhero writing. Because he wrote and directed Incident at Loch Ness and The Grand. Those two films trump any bad script that may have slipped away from him here and there.

Seriously. If you haven’t seen Incident at Loch Ness, you don’t know what you’re missing. Werner Herzog and Penn play themselves in this mocumentary about the filming of a documentary about hunting for the Loch Ness Monster. It’s freaking great.

Anyway, as creator of Alphas, Penn knows something about what needs to be emphasized in the plot and explored in the characters when elaborating on the Series Mythology.

There are those words again.

Series Mythology can be a tricky thing. You don’t want to parcel it out too slowly or you risk making the audience feel like they’re being strung along with no real goal in sight. But you don’t want to info-dump your audience into bored disinterest.

You have to find the right combination of teasing and revelation that makes the viewer desperate for next week, while still crafting a solid done-in-one story.

And Penn does just that. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he’s written both of the Red Flag heavy episodes so far.

For the uninitiated, Red Flag is the flipside to our Alphas. The Brotherhood to our X-Men. And as our episode opens, Gary (Ryan Cartwright) has discovered where they are hiding out thanks to his picking up of a Red Flag agent’s cell phone signal. He’s then able to trace that to their location.

This is the third episode in a row where one of our Alphas comes face-to-face with their alternate version (if you will). When the Alphas storm the house where Red Flag has set up base, they discover a hostage: a low-functioning autistic woman named Anna (Liane Balaban).

Low-functioning isn’t really the right diagnosis, it turns out. Nor is she a captive. Anna is actually very communicative once Gary figures out that she’s using her own language comprised of scratches, clicks, and taps. She is an Alpha, too, with the ability to understand any and all languages.

She’s also, in case you couldn’t guess already, the leader of Red Flag, on a mission to meet and try to convert Gary to their cause.

She and Red Flag are intending to blow up a fuel truck, killing whoever gets in their way, and the target is a pharmaceutical company that is getting ready to start marketing a drug designed to prevent birth defects. Birth defects like Alpha abilities.

As far as they’re concerned, this is Nazi-level biological warfare being conducted on them as a race.

It’s a very nice touch, with vague hints of themes that almost worked in X-Men: The Last Stand, but actually play much more sinister and mature here. How about that?

With the way some shows are able to address thematic issues that films seem to have a hard time working with, I’m beginning to wonder why more creative types aren’t shooting for television as their medium of choice. Sure, there are drawbacks, but long-form storytelling is often going to provide a more satisfying end result. Especially when the creators can tweak their story as it goes along and provide opportunities for their casts to grow and become more comfortable in the skins of their characters.

Not that movies are a lost cause, of course. But TV is really where it’s at.

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: No sooner than I prepare to post these words, do I see where AMC is trying to lowball Breaking Bad into a cheaper, shortened season after cutting The Walking Dead’s production budget by $250,000 per episode. This is bringing back bad memories of the fates of Deadwood and Rome. Maybe TV has some more growing to do.]

I also liked the fact that our team actually lost this week. They didn’t stop the bomb and they let Anna get away. That’s what you get for putting amateurs into the field, I guess.

As usual, the performances by all of our principle actors are spot-on. The emphasis this week is on Gary, so we get a healthy dose of autistic self-absorption that is very nicely countered by Anna’s sense of responsibility and independence. Balaban’s performance is also very impressive as she gets across Anna’s righteous indignation without using any words or dialogue.

I mean, the words are there, but they’re being spoken by a computer. The emphasis and emotion is in the way she uses her body.

It’s good stuff.


Plus, it allows for Gary to have a bit of growing up as he takes some of what Anna tells him to heart.

Oh! And Agent Sullivan (Valerie Cruz) is back! Hooray! I think she’s going to make a nice contrast to Agent Cley (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali).

Once again, I’m going for the best superhero show on television at the moment. Misfits doesn’t return until this Fall, and I’m not counting Hulu airings.

With Zak Penn doing work this good, is it too early to start hoping for a Werner Herzog cameo appearance somewhere down the line?

Be sure to check out our previous Alphas reviews:

Episode 1.01
Episodes 1.02 & 1.03

Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to What Looks Good and Shot for Shot. He currently has little spare time, but in what there is he continues to work on his first novel, tentatively titled Damaged Incorporated. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, sci-fi television, the original Deathlok, Nick Fury, and John Constantine. He can be summed up in three words: Postmodern Anarchist Misanthropy. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.

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