The Gifted – Season 1 Episode 1
Fox continues to expand their X-Men franchise by adding another television show to the mix in the form of The Gifted; a different take on mutancy and how it relates to the modern world.
The X-Men films have had the running theme of acceptance and coming to terms with ones “true self”. In almost all of the films we see examples of Mutants who are feared because of what they can do and wishing they could be normal. The message the films try to promote is that being true to yourself is the better path and the world should change to accept the uniqueness that is you. It’s a strong message to give to young people, persecuted minorities or any counter culture that you can think of. The X-Men have endured for so many years because anyone who has felt different to those around them can relate to the concept. It’s a catch all morality tale about acceptance and can be very compelling in the right hands.
This TV series focuses on a group of Mutants who aren’t the X-Men or the Brotherhood which answers the question of what happens to the Mutants Charles Xavier or Magneto don’t come looking for. These two leaders in the Mutant community can’t possibly get to all of them so this series deals with a group who don’t end up aligned to either side. It’s immediately interesting because it plays up the isolation aspect. There is no experienced leader with a commanding voice to give all the answers; all these Mutants have is each other which automatically gives them greater agency as all of their problems need to be dealt with on their own.
As with any X-Men property the question of continuity comes in. Fox’s live action X-Men universe plays fast and loose with continuity to an almost comical degree so there will always be some debate over where new iterations will sit. This show is set in the present day which means that it could be placed in the post X-Men: Days of Future Past reset timeline or perhaps it’s set in the timeline that Logan is part of. It’s far more likely that it’s intentionally vague so that the writers don’t feel beholden to canon which means they can concentrate on telling a compelling story. None of that really matters to me as I’m content with accepting the fact that Mutants exist and this show is set in a world where the X-Men existed in some form. The minutiae of the world itself isn’t all that important.
Interestingly this episode throws the viewer right in and assumes some knowledge of the X-Men films. It keeps the definitions simple for those that might not be hugely familiar. “Mutant” means those with super powers in the context of this world; as long as the viewer understands that then the rest will fall into place. The episode does a really good job of establishing how fractured public opinion is on the existence on Mutants. Some are sympathetic but many are terrified. A government agency called “Sentinel Services” has been established because of that fear and Mutants are always running from an authority that wants to cage them for the safety of the public. It’s mentioned that these Anti-Mutant laws were passed because of the ongoing battle between the X-Men and the Brotherhood. Innocent people being caught in the crossfire is used as the rationale so the official government stance is “Mutant equals dangerous” which is definitely true from a limited point of view.
Even though Charles Xavier and Magneto don’t appear in this episode -or likely the entire season- it’s interesting to look at the state of the world from the perspective of their efforts. They always had the same goal; to ensure that Mutants weren’t hunted or persecuted by Humanity. Their approaches were very different as Xavier always believed that Mutants were equal to Humans where Magneto sees Mutants as being the superior races. As such he didn’t believe that Humans were important enough to protect so he would do things that could be considered “evil” to safeguard his own species. It’s a more extreme approach but it’s easy to see his thinking. Their different ways of thinking brought them into conflict which has created a world where Mutants are considered dangerous and hunted because of what they are. In effect their lack of cooperation caused them both to fail and there’s a tragedy to that. It may never be explored from that point of view but it’s certainly there in the subtext.
Naturally the show needs to slap a “Human” face on the struggle to establish the Mutants as something the audience should sympathise with. It does this in a variety of ways which starts right from the opening scene. We see Clarice Fong aka Blink (Jamie Chung) on the run from pursuing police. The scene is heavily weighted towards her as she is alone, exhausted and clearly running out of options. Visual language does a lot to establish that our sympathies should lie with her as the police behave in a really brutal way and clearly don’t regard her as Human. It’s a great sequence that sets up the major conflict for this series while serving as an engaging introduction for Clarice who gets to use her wonderfully rendered portal ability.
She is rescued a group of Mutants led by Marcos Diaz aka Eclipse (Sean Teale); a newly created character for this series. With him is Lorna Dane aka Polaris (Emma Dumont) and John Proudstar aka Thunderbird (Blair Redford). Together they use their abilities to rescue Clarice but it comes at a cost when Lorna is captured by Sentinel Services. This rescue sequence tells us a lot about the setup of this show. The group of Mutants led by Marcos act as something of an Underground Railroad for Mutants. They risk their own lives and freedom to rescue wayward Mutants and bring them to safety. It’s not an easy job and sometimes there are casualties as shown by Lorna’s capture. With very little exposition a situation is developed that puts the Mutants on the side of the disadvantaged while also creating very real stakes for the characters who are constantly on the run, looking over their shoulder and dealing with loss. It’s compelling and emotionally driven which should carry through as a strong basis for storytelling.
Outside of this we are also introduced to two high school age teenagers named Lauren (Natalie Alyn Lind) and Andy Strucker (Percy Hynes White). The introduction to Andy establishes him as the victim of bullying for reasons that are unspecified. For some reason a group of kids take it upon themselves to mistreat him and that’s something his parents Reed (Stephen Moyer) and Caitlin (Amy Acker) are called in to deal with. Lauren is very much the opposite of her brother. She’s popular, a good student and generally better adjusted. A classic brother/sister dynamic is created where one is a prodigy and the other is a work in progress. It’s nothing new but it works, especially in this context.
It turns out that Andy is a Mutant and a powerful one at that. His powers are triggered during a particularly brutal bullying sequence and he does considerably damage to the school by accident. It’s mentioned in the episode that he wished he could push the bullies away which then actually happened. Wish fulfilment has always been an appealing thing about having super powers. Many of us have wanted to fly, run fast, turn invisible or any number of power driven fantasies so this sequence literalises it by showing what would happen if that wish came true. The answer isn’t as glamorous as fantasy would suggest considering the damage and harm it caused albeit unintentionally.
From there it is revealed that Lauren is also a Mutant with the ability to conjure shields. Unlike Andy she has accepted her power, learned how to use it and learned how to hide it. Her “perfect student” persona is very carefully crafted to hide the truth about herself. She is sympathetic to Mutants as established in dialogue before the reveal but never pushes that too far to keep suspicion off her. They dynamic between Lauren and Andy changes slightly after the reveal with Lauren taking on a mentor role to her brother who needs to learn how to control his powers.
Adding to the complicated nature of being Mutants in a world that doesn’t accept them is the fact that Reed works for Sentinel Services. His job is to capture Mutants and put them in a place where they can’t harm Humans. He’s put in a difficult position once he finds out his children are Mutants that should challenge his opinions in a really visceral way since he has worked for so long to capture Mutants which must involve an element of dehumanisation in his mind. Now that he knows his children are Mutants what does that do to his world view and how does he react? The answer is largely unexplored as he takes on the role of the concerned parent who would do anything for his children. It may be a noble intention but it doesn’t tell us very much about Reed. His job provided the perfect opportunity for internal conflict but this is largely forgotten once it becomes about making sure his children are safe. It’s admirable but it ignores what has been established about the character. It does look like he’s going to be captured by the organisation he has betrayed so there is plenty of time to explore this in the coming episodes.
Caitlin is similarly underdeveloped. Shes’s the concerned mother and not an awful lot else. Like Reed she will do anything to ensure her children are safe but the fact that her life is essentially over now that she’s on the run is barely alluded to. This is a TV show with scope to expand on this but this particular episode does very little to develop the character beyond her function in the plot.
This show is very impressive visually. The use of the various powers is economical because they are being rendered on a TV budget but their use makes sense within the plot and allows the focus to be more on the characters than anything else. There are also clear limitations to having the powers and consequences to using them. This is best shown through Clarice who shows physical strain when she opens a portal and highlights the dangers that her powers bring. Lauren’s power has limitations in that there is only so much punishment her shields can take and she mentions that there are other difficulties. This stops them from becoming insanely powerful and ties the limitations of their powers to their specific character arcs. Clarice learning to control her powers will help her overcome her fear of using them for instance.
Each of the characters are visually distinct which definitely helps as they are broadly drawn at this stage to ensure that everyone is introduced. Digging into them as people will happen over the course of the season but for now at least they are memorable enough so that the audience can tell them apart.
A strong opening to this new X-Men series that sets the table in really compelling ways. The characters are interestingly if slightly ill defined at this stage and the underlying themes are very well developed. It also impresses with the visual effects as well as making the characters easy to tell apart which means that it’ll be easier to develop them. The various powers all have clear limitations that could be tied to their character arcs.
The parental characters suffer somewhat in how they are established. Reed’s conflict between wanting to protect his children and the job he does hunting Mutants had so much more scope to challenge his world view in fundamental ways but the focus remains on him as a concerned parent. It doesn’t capitalise on the potential this character brings.
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