It’s unfortunate that Heroes is starting to pick up real momentum just as its strike-shortened second season comes to an end. While last week’s backstory-heavy “Six Months Ago” was a bit of a dud, the previous episode “Out of Time” and this week’s “Cautionary Tales” are tying the season’s disparate, aimless threads together rather well, focusing on fewer characters and emphasizing more intimate storytelling. It’s a nice change of pace from the disappointingly ’epic’ finale of Heroes’ first season, although of course it remains to be seen whether this tremendously inconsistent show can maintain this new rash of quality.
Like “Out of Time” and “Six Months Ago”, “Cautionary Tales” focuses on three stories linked only in general theme: Claire Bennet (Hayden Panettiere) and her father Noah (Jack Coleman), who are being pursued by the misguided Mohinder (Sendhil Ramamurthy), Company boss Bob (Steven Tobolowsky) and his daughter Elle (Kristen Bell); Matt Parkman (Greg Grunberg), who is attempting to expand his mental powers to include coercion; and Hiro (Masi Oka), who is trying to prevent his father Kaito’s (George Takei) death by traveling through time. If it sounds complicated, it honestly isn’t: while the Bennet storyline is more plot-heavy, the other two are nicely self-contained pieces that wouldn’t be out of place as a single-issue story in a 20-page comic book. In this way the episode recalls season one’s undisputed height, “Company Man” , and while “Cautionary Tales” does not reach the heights of that wonderfully scripted (by Bryan Fuller) episode, that it bears comparison at all is an encouraging sign.
It is Matt Parkman’s story that is the most surprisingly good—in fact, he can easily be declared the most improved character in the Heroes ensemble. He’s pretty much the only character who has been substantially more interesting this season, although his essential blandness still manages to shine through every so often. It’s a shame that Matt is written so woodenly, because Grunberg can be a very charming performer and the role of telepath is often crucial to a multi-character superhero tale. The unendingly uninteresting examinations of his turbulent marriage to an unfaithful wife in the first season made his scenes almost fatal to any episode he appeared in. In the second season, he’s ditched the wife, entered into a fairly ambiguous domestic arrangement with Mohinder and his young ward Molly (Aidair Tishler), and after confronting his similarly powered father, has begun further exploration of his powers.
Heroes has been looking into the ’responsibility of power’ theme more frequently as of late, as well it should, and Matt’s abuse through psychic suggestions this week is just on the right side of creepy. The story is a little rushed, but I bought it: Matt starts out by telepathically nudging Molly into not using her abilities, so as to protect her, but by the end of the episode he invades Angela Petrelli’s (Cristine Rose) mind to pry out her most sacred secret, the identity of the final member of the 12 founders of the Company. The effect is driven home as Angela, usually a rather cold-hearted Lady Macbeth type, seems genuinely horrified at Matt’s intrusion into her mind and even has a nosebleed by the end of it. Ah, the nosebleed—automatic network body horror! It drives home an altogether unsettling, but interesting turn of events for Parkman.
Hiro’s portion of the tale is far more warm-hearted, although it also looks at a father-son dynamic and the responsibility that comes with great power. I’ve never thought of Masi Oka and George Takei as the most talented performers on this show—Oka’s exuberance is undoubtedly essential to Heroes’ energy, and Takei always supplies reliable weighty sci-fi gravitas, but they are taxed a little heavier than usual this episode and both rise admirably to the challenge. Admittedly it is broad-strokes, sentimental stuff, as Hiro, frustrated at returning back to the present in time for his father’s funeral, tries to convince Kaito to let him save his life. Pulling a mini-It’s a Wonderful Life, Hiro yanks Kaito back 17 years to the funeral of his wife, saying Hiro’s grief for his father in the present day mirrors Kaito’s for his wife. Kaito is having none of it, though, and rightly so—he and the other founders of The Company clearly abused their abilities and made great moral sacrifices to do whatever it is that they did, and Kaito wants his son to avoid such a fate. After a conversation with himself as a child (the time-travel physics of this show are especially out of whack), Hiro realizes he has to be a man, and he bids goodbye to his father both at the scene of his death and in a eulogy at his funeral. The best moment of the story (and the episode) is when Kaito marvels to his son, “I’ve never been time traveling before.” It is a cute line, but delivered with the right balance of emotion and respect from a guy who’s always been very buttoned-down around his son. Hiro’s eulogy is equally well done—it is nicely understated work from Oka and Takei all round.
(A sidenote: Hiro takes the time to check out just who it was that murdered his father, finding that it was Adam Monroe/Takezo Kensei (David Anders), the immortal warrior he stole a girlfriend from 400 years back. I figured most of you had guessed he was the culprit, but if that’s not the case, I’m noting it here.)
In the episode’s centerpiece story, the Bennet family takes a stand against the increasingly evil Company boss Bob and his sidekick (who is also apparently his daughter) Elle, with Mohinder trapped in the middle. I say trapped—Mohinder is in fact very easily swayed to the side of murder by Bob, who manages to convince Dr. Suresh that assassinating his partner Noah is a great idea, just through vague evidence and conjecture. The stated goal of the Company is to use Claire’s healing blood to cure the Shanti virus—it all quickly evolves into a vendetta against Noah, who abandoned the Company at the end of the aforementioned season-one episode ’Company Man’. That episode also cemented the unbreakable bond between father Noah and daughter Claire, a bond that has been slowly eroded this season as Claire finds out what exactly her father did while working for the Company. Thankfully they are united by the end of the episode, with Claire’s drippy boyfriend West (Nicholas D’Agosto) by their side.
On a less pleasant note, there is the matter of Isaac Mendez’s precognitive paintings, which I assume are the ’cautionary tales’ of the title. One had predicted Noah’s death; a fate that he met after Mohinder blasted him in the face during a Mexican standoff with Bob and Elle. Thankfully, the Heroes crew knows not to whack their best character: before long Noah has woken up, thanks to Claire’s restorative blood, in what seems like a Company holding cell. Bad for Noah, but could be a good reversal storyline for us, as he used to be the man on the other side of the cell. What is most interesting about the Bennet storyline, however, are the differences in the Noah/Claire, Bob/Elle dynamics—as Noah remarks to his daughter, he never exposed her to the Company because he didn’t want her to end up like Elle, institutionalized and insane. Bell is still not getting enough to do as Elle, her occasional quips not nearly as funny as the ones she made on Veronica Mars, but the scene where Noah tortures her and has her questioning the gaps in her memory at least give the impression that there could be a future to this character.
As I wrote earlier, it looks like Heroes will be ending early, probably around episode twelve, thanks to the writer’s strike. On the bright side, episode twelve is intended as the end of this “volume”, and mayhem and death are promised in the next couple of weeks. After a nicely emotional hour with some good set-pieces, I wouldn’t mind some out-and-out action on Heroes: however, “Cautionary Tales” is a far better example of how to get a Heroes episode right.
London-based writer David Sims is a contributor to South Dakota Dark.