It’s been a strange year for the “X-Men” Universe. “Legion” Season 2 and the excellent “Deadpool 2” came out, but those are peripheral stories. Two films – “Dark Phoenix” and “The New Mutants” – were pushed back to 2019, so no stories on the main timeline had been told since “The Gifted’s” (8 p.m. Eastern Tuesdays on Fox) first season ended in January. For me, this week’s Season 2 premiere, “eMergence,” is an exercise in “Wait, what happened again at the end of last season?” and “Oh yeah, I remember that guy.”
“The Gifted” is at the same level of quality as before. It looks crisp and colorful, with movie-level special effects against the backdrop of an Atlanta ravaged by the ongoing clash between the government’s Sentinel Services and innocent and militant mutants. As a stand-in for the near-apocalyptic Atlanta, the show uses … Atlanta. Granted, it works.
Sentinel Services rounds up peaceful mutants at gunpoint. The message here is timely and unpleasant (cough, cough, ICE), and these opening sequences veer toward “oppressed people being oppressed” porn. However, the overall conflict seems less hopeless now. Season 1 featured brutal Nazi-esque scenes of Dr. Campbell (Garret Dillahunt) forcing teenagers to use their powers under the threat of killing their friends – a threat he makes good on. I hope that guy is dead.
Season 2 is more interested in the internal conflict among the cause – the classic Malcolm X (Hellfire Club) versus Martin Luther King (Mutant Underground) argument. Hellfire Club leader Reeva (Grace Byers), in her introductory scene, dispatches all the club’s board members who disagree with her. Her hitwoman (hitwomen?) is Esme/Sophie/Phoebe Frost, played by “The Nine Lives of Chloe King’s” Skyler Samuels. “The Gifted’s” trick of showing three of her in one shot is either expensive or ingenious, and always neat.
The Hellfire Club entered the cinematic universe in “X-Men: First Class,” and Reeva’s group is apparently resurrecting the name. When a computer expert uncovers the club’s name for our main Mutant Underground heroes, Kate (Amy Acker) and Marcos (Sean Teale), it’s too bad he’s unaware of the 1960s club. It would’ve made for a nice continuity tie-in for a franchise that is notoriously sloppy about fitting its stories together. Maybe the show will make up for it later.
The best characters earn that status because of who’s playing them. I feel for the Strucker family being torn apart by the conflict. Mom Kate, dad Reed (Stephen Moyer) and daughter Lauren (Natalie Alyn Lind) are keeping a low profile, but also looking for leads on where son Andy (Percy Hynes White) might be. (He’s with the Hellfire Club.)
In a dream sequence, Lauren imagines finding her brother, then touching hands and unleashing their combined powers. To her, it’s a nightmare that goes beyond a teenager holding hands with her gross sibling. I feel like we saw this a few times last season, too: Andy wants the powers, Lauren is scared of them. I hope this thread doesn’t get overplayed or cliched, but I’m worried by teasers to next week suggesting a fall-to-the-darkside plot for Andy.
“eMergence” puts an almost parodic spin on the TV trope of a birth scene, as Lorna/Polaris (Emma Dumont) has her baby, Dawn, with protection from Reeva’s Hellfire Club. Polaris screams in agony, the electricity goes out all over town and everything made of metal violently rattles. Marcos/Eclipse, who is with the Struckers, figures out that his girlfriend is in labor, but they can’t quite track down her location.
This episode is a bit of a logistics dump, as a viewer can file away who is in each group, and the fact that they’re both in Atlanta. In Season 1, everyone seemed to be running all over the Southeast, but maybe “The Gifted” is looking to be geographically tighter.
I find myself admiring “The Gifted” from a technical standpoint, feeling uncomfortable watching the scenes of oppression, and liking the actors but not feeling for the characters as much as the writers want me to. It’s an “X-Men” series that’s much more mainstream and accessible than the brain-twisting “Legion,” and that’s what keeps it on my schedule. But I hope someday to love “The Gifted” rather than seeing it as sorta-fun homework.