Sunday, February 7, 2016

The 4400: Fifty-Fifty

Fifty-Fifty (episode 3.12)
Directed by Nick Copus
Written by Ira Steven Behr & Craig Sweeny
Guest starring Brennan Elliott, Summer Glau, Jeffrey Combs, Sean Marquette, Jody Thompson
First aired 27 August 2006
Rating 7/10

Previous episode: Terrible Swift Sword
Next episode: Season Four

Here be spoilers aplenty.

"The end of a journey is always the beginning of another," says narrator Jordan Collier near the end of the episode. What he means is that the end of a season is geared to start up another. Season three's final episode of The 4400 is a launching pad for season four.

"Fifty-Fifty" primarily on the spread of promicen among non-4400s. Interspersed amid the plot are sequences designed to carry characters into the next season, to promise greater, elevated excitement for season four in a desperate scramble to pick up (and maintain) viewers and increased ad revenue. Though this entire episode is a set-up for season four, I must admit that despite the all-too obvious agenda, The 4400 staff did a good job at delivering an entertaining episode.

It turns out that Ryland's super soldiers group had some casualties: half of the twenty original volunteers died, leading to the episode title. This fact only arises after the first public experiment leads to the death of Devon, an act designed to undermine Collier's plan to distribute promicen to the world at large.

Devon's death is telling of the problems with standard network or syndicated television. Essentially, killing off a third-tier character is a pretense at risk-taking. With shows ranging from the brilliant Oz to the inconsistent Walking Dead, sacrificing major characters seemingly on a whim builds a genuine threat to the people within the show's universe. Essentially, no one is safe. Yet The 4400 is not prepared to permanently sacrifice a major player, and therefore never successfully generates the sense that the characters in The 4400 universe are in any way truly threatened. We do not feel the tension that is supposed to be generated by Shawn's vision of a ruined future that is highlighted by Tom Baldwin's death simply because we know inherently that the future is safe and Baldwin will not die. The show has not presented us with any indication that this apocalyptic scenario, presented as a possibility, is actually possible.

Instead, a false sense of danger is created through the death of a familiar and likable face who is not a major player. Though Lily Moore Tyler's death at the opening of season three was not planned (it came about as a result of the actor not being available), her sacrifice promised to escalate series tensions, yet proved anti-climactic as every other major player remained quite safe. Moreover, many other third tier characters who could easily have been sacrificed were let off the hook. Gary Navarro fled to Canada and both Kyle Baldwin, Alana Mareva and Jordan Collier were only temporarily disposed of when their services weren't required. Brought back when they were. All this to say that I like Devon, was saddened by her demise, yet did not for a moment believe others are now at risk and did not worry needlessly for the safety of other likables.

The death of Boyd Gelder is also an interesting point for discussion but for a different reason. For one thing, it elevates Collier to cult leader status as his followers are now willing to give up their lives for him. Though his death is never actually confirmed, there is no doubt Gelder is dead since the soldiers that were with him in the room are confirmed dead, an act which also makes Collier a murderer, though the script writers conveniently avoid mention of this. Collier would likely explain in his straightforward manner that their death was for the good of mankind. What is most interesting in here is that Boyd Gelder is an important asset to Collier's team and his cause, and there is no logical reason Collier should have sacrificed him. As Isabelle herself states, it is inconceivable that he should think he can kill her; she's already proven herself indestructible through conventional means. So why kill off such an incredibly useful ally? Even the powerful Magneto went to great lengths to defend his own chameleon, without whom he would not have been as powerful as he was. Perhaps Collier did not read comic books.

Additional mourning, though on a more subdued level, comes to us in the form of Tom Baldwin watching son Kyle depart yet again, this time as a kind of recruitment representative or travelling adviser for the 4400 Centre. I've mentioned before that I like Kyle, and I do hope his wanderings bring him back to the show in season four, though he hasn't been among the writers' favourites, and this brief and convenient send-off comes across as a sweep under the rug.

A well-handled sequence is Shawn's interrogation. Initially Alana is brought in against her will to do the interrogation via her universe creating talent. The drama here is that her 4400 loyalties are being compromised, pitted against her loyalty to lover Tom, yet she is saved from having to use her talents against Shawn when another interrogator is brought in: the mighty Isabelle. Though the drama of Alana struggling through such an ordeal is pulled out from under our feet, it does not come across as a cop-out because we are promised greater drama with Isabelle. High tension is usurped by even greater tension. If you think about it, this was a crafty writerly bit of doing, and I wonder if this was brought about by writers trying to decide which would be best for the episode, and rather than sacrificing one possibility entirely, they manage to sneak it in there. Good technique.

Interestingly, Isabelle tells Shawn that the reason she teamed with Ryland is that if both sides had access to promicen, meaning the side of Ryland and the side of Collier, then there would be a standstill and lives, particularly Shawn's, would be saved. Are we to believe that she is not the daemon she is often presented to be? It does make sense though, since her childish selfishness could have been the driving force behind her collaboration with the bad guys.

Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, Diane takes Maia away from the Centre, fearing for her daughter's safety. Maia objects as the class is where her only true friends reside, and cutting her off from that environment is equivalent to transforming her into a loner. Of course this is a set-up for one of the episode's climaxes, implied by Maia's flat-out statement: "This isn't gonna work." The Isabella needle comes into play later in that classroom, and as I'd suspected (see previous post), daddy Richard is the one to take her down. I don't mind the lack of surprise here since the act fits into the character development and Richard's consistent evolution. Besides, Richard rocks!

"For a second I really thought you were gonna shoot her." The Tom shooting Isabella is a bit unreal considering the reports and investigation a government agent has to go through when discharging a weapon... in a classroom no less. The shooting serves a dual purpose: dramatic effect and to let the audience know Isabelle is done. As in powerless, not dead. As in we shouldn't expect season four to open with the imp Isabelle spouting how it was all a ruse to help unleash her great evil plan.

Not only does he take down daughter Isabelle, it is Rockin' Richard who turns against Collier rather than Shawn, as viewers were being led to expect. As a result, Richard becomes a prisoner of Tess. This is a neat pairing as one uses his mind to shift objects while the other uses her mind to shift will. Suggestion beats out telekinesis as Richard can do nothing to get the better of mind controller Tess. Internal tensions do little in preventing promicen from being delivered to the outside world. (At least to the streets and alleys of the U.S., since nothing is mentioned of international promicen delivery. Moreover, since it is Collier dispersing the stuff on the streets, it's not likely any of the stuff would make it onto a plane.

The final scene is the topping that launches us into season four. A brief scene in which many people are lining up to receive their own doses of promicen, including April Skouris, Diana's lovelorn sister. There's a good final turn to the camera, as the promicen distributor asks the audience if they want a shot of the stuff. This kind of acknowledgement of the audience invites discussion: would you risk your life for the chance to develop a super power? Remember, fifty percent chance you will die, and if you live you cannot choose your power, so you might end up with an extra head. Well, maybe not much discussion.

Having come so far with promicen, I wonder if the writers and producers remember that the point of these 4400 people returning to this time and place is part of a plan to divert a great, Earth-ending catastrophe. It's interesting to note that so few of the 4400 are part of this battle, and that Isabelle is now powerless, making me wonder how her conception and existence, now that she is so average, plays into this grand scheme of future humanity.

Along with plot set-up and Isabelle taming, this finale offers up some disappearances. First off Ben wants to take Diane and Maia to Spain, though we know they will return, so really what is the point. Perhaps to avoid needing to develop the Diana/Maia teen drama that was taking its course through season three. Some time together in a foreign land will help, we suspect, unite the two with the bond of previous seasons. This way the writers of season four can focus on other dramas.

The other disappearance, far more interesting and certainly welcome to those like me who find the empath a little tiresome, is that of Alana. Maia says to her in relation to the Spain trip: "We'll be back, but you won't be here." Then Alana disappears, seemingly abducted. Hopefully this time for good.

"You want the shot?"

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