Last night was the first new Heroes episode in three weeks, and a lot has happened since we last watched Hiro eat a pile of hallucinogenic hyena dung in Africa. Last week brought the big announcement that NBC was firing two major contributors to the show: co-producers Jeph Loeb and Jesse Alexander. Though the firings are too recent to affect this episode, called "Villains," it was clearly a turning point for the season and was one of my favorite episodes this fall. Unfortunately, "Villains" was also a flashback episode whose revelations are only going to be interesting to die-hard fans. Not a good way to rescue a floundering show. Spoilers ahead! The entire episode is framed as Hiro's "spirit journey" in Africa. He's eaten a drug that Magical African Guy (soon to be headless guy) says will help him find the villains he needs to track down. So Hiro spirt journeys back one year, to the period when the first season of Heroes were taking place. Now, at last, we get the full back story on Papa and Mama Petrelli and their relationship with shady business dude Linderman. We also get the back story on how Nathan's ex-wife got into that wheelchair, and how Gabriel got turned into the evil Sylar by electrical Elle and Claire's scheming toady dad HRG. And just for good measure, we find out that Claire is related to even more people. Her flamey-handed mom's brother is blue fire guy, one of the mega-villains unleashed when Elle accidentally unlocked Primatech's maximum security floor.
But who really cares about this stuff, except die-hard fans who have been watching since day one? As a person who has fussed over every Heroes episode the day it aired, I was interested in the idea that Papa Petrelli had been pulling the old brain-scrambler on Mama P — just the way HRG used to scramble Claire's mom's brains so she would forget any time Primatech "special people" business intruded on their private lives. Papa P is so invested in his evil plans to dominate the world that he schemes to have son Nathan killed when then-DA Nathan says he won't give up on prosecuting Linderman. In fact, this subplot led to the episode's only decent one-liner. At a family party, Nathan warns Linderman that he should "shave his wrists" because "those handcuffs chafe."
It was also pretty cool when Linderman had a morality attack, healed Mama P's brain scars, and restored her knowledge that Papa was about to murder baby. It was a bit too late, however. Papa had already ordered a hit on his son, but getting his heavies to run Nathan's car off the road only paralyzed Nathan's wife and helped Nathan discover that flying powers are useful in convertible accidents. Pissed about the whole murder thing, Mama promptly poisons Papa's favorite lentil soup, paralyzing him and setting up this season's big reveal that Papa is still alive but in the hospital.
But again, did we really need a whole episode devoted to tying up weird loose ends and revisiting the recent past? Especially since a lot of this stuff was clumsy retcon, revising history rather than just filling it in. How else to explain the whole Sylar transformation thing? In "Villains," we learn that it wasn't his lust to be special that made him evil, and it wasn't the murder of his mother. Instead, it was a calculated move on the part of HRG and seductress Elle. The whole time nice nerd Gabriel was turning into sexy evil guy Sylar, HRG apparently had him under surveillance because his power is so unusual. He used Elle to get Gabriel to kill somebody on camera so Primatech could "study the tapes." Not only did Elle seduce Gabriel using peach pie, but she even screams at HRG that Gabriel "isn't a killer" and says she doesn't want to make him kill on camera. Is this the Elle we know, who is so eager to be evil and please daddy? Loved the scene where Sylar killed the emo boy with pew-pew powers. But for the fortieth time, how is this even going to feel interesting to a non-fan? The fascination of the entire scene comes from the way it defies our expectations as long-time watchers: Elle is being nice? HRG created the killer who later almost murdered his daughter? Sylar loves peach pie and ziti?
And the story of how Claire's biomom Meredith tangled with Primatech over her fire-throwing brother? Unnecessary. The whole point of that subplot is to make Claire related to yet another "special" person. So now she's the daughter of flying man Nathan, niece to power-sucker Peter, niece to Gabriel/Sylar, granddaughter to Papa and Mama P, daughter of yellow fire-thrower Meredith and niece to blue fire-thrower Flint. She's the step-daughter of HRG, and frenemies with Elle. That is just too much relatedness, people. The Petrelli family saga has gone from The Sopranos to Flowers in the Attic. Ew! I appreciate the creators of this episode's effort to deepen several characters who are central to the season's arc. But giving your characters even more elaborate histories may not deepen them. And making a character behave in contradictory ways isn't the same thing as developing that character. We can hope that "Villains" is a kind of mini-reboot for the series, with these new histories giving the writers a chance to reimagine the action. Even Hiro is getting a reboot: Papa P scrambles his brain at the end of the episode. So next week you can expect more new random facets to Hiro's personality, as well as to Sylar's and probably everybody else's too. This could be a good thing, but there may not be much of an audience left to appreciate it.