TV Article

The Evolutionary War

''Heroes'' flashes back six months to explain how the good guys and bad guys became who they are, and why Hiro couldn't save Charlie

Masi Oka, Heroes | POWER TRIP-UP Hiro learned his teleporting doesn't always work
Image credit: Heroes: Trae Patton
POWER TRIP-UP Hiro learned his teleporting doesn't always work

''Heroes'': Their secret origins

I'm constantly impressed by how much information is crammed into an hour of Heroes. Unlike Lost, which restricts itself to focusing on developing one or two characters per night, Heroes goes all out. (I'm not fond of comparing the two shows, but there are few other series that have such large casts and such an enormous amount of character information to impart.)

Sure, there are episodes where we only get a glimpse of certain heroes (it's usually Matt who gets the shaft), and there have definitely been episodes that feel stretched as thin as drum skin (such as the last one), but this one, titled ''Six Months Ago,'' was pretty dense. We saw a bit of everyone save Isaac, but most important, we got a backstory on Sylar, who looks remarkably like a walking Clark Kent costume. (It almost feels as if the show's creators were shooting for a through-the-looking-glass Superman.)

Our supervillain, the man who Mohinder once said was his father's ''patient zero,'' turns out to have been Gabriel Gray, a simple man frustrated with his predictable life and looking to be something more. ''I wanted to be different. Special. I wanted to change. A new name, a new life. The watchmaker's son...became a watchmaker.'' Who can't understand that sense of entrapment, of living out a life that already seems sketched out for you in advance? So when Chandra Suresh mistakenly pegged Gabriel as having powers and then dismissed him as normal, the man flipped out, took his new name from a watch face, and — as far as I can tell — started to eat people's brains.

And although the actual scene where Sylar killed his first victim was punctuated by an overheated, 1940s-radio-ish exclamation (''It is in the brain....I can fix it. It's an evolutionary imperative!''), it was thrilling to see the moment when he turned. The Gabriel-Chandra subplot was my favorite part of the night because it crystallized something that's been in the back of my mind for a while about Heroes — this odd push-pull between science and God, evolution and the idea of a creator.

Think back to one of the first scenes of the very first episode, with Mohinder teaching a class, talking about God and evolution and the theory that man uses only one-tenth of his brain power, and then look at Chandra saying, ''If the soul exists, scientifically speaking, it exists in the brain.'' Then consider that Gabriel just happens to be a watchmaker. (Richard Dawkins' book on evolution, The Blind Watchmaker, takes its title from a pre-Darwin analogy that states that the existence of a watch, as complex as it is, presupposes a watchmaker. Therefore, since humans are far more complex, there had to be someone who created them.) Throw in the fact that Sylar seems to be full of a very Christian sort of guilt — recall Mohinder uncovering that weird room full of crosses and ''I have sinned'' graffiti — and it's clear there is a subtle, complicated conversation going on in this show.

Of course, it's all about evolution, with these powers being activated in a certain part of the brain. And one feature that species have evolved to ensure their survival is the fight-or-flight response — an instinct that takes hold most explicitly in the stories of Nathan and Niki. Let's dispense with Niki first, and quickly, because I still find her story the least interesting. It's probably because I'm still not sure what her power actually is. When Niki's formerly abusive father showed up, the persona of her dead sister, Jessica, kicked in, allowing Niki to kick paternal ass. Is this an evolutionary response, this channeling of dead people? It all seems a little too supernatural to me, too much out of tune with the rest of the show.

It's a little easier now to see why Nathan is so dismissive of his flying abilities, for on account of them he abandoned his wife seconds before their car was rammed by Linderman's people into a highway divider — again, fight or flight. Well, he definitely flew, and his wife is paralyzed because of it. I wonder if she remembers seeing his empty seat right before the accident. Does she have any idea what her husband can do?

Finally, let's talk about Hiro, our tragic Hiro, who couldn't save his Charlie. Not that he didn't try, not that he didn't go back six months in time, take a job as a busboy in some small Texas town, win her over with a beautiful origami crane display, and then give her a ticket to Japan. That was all for naught, because she would have died anyway from a brain aneurysm. Or as Hiro put it, ''I teleported. Forward. Backward. But I couldn't save her....This power...it's bigger than me. I can't change the past.'' For all the assumptions one makes about how powerful these abilities — and specifically Hiro's — would make your average Joe, they still have limitations.

For proof of that, we need only look to Mohinder's closing narration: ''These people, their future is written on their DNA. Just, as the past, it seems, is written in stone. Was the die cast from the very beginning? Or is it in our own hands to alter the course of destiny? Of all our abilities, it is free will that truly makes us unique. With it, we have a tiny but potent chance to deny fate. And only with it can we find our way back to being human.''

I leave this episode wondering who is in control of all of this, if anyone. Does God exist in the world of Heroes, and is he pulling the strings? Sylar couldn't escape capture, Hiro couldn't save his gal, and Peter and Claire couldn't deviate from their destined-to-cross paths. Does their free will matter at all?

What do you think? Were H.R.G. and Chandra working in different ways toward the same end? Could anyone get powers by eating certain parts of the brain (or doing whatever it is Sylar does)? And judging from the previews for next week, which hero is going to die?

Originally posted Nov 28, 2006