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Helix Review: "274" (Episode 1.03)

January 18, 2014  |  5:14pm
<i>Helix</i> Review: "274" (Episode 1.03)

Day 3 of Helix has come and gone in the land of the midnight sun, and the results are—at best—inconclusive. You can cook up any jellyfish-fluorescence test you want, and you’re still going to end up with a tray full of false positives. I’m not abandoning hope yet, but with the way this outbreak’s going, complete chaos in the lab by the end of Day 4 looks like the only sane way forward.

Because they took the gloves off for this one (also the hoods, opting instead for more photogenic visors): containment is broken, the virus is pretty much everywhere, and the CDC’s bizarrely delayed sequestering of the sick seems quite arbitrary, given no one really knows how the disease spreads. Add in an infection rate of almost one-third already and the fact that that test our brilliant (but perhaps not so innocent?) young scientist Sarah concocted doesn’t work, and it looks like game over.

It’s a pity, because the set-up for the series could’ve been teased out far more suspensefully. A contagion should have to fight its way out of containment, against the best efforts of a crack crew of brilliant, savvy doctors. Pandora’s Box needs to be opened, with curiosity overcoming awe, not just sitting there busted wide and nobody’s really sure how it got that way. The CDC’s paper-bag protocols pose Mother Nature (or Father Hiro) no serious challenge, and so do nothing to accrue tension.

Realizing (or not especially caring) about that, the show opts for more mindless violence—as opposed to intelligent violence, since Peter, who had been the central vector of the disease, Patient Zero with a 150 IQ, suddenly goes out of commission at the start of the episode. And his replacement, Dr. Sulemani, behaves more or less like a standard zombie plus extra athleticism.

Jules, having the disease but also possibly the ability to successfully battle it, is going to have to take the burden of injecting some wit back into the fight. Alan admits he’s lost all control, with his best intentions going astray. At the start of the episode, he insists on walking Jules back to safety, then immediately toddles off to chase noises in the ducts. Chivalry isn’t dead; it’s just forgetful. But Jules’ memory of Peter’s attack, followed by an equally vivid vision of turning into a vector, effectively establishes her as the key battleground of the disease and best hope for the series’ evolution.

As played by Kyra Zagorsky, Jules is tough, potentially badass, and just vulnerable enough to root for. The audience certainly isn’t going to find its way in through the regular folks working at the lab, who show up when it’s time to be victimized. There’s no comfortingly normal life for us to identify with before the outbreak destroys it. The dinner scene in Alien is the most memorable in the movie because they’re having dinner. Nobody has dinner in Helix. Nobody tells a dumb joke, bitches about working at the ass-end of the earth, has to clean up after the monkeys. They might as well be a bunch of guinea pigs. The monkeys even panic smarter. When Daniel drops the bombshell about Dr. Sulemani running amok right in front of everybody on Level R, the sheep immediately stampede in her last known direction. And Daniel: c’mon senior security officer, ix-nay on the illing-kay in front of the kids.

The characters we’re supposed to care for try to open up a bit but don’t get much traction. Jules opens up to Peter about the failure of her and Alan’s marriage, because doctors know: the sedated make great listeners. Apparently Alan is more a Svengali type than he appears, driving Jules into Peter’s arms. Jules says she swallowed her feelings—just like the virus! Imagery! The other side of the triangle between Sarah and Alan doesn’t get any attention at all, although Sarah’s nervous affliction is intriguing. The scar along her spine along with her shakiness suggest she might be pursuing a research track of her own at Arctic Biosystems, perhaps looking for that cure-or-kill vaccine they’ve been working on. Sarah’s a bit of a drag, like a mirthless Anna Kendrick, but maybe this angle will give her something more exciting to do.

Dr. Boyle, who at least tries to have a sense of humor and, you know, wears funky t-shirts under her lab coat, is getting old fast. More screen time in this episode doesn’t do the actress any favors. Nor does the dialogue, particularly when Balleseros complains about the formaldehyde smell in the monkey lab. Boyle responds, “It reeks alright. Reeks of Hatake!” Anyway, that might be the obnoxious odor of mendacity coming off yourself, Dr. Boyle—why lie to Alan? The one guy you can trust and you deceive him about the monkey-blood experiment, just after telling him what a great guy he is. That’s less ultimate betrayal than narrative convenience.

Hiro, who’s still the enemy as the camera (and sometimes the script) reminds us, gets separated from Jules in this episode after showing only a flash of his previous interest in her. His side of the storyline is kept alive via the confrontation with Alan over the lab’s work on a kill-or-cure-all. Weirdly, Alan scares Hiro into fessing up by invoking the name of the mighty New York Post. He can conjure with any of the major new organizations on earth, and he chooses the New York Post? Has the Washington Post fallen so far in the public imagination since Woodward and Bernstein that the NYP is the investigative standard? Murdoch 1, Bezos 0. Google “good newspaper,” I guess, and it goes right to the New York Post. Maybe Hiro is afraid Page Six will reveal that paternity scandal…

Anyway, that 75 percent lethal vaccine might be worth trying—immediately—because otherwise they’re all screwed. Forty-three are infected, about a third of the population, and they have no idea how people get it. The vomit-kiss is one way, but how is everybody else contracting it? Even if they could forget that happening, like Jules, surely they’d have the tell-tale smear of black bile on their lips.

So it’s time for the time bomb to go off. Balleseros C-4-ing the satellite is a firm step in this direction, even if logically he’s using a hammer when a screwdriver would do. Is there really no way to disable the dish without blowing it to smithereens? Since he’s pretty much the only person on the base who’d know how to use high explosives, if the CDC or the army happens to notice the lab’s lack of communication, fingers will start pointing his way.

If the bloodletting peaks on Day 4, there’ll be a chance for the show to quickly find a tighter, more accessible story. A big scale doesn’t really fit the budget, anyway, and we’re having a hard enough time identifying with our heroes, much less the other victims. Probably Alan/Sarah and Jules in separate locations will batten down the hatches (and figure out that pesky duct problem), then battle it out as lone survivors. If we can’t root for them to love, at least we can root for them to live. Otherwise, Jules banging her hand in frustration and desperately yelling, “It doesn’t work!” may prove all too prophetic.

The title of the episode, “274,” refers to Alan’s career body count. I feel you, Alan: for doctor and patient viewer alike, those grim, senseless deaths take their toll. The good news? With 148 people at the lab, if he and Jules or Sarah are the only ones to make it out alive, his total will reach exactly 420. And that’s as good a time to knock off as any.

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