The Walking Dead: Season 3, Episode 7 – When the Dead Come Knocking

“For all we know, your brother’s out there searching for them now. Blood is blood, right? Makes me wonder where your loyalties lie.”

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Another thrilling missive from the post-zombie apocalypse world this week, as The Walking Dead continues to be compulsive viewing. This episode had the feel of an endgame, moving the pieces into place for next week’s big mid-season break, but managed to be just as exciting and creepy as ever. Along the way, there was the requisite amount of gore, death and betrayal, as the Woodbury community and the prison gang dealt with the newcomers in their midst.

As I’d expected, Glenn and Maggie did not have a nice time at the tender mercies of their Woodbury interrogations. Locked into a windowless room, Glenn had to deal with a brutal beating from Merle, whose final gambit was to unleash a ravenous Walker in with him. Steven Yeun got to be brilliantly hardass as he had to fight it off with his arms duct taped to a chair – which saved him from a nasty bite – before smashing the chair to bits and ramming its fragments through the corpse’s head. It was another demonstration of how the characters have hardened over the months since the last season, and a thrilling sequence to watch. Given the show’s high body count of late, the suspense over whether Glenn would make it felt very real.

But he didn’t give away his gang’s location, so it was up to the Governor himself to have another try, this time with Maggie. And boy, was that worse. Aptly described by Michonne as a “Jim Jones type”, his interrogation of Maggie was, if anything, nastier than Merle’s straightforward brutality. He started off trying the smooth, seductive technique that worked so well on the gullible Andrea, but when it became clear that wasn’t working, went straight to the sexual humiliation, forcing Maggie to strip before shoving her down and (presumably) raping her. It was probably the nastiest thing we’ve seen him do yet, and it was notable that not even this show actually depicted it happening. Blood and guts might be fine, but some things, it seems, are just too uncomfortable even for a cable network to show.

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Given that not even this could persuade Maggie to spill her guts, the Governor ended up taking what would have been the logical approach to try first – threatening to shoot one of them if the other wouldn’t answer the question. But it was a nice subversion of the expected trope that it was Glenn who was threatened and Maggie who had to answer. Which, finally, she did.

So now the Governor knows about the prison, and seems incredulous that such a small group could have cleared the place of Walkers. And there’s a hint that he was interested in it himself – for what, I wonder? Mention was again made of “the red zone”, which has yet to be fully explained, but I’m guessing it just means “area with a lot of Walkers in it”.

He’s interested in Walkers, the Governor. This week we got some enlargement on that, after the recent hints about Milton’s experiments, as we got to see his “scientific method” in action. Ably assisted by the glamorous Andrea, he was conditioning a dying old man to respond to repeated stimuli, in the hope that his revived corpse might have some memory of its former identity.

Andrea did try telling him that this wasn’t going to work, though for some reason she failed to mention that she’d seen some far more detailed research on the subject at the Atlanta CDC. But their conversation as they waited for the old man to turn gave us some revealing background on Milton – only child, parents already dead when civilisation fell, worked from home and had no friends. The perfect background, basically, for a sociopath, however mild-mannered he may seem, with no empathy for his fellow survivors.

Speaking of sociopaths, this pointed ever more obviously to one of the Governor’s larger motivations, made more explicit here than in the comic. He’s plainly hoping to somehow ‘bring back’ his undead daughter; I wonder how many in Woodbury know that he’s keeping her walking corpse locked up in his rooms?

Over at the prison, there was much debate about the recently arrived Michonne – once they’d made the decision to actually let her in. Michonne, for her part, was surprisingly trusting of another group she’d just met, considering her nous in immediate suspicion of Woodbury. Yes, she was a bit hostile – that’s basically her character – but she didn’t immediately wonder what Dark Secret Rick and the gang were keeping. Yes, we know they’re good guys, but it seemed a tad unlikely for Michonne, without the information we have, to be so trusting.

I also found myself constantly anticipating when/if she was going to let slip that ‘the enemy’ over in Woodbury included their old friends Andrea and Merle. She must be aware that this is the group they were both previously with, from the conversations we’ve seen them all having – is she keeping the information back for some reason of her own?

At least Rick was a bit suspicious; but trusting enough that soon he, Daryl and Oscar were accompanying Michonne on a trek to Woodbury to retrieve Maggie and Glenn. The trip took a peculiar sidestep when they found themselves surrounded by Walkers and took refuge in a nearby shack, which turned out to be occupied by a reclusive fellow survivor. Since he was making enough noise to wake the dead (or at least, attract them), Michonne took the lead in despatching him with a quick swordthrust.

I was again surprised at the level of trust Rick extended to somebody he’d only just met, in allowing her to keep a deadly sharp sword. But the scene showed again Michonne’s level of ruthless pragmatism, a level it seems Rick has yet to achieve. While he, Daryl and Oscar dithered over dealing with the shouting hermit, it was she who took the lead in, basically, rejecting the now useless morality left over from before the apocalypse.

It also provided a handy escape route – and this week’s gore highlight – as the gang used the fresh corpse as a tasty snack to distract the Walkers, making a sneaky getaway via the back door. The gruesome gut-ripping, courtesy as ever of KNB Effects, was definitely up there with the greats of zombie classics like Day of the Dead.

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The episode climaxed with Rick, Michonne, Daryl and Oscar hanging furtively around just outside the Woodbury wall, while behind it Andrea lurked unseen. The stakes have been made clear. Andrea doesn’t (yet) know that Merle has found the remnants of her former group, while they don’t know that she – and Merle – are within the walls. Merle doesn’t know – yet – that his beloved little brother is about to break into his stronghold. And I’m betting, that with the mid-season break after next week, we’re going to see a bit of a confrontation between the two groups’ diametrically opposed leaders.

Will Rick and the Governor annihilate each other by existing in the same space? Where will the loyalties lie of all the former allies and relatives, now on opposite sides? Like all the best zombie movies, The Walking Dead this year has come up with a group of human antangonists as the true villains, since the Walkers themselves can have no motivation and exist as a basic hazard of the post-apocalyptic world. Last year, for a human villain, we only had Shane – yes, a powerhouse performance from Jon Bernthal, but characteristic of the soap opera approach the show took that year as Shane was motivated by jealousy, obsession and lust. This year, the Governor and the Woodbury group are arguably nastier, with their greed, lust for power and honest-to-goodness insanity.

With what it seems we are now obliged to call the “mid-season finale” next week, the pieces are in place for a high stakes cliffhanger ending. The tension ratcheted up by Bear McCreary’s pulsating, pounding score (incidental music is a rarity in this show) has wound up the suspense to fever pitch. Since we know a lot of the stakes already, there’s likely to be less of an unexpected shock than last year’s mid season stunner of the undead Sophia’s reappearance – unless the showrunners have something to pull out of the hat in addition to the drama we already know about. Whichever, it looks like we’re in for quite a ride next week.

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Misfits: Series 4, Episode 5

“I never in my wildest nightmares imagined I’d be repeatedly asking this, but – did you shag my mum?”

A more sombre episode of Misfits this week, though not for the reasons you might expect. With the last original character having fairly dramatically died last week, you’d think there’d be some fallout; but this was pretty thin on the ground. Instead, Howard Overman concentrated on Finn, who’d recently discovered that the man he thought of his father actually wasn’t, and his quest to find his real dad. In the process, it delivered an emotionally charged and affecting piece of drama only tangentially related to the show’s fantasy element, which ironically I found far more affecting than last week. 

There was still plenty of comedy along the way, as Finn made the uncomfortable discovery that his mum had had the nickname “Anal Mary” due to her unconventional sexual preferences, while Rudy, as ever, stood ready with a constant stream of innuendo and greed: “so, does your new dad have a car?” 

But really, the focus of this episode was fundamentally tragic. Working from an old photo of people his mum might have shagged at a party where he was allegedly conceived, Finn eventually narrowed the list down to one – Dan, played with some power by genre stalwart Francis Magee (Yoren out of Game of Thrones and Paul’s therapist in The Fades). What prevented it from being a happy reunion (for Finn really is the unluckiest guy in the show) wasn’t a plot point based in the show’s style of fantasy but something far more real and dramatic. Dan was in the last stages of dying from incurable cancer. 

I’ll admit at this point that this makes it hard for me to judge the drama objectively. My stepfather died an unpleasant lingering death from cancer some years ago, which was one of the most traumatic events in my life, so this really hit home for me. Francis Magee’s gaunt, haggard features lend themselves well to such a situation, but it was the acting that really sold it; I can testify to how uncomfortably accurate that was. 

It wasn’t all bad luck, though, as Finn also got to meet his half-sister Grace, who was dedicated to the care of their dying father. Which is where the show’s fantasy aspect did get to play a small part. Grace (a sweet performance from Charlie Murphy) had a power; it was none too certainly defined, but whatever it was, she was using it to keep her father from dying. But it wasn’t curing him – just keeping him alive in an ever-increasing level of pain. He wanted to die, but Grace couldn’t see that, so he tasked Finn with taking her out for the evening and trying to convince her. 

It was a pretty eventful night out, twisted up with the ongoing mystery involving Jess’ object of desire, the oddly reluctant Alex “from the bar”. This is now the only continuing plot thread, and it remains to be seen what Alex’s deal is. For now, though, the jealous Finn was trailing him, with an intrigued Grace in tow, to try and prove to Jess that he really was gay. 

Their search led them to an underground car park, where Finn used his cellphone to film Alex giving another attractive young man a wad of cash. Typically, he believed it was payment for sex, but Misfits is seldom so obvious; whatever Finn believes, plainly something weirder is going on. In the event, he was forced to use his power to distract Alex from discovering him, letting Grace in on the fact that he had a power too (albeit a really crap one that extended to barely moving an empty lager can). 

Grace then had to watch her newly-discovered half-brother making a dick of himself trying to convince the object of his desire that her lust object was really only after other guys (which didn’t work). Not only did that scupper Finn’s attempt to discuss their dad’s situation, it was then compounded by Rudy’s unwelcome appearance (“I’m genetically programmed to fuck sisters”). And just when it couldn’t seem to get any more awkward, Finn looked round to see his sister attached at the mouth to a burly gorilla of a man who didn’t take kindly to his intervention (“can I ask what your intentions are towards my sister?”). 

Nathan McMullen as Finn is very much growing on me as the show gives him more depth as a character. He’s actually rather sweet and unassertive; not quite the painful introvert Simon used to be, but something similar. This episode showed a progression of him having to learn to stand up for himself, though – first in the inevitable bar fight he provoked, then against Grace herself as she headed home and didn’t take kindly to his attempts to stop her prolonging Dan’s pain even more. 

I think, for me, that scene was the most painful to watch, as Grace tearfully realised that her efforts were motivated not so much by love as selfishness; she couldn’t bear to let her dad go no matter how much pain she was causing him. It was an affecting scene, with tearjerking performances all round, as Dan gathered both his children to him and quietly, finally slipped away. 

As I say, my own experiences perhaps make it hard to judge whether that would be as powerful for anyone who hasn’t been through it. But it certainly felt more emotionally affecting, the death of this character we’d only just met, than last week’s death of Curtis, the last original character the show had left. 

Indeed, considering that should have been a fairly seismic dramatic event, it got notably little reference this week. On reflection, though, why would it? Of all the characters currently in the show, only Rudy had known Curtis for more than a couple of weeks. Hence, it was he who was summoned to hardass probation worker Greg’s office for some frankly terrifying ‘grief counselling’ – “I’m going to skullfuck your living brain… so, have you been feeling isolation and despair?” 

It was a blackly funny scene, well-played as usual by Shaun Dooley and Joe Gilgun. But again, I felt that the exit of the show’s last original character maybe deserved something more as an epitaph. It’s symptomatic of a major problem I’m having with the show this year – the current gang of lead characters don’t seem to have much in the way of emotional bonding as the original gang did. Yes, there’s the will they-won’t they tension between Finn and Jess, and the growing, uneasy friendship between Finn and Rudy. But as a group, they just don’t cohere the way the original five, with their shared experience of the storm and its aftermath, did. 

Perhaps they will, by the end of this series. But to make yet another parallel with the similar events in Being Human recently, even before the new characters there had bonded as a group, I’d found myself liking them individually. I can’t say the same is happening here. I don’t (yet) really care about Finn or Jess; and Rudy, while he’s a lot of fun, rarely drives the drama. 

It might help to have some new blood; the show’s original lineup of ‘heroes’ was five, and we’re down to three now. A logical step would be to have Grace return as a regular. We still don’t know exactly what her life-prolonging power is, or how it works; but notably, it hasn’t been removed or neutralised in the way the show’s usual plot concludes. Perhaps it has something to do with just why she was suddenly so keen on snogging that guy at the bar? 

And perhaps Alex too is being groomed as a new regular. Jess’ attempt to search his flat for stereotypical indications of homosexuality (co-ordinated clothes etc) was amusing but answered with what looked like a genuinely passionate kiss. Nevertheless, there’s something weird going on with Alex’s sexuality (as witnessed in the “Next Time on…”), and I’m betting it’s to do with a power. But will he be misusing it, or is it something that the gang will find useful? 

So, there are a few hopeful plot threads going on, and this episode’s central plot was an example of how good the show can be as drama, whether fantasy-based or not. Finn’s newfound self-confidence and growing depth are making him more likeable, and perhaps the ‘relationship’ with Alex will do the same for Jess. Next week certainly looks interesting, with a giant rabbit, numbers on our heroes’ foreheads, and Alex’s urgent demands to see another man’s cock. But so far, regardless of the strength of this episode, it still feels like the show as a whole is floundering somewhat. Given how much I’ve always enjoyed it, I hope Howard Overman can change that by the end of the run.

Wizards Vs Aliens: Drama vs brightly coloured goo

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Being at something of a loose end this weekend, I decided to finally get round to watching Russell T Davies and Phil Ford’s much-heralded kids fantasy series, Wizards Vs Aliens, 8 episodes of which have been backed up on my Tivo since I finally got a job. This gave me a chance to evaluate the development of this replacement for the sadly missed Sarah Jane Adventures. And I must say, based on what I’ve seen so far, it can’t hold a mystical candle to its predecessor.

It takes the same format as SJA, with each story comprised of two twenty five minute episodes on consecutive days, forming, basically, a fifty minute story each week. But SJA often tackled sophisticated, complex emotional issues with well-written drama that didn’t talk down to its juvenile audience. While basically a fantasy show, it dealt with emotive subjects like ageing, Alzheimer’s disease, divorce, absent parents, and growing up.

Wizards Vs Aliens, by contrast, is a much more childish romp, that replaces drama with running around and chucking brightly coloured goo on its protagonists. Yes, SJA did that as well, with the regular trope of Clyde being spattered with goo from whatever exploding life form the heroes had to deal with that week. But it seems more noticeable here, because Wizards Vs Aliens has so little drama elsewhere to counterbalance it.

The high concept premise, embodied in its very title like Snakes on a Plane, actually has a lot of promise with children’s insatiable desire for Doctor Who-like sci fi and Harry Potter-like fantasy. Why not, as Russell T Davies seems to have reasoned, bring both those things together in one for a winning formula? So we have a tale of a boy wizard and his magical family and unmagical but scientific friend combatting a race of aliens whose purpose is to literally eat magic. These aliens, the Nekross, look like the standard RTD creatures from any average Who episode, all brightly coloured armour and blobby face appendages that make no evolutionary sense:

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So far, so good, but there are a few problems inherent even there. The alien Nekross, we’re told, have come to Earth because they have managed to eat all the other magic in the universe. Got that? Not ‘this quadrant’ or ‘this galaxy’. The whole universe. This is a common problem in a lot of sci fi writing, the one of not grasping scale. It’s all very well to say that its intended audience of children won’t care, but IMHO that’s a cheap excuse for lazy writing. I know the ten year old me would have been saying, “The whole universe? But there’s only one ship, and only about six aliens on it. Where did they find the time?”

Yes, that’s nitpicking, but it didn’t help that, at least initially, the hero was pretty hard to like. Boy wizard Tom Clarke, on whom the aliens eventually focus, actually seems like a bit of a dick. He’s the sporty kind of kid, with the currently de rigeur gym toned, over muscled body that makes it look like he has two sets of shoulders, one on top of the other (does every teenager spend hours in the gym these days?).

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Nothing wrong with that per se, but we first encounter him using magic to cheat at football, then to do his homework for him. Harry Potter may have done many dodgy things, but as a hero, I’m pretty sure cheating wasn’t one of them. I guessed at this point that part of the show’s ongoing plot would be to show him getting nicer, but it’s hard to sympathise with someone whose morality seems so dubious from the start.

Anyway, Tom is accompanied by his non-magical dad and his very magical grandmother Ursula (Annette Badland, who’s the best thing in the show by miles). Their suburban house has a magical cave in it, staffed by a very Dobby-like goblin called Randall Moon, who (just like Dobby) constantly refers to himself in the third person.

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Their peaceful existence of school cheating and varyingly convincing CGI spells is disrupted by the arrival of the Nekross, and in the process, sporty arrogant popular Tom forms an unlikely friendship with the school geek, Benny. Benny forms the scientific perspective on the show, which makes a running theme of the conflict between science and magic. Also, as the show progresses, his friendship with Tom starts to seem more and more homoerotic, particularly when Tom is ditching the pretty girl from school to spend time with his bespectacled sensitive friend, who gets awfully jealous when he forms attachments to other boys.

With many of the SJA writers involved, this is, not unexpectedly, still chock full of classic sci fi references. The first story, by Phil Ford, gave us a cameo from the late Lis Sladen’s husband Brian Miller, who appeared in 1983 Who story Snakedance, and established the ongoing character of the Nekross King, a grossly flabby creature embedded in the wall of the alien ship. Not only does it resemble Boss Nass from The Phantom Menace, it’s voiced, like him, by genre stalwart Brian Blessed, giving one of his less restrained performances.

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That first story, Dawn of the Nekross, set up the premise efficiently enough, but was written with such a childish tone that it was hard to gauge its intended audience. Yes, the main characters were teenagers, as in SJA, but the tone of the drama, which was more than a little overbalanced by comedy, seemed aimed more at eight year olds. The broad performance of Scott Haran as Tom didn’t help; he has improved, but perhaps because the writing gives his character little subtlety or perhaps because the director assumes children are idiots, he tends to substitute excessive gurning for actual acting.

Things didn’t improve much with the second story, The Grazlax Attacks (again by Ford), which was so obviously a cut-price rerun of Gremlins as to be blatantly plagiaristic sometimes. Yes, Gremlins was ripped off plenty in the 80s, when it was current, by the likes of Ghoulies and Critters; perhaps Ford was hoping that today’s kids don’t remember any of that. Or don’t care. Which again, feels rather lazy. Even the creatures themselves (which reproduce when hot, and then make a beeline for Benny’s house’s boiler room), are like an amalgam of every one of those Gremlins ripoffs:

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And of course, when killed (by, as it turns out, high pitched sounds such as Benny’s ineptly played violin), they explode. And cover our heroes in brightly coloured goo.

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I’m not quite sure where this assumption came from, that covering your heroes in goo is the perfect ‘humorous’ climax to a children’s fantasy story. Perhaps writers saw the popularity of ‘gunge’ on Saturday morning magazine shows and thought that was what children automatically found hysterically funny. But this is fantasy based drama, not Tiswas. Yes, it can – and arguably should – offset its thrills and scares with humour. But I don’t recall children’s fantasy classics like Children of the Stones, or The Changes falling back on slime in place of wit or sarcasm.

Still, the next story, Rebel Magic, was a massive improvement on the two written by the guy who actually co-created the show. Written by Joe Lidster, the man responsible for some of my favourite SJA and Torchwood stories, it saw Tom’s friendship with Benny tested when he met a new, powerful teenage wizard, the self-consciously ‘cool’ Jackson Hawke:

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Of course, Jackson wasn’t as ‘cool’ as he seemed (though giving him such a cool-sounding name probably didn’t help his rampant egotism). It turned out that his power, which even the magic-eating Nekross couldn’t resist, was the forbidden ‘Grim Magic’ which ultimately consumes its eager user even while making him constantly want more.

Yes, a fairly obvious analogue to drug abuse (especially from the writer whose Big Finish audio story The Rapture seemed almost a paean to the joys of clubbing on Ecstasy). But it was light years ahead of the comic goo-spattering and running around in the previous two stories. Guest star Andy Rush made a believably cool-yet-tormented ‘villain’, who ultimately came good and realised the error of his ways (even if he looked more than a mite too old to play a teenager). And the story also dealt nicely with the social pressures of teenagers; the need to fit in vs the desire to stay faithful to your real friends. Kudos once more to Joe Lidster for reviving my interest in a series that, by this point, I had been prepared to give up on.

It was followed up nicely with another more-sophisticated-than-it-appeared romp by former Doctor Who Magazine editor Clayton Hickman, Friend or Foe. It was once again broadly comic in tone, but this time the comedy felt like wit rather than custard pie throwing. Forced into an alliance after each had one of their own kidnapped by sneering billionaire Stephanie Gaunt, the wizards and the aliens kept describing their shaky cooperation as “a Coalition”, and declaiming things about the worthlessness of such an arrangement. A nice gag for the parents that wouldn’t alienate the kids – might even amuse some of the more astute ones.

Clay’s script was also, amusingly, rife with lines nicked… sorry, ‘homaged’ almost verbatim from Blake’s 7, a fun departure from all the Doctor Who references. Stephanie Gaunt, as played at a volume of 11 by Ruth Henshall, was basically a Servalan analogue, so it was fun when she (or at least an alien disguised as her) declared, “Ipswich! MAXIMUM POWER!”

And that’s as far as I’ve got. I must say, Wizards Vs Aliens seems pitched at a far younger child audience than the frequently mature Sarah Jane Adventures, which never talked down to the youngsters watching it. Phil Ford’s stories really did feel like they were aimed at very young children (which must be a conscious decision, as his previous work was often very sophisticated). But as ever, Joe Lidster produced something thoughtful and thrilling as well as comic, while Clay Hickman’s almost camp adventure romp still had plenty of character development for both wizards and aliens.

It seems to have got off to a much shakier start than SJA, but it’s improved as it’s gone on. With a story by the usually marvellous Gareth Roberts up next, I’m hoping that trend will continue. Nonetheless, I still have a nostalgic hankering for when kids’ fantasy drama took itself a mite more seriously than even SJA did, and wish we could have something more along the lines of those mentioned above, or even 90s classics like Dark Season or Century Falls, created by that very same Russell T Davies. You know, when thrills didn’t have to be offset by relentless and annoying slapstick involving brightly coloured goo.

The Walking Dead: Season 3, Episode 6–Hounded

“It’s not enough. It’s not safe enough.”

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Another sterling mix of action, gore and character drama this week from The Walking Dead, a show that’s rapidly becoming the best thing on TV all week. This week saw the much-anticipated head to head of Michonne and Merle, Rick coming out of his bottomless pit of despair, Andrea and the Governor getting jiggy – and the two narratives finally starting to entwine in what’s presumably going to end in a violent confrontation. Round about… oh, the mid-season break, I reckon.

At the prison, there was much contemplation and soul-searching in the aftermath of the traumatic events of two weeks ago, even while the gang continued to search the prison for errant Walkers. Daryl’s attempt to make Carl feel better with the heartwarming tale of how his own mother had burned herself to death in bed with a cigarette while drunk was curiously affecting. It’s not a story I’d relate to cheer up someone recently bereaved, but it gave the two a bond they’d never really had, Daryl acting as almost a surrogate father in the near-catatonic Rick’s absence.

Rick, of course, was busy having conversations on the mysteriously functional phone, which had finally caused him to haltingly recover the power of speech. Readers of the comic will not have been surprised at the ultimate revelation of the cathartic caller’s identity, but the show has wrongfooted the expectations of comics readers enough times for it still to have been a point of suspense. For a while, I even started to wonder whether somehow the call was coming from Woodbury; particularly when Hershel, listening doubtfully to the receiver, failed to point out that there was no dial tone.

But no, just as in the comic, the voice on the line was really a voice in Rick’s head – unsurprisingly, the voice of his wife. Thankfully, the episode didn’t play with this plot as much as the comics did, leading to an emotional, but relatively quickly resolved catharsis for our hero. If anyone has the right to snap under the strain, it’s Rick; not only has he had to take responsibility for the entire group, he’s now got to deal with is own failure to even save his own wife. Andrew Lincoln again demonstrated a powerful performance as Rick went from anger to frustration to finally acceptance, as the voice of Sarah Wayne Callies helped him begin to come to terms with his loss. Mind you, Glenn could have thought of reminding him about his kids last week, that might have sorted it more quickly.

Daryl too had a catharsis of sorts, but his had a happier ending, as the previously-assumed-dead Carol turned up bloodied and exhausted in a cell blocked shut by a dead Walker. Their relationship has been building in a nice slow burn since last year, and it felt entirely appropriate for him to pick her up and carry her away in his arms; if a little cheesy. I must say, though, given that it’s only been a couple of days, she’d have every right to be annoyed that the others gave up on her and planted a headstone without doing much in the way of actual searching…

Having learnt the lessons of last year’s tranquil tedium, even this soul-searching drama was interspersed with moments of zombie gore. But the real action this week was over in Woodbury, still seething with dark secrets, betrayal and torrid passion like a Harold Robbins novel. Unsurprisingly, the show opened with the ever-gleeful Merle out on the hunt for Michonne – well, really, did you actually believe the Governor was just going to let her go?

It didn’t take long to find her either, as she was hunting them as much as they were hunting her. Cue a rather excellently choreographed fight, as Michonne easily dispatched two of Merle’s henchmen with that nifty katana. I think this is the first time we’ve seen that she has no compunction in offing the living as well as the dead if they’re a threat; and of course it led to her going one on one with Merle. I was actually rather glad that that was prevented from going the distance by a sudden influx of Walkers, as neither is a character I want to say goodbye to just yet. And in this show, it doesn’t matter how important a character you are, your safety is never assured.

As indeed Merle’s other henchman was quick to learn – or might have, if he’d survived. A nice little one-shot character, ‘Neil’, the young guy with the unpronounceable name (it’s Gargulio, apparently) developed believably from inexperienced terror to adrenaline-fuelled fervour within about twenty minutes. Unfortunately for him, he hadn’t reckoned on Merle’s desire for self-preservation, so his obsession with tracking Michonne to the bitter end was met with a bullet to the brain. It was a shocking moment that served as a timely reminder of just how nasty Merle is; but I rather liked Dave Davis in the part, and it’s a shame we won’t be seeing more of him.

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Andrea continued to be irritating, but at least showed signs of a bit more complexity, as she admitted that, despite her distaste, she’d enjoyed the bread and circuses last week. She’s obviously missing zombie-stomping, as given a trial assignment guarding the Woodbury wall, she was vaulting straight over it to take down a Walker hand to hand. She’s obviously learned a lot from Michonne – not least a genuine thrill in taking down the dead. In her conflict between enjoying the violence while hating herself for it, she’s yet another embodiment of the conflict between the old world’s values of morality and civilisation, and the post-apocalypse realities of pragmatism and survival (themes the show repeatedly returns to).

It still didn’t stop me groaning with annoyance as she inevitably fell into the bedsheets of that old smoothy the Governor. Still, it’s a good indication of how much more subtle the character is than his comic counterpart that that was actually fairly believable. David Morrissey continues to play him as a wily, restrained politician with an undercurrent of mania; witness his just-contained fury as Merle, lying about Michonne’s ‘death’ admitted to failing at bringing back her head for his fish tank collection.

He brought back something else though – the beginning of the season’s two narratives meeting up, earlier than I’d expected. As both he and Michonne searched for cars/bandages in a nearby town, who should turn up but Glenn and Maggie, on the hunt for baby formula. It was a clever diversion from director Dan Attias that, just as we were waiting for the hidden Michonne to call out to them, it was Merle’s voice that rang out in the stillness, much to Glenn’s surprise.

Glenn’s less of a trusting idiot than Andrea, so he wasn’t ready for a moment to take the more psychotic Dixon back to the prison for a joyful reunion with his brother. Unfortunately he’s still no match for Merle, who was holding a gun to his girlfriend’s head in a flash and demanding they all drive back to Woodbury. Merle’s promised the Governor he’ll find out from his unwilling guests where the seemingly nice setup is that Rick and the gang have found. I’m pretty sure that won’t be pleasant, an interrogation under Merle’s tender mercies. I wonder if Glenn’s going to be the next one to die in the show’s ruthless cull of its characters?

Michonne, meanwhile, obviously overheard enough from Glenn and Maggie about a prison to figure out exactly where to go. Covered in zombie guts from the earlier fight, she was able to approach the Walker-surrounded prison fence with impunity, a basket of baby formula held out like a peace offering. But will the recovering Rick find it easy to trust her?

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With Glenn and Maggie over in Woodbury, and Michonne at the prison, it’s not going to take long for each group to start learning the nitty gritty about each other. Will Rick, who seems less keen now on the corpse-littered, blood-spattered prison where his wife died, be tempted by the sinister idylls of Woodbury? And what will the Governor (aka the Anti-Rick) do when he finds out that there’s basically a fortress going begging, and all he has to do to take it is deal with a motley group that’s low on ammo?

As I said, I’m betting that this is all going to come to a head in time for the mid-season break, which looks to be at the halfway point of episode 8. In the mean time, the show is not letting up on the quality; this week had plenty of plot meat along with actual meat from hacked up zombies, while still remembering to delve into the characters whose depth makes the show so watchable.

Misfits: Series 4, Episode 4

“Don’t do this. This isn’t who you are.”

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Some surprisingly early answers and a shock development in this week’s episode of Misfits, which turned out to be rather underwhelming given what it set out to achieve. The answers concerned mysterious ‘trainee probation worker’ Lola, a plot thread that I’d assumed was being set up to run rather longer than a couple of episodes. And the shock was the departure of the only remaining member of the original cast – a moment that should (IMHO) have been far more dramatic and emotionally affecting than it actually was.

My previous fevered speculation pertaining to the mysterious Lola turns out to have been both right and wrong. Turns out I was right that she was a false identity, but wrong in my assumption that she’d inherited Curtis’ old gender-swap power and was the alter ego of the tyrannical Greg. Actually I still think that might have been more interesting than what we got here. ‘Lola’ was actually a fictional character created by an aspiring actress, whose encounter with the storm gave her the ‘power’ to remain in character – permanently. Which was a bit of a problem, given that her character was a femme fatale who uses and manipulates men into killing each other, in revenge for previous misogynistic ill-treatment.

To give it some due, Jonathan van Tulleken’s direction pointed us at this in a fairly stylish way, presenting Lola in several scenes initially in monochrome and widescreen, recalling the films noir that presumably inspired her. And the fact that this (and the character herself) was actually something of a cliché was cleverly justified by the fact that she was a construct of a less than imaginative actress.

Given the opportunity to embody such a full-blooded archetype, the actual actress who played her, Lucy Gaskell, gave a broad but spirited performance a la Double Indemnity and other such classic thrillers. As her last male ‘victim’ caught up with her, she quickly established her MO of pretending to have been beaten up by an obsessed ex and setting her current beau onto him to ‘defend’ her.

Nothing wrong with that, really; though Howard Overman has deconstructed similar clichés rather more cleverly than this in the past. But the real point of the story was to give an exit to Curtis, and in that it felt messy, contrived, and dramatically rather unsatisfying for such an important occurrence.

So Curtis found himself manipulated into confronting Lola’s previous ex/victim Jake with a gun the lady had thoughtfully provided, leading inevitably to a struggle and a fatal shooting. Andrew Gower, recently memorable as vampire Cutler in Being Human, felt rather wasted here in the small (even if significant) part of Jake; he was as charismatic as ever, but got little to do before being accidentally offed by Curtis – and then not-so-accidentally brought back from the dead.

Yes, as remarked on last week, Curtis still has the resurrection power Seth gave him last year to bring back his deceased girlfriend. That didn’t end well, with an outbreak of ravenous Romero-style zombie cheerleaders having to be head-smashed by the gang before they spread their infection outside the Community Centre. So it seemed rather foolhardy that Curtis, desperate for answers about the now nowhere to be found Lola, chose to ask the only other person he could – her now-dead (at his hands) ‘ex’.

Well, the gang have been foolhardy before, Curtis as much as any, so that’s not out of character. And it was typical that their planned clubbing of the resurrected Jake when he started to turn ‘hungry’ went so messily wrong, and Curtis got himself bitten and therefore infected. Trouble was, the previous zombie episode had established that there was no cure for that. In the past, it would have been down to Curtis’ old time-rewinding power to change the events, but this time that power wasn’t handy. Leaving us with two possibilities – either Curtis was going to have to spend the rest of the series desperately concealing his invincibility and tendency to snack on small animals; or he’d have to die.

That the latter of these two options was the more likely became clear fairly quickly – I’m not sure whether it was the writing, or the general sense of instability in a show that’s lost all but one of its original cast. The progression had already been uncannily similar to that of Being Human – major character (or two, in this case) killed at the end of the previous series, with another disappearing for contrived reasons before the show returned. After George the werewolf came back only to die in the first episode, and Annie spent the whole series laying the groundwork for her departure, this felt so similar that I was only surprised Curtis had hung on so long.

Nathan Stewart-Jarrett has always given a respectable performance in the role, but in many ways Curtis has been pretty ill-served by the writers after the first series. There, he was given a backstory and issues to resolve; but they were resolved by episode 4 of that series, and from then on Curtis seemed to very much take a back seat to the more involved, emotional Simon/Alisha arc. He’s had a couple of interesting things to do recently, such as his gender-swap power giving him an insight into how the other sex lives, but mostly he’s been relegated to the sidelines making sarcastic remarks.

I’d hoped the Lola storyline might finally give him a purpose this year, but it turns out the purpose was just to write him out. I’ve no idea whether that was the decision of writer or actor, but his ultimate death, inevitable though it had been made, felt like a bit of a cheat for such a longstanding character. Having been shot by Lola’s latest dupe (with little effect in his zombie state), he gave up on helping Lola and gave in to the urge to chow down on her, then blow her brains out when she too revived as a zombie. That left him with only one thing to do – use the gun on himself to spare humanity from (another) zombie outbreak.

Fair enough, that’s actually rather heroic. But the circumstances – Curtis alone in an abandoned warehouse shooting himself in the head – felt a bit too bleak for this show. Especially with none of the other characters around to witness it – the best he could manage was a quick chat to a choked-up Rudy over cellphone. True, we haven’t yet got to know Finn or Jess enough for them to have any sort of bond with Curtis, so Rudy it had to be. But even then, exchanging last words over the phone lacked the kind of impact the scene perhaps should have had.

Still, at last there were a fair few laughs on the way to such a bleak ending. The lion’s share, as usual, came from Rudy, with a subplot about him having sex in the room he shares with Finn leading him to try and find somewhere new. ‘Somewhere new’ turned out to be an even seedier storeroom in the Community Centre, leading to an unfortunate slug infestation (“Can you help me shit out this slug?”). As ever, normality was restored by Rudy learning his lesson – in this case, don’t keep shagging people while your less than keen best mate is in the room with you.

For Finn does seem to be being shaped into a kind of ‘best mate’ scenario with Rudy, who’s (ineffectually) trying to help him get together with Jess. This week’s effort, with Finn ‘borrowing’ the imaginary disabled dog Rudy used a chat up technique, was amusing enough; but I have to say, I haven’t built up enough affection for either Finn or Jess yet to really care very much.

Even with a bleak ending in wait, Curtis too got some good comedy moments, most notably with Greg. Shaun Dooley continues to be hilarious/terrifying in the part, and you never know quite what’s real about him. This week, he initially asked Curtis whether he was on crack, making you wonder if he was some kind of racist, before (apparently) responding in a most unexpected way to Curtis’ desperate pretension of being attracted to him: “You’re a very attractive young man, but…” So is Greg gay, or is this yet more bizarre obfuscation? It remains to be seen, but he’s certainly the most interesting addition to the new cast.

Farewell, then to Curtis, finally given a strong plot just to write him out in a scene that should have been, and wasn’t, a tear-jerker. I’ve always felt this show to be rather like Being Human, another sleeper hit that began at the same time on another backwater digital channel. Perhaps Howard Overman’s of the same mind, casting both Andrew Gower and Lucy Gaskell from that show here. But while Being Human managed its difficult cast makeover with some aplomb, I have the feeling that Misfits is rather struggling with its ‘reboot’. I’ll carry on watching (as ever), but I’m beginning to wonder if the show is joining the ranks of those who carried on long after their stories had reached a natural end.

The Walking Dead: Season 3, Episode 5–Say the Word

“People with nothing to hide don’t usually feel the need to tell you that.”

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After weeks of seemingly escalating action, it was a welcome change of pace in this week’s Walking Dead. Yes, the episode dealt with the aftermath of last week’s frenzied, traumatic developments; but this week the focus was more squarely on the seemingly idyllic community of Woodbury, as more of its Dark Secrets were revealed.

Andrea of Woodbury

As early as the pre-credit sequence, we saw who it was that the Governor had tipped his drink towards in his inner sanctum a couple of weeks ago – his beloved daughter. But she’s not the smiling, pretty little girl from the photo in his office any more – she’s a grey, rotting Walker, her hair coming out in clumps as her father tries to tenderly brush it.

As I’ve commented in various other reviews, you can’t go wrong with a creepy little girl in horror. From the ghostly twins in The Shining, through the wraithlike apparition in Ringu, they’re a staple, and a very spooky tradition. Penny, the Governor’s daughter, specifically recalls little Karen Cooper, the zombie girl from the original Night of the Living Dead who so brutally killed her mother with a trowel. But the Governor’s not quite so helpless as Mrs Cooper; he’s obviously been looking after what remains of his daughter for quite a while, and has a pillowcase handy to cover her head when she gets… bitey.

Michonne was not so subtly investigating the Too-Good-To-Be True community again this week, with a bullheaded approach that seemed less than sensible. She seemed to be sailing close to the wind last week with her barefaced challenge to the Governor over his account of what had happened to the too-trusting National Guardsmen; this week she was blatantly breaking into his house, reading his diary, and slaughtering his captive Walkers in a nice bit of gory katana-based action.

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It’s been said by some that Michonne hasn’t exactly translated well from the more obviously fantastical comic series to a TV show that strains to be grounded in realistic characters. Certainly her surly terseness and superhero-like ability with a sword seem more suited to something like Smallville. And yet, I’m enjoying Danai Gurira’s portrayal, which hints at untold events that turned Michonne from a normal person to this brooding post-apocalypse warrior. There’s plenty to be revealed about her yet, I think.

Still, her bull-in-a-china-shop approach to investigating seems quite unwise, even given her confidence in her ability to handle herself. Woodbury is firmly under the Governor’s spell, and challenging him against that kind of devotion from that many people would surely merit a more cautious, secretive investigation. Michonne, instead, allows herself to be nearly caught in the Governor’s house, then actually caught having a slash-fest with a bunch of Walkers whose purpose she can’t have been aware of.

It’s a credit to the show’s more subtle version of the Governor that, on discovering all this, he didn’t go straight to the violent extremes of his comic counterpart. Instead, he tried a more subtle approach, cajoling Michonne and trying to recruit her to his cause, even going so far as to apparently ‘allow’ her and Andrea to leave the town. It’s another nuanced portrayal from the talented David Morrissey; we believe the Governor is a genuinely dangerous, scheming politician utterly without scruple, but seductive with it (despite, behind the scenes, plainly being an absolute loon).

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Andrea’s certainly seduced, to the extent that she’s unwilling to even entertain Michonne’s (as it happens, accurate) suspicions. I must confess, since her self-obsessed death wish for much of season two, I’ve found Andrea a hard character to like, despite a perfectly good performance from Laurie Holden. Here, she compounded unlikeability with sheer stupidity in her unthinking trust not just of a gang of strangers, but a man she would have every reason to be suspicious of – the ever-charming Merle Dixon.

Still, at least Merle was consistent, with more memorable scenery-chewing from Michael Rooker this week. You genuinely didn’t know which way he’d jump when opening the gates for Michonne and Andrea to leave, but you were on safer ground when he started having fun with the undead. It came as no surprise that, when the show realised the comic’s concept of the Woodbury zombie-based gladiatorial streetfights, it was Merle who was straight into the ‘ring’ as reigning champion.

In the comic, it was the revelation of the ‘bread and circuses’ zombie fights which was the ultimate Secret of Woodbury; here, with that revealed in the fifth episode, I’m wondering if there’s more. Certainly Dr Milton’s mysterious ‘experiments’ have still to be explained, especially with a ‘research team’ that includes a man like Merle Dixon. Together with the conversation about Walkers ‘remembering’ their former identities a couple of weeks ago, I have a feeling this is going to play into quite what the Governor’s up to with his decomposing daughter…

Porridge

Back at the prison, it was all fallout from last week’s jawdropping events. With Woodbury having the lion’s share of the action this week, there was still plenty of drama with Rick and the gang, as they struggled to deal with their losses, together with the new addition of a baby girl who needed feeding.

Prisons not normally being replete with baby formula, Daryl took charge to dash out beyond the fence and find some, accompanied by the surprisingly resilient Maggie. Rick, meanwhile, went from last week’s crying wreck into a violent, self-destructive fugue of grief, heading unheeding of protest into the bowels of the prison, with an axe, to wreak revenge on the Walkers. Any Walkers.

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Cue an orgy of head-splitting with some quite excellent gore effects, from which not even Glenn could dissuade his enraged leader. The whole sequence was obviously inspired by a similarly self-destructive orgy of Walker-killing from the original comic, in that case carried out by another grief-stricken character who didn’t make it into the TV adaptation. As was the cliffhanger, which saw the tearful Rick startled by a ringing from a dusty phone, and reaching out to answer it. In fact, given the show’s usual approach of deliberately subverting comic readers’ expectations, this week was surprisingly faithful in its straight(ish) adaptations of the original’s set pieces and concepts.

Even with comparably little airtime, the gang at the prison still found moments to (often affectingly) reflect on the trauma of recent events. Trying to choose a name for his new baby sister, Carl came up with a litany of all the names of the female characters who’ve died since the show began, ending (inevitably) with ‘Lori’. Glenn emotionally explained to Axel and Oscar that the group were more than just his friends; after everything they’d been through together, they were family. Suitably awed, the former convicts helped him to dig the necessary graves – looks like they’ve been accepted into the group now.

Still, Glenn might be being overly fatalistic with those graves, unless I’ve somehow missed something. Given Daryl’s melancholy emplacement of a Cherokee Rose on one of them, it’s presumably Carol’s; and yet, I don’t recall her fate being shown. Did the gang just put up a cross, with nothing to bury?

This was a more thoughtful Walking Dead than we’ve been used to of late, in keeping with the trauma of last week. There’s no way the show could keep up that level of adrenaline-pumping action for the whole of its sixteen episode run, and fun though it’s been, I wouldn’t want to see it exchange spectacle for drama. But even here, the showrunners appear mindful of last year’s criticisms, not stinting on zombie appearances. Even in the seemingly peaceful prison yard, there were corpses all over the floor and Walkers shambling around outside the fence. In contrast to last year’s largely zombie-free farm, this year we have a setting that demonstrates, however calm it may seem, that this is still very much a show about a zombie apocalypse.

Misfits: Series 4, Episode 3

“There’s three of me. The two you’ve met already – and me.”

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Well, that was… different. About as different, in fact, from the Standard Misfits Plot™ as it’s possible to get. No new one-shot character misusing a power the consequences of which the gang have to deal with this time; instead, we got an intriguing exploration of a power we already knew about, with numerous subplots moving other characters around like chess pieces. But to what ultimate end?

You can usually sum up a Misfits episode in one handy phrase – “the one with the Nazis”, the one with the zombie cheerleaders”, etc. If you had to find one for this episode, I suppose it would be “the one with the three Rudys”, for that was the biggest plot point of the week. But it also dovetailed neatly into (finally) exploring some of new girl Jess’ background, and making her more than a snarkily defensive enigma.

The idea that Rudy could be more than just two people was well done, and not contradictory to anything we’ve previously learned. At no point did he ever tell us that his power split him into just two Rudys, so it was a perfectly logical progression that there might be yet another. So we have boorish Rudy, sensitive Rudy, and now another – psychopath Rudy. And he’s insane.

It’s actually a shame that last week’s “next time on…” gave this away, as otherwise it would have been far more baffling to have been suddenly presented with Rudy being released from prison. The three Curly Wurly bars (his only possessions apart from his ukelele) placed atop each other would have been a good clue (if we hadn’t known about it already), but that mystery would only have lasted until he showed up at the community centre, much to the shock of the other two Rudys – “Why have you got a ukelele? You know that reminds me of… him.” Oh dear.

It’s previously appeared that Rudy’s two ‘halves’ were component parts of his personality – one crass, boorish and driven by lust/appetite, the other sensitive, caring and more levelheaded. Two extremes, but both basically goodhearted, perhaps too much so. Which is why Psycho Rudy made sense as the third ‘half’, all the really nasty parts of Rudy’s personality boiled down to nasty extremes.

With Psycho Rudy having absorbed his nicer components to become dominant, we got to see just how versatile an actor Joe Gilgun is (though if you’ve seen him in This is England you probably already knew that). He went convincingly from being the comic relief to being broodingly intense and bizarrely actually more attractive – certainly to Jess. His sudden contempt for her “mask” and interest in her as a person rather than a sexual receptacle ultimately broke down her walls and allowed Karla Crome to actually give a proper performance.

Jess, it turns out, is a pretty damaged person. Perhaps it was Rudy’s newfound self-awareness of his own damage that prompted her to open up to him, in a Silence of the Lambs-like scene in Greg’s office, as each revealed a secret to the other each time the rehearsing wedding DJ paused playing the Macarena (only in Misfits could that be a cue). Or perhaps she just likes the bad boys.

She certainly seems to have a history of that. We now know that she had a bit of a breakdown after being ill-used by a supposedly compassionate ‘friend’ whose interest in helping her over her eating disorder only lasted as long as it took to get her into bed. Following which was an attempted suicide.

Which, it turned out, Psycho Rudy was more than happy to help her complete, as his interest in her extended to sharing his long-held fantasy of finding out how murder really felt. It was a genuinely creepy scene as he held her tight and began to throttle her at the same time; fortunately she was resourceful enough to stab him in the gut with a pair of scissors. But again like Clarice Starling, she couldn’t seem to quite give up her feelings for him, giving him one last kiss as he relented and released the other two Rudys – unharmed.

It was a pretty intense plot, but took up surprisingly little of the episode as a whole, which was equally concerned with setting up some rather soapy plots for the rest of the gang. Finn spent the episode dodging the unwanted sexual advances of his sort-of-stepmother (she never actually married his dad), only to fail at fending her mouth off his penis; leading to him being rather bizarrely labelled “stepmothersucker” by Curtis.

But if you thought that was just a it of fun, it soon turned pretty serious. Said stepmother was plainly pretty damaged herself, constantly sloshing wine while trying to seduce her ‘stepson’ before bursting into tears. Rejected by Finn, she went straight to his dad and told him everything. In many shows, that would be the light-hearted B-plot, but here it ended with Finn’s dad not only rejecting him, but also telling him that he wasn’t his father after all. For most people that would be pretty devastating, but Finn seemed to take it in stride, on top of all the other bad luck he’s had since the series began; he’s plainly being shaped as the relentlessly resigned but optimistic one.

Curtis finally got something to do this week, spending the episode flirting with ‘trainee probation worker’ Lola, who’s still pretty enigmatic but says she likes “bad boys”. Curtis was more than happy to oblige, stealing her a wedding cake from the community centre, which earned the wrath of hardass Greg. Greg is getting increasingly bizarre; at one point he cornered the baffled Finn to menacingly ask for “the magic word”, which he revealed to be “potato”.

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I’m still sticking to my theory from last week that somehow Greg has inherited Curtis’ old gender-swap power, and he and Lola are actually the same person. After all, Seth (absent this week) was still dealing powers at that point. And as a friend of mine pointed out, the name ‘Lola’ could well be a reference to the Kinks song of the same name, which contains the lyric “I’m glad I’m a man, and so is Lola”. Or is it the other way round? Could Lola be the ‘real’ person and Greg her alter ego?

It also occurred to me to wonder precisely what Curtis’ current power actually is; in an episode light on powers actually being used (except Rudy’s), there was one reference to his old time-travel power (from Rudy, who could never actually have seen it since Curtis traded it away before he joined). I actually had to rummage through my memory before coming to the answer – Curtis is presumably still ‘blessed’ with the power of raising the dead, which Seth gave him in order to resurrect his deceased girlfriend. As that resulted in an outbreak of zombie cheerleaders, it’s hard to fathom how Curtis might actually find his power useful again. But perhaps Howard Overman has some idea…

So, an episode with one interesting premise, done rather well, but lacking prominence amid soap opera chess-piece manoeuvring. Plainly, there’s some larger plan shaping up here, involving Greg and/or Lola, not to mention hunky new barman Alex, who revealed that he’s not gay, but still seemed pretty desperate not to go home with the eager Jess. This melee of plots meant that, despite an intriguing and well-played A-plot, the episode felt a bit all over the place and unfocused. Still, the hints of bigger things to come, coupled with the always-amusing dialogue, meant that it was never less than enjoyable.