Last summer’s teaser campaign for Heroes didn’t show much promise. A friend told me he never gave the series much attention as the early advertising made him think the show was all about post-9/11 US patriotism on parade. But while the first season delivered on this promise, most especially in the primary story arc, which had the cast of X-Men wannabes variously striving to save New York from a nuclear human bomb, it also came up with something else: ambiguity that was surprising and often fascinating.
Heroes’ set-up was both simple (“Save the cheerleader, save the world”) and impressively complex. The bomb was potentially one of three of main characters: Ted Sprague (Matthew John Armstrong), able to produce enormous amounts of energy through his body; earnest hero-in-training Peter Petrelli (Mile Ventimiglia), who soaks up other mutants’ abilities; or uber-villain Sylar (Zachary Quinto), similarly absorbent.
Obviously, New York threatened by some sort of rogue suicide bomber correlates with current US terrorism anxieties. In the first of the show’s accompanying online graphic novels (“Chapter 1: Monsters”; written, drawn, and inked by some of the top comic artists) that have fleshed out the series’ conundrums, Mohinder Suresh (Sendhil Ramamurthy) glosses his journey to New York to carry on his murdered father’s research into the evolution of humanity represented by the “heroes.” Like his father, he muses, he’s seeking “patient zero,” and he would be found precariously close to New York’s “ground zero.”
At the same time, Ted Sprague was marked as a kind of “terrorist zero” by the FBI and other state apparatuses. Particularly through his dilemma, Heroes complicated what might have been an easy jingoism. Despite official designations, he’s not a terrorist, and besides, the real villains are corrupt authorities and corporate power-hounds. In this respect, Heroes is more post-Enron than post-9/11, locating wickedness outside of the ambits of terrorism and within circuits of power. Heroes helpfully and hopefully addresses the status of authority and the “proper” uses of power.
Aspiring congressman Nathan Petrelli (Adrian Pasdar) made a deal with the devil, in this case the stinking rich and vaguely corporate Mr. Linderman (Malcolm McDowell) to secure his (fixed) election and probable ascension to the Presidency. The only hitch was that in order to usher in a new era of safety and democracy, Nathan would have to allow New York to be razed by an exploding nuclear man. And though Nathan made the “right” decision in the season finale (sacrificing himself and his brother Peter to save millions of New Yorkers), his story dramatized urgent political and ethical quandaries: can the ends (a bright, shiny, new future free of “terrorism”) ever justify the means (collateral damages in the millions and the evisceration of basic civil liberties)?
Such messy questions (with even messier answers) informed Heroes’ other focus, families. These were not idealized families where “We have our problems, but we all still get along” (see: Gilmore Girls or 7th Heaven). Instead, Heroes offered families of the loving and hating, totally fucked up and totally real variety.
The “Man in Horn Rimmed Glasses”/Mr. Bennett (Jack Coleman), adoptive father of cheerleader Claire (Hayden Panettiere), was pegged as an evil company man from the start of the series. By the end, however, we saw his crisis of conscience, his recognition that what he thought was “good” was not even close to that, that his actions were threatening his family. Becoming one of Heroes’ central heroes, he was, in the penultimate episode of the season, willing to kill a child (Molly, played by Adair Tishler) in order to save Claire.
A similar if opposite trajectory informed the story of the Petrelli family. Matriarch Angela (Christine Rose) started off the season as a somewhat daffy and pampered Upper East Side socialite. Yet she became increasingly bad, as details of her masterminding of Nathan’s political career and cahoots with Linderman were unveiled. Though she insisted that everything she did was for the good of her family, she favored Nathan’s “strength” over Peter’s empathy and desire to do good. Motherhood’s a bitch. Even so, and even while Peter was aware of his mother’s realpolitik and brother’s duplicity, he was repeatedly willing to return to them, desiring, even after repeated rejections, family as a space of safety and security.
Niki (Ali Larter) is another kind of mother, and her story was the season’s most consistently engaging. Her special ability is dual personalities, with Niki the nurturing super-mom, comforting and providing for her son Micah (Noah Gray-Cabey), and Jessica the castrating super-bitch, willing and able to kick all requisite ass to provide for herself. Like some sort of Freudian nightmare, Niki is all “feminine” duality (or maybe unconscious male fears about female “duality”). As she came to recognize her Jessica half, Niki’s duality expressed women’s confinement and social injunctions to femininity. Her struggle to disavow Jessica and her strength detailed how women are socialized into a specific kind of comportment; let’s call it the “good mother” effect.
That strict binarism, however, was shown through Niki’s story to be impossible. In the season finale, she was finally able to resolve the complexity of her nature. Previously the conflict between her competing desires was represented by Niki or Jessica experiencing her “opposite” in mirror reflections. In the finale, after rescuing Micah, Niki realized that Jessica was part of her, and as she looked into the mirror, she saw herself, in all her fullness and complication.
Niki is Heroes at its messiest and absolute best. What seems like some same old cliché (woman as duality and immanence) is rearticulated in unexpected ways. And this has been the surprise of Heroes more generally, its embrace of uncertainty and presumption that we can all follow along without needing the reductive structures of strictly good and bad oppositions. This is precisely what Niki represents. She’s part of no binary, she not either/or, instead she’s both Niki and Jessica, both good mother and total bitch. And a righteous babe.