There was a lot of great stuff going on in last night's episode of Alphas, "Alpha Dogs," the best-written and best-directed episode of the three we've seen so far in this young season. A lot of it had to do with it feeling like the Alphas of old, something the first two episodes struggled with by being tasked with bringing everyone back together. But really, it's all about knowing what's important and what the audience wants, and "Alpha Dogs" covered all that.
When Alphas was at its best in Season 1, the team was getting work done together, characters were developing through personal stories, season-long arcs were taking shape, and various Alphas were punching each other in the face. Check! Times four! Because of these factors, the season's essential episode-by-episode structure—Rosen and his crew were tracking down escapees from Building 7 in a case-of-the-week format—isn't actually the most compelling part of the show.
Case in point, "Alpha Dogs" saw the group hunting down the killer of Mr. Electric Hands, a Building 7 fugitive. Rachel's nose and Gary's internet brain tracked down the culprit: a venom-spitter named Bazevich who attended an underground Alphas fight club. Bill and Hicks went undercover to find the guy, but there was no final fight between Bill and Bazevich because the guy was dead the whole time. That was it. They were looking for a guy who was already dead. (Yes, they did discover a lab that was performing experiments on Alphas which will probably be important later, but that was an unintended find and not the goal of the investigation.) That's not exactly standard procedure for a procedural, but it never stopped "Alpha Dogs" from being a rewarding episode of Alphas because so many other interesting things were going on.
Gary, Rachel, and Bill all had interesting stories going on simultaneously, and they were told with heart and humor, something Alphas does with such ease that its scribes should consider side jobs as Greeting Card writers. Gary continues to be one of television's most fascinating characters, and seeing him move out of his house and into the office was both triumphant and heartbreaking. Bill got Mr. Miyagi'd into some Zen tricks to help him harness his amp-up power, which in turn helped him with his personal life. And adorable little Rachel smelled love or something like it on new tactical lead John, rushed to judgment, and asked him out against the wishes of the DCIS's Employee Ethics Handbook.
What brings these character stories to the next level is how each one relates to the corresponding person's powers. Gary is an autistic kid with the ability to read radio waves and internet signals and all kinds of things that transmit through the air. The paradox is that while he's socially incompetent due to his condition, he's also instantly connected to everyone anywhere. And there's a bit of a Jekyll-and-Hyde thing going on with beefy Bill; on one hand he's a loving husband, on the other he's a cop who's always willing to throw himself into the line of fire. He's trying to balance both sides, and his Alpha ability to hulk out pulls him away from his gentler side and literally endangers his life because his heart might pop like a balloon. Finally, two weeks ago we saw Rachel hide in her room with blinders on trying to shut out all her senses, but her Alpha ability (hyper-sensitivity of the five senses) forces her to over-analyze everything. That tends to translate to her real life, as happened during her hurried, nervous, and clumsy proposal to John that they get dinner together. These characters are little stories in of themselves. Gary seeks independence. Bill is looking for control. And Rachel needs serenity. Their powers affect their personal lives either directly or through metaphor, and that's why their stories—brief as they were—were so rich this week.
With every superhero ensemble, the fun part comes in meeting new team members, and "Alpha Dogs" gave us Kat (TV journeywoman Erin Way). She's a more sprightly, bubbly, less-powered version of Heroes' Sylar, with the ability to replicate physical skills just by observation. The catch? Learning new skills pushes old ones out of her noodle, meaning she forgets things about a month after she learns them. This also applies to memories, even fond memories of hot dogs. Because she's the new girl, let's pass instant judgment. We've only spent an hour with her so far, but I can already tell she'll be a good fit for the team, personality-wise. She's got the vivaciousness that her co-workers only sometimes have. And what's not great about having a teeny-tiny little blonde bounce about with so much energy?
But this jam-packed episode still wasn't done giving us stuff to chew on. Last week, I whined about not having enough information on Stanton Parish to make him feel like a legitimate threat or curiosity. Well you all can thank me now, because "Alpha Dogs" was loaded with a very detailed background check on him. Rosen found an old physician's journal detailing Stanton's former life as a Union soldier in the Civil War with the ability to heal at rates that reduced a bullet to the brain to little more than a scratch. But it wasn't just information on his abilities that we got. We also learned that Parish is a bit of a big-picture guy who doesn't really care who he kills on his way to achieving whatever goal he has in mind (still waiting on that one). And what the writers are doing with him is pretty cool. He's being built up mostly as villain but also as a freedom fighter who might be doing the right thing for Alphas. They even made him a Union soldier (generally considered the "good guys," sorry, Alabama), tying in the idea of civil rights (for slaves AND Alphas). It's a continuation of what Season 1 did with Red Flag, and ambiguous villains always make the best villains.
"Alpha Dogs" was a thick episode of Alphas, but it never felt too crowded or bogged down by trying to do too much. There was a lot of information to process, but all the balls stayed in the air the entire hour because no one thread outshone the others and all of them were given proper screentime. If this is a preview of the future of Season 2, we're gonna be just fine.
– Another wrinkle in Bill's story: In the final scene, Bill, well after the investigation was done, returned to the Alpha fight club to do some more brawlin' now that he's managed to get a grip on his power. Is his thump-lust getting the best of him and pulling him back toward violence? Ironically, his new-found control over his ability may set him out of control. His wife is not going to like that one bit!
– Great deadpan delivery by David Strathairn when Hicks told Dr. Rosen he was dating Rosen's daughter. "As long as you keep my daughter happy, you can keep your job here." Was he joking? Was he serious? It was both, and I'm still amazed that the talented Strathairn is on this plucky little show.
– What was the deal with Rubber Man, the dude Bill one-punch-KO'd? He was just jumping about like a Mexican bean. Maybe next time try throwing a punch? Worst use of an Alpha power ever.
– I loved Kat's questions to Dr. Rosen about who they were and her request to join the team. She's a keeper.
– I still think Hicks' superpowers come off best on the show. The way he shot the bullet out of the air was just badass.
QUESTION: It comes as no surprise, especially considering the way she acted last week, that Nina's absence from this episode made it much better. Do we kick her out of the group, guys? Let's hear what you have to say in the comments!
Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom