Once again, the need to incorporate Hayden Panettiere hampers what is an otherwise rather fine little episode. Claire's college hazing continues to be less interesting than Chris Barrie's Intimate History of the Drillbit, utilising contemptuously predictable plot 'twists' and yawnsome hetero-male-teenager bait in an attempt to stir up some interest. Sure, it's brave of any primetime show to address the murkiness of sexuality, but do the production staff really have to do it through such a heterosexist lens? The teasingly innuendo-laden dialogue and situations (oh look, they're huddled together in a car boot! Tied up! PHWOAR!!), the wistful glances, the oh-so-tragic confusion on poor old Claire's face, the woefully stereotypical implication that college is the place everyone goes to 'figure themselves out' and that, yup, this should obviously include flirtation with lesbianism. Puh-lease. These beats are so outdated that your momma probably remembers them. Buffy the Vampire Slayer did this exact storyline infinitely better about ten years ago by embracing tact, sensitivity and refusing to pander to the lust-fuelled libidos of any horny straight viewers. Here, it feels like a gimmick, a desperate attempt to court interest in a storyline that is absolutely dead on its arse. I mean, just look at the minutiae: the girls get kidnapped and placed in some spooky Saw-esque warehouse where Becky attempts to kill Gretchen? Oh for God's sake - why would she risk exposing herself by performing such an over-the-top act? And while we're at it, what's with the woeful acting chops? Those extras need a few lessons in naturalism: their 'shock' at the revelation of Claire's ability is just plain cringeworthy.
It's a shame that this storyline is so hopeless as there's much, much promise elsewhere. Carlos Coto's script makes some very brave decisions, and not always ones that you might like. HRG and Tracey's narrative is particularly indicative of this. Finally, Ali Larter gets something interesting to do with her otherwise fairly redundant role, assisting the young harbinger of life and death in his quest to be released from prison. The whole thing has a decidedly humanitarian feel about it and it's really welcome. The concept of helping others to ground themselves (without conspiratorial intervention) hasn't really been touched upon in the show before and it seems to suit both characters. Just to compound matters, Coto wraps this up in the intricacies of the Carnival plot and does so with great skill. Using the boy to demonstrate Samuel's validity, the fact that he may actually have a point in secluding the heroes, both strengthens him as a character and genuinely shocks the viewer. Come on, hands up all of those who actually thought they'd kill the kid? Yeah, I thought so. It's a bold move and one that really resonates, precisely because it happens so infrequently. It's a stark reminder of the inate brutality of our kind and it makes for somewhat harrowing viewing.
Matt and Sylar's narrative traverses rather dark ground too, as first Quinto relishes doing the dirty with Janis (an excellently executed scene, by the way) and then Parkman appears to discover a way to silence him: by drowning him in drink. Once again, the pair get the best dialogue, their back-and-forth sparkling with antagonistic energy, and the scene in which Sylar finally appears to dissipate is just magnificent, a perfect example of how to play trauma and breakdown without overstatement or exaggeration. Every additional drop of alcohol adds pain to the viewing experience as the result is so clear... and yet, so compelling.
A difficult episode to rate this; if it werent for Claire's continued adventures in Sweet Valley High, 'Strange Attractors' might actually stand comfortably alongside some of the show's greats. As it is, you can't help feeling just a bit disappointed.