After a lackluster premiere, the official third episode of Helix, “274”, blows the roof off the place, thanks to a virtuoso directing performance by Steven A. Adelson and a nuanced script by Sons of Anarchy vet, Misha Green. When the unnerving soundscape by supervising sound editor David Gertsman is added to the mix, this becomes one of the most impressive single episodes of any show this year so far.
Personally, I’d say it was right up there with the strongest episodes of my two favorite shows from last year, Hannibal (NBC) and Utopia (UK’s Channel 4).
The soap opera elements that hamstrung the premiere are shifted to the background and really only directly addressed in a mostly effective monologue by Kyra Zagorsky‘s Dr. Julia Walker. Aside from that moment, there are a few quiet longing looks scattered here and there, allowing the performers to use body language and expressions rather than overwrought dialogue.
And as The Walking Dead has proven this season, that’s almost always the better way to go, not only for the melodramatic emotional moments, but for allowing relationships to develop or disintegrate subtly and organically.
For example, the tension between Dr. Walker and Dr. Jordan (Jordan Hayes) plays out this week in Beschel Test passing scenes in the lab as they work on a fast-and-dirty test for the infection. The discussion is entirely work-related and jargon-filled, but Dr. Jordan’s approach is more flexible and provides results, whereas Dr. Walker’s more controlled approach was taking too much time. This sets up a nice, tense dynamic between the two that is then upended by the final moments of the episode.
The conflicts between Billy Campbell‘s Dr. Farragut and Hiroyuki Sanada‘s Dr. Hataki are also heightened this week as Farragut fears losing control of the situation and demands more information and control. It helps that the more vocal conflicts this week are handled by the strongest performers, and Campbell’s passion even helps to elevate his interactions with Meegwun Fairbrother‘s Security Chief Aerov over the use of lethal and semi-lethal force against the infected.
It’s this conflict that leads to Campbell’s strongest moment of the first three episodes, as he contemplates the 274 of the title – that’s the number of people who have died under his watch over the years. This time, though, it’s different and it’s weighing heavily on him.
And it’s only Day Three.
The only relationship that still suffers this week is that between Dr. Doreen Boyle (Catherine Lemieux) and Major Sergio Balleseros (Mark Ghanimé), but even that is improved by focusing on moving the story forward believably now that the characters are more established. Dr. Boyle’s sarcasm is kept in check and Major Belleseros’ devious manipulations are slightly less obvious.
The Major seems to have more leeway in his decision-making than it was hinted at previously, and chooses to share the Frozen Monkey Field with Boyle (and they dress appropriately for the weather this week, too) in order to find samples of the virus to test with – which leads to a really bad use of CG as a sample begins multiplying, growing into a thorn-bush-looking organism in a matter of seconds. Quick thinking kills it, apparently, but the two decide to keep it a secret.
The thinking there is acceptable, Belleseros urges secrecy to keep the results from Hataki, and Boyle reluctantly goes along, but it’s a plot point that strongly hints at people behaving stupidly in order to keep the plot moving, and so far Helix has been pretty good about avoiding that sort of writing.
The conclusion of the episode ramps up the tension and horror as an infected scientist, Dr. Sulemani (Tamara Brown), goes feral, killing and/or infecting a number of others. It’s a bestial scene of violence vaguely reminiscent of the sort of attacks we’ve seen in films like 28 Days Later or the remake of Dawn of the Dead, but instead of biting, the virus is passed mouth-to-mouth. I didn’t really find last episode’s climactic shower-scene infection to be very effective for some reason. It seems like it would have been easier to play up the bizarre sexuality of the virus transfer when you’ve got a naked lady in the shower being “kissed” by her former lover (albeit, while spewing black bile from his mouth), but for some reason, this week’s shots of Dr. Sulemani struggling to hold victims’ heads still while she plants her mouth over theirs was both more disturbing and sexualized, emphasizing a rape-anxiety that was somehow missing last week.
All in all, this was a fantastic step forward for Helix that bodes well for the rest of its 13-episode first season.