How Powers turned its first season around

Powers – the comic book show from PlayStation, with Sharlto Copley – got off to a shaky start. Thankfully, it improved over time…

Warning: this article begins spoiler-free for those yet to watch Powers, but features signposted spoilers later on.

If you’ve clicked on this article purely out of intrigue, let’s start by filling you in on a few details before getting into the nitty gritty of Powers. This TV show (produced by Sony and aired exclusively on PlayStation) is an adaptation of a fantastically enjoyable series of comic books penned by Brian Michael Bendis (best known, arguably, for inventing the Ultimate Marvel universe) and drawn by Michael Avon Oeming (who also has lots of Marvel on his CV, as well as the Bluntman and Chronic comics).

Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim are the books’ protagonists – an experienced detective and his new partner, based in a fictionalised Chicago stuffed full of superheroes and super-villains (dubbed ‘powers’ by the general population). Here they work in the ‘Powers Division’ of the local police force, tasked with somehow policing a world where teleportation, flying and all other manner of superpowers are commonplace.

For the TV show, District 9’s Sharlto Copley and comparative newcomer Susan Heyward were cast as Walker and Pilgrim. As you may have read in this review of the first three episodes, there were a few teething problems with bringing the engrossing street level adventures of these characters to the screen.

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Ignoring the hugely enjoyable events of Who Killed Retro Girl? – the Powers comics’ opening chapter, which served as a much-loved introduction to the world and characters – the show instead expanded some characters, altered others and presented a confusing opening gambit consisting of a teleporting drug-lord, an all-consuming cannibal, an entire police force, lots of murder and some show-biz-news-apeing commentary, too.

Despite being impressed by the casting, I was more than a little disappointed with the show’s launch due to the convoluted plot and some naff special effects to boot. Since then, though, having caught up with the latter episodes, it’s cheering to find that Powers greatly improved over the course of its first season.

The show balanced out its over-complicated storylines, veered into darker territory and also – best of all – dealt expertly with the human consequences of life in a super-powered society. If you weren’t convinced by the opening episodes and haven’t watched any more since, I’d urge you try episodes 4 and 5 and see how you feel after those. My opinion greatly shifted at that point in the run.

If you’re up for some more spoilery discussion, please do read on to see some more specifics of how Powers turned things around. If you’re yet to watch the show, consider yourself warned – the spoilers begin here…

Improved plot focus

The first and possibly most important change came in Powers’ fourth and fifth episodes in which the plot suddenly became streamlined. These two episodes were essentially a two-parter, bonded together by the fact that Wolfe (the super-powered cannibal played by Eddie Izzard) dramatically escaped from his cell at supervillain prison, the Shaft.

This action – essentially a topless Izzard nibbling his way through half of the Powers Division (it was a bad day to be a supporting cast member) – gave Powers some much needed focus. Although the budget special effects of Powers were particularly cringe-worthy in this rampage-based double bill, the plot device of a major powers-based disaster really forced all the separate plot strands to pull together into something more cohesive.

One of the main problems with Powers before episodes 4 and 5 was the fact that two major villains had been introduced at once – you had Izzard’s Wolfe and Submarine’s Noah Taylor as club-owning drug-dealer Johnny Royalle both vying for attention at the same time, which seemed confusing and unnecessary.

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Things vastly improved in episode four, though, when it was revealed that Royalle had made Sway – the powers-boosting drug he had been selling, that had caused the death of Olympia back in episode 1 – from DNA he had stolen from Wolfe, in the hope that his power-absorbing abilities would cause some sort of boost for the user. Royalle visits Wolfe again in episode 4, but things go bad and the cannibal escapes to wreak havoc throughout the prison.

The interconnection of plot strands became even stronger in episode 5, where some engaging flashbacks established the facts of Wolfe, Royalle and Walker’s pre-series friendship (which appears to throw out Walker’s origins as established in the comics). This 1990s strand became a recurring treat, with Sasha Feldman’s young Royalle and Sterling Beaumon’s young Walker rising to the challenge of establishing character history with aplomb.

Beaumon’s portrayal of the cocksure young Walker – who effectively bullied young Royalle into pushing the limits of his powers – was particularly well handled. Although some episodes were plagued by hallucinations in Wolfe’s head (which looked like greenery via green screen), the intertwining of these plots and the establishing flashbacks certainly helped bring Powers together into something much more enjoyable than the first few episodes. Also – they thankfully never brought back Walker’s imaginary hauntings by Wolfe, which is another bonus.

Delving into darker plots

The first trio of Powers episodes struggled to settle on a tone, with heroic cheesiness (such as Retro Girl flying in to save Walker at the end of the pilot episode) contrasting hugely with some very dark moments (such as Royalle popping someone’s head off with a disturbing use of his teleportation skills). And while there’s room for both light-hearted superheroics (see: The Flash) and darker ones (see: Daredevil) on TV, a show really has to focus on one or the other for the most part in order to find an audience and a consistent style.

Again, though, as showrunner Charlie Huston appeared to settle into Powers‘ debut season, the tone settled down, too. For the most part, Huston embraced the darker stuff. Dark ‘n’ gritty isn’t everyone’s favorite brand of comic book action, but it’s a fair choice considering the amount of grizzly murders going on in this case. This, again, began straight away after the opening three episodes, with four and five aggressively pushing the show into darker territory via Wolfe’s aforementioned escape attempt.

As well as the DNA-stealing stuff, we also had Walker’s disturbing attempt to regain his powers by taking drugs, locking Pilgrim in a cell and going after Wolfe on his own. Sharlto Copley handled this morally questionable material well, with a truly creepy Sway-induced red-eyed version of his character.

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Although Copley’s Walker is a version of the character that feels vastly different to his stoic and heroic comic book counterpart, Copley’s conflicted portrayal makes the TV-Walker intriguing in his own right. The concluding action of episode 5, when Walker briefly regained some super-powers (after Wolfe had taken out Triphammer, Retro Girl and Zora), lobbed Wolfe through the floor and then flung him back into his cell was thrilling stuff to watch. Again, the effects weren’t great, but the cast rallied to make it gripping telly regardless of the visibly low budget.

This darkness carried into episode 6, which opened with a montage set to the sounds of Jim James’ “State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U.).” Here Mr. James sang melancholic lyrics about ‘inking it in blood’ over a montage of Calista and Krispin tagging their anti-powers graffiti on the police precinct while Walker, Pilgrim (and her dickish dad, who also brought his own brand of darkness to the episode) and Janis prepared for the funeral of the officers killed by Wolfe.

It was an emotional sequence, and nowhere near the low standards of those disappointing opening episodes. And although there were plenty of other dark moments that could be listed here (Walker’s ill-thought quadruple-cross from the penultimate episode, Wolfe killing an unspecified number of teens in the finale), that funeral sequence brings us nicely to another praise-worthy part of Powers

Showing the consequences

How often does a telly show set in a superhero-infested world really show the consequences of the carnage it inevitably entails? Rarely. In The Flash, the core cast even independently imprison their villains in windowless cells without bothering to inform any authorities on the matter for months on end. That’s just one example of how superhero shows often forgo logic or consequence in the rush to get to the next episode without too much faff.

It was refreshing to find, then, that Powers did a very good job at giving time to show the consequences of its recurring brutality. (We should mention that Daredevil has also done well at rendering a more realistic world around its hero, but Powers came first.)

No-one dies in Powers without it having an effect on the plot: Olympia’s passing enabled the main investigation, the deaths that occurred thanks to Wolfe’s first escape attempt resulted in a whole episode of the funeral and wake (one that let us spend a lot of time with our characters in an action-free environment), the death of just one of the several Simons was noticeably mourned, the death of all the Simons in the second-to-last episode had a visual affect on Royalle, and one can assume that the death of Retro Girl will be the core focus of season 2.

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Incidentally, even though we’d rather have seen that Who Killed Retro Girl? arc as a part of season 1, you can’t help but be impressed by a show gutsy enough to kill off a loveable character as an end-of-season cliff-hanger. Although many probably saw it foreshadowed in her regular discussions of retirement and romance, it was still one heck of an ending. Michelle Forbes will be missed, though.

In terms of character interaction, too – unethical behaviour actually results in shattered trust in the world of Powers. It takes Pilgrim several episodes to trust Walker again after he locked her up during Wolfe’s escape attempt, and even then, all Walker’s colleagues covertly arranged a contingency plan in the event of him going rogue again (which he was clearly planning on when he and Royalle infiltrated the Shaft).

Again, Powers pre-empted the presumably-much-more-popular Daredevil show in that regard – if a character behaves like an idiot, everyone doesn’t immediately trust them again next week. The same can’t always be said of superhero shows, so you have to applaud that.

Seeding season 2 effectively

Despite the naff effects and a few shoddy episodes (the penultimate one, which juggled about 29 different timelines was my least favourite since episode 3), Powers was worth perservering with. But all that could have fallen apart with a dodgy finale. Wrapping things up in a satisfying way after a long and complicated run while still finding room to tee-up next year’s adventures is often a stumbling block in geek TV.

The Powers season 1 finale however, was arguably one of its best episodes. Obviously, the writers offered a huge hat-tip to comic book fans with that Retro Girl death scene, but that wasn’t the only thing to like about the episode.

There was also the dark tone that Powers eventually decided on. Wolfe killed/seriously injured a lot of people in this episode, after all. And he got the kind of justice that the show had obviously been leading to – an execution at the hands of Walker, Pilgrim and Royalle. The latter of whom had one heck of an arc from joint-lead-villain to sort-of hero. He’s the one taking all the credit after all.

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In fact, most characters had some kind of arc wrapped up – Walker learned that he has to live without his powers now, Pilgrim finally bought into the rule-bending policing that Walker had been encouraging all season, Calista got her powers, and even the less-than-loveable Triphammer had made an important life choice. Of course, the Kaotic Chic duo made a fairly massive decision, too (presuming that they killed Retro Girl, which may not be a certainty).

All things considered, Powers was far from perfect. Something needs to be done about the awful special effects, and season 2 really needs to hit the ground running. The show may not survive another slow start. The writers probably shouldn’t fanny around with timelines unless it’s really necessary – episode 9 was more confusion that entertainment. Additionally, Sony needs to sort out a proper worldwide release. Almost everyone I know who would like Powers has no legal way of watching it, which is a big problem for the show.

As it stands, though, there was enough grittiness, cohesion and consequence to make Powers season 1 an enjoyable viewer experience. In a world with as much superhero entertainment as ours, this show may have got a little lost in all the excitement of the MCU, Batman v. Superman hype, The CW, Daredevil, and everything else.

Hopefully, though, Powers will gather the cult following it deserves and continue to grow. Fingers crossed that it won’t just be here and gone.