This review contains spoilers for Manifest.
Manifest Episode 4
It’s time to start judging Manifest for what it truly is: a family drama with hints of government conspiracy and not a genre show. In fact, it’s quite good in its more emotional moments despite flaws elsewhere. The science fiction elements may come into play closer to the finale or in future seasons, but for the time being, the “callings,” as Michaela calls them in this episode, are just as mysterious as they were in the beginning, often suffering the danger of being perceived as convenient plot devices to get people where they need to be narratively. And with the heart-wrenching scenes between Ben and Grace as a continuing high point, perhaps it’s time to reframe who the intended audience of this show really is and review it based on that.
Because, honestly, if everyone has tears in their eyes when Ben is trying desperately to figure out his place in the disrupted family, that’s a sign of good, effective, heartfelt writing. Ben navigated a difficult dilemma with the $500,000 life insurance issue, and he sensitively characterized Olive’s shoplifting as an attempt to take the reins when life is out of whack. He may not know the full extent of Olive’s tumultuous teen years, and Grace’s struggle during his time away is not to be minimized; however, all parties involved are clearly doing the best they can — even Danny, the pushed aside boyfriend! It’s a page straight out of This Is Us.
It’s as though Manifest is populated with characters who represent the best or at least the most caring versions of people. Jared, for example, may have deceived Michaela into believing his regular partner, Harrington, was out with a busted pipe, but his explanation for wanting to get some alone time with her showed true concern for her well-being. Being a detective, it’s no surprise that he has put two and two together regarding Michaela’s strange success with crimes on record, but he admirably backs off when she chooses to get the help he recommends from Saanvi instead of from him. Plus there’s the added intrigue associated with the question of what he will do if his investigation bears fruit.
Saanvi provides the most grounded approach to the central mystery, and she must be given credit for making at least incremental progress on pinning down some symptoms of what the time jump did to the passengers of Flight 828. The fact that Thomas was diagnosed as a schizophrenic could be indicative of the dangers of these strange visions and voices or it could merely represent a misinterpretation of the medical community, but hopefully it at least gives Saanvi something to work with. Her repeated willingness to break the rules for this mission speak to her strength of conviction, and her interactions with Bethany and Thomas give her a strength and tenderness that endear her to the audience.
Michaela taking Thomas to the disused boiler room shows similar qualities in her character, but her brashness contrasts nicely with Ben’s sense of caution. Michaela understands that Thomas would be the perfect subject of study for Vance and his spooks since he has no family and does not appear on the publicly scrutinized manifest, but Ben has to remind her that she can’t talk about her powers with anyone, not even Jared, for fear of placing them in danger as well. She trusts in the process of “completing the calling” even after she initially gets it wrong in botching the ATF sting, and although Ben doesn’t want to follow the compulsions blindly, Michaela perhaps correctly points out that they don’t have much of a choice. The dynamic between the brother and sister, like the one between Ben and Grace, is one of the highlights of the show.
All that being said, the wet footprints and the angel saying, “Save him!” come across as mere visual gimmicks at this point, a slightly different way of tying the visions of Saanvi and Michaela together. It’s supposed to feel like a superpower when Saanvi follows the wet footprints to safety just moments before Vance shows up or like a miracle when Michaela appears in her car just in time to spirit Saanvi and Bethany away, but it feels more like deus ex machina — there’s just no denying it. Michaela may ask the statue (appropriately angelic for her more religious view of the phenomenon), “What do you want from me?” but the mysterious force feels no need to answer or even to be very specific with its guidance, lessening its narrative impact significantly and ignoring the audience need for something more.
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Perhaps Manifest plans on emphasizing the family drama as exposition in the first half of the season with more bombshells to come regarding the powers. The repeated mentions of a growing community of devotees of the Flight 828 passengers certainly hint at a religious or spiritual crisis to come, and we clearly see people with signs reading “They have returned” near Bethany’s residence. Those clues are skillfully sprinkled throughout the initial episodes with a payoff undoubtedly in the future, and, just like Vance’s investigation board which replaced Kelly Taylor’s picture with Thomas’, they give the conspiracy element more intrigue than the mysterious powers and their origins.
So perhaps we should all just stop looking for the time jump and the “callings” to make sense and just enjoy the top-notch dialogue during the relationship conflict storylines and the suspense provided by the cat-and-mouse game with the government and by the slightly creepy devotion of the 828 groupies. Although the deficiencies can’t be ignored altogether, neither can the elements that make Manifest a compelling drama. It’s an enjoyable ride if we suspend our inner nerd, which nonetheless yearns for an eventual payoff which still feels inevitable.