Case Study 54: Roswell, Episode 22–“Destiny”

Original Airdate: May 15th, 2000 on The WB

Over the last couple of decades, TV shows about teenagers dealing with the supernatural have proved a reliable source of ratings and dedicated fans. In addition to The Vampire Diaries, we’ve seen titles as varied as Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Supernatural and Teen Wolf explore their characters’ angst via cheesy monster makeup. Roswell wasn’t quite as successful as these shows—it only made it three seasons before going back to its home planet and dying along the way—but it definitely followed the same formula, and much like Diaries, its consistency varies sharply from episode to episode. I watched six episodes from the first season for this review.

Strengths

  • Action thrills. “Destiny” is the exciting climax to season 1, so it’s not surprising that there’d be some thrills, spills and bellyaches. There’s car chases. There’s shootouts. Our two leads jump what looks like 20 feet into a reservoir to evade bloodthirsty FBI agents. It’s all very stimulating, if you’re into that sort of thing.
  • Liz & Max. Roswell’s protagonist is the all-American girl next door Liz Parker (Shiri Appleby, Unreal.) The heart of the show is her ill-starred relationship with undercover alien Max Evans (Jason Behr.) The viewers would be doomed to scene after boring scene of these two making ineffectual goo-eyes if there wasn’t chemistry here, but thankfully they seem like a very real couple with years of history and charged sexual tension. Behr’s performance in particular is very low-key and understated, but instead of seeming wooden he radiates an alluring calm and confidence even in times of ridiculously heightened conflict and drama. His performance affirms an unearthly nature that you’d expect to find in an alien, and it offers a startling contrast with Appleby’s confusion and vulnerability. This episode is particularly momentous for their relationship, as well. The happy couple are presented with mounting evidence that Max’s destiny lies in a relationship with his fellow alien, Tess Harding (Emile de Ravin, Once Upon A Time.) Early in the episode, Max assures Liz of the profundity of his love for her, telling her that she was the only thing giving him strength and perseverance when the FBI was torturing him in the previous episode. The dialogue doesn’t read like much on the page, but the chemistry between the actors really sells it. The effect is doubled at the episode’s end when the characters finally figure out how to activate a message from their alien relatives and Max’s long-lost alien mother (Genie Francis, General Hospital) confirms that Tess is fated to be Max’s bride. As Liz tearfully walks away from Max, the emotional impact is real and persuasive. It makes for a very satisfying cliffhanger.
  • Alien superpowers. Did I mention that the aliens can disable vehicles at 50 feet, induce hallucinations in hapless FBI agents and change the molecular structure of doorknobs? They can totally do those things, and it’s awesome. Giving the aliens weird powers spices things up, because there’s only so much you can do with canonical aliens evading detection. It gives them a meaningful way to defend themselves against hostile humans without completely sacrificing their human “identity” and therefore their relatability.
  • A well-executed double/triple-cross. Ah, there’s nothing quite like a scheme. In this episode, the aliens are finally able to neutralize the threat posed by zealous FBI crusader Agent Pierce (David Conrad, Ghost Whisperer.) To do this, they need to develop the perfect plan and marshall all their allies and powers. The key player in all this is Sheriff Jim Valenti (William Sadler, The Shawshank Redemption.) Over the course of the season, Valenti had been an ambiguous factor for the aliens. He doggedly investigated them and created a constant atmosphere of paranoia, but he also resented federal overreach when the FBI started their own investigations, even when his own investigations depended on intelligence from the Feds. By the time Max is kidnapped by the FBI, Liz is desperate enough to place complete faith in Valenti, but that faith is put to the test when it’s time to finally take action against Pierce in this episode. The show goes in for the good old-fashioned double/triple-cross—at first it seems like Valenti was only playing along with the aliens so that he could lead them to Pierce, and this would make a certain amount of sense. Valenti’s father was a dedicated alien conspiracy theorist drawn to Roswell for the obvious reasons, and Valenti’s initial passion is fueled by the desire to prove his father right. It’s also reasonable to assume that his allegiances would lie with his own species, especially since rogue alien Nasedo (Jim Ortlieb, Flatliners) is going around killing people. But, no—it turns out that Valenti was on the right side all along as he helps the aliens capture Pierce. This makes sense too: Pierce is a big fan of using extrajudicial force on innocent teenage civilians. The key to a successful triple-cross is plausibility. There has to be sufficient motivation and ambiguity around a character to make the viewer believe a double-cross could really happen, and it worked here for me thanks to the residual mistrust built up around Valenti over the course of the season. Here’s a great example of the power of serialized storytelling on television. By creating a whole roster of episodes where Valenti is on various sides of an allegiance, there’s an elegant aura of instability around the character’s motivations that would be very difficult to achieve in a screenplay.
  • Comeuppance. As mentioned, a huge chunk of the previous episode was centered on lengthy torture and interrogation sequences. Now the tables are turned, and Max has complete power over Pierce’s fate. The show underscores this by having Max repeat some of Pierce’s intimidating spiel verbatim. It’s a bit of a hack move, but it’s still effective, and it was very satisfying when Pierce finally got killed.
  • An exciting set-up for next season. In addition to the aforementioned romantic strife, the grand finale also offers an exciting glimpse into the plot of season two. Max’s mother’s message tells the aliens that a great and evil enemy has pursued them to Earth and that they may not be able to identify the enemies until it’s too late. All of a sudden, the FBI is the least of their problems. What’s more, activating the message also alerts unknown agents all over the country, as showcased in a chilling closing montage. If I were a fan of this show, it’d definitely make me want to come back for more.

Weaknesses

  • Slo-mo. Ugh. Don’t do this. It never looks cool. It’s never exciting. It only underlines the paucity of any given action sequence or dramatic moment if it has to be slowed down to make it seem important or interesting. You’re better than this, Roswell.
  • Contrivance and artificial tension. Whoa, it sure is a happy coincidence that Valenti stumbles on Liz and Max just as they’re about to be captured by the pursuing FBI agents, and it’s an even happier coincidence that Valenti brought along the alien Michael Guerin (Brendan Fehr,) and it’s the happiest coincidence of all that it’s only then that Michael discovers his magical ability to disable vehicles. Also dumb: an argument among the aliens about whether they’ll stay in Roswell or go on the lam and settle down somewhere else. It turns out this show is called Roswell, not Schenectady, and there’s no way in hell they’re skipping town. Why bother pretending like that was ever a serious option?
  • David Conrad. Pierce is supposed to be menacing, authoritarian man made into a monster by his unrelenting pursuit of alien justice. Instead, he comes across like a smarmy milquetoast. The contrast is dazzling. Pierce is the main antagonist of the season, but he’s not believable for a second.
  • Native American mysticism. I’ve written in the past about the unpleasant tendency in media to exoticize Asians, but this is a phenomena that can affect all people of color. Another prominent example is the frequent othering of Native Americans, especially around areas of religion and spirituality. It’s possible for anyone who’s not Christian to be a victim of this kind of flimflam, but the wide variety of unfamiliar religious traditions practiced by hundreds of Native tribes leads to, at best, a messy syncretism in white media. You also probably know I’m not a super big fan of using people of subaltern identities as plot devices for the betterment of the white, straight, able-bodied characters. Both of these sins are on display here: our alien pals resurrect Nasedo with magical Indian healing stones, dispensed over the course of a trilogy of painful episodes set to generic mournful flute music. At least it wasn’t as painful as when the X-Files did it…multiple times across several seasons. Sigh.
  • Michael & Maria. So some genius decided that since Max & Liz work so well, we need to pair off the other four main characters. Thankfully, the romance between Alex (Colin Hanks, Fargo) and Isabel (Katherine Heigl, Grey’s Anatomy) takes up a scanty amount of screen time in the episodes I watched. I wish I could say the same about the subplot between Michael and Maria (Majandra Delfino.) You see, Max & Liz are a perfect fit for one another, so we’re given a ham-handed contrast in the form of a fire & ice pairing. The actors are good at convincing me that they dislike each other, but the sparks are decidedly artificial. I could buy that they’d hook up once to hate fuck, but the tepid drama of the on-again/off-again romance on display here is the stuff of an exhausted writer’s room.

Final Judgment: 5/10. When all’s said and done, there’s a lot to like about Roswell, but you have to put up with a lot of crap to get there. Besides that, the sci-fi elements and the soapy teenybopper fare will put enough people off in equal measure that I doubt it’s on the top of anyone’s list. I will say that some of the episodes I watched were quite good—the show generally does better when its sense of humor shows through.

NEXT TIME: Yes, it’s another kid’s show—but it’s one I remember from my own youth! Check back next week to hear about Talespin!

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Case Study 54: Roswell, Episode 22–“Destiny”