Chase: “Text everyone to meet up.”
Karolina: “You do it.”
This is a small moment in “Refraction,” but it’s representative of one of the best things about Marvel’s Runaways: The women are in charge. The main cast of teens is primarily female, and Leslie Dean and Tina Minoru are the most powerful members of Pride (not counting Jonah, who doesn’t really do much when it comes to day-to-day operations). Undermining the patriarchy is an explicit theme thanks to Gert’s activist spirit, and Runaways occupies a subversive corner of the superhero genre. Men have always dominated superhero stories, but Runaways is enriched by shifting the perspective to women and making them the most defined characters, both on the page and the screen.
Although Molly has been on the sidelines for the last few episodes, she takes a much more active role after her screw-up with Catherine Wilder. Telling the rest of the teens what she did heightens her feeling of alienation within this group, and when she comes under fire for her loose lips, she breaks away and tries to find a new crew with the dance team. Allegra Acosta is the only member of the teenage cast who is actually the age of her character, and having her be visibly younger than the others is an essential part of her character. In the comics, Molly was the little kid the others tried to protect, but aging her a few years for the show makes her more complex as she tries to prove that she’s mature and deserves respect.
The episode’s most powerful moments revolve around Molly. Karolina is the only older teen that reaches out to her after she storms off, and Karolina recognizes the unique bond they share thanks to their superpowers. No one else can understand what they’re dealing with, and she needs Molly to hold on to her positivity for the both of them. Karolina’s optimism has been shattered, but she doesn’t think Molly is naïve. She’s aspirational, and Karolina wants to keep Molly’s uplifting spirit alive. That becomes increasingly difficult as Molly’s world rapidly falls apart, and the episode’s final moments find her being sent away after her parents find out she knows the truth about Pride.
The Yorkes are easily the most fun of the parents, and “Refraction” highlights how humor amplifies the dramatic content of their story lines. It’s also a great example of writing to an actor’s strengths. The script gives Kevin Weisman the opportunity to be as frantic and high-strung as possible when Dale gets infected with Jonah’s serum, and then he plays the opposite when Dale crashes. Those wackier scenes provide a refreshing lightness, so when the Yorkes’s story finally goes in a dark direction, it’s even more painful. Molly discovering her parents packing up her room is a crushing moment, and there’s a wild flurry of emotions in this scene: the Yorkes’s remorse, with an undercurrent of fear about what could happen if Molly doesn’t leave; Molly’s despair that becomes rage, building to a moment when she tells her parents to try and make her do something against her superstrong will. Gert pulls Molly away before she does anything rash, and Allegra Acosta and Ariela Barer are exceptional as they reinforce the sisters’ deep bond during the weepy conversation where Gert convinces Molly that she needs to go.
The show hasn’t shied away from the conflicts within Pride, and this episode intensifies them by dealing with the fallout of recent revelations. The Jonah/Leslie/Frank love triangle doesn’t improve — Frank Dean is so boring — but a small exchange between Leslie and Tina reveals a power struggle at the top of the Pride hierarchy. They both consider themselves in charge with the other as their right hand, and I’m eager to see them face off in the future. The parent drama needs to be connected to the kids, and Molly’s mistake last episode ends up being very good for the adults as the Wilders and Yorkes team up to take care of the situation before Jonah or Tina find out what’s going on and take matters into their own hands. They really do think sending Molly away is the best way to protect her, but after seeing their parents murder someone, Molly and Gert are going to be deeply suspicious of any move by their guardians.
I haven’t spent enough time praising the costume design for this series, and “Refraction” gives us some fantastic looks. Building on the foundation set by Meredith Markworth-Pollack in the pilot, costume designer Samantha Rattner has given each of the teen characters their own distinctive style. While Chase and Alex embody the clean-cut jock and laid-back geek, the girls’ clothing provides many more options to accentuate the characters’ personalities. You get the sense that Nico spends a long time getting ready each morning, picking out all her layers and accessories and trying new things with her hair. This episode has her wearing a collared white dress under a black mesh top, black pants, a maroon hat, a choker, a long necklace, lots of bracelets, and her hair pulled back into two ponytails with two braids framing her face. She’s presenting a very specific image for the world, and it’s clear that a lot of work goes into it.
On the flipside is Karolina, who has a breezy, bohemian style that comes across as effortlessly chic. I straight-up gasped when she showed up in her high-waisted jeans and striped T-shirt, serving up sunny ’70s style. It’s easy to imagine Karolina quickly pulling these items out of her closet, spraying some product in her hair to give it some beach waves, and then walking out of her house looking like a total Betty. Gert probably resents her for that: Like Nico, it’s evident that Gert devotes considerable energy to how she looks, although she’s working with a high-class hipster foundation rather than Nico’s goth-inspired club-kid style.
Lyrica Okano has been doing some very subtle and impressive acting as Nico, and she makes the emotional shifts of her character clear in her facial expressions and body language. When Chase mentions that his mom is done with her affair, we see Nico process how this information relates to the conversation she had with her father earlier, and a visible dismay washes over Okano’s face. Nico clearly prefers her father over her mother and she wants him to be happy, even if it means breaking up their family unit. Nico’s willing to accept that he’s in love with Janet Stein, and she’s heartbroken when she finds out that he’s not fully in the know.
We get a lot of different sides of Nico in “Refraction,” and even though the dissolution of her parents’ marriage has rattled her, she’s still hard as nails with Alex. She doesn’t want to talk about what’s going on at home, she wants to know how the hell he knew her mom’s password, and she won’t stop asking him until he tells her the truth. The episode cuts away before we know his answer, and it’s one of two big cliff-hangers, the other being Leslie telling Frank about her relationship with Jonah.
All of these marriages are under a lot of stress right now, but no one has it as bad as the Steins. This episode begins with a series of flashbacks that show how this family unit has degraded over 25 years, starting with Victor and Janet’s college meet-cute before jumping to the joyful moment of Chase’s birth. While the first two flashbacks are full of hope, the sequence ends with a sad look at how Victor treated his son as a boy. Angry that his father missed a big lacrosse game, Chase lashes out and ends up as Victor’s punching bag. It’s the first time we actually see Victor hit his son, and it sets a strong point of contrast for the Steins in the current day. Jonah’s serum has turned Victor into a new man eager to connect with his wife and son, but as we learn later courtesy of Dale Yorkes, that high is followed by a steep fall.
Victor starts to come down at Atlas Academy’s open house, where he gives Robert Minoru a threatening handshake and assaults Chase’s lacrosse coach, and he’s at his lowest point by the end of the episode. The cold open has Victor getting a message from a bearded, future version of his son, and we find why Chase warns his father not to pick up the fistigons when they get in a fist fight in Victor’s lab. After knocking Chase through a glass wall with a blast from the fistigon, Victor ends up getting shot by his wife, who has the calm determination of a person who accepted long ago that this act was inevitable. This adds a major new wrinkle to the story, especially in conjunction with the message from the future. “Refraction” is full of teases that a major threat is on the horizon, and Chase’s warning suggests that they’ll need his father’s genius is to stop whatever’s coming.