Marcus Lopez Arguello has problems. Both of his parents were killed in a horrific freak accident. He was sent to an abusive boys’ home, finally escaping after a fire that led to a number of fatalities. Now, the year is 1987; he’s living on the street, dodging cops, and surviving on discarded fast food he finds in garbage cans.
So it’s at a particularly desperate moment in his life that Marcus meets Master Lin, a mysterious man with a tantalizing offer: A spot at King’s Dominion — a secret, elite academy for uniquely gifted teenagers, which will “harness the fire inside” of him.
There’s a kind of Harry Potter or X-Men-esque wish fulfillment built into Deadly Class: A seemingly ordinary kid gets plucked from an unusually tragic life and told that he’s different. That he’s special. That he’s meant for something greater.
But Deadly Class takes that common fantasy and gives it a nasty twist. According to Master Lin, Marcus is special because he has the tendencies and temperament of a ruthless killer. At King’s Dominion, he promises, Marcus will learn the skills that will make him a uniquely effective killer. By graduation day, he’ll be able to change the world by slaughtering anyone he wants.
Oh, the places he’ll go. But to get there, he’ll need to survive four years at King’s Dominion — a school packed with other budding sociopaths. And while the sheer lethality of the experience makes King’s Dominion unique, Deadly Class is also a sly commentary on how every high school experience feels both high-stakes and miserable. As Marcus says: “It doesn’t matter where you’re from. Kids are all the same: assholes. The only difference? In this place, the dagger in your back is real.”
Much of the Deadly Class pilot doubles as a kind of orientation for the audience, acclimating us to the show’s heightened reality via a series of familiar new-kid-in-school tropes. There’s the hard-assed teacher doing his best to intimidate the class. There’s a montage of Marcus trying to get his bearings in overwhelming classes like Hand-to-Hand Combat and Poison Lab (taught by none other than Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins). Most of all, there’s the homework in his AP Black Arts class: find somebody who deserves to die and kill them.
But before Marcus can get his hands bloody, Deadly Class has a lot more exposition-laden world-building to get out of the way. Cue the Mean Girls–esque cafeteria sequence in which a fellow student helpfully teaches Marcus about the various cliques that run around the school. In King’s Dominion, the cliques are essentially pint-sized variations on real-world gangs, divided along racial and socioeconomic lines. The “preps” are the trust-fund children of top agents from the CIA and the FBI. The Kuroki Syndicate are kids of Yakuza gang members. The Dixie Mob are swastika-drawing shitkickers whose parents insist the South will rise again.
Marcus is a “rat” — a student unaffiliated with any particular gang — but his classmate Maria pitches him on joining the Soto Vatos. That idea doesn’t sit well with her boyfriend, Chico, who thinks Marcus could become a rival for Maria’s affections. And when Maria comes to Marcus with a black eye, Marcus has more than enough reason to strike back against Chico.
Of course, even a school as violent as King’s Dominion would fall apart if students were just allowed to murder each other. So for his AP Black Arts assignment, Marcus decides to target Rory, an elderly, murderous homeless man he knew from his time on the street. Marcus’s partner for the assignment is Willie, a member of a King’s Dominion gang called the Final World Order. But while Willie pretends to be tough, he chokes when it comes to actually killing Rory, forcing Marcus to deliver the final blow.
I like the idea that these would-be killers — like pretty much all high-schoolers trying on different identities — are also poseurs. (We don’t know the details yet, but it’s clear that Marcus’s reputation as the cold-blooded child-killer who burned down a boys’ home is not the whole story.)
But by the end of the episode, it’s also becoming obvious that some of these kids are a little more advanced-placement than others. Maria eventually reveals that the “black eye” she got from Chico was a fake — just a way to enflame Marcus’s sense of outrage so he would get Chico out of her way. And the episode ends by revealing that Saya, the sword-wielding student who lured Marcus to King’s Dominion with a kiss, was acting directly on assignment from Master Lin himself. If Marcus is going to make it through freshman year, he’ll need to figure out how many of his fellow classmates can be trusted — even if the answer turns out to be none.
• A little housekeeping: I’m familiar with the comic series on which Deadly Class is based — but for the purposes of these recaps, I’m going to treat the TV series as an independent work, with specific references to the comics only when there’s a deviation that’s specifically worth unpacking. There’s always a chance that Syfy plans to spin this Deadly Class adaptation in a totally different direction — but if you’ve read the comics, and know where this story might be going, please keep spoilers out of the comments below. (Especially that spoiler. You know the one I mean.)
• The flashback to Marcus’s childhood is a short animated sequence that mimics the style of the original comic — and according to this story, the backstories of his fellow King’s Dominion students will eventually be revealed in animated sequences as well.
• Orientation at King’s Dominion comes with a series of goodies, including a textbook called Poison 101, a copy of The Anarchist’s Cookbook, and a VHS copy of the infamous video nasty Faces of Death.
• Even a school as anarchic as King’s Dominion has a few ironclad rules: no disobedience, no drugs, and no sex. We’ll see how many times each of them gets broken over the course of the season.
• One of King’s Dominion’s most distinguished alumni is Lee Harvey Oswald, class of ’57, whose rifle is mounted at the school in a tribute.
• Anarchist Billy’s list of potential targets includes U2 frontman (and outspoken activist) Bono, riding particularly high in 1987 after the release of the smash-hit album The Joshua Tree.
• The Deadly Class soundtrack is absolutely jammed with ’80s punk and new wave songs, with songs like Echo and the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon,” Killing Joke’s “Eighties,” and the Damned’s “Melody Lee” popping up in the pilot alone. If you’re really feeling it, Deadly Class creator Rick Remender put together a whole Spotify playlist of Marcus–approved ’80s tracks.
• In a particularly pointed bit of meta-commentary, Marcus and Willie debate the ’80s comics scene. Marcus is a fan of Flaming Carrot and American Flagg!, whose satirical, political leanings are a clear antecedent for the original Deadly Class comics. Willie prefers X-Men’s now-legendary “Dark Phoenix” saga, which is being adapted for the big screen for a second time this summer.
• Marcus may be green, but he certainly has the ambition to be a world-famous assassin. At one point, he tells his fellow students that his ultimate target is Ronald Reagan, whose decision to slash mental-health funding led, indirectly, to the death of Marcus’s mom and dad.
• Very curious to see what happens if the right-wing blogosphere catches wind of the “assassinate Ronald Reagan” aspect of Deadly Class. Then again, AMC’s Preacher got away with Jesus Christ having a sketchy one-night stand on his way to the crucifixion, so there’s a precedent for these slightly under-the-radar TV adaptations of comic books eluding people’s notice.