This show’s genius is in the details. The little glances. Microexpressions. Unspoken exchanges. Nora batting a vase off a table like a cat. 355’s eye roll when she passes her flashlight over Yorick hiding under a desk. Kim’s dropped fake smile the second she turns away from 355. Jennifer’s face sagging after successfully coercing a grieving mother into coming back to work, knowing her own son is alive.
In fairness to the source material, these subtleties are an X factor no comics writer or artist working in two dimensions could ever hope to pull off, not without veering into inelegant, heavy-handed territory (which would defeat the purpose, anyway). They transform caricatures into complex human beings we can love or respect or loathe, as much for what they say as what they try not to.
Take, for example, Yorick’s wisecracks. They are funny sometimes, but in a room full of women seriously discussing how to keep him safe and save the world, they come off as dark and unhelpful, the obstinate sarcasm of a child refusing to accept that his life is no longer simply his own. (On the page, by contrast, his zingers come off as punchlines that shore up his relatability for a largely male readership.)
At the same time, it’s much easier to see him both as an immature, entitled baby-man and as a deeply insecure, genuinely pitiable guy struggling with the world’s worst case of survivor’s guilt. He lies to his mother, and himself, that he and Beth are engaged; it’s a sad, life-saving kind of lie, the only way he can reconcile the events of that night with how consumed he has become with finding her. He recognizes that he’s unremarkable, not a “shiny person” like his mother, but at the same time, he believes his ordinariness absolves him of responsibility beyond his own desires. It’s the classic “I never do laundry because I’m not good at it” defense.
This nasty cocktail of creative incompetence will almost certainly become more and more toxic as his survival becomes harder and harder to ensure. It starts with his disregard for secrecy, as he wanders the halls of the Pentagon in the middle of the night, totally maskless, in pursuit of Ampersand (who certainly can’t be blamed for escaping, given how little stimulation he has gotten of late). Then, when Jennifer and 355 manage to make a run-in with Marla Campbell go away (by gaslighting the bejesus out of the frazzled woman), he takes out his horror, combined with some delayed grief over his father, on both of them for not having cleared away all the bodies yet. He even gorges on spaghetti to the point of vomiting, like a child angry about having his iPad taken away.
355, meanwhile, is the undisputed queen of crisis. She’s been trained for this exact sort of operation so thoroughly that her grasp of the pieces in play renders even the president practically mute. She fully sequesters, manipulates, bribes, and then cleanly disposes of the two pilots who flew them back from New York, keeping the circle of people who know Yorick is alive to a manageable three, all without batting an eye. (Jennifer’s aide Christine [Jess Salgueiro] is too observant for her own good and notices her boss’s squirrelly behavior.)
At the same time, she’s also juggling a few side missions: convincing the president that it’s too risky for Yorick to stay in the Pentagon, for one, as well as researching scientists who might be able to figure out why this guy and his monkey survived. Her pick: Dr. Allison Mann, a brilliant, groundbreaking geneticist at Harvard whose unorthodox methods — including seeking grant money from Saudi Arabia, a decidedly unkosher move that got her flagged and disqualified by the FBI — makes her just enough of a loose cannon to avoid suspicion if she were to suddenly go dark in the scientific community. If that wasn’t enough, she also successfully breaks a man out of the Pentagon by persuading him to hide in a cart full of bodies (a feat in itself) and posing as an essential worker tasked with corpse disposal. 355 is a positively inspired character, especially onscreen, in that she’s so obviously James Bond while also stubbornly eluding any trace of a fixed identity. She wants so desperately to be a ghost, but in this new world, her exceptional mind and incomparable skill set create a halo effect that allows us to see her perfectly in the negative space anyway.
On a macro level, the wheels of power are turning. Jennifer and her cabal have successfully recruited an engineer to help them get a flooded power plant back online. Everyone in the room has unanimously agreed to put up a united front against the impending scourge of fringe zealot Regina “Brought My Gun to Spin Class” Oliver, who is found alive and constitutionally empowered to repossess the presidency. What they haven’t accounted for, in all likelihood, is the soft power and subterfuge of Kimberly Campbell Cunningham.
Kim is blooming into a formidable villain. Her mistrust and resentment of Jennifer Brown has driven her toward sedition, stoking anger among otherwise passive military and political widows in an attempt to consolidate and seize power — or rather, the power to exercise power however she chooses. She dismisses the sole Republican woman in Jennifer’s makeshift cabinet for being pro-choice, despite the functional extinction of unwanted pregnancy. Yet through flattery and manipulation, she has managed to ingratiate herself with countless women throughout the Pentagon, resulting in getting the news about Regina Oliver from a Secret Service agent before even the president is briefed. Later, she low-key threatens Jennifer by monologuing about how “inspired” she is by women’s pride in their men for the-bar-is-so-low-it-is-on-the-floor level of accomplishments.
But consider, for a moment, this woman’s upbringing. I don’t believe Kim has ever had an independent thought that wasn’t immediately poisoned by or to be used in someone else’s Machiavellian plot. She’s the party line embodied: a brilliant woman who has meticulously warped her entire life into a walking ideology; a man’s weapon with no practical interest in governing. Her only authentic belief is in the necessity of male authority. Without that platform to fuel her success, she’s left operating on the edge of a bottomless chasm of pure, useless grief, trying to deny its existence. She tears up for effect, weaponizing everyone else’s grief alongside her own to push an agenda with no real value beyond power itself. It’s terrifying. And the scariest part is it works.
Meanwhile, a perfectly good Campbell woman is out there, wandering the streets, desperate for purpose. Nora Brady, the former president’s aide, is Kim’s mirror image: all work, no politics. (Despite being on a conservative president’s payroll, she seems more likely to be a registered Ninja Turtle than a Democrat or Republican.) In the Before Times, she chose a life on the sidelines, becoming indispensable to men who took her for granted. Now, all the women in power — be it in the Pentagon or the local soccer carpool — are surviving just fine without her. (What do you want to bet that teen Nora’s motto was “I’m not like other girls”?)
The only job left: parenting her tween daughter Mackenzie, whom she hardly knows and clearly views as a burden, especially when Mack injures her leg in a frantic bid to shoo away crows pecking at her father and brother’s corpses. Before the Event, motherhood was just another to-do list to dominate; now, she’s just like all those stay-at-home moms she no doubt scorned, only she’s so out of touch with her kid that she’s still blatantly lying to her, making mechanical attempts to shield her from the obvious facts of their new nightmare life. A capable workaholic left flapping in the wind with nothing but resentment and a simmering, ambient fury isn’t just a powerful asset gone to waste — it’s a time bomb.
• Ashley Romans could have gotten the role of 355 without speaking a word. I can feel every one of her suppressed reactions in my bones. Her face as Kim attempts to girlfriend-ify her?
• So Ampersand’s carrier is more of a palanquin than a cage? He can clearly unlatch it whenever he wants. This bodes well for everyone, I think.
• What do we think is going on with those star tattoos Jennifer notices behind a Secret Service agent’s ear? And what do they have to do with the bloodstains she looks to next?
• Praying Regina Oliver’s recovery is the only nod to Israel we’ll be getting in the adaptation. The comic’s Israel Defense Forces subplot was the core of that “women in power would be just as bad as men, except crazier” theme referenced in the premiere recap (not to mention the piss-poor post-9/11 commentary).• Sorry, but if someone called me a “rhino,” I would laugh in their face. For several minutes.
• Kim’s “I like Phantom [of the Opera]” is such a sick, specific burn on theater and conservatives alike.
• The song Nora and Mack get a precious few seconds of on their car radio is Dolly Parton’s cover of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” — go check out those lyrics if you want to see what good music supervision looks like.
Update: An earlier version of this recaps mistook RINO (Republican In Name Only) for a rhinoceros (commonly abbreviated to rhino).