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“To Me, My X-Men”: Thoughts on Season 2 of The Gifted

The Gifted cast

So I’ve been watching The Gifted since it started, because I had hopes for a well-done live action X-Men series, especially one that tried to get out from under the baggage of the more-established well-known characters to try to play around in the periphery of the universe. Thing of it is, there’s something a bit…off about what’s happening here, and I want to try to put words around it, so stick with me a second.

The X-Men mythos was explicitly about being a fictionalized allegorical way to read the struggle for Civil Rights in the 1950s and ’60s. In the time since, that’s been expanded to encompass LGBTQIA struggles and more, but in any event it started as a way to get people to sympathize if not empathize with marginalized people’s struggles to be seen and understood as people. As such, while the tagline was always “to protect a world that hates and fears them,” at the end of the day, the X-Men were triumphant, the mutants were right, and the question was only one of tactics and extremes to which it was “right” to go, to deal with that struggle. Anti-mutant perspectives, though possibly held by people whose lives had been disrupted or even destroyed by mutants, were always the wrong side.

Because the side that says “round up, barcode, and kill those Others” is, for a couple of Jewish kids who lived through and fought in WW2, always the wrong side. That is, for Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, the problem with Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto) wasn’t that he was a separatist, but that he allowed that perspective to verge into Genocide. Discussion of how Jewish writers have used that to comment on the Irsaeli/Palestinan conflict will have to wait for another day, because right now I want to talk about the current moment in supremacist movements, ultra-nationalism, and apologia.

[Illustration of Emma Frost, Cyclops, Magneto, and Majik by Stuart Immonen (Pencils), Wade Von Grawbadger (Inks), and Marte Gracia (Colors)]
In The Gifted, in addition to the cleverly updated “Sentinel Services” (instead of giant robots, they use algorthmically adaptive drones), there also exists a group of human supremacists called “The Purifiers.” In Season 1, the Purifiers are an occasionally-mentioned fringe hate group, but in Season 2, they become the major antagonists for all mutants. The bridge between these two is Coby Bell’s character of Jace Turner, the Sentinel Services agent whose young daughter was killed in “7/15,” one of the most destructive mutant clashes in the narrative universe’s history.

Thousands were killed and injured in this obvious allegory to Sept. 11, 2001, and it was a turning point for mutant relations in the world of the show. Turner’s character becomes obsessed with hunting down mutants to “make them pay,” and even moreso when one of the members of the “Mutant Underground” clumsily tries to wipe his memory of whatever it is that makes him hate mutants, and ends up erasing his memory of his daughter’s death…making him have to relive it all over again.

After a huge fight in which the Mutant Underground is presumed killed, Turner gets kicked out of the Sentinel Services after they try to scapegoat him for the huge and public damage. and it seems like he’s starting to understand that mutants aren’t all terrible, or at least that maybe Sentinel Services isn’t good. Long story short, Season 2 basically just has him getting more and more radicalized, falling further and further into hating mutants, and, in a fairly interesting twist, teaching this human supremacist group how to make themselves palatable to the wider public and make inroads with various police departments, with the behind-the-scenes help of a major TV network personality.

Coby Bell as Jace Turner in The Gifted
Coby Bell as Jace Turner

Now all of this would be fairly savvy and really interesting, if it weren’t for a couple of facts:

1) Various flavours of the “Eliminate Mutants” perspective is the only thing we see of human characters who aren’t played by Amy Acker, which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if it weren’t for
1a) The many Black people we see among the ranks of the human supremacist rallies, not to mention that the POV character for the Purfiers is played by a mixed-race Black man, and
1b) The only sympathetic “humans who learn better” being the White parents

This combination makes for a kind of glaring deficit, in that we’re in a show that is based on material that was always meant to be an allegory for civil rights, and which is very obviously drawing on some real-world, right-the-hell now events, but which is also pulling away at the last second from having that conversation about how people who have struggled for civil rights can still internalize and replicate some really messed up, oppressive, hateful garbage toward others. Black people being homophobic, white gays being transphobic, so many people wanting to erase the “B” in LGBTQIA, (dis)ableism, fatphobia, and on and on.

Why not have that conversation, in-text, to talk about what this means? Why not have at least the “model minority” mutants? There’s some solace, at least, in the most recent episode having directly addressed the overtones of Jace Turner working for the Human/Mutant conflict version of the KKK, but with all of the above background, it felt somewhat out of left field for the 3rd to last episode of the season.

But in addition to all that, there’s another point:

2) In The Gifted, the mutants always lose.

The closest thing we see to a victory in this series is a kind of huddling-together-against-the-dark, take-refuge-in-family kind of theme. The Mutant Underground is broken and failing, the Inner Circle remnants of the Hellfire Club seem to only succeed when they’re killing humans, and even then, that almost immediately becomes a widespread talking-point, in-universe, for people to hate and fear mutants even more. The Morlocks are such a parody of Black pride and separatism that I don’t even know where to start, to be honest–but the main thing is, they’re the Morlocks, so they are, by definition, huddled in the sewers, away from the rest of the world.

The Gifted is a TV drama series, which means that our main characters need constantly-escalating conflict to keep the plot moving. But it’s also a show that’s trying to carry on the topical allegorical nature of its source material, which means drawing from real-world events that can be mapped onto the mutant struggle. The Purifiers are a pastiche of the various flavours of white supremacy on the resurgent rise, in the US and elsewhere, which means that the Mutants are a stand-in for literally every group out here, right now, saying “Hey We’re Alive And Worth Of Dignity And Respect So Please Stop Killing Us.” To have that latter group always be disorganized and on the back foot is, whether intended or not, a commentary on what the show’s creators think of the real-life versions of those groups.

Also (whether intended or not), The Gifted‘s stance on the human supremacists comes off as white supremacist apologia, saying “Well it’s not like these guys don’t have legitimate grievances, and anyway it’s not like those leftie snowflakes have a coherent position or set of principles they stand for.”

And that is in no way shape or form what I want from my media, in general, and especially not from my X-Men-related media.