In episode four of Fox’s The Gifted, the ensemble cast’s arguable lead, father of mutants, and former anti-mutant prosecutor Reed Strucker launches on a long explanation and apology to mutant underground member Polaris, after some frank revelations have significantly altered his worldview. It’s a short scene; only a few minutes long in the middle of a larger episode plot, but it takes the time to convey some very important ideas related to rage and redemption. I want to get into what those are, and why they’re so important, but first, the scene itself:
REED: I know I’m probably not someone you want to talk to…
POLARIS: You’re right about that.
REED: I always told myself that anyone that was facing me in my courtroom … was guilty. Told myself that I was the prosecutor, and that the laws were clear, and if you broke them it was on you. I told myself that I was doing my job. Then I found out that my kids are mutants.
REED: They didn’t mean to hurt anyone. They didn’t mean to do anything, they were just defending themselves. But they broke the law. With mandatory minimums, they’ll get at least ten years, maybe more. And a few days ago, I would’ve been the one making that argument. Before all of this, I didn’t understand. But I do now. I’m sorry.
POLARIS: Congratulations on figuring out you’re one of the bad guys.
POLARIS: So, what, if you would’ve thought about it a little longer, you wouldn’t have destroyed so many lives, huh? You want forgiveness? Ask the little boy who I strapped into a bus while he SCREAMED, BEGGING to join his mommy in prison where YOU sent her. You know what, ask the hundreds of families whose lives you and your friends ruined. Don’t ask me.
The crux of Reed’s apology is “I didn’t know it was bad until it affected me personally,” which is, essentially, one of the most useless kinds of apologies a person can give. Polaris (rightly) recognizes this and tears him a new one over it. There are a couple of elements about this scene, though, that really, really struck me.
The first is the show’s commitment to examining the privilege that the Struckers had as an affluent white family, and that they lost as a result of their children Lauren and Andy being mutants. Prior to that twist, the Struckers had nothing to fear; Reed was a lawyer, his wife Caitlin a medical professional. They had a nice house, plenty of money, thanks to Reed’s record of putting away mutant offenders, and never once were they required to examine their complicity in a system that thrives on the backs of a marginalized class—until that fateful change.
The mutant metaphor has been made much of ever since the X-Men became a “thing;” people say that it’s about racism, or homophobia, but the problem with drilling down to those specifics is that the picture doesn’t really line up; the difficult truth is that in Marvel’s fantasy world, there exist mutants who either cannot or will not control their powers, and some of those powers can represent a global, extinction level threat. This is not a claim that can be made about people of color; this is not a claim that can be made about LGBTQIA people. Real life marginalized folk are not inherently born with the power of mass destruction at the snap of a finger or the blink of an eye. If you’ll pardon the crude description, a gay man is not going to “lose control of his gayness” and nuke a city block, and to carelessly apply a metaphor that features people with innate destructive potential to marginalized groups in real life is to invite some dangerous comparisons and misconceptions about those people.
I’m digressing a little here, but I want to establish that point before I make this one: what keeps the mutant metaphor relevant is actually its inability to apply specifically to one group. This is a good thing; it makes the metaphor and the concept flexible. The Gifted is a show that understands what it has to work with, and it makes that story intersectional; mutants exist in a world where they are oppressed, but they exist in that world alongside people of different sexual orientations, different skin colors. These various marginalized groups all experience oppression in ways that are often similar, but not matching; they each have their unique stories to tell. By understanding this and applying the story of mutants in such a way, The Gifted makes the idea of mutant oppression a more credible concept within the show’s universe, and shows the way that intersections can affect the lived experiences of these individuals.
Were it not for the manner of Andy’s mutant powers manifesting, Reed and his family could’ve maintained their quiet, idyllic lifestyle. It would’ve been easy for this to be a different show; a “coming out” scene akin to Bobby Drake’s in X2 would have caused Reed and Caitlin discomfort, but they would have been able to rationalize away the differences between their kids, who are “good,” and the “bad” mutants that Reed put away. The Gifted is having none of that though—the Strucker children, and then the whole family, are wanted by Sentinel Services. They’re fugitives, branded as criminals, and this forces a radical examination of their worldview, a recognition of their privilege, which results in Reed’s apology.
That brings us to the second notable part of this scene; when he gives this apology, still centering himself in the narrative of it, Polaris shuts him down hard. She reminds him of the people he’s victimized because it was easier to simply believe the system was correct rather than to examine the nature of the crimes he argued against in court, to examine the circumstances in each situation. As a victim of that system, Polaris knows better than to believe naively in it; she understands that justice is not unthinking enforcement of statues. Justice is about speaking out for those who can’t, and it’s about making sure that people are safe in whatever way that you can manage.
Polaris and her mutant underground are not the X-Men. They are not a team of privileged, erudite, college educated intellectuals who happen to have amazing superpowers. It’s telling that the first X-Men movie opens with Jean Grey speaking at a major conference; our first sight of the mutants in The Gifted is an Asian woman fleeing police pursuit. The mutants in this show don’t have a nice mansion in Westchester; they live in an abandoned compound, one they have to keep secret for their own survival. So when Polaris hears Reed’s apology, how sorry he is for not understanding, she has every right to be angry—it’s still she, after all, who has to point out that his words don’t do a thing for the lives he’s already ruined. Reed could have had a realization of his complicity at any point during his career; he did not until his own personal family was affected, and even in apologizing, he is focused on himself. His failure to realize, his failure to understand the people appearing across from him in a courtroom were people being victimized by a system he participated in. His apology is selfish, and Polaris’ rejection of it is entirely justified. She does not owe him forgiveness; no victim owes such to those who’ve wronged them.
What’s surprising is that she’s actually allowed to do so. Television is full of shows featuring heroes and characters with powers who are often responsible for the messes they clean up, and are often surrounded by female love interests who are only ever kind and supportive, no matter the fallout of those heroes’ actions. When the hero herself is female, her anger is either expressed as determination against a foe, or cattiness to those she’s close to. The mutants in The Gifted, though, are just trying to survive, and trying to help their fellow mutants do the same. They’re not concerned with heroics; they’re concerned with not dying as a result of systemic injustice. Polaris is angry—about this, about the way that the system has failed her, and about the man who brought that system to bear, who is now sitting across from her offering a bland and self-centered apology. That anger is justified, not only because of Reed’s careless idealism, but because the anger is part of her armor.
I’ve spent a lot of time in my life thinking about rage. That’s to be expected; as a victim of it, as someone who has been to multiple years of therapy in order to address my own issues with it, it’s been a central aspect of my life. It’s not a groundbreaking statement to say that holding on to anger is generally not healthy. It eats you up inside, sometimes literally. It can give you ulcers, blood pressure issues, all kinds of physical health manifestations. It’s not good for you to hold it inside you, and learning how to let it go is an important tool for any functional adult.
That’s all well and good, but when a person is in a situation where they are surrounded by hostility, bigotry, and abuse, anger is sometimes the only thing that can keep that person upright. It is sometimes the only thing that can keep a person motivated and moving forward, and while that might not be healthy in the long term—Polaris will probably need therapy later in her life—it is absolutely, intensely important in the now.
Polaris’ anger gives her agency. It gives her a kind of power, one different from the ability to manipulate magnetic fields that she inherits from her father. In her rebuke of Reed, she re-contexualizes the issues he’s talking about; she reminds him, and thus the show reminds us, that Reed and his former affluence are not the crux of the problem. Reed’s understanding and his revelations are not what The Gifted is about.