The Gates has become damned good television

We wrote off The Gates after we saw the bland first episode. But ABC's new horror-soap opera has been getting better and better, and last night's episode was almost inhumanly entertaining. Spoilers ahead...

Last night's episode, of course, was written by Robert Hewitt Wolfe, former producer of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Andromeda. And you could tell — all of a sudden all of the secrets and machinations felt much deeper and more complicated. All of the various inhuman characters had that sense of "heightened humanity" that you feel like you get from the best science fiction and fantasy about aliens and other creatures. The Gates has been deepening its world for a while now, but this felt like a gigantic leap forward.

There were something like four different plots running through last night's episode, "Digging the Dirt," but it didn't feel overstuffed at all. And they can be boiled down to two basic plots, really. Nick, the formerly trigger-happy Chicago cop brought in to serve as the new police chief, decides he doesn't like being blackmailed by the Gates' paterfamilias, Buckley. So he decides to dig into Buckley's past, in the hope of finding some reciprocal blackmail material. Meanwhile, the women of the Gates all deal with being monsters, in strikingly different ways — none of them simple or predictable.

The Gates has become damned good television

It was really nice to see Nick being awesome and kicking lots of ass — finding out the secret of The Gates has been really good for him. And even though he starts out only wanting to dig into the past in order to get some dirt on Buckley, he winds up genuinely determined to find out the truth and bring it to light. The conversation between Nick and Buckley, in which Nick convinces Buckley to let him investigate, and you can see Nick simultaneously realizing that Buckley might really be innocent and this isn't quite such an open-and-shut case, is really nice. Nick winds up being a good cop instead of simply pursuing his own agenda — including saving Buckley's life when it would be in his interest to let him die and put a stop to the blackmail that way. It doesn't hurt that the episode's murder mystery was actually a reasonably good one, with a couple of nice red herrings — I really wasn't sure what they'd find when they dug up the guy's corpse — even though I guessed the character we'd never seen before was probably the culprit pretty early on.

And then there are the three different subplots about women who are monsters, all of which manage to go through a lot of twists and turns in one hour. There's Andie the succubus, who is trying to avoid both of her wannabe boyfriends because of her nasty habit of draining the life out of men. But she doesn't like the side effects of the pills that are supposed to suppress her succubus traits, so first she calls the doctor, who convinces her to keep taking them, and then later she flushes them. Once the pills have worn off and she's re-succubused, her two suitors Charlie and Brett come to blows and she nearly drains the life out of Charlie. But later, Brett gives her a touching speech about how he can understand her problems because he's not a normal human either. So even though Andie obviously prefers Charlie over Brett, she winds up dating Brett because they're both monsters and he can understand her deal.

The Gates has become damned good television

Meanwhile, Rhona Mitra's vampire housewife Claire, who was one of the big selling points of the show with her whole "killing a contractor" act in the first episode, shows a lot more facets this time around. She's still torn between her husband, the closeted vampire Dylan, and her lover, the "let's run wild and kill some people" vampire Christian, who won't leave her alone. But there's more to her than just frustrated hunger for warm blood — she actually starts to listen to Sarah's urgings to make peace with the werewolf lady, Karen Crezski. And in the end, they do wind up making a temporary truce — very temporary, judging from the promo for next week's episode — to join forces to warn Sarah to stop drinking the evil witch Devon's tea. But the scene that really made me start being interested in Claire again was the one where she talks her husband, Dylan, out of helping with Nick's crusade to counter-blackmail their blackmailer. She surprised me, which is something characters on television don't do often enough, by championing the status quo and arguing that Dylan should listen to his own advice and try to fit in, rather than causing trouble. This felt like a real conversation between married people both of whom are having to make compromises to keep it together, rather than canned televisual melodrama. And suddenly, Claire feels like a person instead of a sexy vampire vixen.

The Gates has become damned good television

And then finally, there's Devon, who's the closest thing to a straight-up villain. The idea of a witch doing internet dating was amusing enough, but then there was a fun bit of misdirection — we were supposed to think she was priming her new werewolf lover to go kill a few people who had annoyed her, but actually she just wanted to drown him in her jacuzzi and steal his eyeballs for some nasty-looking spell involving spa facial masks. And blood. I had to admit I was relieved that Sarah didn't give up drinking Devon's mind-control tea quite so easily — it would have felt a bit too quick a resolution to that storyline, and I can't wait to see where it goes.

The Gates has become damned good television

Sadly, The Gates is not getting stunning ratings, even for a summer replacement series. It's too bad that, as with so many other shows, its pilot wasn't really representative of how great the show was going to become. One reason I wish this show was a runaway hit is because I would love to see all the bloggers and academics chewing over its complicated gender politics — especially in last night's episode, the supernatural creatures were pretty much all women (we had the usual werewolf boy and the vampire husband, but they were in supporting roles) and the show was definitely playing with our stereotypes of female destructiveness. You have Andie, the teen girl who drives men so wild, they fight over her, and then there's the evil witch Devon, who controls people and lures them to their doom. And then the classic vampire/werewolf rivalry, played out in a suburban enclave. The pool party is a roiling pit of aggression and loathing.

The Gates has become damned good television

Really, this show is groping towards saying something about civil society and our foundational myth that women are the civilizers while men are the rough beasts whom women tame. You even see Buckley's wife, who's revealed to be a vampire herself, trot out a version of that myth — she's the reason The Gates exist, her husband has created a safe space for her and others like her — but it's clearly not true, any more than the idea that women are destructive creatures who need to be controlled by men is true either. At its best, The Gates flirts with both ideas, but then shows us other hidden facets of its characters that show how much more to the story there really is.

Let's hope we get a few more great episodes like this one before The Gates close forever.