“This quest. This need to solve life’s mysteries. In the end, what does it matter when the human heart can only find meaning in the smallest of moments? They’re here. Among us. In the shadows. In the light. Everywhere. Do they even know yet? “
– Mohinder Suresh, Heroes Pilot, “Genesis”
In the summer of 2006 I poured myself into a lush chair at The Paley Center for Media in New York City. It was their annual week of network pilot screenings. Long before you could preview pilots online THIS was the only way to see pilots before they aired. My network of choice: NBC – to see Aaron Sorkin’s new drama Studio 60 on The Sunset Strip; I would leave loving a different kind of show and with a new “heroine” at my side. NBC’s 2006-2007 season along with the above mentioned series included 30 Rock, Friday Night Lights, and a little “superhero” series called: Heroes.
I didn’t read comic books or had any interest in superheroes since I wore Underoos, yet by the end of the cliffhanger pilot I gasped – the entire audience grasped as a collective in fact. And then we laughed… at ourselves. This little tv series about ordinary people discovering they had extraordinary powers had touched us so much we had even shocked ourselves by our level of investment in these new characters.
It was the future.
A series with a multi-ethnic, multicultural and a many language speaking cast, of mostly hot twenty to thirty somethings with special powers, would be the start of a trend in many ways, and not just of “super” human narratives. Still, it wasn’t the teenage cheerleader (Claire) who could heal herself, or the hot, Indian scientist looking for his father’s killer (Mohinder), or even the adorable Japanese office worker (Hiro) who could manipulate and travel through time, that took my curiosity the most.
No… I only had to look at the focus of that cliffhanger, the complicated Petrelli Family, politically ambitious shark Nathan and dreamer, empathic, nurse, Peter… anddddd right past them to their sixty-one year old mother Angela (played by the incomparable Cristine Rose). A character who, first without words, simply through gesture and behavior, and then in two short scenes, left me wanting more. You know Regina the evil Queen in Once Upon A Time… well you wouldn’t have her if Angela Shaw Petrelli hadn’t come first.
If you’re a fan of the series Heroes or even if you’ve never watched an episode I guarantee you by the end of this column you will be her #1 fan. That you will see what I saw at the Paley Center that day, and the reason the writers took her from an obscure character in that pilot to the last standing hero. To quote Angela: “Can you believe?”
I don’t know why I feel the need to defend Angela Petrelli, maybe because so many people hate her. And I don’t mean love to hate her, I mean HATE HER. And why not? She becomes the main villain of season one and one of the stalwart grey characters of the entire series. And in the third act of the first season it was discovered that Angela appeared to want to hurt the characters we had grown to love over the course of that season, almost half of which she is related to.
For those of us who loved or “loved to hate” her throughout the series, Angela Petrelli became a mix of badassery and fabulousness in designer threads, with devilish one liners and hints of vulnerability behind the facade she put up for protection. She was presented as a character who felt showing her emotions was a weakness, but in the end was her true strength. She is a tragic figure as much as a character to recoil from. Maybe I see her differently because I was enthralled by her from the start – the moment I saw her before her trajectory as a character was even, the above mentioned, gleam in the writers room proverbial eye.
So for Exhibit A: Let’s briefly revisit Angela Petrelli’s introduction in the pilot: Genesis.
Our first glimpse of Angela is her alone in the back room of a police station. Dressed well, she wears a large diamond ring that glitters in contrast to her dirty surroundings and with her perfectly manicured finger nails she tries to scratch a stain off a cheap plastic table. A stain. This is a woman who desires order. Control. This is a woman with money. This is an actress who just established character without a word of dialogue – through, as I mentioned before: behavior.
Behavior, more than words, is how human beings tell us who they are, and a cornerstone of the acting process. (keep this in mind as we go forward) Why is THIS women in a police station? Socks. She stole a pair of socks. This seems out of character, and her son Nathan confirms our suspicions with his instant dismay at her continuing odd behavior since his father’s death six months earlier, even going as far as to declare she “get over it.” Angela says nothing. Gives no explanation.
While her younger son Peter offers concern, tenderly holding his mother’s hand. When she confesses to Peter, alone, her reasoning, “I just wanted to feel alive again” you feel for this vulnerable, reserved woman, maybe a little separated from reality. Especially touching is a moment when she and her son touch heads lovingly – pulling at your heartstrings. But wait…
In the next scene, Angela seems to change on a dime – tough and strong, demanding that Peter put himself first or the Nathans of the world will walk all over him. She is cold and unrelenting, yet loving at the same time. What happened to her after her husband’s death to make her so blunt? ( More on that later…) Angela continues with statements like “Love is overrated” and “when you put everyone else first, you wind up last.” What caused Angela to be so jaded?
The gist is she is trying to protect her child, perhaps in the wrong way, but the goal is clear. Protect at all costs. This is her behavior. And I will prove through this (two part) article that this is her default behavior throughout the series, as much as she tries to “cut out her own heart” to save the world, as another character on the show states… but like I said… more on him later. Angela then playfully hits her son on the face (an improv from the actor) when he divulges to her how he once dreamt that his brother was hurt before he knew it. She’s just the “Mom” – judgmental, but Mom.
Perhaps this is why it was as much a surprise to the audience at large, as it was to her sons, that by the end of the first season Angela Petrelli was revealed to be the founder of a clandestine “Company” featured throughout the series. A “Company” that bagged and tagged people with abilities and whose associates believed being “morally grey” for a greater good was a justified evil. A “Company” who along with one of the other founders, a Vegas gangster named Linderman (and an associate of Daddy Petrelli) want to let a “catastrophic event”, a bomb, go off in NYC, killing .07% of it’s population. Believing the aftermath of such an “event” would bring the world together in peace.
And it didn’t seem to matter that now, due to a change in that timeline, that bomb could be her son Peter, or that her other son Nathan would rise to political office on the backs of those deaths.
So shocking was it that when Angela tells her son Nathan, upon the revelation of her secret: ”You don’t know everything about me, Nathan,” she may not just be speaking to a son who dismissed her as a human being, but to an audience that did the same. They did what every child at some point has done – failed to see their parent as a human being… with a past … that they were once young like themselves. With hopes; with dreams.
And perhaps the audience began to hate “Mama Petrelli” like a resentful child. Yes, how did Angela Petrelli get here? Justifying murder to “save the world.” After all no one is born full of sin, they acquire it over time. Next, I’m going to take you through a few important key moments and scenes in Angela’s time on the series and use that as a window into understanding her.
For as Angela said to her family in season three, when they demanded from her something she had never given them: The truth, “ Then you’ll have to dig.”
Part Two: Every villain has an origins story. Every parent wants their children to learn from their mistakes.