Well that was a pleasant surprise, albeit on the whole more pleasant than surprising. It’s not quite fair to say that bottle episodes are easy to do well, because they’re very definitely not, but once you’ve got them working they tend to end up with enough momentum to pull off impressive things. “Detained” is a case in point. It doesn’t shed Class’s persistent problem of never aspiring to anything more than cliches done well, but it does at least manage to take the cliche to an interesting place that’s based firmly on what Class can do as a show.
What that is, given the singular lack of an original idea at any point so far this season, is good character work with an impressive ensemble. Which is maybe an obvious thing to say about a bottle episode - character work is what they inevitably end up hinging on. But “Detained” is a bracing reminder of just how good a cast of characters the show has. Even Matteusz and Charlie, who have generally been the weak links in the cast, get moments to shine here. The use of Matteusz as the first person to pick up the stone on one level speaks to his marginalization (and Ram also points out his odd status), but it also works, and not just because it doubles to establish him as the one of the crew who does things like step up and pick up a weird alien rock to throw it away.
Charlie, on the other hand, gets the last slot in the “pick up the stone and confess shit” list, and thus gets the episode’s primary hero moment, something he’s not actually gotten prior to this episode. This is interesting. On the one hand, he for the most part doesn’t behave how you’d expect. I mean, the existence of contours between regalness and vulnerability is obvious, but they come in fairly interesting places. On the other, most of these places are absences as opposed to presences. Other than the revelation of his claustrophobia, the most interesting things revealed are things like his relative lack of anger. Which is legitimately interesting, and yet still somehow falls short of developing him as a character. Still, it’s progress in what had been the show’s weakest area.
The other three characters, meanwhile, are also generally well-served. Of them Ram has the oddest episode, largely reverting to type in the face of the stone’s (somewhat contrived) ability to make everyone in the room angry. But his surliness sparks interesting confrontations as well. His breakup with April is devastating in the way that it’s at once obviously self-defeating and utterly in character, and the brash recklessness with which he picks up the stone is fantastic.
April is similarly good - I loved her account of herself after her confession, which highlights the sort of emotional maturity and practicality that makes her such an interesting character. But even more than that, I liked the way in which she still made mistakes, especially in her anger. April is a character it would be easy to write as too perfect - she’s by some margin more grown up than anyone else in the show (Quill included and perhaps especially), she’s routinely used as the show’s primary moral voice, and she’s got magic powers stuff going on. Ness’s ability to write her as a character with flaws who is still uncharitable and rash sometimes is impressive.
And then there’s Tanya, fresh off of two episodes that were painful in their underuse of her and once again restored to her role of being the person who figures things out for the group. In many ways she ends up being the character best served by this episode’s premise - the moments where she confesses her anxieties or expresses her anger are sharp and inspired, with the racial dimensions of her life experience acknowledged and validated while still allowing her to be wrong and unfair to her friends. It’s a remarkable and subtle bit of characterization, and probably the thing that best illustrates the show’s strengths.
As for weaknesses… well, Patrick Ness still has a tin ear for dialogue. And that’s a bigger problem for a bottle episode than most. This is at times a clumsy and over-obvious thing that falls into tell-don’t-show (not inherently a problem) with awkward and over-emotive telling (very much a problem). Especially when combined with the on-its-sleeves nature of its tropes, it has the frustrating tendency to feel less intelligent and creative than it’s being. But this is a small complaint in the face of an episode that very much renews my hopes that this show could make something of itself, even if it feels like it might need a second season to really do it.