Perhaps because of the scheduling, which has involved fewer and shorter breaks, this season has seemed to be cut down to the bone. In reality, it is only a few episodes short of the average network television season. It occurs to me that the slower pace has also made it feel like the season is shorter, because in an overall sense, less ground has been covered.
The pace has been a mixed blessing. In many cases, it actually allowed for character exploration, which is one of those things that always fell short in earlier seasons. Some characters motivations have been a lot more defined as a result. On the other hand, many of the characters have already long since worn out their welcome, and what begins as deliberation can devolve into stagnation.
As the penultimate chapter for this season (and quite possibly, the series), this felt a bit like writers' room navel-gazing. For all the build-up in the previous episode, this seemed to take what could have been five minutes of a typical hour and stretched it to the breaking point. That it largely focused on everything that has been wrong with this season is both appropriate and unfortunate.
I'll start with the Sylar/Peter plot thread. It appears I was wrong about the body swap that was suggested at the end of the previous episode. Instead, the writers went for the notion that time seems to pass much more quickly in Sylar's dream-world, thus forcing the two enemies to spend years in isolation. The notion being thus: if Peter can eventually come to terms with Sylar's professed restored humanity, then Sylar can be redeemed.
In essence, it's a cheat. It's a way to skip over the actual hard part of redeeming a character. And maybe we shouldn't be surprised by that choice; the writers already played at having Sylar abandon his evil ways, and then completely undermined it in the third season. Even taking into account in internal influence of Nathan and Matt on Sylar's psychological state, Sylar's tortured character journey makes any attempt at redemption hard to swallow.
At this point, however, it's still possible for the writers to do this right. They could have Sylar make the effort to do the right thing, realize that his impulses are still overwhelming his desire to change, and sacrifice himself to take down Samuel. It wouldn't be redemption by any means, but it would give the character a chance to go out on a high note.
Though, to the eternal damnation of the writers, it would also mean that the oft-promised throwdown between Peter and Sylar would be negated by, literally, years of talking it out. And since the writers have done everything to avoid that scenario since the first season finale, the downfall of Heroes still traces right back to that decision to soften the ending, let Sylar live, and abandon the original intention of replacing the cast every season to keep the series fresh.
That might have long since eliminated the frustrations with Noah and Claire. Claire's character arc has been more tolerable this season, if only because it was connected to Samuel's plot arc, which has been the season's saving grace. Noah, on the other hand, has been all over the map. Did we really need to tack on more information about how he came to work with the Company? Noah has already lost his edge in several ways, and these flashbacks only serve to further water him down. Instead of a character that embraced a world that is morally gray, Noah is now someone who was led astray by his grief and anger.
Even Samuel's arc is pointing towards disappointment. I understand the argument that Samuel's "earthquake" ability, taken to the extremes allowed by focusing the energy of his "family", would probably be uncomfortable for many viewers in the wake of the tragedy in Haiti. And if the episodes were coming later in the spring, having been written after Haiti's decimation, I would agree that the changes would be understandable and perhaps even justified.
But that's not the case. These episodes were already in the can before the Haiti disaster, so it accurately reflects what the writers thought was a good resolution to the plot. They honestly felt that it would be a better payoff to replace a threat to destroy a major city by shaking it to the ground (the logical progression of Samuel's escalating instability) with the Classical Music Concert of Doom. Apparently Samuel thinks that nothing will strike fear into the hearts of New Yorkers than thousands of people dying because of out-of-tune music. (There's a joke about American Idol auditions or country/western singers in there somewhere.)
The fact that Emma was introduced very early suggests that the writers had something like this in mind from the start. So as the writers build Samuel up to be more and more powerful, and outright foreshadow that he could destroy cities in the Coyote Sands video and through his destruction of a small town, they know that they will never deliver! It's the same formula that has plagued "Heroes" in each and every volume: build up the story towards a climax, and then undercut it as severely as possible - and then complain that the criticism from genre fans is unfair.