(Note: This review covers the first half of the two-episode event that aired on 04 January, 2010. This review was written without prior knowledge of the events in the second episode. A subsequent review will cover the second half of the event.)
Heroes returns from a brief winter hiatus to begin its final stretch for the fourth season (and possibly for the series). The events of the previous episode suggest that the season arc is shifting into its resolution phase, with about 6-7 episodes remaining, but the momentum doesn't pick up much in this particular installment.
The writers have adopted a slow but steady approach to the fourth season, focusing more on character development and exploration than endless plot twists and turns, and the results are mixed. Generally speaking, this is a preferable approach, especially when the characters are fascinating. This is one reason why Lost has been so successful; at the heart, it is a show about complicated characters on a bizarre journey to redemption (or, in some cases, a lack thereof).
Everything about this season of"Heroes" boldly points to a similar mandate. As I've said before, the statement was a bit too bold. Redemption works when it is organic. If the audible has to be told that redemption is the goal, it's not redemption. It's self-serving rhetoric. But it has been toned down over the course of the season, and now the question is whether or not the characters are still interesting enough to carry the story. (And this has been an ongoing concern since the beginning of the third season.)
For my part, Samuel and the other carnies continue to be the saving grace of the season and series. Why? Because the writers do better with characters without established history. They can shape the character's background to fit the immediate story requirements, and for the most part, it all feels right. Despite some hiccups along the way, Samuel has proven to be a complex character, full of righteous indignation and a dangerous level of self-deception.
I had hopes that Samuel would emerge as a true Magneto-esque figure, and one way or another, he's serving that purpose. Whether it is all about his personal desire for power and control, he is still bent on creating a sanctuary for metahumans. To call on another typical comparison, Samuel reminds me very much of Jordan Collier from "The 4400". I love how he's calculating in one moment and solicitous the next, all while carrying the banner of providing a home for his people.
If Samuel's character had been less nuanced, Claire's reactions might have been too obvious. Instead, Claire seems to have come to the logical conclusion: Samuel's goal is not the issue, but rather, his methods and personal agenda. The problem is that Claire has yet to communicate much of anything well, so it remains to be seen if these distinctions will carry over to Peter (who is obviously the one she will be turning to for help).
That said, this is the most interesting Claire has been in a long time. While the Claire/Gretchen kiss has proven to be little more than ratings fodder, as many feared, her interaction with Samuel strikes at the heart of the character's inner conflict, tired as it has become. It doesn't hurt that Hayden is still very easy on the eyes.
The other prominent subplot in this episode pertains to Hiro and his attempt to communicate to Ando, now that his brain has been scrambled. It didn't take long to figure out that Hiro was trying to tell everyone that he needed to break Mohinder out of the psychiatric hospital, so it was a little frustrating when it was clear that the characters would take a lot longer to get to the same point. Hopefully this will be resolved in the next episode. Hiro's geek-speak aphasia was amusing, but it was a minor improvement on what continues to be another disappointing plot thread for Hiro. At this point, it seems clear that the writers have no intentions of letting Hiro (or Ando) grow.
On the whole, the good elements of the episode outweighed the bad and tedious. I still consider this to be an entertaining show, even if it is occasionally frustrating. Much of that is due to the new characters and the storytelling opportunities they have generated. Even so, I doubt it is enough to bring back former fans of the show or earn it another season.