Here there be spoilers.
Several years ago, I lived in France, and while there, I had the privilege of attending a talk by a Scottish poet whose work explored the concept of home and how that shaped a cultural identity. The talk was given in English to a group of distinguished faculty members, most of whom spoke French as a native language, and I will never forget one of them posing the deceptively simple question, “What is ‘home’?” I and all of the other anglophones in the audience found ourselves hard-pressed to answer because the concept in French is a bit different. “Home” the episode attempts to answer that question for Alara Kitan, and ultimately, the answer she finds leads her to depart the Orville. I don’t claim to know why Halston Sage departed the show, and I won’t speculate on that issue. I do think the episode gives her a solid send-off in some ways but does not quite go far enough in others.
From the beginning, we’ve known that Alara’s strength is derived from her birth on a world whose gravity is much higher than that of Earth, and while Alara relied on the strength throughout the first season, “Firestorm” provided us a glimpse of the potential for a much more complex character. Ignoring the awkwardness of the episode’s explanation, Alara’s drive to confront her fears and how she goes about doing so was deeply satisfying and allowed Sage to explore aspects of the character that did not involve bending steel or knocking heads together. In “Home”, Alara is losing that super strength because she’s acclimating to Earth standard gravity, and in order to regain that strength, she must return not only to Xelaya but to her family. Alara’s anxiety when faced with the loss of her strength called back to that, especially when she has to face her disapproving parents, Ildis (Robert Picardo) and Drenala (Molly Hagan), and her fantastically perfect sibling, Solana (Candace King) who is literally the fair-haired child with her Ph.D. and engagement.
After Alara returns to Xelaya, Ildis wastes no time in reminding Alara that she’s hardly good enough, plagued by “intellectual weakness” that forced her into a lesser career in the military. Alara doubles down on her identity as a security officer, lashing out at her father and explaining that all she needed as a girl was a bit of his approval. Ildis maintains that he acted appropriately and hopes that she will consider finishing her degree. Xelayan culture, apparently, prizes intellectual achievement over physical prowess, though during a shuttle trip near the family beach house, Solana does admit to envying Alara’s competence in her sphere despite feeling more evolved. Alara’s question to her sister is remarkably cogent—she asks why a person cannot be both intellectual and physically strong, but the episode never takes up that issue. Instead, the writers choose to let Alara demonstrate to her family that her wheelhouse is just as important as theirs and that their veneer of civility is perhaps just that, a veneer. It’s a bit of a waste of John Billingsley as Cambis Borrin is a fairly one-dimensional character, and Ildis’s emotional apology to Alara seems a bit over the top as he nearly sobs that he never attempted to get to know his daughter.
The Orville struggles with episode resolutions, and despite promising plot elements, the conclusions often seem rushed and tend not to have permanent consequences. Certainly, the damage to Ildis’s hand and the damage to Captain Mercer’s bones are emblematic of this, but so is Alara’s decision to resign her commission and remain on Xelaya. She has already established that she has no desire to return to the university, and there does not seem to be a good analogue for her role as a security profession on the planet. While she makes it clear that she wants to build a relationship with her family, I do wonder how that will work long term, but the show does not wrestle with that question either. The episode wraps up with her realization that the ship is not home so much as is her family on Xelaya, which I think shortchanges Alara’s character and the chemistry Sage brought to the show. That said, her tearful goodbyes to the rest of the crew as they appear from behind a second shuttle are pitch perfect, as is her gifting Mercer a pickle jar.
Stray Musings from the Couch:
1. There were a lot of Star Trek alums in this episode—the obvious ones being Robert Picardo and John Billingsley who played the doctors on Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise respectively. However, Molly Hagan played Eris, in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode “The Jem’Hadar.” Jason Alexander (Olix) despite being most famous for Seinfeld is a well known Star Trek fan and played Kurros on the Star Trek: Voyager episode “Think Tank.”
2. I am constantly struck by the sheer beauty of the Orville, visually. Xelaya’s purple oceans and rings are striking, and the Xelayan costumes managed to avoid Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “bad couch upholstery” feel that plagued all of the non-uniform clothing in the 24th century.
3. Tharl is terrible. Granted, he’s meant to be, but if you have the option of using someone like Patrick Warburton, one would hope that you’d find a better way to do it.
4. It was nice to see that even Xelayans apparently have the same girlhood fantasies that their human counterparts do, even if they do ride eeveks rather than unicorns.