Game time has become showtime on the PlayStation platform with Powers, the streaming series based on the graphic novels of the same name from writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Michael Avon Oeming. The show, which sees its second season premiere on May 31st, follows the lives of two homicide detectives, Christian Walker (Sharlto Copley) and Deena Pilgrim (Susan Heyward), who are assigned to investigate cases involving people with extraordinary abilities, referred to as “Powers.” The setting is our paparazzi-obsessed culture, and among the questions explored are whether or not these so-called heroes are heroic at all or, instead, just given a license to benefit themselves, whether through creating chaos, committing murder or obtaining endorsement deals. The new season delves into the storyline made famous by the first comic, “Who Killed Retro Girl?”, as the Powers Division investigates the shocking murder of the world famous superhero (Michelle Forbes) and the mysteries that her death uncovers.
Bendis, who has plenty on his creative plate with season two of Jessica Jones, the various comics he writes and, of course, Powers, reflects on each episode making up season one of the series. Beware spoilers.
As a whole, when you look back at season one of Powers, what's your feeling about it?
Brian Michael Bendis: I've never looked at something and went, "Nailed it!" It's not the way I am. At the same time, I'm reluctant to pick stuff apart like some people do. I've won awards for stuff that I can't stand, so I've learned to do better next time and don't whine publicly, because someone else liked it and probably spent money on it. Why make them feel bad? What we are very happy about was the response, which was very word of mouth and very positive and it's why we got a second season. Watching our numbers build over last summer and PlayStation going, "We're getting this many views a day," was quite lovely.
It certainly seems to be connecting. Hasn't the trailer for season two been viewed over five and a half million times?
Bendis: Yes, and that's five and a half million more than read any comic in the world. It's nice to be in the world of millions versus thousands. That's very cool. What we've done is looked at season one where a lot of really cool things happened and focused on those things and how to make more of them. You could look at episode six of season one and see that everything on the show got much better. In the old days of television, that's about always what happened. There'd be a cool pilot, and then sometimes shows needed a few episodes to find their footing.
It's a learning curve.
Bendis: Exactly. Seinfeld is a perfect example. You watch the first episodes and it’s like they’re moving in slow motion. Then somebody realized what they had and it changed everything. We had the same thing. Right in the middle of the first season we really found some cool stuff to do. You also discover stuff about the actors; you discover energies between the actors that are worth writing towards. And what was really interesting is that we left the first season at the beginning of what was the comic book. The comic book's first graphic novel is called "Who Killed Retro Girl?"
Which, for anyone who hadn't read it, was genuinely shocking.
Bendis: We used the idea that the biggest superhero in the world has been murdered. The investigation that follows allows our characters to discover the world of Powers for the audience. Every layer of investigation opens a door and shows you something you haven't seen before or something from an angle you haven't seen it before. With every one of those scenes, we get to find out something new about those characters. Here we are at the beginning of season two and, really, it's the beginning of a comic book, and off we go. On top of that, me and Remi Aubuchon, the season two showrunner, sat down and said, "Here's how we're going to spend our money."
We hired an amazing cinematographer, costume designer, and stunt coordinator, with crazy credits. The woman who designed our new police department, designed the “barn” on The Shield. This was, in my mind, the best cop shop ever. We put a lot of money behind the scenes so the show looks like something as good as Jessica Jones or Daredevil, which I think are tremendously visual shows. There's the bar and where we should be. Particularly Jessica Jones, which I helped create. Jessica Jones and Powers were created to be this other thing, and in comics they should be thought of in the same voice or on the same list. We spent our money behind the scenes and made a show that's visually scrumptious. People see from the trailer that it is a visually much different show. That's exciting.
And the caliber of the acting seems like it's going up, and that's with having had a very strong cast to begin with.
Bendis: We hired very well first season. Noah Taylor, Eddie Izzard... these were tremendous hires. But those stories came to an end and we had to move on. I'm flat out stealing something someone else said to me on the Internet when they saw the trailer for season two; they said it looks like the Ocean's Eleven of cool genre actors: Michael Madsen, Tricia Helfer, Wil Wheaton... That's pretty awesome. But, believe me, it's hard to replace Eddie, because Eddie, on top of my being a fan before it started, ended up being the coolest human we'd ever met. He was a really cool dude. So it was definitely a big inspiration to keep going down that road.
Earlier you mentioned the death of Retro Girl. That closing shot of season one, of her body just lying there, seemed like a comic book splash page.
Bendis: We definitely were, like, "Whether we get a second season or not, that's what happened." If anything, it's kind of a bully move to the studio: "Well, you've got to get us a second season! We've got to find out who killed her!" Anyway, that's of course not how it works, but over the course of the season we ended up getting enough business where they gladly gave us our second season. Which was quite wonderful, because we are in flat out uncharted territory. We were the first new show on the PlayStation network, we are part of this crazy restructuring of all of what television means. It's a really interesting time, and it was nice not to screw it up.
In what follows, Bendis addresses the various episodes making up season one of Powers, detailing their role in expanding this universe.
“Pilot”: In a world where having powers can make you a celebrity, the death of a well-known superhero is headline news. Now Detective Christian Walker (Sharlto Copley) and his new partner Deena Pilgrim (Susan Heyward) are on a mission to discover the truth
“Like A Power”: Conflicted with the loss of his former life as a Power, power-less Walker must overcome his personal demons and find Calista (Olyesa Rulin), who has gone missing.
“Mickey Rooney Cries No More”: As a lethal powers-enhancing drug is unleashed on the public, Walker and Pilgrim seek out the criminal mastermind behind it with the help of iconic Power, Retro Girl (Michelle Forbes).
“Devil In A Garbage Bag”: Walker, Pilgrim and the rest of the Powers Division must prevent Wolfe (Eddie Izzard) from escaping the high security prison that holds him, The Shaft.
Bendis: The pilot did what it had to do, but it also represents why Powers had such a long road to the screen. What we're trying to do is take two genres, mash them up, show them from an angle you haven't seen them before, do them both better than they get done, and all for adults. It's a very peculiar thing that the comic book does. Even when we did the comic book, when people saw Mike Oeming's artwork, they would say, "That's not what that book should look like." I'm, like, "No, that's the only thing that book should look like." “It looks like a cartoon and it's for adults.” I'm, like, "Yeah, I can't see it any other way." Flat out, our publisher told us, "This is the wrong style for this book," and then three issues later he goes, "I was wrong. I'm sorry. I was totally wrong." I felt certain things like that with the show. We cast very well, so we had the energy of the cast coming right at us and really delivering what the comic book delivered as we were figuring out the visual language of the show. Then by episode six it all came together.
What was interesting about the pilot was the journey to get it on the air and how many different versions there were, including a different pilot with a different cast. Finally finding its way to the air with the right approach was fascinating. Then with episodes two and three and four, we're really getting into the nitty-gritty of what the world is, that we're on an investigation, and we're really getting a sense of Walker. We realize, "Oh, this guy is an addict and he hasn't recovered. He has not come to terms with the fact that he does not have his powers anymore, and he's making some poor choices." Then we're also discovering Deena, played by Susan Heyward, who is amazing, and she's coming at it from a real family of cops, and we're discovering everything about her.
I love those episodes, because we really get a sense of who the characters are and what they're up to. Also, I liked what we discover about Noah Taylor as Johnny Royalle, his powers, how they affect the way he sees the world, this inability to really connect with the rest of the planet because he can just leave. I told Charlie Houston, who was running the show last season, this is my favorite thing and the kind of thing we did in the comic. Johnny has a teleportation power, but let's really talk about what that does to his brain, what that does to him as a person. You see environment affecting people all the time, but if you could fly, it would affect how you are as a human. In the comic, we always dealt with that stuff and how powers affect the sexual spectrum. That very specific stuff is very interesting to me. I think we delved into it pretty good there.
“Paint It Black”: As Retro Girl, Zora (Logan Browning), and the heroes of the world rush to stop the escape of Wolfe from The Shaft, Walker realizes he must face him alone.
Bendis: There’s a lot of blood! One of my favorite comments from a viewer said, “I’m assuming everyone in Powers is eight feet tall, because those are geysers of blood.” It was a funny comment to me. It’s one of those midseason, the shit really hits the fan episodes. You’ve got Eddie completely covered in blood and he’s doing horrible, horrible things, enjoying himself immensely... even behind the scenes. Very fun to watch the dailies as he’s just having a ball. We got to these crossroads for Walker and Deena particularly, and we’ve really gone to some dark places. I was watching the dailies and thinking, “Well, you’re not going to see that on The Flash." I’m not dissing on The Flash. I’m just saying that that’s what our show should be. Our show should be stuff you’re not going to see on network television, and, yep, there it was.
“The Raconteur Of The Funeral Circuit”: In the wake of the battle to stop Wolfe, the Powers division gathers to mourn the loss of their fellow officers, while Walker seeks answers about his own future and the possibility of becoming Diamond once again.
Bendis: I actually think this is the best episode of the season. Number one: You'll see that, visually, the cinematography gets better on that episode, and also, oh my God, look what happens when you put the cast in the same room. There's so many divergent stories on this show that rarely is everyone in the same story. We put them all in the funeral, and they're all in the same room. The energy was crackling! They're so interesting together. That was a big eye opener. You'll see, particularly in the episode that I wrote this season, any way to get them all in the same room, I did. Overall, episode six did say to me and everyone else that this show is worth making. That sounds ridiculous, but there are so many shows, and comics, too, where you read them and go, “Okay, you’re making this for a reason, but your reason is lost on me.”
It doesn't have to be anything more than fun, but I worry about stuff like that in my day job with comics. I always read through my scripts like, "Would I buy this? Is there a point to this?" I really put it through that weird criticism of myself. With the show, having gone through all of that struggle to get on the air, I really wanted to make sure that we were on the right track. Thanks to Allison Moore's excellent writing on that episode and the direction, it really demonstrated what the show's potential could be. It also showed that we'd hired a tremendous cast. It's a very well cast show, and this cast gave so much of themselves.
"You Are Not It”: After Wolfe’s plea to end his life, Walker and Pilgrim must act quickly to stop Johnny Royalle’s (Noah Taylor) petition to meet with Wolfe in The Shaft.
“Aha Shake Heartbreak”: Royalle reveals to Walker the true nature of the Sway drug and the inevitable devastation it will cause if Wolfe is ever to escape, in order to persuade him to join his new cause to annihilate Wolfe.
Bendis: Now we're off to the races, now we're headed towards the big finale, now it's definitely going to be Wolfe versus Walker, and now we're getting into areas where the question becomes how far is Walker going to fall? Who's going to suffer in the wake of this? That stuff gets very heavy. Everyone is starting to really bring interesting stuff to the table.
“Level 13”: In the penultimate episode, written by Bendis, Walker decides how far he is willing to go to regain his powers.
Bendis: The biggest compliment I got at Sony was, "Who does a heist episode as their penultimate episode?" I said, "I know, but in my head ..." They go, "No, no, no, we love it." I was very happy with that compliment, because, again, that's something a show like this should be. There's something you haven't seen. Now I've seen hundreds of hours of dailies of the actors, and not only what we show you on the show, but things that you guys will never see that I saw, which was how much Noah and Sharlto liked each other, and how much Susan had to offer that we haven't even scratched the surface of yet. Wrapping the whole episode around what looks like a Steve McQueen heist movie, and then using that gigantic set one last time, it was very exciting.
Also, every writer has this one line of dialogue that the writer can't shake. No matter how many times you write it, you're going to write it again. It's not that they're trying to be hacky, it's for the one time they're going to hear it the right way. It's like a piece of music, and I just hadn't heard it perfectly. I gave it to Eddie, even though I used it in the comic six times, and I said, "Please, if Eddie delivers this line, I'll be free of this," and he did it. He said it perfectly and I was suddenly free. And the truth is, it's such a stupid line. Only other writers will know what I'm talking about. At the end of the episode he said, "Walker, we're going to have words." Even if nobody else liked the episode, I have been elevated.
I also like playing with broken time or fraction storytelling. I do it often in comics, though it's really hard to do in that medium. It's much easier to do in television, so I was happy to finally get to do an episode that bounces back and forth between time frames.
“F@#k The Big Chiller”: Wolfe has escaped, leaving a path of destruction and death in his wake, pushing Walker to put aside his desire to regain his own powers in order to help the Powers Division and heroes of the world end this threat once and for all.
Bendis: I think another reason we got our second season is that the season finale delivered. Everything that needed to happen, happened. The bad guy was vanquished, Walker discovered that he has a problem, and he makes the right choice at the end. It really, even for seasoned watchers of this genre, looked like Walker was incapable of making the right choice. He ultimately did. My favorite characters to track were Calista and Zora, the ascension of one hero with the fall of another. All things that we're very excited to pick up in the next season. Calista finally gets her powers, Logan Browning, who plays Zora, who comes in as this cocky ... Even in the book I refer to the superheroes in the same light you would refer to musicians, where there's one hit wonders and legends, and people who are cool for a moment. I always looked at Zora like Terence Trent D'Arby. Zora came in all full of talent, but, boy, was she full of herself. No offense. I'm sure D'Arby's a lovely person, but when he first came out to the scene he was quite a handful. I get fascinated by people being taken down all the way to the ground and then seeing what they're made of. I was, like, "If we get season two, we get to do the Logan wakes up in the hospital to discover she's a laughing stock, and she thought she was Beyoncé." That is a story I've been dying to tell, and we did get to do it.
The big wowzer is the death of Retro Girl. That which cannot be done has been done: A superhero that has been around forever, who looks like they can't be killed, has been killed. The impossible murder has happened, and the only person that could solve that impossible murder is the person who shouldn't be anywhere near the investigation, which is Christian Walker.
The book's been out for a few years. Of course we're going to kill her, that's what the book's about. Of course, more people saw the show than read the book. And because it was Michelle Forbes, no way did people think that was going to happen. When it did, I got the same mail I got 10 years ago when the book came out. It was very, very funny. They were yelling at me all over again about killing her. I would point out that if you Google it, the words "Who Killed Retro Girl?" come up, so it's not that big a spoiler, but there it was. It landed very well.
It was cool, because in the downtime between the end of this season, and people finding out there would be a second season, they did pick up the graphic novel. We had a surge of new readers who wanted to find out, at least in the comic book version, what happened next. If I was much more cunning, I would've considered that, but I was more focused on the show being the show. When has something like that ever happened? Between Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi, there wasn't anything to read. I had to wait three years. It's very interesting that people can now go to the movies and then find ancillary reading, or go to these TV shows and find ancillary reading, and at least scratch that itch for a while.
Powers streams on PlayStation in the US and the UK, and also airs on Spike in the UK.