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How Alphas' Rachel Pirzad broke conventions of heroism
SYFY's Alphas lasted for two glorious seasons and ended on one of science fiction television's most devastating unresolved cliffhangers. The series followed a government-sponsored group of individuals with enhanced abilities (known as the titular Alphas) investigating crimes and events suspected to involve other Alphas.
Emerging smack in the middle of the superhero media renaissance, Alphas brought a breadth of characters to the small screen and ultimately redefined the superhero genre for TV forever. Led by Alphas expert (but a non-Alpha himself) Dr. Lee Rosen, the core team consisted of five members: Gary Bell, Nina Theroux, Bill Harken, Rachel Pirzad, and Cameron Hicks (who joined in the pilot as the party being investigated by the team and marked the start of the series' events). But it is Rachel who stands out through Alphas' two seasons as perhaps the most fascinating and remarkable, a character who both conforms to and defies the status of "superhero" or "superhuman" in unique ways.
Rachel Pirzad (played by the marvelous Azita Ghanizada) is an Afghan-American member of Dr. Rosen's team with the ability to temporarily heighten one sense to an extreme, superhuman degree while lessening the others — the power of "hyperesthesia." Coupled with this, she also has synesthesia, which is demonstrated on the show as her ability to see smells and most likely encompasses other visualizations of sensory information or blended sensory experiences. Together, she can process immense amounts of information about an object simply by examining, touching, smelling, or tasting it, or pinpoint a sound from a large distance away.
Placed in conjunction with the abilities of other team members, this proved to be extraordinarily helpful when solving cases, especially when they involved other Alphas with impossible, superhuman skillsets. However, every Alpha has a direct or indirect downside to their enhanced ability, and Rachel's sensitivity to stimuli is so strong that she is often unable to partake in conventional norms of social interaction due to extreme germophobia and reactions to touch. Intimacy of any form is also extraordinarily difficult, despite her desire to engage with others and others to engage with her. Heightening one sense for the sake of the team also leaves the rest of her senses temporarily nonexistent, rendering her vulnerable to sources of danger.
In moments of involuntarily increased sensory experience like loud sounds, strong smells, or arousing touch, Rachel's senses began to spin out of control and overwhelm her. This manifested in difficult ways for her, such as needing to move out of the house of her more conservative immigrant parents due to the stimulus from pheromones released in quarrels as well as being flooded with too much sensory information when engaging in romantic activity as simple as a kiss.
Despite her profound Alpha abilities, Rachel's skill challenged her personal, professional, and social lives in ways that may have put any ordinary person through more tribulations than they were willing to endure. But through the show's two seasons, Rachel makes a number of breakthroughs, and we see her overcome personal and professional obstacles that allow her to transform as a person while simultaneously harnessing the best of her superhuman ability.
At the start of the series, Rachel is much more timid and constantly bends to the will of the other team members asking her to touch or smell objects due to the flexibility of her Alpha skillset. Over the course of the show, however, she begins to grow more resistant to the team's efforts to use her as what she describes as a "walking crime lab." We also slowly learn the influence her parents have exerted over her, constantly trying to "cure" Rachel of her ability as it has caused conflict within their family, including their numerous (albeit often humorous) attempts to find a husband for her. She eventually moves out and then moves back in, able to reconcile their differences while maintaining a level of autonomy.
When other team members attempt to take advantage of her abilities for their work or personal gain, she takes it with grace and aplomb — or admirable strength when it goes too far — and continues to persevere, always the last one to take a shot at a difficult case when everybody else is stuck. In the face of internal and external adversity, Rachel grows into herself, working over two seasons to finally control her sensory abilities enough to engage in a sexual encounter with her romantic partner without getting overloaded.
Rachel's abilities and narrative arc counter that of many conventional heroes or warriors, even when these boundaries are stretched. Her superhuman skill often makes her more vulnerable than everybody else, while her ability to contribute positively is often understated in favor of other Alphas with more prominent abilities, such as Nina's persuasive powers ("hyper induction") or Cameron's enhanced motor skills and reflexes ("hyperkinesis"). Rachel's Alpha ability is also much less tangible than the other Alphas, as the information she learns from examining an object or situation often must be placed in context with other data. Yet she fearlessly goes forward, never let down or swayed by the urgency or entitlement exhibited by other Alphas who often use their abilities in more active or reckless manners.
In these ways, Rachel is one of the most incredible, complex characters of Alphas and science fiction television writ large. Although she is by no means a traditional "superhero," the manner in which she places herself in any situation for the good of the entire team is one of the most profound instances of her selfless nature, despite the necessary risks she knows she must take. She thus relies on other members of her team to back her up, trusting that they will and trusting that they know what she's doing. Rachel gives so much more than she takes and overcomes many of the struggles she faces over the course of the series, cementing her in genre history as an unparalleled embodiment of heroism, strength, and inspiration.