Early on in the first episode of the fourth volume of "Heroes," Angela Petrelli speaks on behalf not of her eldest son, but perhaps the writing staff of the show itself. She tells Claire, "It's over. All of it. Primatech, The Company, Pinehurst. All of it. And we all have to accept that." The not so subtle message? "Our bad. Please don't leave en masse for '24,' pretty please!" Was the show reborn, Phoenix-like, or did it sit mired in the muck built up over the past two volumes?

The answer lies somewhere towards the latter, not the former. While not the epic train wreck that marked the majority of "Villains," tonight's installment "Clear and Present Danger" still possessed a lot of that season's maddening traits. Amidst inconsistent characterization to stupefyingly bad dialogue, one could occasionally catch a glimpse of the show many of us fell in deep love with back in Season 1.

[More after the bump.]

Sadly, the central conceit of the season so far centers around Nathan Petrelli's inexplicable decision to follow in his father's footsteps at the end of "Villains." It was a choice made not from a character perspective, but a plot perspective, and as such rang hollow then as well as now. Now, you can occasionally brush off the almost comical way in which major characters in this show suddenly act diametrically opposed to their previous intentions, but it's hard to do so when the central premise of an entire season is based around one of those schizophrenic shifts. 

But we can complain until the cows come home: it won't change the fact that over the course of a few months, Nathan Petrelli turned into the Ted Haggard of the superhero community, got the ear of President Worf, and helped use his high-ranking position inside of Homeland Security to create a military response to the superhero "threat." Ah, sweet irony: just a few months ago he injected Marines with Super Serum, and now he's equipping them with suits that seem to nullify the powers of those with whom they come into contact.

Tracy is the first to go down, but the rest soon fall rather quickly. Matt Parkman, pardon the pun, literally saw this coming, thanks to his newly endowed powers of prognostication. I could rant for a thousand words how the development of this power flies in the face of every rule that Heroes has constructed around the obtaining of powers. Instead, I'll just dub Parkman "Pillsbury! Eyesock," in honor of the third generation of Eyesocks on the show, and just try not to think about it too much. 

That strike force, led by the one and only Zeljko Ivanek (aka, "The Hunter"), are quite the effective group, taking down hero after hero throughout the hour. I suppose it helps to have inside information on their targets, provided not only by Nathan but HRG as well. Methinks Nathan and Noah concocted a "you scratch my back, I leave The Artist Formerly Known as The Catalyst alone" deal. That's the best possible explanation for why Noah's lent his Company-honed skills to the United States government. If the goal is a normal life for his Claire Bear, he's fine with providing it via the capture of former colleagues.

Claire, for her part, continued to evolve into this show's version of "Smallville's" Lana Lang. She's equal parts omnipotent, omnipresent, and annoying as all get out. According to "Heroes," she's the only one capable of throwing a cog into Nathan's well-oiled machine. How? Through the power of pouting? I was a ginormous Claire fan at the outset of the show, but the fixation the writers seems to have on her character is matched only by Claire's fixation on her own importance. She is the Cheerleader. She is the Catalyst. She is the Walrus. Coo coo, ga joob.

So, leave it up to "Heroes" to turn her into their version of Jack Bauer, able to free herself from a limousine, sneak aboard an airplane, and avoid detection while freeing 87% of the trapped heroes inside. Too bad, since the Bataan Death March performed by the masked heroes while boarding the plane afforded the show one of its most effective moments. It was like what would happen had David Lynch directed the attack on the Death Star.

Only a few people escaped The Hunter's grasp this week. One of those, Ando, spent most of the episode resenting his now-powerless best friend trying to vicariously live through The Super Charger. Indeed, Hiro has turned into a hybrid of Arthur Fox, Q, and Oracle at the volume's outset, using his vast family resources to build a lair, costume, and tricked out tech for his best buddy. The Hunter's forces captured Hiro, not Ando, which suggests this group is efficient though not working off the most reliable intel available.

Sylar, naturally, is the other to avoid capture this week. The show didn't bother to explain how he survived the attack on Pinehurst, which is just fine by me: he's a cockroach, and can survive basically anything. We all lamented how he spent all of Season 2 recovering, so I'm hardly going to call foul here. His journey this week stems directly from the revelation that he's not a Petrelli after all, but in fact the son of a taxidermist named Samson. The occupation fits nicely: both Samson and Sylar have a flair for the dramatic presentation of the dead. And if you know who is playing Samson, the name is deliciously apt as well.

If one were to look on the bright side of things, one could argue that the impending plane crash upon which the cliffhanger rests does something "Heroes" hatahs have long called for: a group of heroes working together over a prolonged period of time to fight a common enemy. Season 1 worked as it slowly drew all the characters inexorably towards Kirby Plaza, but since then has scattered them all across the world except for a few fleeting moments here and there. If those aboard that plane form some type of cohesive unit for the rest of the season, then I'm intrigued to see how this plays out.

But that's a big "if" right there. We "Heroes" fans know all too well how quickly promising seasons disintegrate before our very eyes. With Hiro powerless and Peter less powerful, perhaps this season can at least avoid the headache of time travel and focus on creating believable characters in extraordinary situations. And while I gagged at all those "the most super of all powers is working together" commercials, it just might be the key to turning a failing show into something approaching special once again.

So do you think "Heroes" is back? Or do you need more convincing?

Ryan also writes about television and pop culture at Boob Tube Dude.