“Where are you now?”
“I am home,” Steven types onto a blank screen in the opening of “Silence Lay Steadily,” and pauses. “‘I am home,’ I thought, and stopped in wonder at the thought.”
“Where are you now?” It’s the question Leigh (Samantha Sloyan) asks Steven every time he stalls in writing his sequel to The Haunting Of Hill House. Not how far have you gotten. Not what point have you reached. “Where are you now?” Leigh asks when she comes home—to their home, where they once again live together—visibly pregnant, gently affectionate, feeding him the French fries their baby-to-be has her craving.
The baby is hungry.
“Where are you now?” Leigh asks as Steven slams shut his laptop, just as Hill House slammed the door of The Red Room on him after luring him in, away from his father. It’s convenient shorthand for asking a writer how far they’ve delved into a story. It’s also the question Steven should be asking himself, and the question we shouldn’t be answering so quickly.
Where are you now, Steven? “Dad and I just got to the house.” Where are you now? “We went into the house. Then we went to The Red Room.” Where are you now, Steven? “I can’t say what happened after the door closed.”
There’s a creeping unease to this scene. All its comfort, its too easily won rewards, are suspicious. Too suspicious. It’s too easy to see where Steven is, and where he isn’t. He’s in Hill House. He never left. He can’t write about what happened because this is what happened, what’s happening.
Any momentary surprise gleaned from Leigh’s cheerful descent into cruelty and her body’s corruption is offset by how this scene forecasts the rest of the episode especially since attentive viewers already knew everything they could learn in this scene from “Silence Lay Steadily.” We’ve known for some time that the toy room, the game room, the tree house did not exist. They are all The Red Room, and The Red Room is any room and no room. When Shirl and Nell turn the stubborn knob, it’s Theo’s dance room. When Liv needs peace, it’s her reading room. Like seducers through the ages, it’s whatever you want it to be, and whatever you need it to be. Until it has you firmly in its grip, snug in its belly. Then The Red Room is whatever it wants to be, whatever will help it digest you most efficiently.
So when Steven and Hugh arrive at Hill House and climb to the red door, Steven sees the thing he needs to see to entice him into The Red Room. He sees Luke incapacitated on the floor, and he rushes toward him. The door slams behind him, leaving his father on the other side.
And The Haunting Of Hill House plunges from the heights it reached over the past four episodes, right back down into the range of very competent. In its final chapter, the series returns to its bag of genre standards, and to its reliance on Shirley Jackson’s lyrical prose without bothering to ground it in the characters or the circumstances.
The sight of Leigh letting the loving smile die off her face, of her pregnant belly growing heavier second by second, of veins of corruption radiating over her face and body, is horrible. So is the sight of Joey, sitting on the bed of a handsome hotel room, her eyes turning to oozing jelly. But it’s moving away from the core horror, the deeper horror Hill House has been tapping into for nearly half its run now. Just as the series was poised for a triumphant ending, instead “Silence Lay Steadily” retreats to well-crafted, empty scares and stylish gross-out moments. It’s losing sight of this family as a family, when it’s spent nine episodes ushering us into caring about the complexities that grew up around them from childhood.
The Haunting Of Hill House’s labyrinthine structure, turning from past to present to another past and back again, means we almost always know where the characters are going, but not the full meaning of their arrival there (or then). Not until we see it play out from another angle. It’s not Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead, because our main characters are more than bit parts and cats-paws. It’s not Rashomon, because the stories don’t change a word or a gesture or an intonation. It’s somewhere in between.
This last episode is trying to top the gravity of “Two Storms,” and it just ends up weighty and dragging. It’s well-executed, certainly. Ryan, Shirley’s repeated apparition, confronting her with the memory of her infidelity (her calculated, risk-tabulating infidelity) is uncomfortable. But not much more. It almost feels cutting because Ryan—whatever is wearing Ryan’s skin in the false front of a hotel bar—expands it to be the most dire thing about her. “You did this thing, and you did it and you liked it, and you just decided not to look at it again. Now, that’s you all over. Shirley never wants to look. But Shirley has to look.” Even the appearance of Kevin, announcing that when he dies, he’ll know what she did, he’ll see what she did, doesn’t quite live up to the previous horrors of Hill House.
Only Theo’s brief horror feels visceral, intimate, devastating, because it’s about an ability she’s been cursed with her whole life. The representation of her fear, shown as grisly hands grabbing and pulling at her until she’s covered by them, is visually striking and horrific in a deeply personal way. And then it’s over too fast, in an episode that draws out nearly everything else to interminable length.
The ending leaves Steven Crain, oldest son of the long-suffering Crain family, promising to hold onto his father’s despoiled estate and his father’s secret. I can’t imagine what Shirley Jackson might say about someone adapting one of her many stories of women being quietly controlled for their own good and deciding to end it with two men keeping a secret for yet another generation, but that’s only because my lexicon isn’t as divinely acid as hers could be.
And their secret isn’t a secret. Luke was in The Red Room for his mother’s tea party, as a child and now as an adult. Hugh has sacrificed himself to save his children not just from death but from knowing the worst of their mother, but Luke already knows.
In the tea-party sequence, as it did in the premiere, The Haunting Of Hill House unreels a long speech from early in the Shirley Jackson novel, and again it feels strangely out of place. Because however masterful its middle, and however enjoyable the whole, this is barely an adaptation of The Haunting Of Hill House, and maybe it would be better off dropping the pretense.
It’s a lovely passage, and Carla Gugino does her best, which is very good indeed. But ironically, in a series that has made so much about returning home—I am home, come home, welcome home, Forever House—this passage, like so many of Hill House’s passages, has no home here. I have never recoiled as instinctively, as ferociously, from a rephrased quote as I did from The Haunting Of Hill House’s rewriting of Shirley Jackson’s “And whatever walked there, walked alone.” With joyous tears as Hugh embraces his late wife and daughter, and as Horace Dudley carries his dying wife into Hill House to be reunited forever with their two children, in the last few minutes, this series is trying to reconfigure a house that draws people in and devours them for eternity as a happy ending.
There is a great series to be made from a modern interpretation of The Haunting Of Hill House with its characters and plot intact. There’s a great story inside the beautiful mess that is this series, a show that could shine on its own terms instead of wrapping itself in the words of a classic like a specter wearing the skin of your dearest loved one. But like Hill House itself, this reimagining is trying to be two different things at once, and not quite succeeding at either. The two don’t connect. They can find no home here, because they aren’t each other’s Forever House.
- In the finale, Ryan’s last name, Quale, is visible on his name tag. That name rings a bell for me, but I can’t think of (or search out) an example of that name in Shirley Jackson’s work or elsewhere significant, unless we count Rob Zombie’s S. Quentin Quale. Any ideas?
- Nell’s speech about being devoured by Hill House is inspired by, and directly quotes, Eleanor Vance’s thoughts about walking around the manor.
- The rhyme Poppy recites to Hugh is one Shirley Jackson taught her children, which also made its way into her novel.
- That’s it for The A.V. Club’s coverage of The Haunting Of Hill House. Thank you for reading!