Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Nevers channels The Usual Suspects as nears its midway point

Illustration for article titled The Nevers channels The Usual Suspects as nears its midway point
Photo: HBO

Well, well. Joss Whedon pulled a Keyser Söze on us!

A ton happens in “Hanged,” the penultimate episode of this first half of the first season (so many qualifiers) of The Nevers, and we’ll get to a lot of it. We will! But first, let’s talk about those final seconds as Effie Boyle—newish journalist character, dressed aggressively in shades of beige, irritating to Inspector Mundi but pretty much an accepted face at the police station after weeks of hanging around—takes out some fake teeth, removes the padding in her corset, pinches off the end of her nose, and then shakes out her hair to reveal herself as Maladie all along. Voila! 

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The Nevers loves it baddies, so it’s not entirely surprising that Maladie adorer Clara swapped places with her, and willingly chose to break her own neck so that the Colonel could put the electrocution plan in action. Until we find out the entire history of whatever went down between Mrs. True and Maladie, The Nevers isn’t going to write out the latter character; she’s clearly here for the long haul. What does feel rushed in this episode, though, is like … why any of this is happening at all?

Maladie’s motives remain jumbled and unclear. She’s gone from hating everyone to specifically hating Mrs. True back to hating everyone; she’s gone from killing random people to killing “angels” to now killing as revenge. Her actions shift with each episode; the character doesn’t have a thorough line. I think The Nevers wants Maladie to be their Joker: a character causing chaos wherever she goes, and acting purely for her own amusement. Amy Manson certainly has the unhinged grin for it, and her purposefully provocative body language—toward Dr. Cousens, toward Mundi—does a lot to sell her, “Fuck you, I’ll make you uncomfortable if I want” vibe. But past the momentary thrill of seeing one character transform into another, I’m not sure what else we’re supposed to feel about Maladie’s return. We barely knew her; did we really feel her loss?

“Hanged” assumes that we care about Maladie enough to be both torn up by her death and reinvigorated by her deception, and it spreads that presumptive quality regarding our reactions far and wide. Joss Whedon wrote this episode, and it sure feels like certain chunks of exposition and character development felt missing, didn’t they? Mrs. True keeps dropping the word “Galanthi” like we should know what it means! Perhaps I am totally blanking, but has the force or being who delivered that song through Mary to Mrs. True been referred to as “Galanthi” before? I watched “Undertaking” again, and perused through my notes, and didn’t notice a mention of it. Is the name inspired by Galanthus, the Latin name for the snowdrop flower? Did Mrs. True and Penance choose this moniker because the vessel looked like one of those flower buds? Did they further translate Mary’s song and come upon that term? I don’t know! But The Nevers just slides in that terminology until finally, 39 minutes into the episode, Mrs. True says in a throwaway line of “Galanthi,” “I know I’ve been vague about what that means.” Yes, Mrs. True, you have.

Something else strange: the sudden rift between Penance and Mrs. True. Up until this point, the two have been phenomenally close—best friends, colleagues, confidantes—with Penance stepping up to defend Mrs. True both when others don’t believe in her, and when Amalia doesn’t believe in herself. Is The Nevers really equating Penance’s discomfort with seeing and hearing people sexing it up with her fear of oppression against the Touched? And combined, would those put Penance so on edge that she would believably turn on Mrs. True and instead forgive kidnapper Maladie? Has Penance spoken of her faith before? Her insistence on forgiveness, how she beseeches Mrs. True that they’re all “a part of God’s world”—those hint at a religious belief that this episode leans on quite heavily to justify her break from Mrs. True. But much like how The Nevers treats Maladie like a narrative shortcut this episode, I’m not sure it’s done the work so far to fully convey what a rift like this would mean for the women, men, and children who live at St. Romaulda’s Orphanage.

Perhaps “Hanged” would have been more effective if it focused solely on that Mrs. True/Penance argument, and really dug into how other members of the orphanage reacted to it, and what ensuing lines were drawn. Do the Touched want to be about survival or acceptance? Compassion or vengeance? The scene set in the orphanage’s courtyard, with that box of identifying blue bows that the Touched now have to wear prominently featured, and Desirée reading from Maladie/Boyle’s editorial “A Nation Shamed,” and Penance listening as Bonfire Annie, Nimble Jack, Harriet, George Thorns (Brett Curtis), and others trained and discussed the country’s first public execution in 30 years, had the right idea. The Touched are different genders, ages, sexualities; come from different families, classes, countries; surely have different opinions on what they should do with their powers, and whether they even want a leader at all, or if it’s best to stay in London. Building out the Touched’s interior world with that conversation might have imbued the Penance/Mrs. True fight, and the eventual “Maladie saved herself!” reveal, with more impact.

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As has become custom for The Nevers, though, “Hanged” is all over the place in terms of varying villains and subplots, restarting certain relationships, hinting at others, and linking together unexpected alliances. Let’s start with Lavinia Bidlow and Lord Massen, because I have to admit here that some of my theories about them were wrong. I thought Lavinia had helped spring Machine-Gun-Guy from prison and sent him to murder Mary because she knew from Mrs. True and Penance where Mary’s song would be performed, and I thought Lord Massen was just trying to intimidate Mrs. True, rather than spill his guilt, when she visited him at his estate.

But Lord Massen and his comrades admit responsibility for the murder of Mary in that meeting with the Prime Minister, and I’m assuming they acted on information provided by the missing Lucy: “We showed our hand siccing that ghastly gunman … on Mary Brighton, and for what? Within a week, the orphanage has doubled its roster.” We also learn that Massen, not the Beggar King, sent the water-walking Odium after Mrs. True when she was traveling back from that lair where Dr. Hague’s human/robot hybrids were luring the Touched. So Lord Massen is spreading his power far and wide, including enlisting the Beggar King to help cause the riot after “Maladie’s” execution. The Beggar King doesn’t seem like someone who would abide Lord Massen for very long, but money talks.

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Meanwhile, Lavinia flirts? I think? with the ghastly Dr. Hague. Maybe I’m wrong (again), but Lavinia seems more interested in killing whatever the Galanthi is (“more chrysalis than egg,” as described by Dr. Hague) than in killing individual members of the Touched. I don’t mean to suggest that Lavinia would care at all if, say, Penance died. But think of how pleased she looked when Dr. Hague praised her “moral compass,” and elevated her past Satan himself in terms of ambition. Lord Massen is obsessed with protecting his country, specifically, while I think Lavinia believes she’s protecting humanity, wholly. How do you stand against such zealousness? And when Lavinia learns what her brother is, will that change things for her?

Speaking of Augie, I don’t think he would peep on you, Penance! He’s too pure for that! (Unlike Hugo Swann, “a pimp with a gimmick,” according to Mundi.) Interesting, though, that Augie sides with Mrs. True [alongside Bonfire Annie, Mrs. True’s renewed lover Dr. Cousens, and Su Ping Lim (Pui Fan Lee)] in going for the Galanthi, while Penance gathers to her side Harriet, George, Desirée, and Nimble Jack (and, ultimately, Su Ping Lim, who Mrs. True sends to protect Penance). After Penance and Co. realize that Maladie didn’t need saving at all, and barely escape from the riot with their lives, they limp back to the courtyard to find Mrs. True’s crew, bloody and battered. Next week’s mid-season finale “True” has to switch perspectives so we see what that attack was like for them, because I refuse to believe The Nevers would let a nodding assent to “Go all right?” be our only glimpse into whatever, or whoever, the Galanthi is. And an episode named “True” has to explain whatever, or whatever, Mrs. True is, of course. Oh, and provide a definition of what “The Nevers” means already! The people demand it.

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Stray observations

  • Lord Massen’s diatribe against electricity … you’re not going to win this one, my man.
  • “We took a vow to protect the empire, not to kill for sport,” the prime minister said. Cut to me, staring in colonialism.
  • What if this show cast Nikola Tesla? I’m not sure I could handle that!
  • The crowd’s “Drop the bitch!” chant at Maladie’s execution had real “Lock her up!” energy.
  • Clara might not have been Maladie, but kudos to Briggs for great comedic timing and delivery. Clara interpreting whatever noises coming out from underneath the area where the execution was held (the Galanthi further cracking, I’m assuming?) as the Devil calling for her, and cheekily ad-libbing “Quit yelling, love, I’ll be down in a minute!” was good stuff. The student becomes the master, etc.
  • “A crack in the soul of the city,” wrote Maladie-as-Effie in that editorial; when Lavinia and Dr. Hague look upon the increasingly revealed Galanthi, they notice it has a crack too. Has Maladie seen the current incarnation of the Galanthi, or that was just on-the-nose writing?
  • We’ve seen Maladie take lives, and now we’ve seen her save one: She rescues Harriet from being trampled by the non-Touched she helps escape the riot.
  • On those nooses hung all around the orphanage courtyard: First, why wouldn’t Mrs. True have posted a watchperson in the courtyard, given how hot tensions are getting between the Touched and everyone else? Second, if you haven’t read Pulitzer Prize finalist Soraya Nadia McDonald’s exceptional essay on the neck as “the point of subjugation and control” on one’s body, you should.
  • Details of the Maladie-as-Effie reveal that don’t exactly add up for me: Did Maladie kill Effie all those weeks ago, and then when she assumed Effie’s identity recently, pretend she’d gone on a trip or something? Or did she invent the Effie Boyle persona out of thin air, inspired by that dead woman?
  • Lavinia’s headaches at lunch with Augie: maybe something, maybe nothing.
  • “The world is watching,” one of Lord Massen’s peers says of the execution. This could be taken two ways, I think (and speaks to a question I’ve posed before). First, that London/the UK is the only place affected by whatever the Galanthi did, and the entire world is just being ghoulish in following Maladie’s case. Second, the Galanthi affected other places too, and international curiosity in what happens to Maladie is inspired by the possibility that other nations deal with their Touched by mimicking this execution.
  • Best lines of the episode go to Hugo Swann and Mundi, with the former’s “What a strange fate. We’ve become men with offices” as he looked around Mundi’s teetering stacks of files, and the latter’s bemusement at Hugo’s complaint about an unhappy member of his sex club: “Send him a fucking horse, or whatever you rich people do.”
  • Meanwhile, Penance—who normally is so much like Willow Rosenberg—actually gets a little Buffy-like with her description of her anxiety: “It’s like we’re being tested, but it’s that dream where the test’s over, and you’ve not found your pencils.” In Buffy season one episode “Nightmares,” one of her worst fears involves a history test for which she hasn’t studied, and during which she doesn’t even have time to write her name.
  • Did Dr. Hague’s lobotomization of Miss Cassini not fully work? Notice that she was still causing items to float while digging. Or, do Touched powers eventually come back, even if one’s brain suffers damage?
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