The Joss Whedon pattern is a predictable one. Whether in Buffy The Vampire Slayer or The Avengers, Whedon’s storytelling quirks are noticeable: young female protagonists tortured by supernatural ability and responsibility, nefarious baddies with their own otherworldly powers, a broad ensemble of supporting players with various specialties, one-liner zingers, and a lot of hand-to-hand combat. In the debut episode of The Nevers, that Whedon touch is firmly in place. Whedon stepped down from the show in November 2020 (screenwriter Philippa Goslett replaced him as showrunner), but before then, his work as creator, writer, director, and showrunner of The Nevers obviously shaped the show—and this pilot episode reflects a number of his particular tendencies. Whether The Nevers can in time move past these often-irritating elements is anyone’s guess, but if it does, it will be thanks to the work of leads Laura Donnelly and Ann Skelly, who liven up an overloaded and overwrought premiere.
The pilot begins with an inexplicable event. On August 3, 1896, a mysterious vessel flies over London. Is it a spaceship, or alien craft? Or maybe something human-made, but strangely powered? Whatever it is, it travels above London’s populace, some of whom are going about their regular lives, and some of whom are making decisions they might not be able to reverse. Down-on-her-luck Amalia True (Donnelly), who looks like she’s trying to end her life. Inventor Penance Adair (Skelly), who mends a water pump with a clothespin. Singer Mary Brighton (Eleanor Tomlinson), who is left at an audition by her fiancée, Frank Mundi (Ben Chaplin). Dr. Horatio Cousens (Zackary Momoh), preparing to pay a patient a visit; government official Lord Gilbert Massen (Pip Torrens), who witnesses a family tragedy; a woman (Amy Manson) fights the men hauling her off to an asylum. All of them are affected by whatever material the ship is disseminating—some sort of glowing, gold matter that settles on their skin and is absorbed into their bodies.
As soon as this inexplicable event occurs, it’s over. The ship disappears. People return to their routines. But as The Nevers jumps forward in time three years later to 1899, it’s clear that London has changed. The people affected by that event have since experienced “turns”—they now boast powers or abilities they didn’t have before. Instead of drowning, Mrs. True was able to launch herself out of the water and save herself. Penance can see electricity and manipulate its currents. And Dr. Cousens’s medical training is given a supernatural edge as he can treat, suture, and heal wounds and injuries with only his concentration and his hovering hands.
The three of them oversee the safe space that is St. Romaulda’s Orphanage in the middle of London. With funding from benefactress Lavinia Bidlow (Olivia Williams), the orphanage—run by close friends Mrs. True and Penance, and with medical care offered by Dr. Cousens—takes in the “Turned” who are abandoned or cast out by their families, fired from their jobs, or otherwise alone. Whedon spends a good amount of time introducing various characters at the orphanage, but I think of particular relevance to the series moving forward are Rogue-like Lucy Best (Elizabeth Berrington), who destroys everything she touches; 10-foot-tall teen Primrose (Anna Devlin), who is obsessed with propriety; and Sikh Harriet (Kiran Sonia Sawar), who can turn items into ice (or is it glass?). They’re not exactly an invading army, as Lord Massen and his Watchers’ Council-adjacent group of fellow old white men fear. But they could potentially be a threat to the racist, sexist, patriarchal order, and that comes most clearly into focus during Mrs. True and Penance’s visit to retrieve Myrtle (Viola Prettejohn).
Myrtle had been a normal girl, but now her parents are certain she’s been possessed by a demon—she no longer speaks English, and might be a Satanic vessel. Donnelly and Skelly play Mrs. True and Penance, respectively, like women who have seen this kind of thing before, but even still, Myrtle’s captivity—because her parents have chained her to her bed, and placed a gigantic cross above it—is devastating to observe. (Kudos to Prettejohn for the fear and frustration she conveys in her first appearance as Myrtle.) Though shaken by Myrtle’s parents’ cruelty, Mrs. True and Penance are logical and straightforward, explaining that she isn’t speaking the Devil’s tongue, but a mixture of Chinese, Turkish, Russian, and various other languages. They can offer her an education, the companionship of girls her own age, and protection, and slowly, begrudgingly, Myrtle’s parents acquiesce.
But would this be a Whedon show without the reveal that Mrs. True and Penance can actually kick a lot of ass? It would not! So although there are already plenty of enemies for the Turned, this pilot episode also introduces those people—or things, depending on what their waxy faces are hiding?—that attempt to kidnap Myrtle, and are diverted by Mrs. True’s strength, speed, and ability to throw a punch, and Penance’s variety of gadgets. (The car launching out from inside their carriage was pretty sick.) And that’s not even everyone, because The Nevers uses its final opera scene to keep loading up antagonists. First is serial killer Maladie (Amy Manson), whose turn is that she derives power from pain, and who has already killed five male psychoanalysts. Mrs. True is wary of what damage Maladie can do to the reputation of the Turned, Inspector Mundi is irritated by people trying to use Maladie to further their anti-Turned agenda, and Lord Massen sees in Maladie a kind of opportunity. If her horrible deeds are enough to turn all of London against the Turned (ha!), his work to protect London from “the woman, the immigrant, and the deviant” would be easier, wouldn’t it?
When Maladie crashes the opera that Mrs. True, Penance, Lavinia, Lavinia’s socially awkward brother Augie (Tom Riley), his close friend Hugo Swann (James Norton), and Lord Massen are all attending, we don’t get a greater sense of what her motivations are. “I saw God, He was all light, and He put on me his wreath” isn’t exactly a mission statement. But after opera chorus member Mary launches into a song that only the Turned can hear, The Nevers drops a few final bombshells. Augie is Turned, too, and didn’t know it. Hugo, who is running some kind of “pagan sex club,” is working with Mundy to track Maladie and other Turned—perhaps to work as prostitutes in his club? And what do we think of that evil doctor played by Denis O’Hare? How long until he’s performing horrible experiments on one of the wards from the orphanage, drawing “champion of the unfortunate” Mrs. True and Penance into his orbit?
This is all so much for a premiere episode! Probably too much! There are still five episodes of The Nevers to go in this first half of the first season, and we’ve already reached maximum capacity on villains and corsets. Maybe next week: character development? Just a thought!
- Anyone else disappointed that the Turned includes both women and men? My expectation from The Nevers and the hype leading up to it was that this steampunk world was one in which only girls and women were bestowed with powers, whether useful or harmful. But if the Turned are a more heterogeneous group, then… how is this any different from the X-Men?
- Do we learn what “The Nevers” is a reference to during this episode? We do not.
- “It’s only a prototype!” is going to be an every-episode catchphrase, I can already tell.
- Was the whole world affected by turns, or just London?
- Is Mrs. True autistic? This pilot episode already gave her so many personality traits (self-destruction, self-hate, self-deprecation, and the “ripplings” that allow her to see into the future) that I hope the show actually pays some further attention to this rather than just introducing and dropping it.
- One more thing about Mrs. True: When she tells Nick Frost’s Beggar King “This isn’t my face,” what the hell does that mean?
- Do we think The Nevers will explain how the turns manifested? I ask because certain turns seemed to improve skills people already had, whether natural or learned. Penance was already a genius, and her turn helped make her even more brilliant. Dr. Cousens was already a doctor, and his turn improved his healing powers. Why did some turns make these seemingly high-level changes to people while others are as simplistic as “make someone tall,” as for Primrose? I know that X-Men is like this also, with some powers being amazing and others sort of lame, but I wonder if The Nevers will bother with any attempt at explanation.
- Hugo Swann’s line “Flirt with the ugly one. It creates an unexpected balance” gave me a Xander Harris flashback that I did not appreciate.
- Meanwhile, “I would be thrilled to excise the word ‘nice’” seems like a line tailor-made for Etsy mugs.
- Nothing gets more Joss Whedon than having a woman strip off her dress while punching another woman in the face. How will he top himself with next week’s episode, which, I kid you not, is named “Exposure”?