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

The Nevers partially explains itself in the genre-jumping half-season finale “True”

Illustration for article titled The Nevers partially explains itself in the genre-jumping half-season finale “True”
Photo: HBO

We certainly had five episodes’ worth of clues that something was up with Amalia: seemingly brought back from the dead the day the fish spaceship Galanthi appeared in the London sky; her line to the Beggar King about her face not being her face; all that talk of her mission and confusion about what it means; her insistence that the Turned had a higher purpose, although she was unsure whether she was really fit to be their leader; and that hinted backstory with Maladie and Dr. Cousens. Did I anticipate that The Nevers would go into Dark territory, with time travel, a future world destroyed by war, and a character ending up in a reality decades away from the one in which they were born? I did not! So, to all who had “Amalia is a time traveler, duh” on your The Nevers bingo board, congratulations!

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Just when I thought I had a tenuous grasp on where the series was going—the Turned fighting a widespread campaign of oppression led by Lord Massen, possibly assisted by Lavinia and Dr. Hague—screenwriter Jane Espenson and director Zetna Fuentes make my assumptions disappear as quickly as I would have eaten all of those delicious financiers. Instead, “True,” the sixth and final episode of this first half of the first season of The Nevers, connects nearly all of our questions about Amalia into one sprawling episode that shifts our genre focus from steampunk to sci-fi. Was it ambitious to load in all this backstory and exposition, use a whole-new vocabulary of terminology, and explain the horror of divisive nuclear war and the potential of the Galanthi in about 35 minutes? Absolutely. Was it messy? Also absolutely!

To be frank, I’m not sure any of this would have remotely worked if the performances of Laura Donnelly and Farscape and Stargate SG-1 veteran Claudia Black weren’t there to hold it together. Black is particularly good, delivering Chapter 1’s goofy dialogue with the cynicism, weariness, and exhaustion that so clearly defined the experienced warrior Stripe. Amid all the admittedly generic stuff about the forward time jump in Chapter 1 (that Roomba-like AI thing; the human-first prejudice of the Free Life Army; the reveal that the Galanthi are aliens who might be helpful, might be harmful), Black’s tiptoe from jadedness to optimism was our emotional through line. Sci-fi as a genre loves its spaceship gardens, from Sunshine to High Life, but even with that familiarity, I did get a little teary watching Black eat that tomato. The emotions flickering over her face in that moment were beautiful.

And then there’s Donnelly, who here is tasked with two overwhelming transformations. First is that she has to build for us the original Amalia, or, as Chapter 2 introduces her, Molly. (Nothing about Mrs. True is actually true, yuk yuk yuk.) Molly is timid, unconfident, and unsure of herself. She lets other people influence her, like the bakery owner who discourages her from accepting the affections of the hot rich guy, Varnum (Lee Armstrong); steers her toward the brutish baker, Thomas True (Daniel Hoffmann-Gill); and then eventually gives her the crap job of bakery deliveries for pennies. This Molly doesn’t react to much of anything; she keeps her eyes down; she’s desperate for a family and ashamed of her two miscarriages. We understand why this Molly would feel hopeless enough to drown herself in the Thames, and when she emerges, Donnelly plays her as an entirely different person.

In Chapter 3, “The Madwoman in the Thames,” Donnelly isn’t exactly the Mrs. True we know; she’s not fully there yet. Instead, we watch her character work through the trauma of Stripe finding herself transported from the future back into the past—my understanding here is that Molly drowned, after which Stripe, either by unintentionally hitching a ride with the Galanthi or purposefully transported by the alien, takes over her body. (No Altered Carbon mind-vs.-sleeve confusion here.) Donnelly is practically a complete opposite of who Molly was, from her gruff mimicry of Black’s cadence to the poise and explosiveness of her body language to the desperation and self-preservation she swings between while confiding in Dr. Cousens, learning how to be a proper British lady, and sacrificing Sarah-cum-Maladie to Dr. Hague.

There are still some elements of Mrs. True’s journey left unexplored: How did Lavinia get her out of the asylum if Mrs. True failed her application for release? In the three years that passed between Mrs. True and Lavinia meeting in the asylum and Mrs. True then running the orphanage, has Mrs. True been working on finding the Galanthi this whole time? Mrs. True never thought again, “Hey, what happened to Sarah, or Dr. Hague?” But I don’t want to assume The Nevers ignores these questions moving forward. For as ungraceful as some of the elements of “Hanged” and “True” have been, and for as much as I have been irritated by the villain dumps and the tonal shifts, it’s clear The Nevers is telling a very broad story. Potentially too broad! But “The Madwoman in the Thames” is the best thing this series has done so far, and Donnelly single-handedly sells it.

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Let’s back up to address what happens in “True,” because there is a lot. We open on a skyscape reminiscent of the bombed-out, murdered-out aesthetic of Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch, with a team of Planetary Defense Coalition (PDC) servicepeople parachuting out of a spaceship. It takes a while, but Chapter 1 sketches out the state of the planet. (Did we confirm this was Earth?) Humans have destroyed practically everything, 5 billion people are dead, and an alien race called the Galanthi traveled through portals, appeared unexpectedly, and dropped spores on people, imbuing them with empathetic powers. (Importantly, not powers as varied as turns.)

Are the Galanthi helpful? The PDC seems to think so, and there are humans who have put all their faith for the betterment of the planet in the potential powers of the Galanthi. But there’s also Free Life Army, a rebel group who reject the Galanthi and think that the aliens pose a threat to humanity. Somewhere in the middle of those two ideologies is Stripe, who has been fighting in this war for nearly 30 years. All that combat has taken a toll—as do the drugs she takes to stay even-keeled in these battle zones—and Stripe sometimes can’t remember where she is, or when she is.

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So the PDC drops onto this planet, hoping to find the only living Galanthi and protect it. (If Stripe wasn’t part of the parachuting group, what was she already doing on this planet?) After engaging in a firefight with members of Free Life Army, the PDC and Stripe hole up in a building where they think the Galanthi is. I won’t even begin to pretend that I understood half of the stuff the PDC members were saying about their technology, or the organization of their military structure, or what Free Life Army has done. There is such a thing as making your dialogue too opaque! What matters more in Chapter 1, rather, is the conversation Stripe has with Knitter, a PDC member played by Ellora Torchia (of Ben Wheatley’s latest horror film In The Earth), who was raised by Free Life Army and switched sides. She has hope—the favorite words of The Nevers’ writers’ room!—and her unwavering belief sparks something inside Stripe. When the PDC finds the Galanthi and realize that it was being tortured by the Free Life Army, all hell breaks loose. A Free Life Army hostage the team took gets the better of them; both sides call in nuclear backup. Knitter dies in Stripe’s arms, and that loss finally seems to break the latter. If I understood the “Hey, this is radioactive!” symbols on those cans correctly, Stripe takes her own life as the outpost falls—and the Galanthi, which can make itself translucent and transparent, floats upward, engulfs her, and then transforms into the spaceship shape we saw in The Nevers premiere.

Did the Galanthi use the last remaining stable portal to travel through time? Seems like it! Chapters “Molly” and “The Madwoman in the Thames” show us who Molly was and then who Stripe becomes. Stripe’s confusion about time seems to have transformed into her turn, allowing her to glimpse into the future, while her personal body-horror experience lends her sympathy toward the Touched women alongside her at the asylum. She’s upfront with Horatio fairly quickly about who she is (“Aliens from the future gave us magic powers”), but she hasn’t quite tamped down her belief that nothing will change the future. So why does she offer up Sarah to Dr. Hague? Why not protect Sarah, too? Amalia is a quick thinker; I’m not sure she couldn’t have come up with some story to placate Dr. Hague while also shifting his attention away from the two of them. And now we understand that the Molly/Sarah dynamic is a real The Woman in White situation, with Maladie’s obsessions born out of Mrs. True’s own words. There’s no way Maladie ever gets better, is there?

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And then finally we’re at Chapter 4, “True,” which shows us Amalia, Horatio, Bonfire Annie, and Augie’s attack on the Royal Military Army to try and drill through to where the Galanthi is, under the Grand Abbey (Westminster Abbey, I suppose?). I don’t recall seeing Dr. Hague and Lavinia at Maladie’s execution, but wherever they are, they’re not with the Galanthi, with which Amalia tries to communicate. This monologue is more great work from Donnelly, who lays bare all of the anxiety, fear, self-hate, and resentment running through Mrs. True. “Did my wreck of a brain cause all this shit? … It should have been someone else. Someone not broken,” she says, and perhaps it’s that honesty that finally inspires the Galanthi to answer back. And, uh, what it says is sort of ominous! “Did you think you were the only one who hitched a ride? Oh, Amalia. This is a long time from that little cave. This, I will need you to forget,” says what I assume is the Galanthi, shown as speaking through Myrtle, and excuse me while I say: What???

Who else “hitched a ride” into this time period? What happened to Stripe in “that little cave”? If the Galanthi is making her forget this conversation, what else can it wipe from her memory? At least Mrs. True remembers her name, before she was Molly, before she was Stripe: Zefa Alexis Naveen. And at least she has a true ally in Penance, who aims her tenaciousness and positivity toward the task of saving the world (“It’s work. It’s a life’s work”), and who encourages her to tell the rest of the Touched everything about “the future, the Galanthi, the fight that’s coming.” Is that the fight we already know about against the likes of Lord Massen and his cronies, or Lavinia and Dr. Hague? Or is this the fight against whomever “hitched a ride” with the Galanthi—which, I suspect, is the Beggar King? Think of what the Beggar King said to Lord Massen: Even when he had nothing, men followed him. That sounds like something a warrior would say, or a martyr. And if his fight against the Touched is something entirely different than the threat posed by Lord Massen, Lavinia, Dr. Hague, or even Hugo Swann, do we trust the second half of The Nevers to really focus on that, after the unevenness of these first six episodes? Whenever those appear, I guess we’ll see.

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Stray observations

  • Over the past few weeks, I’ve asked in these bullet points whether the series has really defined the term “The Nevers.” Yes, Joss Whedon spoke before the series premiered about the reasoning behind the name, but has the show itself addressed this? While rewatching the preceding five episodes for this recap, I noted this quote from Lord Massen that I believe certain commenters think serves as an explanation: “The heart of our empire brought to a shuddering halt by the caprice and ambitions of those for whom ambition was never meant. What women are appalled by today, they will accept tomorrow, and demand the day after that. And the immigrant. And the deviant.” But I’m not entirely sold on this. The show has also used “the Touched” to describe everyone affected with a turn and “the Orphans” to describe Amalia’s group, and of course, you don’t have to be a woman, an immigrant, or queer to be affected with a turn. “Never” just doesn’t seem fully reflective of who we know the Touched to be, especially now that the Galanthi’s actions don’t seem to have particularly targeted those individuals in providing powers, did they?
  • So the Galanathi is a dragon, unicorn, manta ray, Cthulhu thing. Eat your heart out, Lisa Frank!
  • I laughed at “I got world-class tits, but I can’t see over a chair,” and then I immediately Googled how tall Donnelly is: 5’4”. That’s my height! We are not that short!
  • If all the PDC members are referred to by their jobs or responsibilities, rather than their names, what exactly does a “Stripe” do?
  • Maybe I’m getting too paranoid with this, but: Is there any possibility that the reality Stripe-turned-Mrs. True ended up in isn’t real, or is some kind of figment of the Galanthi’s imagination? I only ask this because I don’t understand why that team working with the Galanthi was studying the 19th century.
  • Wait, maybe: Were the artifacts from the 19th century proof of a time loop? Because if Stripe gets sent back in time to, I assume, help divert the path of the world so we don’t end up in widespread nuclear war, doesn’t the future state of the world being just like that mean that she failed? Evidence of this: that Stripe is on the planet before the PDC gets there; that she says “I wasn’t always a soldier.” I could keep theorizing, but I’m giving myself a headache. This is why I could not explain to you anything that happened in the final season of Dark, although I watched it!
  • Some religious stuff sprinkled throughout the episode: The Free Life Army boasts about their piety (“We do not hide from God, like you PDC dogs”); Penance reaffirms her faith; Molly’s mantra was “God makes his plans, and here we are.” Is this something, or nothing?
  • No updates on: Hugo, Mundi, Maladie, Lavinia, or Dr. Hague.
  • I leave you with one last thought: Knitter described the powers given to her by the Galanthi as “one gentle question.” Is the question about whether we can, or should, hope for a better world? Or is it one step further than that: Is it a question about what we can do to build a better world?
  • Thank you for reading!
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