I have now watched all of Hemlock Grove. That’s right. All of it. Since Friday. I would therefore like to revise my original tentative assessment and say this: Hemlock Grove is basically the best and most original thing you haven’t watched yet.
Unless you have, in which case: O_O amirite?
Brief iteration of the premise
I couldn’t possibly summarise the plot, and if I tried I would have to spoil far too much. This thing is one hell of a mystery and you have to go on that journey by yourself.
The premise is this: Hemlock Grove is a small town with a lot of secrets. The rich and powerful Godfreys have secrets. The scientist Johann Pryce (Joel de la Fuente) has secrets. The Romani family who have just returned to the town have secrets. Peter Rumancek (Landon Liboiron) is suspected of being a werewolf. Peter thinks Roman Godfrey (Bill Skarsgård) is an upir (vampire), but also that Roman doesn’t know it. Shelley Godfrey (Nicole Boivin and Michael Andreae) is very tall for a girl, bandages her hands, glows when her emotions are disturbed, is bald, and has one eye much larger than the other. Olivia Godfrey (Famke Janseen) is mysterious, dangerous, beautiful, and bored. And Johann Pryce bolsters the wealth of the Godfreys with his research in what are rumoured to be unnatural ways.
When young girls start being killed in what looks like animal attacks (but for which no animal tracks are found) accusations fly. Peter and Roman, in particular, are suspects, and despite the enmity of their families they form a strong but awkward friendship, trying to find and stop the real killer.
Why praise it so strongly?
A foray into a new medium is an opportunity for experimentation, and Hemlock Grove uses its unusual freedom from the restrictions of traditional media outlets to its full extent. It defies pigeonholing by genre. Outofmyplanet on Twitter commented to me: ‘It’s interesting. I feel like I’m just not familiar with the storytelling style, but it’s American so I should be?‘ and I think that’s spot on. This is a melding of writing styles. The surface level American teen werewolf/vampire drama is belied by the complex plotting and sophisticated characterisation. The casual blending of the supernatural and surreal with the everyday feints towards European and Latin American magical realism. The bleak, gritty approach, drawing out the relationship between economic and social issues is reminiscent British cinema in general, and recent British science fiction, fantasy, and horror in particular (Misfits, The Fades, the original Being Human). It doesn’t challenge so much as defy expectation, and yet somehow artlessly manages to take the viewer with it.
In my review of the pilot the dominant feeling I came away with was that I was intrigued. I didn’t really know what was going on, what sort of program this was going to be, but I wanted to find out. That feeling didn’t go away. It kept me guessing as to where it was going, both dramatically, stylistically, and thematically right through the end of the very last episode. And yet every episode you feel like you’ve come to understand a lot more of what’s going on. That’s quite a feat.
You may also recall that I had some reservations about the presentation of women. I won’t go so far as to say that the representation is perfect. A number of characters voice sexist opinions and it is somewhat ambiguous as to whether the voiced thoughts are intended to represent truth. What is true is that we have a vibrant range of female characters, each of whom has a rich and complex psychology.
Olivia Godfrey presents as a femme fatale, and yet she is not as cold and heartless as she seems. Her love for her children, although often cloaked by an air of indifference, even cruelty, emerges as a core element of her character in moments of crisis.
Shelley Godfrey’s hulking form is belied by her sweet disposition. Despite crippling shyness and an inability to talk in more than grunts, she proves herself articulate and even confident in her views when conversing via email with her uncle, Norman Godfrey (Dougray Scott). She also avoids saccharine sweetness, displaying forgivable moments of frustration and selfishness when she fears her few vital emotional supports are threatened.
Lethe Godfrey (Penelope Mitchell) also verges on the saccharine, yet she is never meek. She’s fully capable of standing up to Roman’s suffocating affection and jealousy, and does not calmly submit to the men in her life treating her as a precious thing to be protected.
Christina Wendall (Freya Tingley), a teenage girl who thinks of herself as a novelist and a bit of an outsider, has a complex and interesting relationship with her friends and surrogate sisters, Alyssa (Emilia McCarthy) and Alexa Sworn (Eliana Jones). These twin girls present on the surface as stereotypically bitchy, ultra-feminine girls. Yet, despite their often cutting remarks, their affection – their love and concern – for Christina slowly becomes more evident. They’re just young girls doing what society tells young girls to do, the show seems to say, they aren’t to blame for it, they’ll probably grow out of their ‘mean girl’ aspects in time. They’re also interesting as fraternal twins whose behaviour seems at first so similar that you might take them for identical, yet they are allowed, in quiet moments, to show subtly different personalities.
Clementine Chasseur (Kandyse McClure) provides an important contrast to an otherwise very femme cast. People react against ‘strong female character’ stereotypes, but I still feel like the majority of television is dominated by a feminine presentation that women like me feel alienated by. I would not call Chasseur a stereotype in any case. Chasseur is an agent of the mysterious Order of the Dragon, who are devoted to finding and destroying werewolves, vampires, and other abominations. Despite Kandyse McClure’s slender build, it’s clear that Chasseur has the muscles to back up her presentation of strength, and her character is a fascinating mix of determination and doubt. Chasseur is mentally and physically formidable, yet plagued by alcoholism, and haunted by the memory of the first werewolf she killed: a pregnant woman whose medallion of St Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, she wears around her neck.
Destiny Rumancek (Tiio Horn) is more problematic, as the town sex-worker and fortune-teller. She’s comfortable in her sexuality, and that’s good, but a theme of magical curing sex makes me uneasy. I’m also concerned for her representation of Romani women as promiscuous and as fortune tellers, as well as in her penchant for conning her customers. The only other Romani woman we really have to compare her with is Peter’s mother, Lynda Rumancek. Lynda’s sympathetic enough, but her only source of income seems to be in selling the drugs the late Nicolae Rumancek left in his trailer to Olivia Godfrey at an inflated price. Beyond that there’s not much to say about Lynda except that she’s a good mother. In a cast as large as Hemlock Grove’s it’s a lot to ask for every character to be complex and involved, and as someone who knows relatively little of Romani people and culture it’s difficult to judge, the Rumancek’s are certainly more sympathetic than the Godfreys, overall. There is some attempt to deal with prejudice against Romani people, and the persecution of Peter by the townsfolk is presented as unjust. Nevertheless I feel it important to highlight that some aspects of their presentation might be viewed as problematic.
It should also be noted that there is some good representation of race. Clementine and Michael Chasseur (Demore Barnes) are both played by people of colour and are great characters that I felt were well presented. Johann Pryce in some respects does reflect a stereotype of intelligent asian people with poor social skills; however, his strikingly Germanic name suggests that the role was cast without any particular race in mind, and Pryce as a character is revealed to be much more complex and interesting than he first appears – as could be said for virtually all the characters. Ashley Valentine (Emily Piggford) is also Asian, and she didn’t seem to me to match any racial stereotype.
In general, the acting is excellent. I can’t think of a single character, no matter how minor, who turns in a duff performance. Particular praise should be reserved for Bill Skarsgård whose portrayal of Roman Godfrey is strikingly nuanced. Roman is probably the most complex and interesting of any of the characters – a daunting presentation for any actor, especially one so young (gah – 23 is young to me now! Of course, he’s playing an even younger man). To detail the range required for this role would be to spoil too much of the plot, but if this man doesn’t get an Emmy he’ll have been robbed.
I can’t close this review without mentioning one of the more controversial aspects of the show, although it is difficult to tackle without touching on spoilers. I shall try to be circumspect, but if you really don’t want to be spoiled you might need to skip to the next paragraph. The matter I refer to concerns an incidence (two actually) of a character presented as largely sympathetic who commits rape. I should say that the rape that occurs onscreen is in no way presented as sympathetic. What makes the incident challenging is that the character who commits the rape goes on to, in other ways, present as broadly sympathetic. This, perhaps, was the only thing I had reservations about until the very last episode. My feeling is that this is intended to be uncomfortable. The writer intends for us to be confronted by the fact that our sympathies can still be engaged by a character who, as a rounded human being, has committed terrible things in a moment of emotional disturbance. I did not feel that the show in any way excused his action. Rather, it sought to confront us with the way our own moral compasses might be forced into muddy confusion. I do not think this is a bad handling of the subject matter; however, people who find this subject triggering may wish to avoid the show for that reason.
Challenging, original, provocative, well-written, well-acted, and intriguing. This show is giving Game of Thrones a run for its money, and then some. That’s how much I think you should watch it. I don’t star my reviews, but if I did, this one would get five.