Review: Hemlock Grove, Season 2

Hemlock Grove Promotional ImageWell. The ratio of anticipation to disappointment on this season was striking.

The first season of Hemlock Grove was original, unexpected, challenging, exciting, unpredictable, and provided a wide range of interesting female characters. This season  drew extensively on racial stereotypes, reduced the number of interesting female characters, and dramatically increased their representation as instrumental objects to serve others’ needs (especially reproductive needs). Lots of gratuitous female nudity – the plot even working to specifically enable as much of this as possible – and yet where there was male nudity it was downright chaste in comparison.

Colour me ‘Eh’ with shadings of ‘rather pissed off, actually’.

Plot (mild spoilers)

Following the events of last season, Peter (Landon Liboiron), Destiny (Tiio Horn), and Lynda (Lili Taylor) have rejoined their Roma family. We catch up with them at a wake, which is going down with a lot of drink, music, and (for Destiny) sex. The wake is disturbed by the FBI, who have finally caught up with Lynda’s years of racketeering. For legal reasons I did not exactly follow, this means that Peter and Destiny must return to Hemlock Grove to put together his mother’s defence.

Roman Godfrey (Bill Skarsgård), meanwhile, has been dealing with becoming an upir, trying to find ways of feeding without killing people, and running the family company. Oh, and raising his Demon Spawn – I mean ‘Lovely little girl with unnaturally blue eyes that no one – no one at all – ever comments upon’.

Olivia Godfrey (Famke Janssen) is not dead. She’s been in a coma and then recovering, with the sinister aid of Dr Johann Pryce (Joel de la Fuente) and his new dodgy scientist side-kick, Dr Zheleznova-Burdukovskaya*, from dodgy Russia, with dodgy-but-nebulous war crimes hanging over her.

A young blonde woman, Miranda (Madeline Brewer – visually very similar to Lethe, Roman’s cousin, Peter’s girlfriend, whom Roman raped and impregnated with the Demon Spawn) is forced off the road near Roman’s house. She knocks on his door for help and he lets her phone for a tow-truck and stay with him until she’s ready to move on. Quelle suprise, the tow-truck company is the same one Peter has just got a job with.

Miranda begins a relationship with both Roman and Peter. As you do. What’s weirder is that Miranda starts spontaneously lactating, conveniently supplying nourishment for the Demon Spawn, and also affording the viewer many opportunities for close-ups on her breasts. Many. We did not need that many. We really got the picture from the milk-stains on her top. This whole thing was not subtle.

Meanwhile, Peter cons some drug dealers into thinking they are buying some magical drug, developed by the Roma people, by turning into a werewolf in front of them ‘on a bad moon’. This starts Peter off on a journey to become a vargulf (really uncool kind of werewolf that can change whenever he pleases but loses his humanity) which Destiny warns him about and he, you know, ignores her. Destiny is playing Cassandra this season.

He does this so that they can hire a lawyer for his mum, Lynda. For some reason, everyone refers to the lawyer as the ‘lady lawyer’, like this is 1950.

Meanwhile, Shelley Godfrey (Nicole Boivin and Madeleine Martin)is off in hiding, being kind of a badass and kind of really in trouble. Eventually, she returns to the fold, whereupon Dr Pryce explains about the naked blonde lady (again, very similar looking to Lethe) floating in a tank we’ve been seeing off and on throughout the season. He’d been ‘growing’ her to create the perfect human, but because he actually really does care for Shelley, he proposes copying Shelley’s brain patterns and putting them in the blonde girl, then killing Shelley’s old body, so that Shelley can live on in the ‘perfect’ body she’s always dreamed of. Which is just the bestest idea EVER.

Oh, and there are some dudes in masks who are killing families and Peter and Roman keep sharing dreams about them and that’s what brings them back into being best buddies again after the events of last season. That and a threesome with Miranda.

And Norman is still floating around, trying to work out his relationship to Olivia, and the fact that it’s really not healthy, and I wish I could care about this, because I like Norman, but it’s for that exact reason that I never bought the relationship in the first place.

Why I was displeased

OK, so let’s talk about the racism, first. Season 1 started off a little bit racist, what with Peter and family introduced as basically on the left side of the law, but that kind of dropped away as Peter went on to be awesome and basically the hero in the way that Roman really turned out not to be. I had mixed feelings about it, but in a way that was kind of ‘hopefully they will improve in the second season’. Why do I keep thinking things like this? Nobody knows.

We see a lot more Roma people, and they are framed as lazy, jobless, carefree people who party a lot and don’t work for a living. The issue of systematic racism is lampshaded when the ‘lady lawyer’ mentions that the FBI will be really going after Lynda by angling to paint the Roma people as a criminal organisation. Which could have been explored interestingly, except for the fact that, despite Peter’s protests, that’s basically how they are presented within the world of Hemlock Grove.

And then there’s the whole ‘evil scientist’ thing. Dr Pryce was already showing up for the sinister Asian and the scientist Asian stereotypes, but now we have Dr Incomprehesibly-long-double-barrelled-name which is not her only incomprehensibly long alias. And she’s an Evil Russian. Like she just walked out of a Cold War Bond movie. She even has what a friend once described (referring to a Movie Nazi) as ‘Evil Hair’ – coiffed and then held severely solid by God only knows what heinous kind of product.

As for women? We’ve lost Lethe and Clementine from the first season, and Lynda is spirited away quicker than you can say ‘The script writer didn’t have any use for this character anymore’. Norman’s wife, Maria, finds her way out of the story pretty quick** The ‘lady lawyer’ is in about two scenes, maybe three. Destiny gets more screen time, but I’m not sure she does a single thing that actually affects the plot. Her biggest scenes involve swallowing psychotropic magic poisons for Peter’s sake. The first one has a needlessly suggestive snake slithering up her nethers. The second involves three people holding her head under water until she drowns. Yup, the themes of sexual objectification and violence against women are strong this season.

Then there’s Miranda I-exist-to-spontaneously-lactate-and-sleep-with-the-leads Cates. Yes, lactation is creepy. Spontaneous lactation is creepier. It’s a horror show. I GET it. But you actually literally do get to choose what tropes you employ, and Miranda could be replaced by a sexy bag of baby formula, and that’s not in-world disturbing, that’s plain disturbing. On the plus side, it is Miranda who takes the lead in initiating the threesome, but if you had told me there was going to be a threesome involving Bill Skarsgård and Landon Liboiron in this season, I would have shown up with my popcorn and expected, well, more. We only see them sleeping afterwards. Given the amount of naked ladies in this season, and all those close-ups of Miranda’s boobs (lactating or otherwise), I was nonplussed***.

And if Miranda isn’t used instrumentally enough, there’s Prycilla, the girl Pryce has grown and whose brain he literally writes over for the sake of Shelley, and whom Dr Zheleznova-Burdukovskaya suggests to Olivia she might consume to overcome some of the difficulties she is facing. The girl exists to be used by others.

And speaking of Olivia, she is significantly powered down following Roman’s attack on her at the end of last season, and her plot is strongly focused about how, having been dominated by her son, her maternal instincts resurface and she wants to mend fences with her children and be a better girlfriend to Norman.  So, uh, not at all Freudian misogyny themed, then. It should be stressed that it’s a believable performance by Famke Janssen and the progression does work for the character, but in the context of the diminution of other female characters, the choice to take this path with her is striking.

Certainly, no women are here to fill the vacuum Clementine Chasseur (Kandyse McClure) left behind. Indeed, Clementine’s memory is reduced to fridging motivational fodder for her brother, Michael Chasseur (Demore Barnes).

Oh, and, in case you hadn’t gathered by now, absolutely no mention of Roman’s rapes is made whatsoever. There are no repurcussions for Roman for this. Roman’s redemptive arc is conducted solely against his present worry that he might hurt other people now that he’s an upir. It’s not just that he gets away with it – men get away with rape all the time, and I appreciated the ‘pretty guys you are rooting for can do this shit too’ aspect of how it was handled in the first season, but this season it is literally as though it never happened. Roman and Peter are reeling from Lethe’s death, Roman generally doesn’t like who he became under his mother’s power, but in as much as one might speculate as to his inner thoughts on the matter, any responsibility he might have taken for his own actions he seems to have shirked off, attributing it to Olivia and his upir nature. I kept expecting something to happen to reveal to Peter exactly what Roman had done. But nope. ‘Oh, Roman, why are you raising the baby when I was going out with her mother and had taken the decision to step up as the father? Why are you so focused on her being your daughter? How come that whole “impregnanted by an angel” thing is still unresolved from last season?’ Nuh-uh. Nadda. Nothing.

You can’t see it, but I am not wearing anything resembling my happy face right now.

The artistry and originality of the first season is gone. I felt none of the genre-bending ‘what am I watching’ mystery, most of the characters became less interesting, racism and sexism upped substantially, the fact that Roman is a rapist completely forgotten… It’s still well-acted and mostly well-scripted – I could and did consume this easily and quickly – but one is left, overall, with a bad taste in one’s mouth. This is not the show I was raving about last year.

*She’s not listed on either IMDB or Wikipedia, yet – I had to check the name in subtitles for the spelling – so I can’t say who the actor is.

**SPOILER: She gets fridged.

***There were instances of naked gents – Peter gets naked every time he changes, and two other guys are forced naked for torture reasons, but as I say, these are pretty chaste in presentation compared to the treatment Prycilla and Miranda get.

The Third Annual Serene Wombles

Sorry this is so late. I had, like, three significant life crises happen all at once, and I only had this half finished by 3rd October, which was my blog’s birthday. I really wanted to get this out on the day itself, but that’s life. Let the post begin!

Wow, we survived a whole ‘nother year, and for some reason you lot are still interested in what I have to say about various forms of speculative media and other awesome shit. Weirdos.

For the n00bs: The Serene Wombles are the awards I give once a year, on my blog’s birthday, for the stuff I liked best of all the things I have reviewed. The skinny:

Eligibility for a Serene Womble is conferred by being the subject of a review on In Search of the Happiness Max in the past year. There may have been better or more worthy things that came out this year, but if I didn’t find them relevant to my interests, or if I simply didn’t have the time to review them, they won’t be eligible for a Serene Womble. I make no pretense that these awards are significant or important in any way, but I enjoy having the opportunity to praise and draw attention to things I have loved.

The Serene Wombles are divided into two categories, those that apply to recent releases, and special Time Travelling Wombles for the most awesome things in my Reviewing Through the Time Machine posts. The division between the former and the latter may at times seem arbitrary – why should a film that came out in 2009 count as a recent release, whilst a TV Show that ended in 2009 requires a time machine? It’ll always be a judgement call, and the call is mine. At the end of the day, these are not the Oscars, they’re the highlights from a blog, and are therefore subject to my whim.

Due to illness and stress and stuff the pickings have been a little thinner this year than I would like. Nevertheless, there have been some really awesome and creative things out there, and I still want to praise them.

The Serene Womble for Best Film

Poster for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Poster for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Elligible films: Looper, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Star Trek: Into Darkness.

So… guess who hasn’t been to the cinema a lot this year?  There are a whole bunch of films that I wanted to go see this year  – summer of bloody superheroes indeed! – but illness and lack of funds have prevented me. As a consequence, this was basically no contest. Looper made me angry. Star Trek: Into Darkness was tiresome and disappointing. And I enjoyed The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey a very great deal. I said when I watched it at Christmas that it would be the one to beat, and, alas, nothing rose to the challenge.

This was an exceedingly pretty film that I found well-paced and which realised the story very well. I didn’t mind the extra stuff added in, and actually like that Peter Jackson took this once-in-a-generation-or-two opportunity to explore Tolkien’s world more fully. Bags of fun!

The Serene Womble for Best TV Show: Hemlock Grove

Hemlock Grove PosterEligible TV Shows: Hemlock Grove, Doctor Who, House of Cards, Game of Thrones, Hannibal, America’s Next Top Model, Sleepy Hollow.

For the first year, Game of Thrones is not the winner of this category! I still enjoyed it, and it had some of my favourite moments of the whole series, but the pacing was rocky, and for consistently good value there was some significant competition.

Hemlock Grove was original, genre bending, narratatively interesting, conceptually challenging, and thoroughly addictive. It wasn’t quite like anything I had seen before, in a good way.

Hannibal deserves an honourable mention, but although it was addictive, entertaining, and well-acted, I can’t say it was anything especially new or original, just very well done. House of Cards was well-acted and reasonably well-written, but fairly unoriginal and tiresomely another privileged white man plotting petty revenges that it’s hard to care for when he’s not really received any very great slights. Doctor Who is… Doctor Who. This really isn’t going to be a contender until Moffat leaves. If an episode doesn’t leave me wanting to scream, it’s a good sign. I thought there were a couple of somewhat interesting episodes this year, but that’s all. America’s Next Top Model, much as I am in the business of defending it, is not remotely in the same league. Sleepy Hollow snuck in as a last minute entry. I enjoyed the one episode I’d seen at time of review, but it’s basically entertaining fluff.

So, it’s a hearty congrats to Hemlock Grove. You seriously impressed me and I hope I can spread the love to my readers.

The Serene Womble for Best Novel – Null

There was precisely one entrant in this category: A Dance with Dragons. Given that this is just a couple of chapters from the longer Read Along with Rhube chapter by chapter review that I have been doing for the last year (two years?). It feels a bit cheaty to give it a free pass to a Serene Womble by default of multiple entries and the fact that I just haven’t reviewed any other (current) novels. Plus, it just isn’t that good. Entertaining, interesting enough for the time and attention I have devoted to it? Yeah, I guess. But it’s also deeply problematic and I doubt it would win against any competition it might have had in another year. (It did not win last year, for example.)

Fair? Unfair? It’s my blog, I get to choose.

The Serene Womble for Best Blog – Escher Girls

Escher Girls avatarEligible blogs: Myths Retold, Academic Men Explain Things to Me, Escher Girls

Oh man, this was a really hard one. I want to give the award to all of them and actually changed my mind a couple of times. One of the difficulties is that Myths Retold is a very different kind of blog to the other two, which are in turn very similar to each other in both content and impact. I considered making a separate category for ‘Best Fiction Blog’, so that I could honour Myths Retold as well, but then I couldn’t think of any other fiction blogs and it seemed like that would be getting needlessly specific. Basically, I’m saying that all three of these are very good and worth your attention.

I’ve picked Escher Girls for the win for the scope of its impact. Escher Girls is the creation of Ami Angelwings, an awesome Canadian woman who started the blog to ‘archive and showcase the prevalence of certain ways women are depicted in illustrated pop media’, namely: women are contorted into physically impossible poses for the pleasure of the male gaze. The blog functions as a demonstration that the way women are drawn in comics and other illustrated media is dramatically different to the ways that men are drawn, that we are sexualised to extremes and that this sexualisation is commonplace, and in ways that do not compare to the male power fantasies of ripped muscles in skin-tight costumes which are so often held up to minimise women’s claims of unfair treatment. The volume of examples that Ami has collected (both personally and from submissions) is staggering, and the comfort this provides to women (who have long been told that their experience of alienation by sexualisation in mainstream comics is a mere subjective impression) is extensive and powerful.

Academic Men Explain Things to Me serves a similar function, in providing a platform for women to voice their frustrations with the phenomenon of ‘mansplaining’, in which women frequently find that men explain very basic things to them, often in areas for which the woman is herself an expert and the man a novice. Again, this is an area in which women have often been told that they are imagining being treated in an overly patronising manner, that there are ‘know it alls’ of both genders, and that our subjective experiences are not as valid as men’s (who, of course, are privileged by a default supposition of objectivity that does not exist). By creating a venue to archive these experiences in detail and volume, Academic Men Explain Things to Me has provided a powerful vindication of women’s experiences – one which I genuinely believe is helping men to rethink their behaviour, as well as providing women with a sense of justification long denied.

In the end, I chose Escher Girls for its breadth of impact. I feel that there has been a palpable shift in comic and visual culture over the past year, where the misogyny in mainstream comics has come under increasing scrutiny from more mainstream critiques and fans. I don’t think Escher Girls have been the sole cause of this. Blogs such as DC Women Kicking Ass have also provided a sustained critique and made significant contributions, as have prominent critiques from individual women, such as Kelly Turnbull and Kyrax2. But to concede that a leading light is a part of a movement need not minimise the specific contribution. I think the impact of Escher Girls can be seen in the fact that it was able to spin off other projects, such as The Hawkeye Initiative, which highlights the discrepancies in treatment of men and women in comics by showcasing redrawings of sexualised female images with the male character, Hawkeye, in an identical pose.

Moreover, Ami’s blog is impressively organised in a way that facilitates citation and comparison from multiple angles – the tags page not only collates posts by trope, but also by artist, company, character, series, and Genre/Medium. And the blog integrates a Disqus commenting feature, allowing for debate and discussion of issues in a way that usually isn’t possible on Tumblr style blogs, and which Ami manages with great sensitivity.

It’s hard to compare a project like this with an artistic endeavour, like Myths Retold, which is not aiming at the kind of social change Escher Girls enables. Myths Retold demonstrates an artistry and poetic sophistication that simply doesn’t apply in assessing the other two blogs. All I can say is that whilst I recommend all three blogs to you, I felt that in this year, Escher Girls seemed most significant to me.

The Serene Womble for Best Webseries: Welcome to Night Vale

Night Vale logoEligible webseries: TableTop, Vlog Brothers, Welcome to Night Vale

I admit to using the term ‘webseries’ loosely. I reviewed quite a lot of things this year that don’t fit neatly into large categories, and although I might call TableTop a webseries, Vlog Brothers a vlog, and Night Vale a podcast, having each win a category for which it was the only entrant, I don’t think that’s a good use of my time and attention or yours. In any case, there is no question in my mind that Welcome to Night Vale outshines the other two, and I do not have the qualms I had for the previous category, in that I feel these compare fairly well, for regularly web-distributed entertainment.

TableTop is a nice idea, and if I were really into game mechanics I might find more value in it, but ultimately it fell flat for me. It’s basically just like watching other people play fun games. The games look fun, and maybe you like the people, but you can’t help but feeling that the whole thing would be more enjoyable if you were actually playing, too.

Vlog Brothers is entertaining, amusing, thoughtful, and informative. I recommend it. But it can’t hold a candle to Night Vale.

Welcome to Night Vale is one of the best, most enjoyable, most original shows I have had the pleasure to stumble across in a long time. The idea of using the podcast format as though it were a radio station for a fictional town is not one I had come across before, and it has been put to good purpose. Funny, strange, and more than a little bit dark, Night Vale is like a ray of sunlight that never fails to make me smile or to delight me with its unexpected changes in direction. It’s also surprisingly durable in terms of being something I can listen to over and over and still find new things to enjoy. I’ve had a hard year, especially the last few months, and being able to tune in to Night Vale any time I would otherwise have been alone with my thoughts has been remarkably soothing. It comforts me to know that wonderful, joyful, eccentric people are making such wonderful, joyful, eccentric works of art.

Not to mention that it manages to be progressive in terms of representation of gender, race, and sexuality without ever being po-faced. I can’t not give this an award.

The Serene Womble for Best Music: Stephanie Mabey

Album cover for Wake Up Dreaming, by Stephanie MabeyEligible musicians: Garfunkel and Oates and Stephanie Mabey

Garfunkel and Oates are witty and entertaining, but occasionally problematic. By contrast, Stephanie Mabey’s music is pure joy. I’ve listened to her album, Wake Up Dreaming, again and again, often on loop, since downloading it, and I’m not sick of it yet. Her music is delightful, witty, and often beautiful – a real must for the geek music lover. I can’t recommend her work enough.

The Serene Womble for Best Webcomic: City of the Dead

City of the Dead, panel oneEligible webcomics: City of the Dead

OK, this one was the only entry in its category – I haven’t been reading as many webcomics this year, focussing, as I have been, on trying out different new media instead. Nevertheless, this comic is dynamic, atmospheric, and fun, making full use of the online medium to present a fast-paced and cohesively presented story. It’s no Romantically Apocalyptic (the winner from last year), but it’s certainly a cut above the average, and worthy of your time.

The Time Traveling Wombles

The Time Travelling Womble for Best Novel: The Count of Monte Cristo

Cover Art: The Count of Monte CristoEligible novels: The Count of Monte Cristo.

A consequence of the sparse nature of this year is that the categories for the Time Traveling Wombles each has only one entry, but as each are stellar examples of exemplary works, this should not count against them.

I had no idea that The Count of Monte Cristo would be either such a rip-roaring adventure, or that it would be so progressive for its time (I ship Eugenie/Louise forever). Some classics are classics because they are fun as well as intelligent, and I can’t recommend this one highly enough.

The Time Traveling Womble for Best Non-Fiction Book: Wild Swans

Wild Swans - cover artEligible non-fiction books: Wild Swans.

In my original article on this I wrote that this is one of the books I would say everyone should read before they die, so it should be no surprise that I honour it here, also. Wild Swans is a biographical and autobiographical work of heart-rending and exquisite expression of three women’s lives across turbulent twentieth century China. The tale is worthwhile and breath-taking in itself, but for people living outside of China – people for whom the ‘Cultural Revolution’ is just a term – this intimate, detailed, and thorough history is an absolutely essential piece of reading that will change your perspective in the world.

Time Traveling Womble for Best Blog – Inexplicable Objects

A cupcake with a festive plane-on-a-stick in it.Eligible blogs: Inexplicable Objects.

Dating from a time before there was any such thing as a ‘blogging platform’ (the first was launched in October 1998), one can’t help but feel that Inexplicable Objects, which updated weekly from April 1998 to June 2001, would have made a phenomenally successful Tumblr. The archive is still active, more than ten years since it stopped updating, and it’s still one of my very favourite things in the world. Chocked full of delightfully strange objects, coloured by the witty commentary of Bill Young, this little website is a welcome piece of harmless absurdity to brighten your day. It may be the only entry in this category, but it is assuredly worthy of the Womble.

And finally:

The People’s Choice Award 2013: Hemlock Grove, Season One

Hemlock Grove PosterBy far and away the thing you most wanted my opinions on that I reviewed this year was Hemlock Grove. Netflix’s original fantasy/horror/weird show, released as an entire season, all at once, in April this year has garnered nearly 2,500 hits, with over a thousand more than its next nearest rival, Looper. This should possibly give pause for thought, as my review of Looper garnered attention more because it was negative and controversial than because the film was well-liked, but I hope that those who came to read my review of Hemlock Grove came away with a more positive image and their interest was more than car crash theatre.

Incidentally, last year’s winner, The Guild, Season Five, still has more hits than any other page on my website (including the home page) at over 14,000. What do these figures mean? Who knows, but something captured a lot of people’s interest, and maybe that’s something that’s worthy of your attention, too.

And that’s about it for this year. I hope you’ve enjoyed my reviews (or at least found them interesting) and that those who have won Serene Wombles of one kind or another get something positive out of the experience. It’s amazing the volume of wonderful and engaging things out there to culturally consume  in this crazy internet age; I hope I can continue to provide some kind of useful commentary on the tiny section of it in which I partake.

Review: Hemlock Grove, Season One

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.

Review: Hemlock Grove, Pilot Episode

Hemlock Grove PosterHemlock Grove is the second of Netflix’s original TV shows. Netflix, for those not in the know, is a site for streaming films and TV shows. You pay a monthly fee of £5.99 (UK) and have opened to you a bewildering array of things to watch. As a media addict I’ve been in on it since it came to the UK and they’ve built up an impressive catalogue. What’s more, Netflix has been a massive success in the US for quite some time, so much so that they have achieved the unique position of being able to move from streaming content produced by others to commissioning their own series. The first to be released was House of Cards, an American remake of the British 1990 political drama of the same name. And they will soon be releasing a season of the critically acclaimed Arrested Development, which has gained cult following since being cancelled in 2006.

It’s an incredibly interesting time, and with Hemlock Grove being the first truly original* Netflix programme, and the first with sf/f/h content, I was intrigued. One of the things that Netflix have consciously done differently is to release the whole season at once. The way that streaming allows viewers to watch just as much or as little of a show at once as they like must have revealed to Netflix the shifts in viewing patterns amongst viewers who have come to value the ability to mainline a show, watching episode after episode back to back. Netflix is not a TV channel, necessarily catering to the tastes of a loosely grouped demographic, carefully schedule content. Their audience selects what they are interested in, and whilst I have to wait until Monday for the next Game of Thrones, I can stream the next episode of Hemlock whenever I want.

This was a trend that started with DVD box sets. Buying a season to watch at home was the preserve of nerds and fanatics alone in the 1990s. I owned a handful of episodes of Doctor Who, Star Trek, a chunk of The X Files – I didn’t even start buying Buffy box sets until the naughties – and anyone who has seen my video collection would concede that I was something of a film and TV fanatic. A box set was an expensive item and could set you back £80. Few were inclined to buy more than the odd episode here or there.

In the naughties, though, we turned a curve. First videos became massively devalued by DVDs, then DVDs came down in price. Then sites like eBay and Amazon Marketplace made it possible to buy DVDs second-hand much more easily than had ever been possible before. Suddenly a season that would have set you back £80 in the 90s could be had for £30, £15, £10. And the sort of shows we watched changed with it. An audience watching week on week has less tolerance for convoluted plots and rich character development that could mean missing an episode entails completely losing the thread. The X Files and Buffy (which became steadily less episodic) also had something to do with the shift, but even die-hard fans like me lost patience for The X Files’ conspiracy theory eventually. Lost probably represents the real turning point, as a show where you could easily fail to follow what was going on if you missed a week. I did not enjoy it when it first came out for that very reason. But later a friend leant me the DVDs and I was hooked – marvelling at the immersive and complex development that would not have been possible outside of a miniseries in the 20th century. I have friends who don’t want to watch Game of Thrones or Dexter as the episodes come out – they want to wait for the box set.

The world has changed. Storytelling has changed. And Netflix knows it.

The ‘release a whole series at once’ thing is an experiment. It’s bad enough waiting for the next series when the series you’re watching now comes out over two or three months. We may be able to watch Hemlock Grove in a weekend, but a full TV series still takes the same time to produce. Nevertheless, I suspect Netflix are on the right track. Illegal downloaders seem perfectly happy to snag a whole season at once and then move on to the next thing. Give people what they want when they want it and they’re actually happy to pay for the service most of the time. I like a little bit of anticipation, week to week, but if we’ve learned one thing over the last decade it’s that whilst anticipation is titillating, most of us want what we want right now it if we’re given the option.

But on to reviewing the show itself.


In small town USA people are weird. The rich people in the big house are weird. The Gypsies who’ve just moved into the trailer in the woods are weird. Everybody’s weird. So when a teenage girl is gruesomely killed whilst her girlfriend listens over her mobile, by something that might be an animal, but left no animal tracks, everybody throws accusing glances around.

Actually, these people are more than just weird. At first it seems like it might be a bait-n-switch where everyone’s sort of ‘Yeah, they might be a vampire… but actually they’re just a bit odd’, but around half-way through the episode it becomes clear that there is something very definitely out of the ordinary going on. A girl who walks around with bandages all day unwraps them at home and reveals that one half of her face very definitely looks non-human. A flash-back suggests her father suspects her mother of being other-worldly, and possibly that the girl is some kind of experiment. A teenage girl who declares herself a novelist superstitiously suspects the Gypsy boy, Peter Rumancek (Landon Lioiro), of being a werewolf because his index and middle fingers are the same length, but there are indications that he may really be one. In turn, Peter comments to his mother that Roman, heir to the Godfrey estate, is… some word I’m unfamiliar with, but one assumes to be a Romani word for something supernatural. I hate to be so non-specific in a review, but there’s actually so little information about this show online at the time of writing that I haven’t actually been able to look this up! Even the wikipedia page is kinda sparse. an ‘upir‘.

Meanwhile, Lynda Rumancek (Lili Taylor), Peter’s mother, appears to be dealing (?) some strange liquid in oddly shaped clear vials. And Olivia Godfrey (Framke Janssen), Roman’s mother, is seen with some of the vials, although we presume she did not get them from Lynda, as hints are dropped that there is some kind of bad blood between the two families.

How was it?

Better than I thought it would be.

The show opened badly. It’s an uncomfortable and hackneyed premise to have your inciting incident be a young girl being horribly murdered. Feels very women in refrigerators and is an uncomfortable reminder of the horror genre’s history with sexism. Add to this that we see a pair of breasts (but not the head to which they belong) before we hear a line of dialogue, and as far as I can tell this objectifying shot added nothing at all to the plot… let’s just say I was not feeling well-disposed towards the programme, and was still feeling mad and annoyed at the ‘let’s all assume girls aren’t watching’ feel that left in my mouth when I should have been being afraid for the girl who was running for her life. I have no problem with nudity, I have a problem with needless objectification and the incredibly slanted treatment of nudity (lots of breasts, not a lot of manflesh). The show had to do a lot to win back my trust.

And yet almost against my will I did become intrigued. The baseline premise – grisly murder of a girl in a town where everyone has a secret – has little to interest, but as the show continued I became more and more perplexed and curious as to what was going on. There were hallucinogenic dream sequences that were clearly meant to be significant of… something. Whatever Shelley Godfrey is it is not out of the familiar stock of werewolves and vampires. Is Peter a werewolf? Is Roman a vampire? Is Olivia? Or is Olivia fae of some description – something about her felt very Sidhe, and I can’t help but note that her daughter’s name, ‘Shelley’, bares some similarity to the name of the court of the fair folk. But I’m clutching at straws – I have no clue!

There are also a wide variety of female characters. With the exception of Shelley they are all extremely slender and of the familiar Hollywood style beauty, but they do have personalities and opinions. In fact, there are probably more female main characters than male, which is very unusual. And it’s good to see a lesbian couple presented on-screen with no overt criticism of their sexuality (although, one of them almost immediately dying a grisly death is not 100% awesome).

I have some concerns about the representation of the Romani. I’d say it’s notably more favourable than in most popular media. Less stereotyped than in Buffy or My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, for instance. However, I’m becoming increasingly aware of the high levels of racism against Romani people around the world, and about their anger at widespread cultural appropriation. And I must confess I know little enough myself about Romani – I try to educate myself but I’m probably not the best judge. There’s very little information about writer and producer Brian McGreevy online – for all I know he is Romani, or has done a great deal of research. But I honestly can’t tell. I can say that Peter and Lynda seem to be possessed of a rich culture which does not prevent Peter from interacting sociably with other people his own age. And prejudice against Romani people is acknowledged and challenged. On the other hand one of the first things Peter does is steal a jacket, which plays somewhat into the Gypsy stereotype. I don’t know. I am ignorant myself. But of the two families who feature most prominently, the Rumanceks are given the more favourable presentation.

Overall I am intrigued and willing to see where this goes. More than that, I would encourage others to see where this goes. It has potential, and despite the poor directorial decision early on, I think it has won me over.

*The term ‘original’ is variably open to interpretation. Hemlock Grove is based on a book by Brian McGreevy, but it has never been presented as a television show before (although, I keep thinking we’re going to need a new word for this kind of thing – ‘webisode’ doesn’t seem to cut it for something whose format is otherwise identical to shows like Dexter, Weeds, Firefly and countless others that are also hosted by Netflix).