A year ago, a friend of mine recommended it to me. “It’s a Netflix original,” said he. “It’s got a rich pseudo-vampire and a Gypsy werewolf, and together they’re trying to solve murders that the werewolf is dreaming about. Also, the vampire has a hot cousin who slept with an angel and is now pregnant.” I believe my response was something along the lines of “Wut,” but I tuned into the first episode, willing to give it a chance.
The first season… happened. I don’t know how else to describe it. I binge watched all of it, and at the end of every episode I’d sit there, staring at my television, wondering what I’d just seen. Was there a plot? Was anything happening? An hour of my life was suddenly gone but it felt like nothing had happened.
And then I’d think about it and realized that a lot had happened. The vampire and the werewolf were friends. Things were happening all around them. An elaborate and interesting mythology was being built. Characters were built, developed, and viciously murdered. It felt like nothing was happening, but so much happened in every episode. It was confusing, deceptive, strange. The next episode would begin.
The process would repeat.
The casting was perfect and the acting was great; certain actors were clearly told that the only food they were going to get was the scenery, so they chewed through that scenery like starving children at all-you-can-eat buffets. The direction and setting was alternately beautiful and disgusting, with the Gypsy magic in particular being horrific while the Gypsies themselves were warm and welcoming. The pacing was lurking and odd, but things happened even when it felt like nothing happened.
The gore in the first season is fearless and without mercy. People get gutted and butchered, and there’s nothing pretty about it – there’s mangled and half-eaten corpses everywhere. Children die, people die, and the camera captures the brutality of these deaths and the madness some people suffer from as a result.
Hemlock Grove celebrates a slow sense of entropy, a crumbling sanity infecting everyone in the town of Hemlock Grove. It’s inescapable. The location, the characters, everyone is trapped by this horrid spiritual disease that no one seems able to fight.
It was impossible not to watch, even if it was oddly unsatisfying. For all the gore and horror and haunting imagery, a strange sense that nothing was going on overlapped the whole of that first season. It looked like, for all their efforts and everything that they lost, that the two main characters did make any difference at all to the story they were trapped in.
The second season changes that.
Everything that worked in the first season is still here; the brilliant cast, haunting direction, predatory pacing, and subtle sound work. The difference is that things happen now – the two main characters struggle to come to terms with the consequences of the first season, with who they are and what they need to be if they’re going to take control of their lives.
They have a lot of things to work out, our vampire and werewolf. The vampire has gone full villain, struggling with the concept of humanity to the point where he’s destroying himself to become human, but in the process becoming more a monster. It’s only when he embraces his nature that he’s able to find any sort of peace with himself. Meanwhile, the werewolf has been running from any sense of responsibility, but every time he runs it costs him – and when he’s finally forced to stand his ground and make amends, it tears him apart. These two characters complete one another, and it’s a beautiful thing to watch them redevelop their relationship after it crumbled in the first season.
It’s not easy for them; both of them were personally and spiritually destroyed by the end of last season, and they start from that place and have to work their way back from there. The thing that ties them together ends up being a new character, someone utterly ordinary who is thrust into a reality that is wholly different from her own and has to make due.
This is difficult. Everything is difficult. No one gets away with anything, no one gets a free pass for any of the decisions that they make. Even when the watcher forgets the things these characters have done, the writing weaves those consequences in and makes them seem natural.
It’s why this show works, ultimately. No one acts like an idiot; every single one of these characters feels like a person, and behaves like a person having to deal with some truly insane circumstances. The Gypsy magic feels firmly rooted in reality, with terrible costs to the power that some of them have. The vamprisim and lycanthropy are weighty, messy things that take a heavy burden on those forced to bear them.
No one is perfect here, and no one is exempt from the things they’ve done. The side characters that meandered through the first season come into stark relief here, though that frankness offers no comfort.
A villainous presence from the first season shows up broken and struggles for redemption, only to be destroyed at the moment she needs comfort, reverting to her former monstrousness with a vengeance that is terrifying. A broken man who had finally made a home for himself at the end of last season questions what he’s always wanted and destroys it, not understanding what he’s done until it’s too late.
We get to see the depths of madness science has driven one man to, and contrast that perfect love of discovery to another genius who is driven only by ambition. And a girl made beautiful by her deformity, blamed for things that were not her fault, is saved and then destroyed by the cruelty of the people around her – and it is heart-wrenching.
Lastly, we get the villains of this season – a cult of religious zealots hunting down their antichrist, disguising murder after murder as accidents, with only the werewolf and the vampire able to identify and stop them. They’re tied to the mysterious religious order that was hunting the werewolf and vampire last season, and we get other facets of that order showing up to set things right, or take revenge, or find answers.
The second season maintains that hypnotic quality that kept me watching the first season, but improves upon the flaws that made watching that season questionable. The constant state of build in this season pays off in the final episode, but the cliffhanger ending had me screaming at my television.
[box] The Good: One of the best developing mythologies in film or television. Brilliant cast and performances, with just the right amount of over-acting. Horror and supernatural elements firmly rooted in reality. Creative direction that fits the narrative and makes the whole things better. In the second season, a sense of things happening.
The Bad: In the first season, the sense of nothing happening. A weird sense of pacing that feels disturbing and might be intentional, given the sense of surreality it engenders. That fucking cliffhanger.
The Ugly: Gypsy magic. The vampire blood formula in that tank.
The Verdict: If you like horror movies or themes, watch this. It’s got just enough gore for the gore crowd, and the Gypsy magic veers into some pretty hideous territory, so fair warning. The pacing is strange but fits the story; quirky, hypnotic, and as messy as any blood ritual. Please watch this so that Netflix will give us a third season.