Death and life are not opaque. Somewhere between them lies a spectral realm where the wraiths of who we are, apart from unresponsive bodies hooked up to IVs and heart monitors, exist in a half-life. Superstition is questioned. Medical standards can no longer define consciousness. That translucence of what defines being alive, besides a beating heart or neural synapses firing in the brain, is what makes Beyond eerily nebulous.
When the eyelids of Holden Matthews (Berkeley Duffield) fly open after 12 years of being suspended in a coma, he remembers nothing until his fingers come into contact with certain objects that incite what can only be described as a sort of bio-electricity. His flashbacks trigger everything from trembling furniture to showers of sparks that roar into blazing fires. Nobody seems to understand the turmoil bubbling in his subconscious and the half-life he experienced in a nightmarish altverse called The Realm. The only person who can make any sense out of the psionic powers that woke up with him is the mysterious Willa (Dilan Gwyn), whose first words to him are to trust no one.
While the plot does meander at the edge of consciousness for several episodes, you know something from the creators and producers of Heroes, Battlestar Galactica, and Once Upon a Time is only going to fall further and further down the rabbit hole even though it may it not work its magic at the outset. Fans of the paranormal and psychological phenomena in shows such as Stranger Things and The X-Files should at least hold on until the ghosts of memory flesh themselves out. Suspense will slowly materialize once fragmented visions start coming together. Like shards of a broken mirror, the pieces start to arrange themselves into an image that reflects the the terrifying truth. That warped netherworld will suck you in before you realize you’re a captive.
Beyond’s villains are even creepier than malevolent demons with glowing red eyes because they blend into the freshly mowed lawns and picket fences of their small suburb in broad daylight. Patrick Sabongui disguises his greasy character, known only as the man in the yellow jacket, as a stereotypical traveling salesman who looks like a relic of the seventies in a mustard-colored leather and thick glasses. His subtly two-faced performance makes it hard to believe that a married man who has a somewhat steady job and a daughter he calls “butterfly” could possibly have ulterior motives. Beneath the Willy Loman façade is a gun and a homicidal hunger.
Questionable and often dangerous methods are used by Willa to shock Holden into remembering his past in the realm, but the honest urgency that radiates from Gwyn makes it evident that there are no smoke and mirrors. This is not a character who plays the counterfeit psychic (crystal ball optional) and purposely shrouds herself in secrecy to seduce her victim into a coma. Survival hinges on the fragments of Holden’s memory coming together, and her frantic insistence that blooms out of the fear of her—and his—entire world shattering is why he submits to bouts of unconsciousness from which he always returns gasping for breath and fighting the throes of a panic attack.
The Realm is not some enchanted portal to a fairyland of magic and unicorns. Nothing twinkles or glitters. It is a foreboding and nebulous place, fraught with peril that haunts like the faceless phantom that appears out of the shadows and gnashes its teeth like the wolves that chase you mercilessly through the bleak stone city. Lapsing into unconsciousness is traumatic for Holden whether he hurtles into the Realm through one of his flashbacks or has his non-corporeal self transported there by the gears and wires of a strange steampunk-ish machine. There are adversaries hiding in broad daylight, and not all of them wear yellow. He only knows he has to undertake a pressing mission in the Realm—before a sinister force swallows them both.
Holden is neither a hero nor antihero. He is merely a moth whose fragile wings are snared in the spiderwebs of something menacing, something he grapples against time to understand before those closest to him are plunged into a chasm from which they can never return. Duffield’s performance has a disturbing subtlety that makes it seem he is drifting in and out of consciousness even when fully awake. His character can easily be mistaken for drifting the series in a zombified state. He appears as a socially awkward twentysomething at a glance, aloof and not all there—a deceptive mask for the silent torture he endures. The truth is mirrored in Holden’s darkening eyes even as his expression remains unnervingly frozen. While he is hardly brave or even determined at the outset, the danger and desperation he finds himself entangled in reveals a quiet strength that only keeps crystallizing once it emerges.
Despite the winding journey the first few episodes take to plunge you into the realm of The Realm, Beyond has that almost supernatural quality of being able to reverberate inside you. You feel every spasm, every momentary earthquake, every electrical current coursing through your veins as surely as they do through Holden’s. You gasp when he gasps and freeze when he freezes. You realize you have trouble breathing when the man in the yellow jacket appears through a foggy window and heave a sigh of utter relief when he vanishes. You hear the growl of he wolves in your ears, feel the shadows closing in around you, see the blinding light ahead as something you must jump through the screen and run towards even if it means unimaginable terror.
The power of this series lies not necessarily in its plot and characters as much as its ability to send viewers hurtling through virtual reality without any more equipment than their own senses. It grabs you with an invisible hand whose fingers seem to reach out from the Realm, seize you by the throat and compel you to keep watching. Every sensation that is Holden’s is also yours, which is how Beyond ventures beyond TV into an immersive experience that shocks you to life.
Beyond premieres on January 2nd on Freeform and Freeform.com