When South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone spoke at an NYU class in 2011, they shared their one rule in creating a satisfying episode of television:
“We found out this really simple rule… we can take… the beats of your outline, and if the words “and then’ belong between those beats, you’re f**ked, basically. You’ve got something pretty boring. What should happen between every beat you’ve written down is the word ‘therefore’ or ‘but.’ “
For all of Hemlock Grove’s various faults over the past two years, the most troubling one is the sense in the show that stuff just “kind of happens,” instead of moving forward based on logical character reactions. This is because of lazy “and then” storytelling. You can even see it in reviews of each episode, which are invariably littered with phrases like “meanwhile, back in Shelley’s storyline” instead of “this leads Roman and Peter to do ‘X.’”
Now I don’t know if Hemlock Grove’s writers scoured the Internet for tips prior to writing the eighth episode of the show’s second season, but “Unicorn” is the first episode in living memory to use Parker and Stone’s guiding light to near perfection.
If you’re so inclined, watch “Unicorn” again and try to chart how many times the action of one scene actually escalates into the action of another. Hell, the beginning of the episode even escalates the plot from the ending moments of the previous.
Peter and Roman are starting the process of burying the bodies of the white masked people, which thanks to an early flashback we can now suspect are a part of The Order of the Dragon. Peter and Roman are also refreshingly concerned with the implications of what they just did: killing, even if it was in self-defense. It’s the de-fanged Roman who shows the most concern. Just then one of the masked people wakes up and identifies herself as Sarah Chase of “813 Auburn Lane, Valencia, California.” She tells them that she has been brainwashed by an evil man, who stole her from her childhood home. Roman confirms the story of a missing Sarah Chase via his phone. This is the rare example of a show being able to use common day-to-day technology to enhance a plot instead of just having its characters inexplicably forget they have smart phones.
This “white mask” turned “Order” storyline immediately becomes far more interesting because we now know enough about the organization’s structure and goals to be intrigued but there is still the human-level mystery of whether “Sarah Chase” can be trusted. Granted this mystery doesn’t last long as Sarah’s dialect reveals herself to be a liar* and Peter kills her but it’s still step in the right direction.
*It’s unlikely that this dying woman would ask for a soft drink instead of water but I still appreciate Hemlock Grove both trying to get creative and finally putting the culture of its setting to good use.
Immediately after that episode escalates to Sheriff Chasseur stopping by to investigate Peter. Roman and Peter haven’t even had to move a muscle and yet more drama and intrigue is coming to them. It looks like Roman and Peter are going to be arrested for a moment before Chasseur sees a symbol on Sarah’s watch, identifying her as a member of the Order. This both puts Chasseur’s plot into high gear as he rushes off confront Father Francis about his suspicions and frees up Roman and Peter to go home where their storyline escalates yet again.
Roman barely has time to take off his coat before it’s revealed that Baby Nadia is missing. Roman and Peter are able to find Nadia quickly enough as a creepy diner meeting with Dr. Spivak has led Miranda to seek refuge with Destiny.
*How telling is it about this show’s struggle with creating realistic characters that Dr. Spivak, the most personable guy in Hemlock Grove is also the creepiest?
From here the plot actually escalates into two different directions. One sees Destiny quarterbacking one final, everything-is-revealed dream among (thanks for the grammar lesson last week, Miranda!) Peter, Roman and Miranda that indicates the Order is looking for supernatural babies to kill. Hmmm. We know where one of those is.
The other path is Norman finally stopping by Roman’s for a much-needed discussion. Norman reveals that he always suspected that Roman was his son. But Roman lashes out in pain, saying he’ll never be the man his brother was … despite the fact that Olivia has told him this isn’t true. Heartbreaking stuff from Roman.
Hemlock Grove has been so gentle to Roman Godfrey in the past. Be a little snob. Take a break. Have sex with some random woman. Take a break. Drain someone’s blood. Take a break. It’s a bit meta that by the end of the episode he is utterly drained and exhausted. He wants to go pursue the Order at their hidden farmhouse* immediately before they can find Nadia. But exhausted from both his treatments and suffering the escalation of deft plotting, he just flat out falls asleep, leaving Peter to go defend his “family” on his own. Of course his brashness backfires and he is captured by the Order shortly after arriving. A lot of the arduous early season character work has paid off for Peter here. The loss of his loved ones Lydia and Letha combined with his increasing darkness has led him to a desperate and foolish decision. That, along with the sense of escalation for him episode-wise makes a satisfying end out of what could have come across as annoyingly foolish otherwise.
*This is a pretty unfortunate slip-up in an otherwise good episode. Where we’ve got to see Peter and Roman’s above average detective work previously, this time just happen to know where this shed is.
While Roman, Peter and the central mystery plot is escalating beautifully, Shelley and Olivia’s arcs are merging in an interesting fashion.
Shelley and Priscilla now share one mind. Dr. Pryce’s eventual plan is to kill Shelley’s body so that Shelley’s brain can live on in Priscilla’s but as of right now Shelley’s brain occupies both bodies. Good science fiction or fantasy can literalize the metaphorical in a striking way. Shelley’s and Priscilla’s potential final scene together is a wonderful example. Shelley and Priscilla quickly whispering “I love you” at the same time is affecting enough, but factoring in that this is the first time a broken, scared and scarred little girl has actually said that to herself is beautiful. And it makes what could come next even more heartbreaking.
Olivia has been told by Pryce’s assistant that she has developed a potentially terminal cancerous tumor because Pryce has been feeding her the blood and guts version of “horsemeat,” while keeping Priscilla, “unicorn meat,” from her. Olivia’s slow approach to Priscilla’s bed to drain her is intercut heavy-handedly with Peter’s advance into the shed but it does little to lessen the impact of “Unicorn’s” final line, a quiet, terrified “mother?”
Around the time of Roman and Norman’s meeting in “Unicorn,” I realized that it was perhaps the first time I was completely invested in an episode of Hemlock Grove and subconsciously began to will it to stick the landing. Thanks to fundamentally sound storytelling techniques, it does. Bring on the last two episodes.
Individual Episode Reviews: