This NOS4A2 review contains spoilers.
NOS4A2 Season 2 Episode 9
There’s a certain sadness that comes along with parenting. As a first-time parent of a toddler, I’ve been spared most of it, but even though my child is still in the early stages of learning to speak and developing higher motor functions, there’s already a little maudlin joy in watching her grow and change. The little potato-shaped baby I fed and cuddled on the couch doesn’t snuggle in immediately when you pick her up. If she wants something, she’s quick about expressing her opinion, mostly with body language. If she wants down, she’ll wiggle around until you let her down. If she wants to play with a certain toy, she’ll go get it and manually put it into your hand with the expectation that you’ll know what to do from there. It’s very funny, most of the time, but there’s also a tinge of loneliness as I watch her slowly grow up into the person she’ll become.
Of course, I’m a normal, relatively functional adult human; I’m not Charlie Manx, the stunted villain of NOS4A2. Watching my baby grow up is sweet and a little sad, but I wouldn’t want to stop her. I certainly wouldn’t kill her and imprison her in my mind palace to prevent the natural course of aging and development. Then again, I’m not a Strong Creative.
One of the most solid things NOS4A2 has established throughout this season are both the similarities and differences between Charlie Manx (Zachary Quinto) and Vic McQueen (Ashleigh Cummings). After a certain point, they have a lot of similarities in terms of attempting to overcome their backgrounds, but Charlie’s selfish streak is what separates them. Vic would do anything to save Wayne; Charlie keeps Millie (Mattea Conforti) trapped in a hell of his own making. He might have provided her all of the trapping she dreamed of, and all of the friends a girl could want, but when she opens her mouth to mention leaving, well… that’s a non-starter, because when she leaves Christmasland, she begins the process of leaving him behind, figuratively at least.
I can’t help but wonder if Millie, as she watches Vic search for a way into Christmasland, sees a more appealing parental figure than her own. Or, perhaps, she just sees a way out and she’s willing to use Vic to get away from her father’s permanent childhood. Perhaps father and daughter are more alike than either is willing to own up to, with both seeing Vic (initially) as the means to an end, either as a new mother for the children of Christmasland or freedom from one man’s selfishness. Millie mirrors her father through the lens of his selfishness, and Wayne, with his desire to run away from his mother and all of her baggage, mirrors his mother’s own desire to get out of Haverhill and make something of herself, albeit in a nascent form.
To the credit of “Welcome to Christmasland,” there’s absolutely no downtime from the shocking events of “Chris McQueen.” Grief is an emotion that can be saved until after everyone is no longer in mortal danger. Vic is determined solely to get Wayne back from Charlie Manx, and Ashleigh Cummings does a brilliant job of expressing suppressed grief in her brief introductory scene with Lou as she struggles to start the bike and tells him, voice cracking, to stay with her father so he won’t be alone. Once she has that brief moment, and represses it after a confession of love for Lou and his goodness as a person, she’s ready for business.
Charlie, to his credit, is much the same way, albeit he’s taken through the house where he keeps his nightmares locked up by Millie in an attempt to get the whole Manx family to leave Christmasland together. Zachary Quinto doesn’t have to fully restrain Charlie’s fear and anxiety; instead, the deeper Millie drags Charlie into the place of his greatest failures, the more panicky he becomes until, when confronted by Cassie, he has a full-fledged freak-out, lashing out at her and Millie with uncharacteristic aggression. He’s backed into a corner, and he faces one of the things he fears most: an independent teen girl who pushes back on his every decision and choice, no longer fooled by twinkling lights and candy. Mattea Conforti does a great job with Thomas Brady’s script, putting full teenage angst into her line delivery without crossing the line into annoying. She’s chafing under Charlie’s rule, longing to branch out, but not wanting to abandon her father in the process until it seems like she has no other choice.
The bulk of the episode isn’t about family drama, though the family drama underpins the action. The bulk of the episode is a daring twilight mission of destruction through Christmasland conducted by Vic and Maggie. Sure, they’re searching for Wayne, but they didn’t break into Christmasland not to do some serious damage to Charlie Manx’s evil plans in the meantime. Toa Fraser does a stellar job of shooting the action in Christmasland, giving Charlie’s mind palace both a scope and a scale that isn’t seen in the few other Inscapes we’ve seen throughout the series.
This one is intricate, deep, with an Id maze among its many traps and snares designed to stop adults and enthrall children. The set design is incredible; it’s somehow both Christmassy and terrifying at once. Behind the gingerbread siding and foggy glass windows, the joy and light of the place die quickly, with the buildings we see the inside of, a candy shop and a costume shop, looking lifeless in spite of their festive colors and twinkling lights. In a sense, Christmasland looks like a movie set decorated with fake snow; it does the job, but the illusion don’t last past the initial glance. The kids might be happy, but that’s as much because of Charlie Manx’s need to feel like he’s saving them and giving them every kid’s fantasy rather than actual happiness. He’s not there to give them something they need, they’re there because he has to feel like a success rather than a failure.
Christmasland isn’t for them, it’s for Charlie Manx, and attacking it is as effective in stopping him as burning the Wraith because it’s a necessary part of his being. Christmasland is a playground for kids, because bribery is the only way Charlie ever knew how to make someone happy. He couldn’t give Millie anything in her life, so in her afterlife, she’s getting all of the junk food and frivolity a child could want.
But Millie isn’t a child anymore. In spite of all traps designed to keep her a child forever, Millie is growing up, and the first lesson of her journey into adulthood is to see through her father’s carefully constructed lies and half-truths. The brightly colored present of Christmasland is just an empty box, and Christmasland is pure emptiness. Behind Charlie’s gorgeous car and well-coiffed veneer is pure emptiness; Christmasland might be there to keep the kids happy, but Charlie’s mind is more like the ice maze, twisted and endless and cold, where anything that runs counter to Christmasland’s plastic perfection goes to die.