It should be obvious at this point that I’m a huge Simon Barry fanboy, and now that I’ve had the opportunity to experience showrunner Neil LaBute’s work as well, he’s certainly been added to my “keep an eye on” list of creative minds. That said, there’s something about the crafting of tonight’s Van Helsing episode that elevates it to a level few shows ever achieve with a story arc that seemingly reinvents itself each week. Written and directed by Barry, “Last Time” shows us that the inevitable may not unfold as expected, and despite the best of intentions, at times, you simply have to live with bad decisions.
There’s a subtle horror that runs through this episode, and while it may be convenient to ascribe much of that to the revelation that Sam turns out to be a psychopathic serial killer, there’s much more to it than that. We can’t simply turn our backs on the relationship Sam forged with Mohamad because at its core has been a fatherly love for the young man. Though we know we’re supposed to revile Sam’s actions, it’s still painful to listen and watch Christopher Heyerdahl’s poignant performance as he attempts to explain himself to the others. He truly believes he’s protecting Mohamad and Vanessa, and while we understand his sense of duty towards Mohamad, why Vanessa? Does Sam sense Vanessa’s importance, and now that he’s been turned and Vanessa’s cut ties with him, will his attitude towards her change? And I can’t be the only one who watched with horror as Sam shaves his head and beard transforming himself into John Druitt aka Jack the Ripper from Sanctuary.
But that’s only a fragment of the shock and disgust facing viewers, Mohamad, and Vanessa. Mohamad’s anguished plea to Vanessa to “do what you gotta do,” and her desire to shield the young man from the final moments of the only family he’s known since The Rising, punctuates the reality that they’ve lost all control not only of their lives but their actions as well. Somewhat unexpectedly and, as it turns out, mistakenly, Sam’s left crippled in the forest by Vanessa after she decides to slice the back of his knees rather than cut off his head. Destined to die, Sam momentarily fights off a feral only to be bitten in the end, an act that not unexpectedly rejuvenates him. And now we’re left to wonder whether or not he possesses the wherewithal to seek revenge against Vanessa. Digging up Susan’s freshly buried body leads us to believe his mind has shifted into survival mode leaving Vanessa free to head towards Denver, but that might be a little too convenient.
As much as I loved Susan’s character, the decision to have Sam murder her, seems appropriate given the circumstances and speaks to the approach that LaBute and Barry have taken as the series progresses. No one is safe, and each time a character graces a scene, it may be the last time we see that person alive. When Susan leads the group through pastoral fields and eventually to the home in which she grew up, we briefly consider what life could be like as they begin to settle into what appears to be as safe an environment as is possible. But Susan has to die, and I don’t say that lightly.
In some ways it’s fitting that she returns home and obtains a modicum of closure for the physical and emotional abuse heaped on her by her father, but she also seems worn out and even Vanessa’s friendship isn’t enough to prop up her spirits. She admits that she’s barely hanging on, and the tenuousness of the world before and after The Rising has taken its toll. When she walks out of the cabin leaving her chained, feral father and Vanessa alone, we hope Vanessa will do what needs to be done, but just as she’s about to cut off his head, a shotgun blast from Susan kills him. “Closure.” Fittingly, she uses the gun her father taught her to shoot with, and it appears she came home precisely to put her demons behind her.
But we have now arrived at a critical point: Is Vanessa’s moral compass spinning out of control? Does it have to if she expects to make it to Denver to continue her search for her daughter? People she cares about and trusts continue to disappoint, and now with only Mohamad by her side, uncertainties undoubtedly flood her mind. Should she trust him because they have a common purpose, each searching for a loved one? Or should she go with her instinct and part ways knowing that at some point Mohamad will let her down?
What’s both troubling and fascinating about Vanessa is that she’s capable of making the difficult decisions, something she quickly learned from Axel, but her inconsistency in doing what needs to be done to insure her survival, leaves her open and vulnerable. This brilliantly written character continues to resist that final leap into an unequivocal acceptance of jungle law, and ironically, it’s Axel’s absence that pushes her toward the precipice.
Now that Vanessa’s human group has dwindled, a face to face encounter with Julius, Rebecca, or Dmitri can’t be far behind, and tonight, “Last Time” shifts into a higher gear delivering more clarity regarding the vampires’ end game. The conversation between Dmitri and Rebecca is especially illuminating and provides subdued details regarding their inability to move around freely outside and their projected intentions once they procure Vanessa. Though we get a sense of the delicate balance the two maintain, he’s clearly in charge and his distrust and disillusionment with her progress is obvious. As each momentarily steps into and out of the streams of light filtering into the room, a sizzle and smoke effect neatly reinforces a basic vampire tenet. “Don’t lose faith in me,” she pleads, but we know that she has her own path to take.
While these details are important, it’s the glimpse we receive of the larger picture that opens up a wealth of possibilities as the story charges ahead. Dmitri and Rebecca know of Vanessa’s vampiric qualities, and tonight the horrific medical experiments we’ve seen heretofore begin to take shape and make sense. They plan to mix Vanessa’s blood with theirs in an attempt to create a hybrid enabling them to move about virtually untouchable. However, it’s not clear why Dmitri began his search for a cure when he did. He chides Rebecca, “You have promised me this for years. Even before we knew of The One.” Obviously, Vanessa is “The One,” but his statement also implies that there have been false alarms along the way. You have to love the human/vampire hybrid approach.
Nonetheless, the most revealing and potentially game changing facet that comes into view occurs when Rebecca tells Dmitri that the human resistance is counting on the clearing skies to alter the course of the war. How long this might take, we don’t know, but there is hope for the human race. Once the skies clear and we return to the past, vampires won’t be able to go out in the day, but again, from a storytelling standpoint, it raises some interesting possibilities. Rebecca thinks the resistance will use the sunlight as its ally, but her plan is all about finding Vanessa, counting on her vampiric qualities to lead to a cure, which in this case is the aforementioned hybrid. However, before she can face off with “The One,” Rebecca must deal with the internal conflicts that ultimately have Dmitri ordering her to stand down. Whether she follows his order seems unlikely, but either way, the narrative should continue to get interesting.
With two episodes remaining, “Last Time” sheds light on a number of nagging questions and solidifies Van Helsing’s standing as the horror genre’s most imaginative interpretation of the classic vampire tale. And like all great shows Van Helsing leaves so many irons in the fire that to attempt to make too many predictions will ultimately prove fruitless. Nonetheless, though we haven’t seen him in the last two episodes, the hope that Axel will resurface, humanity intact, remains at the top of the wish list. Though a showdown between Vanessa and Rebecca seems more appropriate for the season finale, the groundwork has been laid, and let’s not forget that both Mohamad and Sheema remain in play as critical pieces in humanity’s fight for survival.
“Last Time” delivers an emotionally crushing narrative that doesn’t pander to audience expectations which in the current climate is quite refreshing. At the same time, we have enough to care about that surviving the violence and duplicitous behaviors poses a challenge the audience relishes. Another stellar episode that narrows the focus in one area while expanding it in another.