This Van Helsing review contains spoilers.
Van Helsing Episode 5
To a large extent tonight’s episode of Van Helsing plays out as an elaborate game of cat and mouse. The series’ fourth episode “Fear Her” fleshes out a number of significant plot details that bring to the forefront the power brokers of the apocalypse, and while it seems the writers may have introduced too much too soon, there’s no question they’ve fashioned an intricate story able to split in any of a number of directions.
Now that Julius (Aleks Paunovic) has Vanessa, replete with a Hannibal Lecter mask, he sets out to assess her power and threat level, but also makes clear that he plans to use her to track down Dmitri. It’s fascinating to watch this alpha vampire cautiously studying Vanessa while at the same time maintaining an appearance of strength in front of his minions. “What are you?” he asks her. He’s wise to be afraid, though to this point much of what he knows about her could arguably be viewed as nothing more than urban legend.
Shackled and chained, Kelly Overton delivers a powerfully frightening performance as Vanessa goads Julius in front of his followers, daring him to take her on. Director David Frazee presents a terrifying visual as Vanessa stands over her next door neighbor Susan’s body and looks defiantly towards Julius, dark blood dripping down her lips, mouth and chin. We know the outcome and feel his arrogance wane even though he still doesn’t know exactly what he just witnessed. It does seem though that the two women get away a bit too easily.
Much of the episode’s second half finds Vanessa and Susan navigating through the bowels of Julius’ lair as the two reconnect. That the police took custody of Dylan seems on the surface a reasonable act, but there’s something about Susan’s account that doesn’t sit quite right. Like Flesh and Doc before her, Susan must now resume her life before turning, and while we don’t know what atrocities she may have committed, the fact that she helped Vanessa’s daughter Dylan places her firmly under her protection. Since Susan is Vanessa’s only link to finding her daughter, she’ll likely keep Susan’s past a secret.
And it’s here that Van Helsing potentially runs into trouble. It seems many post-apocalyptic tales end up following the protagonists as they dodge one disaster after another, and while there may be meaningful character development along the way, at the end of the day, the narrative bogs down into nothing more than fight-flight-fight-flight. Certainly it can be argued that that’s the reality of this kind of world, but that doesn’t necessarily make for compelling television drama week after week. It’s still far too early to render any judgements here, but it is something to watch closely.
It would be inaccurate to state that the newcomers’ coup comes as a surprise, because from the start, there is something off about the way Brendan (Terry Chen) carries himself and communicates with Axel. Chen plays this sly, treacherous leader perfectly, and much like his character in Continuum, something sinister lurks below the surface. Just because one of his group explains the ease with which they overtake Axel as their apocalypse-education-in-action doesn’t necessarily make it true.
There are a number or emotionally wrenching scenes in “Fear Her,” and when Mohamad assumes the group blames him for bringing Brendan’s people to the hospital, it’s difficult to watch his world crash in around him. It isn’t a total surprise to see him take the fall for the murders, but to be fair, he sacrifices himself as much to get outside to search for his sister as he does to protect the remaining members of the group. Alone with no weapon, he doesn’t figure to last long outside, but the kid carries himself with a lot of moxy and won’t go down easily. The only real question lies in whether he’ll encounter Vanessa or his sister first. Trope? Perhaps.
Writers Jeremy Smith and Matt Venables do a nice job introducing Sheema, and it remains open to question why she risks breaking into Rebecca’s apartment and how she knows that the floor plans will be there. It does seem a bit contrived especially when Rebecca just happens to return as soon as Sheema gets what she came for. But even more puzzling is why Rebecca lets her go once she catches her red-handed. Is she taking Julius’ approach, hoping Sheema will lead her to someone? But who? The subtle game these two seem to be playing suggests that each possesses some insight into the other’s intentions.
And if we return to the episode’s title “Fear Her,” conventional wisdom assumes it refers to Vanessa, but now that Rebecca figures more prominently in the narrative, she cannot be overlooked. Though she doesn’t know it yet, Vanessa appears to be caught in the middle of a vampire power struggle. Julius wants her to lead him to Rebecca who will in turn lead him to Dmitri, a 300 year old creature of the night. All that said, there seems to be a lack of tension surrounding Vanessa. While it’s too early to tell whether or not she can actually be killed, her obsession with finding her daughter isn’t enough to maintain interest while everything falls apart around her.
So here’s the problem. We have at least three leaders of vampire cults running loose in the city: Julius, Rebecca, and Dmitri. Whether their power goes in that order is unclear as is the source of the conflict between them. Is it something as simple as a turf war? And then there’s Brendan’s group, which when you pair it with Axel’s followers makes five factions all vying for power, or at the very least, survival.
Not surprisingly, we learn of a human led resistance movement. Is this the group with which Sheema is working? What building are they breaking into and why? The resistance makes six and logically means that some of these will be forced to align in some fashion under the “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” guise.
Of all the relatiopships in the show the most compelling continues to be that of Sam and Mohamad. Whatever coolness Mohamad exhibited last week has clearly disappeared, and it’s absolutely heartbreaking to watch Sam, locked in the cage, cry out as they take Mohamad away after he confesses to the murder.
But the scene strikes more deeply since the cage represents a microcosm of the world at large, a metaphor that the remnants of the human race have to escape to take back the Earth before there’s nothing left to take back. Leave it to Axel to cut to the core of the issue. “We get out of here, and we take it all back.”
And finally there’s Vanessa. It seems that individuals navigating through apocalyptic surroundings typically face obstacles with multiple choices, one often more horrific than the next. The CWs The 100 is a perfect example. What bothers me about Vanessa isn’t that she wants no part of being mankind’s savior or abandons her clan in favor of searching for her daughter. Both actions are understandable. What bothers me is that she reacts without a viable plan, which as the series plays out, will put Axel, in particular, in repeated jeopardy since he’s committed to protecting her. Perhaps she has come to terms with the fact that she apparently can’t be killed, but she can’t save her daughter if she can’t save herself. Does she honestly think she can do this alone?
“Fear Her” owes the bulk of its success to its actors and to a lesser extent the script. Thus far the power of Van Helsing lies in the sheer force of its characters and the collateral damage each inflicts as they continue to push forward on a journey with no bona fide destination. Unlike Moses and the Promised Land, these wanderers have nothing to aspire to except to survive the minute, the hour, the day. Nonetheless, that’s not enough to carry it through an entire season, and we need some narrative clarity before things get too muddled. A solid episode that neatly positions the characters for a showdown or two, and now we wait to find out who makes the first move.