Van Helsing Season 1 Episode 9: Help Out Review

Have we seen the last of Axel on this week’s Van Helsing?

When Doc plaintively asks Axel “What have we become” in “Help Out,” the ninth episode of Syfy’s Van Helsing, her question sets the tone for the entire episode and possibly the remainder of the vampire apocalypse’s first season. This week’s installment slows things down a bit, allowing for some introspection and self-assessment, yet still manages to lay the groundwork for some compelling plotlines. It’s bad enough that characters like Vanessa and Doc call into question their own self-worth, but when they look in the mirror, the person staring back appears unrecognizable. And that’s the major focus of the episode; what have they become?

The drunken, carefree atmosphere of the previous episode quickly gives way to a mood of desperation that envelops The Farm as one by one the characters battle feelings of self-doubt beginning with the opening scene that finds Vanessa cleaning up the blood from John’s body. When she questions whether or not she needed to kill John, Axel assures her she had no choice, but it’s unclear whether this soul-cleansing act provides her any emotional relief. Again, it’s critical that the writers continue showing us the human side of a woman who has to know that she may possess the power to save the human race, and despite that, continues to question her every decision and action.

In what can be fairly viewed as a transitional episode, much of what we learn this evening focuses on Vanessa, and the bombshell or two that quietly explode around her. Apparently, she has developed a bloodlust, though not in the same way as the Feeders, and it’s through her conversations with Susan that an undercurrent of fear and trepidation intensifies. She admits fighting the feeling that she wanted to kill John and then confesses that actually doing it produced a kind of relief, yet Susan seems unfazed. I find it fascinating that as time goes on, it’s Susan that seems most comfortable combating the daily obstacles, and when she tells Vanessa that things don’t seem all that much different now since her life was always terrible, we begin to understand. But then she gives pause acknowledging that when she’s with Vanessa, life is not so bad. Okay, we see where this is headed, and when Susan leans in to kiss her friend, Vanessa goes along with it for a few seconds before delicately playing it off.

It’s a risky move by showrunner Neil LaBute to introduce a potential shipping angle especially in light of the near sexual assault Susan experienced the day before, but it’s handled sensitively. On the one hand, John’s desire for a little physical contact after enduring multiple horrors including the loss of his wife can certainly be understood; he simply goes way too far. Susan’s overture to Vanessa, however, appears to be a bit more complex. They have a history, and it’s just as likely that like John, this incident is simply a reaction to the extreme circumstances, and perhaps this is the last we’ll see of it. Regardless, there’s an element of truth to this scene that shouldn’t be ignored.

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Finding decomposing bodies in one of the freezers presents another puzzle, but Doc’s autopsy doesn’t really reveal anything. However, once it becomes clear that they’ve all been exposed to radiation, the timetable to find a way out of the underground facility gets pushed into high gear. Are these bodies and radiation important? I certainly hope so otherwise what’s the point of introducing them.

Nevertheless, the highlight of “Help Out” emanates from the confirmation that the military already had Vanessa on its radar, and we now have to wonder whether or not they enhanced her with a specific purpose in mind. Coupled with the fact that she’s begun to second guess herself at every turn, this new revelation lays out a fascinating new narrative. Axel admits to having read her file back at the base, and since he faithfully watched over her for three years, he feels he’s earned the right to know why. But what he initially believes is a simple, albeit sad, early childhood, turns out to be more tangled than either could imagine. Vanessa has been under the impression that her mother died in childbirth leaving her to be raised by foster parents, but when he informs her that the file indicates her mother gave her up for adoption, the story takes a fascinating turn. Indications of military involvement and heavily redacted paragraphs do not bode well for Vanessa, but provide more pieces to a puzzle we’re still struggling to assemble. That being said, the struggle is half the fun.

Ordinarily I would say that the continued fragmented appearances of the secondary characters holds the narrative back, but though the scenes are fleeting, their subtle nuances continue to advance the overall arcs, and in some cases drop breadcrumbs for us to ravenously scoop up. Mohamad encounters a young woman, Emma, collecting nuts and berries she claims are for medicines, but it all seems too convenient. Is she part of the resistance, an ad hoc group, or something more nefarious? Rebecca seems to be playing a longer con and releases the Resistance member back to her people knowing instinctively that she’s a dead woman walking. Ryan Robbins (Continuum, Arrow), now in charge of the resistance, puts a bullet through the woman’s head, but it’s Sheema’s presence there and her claims to have been tortured that complicate what it is we’re seeing. Isn’t she still with Rebecca? Is Sheema the mole? If she is, for which side?

From the start Doc has been one of the more enigmatic characters, but tonight she rises to a new level. Her hair starts falling out, and she determines that she has radiation sickness and not a hangover. As if the discomfort from the radiation isn’t enough, Doc comes clean to Axle that she’s no hero and wasn’t originally bitten trying to save someone but rather trying to save herself. Axel absolves her and tells them they do what they have to do to survive. “What have we become?” While that’s a valid question to ask, Doc’s actions later on leave us shaking our heads wondering what the hell just happened. And why does she feel now is the time to clear her conscience? 

Perhaps the most underused character, Sam, discovers an air vent through which they hope to escape the radiation, but making a decision that makes absolutely no sense, especially given the cold, calculating calls they’ve made in the past, Doc and Axel go back to look for Gorman while Vanessa leads Susan, Flesh, and Sam out the vent. Why? He has done nothing to advance their cause, and pure altruism gets you killed in this new world. After taking out the turned Gorman, Axel is about to make it back to Doc and an escape through the vent when Gorman makes one last lunge. And here’s where it gets interesting. Doc deliberately shuts the door on Axel leaving him to die at Gorman’s hands, gets out and then lies to the others about what happened. This is as big a shocker as we’ve had in the series, and while part of me remains fairly certain that our favorite marine will somehow survive, another draws on the many shows that bravely kill off major characters making me consider the possibility that we’ve seen the last of Axel. I don’t think that’s the case here, but you never know. 

I’ve always felt one of the principal strengths of Van Helsing lies in its depth of character and the quickly earned pathos each generates, but what’s been taking place as we go along is a powerful view of a tortured protagonist who understands the necessity of presenting a stoic strength amidst the physical and emotional chaos. Reading her file that was left in the vehicle, Vanessa learns Axel’s team was sent to recover her and return her to The Farm. Does that imply she was part of The Farm’s experiments? But before we really have time to contemplate this importance, they hear the church bells again and take off on foot.

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What does Van Helsing need to do as it moves into its final quarter? First and foremost, just keep on the straight and narrow LaBute has already established, but I’d love to see some extended looks at Rebecca, Dmitri, and Julius and some backstory to reveal how they reached their present positions. And a little more clarity about their goals wouldn’t hurt either. But truth be told, the government conspiracy angle has me craving its development more than just about anything, and hopefully we’ll be rewarded shortly. Either way, I’m not going anywhere. Bring it on!


4 out of 5