This Van Helsing review contains spoilers.
Van Helsing Season 2 Episode 1
“What’s wrong with hope?”
Never underestimate a mother in pursuit of her child. In one of the most poignant and frightening season-ending cliffhangers, last year’s finale of SyFy’s Van Helsing finds Vanessa standing face to face with the daughter she’s devoted every waking hour to finding amidst the chaos raining down on the Pacific Northwest. Unfortunately, for Vanessa, as one journey ends, another more arduous one begins.
“Began Again,” the season two premiere of Neil LaBute and Simon Barry’s reimagining of the traditional vampire tale, opens with a brief yet necessary scene that reminds us the fight waged by Vanessa (Kelly Overton), Flesh, and Mohamad represents the human race’s tenacity for survival even in the darkest of times. Of course, vampires can likely read so the wisdom of sending out balloons with maps to a human safe haven can be questioned, but more importantly, the visual of this retreat nestled atop a scenic mountain pass presents a tangible goal for our hero to attain.
One of the most fascinating qualities of this series lies in the knowledge that while innumerable horrific acts routinely take place in the background, it’s the relentless emotional horror Vanessa faces that provides the true drama. Finally reunited, Dylan (Hannah Cheramy) reminds her mother that she abandoned her, paving the way for Rebecca to assume the role of surrogate parent. The season one fight scene featuring Vanessa and Rebecca remains one of my favorite encounters, and throughout its run, Van Helsing has deftly handled action sequences in a way that we don’t feel bombarded by the histrionics of the scene to the point that the deeper meaning is lost.
There’s a lot going on in this reunion scene, not the least of which is that Vanessa’s willing to literally fight Rebecca for the return of her daughter who’s now emotionally bonded with the vampire. However, even more important to the overall arc, Vanessa’s physical transformation becomes apparent after her introduction to the benefits of blood consumption. There’s a certain unmistakable poetry that takes over when these two go toe to toe, and even though Vanessa begins the fight overmatched, she quickly adapts to her nascent power. Ironically, the bloodlust here is all Vanessa. But there’s a lot of subtext to be considered, and as often happens in real life, the child gets caught in the middle and reacts in a not totally unexpected way. Viewing the situation through Dylan’s eyes, yes, Vanessa has a lot to atone for, but we know there’s much more to the story.
From the beginning it’s been clear that Vanessa’s mythos deviates from the image we have of a vampire slayer, and while she continues on her hero’s journey, to a large extent, she’s forced to make things up as she goes along. Buffy Summers she’s not. She has no guide, no mentor able to point her in the right direction, helping her recover from her mistakes. However, she’s fueled by raw emotion, and when she literally tears out the throat of a vampire crossing her path, we’re reminded that she will do literally anything to get her daughter back. Anything.
This single-minded approach to do whatever it takes to rescue Dylan sits juxtaposed against Mohamad (Trezzo Mahoro) and his quest to extract his sister Sheema from The Citadel and the clutches of Rebecca and Dmitri. Like Vanessa, Mohamad has no one to guide him and continues to commit one blunder after another, the worst of which is selling out Vanessa to Dmitri. Yet, despite his disloyalty, he doggedly follows her, and she invariably forgives him because in her heart of hearts, she knows he’s not done anything she wouldn’t have done. So when we examine their relationship, in the same way Vanessa has reluctantly accepted the fact that she may in fact be mankind’s savior, she takes the young man under her wing. No matter how many times he disappoints her, she forgives him. Having heard Dylan rebuke her mother, we have to wonder whether Vanessa sees herself in Mohamad. And while there will eventually come a time when the consequences of their actions will have to be reckoned with, Mohamad’s insistence that his sister die a human might be an insurmountable act.
Nonetheless, while some of the players have changed, the quest remains the same – grab Dylan and try to escape the madness. Whether or not it’s a result of her new found taste for blood, Vanessa’s grown much darker, more violent, and when she slits one of the vampire’s throats and stands glaring with blood dripping out of her mouth, even we have to wonder what she’s become. Showrunner Neil LaBute’s script drops more hints that Vanessa’s neither human nor vampire setting up perhaps the most compelling question of the series. What is she, and what is her importance to Dmitri’s plan for world domination?
Dmitri (Paul Johansson) reveals that he knew Vanessa’s mother setting up the possibility that Vanessa’s uniqueness derives from the fact that she may be some kind of human/vampire hybrid. There is precedence for the existence of the dhampir in Slavic folklore, but this answer seems too straightforward. Genetically, we know she’s part of the Van Helsing family of vampire hunters, so to take the leap that somewhere along the line an illicit union occurred is well within the realm of possibility. However, coupled with the fact that Dmitri’s doctor has been experimenting with Vanessa’s blood and seems excited at the possibilities she brings to the vampire nation, the suggestion that she may be the first of her kind seems a more plausible explanation.
When we consider how many narrative details LaBute presents in this episode, it’s remarkable how neatly he pieces them all together, and it’s this willingness to think on such a grand scale that makes Van Helsing such a challenging and entertaining show to watch. On the one hand, Vanessa’s made significant progress since she’s found her daughter, and even though they’ve not truly been reunited, there is light at the end of the tunnel. But she has yet another barrier thrown up when the doctor tells her that if she tries to turn her daughter back to the human state by biting her, Dylan will die because of the genetic tinkering he’s already conducted on the young girl. Now, of course, he could be lying, but she can’t take that risk.
To a large extent, the encounters with Dylan form the central focus of the episode, and director Michael Nankin’s stunning visual presentation of her plight is positively soul crushing. We’re absolutely stunned when we realize that the savage ripping grown men apart and then drinking their blood is Vanessa’s preteen daughter, and like her mother, we wonder what it is she’s become. Later, bathed in an eerie green light, the doctor finds her crouching in a corner, and when he throws her a bag of blood with the promise he’ll reunite her with Rebecca, her feral tendencies surface as she tears into his offering. Vanessa comes upon the two now illuminated in red, but once again her daughter slips through her fingers leading to the most emotionally charged scene of the evening as Vanessa literally tears through the steel door with her bare hands. Her newfound, superhuman strength now coincides with the darkness that continues to creep over her.
At some point we have to consider how much Vanessa can possibly be expected to endure. She’s committed unspeakable acts all in the name of finding her daughter, and while most can be justified or at least understood, eventually she’ll have to come to grips with the things she’s done. So when the doctor tells her that she’s the “perfect synthesis of human and monster,” we know he’s gone down a path from which there is no return. But it’s Dylan that makes a move here. Does she bite him so that her mother can kill him thus freeing her, or is this simply an animal reaction? Regardless, it’s beginning to sink in that the beautiful child she once knew no longer exists, and now stands before her, blood staining her mouth and chin from her latest feeding.
And it’s here that Vanessa utters perhaps the most important words she’s spoken. Worried that with nightfall approaching, Mohamad warns her that they should withdraw and wait for another opportunity to rescue Dylan. “Fuck the dark,” she tells him, but her words speak volumes beyond the literal. Has she resigned herself to the creature she instinctively recognizes she’s become? How dark is she willing to go in her quest to save her daughter?
While the mother/daughter reunion naturally occupies a significant amount of emotional space, it’s easy to forget that The Citadel and Dmitri are under a siege spearheaded by Taka (Ryan Robbins) and his resistance movement. But in any conflict of this magnitude, things are rarely as cut and dried as they may appear. That Taka cuts a deal with Rebecca (Laura Mennell) to bring down Dmitri speaks not only to his desperation but also his naivete, and it’s fitting that the vampire leader literally and figuratively rips out his heart as Rebecca lies dead on the floor. Nevertheless, never underestimate the human race.
Despite the chaos raging all around, Van Helsing continues to focus on the intimate personal relationships of its characters and the anxiety and dread each feels as they simply try to make it to the next day. Has Sheema sold her soul in return for some peace of mind? Like her brother, she’s just a kid, but even Mohamad recognizes that eventually the two msut go their separate ways since he’s not about to make the same mistake twice. That he takes away her free will might be too much to overcome, but give the young man credit, he keeps going in the fight against a frightening alternative.
Often operating from the shadows, Flesh (Vincent Gale) remains one of the show’s most fascinating characters, and like Mohamad, refuses to leave Vanessa to fight Dmitri and his vampires alone. Like Vanessa, he too, struggles with his identity and what he’s done leading up to the present, but when he stands up to Taka’s insistence that Vanessa be killed during the assault, he draws ever closer to total redemption. The introduction of his new running mate, Lucky (Andrea Ware) signals us that Team Vanessa is not dead quite yet; it simply needs to regroup. And that he introduces himself as Phil should not be overlooked; he knows who he is.
And if all of this isn’t enough, Julius’ ragtag team readies its own assault on Dmitri’s fortress as the fight for control continues. Meanwhile, somewhere out there, Vanessa’s protector and as much of a mentor as she’s likely to ever have, has just climbed out of a sewer pipe like Lazarus from the dead. But we all know when Axel and Vanessa eventually find each other, it likely will not be as friends.
What makes “Began Again” and by extension Van Helsing so engaging remains its focus on the human condition as the characters struggle with the terrible choices they’ve been forced to make. Yet we should not overlook the plight of the vampires in this rapidly emerging new world order, and that twist continues to drive the stories of Vanessa and those around her on both sides. While LaBute hasn’t thrown a full blown paradigm shift at viewers, he has nonetheless begun painting a world in which good and evil have become difficult to distinguish from one another. What more could we ask for?