This Van Helsing review contains spoilers.
Van Helsing Season 2 Episode 4
As Van Helsing opens, Vanessa and Julius take a break after a one week vampire killing spree, and though she may not admit it, having him by her side is the only thing keeping her from going off the deep end and totally losing herself. Season two’s fourth episode “A Home” introduces the theme of control, as writers Jeremy Smith and Matt Venables (“Fear Her”) deftly set up a number of well timed parallels to highlight Vanessa’s struggle to retain her humanity and ultimately rebuild her life.
In the opening scene, the camera moves slowly past the bloody corpses Sam left in his wake at the Randolphe Juvenile Detention Center, ultimately focusing on him as he constructs a necklace made of his victim’s fingers. Felix sits terrified on the bottom of the empty pool, and the long shot accentuates the boy’s isolation as he contemplates Sam’s unnatural fixation on Mohamad. Felix recognizes that he is, in fact, a proxy for this person from Sam’s past, but aside from the physical resemblance, comparing the two boys, while fascinating, doesn’t get us much closer to understanding any of the Sam’s we’ve encountered. Is Felix the Mohamad we never got to see – the frightened young man trying to navigate the post-eruption landscape? The Mohamad we meet in the show’s pilot “Help Me” already exudes self-confidence and his relationship with Sam appears on solid footing. But we don’t know Mohamad’s pre-Sam backstory, or in what state of mind Sam found the young man.
It’s easy to feel sorry for Felix after we watch his peers whip him for what they see as a dereliction of duty and then have him fall prey to Sam’s manipulations masked as friendship. Joss Whedon explores the notion of the soul and an individual’s core being in both Buffy and Dollhouse, and when we look at Felix, it’s difficult to imagine what crime this young man committed to find himself imprisoned at the facility. Like Mohamad, there seems to be an air of goodness about him, and while he’s obviously made some mistakes, there is something there worth saving.
However, it seems unlikely that Sam will forget that Mohamad and Vanessa left him crippled and defenseless on the ground at the end of “Last Time,” and the smiley face painted in blood on Felix’s shirt and the mohawk haircut only complicate being able to predict Sam’s next move. Does Sam hold Mohamad as responsible as Vanessa, or does he see her, like himself, as the controlling partner. Will his sick mind literally and symbolically kill Felix so that a reunion with a “punished” Mohamad becomes possible? Though we didn’t know it at the time, Sam has been unable to curb his murderous urges, and now that he’s been turned, he’s afforded the freedom to come out of the shadows with his depraved desires. And while there has been no sign of a conscience, Sam’s cutting out of Felix’s tongue removes any chance that Sam can be talked out of future horrific acts.
I haven’t mentioned the acting the acting much, but Bzhaun Rhoden as Felix has been convincingly intense as the young man whose emotions necessarily run the gamut from sheer terror to unmitigated bloodlust. And if there’s anyone better able to portray the deranged lunatic than Christopher Heyerdahl, I’ve yet to see him. Examining the full cast of Van Helsing, the fact that I don’t notice the acting may be the greatest compliment I can pay. They are who they profess to be. What else can we ask of an actor?
Early in the episode, Julius confronts Vanessa about the fact that she’s dangerously close to spinning completely out of control, and as we watch her savagely butcher a vampire, it’s clear he’s not wrong. Blood flying onto her face and clothing as she wields her hatchet, the comparison to Sam and his baseball bat is clear. This dehumanizing, close quarters combat necessarily requires the participant to lose control, and Julius understands that unchecked, Vanessa will go too far. “You can’t kill away the pain of Dylan’s loss,” he tells her. Knowing that Vanessa’s loss of control is borne of the abrupt loss of her daughter, he realizes that she needs a friend – not to protect her physically, but to help her work through her suffering. Sam, on the other hand, has always been about satisfying his base desires and has displayed no redeemable qualities either before or after his turning. But more to the point, he seems perfectly happy to wallow in his own out-of-control moral filth while attempting to control whoever crosses his path.
Though Julius’ sincerity about protecting Vanessa seemed genuine from the start, it’s the semi-allegorical tale from his boxing past that not only touches Vanessa, but begins to pull her back from the edge. Whether or not he really fought one time heavyweight champion Max Baer really doesn’t matter; it’s the intimate manner in which he recounts the story that starts to chip away at the hardened exterior Vanessa’s built around her. Her belief that she’s invincible must be checked, and confrontations with packs like the “Skinners” don’t do anything to dissuade her recklessness. But as gruesome as these Reaver-like creatures appear, both Vanessa and Julius attempt to draw them away from the other, revealing an emotional bond that’s forming between the two.
There is a concern that the introduction of too many characters might dilute the impact of those already on board, but this is Vanessa’s hero’s journey, and by definition meant to be long and arduous. Of course, she’s going to meet new people and challenges along the way, and while it didn’t seem there could be any level of humanity lower than the ferals, the Skinners prove that line of thinking wrong. Wearing the skin of those they’ve killed as clothing and ornamentation, these creatures may be the most frightening aspect of what was once the human race to appear in the saga. Nonetheless, their capture of Vanessa serves as a vehicle for her introduction to the Johnson clan and an eventual showdown with Sam.
Though it has appeared previously, the use of metaphor in “A Home” is more pronounced with Sam’s necklace the most obvious and most gruesome example. While not as grisly as the Skinners wearing the faces of their victims, Sam’s finger necklace can be seen as his attempt to control his surroundings and also as a measure of his worth in the eyes of those around him. In his own twisted thinking, like a king showering his queen with jewels, the more fingers he wears, the more powerful he becomes. No longer does he have to hide his urges, and what better way to let the world recognize his power than through his “jewelry.” In contrast, Vanessa’s use of the hand axe rather than a gun suggests a subconscious desire to viscerally experience life again with the hope that something inside her will snap her back to a more controlled existence.
And while the unsettling introduction of the Skinners throws Vanessa temporarily off balance, the child army under the direction of adults Mike and Chad raises enough questions that she wisely keeps her guard up even though Julius ironically does not. Camp Johnson has operated for the past two years as a safe haven and training ground in the fight against the vampires. Still reeling from Dylan’s fate, Vanessa tells Mike a truth she learned the hard way. “Take a child’s innocence, and it’s gone forever.” Exhibiting a healthy skepticism of how the men operate their camp, Vanessa eventually seems satisfied, and truth be told, the children appear happy and as well-adjusted as possible given the circumstances.
Representing a modicum of hope for the future, the Johnson’s decision to take control of their environment, and by extension teach the children to do the same, seems a reasonable approach. And then to nicely balance Julius’ boxing story, Mike employs the basics of Beowulf to impart a lesson about the importance of duty. Rather than Vanessa’s apprehension that the children are ruled by fear and intimidation, it appears the two men do have the children’s best interest at heart. Interestingly, though, Vanessa decides to inject her knowledge of the epic poem only to realize her input is not wanted. Did she learn something from Julius’ lesson about rash behavior and self-control? It would seem so.
Serialized dramas all face the same dilemma – how to make sure the writers don’t paint themselves into a narrative corner. So when Vanessa agrees to accompany Mike’s team as they set out to meet a neighboring group for a supply swap, she’s on the front line as the plots begin to neatly intersect. When the group, which turns out to be the young people from the detention center, fails to show for the rendezvous, Mike is understandably cautious. Vanessa’s decision to ignore Mike’s plea to show restraint before bounding across the bridge to investigate raises several issues. Did she learn nothing from Julius, or does she see herself in a new light; not as someone who needs to be protected, but someone who will fight for those who can’t? Either way, whether she realizes it or not, this is a big step for the woman who has never been comfortable as a protector herself.
As the Johnsons and Vanessa head into the unknown, the radically different circumstances enjoyed by the two groups of young people are unmistakable even beyond the age differences. We have to assume that the teenagers inside the detention facility were incarcerated there and left on their own after The Rising. Did the guards abandon them at the first sign of a vampire insurgence, or did the vampires kill them? Perhaps the the young people murdered their guards and then took over the prison figuring that its construction afforded better protection than most buildings. It can’t be ignored though that they were there for a reason, but their peaceful coexistence with the Johnson’s at least shows that they have some understanding of how best to weather this storm. The Johnson children, on the other hand, remind us of not only the innocence of youth, but the importance they’ll play moving forward.
Smith and Venables crafted a tightly woven episode that gives some of these new characters a chance to become part of Vanessa’s journey, but even if that’s not how things turn out, their interactions provide some meaningful emotional introspection. Can Vanessa ultimately find a home and family and attain some level of peace? Her growing relationship with Julius and the sweet, albeit brief connection with Troy imply that she can.
One of the most fascinating details this season has been the fleeting glimpse of the ninja-like individual who now appears to be a woman and likely a vampire as well. Ensconced in a suit of protective clothing, including goggles, she has been fighting her way through the landscape. Is this someone we know or a new character altogether? And though it appears only briefly, the journey of Axel and Doc as they soldier on, puts on display their willingness to make some difficult choices on the road to redemption.
Having seen Vanessa at her lowest point, “A Home” reveals a brighter future does exist for her, and if she can learn to show restraint when it’s called for, there is hope for her. As it’s done throughout its run, Van Helsing knows precisely when to bring disparate elements of the narrative together, and tonight is no different. We now await the much anticipated showdown between good and evil, and to quote Doctor Dealgood in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls . . . Dyin’ time’s here.”