This Van Helsing review contains spoilers.
Van Helsing Season 2 Episode 5
“I liked you better when you were a vampire.”
Anyone who’s been following these reviews of Van Helsing knows that I love this show and its rich, multi-layered text exploring what it means to be human. By its very nature, a series about a vampire apocalypse requires viewers to suspend their disbelief before entering this imaginary world, but “Save Yourself” pushes that suspension and a well earned faith in Vanessa just a tiny bit too far. Though not a huge deal, an otherwise powerful episode falls prey to a blunder the hero should not be making at this point in the narrative.
Though she clearly understands Sam’s demented persona and the threat he poses, Vanessa allows herself to be drawn into his game of cat and mouse played out over several locales. She throws her hatchet into his back and then follows the blood trail he deliberately leaves allowing him to choose the field of battle. He tells her he wants to play “like the old days,” and despite knowing his true nature, she complies. There’s no indication Vanessa has a death wish, but her insistence that she do this alone implies that taking Sam down, whether she survives or not, is her only way of finding peace after Dylan’s death. Of course, Vanessa’s mortality remains somewhat of a mystery.
How fitting that Vanessa tracks Sam to a church, setting the stage for her to put this part of the past behind her and move on, but the six minute segment replete with wicked moves from both combatants, ends with a problematic resolution. As much as I love Christopher Heyerdahl, it may be time for Sam to go. After Julius fires multiple shotgun blasts directly into him, Sam just keeps coming, unfazed by the bursts, and even manages to fire off a few digs about Julius’ mother and her last moments. And then to further manipulate Vanessa, Sam takes away her chance to achieve some sort of satisfaction when he swan dives out the church window and lands on the ground outside the church. The scene is shot beautifully through a combination of slow motion movement and high overhead angles reinforcing Sam’s refusal to allow Vanessa to get what she wants. And here is where things go awry.
Vanessa and Julius leave the church, and while it’s unclear how much time has elapsed, it seems to be more than a few minutes. They both react with shock and disbelief that Sam no longer lies where they last saw him after his plunge from the steeple. “He couldn’t have survived that.” Really? You shot him multiple times with a shotgun, stabbed him several times, hit him at least twice with a hand ax, none of which seemed to have any real effect, and you’re surprised that a fall out of a window didn’t stop him? Given everything Vanessa’s seen and the hardened warrior she’s become, why she wouldn’t immediately go outside to the fallen Sam and cut his head off is troubling. What else does she think will stop him? I’m not going to harp on this, and I understand that from a narrative perspective this allows Sam to remain in the picture, but there are plenty of compelling storylines in play to keep Vanessa and the audience engaged. Christopher Heyerdahl has been fantastic as Sam, but the character’s time has come.
The budding relationship she has with Julius continues to develop into one of the most compelling storylines, especially when we consider how far he’s come and how far he’s willing to go to protect Vanessa. It’s especially revealing when she convinces him to stay behind and help protect the Johnsons, a request he thankfully ignores indicating that he’s quickly learning to read her subconscious wishes. However, he’s not the only one able to see beneath the veneer she’s placed around her. Even Troy recognizes that despite her insistence that she wants to be alone, Vanessa too “needs somebody.”
The key supporting cast of Van Helsing returns in “Save Yourself” to provide some meaningful plot development, and the mantra of “find Vanessa” continues to resonate among them. The dynamic between Doc (Rukiya Bernard) and Axel (Jonathan Scarfe) as they march to find the woman who can save him from life as a vampire ramps up, but the frustration with his condition and the knowledge that he has forgiven the woman who once left him for dead, leave him uncertain about his future. “I liked you better when you were a vampire,” he tells her, and she fires right back, “I like you better when you were a man.” Doc has become that close friend who cares less about her own well being and lives to save Axel by reuniting him with Vanessa. It would be nice if he let her know she’s forgiven, but that will have to wait.
Dreams, or perhaps even shared visions, become part of the narrative, and when Doc finds one of the red balloons, in a way it’s fitting that she puts the piece of paper into her pocket without first looking at it. But had she looked at it, would it have made a difference since their goal is to find Vanessa, not retire to a safe haven at the top of a mountain. However, Axel is losing hope and even tries to bait Doc into killing him, ostensibly to set her free from the guilt over the hospital incident. But then when he sees her using her blood to draw a picture of a place she saw in her dreams, he immediately recognizes it. Does she use the blood because that’s all she has, or is its color significant to another dream? Will this change their travel plans?
We’ve learned a lot about the “vampire rules” along the way including the fact that the blood of former vampires tastes terrible, though it’s nutritional value hasn’t been verified one way or the other. But after Axel briefly feeds on Doc’s arm, she tastes her own blood. Curiosity or something else? And when she does it a second time after cutting her finger, it’s clear we’re meant to notice. Vanessa continues to consume blood as a means to fuel her strength when she goes into battle, particularly against Sam, but it is also something to keep an eye on as the tale progresses. Will there be long term effects?
And then Van Helsing drops a narrative bombshell with the potential to shift the focus and drive the story in a completely different direction. Much of what we see in the last cryptic minutes resurrects the military industrial complex angle from early in season one. Not only have Vanessa and Julius drawn emotionally closer as they learn to depend on one another, but the revelation that they’ve experienced the same vision can’t be inconsequential. The mention of a red door followed by the final shot of what appears to be a government facility and a red Quarantine door labeled Authorized Personnel Only is positively game changing. As “Big Rock Candy Mountain” plays over the scene, we know this plays into Vanessa’s arc; we just don’t know how. While the song’s lyrics celebrate a longed for paradise, experience tells us that this will likely not be the case.
Early in the series, it was implied that the military had an interest in Vanessa which of course is how she and Axel became connected, and given what we now know about her powers, it’s likely that the military would like to save her as well. Science fiction fans are well aware of the Cheyenne Mountain Complex in Colorado (Stargate SG-1) and Mount Weather in West Virginia (The 100), so it will be interesting how this plays out.
Like Vanessa, Julius, and Doc, Flesh also experiences a dream or vision that he tells Lucky seems “like a message.” He doesn’t elaborate other than to say that they need to get moving, but before they break camp, Flesh and Lucky proceed to get intimate. It would be easy to characterize this as simply two people seeking comfort amidst the carnage, and while that’s likely true, there’s more to it than that. Whether intended or not, Lucky’s also sending the message that Flesh is back, and his past is his past. Mohamad’s wound also presents a problem since they don’t have any medication other than cocaine for the pain. The kid’s tough but fighting off infection in this unsterile environment may be more than even he can handle if they don’t get him treatment stat.
And let’s not forget Dmitri who mourns the loss of Anastasia by reading Poe’s “Spirits of the Dead” aloud, until a messenger interrupts his “dark thoughts.” Whether his tears are the product of his loss or the report he receives, something clearly has spooked him. “I need an army now,” he declares, and while the ragtag crew that previously served Julius agrees to join him, Dmitri is clear with his intentions. “The bitch who turned your master must be stopped.” Sam needs to be dealt with because those with power generally prefer to keep it, and with Dmitri looming in the background, Vanessa’s troubles won’t go away any time quickly.
Showrunner Neil LaBute’s casting choices have been exceptional, and now that the inmates from the correctional facility have joined the Johnson clan, badass Chloe (Olivia Ryan-Stern) appears primed to step into a significant role moving forward. It’s been fascinating watching the attitude shifts of these teenagers as their situation has changed, and none more so than Chloe. Instead of being thankful for the Johnson’s generosity, will she be the one to bring Shangri-La to its knees or surprise us and seamlessly assimilate into the group?
“Save Yourself” rebounds nicely after the incident at the church and leaves viewers with a lot to consider, not the least of which is the military’s involvement with Vanessa. Threads are beginning to come together, and the good thing is that even when Flesh, Doc, and the others finally reunite, the adventure is just beginning.