This Van Helsing review contains spoilers.
Van Helsing: Season 2 Episode 8
“Food, guns, and gasoline. The big three.”
If it seems too good to be true, it usually is. An innocent trip into town with the local sheriff reveals that he’s offering a bit more than a hot shower, a hot meal, and a cold beer. As Axel leads the team on the mission to free Vanessa, Van Helsing shows us that there’s more than one way to survive the vampire apocalypse.
From the start of “Big Mama,” it’s clear something’s not quite right as Wanda gets pulled over by two patrol cars after which Sheriff Walt Turner (Tom McBeath from Travelers) invites Axel, Scarlett, Doc, and Julius into town for some barbecue and a bit of rest and relaxation before heading back out on the road to find Vanessa. Doc continues to come into her own becoming ever more confident now that the burden of Axel’s vampirism is behind her and gets off the evening’s best line. “Even in an apocalypse a sister can’t avoid getting pulled over by 5-O.”
Van Helsing doesn’t ordinarily deal much in humor, but tonight’s venture into the world of cannibal LEO’s makes for a nice break from the darkness that surrounds much of the overall narrative. McBeath plays the sheriff with just enough homespun wisdom and wit that it’s easy for even Axel to get sucked into his hospitality. After all they’ve been through, it’s understandable that they’re willing to take a risk on what appears to be a bunch of good ole boys who’ve managed to hold onto a bit of the past.
What makes this story work though is the uneasy feeling we have from the moment the flashing red and blue lights become visible in Wanda’s rearview mirror. The officers seem nice enough, and it’s certainly reasonable that they approach Axel and the others with caution and shotguns given the circumstances, but it doesn’t take long to realize that something’s amiss here. That distrust makes the humorous bits that much more effective. When Scarlett barges in on Axel in the men’s shower room, even though there’s a good bit of sexual electricity and chemistry there, we know nothing’s going to happen between these two. The good natured banter lets us see another side of Scarlett, but the notion that these two are as vulnerable as they can be ramps up the fear factor several levels.
Perhaps it’s that we’ve seen this scenario before, but the clean, pressed uniforms and comfortable surroundings convince us that maybe things are going to work out okay. We’ve heard about Big Mama’s famous barbecue and Julius and Axel find the beef jerky tasty, but truth be told, we’re starting to wonder where they obtained the meat they’re serving. And then when we meet Big Mama, the fears are realized. Showing Axel their methods for smoking meat, Sheriff Walt comes across as the proud next door neighbor showing off his new propane grill. And that’s thing; Walt simply assumes that his guest will be on board with throwing some smoked vampire on the grill. It’s so horrific it’s funny, and McBeath’s nonchalance seals the deal. Vampires: the new white meat.
At this point any feelings of apprehension have escalated, so when the team decides to grab some guns and ammo and get the hell out of Dodge, even though the cops have a numbers advantage, there’s no reason to think they can’t pull this off. Everybody does their part except Julius. His flashback episode cemented the fact that this is a man who had his life ripped away from him, and until meeting Vanessa, saw no means of redemption. So it’s not out of character for him to show compassion to the vampire in the cooker, because as he says, “Even you don’t deserve that.”
One of the secrets of Big Mama’s barbecue is to roast the vampires while they’re still alive, and while it’s admirable what Julius does, he puts the rest of the team at risk. This lack of foresight seems to be a common denominator each character apparently has to get out of his/her system. That said, we do get to see Big Mama swat Julius several times over the head with a frying pan while he’s trying to restrain her.
When the team finally assembles in Wanda, I assumed Walt had simply taken the distributor cap or some such method to keep them from leaving. “Which one of you sons of bitches gutted Big Mama?” he bellows, and coming from McBeath, it’s difficult not to smile. He really is wonderful. And in a scene that could just as easily appeared in a Monty Python film, Axel, Doc, Julius, and Scarlett stand on the edge of the rooftop, nooses around each of their necks. Walt’s plan is to throw each over the edge and if they live, he knows they’re a vampire. Good plan, Walt.
Still mired in the dirt and grime, Lucky and Phil’s search for Mohamad provides a fitting counterpoint to the other group’s time with the sheriff. What follows, though, comes as a bit of a surprise especially coming from Phil. They encounter some of the people from Triage who are now being held by Dmitri and Scab, and now that we’re away from the sheriff, we return to a more traditional sense of horror. After picking out one member for feeding, the ferals surround the helpless man and feed like pigs at a trough. Disgusting.
Even though this storyline doesn’t receive as much attention, it does, nonetheless, reveal that Dmitri’s determination to grab Scarlett has not waned. Does he know that Vanessa has been taken by the shadow group and the black helicopters? With The Sisterhood now by his side, Dmitri appears to be in a position of strength, but his brief disagreement with Scab does not go unnoticed by the women who have pledged their allegiance. In this case Scab proves correct, and Lucky and Phil manage to free most of the hostages including young Callie, but it’s Phil’s revelation that catches us all a bit off guard.
In spite of the fact that she has little history with Mohamad, Lucky’s inclination to continue the search for him surprisingly finds Phil willing to move on from the young man. On the one hand, his decision to cut their losses makes sense, but this seems out of character for Phil. He is, after all, a man who has endured quite a lot to regain his humanity, and now that he has it, seems willing to abandon his comrade. But is he simply reacting to the reality of the situation in which it’s not possible to save everyone?
Throughout much of season 2 we’ve watched as characters cross paths after arduous journeys, and while that likely will continue, it seems pretty clear that Axel’s group will have to fight its way through Dmitri before being able to resume the search for Vanessa. So ironically, it appears that the arrival of The Sisterhood at the police station will be what finally enables Axel and the others to be on their way. Clearly, Walt’s hubris is about to get the better of him, and while he and his men may have successfully defended themselves against garden variety vampires, this is The Sisterhood and Dmitri he’s now facing. In the end, though, it will come down to Scarlett vs Dmitri.
One thing that Walt mentions when they first meet could have some importance later. After Axel mentions possibly going to Denver, Walt tells them about Crooked Falls, implying that it provides a much better option than going all the way to Colorado. Could Crooked Falls be the land of the red balloons?
“Big Mama” works on a number of levels, but particularly when it effectively injects a little levity into what has been otherwise a dark tale. Though it doesn’t drive the overall arc forward much, it does give viewers a chance to see the characters in a different light, and that’s not a small thing. Van Helsing sets the table for yet another critical showdown between two groups still learning to trust their new constructs. With Vanessa temporarily out of the picture, the Scarlett/Axel tandem has a fantastic opportunity take control of the narrative, and based on what we see here, they are absolutely up to the task.