This Van Helsing review contains spoilers.
Van Helsing Season 3 Episode 11
“In the end, no one’s ever really who you think they are.”
Now that Vanessa has come to terms with her past actions, it’s only fitting that Axel Miller be afforded the opportunity to confront some of his own demons in a continuation of the cast-lite approach Van Helsing has adopted of late. The deeply personal “Been Away” puts Jonathan Scarfe in the spotlight as Axel wrestles not only with the conflicting forces of love and hate, but the knowledge that at his core he’s as imperfect as the next man.
There’s only so much a show can do when it focuses solely on one of its regular characters operating in a limited and compact framework, and though Van Helsing often goes weeks at a time without making any tangible progress toward the goal of eradicating the Elders, the individual character studies are not without merit. We’ve learned quite a bit about the childhoods of Vanessa and Scarlett, and even though we only scratch the surface of Axel’s past, what we do learn reveals a great deal about his commitment to Vanessa’s survival.
On the surface, tonight’s narrative comes with a familiarity that begs to be dismissed as a simple rehash of prior events. Axel has a working vehicle, and since small packs of survivors continue to seek out safety on the roads, it makes sense that he’ll encounter and assist these groups when he can. There’s no question it feels like we just traveled down this path, but at least Axel doesn’t have to shoot anyone this time. Well, not for awhile anyway. But there’s much more substance here than immediately meets the eye, not the least of which is the gradual recognition brother and sister eventually enjoy.
Once we realize that Axel has, in fact, returned home, “Been Away” takes on a more compelling tenor that begins when he lets himself into the feed store and discovers the newspaper article about a missing local child. Until that point, we only see him performing mundane tasks, but after the connection to Polly Miller, the girl in the newspaper article, is made, his reasons for making this stop suddenly take on new meaning. When he turns on the lights of the storefront sign, and utters, “Come on, baby, can’t miss that,” the first inclination is to assume he’s referring to Scarlett and their parting words about finding each other. However, as we’re transported back to Axel’s childhood and the circumstances under which his sister was abducted, his devotion to protecting Vanessa makes more sense than his simply following a military order. He was unable to protect his sister, and through Vanessa, is partially able to make amends and eventually forgive himself.
Even though we know from the start that Axel’s engagement with this group is fleeting, it does, nonetheless, evoke enough interest to make up for the absence of the rest of the team. When Lorne (Fred Keating) remembers Axel as the young, gifted baseball player who worked at his feed store, the possibility that Axel could make a decision to stay here clouds his bigger picture. It’s a touching scene made even more so when Axel learns that Lorne suffers some form of dementia, setting up the poignancy of their final meeting.
The two women in the group present polar opposite perspectives towards trust in the midst of a vampire apocalypse, but it’s the leader, Carter, who reminds us of Vanessa’s no nonsense approach. It’s certainly encouraging that she has noticed the vampire evolution, but for all of her bravado, Axel recognizes that she lacks tactical experience. And just when you think Van Helsing has shown us every manner of violence and gore imaginable, the show invariably surprises us. With Axel weilding a huge power drill and Nelson slinging a bloody chainsaw, all that’s missing from this delightfully grisly scene is Ash Williams jumping into the fray.
But it’s not all fun and games here as Carter (Sara Canning/The Vampire Diaries) catches a bullet during the skirmish, and Kelly (Chelsey Reist/The 100) gets bitten by one of the vampires. Kelly’s understated flirtation with Axel proves fascinating as she makes it perfectly clear that she’s interested in bedding the marine, and she’s somewhat surprised that he turns her down. We know from the start of this interaction that a casual fling is simply not in the cards. It’s a nice little scene that reinforces what we already know; Axel’s a good man. Unfortunately, good men are often forced to commit acts they’d rather avoid, and when Axel mercifully puts a bullet into the turned Kelly’s skull, the irony of her asking whether he’d ever killed anyone is striking.
Even though it was over before it really even started, Axel’s reunion with the sister that went missing as a child still feels right within the larger context of Team Vanessa and their long journey. We know the Van Helsing sisters’ backstory, and even some of what Julius and Phil endured before The Rising began, so it’s high time we learn more about Axel Miller. We’ve never been made privy to any residual guilt he may have held regarding Polly’s abduction, and we don’t really have enough emotional investment to get too caught up in Polly’s death. And yet, her final message to “fight the hate” as she dies in her brother’s arms brings this entire mini-arc full circle. Yes, it would have been cool to have the Miller siblings join the team, but that was never really a viable option.
Nevertheless, Axel does have the option of heeding his sister’s words, and though he’s quite aware of Lorne’s present mental state, he can’t help himself. We’ve talked a lot about the dehumanization that’s taken place during the vampire war, and it’s somewhat fitting that Axel’s human side rises to the surface along with the anger that often accompanies it. He confronts and kills a man who literally has no idea what this encounter is even about, but we understand the raw emotion Axel feels. And had it not been for Lorne’s pleading that Polly come to his aid, Axel might have let him walk.
With Polly’s “fight the hate” directive still resonating, Sam’s appearance and “love is evil” message might ordinarily make us question the episode’s focus, but logic and reason don’t always work when survival is at stake. We’re unmoved by Sam’s pronouncement that “love is a cancer that was cut out of me,” and when he predictably tears Mike’s heart from his chest, the meaning is clear. Still, this is an evolved Sam who’s receiving mystical messages that set him on a new path. Pointing him toward Mohamad and Vanessa, the Oracle makes his journey clear. “Follow and you will find your destiny.” Is it a trick? Is she leading him to meet his death at Vanessa’s hands? Time will tell.
“Been Away” does its best to tell a relevant story that provides a deeper understanding of a man whose supporting role in Vanessa’s quest is often overlooked because of the glamour associated with the Van Helsing name. But make no mistake, whether it will ever recognize the fact or not, the human race owes a huge debt of gratitude to Scarlett’s army man. “Marine!”
Dave Vitagliano has been writing and podcasting about science fiction television since 2012. You can read more of his work here. He presently hosts Sci Fi Fidelity Podcast and The Den of Geek Podcast.