This Van Helsing review contains spoilers.
Season 3 Episode 3
“It’s like the history of vampires being played out in my subconscious.”
Though it occupies only the blink of an eye in real time, the education of Vanessa Van Helsing continues with another brief and fascinating journey into the past. “I Awake” not only serves up a dramatic shift in time and space, but this cast-lite episode immerses Vanessa in a foreign world in which she surprisingly finds herself quickly at home. And while Kelly Overton appears alone among the series regulars, Van Helsing, nonetheless, manages to spin a tantalizing tale that neatly sets up the next leg of Vanessa’s Elder quest.
Let’s be honest. While Vanessa’s single minded pursuit of the Elders’ totems remains the current central focus of Van Helsing, significant story threads lie in wait, ready to derail her plan to end the bloody carnage once and for all. Sam and Mohamad appear poised to get in her way, and the salient question here is whether Mohamad will be able to break free from his psychopathic companion and rejoin Team Vanessa. It seems difficult to believe we’ve seen the last of Doc, Julius, and Flesh, but since this group appears headed to Denver, a reunion might be a ways off. Harrison and Blak Tek could be out of the picture, but isn’t the work he’s done too big to abandon? That said, this compact examination of vampire hunting’s early days not only gives Vanessa the information she needs to confront The B’ah, but buoys her spirits as she takes up the family business with a fresh perspective.
That we’re not certain whether Vanessa is reliving events as they occurred in 1896 or experiencing them for the first time while inhabiting Lillian’s body doesn’t really matter. 2020 Vanessa desperately requires a reboot, and from the moment she finds herself in a 19th century Hong Kong bedroom, the veil of darkness that typically envelops her persona begins to dissipate. Watching Vanessa navigate unfamiliar waters provides a welcome respite from the post-apocalyptic world we’re used to seeing, and the connection she experiences with her maid Siobhan (Siobhan Williams) opens her eyes to the obstacles faced by another Van Helsing woman and most women of this era. Gazing in wonderment as she walks down a Chinese street, Vanessa can’t help but smile at the opportunity she’s been given.
Even though Scarlett embodies many of the same attributes as Vanessa, there’s no denying the burden of leadership weighs more heavily on the latter. Forced to temporarily set aside societal expectations she’s come to know in 2020, Vanessa’s quick study of her new surroundings allows her to adapt and thrive in the environment the First Elder has placed her. Guest star Williams is wonderful as a fiercely loyal servant caught between two worlds, and she seamlessly guides her mistress through the male dominated world in which Vanessa finds herself. Though she senses that something’s amiss with Lillian, the perceptive maid nonetheless forges ahead, protecting her at all turns. At times, Vanessa’s brusque manner and attitude leave those committed to her cause feel unappreciated, but she’s able to tone the attitude down a bit with Siobhan. However, it’s the realization that women like Lillian and Siobhan must fight for every ounce of respect they receive that helps renew Vanessa’s sense of purpose.
Facing significant cultural and gender barriers as a stranger in a strange land, Vanessa finds it challenging to play the demure, subservient wife her husband Edward Hawkins (Adrian Hough/Chilling Adventures of Sabrina) expects her to be. Watching the two women work in concert to subvert Edward’s expectations reminds us that Vanessa’s education here embodies more than just vampire killing. When Edward tells her she needs to know her place, his attitude transcends a mere moral message. Of course it’s important to acknowledge that women deserve every right and freedom that men enjoy, but when he later thanks her “for coming to her senses,” his condescension causes Vanessa to summon every bit of restraint she can muster. It’s important for her to learn her vampire hunting roots and tricks of the trade, but it’s equally important to recognize those trailblazing women who preceded her.
And while Edward’s attitude towards his wife can be understood in terms of 19th century sensibilities, we must consider what it is he’s being asked to believe. What rational man, when faced with a wife who insists vampires roam freely about the city, wouldn’t react in much the same way he has? While it’s not as important that we witness his eventual enlightenment, Vanessa’s desire to keep the timeline in place raises, once again, the veracity of this reality. She’s worried that Edward’s death might alter the future, and while “I Awake” leaves what we witness open to question, the Hawkins family clearly lives to continue the fight.
When a show operates without much of its main cast, the guest actors by necessity must step into the void without skipping a narrative beat, and that’s certainly the case here. It’s one thing for Williams’ Siobhan to play such a pivotal role in Vanessa’s education, but this engaging young woman also faces the obstacles of station as well as gender. She yearns to embrace danger and fight the vampire evil, but must content herself to live vicariously through Lillian’s adventures. Though somewhat out of character for the woman we know, Vanessa’ heartfelt response will undoubtedly impact Siobhan in the years to come. One day women will have power and voices. This is a changed Vanessa who, once she returns to her own time, will hopefully learn from this experience and treat those around her differently.
It’s impossible to ignore the different feel this episode evokes, and whether it’s the brighter lighting or the Chinese architecture and music, watching Vanessa in this setting reveals a side we rarely if ever see. Taking her out of the world we’ve come to know only adds depth to her character. Make no mistake; despite the stylish clothes and posh surroundings, Vanessa is here to learn to kill, and it’s her connection with Master Tsui (Lee Shorten/The Man in the High Castle) that generates much of the information she’ll need to bring down The B’ah.
On the one hand, it seems every time we walk down a darkened alley or turn a wooded corner, a new breed of vampire shows its face, and tonight continues that trend. The appearance of The B’ah’s servants, the Shadow Walkers, should serve notice to Vanessa that hers will be an arduous task. And while Master Tsui begins his training with a reluctant and somewhat arrogant student, he also fills in some gaps of the origins of the vampire migration. The scenes with her instructor are classic Vanessa. “This is starting to sound like a bad Kung Fu movie,” she tells him, though we recognize it as a deflection after he admonishes her for not being ready to properly train and ultimately confront The B’ah.
Part of what makes these scenes so important and by extension compelling is that we get to see more sides of Vanessa than we’re normally permitted. Submitting to her teacher goes against the core of the person she’s become in 2020, and even though she recognizes the crucial nature of the skills Tsui provides her, she still fights his suggestions. Exasperated at the demanding nature of his approach, she reverts to childish behavior. “I’m done with this sensei Yoda shit.” She understands there’s a sense of urgency to acquire the skills and knowledge needed to defeat The B’ah, but this is Vanessa for better or worse.
Master Tsui treats us to a fascinating tale of the vampire migration as it moves to avoid the Bubonic Plague ravaging Europe and tainting the blood of its victims. Though we don’t get to see many of the sights, the feel of the orient adds mystery to an already enigmatic situation. The connection provided by the involvement of the East Asia Trading Company makes perfect sense in that it allows Vanessa to follow the trail to San Francisco in her hunt for The B’ah.
It’s easy to overlook the significance of Vanessa’s training sessions with Tsui. Naturally, they’re geared to ready her for the coming confrontation with The B’ah, but the innate abilities she possesses emerge during the blindfolded segments of their workout. We’ve witnessed her in dozens of clashes through the years, but there’s something about these brief sequences that reinforce just how special she is. And then the face-off with The B’ah and her Shadow Walkers reveals that despite her superior powers, Vanessa still requires assistance, something she’s still loathe to admit. That said, she does get her Kung Fu movie and a chance to show The B’ah that she’s a force to be reckoned with.
While it is certainly fascinating to watch Vanessa negotiate 19th century hurdles, her return to the present sets up not only the journey to California, but the recognition that she will now have to proceed without the benefit of the First Elder’s assistance or her mother’s knowledge. What makes Vanessa so endearing and engaging is the fact that she’s not perfect and periodically makes questionable decisions and choices. Is it wise to kill the Elder before beginning the next leg of her journey? Perhaps she feels she’s gotten everything out of it that she can, and her reasoning that the more Elders there are, the more likely she is to be betrayed does have merit.
“I am certain we will meet again, but next time not in dreams,” The B’ah (Jennifer Spence/Travelers) tells Vanessa after she unsuccessfully stabs the powerful Elder. It’s at this point that the narrative comes together, and we get the sense that this is more a teaching tool than an historical replay. This virtual reality not only presents the players and their capabilities but the more subtle nuances as well. After Edward is wounded and Vanessa poisoned, she learns that only the blood of The B’ah can stop the poison’s deadly effects. Vanessa consumes the blood from Tsui’s blade, and her husband’s transformation begins allowing him to view her in a totally different light. After the Elder terminates the reality and brings Vanessa back to the present, it reveals that it did not expect her to survive this experience. And though she states she knows how to kill The B’ah, have we now learned there’s more to this alternate reality than we believed? Even The B’ah wonders whether death in this virtual world carries over to the real world.
Conventional wisdom tells us that with Vanessa returned to the real world, she’ll find Scarlett and Axel and head to San Francisco. But this is Van Helsing, and conventional wisdom rarely applies which is one of the things I love about the series. “I Awake” risks presenting an out-of-time and space narrative devoid of the main cast, and like one my all-time favorite episodes of this type (Doctor Who’s ”Blink”), knocks it out of the park. We may have to wait, but this is a Van Helsing with a plan, and The B’ah be damned, Vanessa’s out for blood.
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.