This Van Helsing review contains spoilers.
Van Helsing Season 3 Episode 8
“Just once, can we have something in plain English.”
Coming on the heels of its most violent episode to date, Van Helsing slows the pace allowing Vanessa and Scarlett time to get a better handle on how they’ll manage to take down the Dark One and save the human race from the “tyranny of the vampire.” Showrunner/writer Neil LaBute’s dialogue rich “Crooked Steps” answers some lingering questions, gives the sisters a chance to strategize, and inserts more of the compelling Van Helsing family history into the mix. Having settled into a comfortable rhythm that allows viewers to alternately experience the terrifying struggle humans face amidst the vampire apocalypse and the analytic approach necessary to bring an end to the chaos, Van Helsing feeds on our desire to be horrified one moment and reflective the next. It’s a delicate balancing act, but the writers always seem to find a way.
Jonathan Scarfe (Axel Miller) directs his fifth episode of Van Helsing, and though he essentially works with only three actors and a script that calls for minimal action, he still manages to tell a compelling visual and narrative story. Sitting around a campfire at night, the sisters pore over the book their mother gave them, unsure about their next move. We see a page, blank save for the compass at the top, and immediately suspect that a liquid must be employed to reveal the hidden message. We’ve all seen National Treasure, and since this is Van Helsing, what better liquid to use than blood. Rather than simply having one of the sisters cut herself, the small feeder group that attacks them supplies the fluid needed to reveal the concealed map. Yes, it’s predictable; so what. It’s a great scene that establishes the fact that “Crooked Steps” will explore not only the developing sisterly relationship between Vanessa and Scarlett but also the long and winding road they must travel on their journey to eradicate the vampire menace.
The map leads the sisters to a lighthouse, and aside from the obvious symbolic meaning of this iconic landmark, Scarfe’s decision to alternate between closeups and long shots of Vanessa and Scarlett against the stark, yet visually stunning surroundings reinforces the knowledge that they are truly alone in this fight. Impressive shots of the blood red beacon set against the tranquil sea give viewers and the sisters something that’s been missing for quite some time. Peace. As they set out to regain their bearings, it’s an absolute joy to watch them together, two sisters on an adventure that momentarily loses some of its urgency and peril. Beautiful in its simplicity, watching Scarlett sit on craggy rocks by the ocean eating peaches out of a jar epitomizes one of the strengths of the episode, the ability to capture the human side of this drama.
We never learn why the lighthouse keeper killed himself with a shotgun blast, or whether he had anything to do with tending to Jacob Van Helsing, but this scene certainly makes for a sinister introduction to this atypical setting. Scarlett notices the place appears untouched by the apocalypse, but perhaps the isolation finally gets to him. Still, once the sisters discover the projection device, the importance of the lighthouse takes on additional meaning. Watching Vanessa and Scarlett attempt to decode the book and figure out whether or not the device is related, belies the complaints each makes about their task. It’s clear they enjoy the challenge, and working together to solve the puzzle even brings a smile to Vanessa’s face.
The sisters break down the cryptic clues they uncover, and it’s always a lot of fun when Scarlett gets to school Vanessa. Once they reach the entrance to the isolated building, Scarlett immediately notices a handprint security system similar to the one she encountered with her mother when they tracked down the Elder in the cave. “This is gonna suck.” But it’s what they find inside that ultimately lays the groundwork for Vanessa’s decision to go on alone.
On the one hand, it’s a clever twist that the third Elder turns out to be Jacob Van Helsing, brother of Abraham, and that Scarlett already wears his totem around her neck. Michael Eklund (Wynonna Earp) delivers a strong performance as the Van Helsing who succumbs to the allure of eternal life and the power that goes along with being an Elder, but his appearance also provides an opportunity for Vanessa to stand her ground and not fall prey to what could turn out to be a serious impediment to her quest. Is this man really a Van Helsing? It seems so; he possesses all the right information, even pointing out that Vanessa bears the same first name as her great-great-great-grandmother.
Scarlett clearly has good reason to be concerned about Vanessa’s ability to remain in control of her urges, but there’s nothing wrong with her intellect. She releases Jacob as the first part of a plan to leave the island alone in order to protect her sister. Though he does provide a brief vampire hunting history lesson, it’s the revelation concerning Abraham’s fate that sets up a potential metaphysical confrontation and perhaps an end to her journey. The brothers were chasing the son of The Jackal across the continents when Abraham and it “tumbled into a portal where they remain to this day.” Jacob implies that the portal and the fourth Elder can be found here in the New World, but it’s his final disclosure that changes everything. “Only one of you will continue to the end. Never both.”
So do we take the leap that the son of The Jackal is, in fact, the Dark One? Regardless, it’s fascinating to consider the parallel tales of the Van Helsing brothers’ attempt to prevent a vampire apocalypse from even beginning, and the sisters’ efforts to bring it to an end. “I was you,” Jacob tells Vanessa, and his words clearly resonate with her even though it seems clear he’s also trying to convince her to let him live. This is a far less trusting Vanessa than we’ve seen in the past, and even though it appears she believes his story, the decision to simply kill her distant relative is a consideration that truly has only one outcome.
The Van Helsing tale continues to unfold, and Scarlett’s powers and abilities begin to rival those of her sister. Even though she seems content to cede leadership to Vanessa, we have to wonder whether things are about to change. Scarlett argues to agree to Jacob’s request that they turn him human, but Vanessa’s seen enough during her travels to question whether that’s in their best interests. Vanessa’s dilemma is understandable; she’s been in charge for a long time and to give up decision making must be difficult. Still, when Jacob drinks the blood she provides, he notices something else. “There’s the power of another in your blood,” he tells her.
As this chapter nears its conclusion, the beautiful images of blue skies, clouds, and rocky crags mask the hazards that lie in wait. Jacob’s power makes itself apparent immediately when Scarlett sees the Vanessa behind her morph into Jacob who then proceeds to tell her one of them is stronger making a comparison to the Van Helsing brothers. It’s not clear what he hopes to accomplish since he then pushes Scarlett off the nearby cliff. Though the sisters reunite, Scarlett must now wonder who and what she can trust, and when Jacob returns, his manipulations continue.
Now, however, we deduce that Jacob’s escape was all part of Vanessa’s master plan, and even though she allows him to bite her, there seems to be a method to her madness. At first we’re not sure what to make of the fact that Vanessa seems to enjoy him feeding from her, but she literally takes matters into her own hands and tears Jacob to pieces as a stunned Scarlett watches her sister, blood dripping from her mouth and fingers.
Whether it’s a result of Jacob’s effort to pit the sisters against each other, Scarlett’s concern that “something was happening” during Vanessa’s savage dismembering of Jacob may be warranted, but what transpires next shows that Vanessa has clearly formulated her next move. Does Jacob truly believe that the sisters could be seduced by his offer to “return to Renfield House and rule with us?” And though LaBute teases that one of the sisters appears to be in imminent danger, it’s not really clear which one. Once she finds that Vanessa has taken the totems and left her behind on the shore, Scarlett remembers her sister’s admonition. “If I start to turn, you know what you have to do.” Despite everything that’s happened, these two are closer now than ever before.
Nevertheless, nothing’s ever quite that simple on Van Helsing, and though Vanessa tells Scarlett that “I need to make sure you live. I promised Axel,” her decision to go it alone runs much deeper. Watching Scarlett drop to her knees at the edge of the water as Vanessa rows away raises several questions. Doe Scarlett doubt her sister’s state of mind, and do her suspicions set up a confrontation that neither woman wants?
It’s often difficult to get an accurate read on Vanessa, so when we see her return the boat she stole, it appears she’s regained whatever control she may have lost. On the one hand, it would make just as much sense to simply abandon the boat in a convenient location, but as the final scene continues, it’s obvious she has a perfectly good reason to come back to this spot. And while feeding from this poor, unsuspecting man who is probably just trying to ride out the storm indicates Vanessa’s gearing up for a fight, it’s what we notice on the periphery that provides a clue as to what may come next. The vampire Oracle (Jesse Stanley) watches as Vanessa feeds, but since there are so many vampire factions vying for power at this point, to assume she wants to take down Vanessa may be naive. Will she, like Jacob, try to entice Vanessa to join her, or attempt to crush her, reminiscent of an earlier scene with Scab and Ivory?
It seems difficult to believe that anything could come between Vanessa and Scarlett at this point in the story, and even though “Crooked Steps” places a few landmines in the sisters’ path, for better or worse, Vanessa takes matters into her own hands ostensibly to protect her sister. Whether Scarlett will see it this way remains to be seen, but Van Helsing gathers momentum and continues to keep the interlocking plotlines and themes under tight control.
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.