“Because of this all things are possible.”
Apocalyptic dramas are doomed to fail if the stakes faced by the characters don’t feel authentic, and Van Helsing continues to raise the bar with its season finale in which Vanessa achieves the long awaited reunion with her daughter. Along the way she learns some hard truths about the family she didn’t know existed. And, oh yeah, Axel’s alive.
Ordinarily I’m not a fan of long monologues since they often drag the story down to a place where the viewer begins losing focus, but “It Begins,” written by showrunner Neil LaBute, bravely takes that narrative device and beguiles us from the first words out of Dmitri’s mouth during his opening four and half minute discourse while Vanessa lies restrained, a metal cage around her head. We’ve had numerous questions throughout the season, and LaBute delivers more than enough backstory and history to keep everyone happy. But make no mistake, these details are parceled out so carefully, so delicately that we don’t feel overwhelmed, and director Amanda Tapping gives us space to savor each slice.
Throughout its freshman run, Van Helsing has consistently avoided science fiction and horror storytelling tropes, and LaBute’s sustained use of extended monologues at the episode’s outset plays brilliantly into the psychological trauma each of the characters experience. Not only does the audience receive vital plot details through Dmitri and the doctor, but the dread each experiences around Vanessa simply adds to the intricate nature of the basic conflict at play. We want to live forever, and you can make that happen. We think.
I’ve always loved Amanda Tapping’s work both as an actor and a director, and here she coaxes fine performances all around, most notably in the moving scene between Sheema (Naika Toussaint) and Mohamad as she attempts to justify her decision to align herself with Rebecca while he packs to leave The Citadel. The utter despair on his face, as she essentially lets him know that this is where brother and sister part ways and family doesn’t mean what he thought it meant, reminds us why we fell in love with Mohamad in the first place. At his core, he’s a good man.
Previously, it always felt as if Dmitri’s (Paul Johansson) lurid presence provided just enough substance to lend credence to the importance he seems to have to the overall story arc. Tonight, however, his hubris gets the better of him, and his passion for what Vanessa means to his community comes pouring out. On the one hand, his character serves a greater purpose disseminating tales of Vanessa’s true lineage, but his actions also taunt her as she lies as helpless as we’ve ever seen her. He knows he has the upper hand and wants to make certain her submission to his command is merely a foregone conclusion. In the end, though, does he give Vanessa ammunition with which she can fight back?
Even though the term hybrid has yet to be used in the series, it’s been evident for a while now that the key to vampires surviving once the skies clear remains Vanessa’s blood. Though we still don’t know the details, Dmitri tells her she’s the last of her kind, almost. But what does that mean? Does he know that Dylan is alive, turned, and apparently under Rebecca’s tutelage? He explains that Vanessa’s influence most certainly will change the world and the human race, but she will not be able to save it. Having lived her life as Vanessa Seward, Dmitri mentions, for the first time, the name Van Helsing. He continues to mock her helplessness informing her that there is no way for her to escape. But does he mean escape his clutches or escape the fact that she, in fact, holds the key to the human race’s survival.
Still restrained, Vanessa is forced to listen to the doctor wax poetic about his desire to “be one of them” someday, but more importantly reveal the true purpose of her confinement. He plans to open her up and study her and tells her that they want to create something new. “We’ll be able to bring one of their seed to full term, create something new and extraordinary.” It’s here, while watching Vanessa supine on the table, with Dmitri first and then the doctor, that we recognize a callback to the series premiere with Vanessa lying comatose on the table for the show’s first half hour. She’s confronted a number of horrific challenges during this journey, but nothing can prepare her for this ultimate indignity.
The doctor tells Vanessa she is a link to eternal life, and though they live hundreds of years, vampires do age, and the thought of death terrifies them. Just before leaving the room, he loosens her restraints and tells her to “be patient; wait for your chance.” Watching the scene unfold, her release seems a bit too effortless, and we soon learn there’s a method to Dmitri’s madness. Dmitri and his sister Antanasia (Gia Crovatin) wait at the end of the hall as he reveals his plan. “The first step in breaking her spirit,” he tells her and then kicks her in the side.
However, Dmitri’s decision to view Vanessa as a prisoner that needs to be broken psychologically before taking the step he needs her to take seems a bit odd given how much he already knows about her. Does he underestimate her or hold himself in a higher esteem than deserved? The civilized dinner at which Dmitri, Antanasia, and Rebecca sip soup provides a nice counterpoint to the impending horror they discuss. When the doctor interrupts to inform Dmitri that he’s ready to remove Vanessa’s eggs in preparation of finding a suitable sperm donor Rebecca asks sarcastically “I wonder who that will be,” implying that it might be Dmitri. Yet again, the show’s horrific elements emanate not from what we see but from what we imagine.
On the one hand, it’s convenient to view the episode’s title “It Begins” as it relates to the multi-front war Vanessa will invariably be forced to fight if she’s to achieve her goals, not the least of which is to free her daughter from Rebecca’s clutches. But when we study its construct, “It Begins” actually examines a series of one on one skirmishes leading up to what seems to have all the earmarks of an armageddon.
At this point we’ve learned that Dmitri wields the most power in the vampire community, and even though we’ve known for some time that Julius and Rebecca have been scheming behind his back, Antanasia’s revelation that she loves watching “you two lie to each other” drives home the reality that either Dmitri is oblivious to what’s really going on or already has a plan in place to deal with the others’ duplicity.
If apocalyptic tales teach us anything, it’s that immoral behavior becomes not only acceptable but necessary if one is to survive the holocaust looming overhead. And when we learn that not only does Rebecca plan a coup to oust Dmitri, she’s enlisted the aid of Taka and his resistance group. Of course, it’s unlikely that most of his soldiers know with whom they’ve aligned and whether or not Taka plans to take them with him when the battle ends is still hazy, but this pair does present a fascinating odd couple.
Taka sneaks into the Citadel to meet with Rebecca, but she plays coy and it’s clear neither really trusts the other even though they share a mutual foe. “Why do you need my help if you have her?” he asks her. And in a beautifully shot scene, Taka and Rebecca circle each other like prize fighters in a ring looking for an opening, a weakness. She orders him to attack the Citadel the next day while Dmitri is still preoccupied with Vanessa, and it’s still unclear what brings these strange bedfellows together in the first place. Rebecca spells out the details of their deal in which Taka gets an island for the human survivors that will remain off limits to all vampires. Childhood’s End? The last of the human race?
Nonetheless, Taka’s task may not be as straightforward as he thinks. He gives an impassioned rallying speech before his troops, but it’s abundantly clear that Flesh has reservations as it pertains to Vanessa. In no uncertain terms, he tells Taka that when he goes in there, he goes to save Vanessa not to kill her as Taka orders. More self assured than we’ve ever seen him, Flesh’s motives seem pure, nevertheless, everybody seems to have a personal agenda, so nothing is certain. How great would it be for previously meek Flesh to take down badass Taka during the battle for Vanessa.
We learned last week that Vanessa’s mother, at the very least, played a role in her development and likely her genetic predisposition, but now many family history holes are filled in. Dmitri admits that “Your mother, she also wanted to kill me,” knowing that his desire to see the effect blood has on her powers will likely cause Vanessa to want to do the same.
However, it’s the Van Helsing family tree that finally finds its way to the forefront as Dmitri fills Vanessa in on her lineage. Much of this we suspected, but now that the connection has been verified, when he tells her that “Your people have hunted us through the centuries, constantly, relentlessly; I even knew your great, great, great grandfather Abraham,” we understand it’s not without good reason they all fear “The One.” In spite of that, Vanessa’s is a tale of a child abandoned by her mother, leaving it up to viewer to decide on the merits of this painful decision.
“When she learned the truth about your father, she tried to stop the birth – hid you away from all of us.” But his statement to Vanessa that her mother gave her life for her so she could live in peace confuses the issue somewhat. Does he mean her mother or Vanessa? So the salient question becomes, how did we arrive at a state in which the great, great, great granddaughter of the world’s foremost vampire killer find herself as the desired mate of a 300 year old vampire who wants to extend his life?
Once fans emotionally invest twelve hours of their lives in a show’s characters, it’s reasonable to intellectually concoct situations that will never occur within the context of the show. Though it is presented brilliantly and speaks to her desperation, I can honestly say I didn’t think I’d ever see Vanessa so hungry that she be willing to drink a bowl of human blood left by the door of her stark cell. We finally see how Vanessa reacts to blood, and it’s not at all what I expected. Slowly at first, she ravenously consumes it only to be jolted by physical changes, one of which is increased strength as she crushes the bed’s metal headboard with little effort.
Examining “It Begins” from different angles, the episode’s strengths continue to revolve around story points I’m typically loathe to tolerate. I’m not a fan of fight scenes, but here the succinct choreography serves to heighten the inevitable clashes Vanessa will need to win if she hopes to earn her freedom. Ever vigilant, she seizes her opportunity when Rebecca realizes that Dmitri has plans of his own for Vanessa that he failed to share with her. “This wasn’t the plan. Your seed inside of this thing.”
Dmitri slaps Rebecca and knocks her down though it’s unclear whether he’s angry that she referred to Vanessa as a thing or that she challenges his plan? But Vanessa has other ideas; she kicks the doctor into the wall and stabs Dmitri with scissors before literally reaching into her chest. Is it too much to ask that she literally rip out his heart? Nonetheless, he didn’t make it to 300 years of age without being resilient and walks away leaving Vanessa behind.
Much of Vanessa’s mystique resides in the fact that we simply have little understanding of her full power. For that matter, neither does she. With Dmitri temporarily out of the picture, it’s time for some answers.
“Now it’s Just you and me,” Rebecca tells Vanessa, who once again refuses to back down. “This is going to be fun.” Suddenly, Rebecca flies sideways against the wall, but the tables turn as Rebecca gains the upper hand, and it’s not lost that Vanessa wears a white gown while Rebecca dresses in black. But the fight is interrupted when Taka’s group blows a hole in a wall and enters the Citadel. When Rebecca leaves Vanessa, it’s assumed she goes to rendezvous with Taka to finish off Dmitri, but that’s not exactly how things turn out. Vanessa follows Rebecca into a room where Rebecca produces a teenaged female vamp. “Hello, mother.”
Given the propensity of Van Helsing for killing off major characters, most of us just assumed Vanessa’s quest to find Dylan would either end badly or emotionally consume her to the exclusion of all else. Now that she knows her daughter lives, it will be interesting to watch her next step since we know recovering her daughter will not be as easy as she assumes it will be. By now she knows Rebecca stands as a formidable foe, and it might benefit both to unite against Dmitri who just won’t die no matter how hard Taka tries.
Forming new alliances and strengthening existing ones appears to be one direction Van Helsing plans to take moving into season two. While it’s true that Mohamad has vacillated with his allegiances, we can excuse him to a certain extent because of his youth and genuine nature. However, Taka doesn’t receive the same benefit of the doubt, and when he finds Dmitri sitting alone in a chair, he asks, “How did you manage to survive for three hundred years,” just before shooting him in the stomach.
We already doubt Taka’s sincerity regarding an overthrow of the vampires, so when Dmitri learns that Rebecca offered Taka Fox Island, Dmitri accuses her of offering a useless parcel of land. “I can offer you more,” he tells Taka. Whether or not Taka takes him at his word remains to be seen, but with the vampire leader reeling and Vanessa still alive, a kill shot to the head is probably a wiser approach.
However, we’re not done yet. As the strongest visual of “It Begins” hits the screen with a dramatic flyover looking down on fields of grain, viewers notice a figure crawling out of a pipe, and if I’m honest, I assumed it would be Sam, still turned. Nevertheless, even though most of us gave him up for dead long ago, Axel, still in uniform, begins walking towards the city in the distance. He doesn’t appear feral, so we have to consider that he’s been consuming human blood which leads to a question we never thought we’d have to consider. Is Axel after Vanessa to kill her or protect her?
The writers have thrown a lot our way, and when you start to add them up, the number of questions heading into the hiatus is really piling up. First and foremost has to focus on Vanessa, Rebecca, and Dylan. Despite knowing how her mother died, will Dylan play the angst ridden teenage vampire taken in and raised the past three years by cool Aunt Becky? Rather than use her physical gifts, Vanessa may be forced to pry her daughter away from Rebecca on an emotional level, but I’m still rooting for the three to come together to bring down Dmitri. And just to throw a wild card into the mix, is it even remotely possible that, should he regain consciousness, Vanessa gives Mohamad a second chance?
As new alliances form, it seems clear that Taka and Dmitri may bond, but since the island home might not exist, I’m not sure Taka will like what Dmitri has to offer. Will Antanasia play an expanded role next season or continue to lurk in the shadows? Either way, Dmitri’s pursuit of Vanessa is most certainly not over.
As much as I love what Christopher Heyerdahl brings to Sam, his arc has run its course, and in light of Axel’s re-emergence, there doesn’t seem to be a need for what his character provides. Of course, now that Axel’s back in the picture, his impact can’t be overlooked, but the sheer weight and complexity of the other arcs continue to drive the story toward both the inevitable and the unforeseen.
It’s too early to tell when Van Helsing will return to SyFy for its sophomore season, but the spellbinding world that Neil LaBute and Simon Barry have assembled and the dark paths down which they’ve taken us give viewers plenty to contemplate as the show heads into pre-production after the first of the year. Featuring a stellar performance by Kelly Overton as the eponymous reluctant heroine and a host of captivating secondary, but no less essential, characters, Van Helsing took a chance in an oversaturated market and delivered a distinctly frightening tale of dread that continues to engage fans who now must patiently await Vanessa’s fate. Well done.