This Van Helsing review contains spoilers.
Van Helsing Season 1 Episode 2
Executive producer and writer Simon Barry makes a critical, but nonetheless vital decision to rewind the narrative before sending Vanessa out among the Feeders who now control the streets of Seattle. Though viewers glean significant plot details from the pilot, the second episode of Van Helsing, “Seen You,” manages to fill in just enough gaps and pose just enough questions while all hell breaks loose during the early days of the vampire/zombie apocalypse.
That said, one of the most engaging aspects of the series’ exposition thus far revolves around the mashup of traditional vampire and zombie elements. Is it merely a device to draw the zombie fans or a clever amalgamation intended to put a fresh twist on what have arguably become two stale storylines? It’s too soon to make a firm determination, but Van Helsing shows marked promise.
Contemporary television viewers have not only become accustomed to the writer’s use of narrative flashbacks to tell a story, they’ve come to revel in the added complexities the technique brings to the table. So when the episode opens during a time that’s clearly before the plague hits, viewers nod with full understanding that they’re still in familiar territory. In the background, a volcano has erupted, and while it appears significant, at this point does not appear to present any real danger to the populus. And it’s here that the questions begin to pile up.
The introduction of an enclave of vampires awaiting its blood delivery from one of their own who has stolen it from a local clinic/blood bank, sets the scene for a plot point we already know, but witnessing the genesis of this new conflict opens up a secondary struggle as our protagonist has a target placed firmly on her back. Watching Vanessa sell her blood, it’s clear there’s something unusual about it and the camera shot insists we notice, but this marks only one facet of the scene’s importance. She’s at the clinic with her daughter, and it’s evident she’s down on her luck, even lying to her daughter that she’s there for a job interview. We now see this formidable woman in a totally different light, and whereas before, our hearts went out to a mother searching for her missing daughter, viewing Vanessa’s daily struggle to maintain as normal as possible a life for her daughter feels even more devastating.
I’ve always loved the use of the Space Needle as a geographic identifier, but it does make one wonder about the use of the Pacific northwest and by extension Yellowstone. It also could be argued that employing the daughter who seems older and wiser than her years and understands her mother is not the perfect mom may be a bit overused, but Hannah Cheramy as Vanessa’s daughter Dylan brings the perfect blend of acceptance of her mother’s plight and hope that they’ll one day climb out of this dreary life.
Retreating to her closet after her absent father bails on his promise to fly her to his place for her birthday sets up one the most frightening and suspenseful scenes to date. Viewers watch the delivery guy take a taste before delivering the stolen blood to the enclave, and it’s immediately clear something has changed him. The pieces begin falling into place, and we assume he drank Vanessa’s blood which returned him to human form. The enclave recognizes this and understands they must discover the source of this threat to their existence setting up a battle we didn’t know existed.
Writer Simon Barry (Continuum) and director Michael Nankin (Defiance) present several extended views allowing the developing scenes some breathing room, a welcome relief from the frenetic editing present in so much television drama today. Bathed primarily in a reddish tint as she attempts to celebrate Dylan’s birthday, Vanessa’s apartment transforms from a modest home into a horrific murder scene. The suspense builds as Dylan hides in the closet after Vanessa hears an intruder enter. She sets the cake down, candles still burning, and we’re now concerned she’s going to burn down their home, though we’re not as worried about her safety since we just saw her kick the crap out of her best friend’s abusive boyfriend.
Of course, we understand from the pilot that Vanessa and Axel’s primary focus will be to evade the Feeders, but now that we know it’s one of the enclave that’s tracked her down and with his superhuman strength overpowered her, the stakes grow exponentially. That he gnaws at her in several places eventually killing her while her daughter sobs over the body as she bleeds out only intensifies the desire to see what comes next.
So when the scene jumps to the morgue and Vanessa’s dead body in a bag, the audience recognizes she’s only mostly dead. The medical examiner discovers a lot of blood but no wounds. The unusual nature of Vanessa’s corpse prompts the ME to call her sister who it turns out is connected to the Pentagon and clearly knows something’s going on. When she describes Vanessa’s blood as acting “as if it’s still alive,” the revelation goes far beyond the reality that she’s not actually dead. Are there others out there like Vanessa, and how much does the government really know?
The female major who’s come to retrieve Vanessa’s body seems to know something, though as the situation unfolds, has obviously been kept in the dark about the larger state of affairs. But she does use the term zombie implying that at this point no one really knows what’s actually going on. Suddenly, explosions rock the city leading us to question whether these are more eruptions from Yellowstone or perhaps Mt. St. Helens? The sky darkens and wind picks up as soldiers attack each other. The situation deteriorates quickly, and Feeders enter the room and start feasting. It’s here that the major orders Axel (Jonathan Scarfe) to watch “sleeping beauty,” not let anyone enter, and the doctor to stay put as well.
Fast forward three years later to 2019, and Vanessa lies comatose on the table in the room we see her in as the pilot begins. Doc (Rukiya Bernard) is still normal, and four soldiers, including Axel remain.
As if the existence of the enclave isn’t enough, the leaders have a doctor conducting experiments on pregnant women, and it’s here that he sets up the coming campaign. “Her existence could be the end of us,” he claims, but his partner counters that Vanessa could be “our future.” The doctor has the blood dealer vampire who returned to human form after biting Vanessa, but he has been horribly mutilated yet remains alive. Can we conclude that biting Vanessa not only returns the vampire to the human state, but gives him/her immortality? By all accounts this man should be dead.
However, even more frightening is the revelation that the enclave is conducting experiments that make Josef Mengele seem like a country doctor, but to what end? Is this perhaps some kind of breeding program? The vampires know of Vanessa’s power and have begun pursuing her though not necessarily to kill her. It seems likely that at some point Vanessa will be captured by this group.
It’s hard to believe this scenario didn’t unfold much earlier, but going stir crazy, three of the four soldiers leave the hospital to return to their base 40 miles away in search of supplies and orders to hopefully relieve them of this mission. Now it’s just Doc, Vanessa, and Axel. Axel’s commitment to the task he’d been assigned comes out in the pilot, but his devotion to the doctor once she gets bitten reveals the depth of his character and bodes well for Vanessa as they move forward in the city and in their relationship.
As all good genre shows do, Van Helsing’s second episode “Seen You” raises far more questions than it answers. Has the volcanic eruption done anything more than physically release the vampires who were apparently underground? Is there actually a virus? Does Vanessa’s daughter Dylan possess any abilities or powers inherited from her mother?
Series’ pilots bring with them a certain set of problems that critics often latch onto without looking beyond the possibilities, so it should come as no surprise that Simon Barry and his team have quickly laid out a narrative that anticipates and eliminates those pesky concerns before they have a chance to multiply. The pilot presents Vanessa as a reluctant savior who’s sole mission is to save her missing daughter rather than mankind, but now that we’ve witnessed the story’s origins, what’s over the horizon looms large and rife with intrigue.