The Nevers: Exposure

An apt title, for this one. "Exposure" doesn't just unveil the hidden agendas of almost our cast of characters; it's our first hint at the hidden agenda of The Nevers itself.

Consider this episode's biggest twist. Throughout the pilot and up until the very last minute of this episode, Lavinia Bidlow's interest in the Touched has been presented as a sort of noblesse oblige, a philanthropic effort informed by her own paraplegia. As it turns out, her main goal in protecting her girls from exploitation is to exploit them herself! It's a great twist – one we perhaps should have seen coming, given that Olivia Williams' character on Dollhouse had a similar protector/exploiter dynamic going on. And it serves to rope Dr. Hague – that's the creepy Yankee lobotomist played by Denis O'Hare – into the other characters' orbit, rather than having him flit around the margins of the plot.

On the other hand, it's a bit odd to have a twist like this two episodes into a twelve-episode run, where Lavinia's villainous turn is far too early in the series to register as a betrayal. So why have the twist happen so soon?

A Tale of Two Genres

Well, here's one explanation: up 'til now, critical consensus has been that The Nevers is using the aesthetics of Victorian England as a colorful finish on the tropes and structure of superhero fiction. But what if the genre pastiche here is actually going the other way around? What if The Nevers is actually using the tropes of superhero movies as a colorful finish on the tropes and structure of Victorian fiction? Dickensian fiction in particular, teeming with caricatures with on-the-nose names, and with an unwavering emphasis on class and power dynamics?

If this is, in fact, the goal, then there is no better character to center an episode around than Lavinia Bidlow. She is a creature of high society, big on keeping up appearances, and her disability has given her a keen sense of what level of otherness is acceptable for the idle rich. It's why she chooses to bring the most anodyne members of the Touched to her bourgeois fete, explicitly in the name of optimizing optics. It's why she refuses to let Augie romance Penance – imagine the scandal if her brother dated an Irishwoman!

And I suspect it's why Lavinia has no qualms resigning a hapless immigrant girl like Beth Cassini to a lifetime of hard lobotomized labor. But maybe not – it's an open question just how deliberate the stratification of her two operations along class lines is. It's also an open question just how nuanced this quasi-Marxist critique is going to be – Whedon infamously never got the memo w/r/t third-wave feminism. Maybe someone gifted him an Ibram X. Kendi book in the past decade and he discovered intersectionality – or, more likely, the fresh blood in the writers room may end up pushing the show in that direction. We'll see.

True Grit

Lavinia's sudden-yet-inevitable villainous turn also raises the question of what Amalia's role is in all this, and whether she's a dupe or a willful agent in some sort of nefarious scheme. For the show's ostensible protagonist, we know so little about her history, and Detective Mundi expresses his doubts that what little backstory we're given for her is accurate. Her interactions with Maladie suggest some sort of dark past, with Maladie (or Sarah) describing herself as Amalia's favorite plaything. But underneath it all there's a sort of trust between the two – Amalia's suicidal gambit at the episode's climax is dependent on Maladie keeping her word on the rules of her Joker-like "game." For her part, Amalia seems intimately familiar with psychological abuse, although it's still unclear whether she was on the giving or receiving end of it.

Driving the plot of "Exposure" is the uneasy partnership between her and Mundi, neither fully trusting the other's motives but putting that aside to rescue Mary. Mary, who, by wild coincidence, happens to be Mundi's runaway bride. This part of the episode is a bit thin, in the sense that it's very difficult to get any emotional mileage out of a character whose primary characterization so far has been implied police brutality and turning a blind eye to Hugo's lothario antics. Nor do I really care about Mary yet, who at this point is a damsel-in-distress-cum-macguffin – save the cheerleader mezzo-soprano, save the world. There's not much reason to care whether Mundi and Mary get back together, relative to the amount of screentime they're given, particularly compared to the genuine chemistry brewing between Augie and Penance.

It's in the Augie/Penance material that the episode finds its emotional core. Ironically, while Lavinia poohpoohs the prospect of him taking on a Touched lover, we know Augie is Touched himself and has been for quite a while now. Penance returns his almost adolescent embarrassment at his powers with earnest reassurance; there's real tenderness in this scene between star-crossed lovers. A shame, then, that the episode can't quite match this level of emotion for sixty-one minutes. And not for lack of material to work with, either. As Penance herself asks: "you've got all of scripture and you can't spin a tale?"

Side Notes

- "Exposure" was written by the beloved Jane Espenson, a staple of the Whedonverse cabal and a seasoned pro in her own right. Whedon himself directs.

- Beth's turn is that she can levitate objects. One of these objects is a statue of a polar bear – an image that can't help but draw comparisons to that other uber-ambitious sci-fi "event" series whose second episode had a huge "WTF" moment involving a polar bear. I suspect Espenson's hip to this.

- Amalia is assisted this episode by Desiree Blodgett, a woman whose mere presence causes agitated people to blurt out their secrets. She is a fun character, if not a very deep one. If nothing else "Desiree Blodgett" is a phenomenal name for a character, on a show full of characters with phenomenally on-the-nose names. (E.g., Mary "Brighton," get it?)

- Hugo's given some more characterization here – his father is a man of means in the grip of dementia, and his brother is dead in a swimming accident. He's taken a shining to Augie as a sort of "chosen family" member – he claims to want Augie's name on the paperwork as a way to bolster the Ferryman Club's reputation, but there's clearly some sort of misplaced filial affection there. Slashfic writers, take note.

- The lowlight of the show so far continues to be Maladie's whole shtick. Her "madwoman" dialogue didn't grate so much in the context of the pilot episode, but it's much worse here, particularly when she quotes Nietzsche's "Twilight of the Idols." Her "crew" is similarly unpleasant, and they don't have the benefit of being doubled with our protagonists. We will see whether next week's episode, which promises to emphasize the very cool "Bonfire Annie," will turn around my opinion on these sequences.

- As a 21st century American it's a bit funny hearing characters bemoan the prospect of intermarriage with (gasp) an Irishwoman, or watch people mistreat a teenage runaway for being (gasp) Italian. The best bit of racism here, though, must be Amalia's insinuation that Lord Massen is anti-Belgian. (You know, those notoriously unassimilable Belgians, what with their... um... waffles, I guess?) Weirdly, despite this omnipresent prejudice, none of the richies at Lavinia's estate seem to have a problem with Harriet the glass-blowing Desi.

Three out of five mysterious polar bears.

Quiara Vasquez is an on-again off-again writer and journalist who has seen a Star War. She got into sci-fi reading her mom's old dog-eared Asimov paperbacks as a kid, and also from the novelization of the 1996 film Space Jam. Mostly Space Jam, actually. Her main "jobby" (hybrid job/hobby) is designing crossword puzzles, both for various major market outlets and on her personal blog, QVXwordz.

2 comments:

Miguel said...

I was surprised too at the early reveal for Lavinia, but I'm hoping it means they have a lot of plot to cover this season that they are doing big reveals so early.

As a fan of Whedon's previous work, I'm really enjoying this show so far. Besides Maladie who I don't think is as strong so far as previous Whedon crazy serial killer characters (*cough Drusilla cough *). I'm eager to learn more about Amalia's backstory.

Thanks for the reviews! It's nice having someone else's reactions to read after an episode.

Quiara Vasquez said...

Thanks, Miguel. It's always fun getting to react in real time with other people!

Something I've been trying to adjust to is that because the episodes are an hour instead an hour-with-commercials, this season is effectively 18 episodes rather than 12, which means that even though these plot twists feel abrupt there's a lot more space to breathe. In general I think plot shenanigans are not really Whedon's strong suit so I would really hope that we're not going to have an upheaval every episode. But we'll see how much the demise of "episodic" TV with distinct plots-of-the-week works in this show's favor.