We’re nearly halfway through the first season, and there’s still a question NOS4A2 hasn’t answered: What is this show, anyway? So far, the best version of NOS4A2 is about a reverse-aging psychopath with a magic car and a weird fixation on Christmas, who kidnaps kids and turns them into razor-toothed little monsters so he can stay young. Since this is a horror drama, it would probably be better if any of that felt scary — but even at its worst, the Charlie Manx stuff is certainly distinctive.
It’s also, honestly, pretty silly. The stark reality of kidnapping children and killing their parents is undeniably awful, but Manx is such a goofy cartoon — and so far removed from anything that actually exists — that it’s a little startling to see this week’s episode veer into such dark territory. By centering it on Bing Partridge, NOS4A2 shifts into a sludgy, miserable, sub–Silence of the Lambs story about a fundamentally damaged serial killer. And if this show is still figuring itself out, I think it’s safe to say this is not the best version of it.
As the episode begins, we flash back to Sugarcreek, Pennsylvania, in 1973 for a series of unpleasant flashbacks to Bing’s miserable childhood. His father is both physically and verbally abusive, hurling insults and dismissing Bing as a spineless wimp. Bing’s only glimpses of happiness come from his mother, who tiptoes around his father’s abuses but quietly showers Bing with love.
Bing’s pressure cooker of a childhood makes his eventual explosion feel inevitable, and there’s no sugarcoating what happens next. As a teenager, when his father browbeats him for hanging the Christmas lights too slowly, Bing kills him with a nail gun. When his mother comes out, he reveals that he has mistaken her motherly affection for romantic affection and tries to kiss her. When she recoils from him, Bing rapes his mother in the garage. After the rape, as she lies miserable and sobbing on the ground next to her husband’s corpse, he kills her, too.
Now, as a pathetic and lonely adult (under the corrupting influence of Manx), Bing seems to be re-creating his horrifying crime. He doses Sharon, Haley’s mother, with sevoflurane, which makes her suggestible enough that he can make her act like his mother. Later her corpse is discovered in a field with a nail through the forehead. If we’re to believe Bing is reenacting his childhood, it’s likely that he raped Sharon too.
This is undeniably horrifying material, and I don’t think NOS4A2, in its current form, is built to handle it. Like much of NOS4A2’s supporting cast, Bing’s parents are maddeningly one-dimensional. If the show saw them as human beings and not as props in Bing’s nauseatingly lurid character arc, it might be able to justify the horrors it lays upon them. Instead, it feels like an unwelcome cross between misery porn and torture porn — all the most horrible things you can imagine, without the integrity of a story that can sustain the weight of them.
It’s a particularly frustrating choice in the context of the episode’s other big story, which tackles the difficult subject of Chris McQueen physically abusing Linda. Vic is gradually learning that her idealized father isn’t the man she always believed he was. When Vic tells Linda she always thought her dad was a good man, Linda says he is and he’s not: “People can be both. The trouble is, you only ever see the good.”
This seemingly stand-alone pearl of wisdom is enough to make Vic take another look at Bing, whom she had previously dismissed as too nice to be involved with Haley’s kidnapping. (It’s a little like the Mike Yanagita scene in Fargo but clumsier in execution.) Vic forces her way inside, confronts Bing, and discovers the evidence of Sharon’s kidnapping in the basement. At that moment, Manx calls the house, asks to speak with Vic, and suggests that they meet in person (which means, thankfully, that the inevitable central conflict of this story is probably on the horizon).
Vic escapes Bing’s house, uses the Shorter Way to find Sharon’s body, and returns to her own home with a fresh set of traumas to consider. That’s when Chris comes in to comfort her.
I’ll say this for the end of the episode: For once, NOS4A2 actually puts the camera in the right place, on Vic’s miserable face, red with tears and the lingering effects of the Shorter Way. As Chris promises Vic that she’s safe in his house, she knows — on two levels — that this isn’t true. Yes, Manx is hunting her, and his supernatural powers make it near-impossible to stop him. But the entire episode has shown Vic that the people she trusts, including her father, aren’t equipped to protect her and might actually be dangerous.
In this moment, Chris could move beyond the empty platitudes and recognize how his daughter is actually feeling. He could attempt to address her very real concerns, which obviously remain unresolved. He could step up and be a real dad. Instead, his minimum fatherly duties checked off, he leaves the room. And Vic — realizing, correctly, that no one can protect her but herself — locks the door behind him.
• So … is there some reason Bing isn’t hauled off to prison at the end of the episode? We see that Sharon’s body has been uncovered long enough for police and reporters to have swarmed around it. But Bing is still just sitting around at home, watching the news. Why wouldn’t Vic send the police to Bing’s house before he could slip away?
• On the same line: Why does Bing let Vic leave the house? After she hangs up with Manx, Vic just kind of runs upstairs and Bing watches her go. He’s not the most logical character, but you’d think he’d have the presence of mind to realize Vic might cause him some trouble — especially since Manx has been looking for her. This whole sequence feels like it needed a rewrite.
• In the painful aftermath that comes from using the Shorter Way, Vic has another brief vision that hints at the content of future episodes: An angel hood ornament on the Wraith, a shot of sharp-toothed Haley in front of a Christmas tree, and a bloody sheriff’s badge that doesn’t bode well for Sheriff Bly.
• Presuming he’s telling the truth, we learn a little more about Manx this week. He tells Haley he grew up in the back of a mortuary and his mother banished him from the house for her “selfish pleasures.” He spent much of his childhood alone, riding around on a sled called the Phantom (which laid the groundwork for his adulthood driving around in the Wraith). It’s possible the TV show will unfold its own unique version of Manx’s history, but if you’re curious, Joe Hill and artist Charles Paul Wilson III covered similar ground in the NOS4A2 prequel comic Wraith. (Fair warning: It’s pretty grim.)
• Having killed Haley’s cat, Manx wins her over with a cat-shaped Christmas ornament — a nice, relatively subtle nod to his penchant for replacing the good things about the world with hollow, lifeless facsimiles.
• Linda McQueen sees Vic’s red eye, assumes she has been smoking weed, and tells Craig to stay away from her. I remain baffled as to why we’re supposed to care about any of this.
• In a particularly festive touch, the Saint Nick Parkway is lined with herds of skeleton deer with Christmas lights in their antlers.
• Manx also stops at a gas station to buy about 40 evergreen-scented air fresheners. Say what you will about him, but that guy certainly commits to the bit.