There’s a lot of story on the margins, but in the end, NOS4A2 is all about the inherent conflict between Vic McQueen and Charlie Manx. Despite the shared aspects of their superpowers — which make them “one in a trillion,” Manx suggests — these two characters couldn’t possibly be more different. And given the sheer richness of the Vic vs. Manx conflict, it’s both a relief and a delight that, after nearly four hours of buildup, they finally come face-to-face in this week’s episode.
This brief and chilling detente, which takes place in a bus station, neatly outlines the fundamental, bone-deep differences between these two characters. Manx believes children should remain children forever, while Vic is a teenager on the cusp of adulthood. Manx loathes women who exercise any kind of sexual agency, while a drunken Vic has her first kiss with Drew Butler at a high-school party just before she and Manx finally come face to face. Even their respective superpowers are perfectly, diametrically opposed. Vic can use the Shorter Way to find anything — as long as it’s stationary. Manx, with his own magic car, is an ever-moving target, which means he can always elude Vic’s grasp.
Most of all, there’s Manx’s deep conviction that anything he wants should belong to him, which clashes against Vic’s innate desire to protect the weakest people in her orbit. Look at the casual, proprietary, man spread-y way Manx drapes himself across multiple chairs, and the smug confidence it conveys. When Manx describes his dreams about Vic and her magical bridge, there’s an undercurrent of a threat — but also a kind of flirtation. And when Vic concedes that she’s been dreaming about Manx too, he practically radiates with lust.
It’s here that the hypocrisy of Manx’s Victorian sexual mores really comes into the light. The idea that a woman would have sex is disgusting to Manx — unless, of course, she’ll have sex with him. And given the creeping subtext of predatory lust that underpins the whole encounter, it’s not totally shocking when Manx makes Vic an otherwise unexpected offer: Come to Christmasland and serve as the Mrs. Claus to his Father Christmas, attaining immortality and raising an ever-growing brood of fang-toothed children together.
NOS4A2 doesn’t even pretend Vic is considering this option. (Instead, she vows to find the entrance to Christmasland and burn the whole place down.) But it’s also an offer that comes at the end of a long string of rejections. Her father’s new girlfriend doesn’t want Vic around, and her dad seems to agree. The safety of her school is haunted by the presence of Bing Partridge. RISD, which seemed like her dream home, is almost certainly out of her reach financially. Manx may be a creepy psychopath, but he’s right about one thing: Vic doesn’t really seem to belong anywhere.
The bus station confrontation is so rich, in both text and subtext, that I practically groaned in disappointment when Maggie interrupted it by sneaking into the parking lot outside the bus station and finding the Wraith. She discovers Manx’s vanity license plate, which should make him easier to track, but it comes at a heavy price. As soon as Maggie touches the car, Manx can sense it, and the Wraith roars back to life, slamming into Maggie before stopping so Manx can hop back inside and speed away.
Maggie is one of NOS4A2’s better characters, so there’s a part of me that’s happy she survived Manx’s attack — but there’s another part of me that was a little disappointed when she reappeared in a hospital room instead of a morgue. Having successfully established Manx as a figure of menace, it’s time for NOS4A2 to start raising the stakes a little. Targeting characters like Haley and Sharon, who always existed on the periphery of the story, feels like the series under-committing to the warped horror of its big villain.
As for the rest of the episode … well, there’s just not a lot to say about it. Bing continues to wander around town, inexplicably skirting any real consequences for the role he played in a kidnapping, a rape, and a murder. Vic continues ping-ponging between her mother and father, who each fail to offer her the safe harbor she needs. Craig continues pining for Vic from afar, and Drew continues succeeding with Vic from up close. Maggie uses her Scrabble tiles to mess with Willa, which seems like a waste of a perfectly good superpower but is pretty fun to watch.
All of it is fine, if not a little perfunctory. It’s also starting to feel like the stuff NOS4A2 keeps putting in the way to delay the inevitable Vic-Manx standoff at the heart of this story, which is so much more interesting than everything around it.
Unfortunately, if the end of the episode is any indication, Vic and Manx won’t be coming face to face again anytime soon. After a little prodding, Vic finally spills the whole truth about Bing Partridge and Charlie Manx to Tabitha Hutter, the detective investigating Haley’s kidnapping and Sharon’s murder. Hutter listens patiently to this story about an ageless kidnapper and a magic car, and then responds exactly the way you’d expect a by-the-book detective to respond: By suggesting that Vic should be committed to a psych ward. And after a little prodding from her dad — theoretically well-intentioned, but also relieved to have his troublemaking daughter out of his hair for a while — Vic signs the voluntary commitment form. I wonder if she’ll be able to access the Shorter Way from within the walls of a mental hospital.
• I harped on this a little bit last week, but I’m still baffled that Bing Partridge is just wandering around free (and working in a high school, of all places). I understand that Vic’s story sounds crazy, and that a proper investigation takes time. But Bing’s “alibi” is clearly rehearsed nonsense, and he doesn’t have a single person to vouch for it. Even if Tabitha Hutter couldn’t get a warrant to search Bing’s gross murder cellar, wouldn’t something turn up on Sharon’s body? Does Bing really seem like the kind of guy who would be careful enough not to leave a shred of DNA evidence behind?
• And along those same lines: Once Vic rejects Manx’s offer to be the Queen of Christmasland, is there any logical reason Manx doesn’t just kill her and be done with it? I guess Manx might think he can still change Vic’s mind, but Vic is clearly the biggest (and only?) threat to his decades-long kidnapping spree, and his life would be a lot simpler if he didn’t have to worry about her sniffing around.
• Bing’s penchant for rhyming is another thing NOS4A2 has inserted from the book without ever explaining it, which makes the whole thing a little disjointed and bizarre. In general, I’m not clear on how intelligent the TV show’s version of Bing is supposed to be, or whether his current stuntedness is just a symptom of Manx’s ability to warp the people in his orbit.
• I’m not going to spoil anything, but the introduction of Tabitha Hutter at this point in the story feels like an indication that NOS4A2 might deviate rather sharply from the back half of the novel.
• Bing’s favorite TV show is something called Monster Trucks, which airs “all night, every night” — so maybe, in the NOS4A2-verse, that weird Monster Trucks movie from a few years ago was a big enough hit to spawn a TV spinoff.