We only met him briefly in last week’s series premiere, but basically everything good in the second episode of NOS4A2 rests squarely on the shoulders of Bing Partridge. In the span of a single episode, we see how the gentle, troubled giant who works as a custodian at Vic’s high school ends up as the latest henchman for Charlie Manx.
The episode begins as Bing applies for a job at Christmasland. As soon as his application is finished, he finds himself unwittingly caught in Manx’s web, plagued by strange dreams about a winking moon and stalked by Manx himself in the Rolls-Royce Wraith. Along the way, we get a glimpse at Bing’s day-to-day routine, which is less than enviable: scrubbing graffiti, getting browbeaten over coffee, and rolling chemicals around in a warehouse.
So who could blame him for seeking a better life? Manx, and Christmasland itself, seems designed to prey on people like Bing, whose lives are devoid of anything resembling joy or magic. In a very Christmas Carol–like flourish, Manx uses Bing’s “job interview” to take him to the Graveyard of What Might Be. It’s a place where abused children are trapped in ice. There, surrounded by miserable children, Manx explains that his mission is to liberate kids from abusive parents and take them to Christmasland, where they can spend eternity in a place of endless joy. If Bing will help him save ten children, Manx says, maybe he can become one of the few adults to be admitted to Christmasland.
Of course, all of that is bullshit. The whole thing is sketchy and bizarre enough that your average person might pause before agreeing to accept a mission that — as Bing correctly notes — is basically just kidnapping. But NOS4A2 has taken pains to depict the loneliness and tragedy of Bing’s life, so you can see where he might actually buy into the Christmasland lie. And since Bing himself was abused and tormented by his father as a child, he can even imagine himself as a hero for doing it. (The show doesn’t really put a button on this, but it’s worth thinking about how, by manipulating Bing, Manx is exploiting an abused child — literally the opposite of his stated mission.)
The tragedy of the Bing subplot essentially saves this NOS4A2 episode from being a total write-off. The bulk of the episode is devoted to more tedious (but arguably necessary) exposition, as Vic adjusts to her parents’ separation and explores the limits of her superpower.
Unfortunately, the episode devotes more time to the former than the latter. Vic spends a day cleaning houses with her mom and then — without much explanation — decides to go live with her dad and his new girlfriend instead. The girlfriend, Tiffany, makes it clear she doesn’t want Vic around. Her dad says he wants Vic around, but it’s obvious he’d prefer to hang around getting drunk on vodka in an inflatable pool, spraying his topless girlfriend with a garden hose.
I can imagine a version of this story as painful and compelling as what NOS4A2 manages with Bing — but in practice, this is all pretty dry. I think the problem is that so many of the supporting characters, including both of Vic’s parents, still feel like supporting characters: defined just enough that they can play a role in Vic’s journey and no more. Tiffany is Chris McQueen’s sleazy girlfriend. Craig is Vic’s biker friend who clearly has a crush on her. Angela Brewster is rich and either thoughtless or callous enough to bug Vic about RISD while her mother is on her knees scrubbing the bathroom. Hayley is a little girl who appears out of the darkness whenever Vic needs to talk to somebody (and, we can probably presume, to get Vic to pursue Manx after Manx kidnaps her).
The exception — but only barely — is Maggie, whom Vic meets when she flees the messiness of her parents’ latest fight by taking the Shorter Way bridge all the way to Here, Iowa. Maggie has been waiting for Vic: Her Scrabble tiles, which she uses to predict the future, have foretold that “THE BRAT” is coming. (In a particularly clever wrinkle, the tiles didn’t reveal Vic’s actual name, because you can’t use proper nouns in Scrabble.)
Maggie’s tiles also revealed that Danny, the missing little boy, has been taken by “THE WRAITH.” Putting two and two together, she realizes that Vic’s superpower means she could take the Shorter Way to discover the children Manx has kidnapped. “The girl who finds lost things can find lost children. Don’t you see you’ve been chosen?” Maggie pleads.
We certainly see that she’s been chosen! But this is still the early phase of Vic’s hero arc, which means it’s time for the rejection of the quest. Which means Vic refuses Maggie’s request and goes back home.
And I understand why NOS4A2 is delaying the big, inevitable Vic vs. Manx conflict at the heart of the story — but I’m definitely ready for this show to pick up the pace. The silver lining: I suspect the show’s current flaws can largely be blamed on the story’s unusually tricky structure, which is still splitting its time between the surreal, Christmas-themed horror of Charlie Manx and the dour melodrama of Vic McQueen’s home life. But Manx is already looking for Vic, and Maggie has already asked Vic to go after Manx. When these two finally cross paths, NOS4A2 will benefit from some much-needed narrative focus.
• Two episodes in: How does everybody feel about Zachary Quinto’s take on Charlie Manx? I like Quinto, but I’m not feeling the smugness and the malice that radiated off the page in Joe Hill’s novel. (Then again, maybe Quinto is saving it, because so far we’ve only seen Manx playing nice with characters like Danny and Bing.)
• In NOS4A2, using superpowers has tangible, physical consequences. Maggie develops a stutter after divining with her Scrabble tiles, and Vic’s left eye gets messed up whenever she uses the Shorter Way. I wonder what consequences Manx faces for driving a supernatural car and draining the life out of children.
• According to Maggie, Rolls-Royce only manufactured “around 500” 1938 Wraiths, which should make Manx fairly easy to find.
• For a brief moment, Vic sees the chalk in Hayley’s hand as a candy cane. Is this just foreshadowing, or is the ability to see the future another side of her Shorter Way superpower?
• Manx describes himself as Christmasland’s CEO, director, and president of fun. I wonder how much that pays.
• Manx, being Manx, lights up like a Christmas tree when Bing mentions that the sevoflurane is gingerbread-scented.
• Tiffany’s “art” seems to be gluing colored rocks onto picture frames.
• The shot of the vodka bottle in Chris McQueen’s freezer wasn’t exactly subtle, but I just appreciated a scene where the characters didn’t just openly state what was going on.
• Bly, NOS4A2’s paint-by-numbers small-town sheriff, gets some slightly more intriguing shading for being at the center of an unspecified incident involving a library copy of Pride and Prejudice.
• Maggie’s Scrabble tile earrings are F and U.
• The poem on Lily Carter’s tombstone in the Graveyard of What Might Be: “Turned to a life of sin by her father / She never had a chance / Her childhood ended / Before it even began / If only there had been another / to take her off to Christmasland.”