Last week, I opined that the world of The Nevers was contracting in ways that made plotlines crisper, relationships more legible, and the general flow of information easier to follow. I nearly felt that if a stranger asked me the question What is The Nevers about?, I could give them a perspicuous if lengthy explanation. Oh, how man makes plans, and Joss Whedon laughs. This series is completely batshit.
Let’s begin at the end. We finally have an answer to the riddle of Mrs. Amalia True’s origins, the reason why she’s so good at close combat and so bad at adhering to Victorian mores. Her real name is Zephyr Alexis Naveen and she’s a stripe with the Planetary Defense Coalition, some kind of supranational armed forces protecting galanthi in Earth’s apocalyptic future. Stripes are worker bees. They take orders and GSD. This squares with Amalia’s rudderlessness — she’s a wartime soldier marooned on the front without a mission.
How does Zephyr come to occupy the petite frame formerly belonging to a widowed baker? For that, we need to take it back to the beginning of The Nevers Part One finale. When the episode opens, parachuters are drifting toward war-torn Earth. There’s ash in the air and fires burning and very little light by which to make out the entirely new cast. I momentarily thought I’d pressed play on the wrong show. The reason I knew in my heart it was the right show is that it didn’t make any goddamn sense.
The hints that Zephyr — whose name we don’t learn until much later because, in the distant future, names are too sacred to even be uttered — is/was Amalia come fast. There’s the familiar worrying of her fingers, for one, and a conspicuous cynicism. Soldiers from the PDC and enemy combatants from the Free Life Army have convened on this particular map dot because some scanner suggests the presence of galanthi. There’s a lot of crosstalk about what to do and who to call, but it’s basically impossible to recap given no one uses each other’s names. Most of the new characters die anyway.
We do hear about parallels to what’s happened in Victorian England. There’s a medic (or “knitter”) who is a “spore” — a slur for someone who has been “empathically enhanced” by the kind of glowing dust that gave the touched their turns. As the knitter and Zephyr explore the lab, they find a cabinet of antiques — brass binoculars, fabric umbrellas, and other Victorian curios. In a sign of how far this Earth is from the one we know, a PDC soldier mistakes a vegetable garden for a galanthi. She’s never seen either before.
A search of the facility turns up a door that’s not on the schematics and behind that door, the only remaining glananthi on Earth. The objective of Free Life is to destroy the galanthi; their hatred is a mix of xenophobia and religiosity, not unlike the Victorian purists. The PDC want to protect the galanthi — their last hope for a better world. At some point, someone says the word “portal.” The galanthi wanted to build one, maybe to bring more galanthi here. Kill the galanthi, close the portal, obliterate hope and achieve world peace, or so goes the Free Life thinking. Nevermind that the world would still be a hellhole.
There’s in-fighting and crossfire and someone somehow turns on the portal, which goes the other direction. More galanthi aren’t coming; this galanthi is leaving. The knitter is shot and dies before she can tell Zephyr her name. A despondent Zephyr drinks some kind of poison, I’m guessing, based on the yellow and black labels. She closes her eyes around the same time the portal gets firing, and the galanthi hugs her in its blue glow. But what if the reason for all those Victorian bric-a-brac is that the portal doesn’t go in or out, but back? To 1893 specifically, at the exact moment the butcher’s widow plunged herself into the Thames. Zephyr becomes Amalia in some sort of happenstance cosmic suicide pact (I think).
For no real reason, this week’s episode is organized into chapters. That one was called “Stripe”; the next is called “Molly.” Molly’s is a sob story. She’s an Irish baker living in London, who apparently doesn’t know her financiers from her canelés. (Did a script supervisor not notice they subbed the pastries?) For unrelated reasons, Molly’s soon to be out of a job. The man she loves hasn’t the money to marry her; the butcher she marries instead is an oaf. She’s barren. The butcher dies, leaving her a mountain of debt, and, oh yeah, the guy she loved is now wealthy and his wife is expecting. Molly — we’ve seen this bit a few times now — jumps into the river with a lilting brogue and emerges with Zephyr’s wide-open American vowels. Naturally, she ends up in an asylum. Welcome to Chapter 3: The Madwoman in the Thames.
Zephyr thinks she’s in some kind of historical fantasy simulation. She meets a pre-Maladie Sarah, who she thinks is part of the sim, too. I do not need to tell you how infuriating it is for a character to introduce the possibility that everything is a simulation this deep into the season, yet I will: It’s maddening! We know the broad strokes from here. Horatio becomes Molly’s doctor and then her boyfriend. She explains that an alien rained superpowers on people, and he takes the news on the chin because she’s hot. To escape the asylum, Zephyr lays off the morphine and quits cursing. Over the course of a pronunciation and etiquette montage befitting Eliza Doolittle, she transforms into Amalia True.
A few other little fires of intrigue are extinguished in Chapter 3. We learn that Dr. Hague is the leader of the team responsible for Sarah’s descent into Maladie and that Amalia threw her to the wolves to save herself. Mrs. Bidlow plucks Amalia from the asylum once she gains a reputation for handling the touched patients. She’s been complaining she lacks a mission; now, Bidlow hands her one. Amalia and Horatio christen the orphanage before the first charge, Penance, can arrive.
A title card tells us that Chapter 4 is called “True” and if such a lazy transition device is worthy of a splashy HBO production then certainly I can justify using it here. We’re back in the more familiar Victorian past on the day of Maladie’s execution. Last week, we watched Penance’s rescue attempt; this week, we follow Amalia & Co. as they try to reach the galanthi underground.
The Royal Army site that was meant to be deserted is, in fact, not. There’s fisticuffs to be sure, but Penance’s super-drill works well enough that Amalia eventually falls down a half-dug hole in a manner that calls to mind the action-adventure film Congo, starring Laura Linney opposite a gorilla that knows sign language. In fact, the general tone of this episode’s special effects can best be described as very 1995.
Amalia finds the glowing blue orb, which doesn’t do anything, so Amalia yells at it like it’s a piece of broken tech — “PC Load Letter.” “I left Penance because you said come find me,” she pleas, but nothing. Her accent breaks, and she’s Zephyr again. “It should have been someone else,” she says. But to do what? “Someone not broken,” she says. But what broke her? “You should have brought Nitia,” she says. But how does Zephyr know her name? This is the problem with Amalia’s origin story, which shores up the practical but never answers for the metaphysical. Amalia is broken and pugnacious because she’s a time-hopping American Rambo called Zephyr, but what happened to make Zephyr the way Amalia is?
All the hollering must eventually dislodge something, because the galanthi starts to rumble and we get a helluva montage: Molly’s memories interlaced with Zephyr’s, warm memories of learning and kinship mixed with those of fighting. We see a flashback of some early moment between Penance and Amalia, right after Amalia has told her new friend everything she knows about Earth’s bleak future. Penance, pious as a Free-Lifer, thanks God for giving her “a life’s work.”
And then things get really weird. A disembodied voice asks, seemingly to Zephyr, “Do you think you were the only one who hitched a ride?” We see images of Massen and the Beggar King and Augie and Madladie and maybe, in some kind of whirlpool, Hugo Swann? It suggests that on top of the enmity these characters have developed in this world lies a layer of whatever they brought with them. If Amalia is in the past to change the future, some of these people must be here to stop her. Still, we don’t get an answer to the most relevant questions: Why Zephyr? Why 1893? Why is the galanthi’s human form a teenage polyglot named Myrtle?
Amalia escapes the cave with the help of Elisabetta Cassini, the lobotomized shopgirl who could make heavy objects defy gravity and apparently still can — a nice little reveal that Hague’s mining army might not be beyond saving. Soon enough, we’ve watched an hour of episode six only to end up at the coda to episode five. Amalia and the A-Team are patching themselves up at St. Rom’s as Penny and the B-Sides roll in from their own botched escapades.
Amalia decides it’s time to tell the St. Rom’s gang everything she knows about the future, the galanthi, and the fight ahead. She starts by telling Penance something more intimate, her real name. It’s a testament to how colossally confusing The Nevers can be that the announcement a character is going to explain to me what I just watched qualifies as a cliffhanger. (Philippa Goslett, inheritor of the mess that is Whedon’s, I forbid you from time-jumping. I deserve to hear this explanation just as much as Primrose does.)
Elsewhere on this site, my colleague called The Nevers an “unimpressive monument to a storyteller whose work has meant a lot to many people, but who cannot now figure out how to rise to the moment.” To some extent, I agree. But for those of us who see the promise in what Whedon’s started here, the question isn’t whether that assessment is right but if it’s a terminal prognosis.
There is still so much good on the screen. Laura Donnelly flat-out shines in this episode, convincingly playing a shy 19th-century Irishwoman, mild as a Bake-Off contestant, a macho American commando, and the English Amalia True, a measured compromise of the person she is and the body she inhabits. The special effects are low-fi, but the sets are tremendous. And the show has its own appealing argot, even if it leans on it too heavily. When filming on season one, part two starts this summer, Goslett has a more ambitious option than picking up where Whedon left off. She gets to take a fresh run at the raw goods and rebuild.
Correction: An earlier version of this recap mistakenly referred to the “knitter” as a character named “Nitta,” because screeners don’t have subtitles. We apologize for the error.