Like a Victorian sex club as defined by Stefon on SNL, or indeed the actual Victorian sex club depicted in the show, the pilot of The Nevers has everything: Women with mysterious powers, steampunk-slash-X-Men aesthetics, a creator who left the show amid allegations of abusive behavior, and whole mysterious flashback sequence as a framing device. There’s a lot to piece through in the big, expensive, and confusing HBO drama, so much so that it’s already left us with many questions about everything going on in its alternate-reality 1899 London.
The Nevers centers on Amalia True (played by The Ferryman’s Laura Donnelly) and her compatriot Penance Adair (Ann Skelly), who live in an orphanage that serves as the cover for a home to the people, mostly women, who’ve been mysteriously “touched” by some supernatural event and gifted with “turns” that resemble super-powers. Amalia has the ability to see glimpses of the future and uses it to go around finding other touched people with Penance; meanwhile, there’s also a crazed woman named Maladie who keeps talking about God and the Devil and has her own goal for the touched, plus a mad doctor who appears to be operating on them. If that’s not enough, there is also, of course, the whole sex club, run by a half-dressed James Norton.
An overstuffed show, indeed. So with the pilot having now aired, the time has come to sift through the many confusing questions it raises, and make our best guesses about whatever the hell is going on here.
What’s going on with the big fish spaceship?
The wildest twist in The Nevers pilot has to be the reveal at the end of the episode that the event that caused everyone to be touched wasn’t just some mysterious energy mumbo-jumbo, but involves an actual spaceship flying over Victorian London and lightly drizzling the city with magic dust. After you get past the realization that, wait, this steampunk show is also about aliens? you then suddenly have a lot of questions about aliens. Why did they decide to fly over London, of all the places in the world? Or did they also dust other major industrial metropolises? Finally, it looks at the end of the shot as if the spaceship started to tilt toward the earth, and maybe even crash? If that’s the case, why isn’t everyone on the show talking about the giant space-ship wreckage that’s lodged in the middle of their city? And, finally, does this just mean that The Nevers has the same plot as this season’s generic NBC sci-fi drama Debris?
What’s the logic of who got powers?
The space dust seems to fall thickly over the whole city in that scene, but we only see it touching specific people — mostly women, though the healer Dr. Horatio Cousens (Zackary Momoh) and the nervous shy rich guy Augie Bidlow (Tom Ridley) get powers too. Early on in the episode, we see a group of older white politicians debating the abilities of the touched, and it seems that, in general, the alien dust stuff granted abilities to the marginalized people in society (though that doesn’t quite account for Augie’s abilities) and it has upset the standard balance of Victorian society, which at the very least is indicative of the fact that Joss Whedon wanted to work with some heavy-handed metaphor. Why and/or how did the aliens decide to do this? Did they even decide? Really, it all comes back to the giant fish spaceship again.
Is Amalia extra special in some way?
We know that Amalia is special by virtue of the fact that she’s our protagonist, but her abilities seem to be extra-powerful compared to most of the women around her. For instance, not only does she get to see “ripples” of the future, but she also exhibits remarkable fighting abilities, to the point where it seems like she has super-strength. At the opera, Amalia jumps from a box seat right onto the stage, while Penance tries to cover for her by going “oh no, she fell!” And when Amalia confronts Declan Orrun (Nick Frost), who gave her a lead on a touched girl, he holds a knife to her face to threaten her, to which she simply says “this isn’t my face.” In the flashback before the alien ship arrived, we see that Amalia had jumped into the Thames in a seeming attempt to take her own life, only to be revived when the space dust floated down to her. Did the dust affect her differently because of this? Does it have the power to raise the dead? Or did they give her some secret mission?
What’s going on with Maladie?
When everyone goes to the opera, a woman named Maladie (Amy Manson) interrupts the show to slit the throat of the actor playing the devil and lecture everyone about God and an evil doctor. As a trope, she feels like Whedon falling back some of the terrible instincts that have led to other mad/evil women in his work, like Drusilla on Buffy. But what is she even going on about? Given that we see Maladie, pre-spaceship arrival, being taken to an asylum, it seems like the implication is that she has mistaken the alien spaceship for an act of God. Relatedly, in a scene where two men investigate a dead body in a tunnel being dug for the tube, they find a message that reads “Behold my works for I am the Angle of Death” that one man claims has to be from Maladie, but the other insists cannot because “she can spell.” It seems that everyone is blaming touched-related activity on her, but why use her to cover up a different murder? Or is it really a cover-up? What a confusing show!
What’s up with the evil doctor?
As for the doctor Maladie mentions, that might be Denis O’Hare’s Dr. Edmund Hague, who we see conducting some messy, presumably evil brain surgery at the end of the episode with some very fake-seeming facial hair. Perhaps he got access to Maladie at the asylum? And is trying to use the touched for some evil scheme? It seems that the men from the start of the episode who try to kidnap Myrtle, the girl who can understand English but only speak in other languages, might be connected to or working for Hague, but what’s his end goal for the touched?
What’s James Norton’s whole deal got to do with anything?
Extremely meanwhile, as everything else goes on, we meet James Norton’s Hugo Swann, a rich guy who is introduced post-threesome and manages some sort of Styx-themed sex parlor dubbed the Ferryman’s Club. He tries to get Augie to come in exchange for going along to the opera and helping play wingman. Is he going to tie into the rest of the whole touched mystery, or is his plot just the standard HBO “we need to have a lot of sex in our fantasy show” window-dressing?