When P.T. Barnum arrived in England with the little person General Tom Thumb in 1844, the people went nuts. Barnum’s Hall of Human Curiosities played Buckingham Palace; Queen Victoria reportedly died when Thumb unsheathed his itty-bitty sword to stage-fight her royal spaniel. Victorian England, in which discussion of sex was verboten and women’s bodies were mysterious even to themselves, paradoxically loved a freak show. This week, The Nevers gives us two.
Maladie remains on the loose after her showdown with Amalia at the opera, and the bobbies are no closer to finding her or Mary, the singer she abducted. So the cops do what cops do: profile. Maladie is touched; naturally every touched person is suspect. Inspector Frank Mundi and his men start tossing dorms at St. Romaulda’s while the wards are still in bed, but all they turn up is the indignation of the women who run the place. Orphanage benefactor Lavinia Bidlow pulls strings to see Mundi’s warrant revoked, but her heroic turn is followed up with a demeaning request. See, the champion of the touched is giving a charity fête in her stately home, and she’s come in search of entertainment to complement the petit fours. Guests will include “men of influence with wives of actual influence,” which is exactly the kind of vaguely feminist drivel The Nevers so far specializes in.
In the face of Maladie’s murderous run, one object of the party is to rehabilitate the reputation of the touched — “a few attractive girls showing off their turns,” dialed down to a volume that London’s haute monde finds palatable. “Mingle, but don’t put yourself forward,” Bidlow says before assigning the teenage giant Primrose to a souvenir photo booth. Bidlow asks that the touched wear blue ribbons to distinguish them from the rest of her company; it’s a big swing reference.
The party is exploitative, which squares with a society that peddled physiological deviation as a form of popular entertainment. The touched girls are a big hit, but this stratum of London is dead set on segregation. When Penance has a private conversation with Lavinia’s spineless younger brother Augie, people gawk for all the wrong reasons. It gives Lavinia, who doesn’t know her touched brother can warg himself into a crow à la Bran Stark, the chance to reveal herself. “They’re not our guests, they’re my charity,” she scolds. The “my” is particularly belittling.
But elsewhere in some London grotto, there’s another touched party going. It’s opening night at the Ferryman’s Club, Hugo Swann’s exclusive fraternity for affluent men who want to have sex with the afflicted. In the face of Maladie’s murderous run, membership requests have gone up. It’s an intriguing juxtaposition with Lavinia’s staid to-do. In the daylight, the touched can remain an object of charity so long as they respect the social order, which includes using their superpowers only to pique. In Swann’s debauched fantasy, the touched are encouraged to fully embody themselves for someone else’s profit. Prostitution isn’t necessarily exploitative, but in a city where the touched are estranged from their families and fired from their jobs, the Ferryman’s isn’t simply an economic choice. Still, there’s liberation here that the touched don’t have in polite society. It’s not a matter of which freak show is worse to play but the dilemma facing the touched: to be feared or fetishized. Either way, it’s dehumanizing.
Beyond the party circuit, Amalia True, a widowed baker with a very particular set of skills, and Mundi, a copper with a reputation for police brutality, make strange bedfellows. Amalia tricks Mundi into revealing his personal history with Mary by bringing along a touched prostitute whose turn has rendered her mere bodily presence into truth serum. Turns out Mundi was engaged to Mary before she jilted him at the altar. Convinced he cares more about saving Mary’s life than killing Maladie, Amalia helps him develop a psychological profile of Maladie that’s utterly useless because ultimately it’s one of her riplings that leads them to her lair. This episode was written by Buffy alum Jane Espenson, so yes, of course, there’s a lair.
When Amalia eventually arrives, Maladie greets her under a welcome sign with her legs suggestively apart. In the pilot, she grabbed a man’s crotch. There’s something being suggested here about women and lust and insanity. In fact, the scenes of Amalia’s confident progression toward Maladie are intercut with scenes of Augie tiptoeing through Swann’s brothel because what? Something about the inherent sexuality of pursuit? I give up.
Amalia and Maladie face off again, but the fistfight is mostly an excuse to dump new bits of critical info. First, Maladie’s Nietzsche-inspired turn is that she absorbs “what doesn’t kill her,” so fistfighting is probably a bad strategy. Second, these bitches have backstory. In a time when Maladie was called Sarah and Amalia was Molly, they knew each other, maybe in the asylum? Molly turned her back on Sarah — “fed her to …” who exactly we don’t know yet. There’s the sense Sarah might never have become Maladie without Amalia’s disappearance from her life, but this insight muddies her intentions more than it explains them. Does Maladie really believe she’s on a mission from God, or is she simply motivated by vengeance?
Either way, she doesn’t want to kill Amalia, only to hurt her. She’s rigged up some inexplicable pulley with Mary attached by a noose at one end and Penance, who she has now also abducted, on the other. Maladie hands Amalia a gun and tells her to save her “best friend” by shooting the other. Amalia does a nice little speech about sacrifice before shooting herself in the stomach instead. Then she shoots Maladie, who is slick enough to construct this elaborate no-win dilemma but sloppy enough to hand Amalia a gun with two bullets in the cylinder. Neither shot is fatal.
In the episode’s coda, we finally get some clarity on a subplot that’s been percolating since the cold open. (The Nevers loves itself some bookends.) A touched Italian shopgirl is run out of a department store — another Victorian invention — when she accidentally sends a festooned bonnet floating into the air. She finds a flyer advertising refuge for the touched at St. Romaulda’s and follows it to an address that sure ain’t St. Romaulda’s. She’s greeted by one of Hague’s faceless henchmen, and the good doctor shortly lobotomizes her — medical barbarism performed in the name of scientific progress. So far, so evil. What we learn in the episode’s final moments is that Hague’s incapacitated subjects are being conscripted into a brain-dead mining outfit working to excavate a glowing icy-blue orb in subterranean London. (Yes, of course, there’s a hellmouth.)
This bizarre development renders Maladie more of a distraction than a bona fide threat — destructive yet pitiable, too. Lord Massen’s politics are hateful but abstract. Even the mad Dr. Hague is just middle management. The mastermind behind the zombified labor operation down in Fraggle Rock is none other than renowned philanthropist Lavinia Bidlow. It’s a pretty satisfying revelation, striking the elusive balance between I did NOT see it coming and Who else could it be?
The shape of the true enemy is finally clear on The Nevers, even if her motivations and intentions remain opaque. Gazing up at the mysterious orb, Bidlow declares that this means war, but who is the enemy? The touched? The touched are her army. Above ground, they’re her cause. Earlier in the episode, Amalia tells Penance that Bidlow, who gets around in a wheelchair, was helping the touched for a reason: “She knows what it’s like to be dismissed.” If this is true, we certainly haven’t seen it. Bidlow is a grande dame of London society with a box at the Royal Opera House, a huge estate, and a younger brother entirely under her thumb. Now, by dint of her wheelchair, she’s earned the trust of the most powerful group of women the world has ever known.
As in the pilot, The Nevers is ultimately more concerned with society’s response to the touched than the riddle of their existence. Men like Swann are content to play P.T. Barnum, unable to see a personal use for the touched beyond the dull constraints of capitalism. Massen is a political reactionary, labeling anything he doesn’t understand as a threat. He seeks to somehow circumscribe this new class, but there are proving to be more duplicitous ways to defang the touched. It’s Lavinia Bidlow, purportedly overlooked due to her sex and her wheelchair, who seeks to appropriate the potential of this gifted minority for herself.