Telephone lines are being run into private residences, like Lord Massen’s stately home, while elsewhere in London, Penance has invented an amplifier to extend the reach of Mary’s palliative lullaby. Information, often in short supply on The Nevers, is at once more immediate and more diffuse, a disturbing trend for characters who like to keep secrets. But this week, little by little, those secrets start to eke out.
The plan to recruit more of the touched to Amalia True’s inscrutable mission isn’t going so hot. “You know we’re dying,” she pleads with Bonfire Annie on the docks of Limehouse. Annie is there to wrest the territory from the Beggar King; Amalia is there to convince Annie, a free agent since quitting Maladie’s crew, to join her own girl gang. The only good that comes of the confrontation is Penance inhaling so much of the Beggar King’s burning opium that she enters a fugue of invention, devising a way to elevate Mary’s delicate song above the sound pollution of the Big Smoke.
Amalia may be willing to schlep door-to-door to sign up a big name like Bonfire Annie, but Mary is her billboard for mass recruitment. The problem? Mary’s song eludes her. On the upright in the St. Romaulda’s kitchen, she can mess around with an 1895 bop like “The Band Played On,” but her special song to soothe the touched is missing. She blames Amalia for keeping secrets; every girl Mary asks has their own version of what this orphanage is and what their Miss Hannigan wants them to do. Mary lands a zinger that’s somewhere between a plea and an ultimatum: “You want me to sing so that more people will come here? Maybe I’m struggling because I don’t know if they should.”
What exactly are Amalia’s secrets, besides the origins of her preternaturally hard open-hand slap? She tells Mary she woke up three years ago knowing things she shouldn’t, but doesn’t elaborate. Harriet the ice breather overhears another whopper when Amalia and the married Dr. Cousens discuss their aborted affair in the grand staircase.
But Amalia’s not the only one hiding things in Neversland. At the airless Ferryman’s Club, an increasingly repulsive Hugo Swann is “auditioning” new acts and swindling Augie Bidlow’s good reputation by registering the venture in his name. Augie, in turn, is keeping his involvement with the bordello from his older sister, Lavinia, whose affection for the touched, we know, has been greatly exaggerated. Lord Massen, too, has something hidden in the literal basement, which a snooping installation guy from Victorian Verizon accidentally stumbles upon. A housekeeper says the growling and scraping behind a steel door are the sounds of rabid dogs, but why keep a rabid dog at all? As eagle-eyed viewers of the series premiere, we know that Massen’s daughter was in the path of the gleaming spaceship exhaust that made the touched; now, we’re supposed to believe she’s dead because some flimsy grave marker says so? England should demand more honesty from its political leaders.
And from its coppers! Frank Mundi, the detective with a reputation as a bruiser despite the fact we’ve never actually seen him hit anyone, has skeletons of his own. First, it turns out he’s in bed with Hugo Swann, who orchestrated last week’s raid of St. Rom’s hoping it would shake free new talent for his Ferryman’s. Second, Frank’s been to bed with Hugo — a few times actually. A later chat with ex-fiancée Mary strongly implies Frank’s gay (though history tells us the Victorians perhaps did not draw such rigid lines between hetero- and homosexual), and he hates himself for it. It’s a moment of depth for a stock character — a possible explanation for the strong “why I oughta” pent-up rage that Ben Chaplin’s been bringing to every scene.
This might be the brave new world of telephones and amplifiers, but the best ways to spread news are still as old-fashioned as word of mouth and the lithograph. Penance finds one of Dr. Hague’s dummy flyers for St. Rom’s — the same poster that lured that Italian shopgirl to her brain-death last week — and Amalia marches straight to the bogus address and rightly slaps the shit out of everyone involved. Then Amalia takes the discovery to Lavinia, which means she’s just brought news of a touched abduction racket to the mastermind running it. It’s a disastrous consequence of The Nevers’ breakneck pacing that this car crash doesn’t really even register as that big a deal. Amalia also lets slip that Mary is doing a dry run with the amp later that evening because why not just tell her everything. It’s only with Lavinia that the guarded Amalia permits the possibility she’s not the only adult in the room. The judgment lapse makes me wonder more about how they got hooked up in the first place.
What immediately follows is hands down the most spectacular scene across three episodes of The Nevers. As Amalia rides off from Chez Bidlow, the Beggar King’s giant goon comes to exact revenge for whatever role she played on the Limehouse docks. He knocks her into the water, which he can also walk on, forcing her to swim away. Predictably, Amalia’s lung capacity is inexplicably large, and she’s eventually able to choke him with his own chain by pinning his back against the surface of the water. It’s a thrilling superfight, the first action sequence to live up to the show’s hype. As in previous scrapes, there’s some reason why Amalia’s dress must come off so she turns up to the park for Mary’s rehearsal in her petticoat.
Except it’s not a rehearsal — it’s showtime! Earlier, Penance and the girls interrogated one of Dr. Hague’s underlings, a mother who confesses to a filicide by drowning so dark and bigoted, it helps Mary overlook her doubts about St. Rom’s. She might not know what Amalia plans to do with this army, but for many of the touched, she reasons, a cot at the orphanage is safer than their own homes. A sad Frank comes along, too, hoping that somehow he’ll be able to hear Mary’s song and swim in its peace.
Mary walks to the center of Penance It’s-Only-A-Prototype Adair’s contraption and begins to sing her elfin tune. Ribbons of oily, spectral light emanate from her chest, reaching more touched than I would have guessed existed based on previous estimates of a “few hundred” in all of London. Frank watches on, empty. He’s still watching when Maladie’s henchman with a gun for an arm shoots Mary, again and again, in an act of public violence that’s sure to rend the city.
How did it happen? Presumably, the only person to know about the concert other than the night’s attendees was Lavinia Bidlow, whose underground excavations require picking off the alienated girls no one is looking for. Her motives here are easy to guess; it’s her choice of assassin that raises questions. Is Maladie somehow in bed with Lavinia, too?
It’s dark when the heartbroken women return to St. Rom’s. They’re tired and sad and this is London, so they’re probably cold. Bonfire Annie is in the forecourt, holding up a fireball to illuminate all the other touched people who heard Mary’s song and came to this place. It’s affecting. It would be more affecting if I had any real confidence they’d be safe here.
There’s a flaw, we know, to Amalia’s safety-in-numbers strategy: The touched are congregating on Bidlow’s home territory. But The Nevers doesn’t foreshadow this conflict, or really much at all about what’s going to happen next, week to week. What’s the deal with that glowing hellmouth that seems to have disappeared? And does Myrtle — the girl whose near-abduction kickstarted the show — matter at all?
Here’s the thing about secrets: They’re not inherently interesting. To care about what someone’s hiding, we need some indication that the information, if only we had it, would matter, could explain something or some person. There are other series that work on a need-to-know basis — series that are enduringly enigmatic and series with protagonists who refuse to explain themselves and series that are always a couple beats ahead of their audience. But The Nevers wants to be all three. So far, that’s as frustrating as it is intriguing. After three episodes, the show is still insisting that there’s a larger story. It’s just not telling us enough of it.