It’s the penultimate episode of part one of season one of The Nevers. Part two of season one of The Nevers has yet to start filming and won’t be helmed by Joss Whedon when it does. Right now, the series is not exactly pick-up-and-play material: The world is appealingly elaborate, but its characters are messy and the plot is octopine. It’s tricky to see how Phillipa Goslett, the British screenwriter and first-time showrunner tapped to replace Whedon, can excavate what’s working (Amalia and Penance’s repartee, Hugo Swann’s cocksure smarm) from what isn’t (a longer list). But after watching “Hanged,” a much tidier episode than we’ve come to expect, I’m suddenly optimistic again. It’s feeling less like we’re nearing some arbitrary halfway point and more like the end of a lengthy prologue.
Most excitingly, the glowing blue orb that’s lodged underground and maybe has something inky swimming inside it finally, somehow, has a name. It’s a galanthi! Or some word that sounds like “galanthee.” Gullanthy? What I would give for a nice chalkboard session in which Mrs. True writes the word on the board, underlines it, and then explains her step-by-step plan to dig it up, likely never picking up the chalk again! Alas, all we glean from her morning standup with Penance is that the best access point is under the Royal Military Army base, so the St. Rom’s gang needs a big drill and a bigger diversion.
The diversion takes care of itself. After what I’m sure was a fair trial, Maladie is convicted on 15 counts of murder and sentenced with public execution, the first since the practice was banned in the 1860s. The hanging incites dissension amongst Lord Massen’s cabal. Their plan to assassinate Mary backfired, and now the orphanage is twice as full as it was before they sullied their hands. Her Majesty’s Government introduced the Certification Act (all touched have to register with the local constable) and the Blue Badge Act (all touched have to wear ribbons announcing themselves); the undocumented forfeit their legal rights. But it’s not enough for Lord Massen to see the touched brought to heel, he needs hope obliterated. Maladie’s public hanging will be “a bloodletting,” Massen says, desperately invoking a procedure already in the process of being discredited.
There’s just one problem with using Penance’s supercharged rock drill while the carnival of Maladie’s untimely end has them all looking the other way: Penance wants to stop the execution. Amalia objects to the side-mission for some solidly pragmatic reasons. (1) The gullanthi, which promises to explain the presence of the touched in London, is far more important. (2) For PR purposes, it’s a bad idea for St. Rom’s to harbor a serial killer. And (3) for safety purposes, it’s a bad idea for St. Rom’s to harbor a serial killer. Penance is unmoved. Sure, yes, okay, Maladie’s guilty of murder. But she’s being hanged because she’s touched.
Ultimately, the Scooby Gang can’t be in two places at once (though that would be a sick turn). Amalia and Penance stand on opposite sides of the courtyard, and the small group cleaves itself atwain. Penance recruits Harriet, Desiree, George, Violet, and, after promising to pay him, Nimble. Bonfire Annie sides with Amalia, as does Penny’s crow crush Augie, which stings. Of course, Amalia also wins Dr. Cousens because that’s apparently back on again, and, honestly, the sex scenes between them are disappointing. It’s all … punctuated … heavy breathing … and talking … between kisses — just do it right and catch me up on the plot over a post-coital cig.
The Amalia/Penance face-off isn’t the emotional crescendo it wants to be because no one’s drawing real sides here. Amalia is still queen bee, even if some of the girls go to the movies when she told everyone they were going to the mall that day. But it is a rewarding glimpse into what makes Amalia’s first lieutenant tick. Like Oppenheimer to his atomic bomb, Penance laments the violence of her inventions. She thinks her soul is being tested. But when hateful purists string up rows of nooses outside the orphanage, Penance goes back to the lab committed to the fight for good. If Amalia is the unyielding soldier, Penance is her conscience. Only a person with such scruples should have access to her powerful turn.
We make inroads to understanding the philanthropist Lavinia Bidlow, too, this week. The galanthi is cracking — hatching? — and she orders Dr. Hague to kill it — it’s alive? — before it kills everyone else. She wanted to reverse-engineer a cure for the touched; now, she believes that dream was naive. Over lunch with Augie, the two reminisce about ice skating with Hugo Swann as children, which means Lavinia didn’t always get around by wheelchair. Usually brusque with her brother, Lavinia finally shows some sisterly affection here. How does this all add up? It deeply does not, but I’m starting to like Lavinia for more than her high-lace collars. She’s the one female regular who isn’t touched, which makes me extra curious to learn how the touched were chosen. (I am directly asking you, Philippa, please, tell us.)
Since the beginning of the season, popular media has played a role in how The Nevers tells its story. We first learn of Maladie from a newsie’s holler in episode one. This week, the orphans read aloud the pro-touched newspaper column of Effie Boyle, intrepid lady reporter. Boyle’s been low-key hanging around Frank Mundi’s office since last episode; this week, she overhears yet another clash between Frank and Hugo Swann, whose Ferryman’s Club — another form of exploitation as entertainment — is facing pushback as the tide turns against the touched. It’s hard to care really. Every episode conspires to throw Hugo and Frank into conflict and nothing ever comes of it. I’m happy for the chaotic interlude, but what exactly is the scope of their previous relationship and why is it relevant? (This, too, Philippa, is a direct appeal.)
Death row is short in Victorian London. Before long, Frank, who now works special events security as well as homicide investigations, decides to limit how many people can watch the execution, parsing a difference between “public” and “packed.” He tells some minion to lock the doors at 400 spectators, and because I have seen television before, I know this is a bad idea. Anytime a character ostentatiously locks a door or does the opposite, it’s safe to assume they’ve made the wrong choice. The atmosphere inside is giddy. There are concessions for sale — oysters, gin. The child laborers in the Beggar King’s sweatshop have been making Maladie Barbies that come complete with their own gallows. Real life Maladie is trotted out to her noose to boos and taunts. The ground grumbles like an earthquake, which everyone more or less ignores, but I’m guessing it has something to do with whatever Amalia’s clique is doing up at the Royal Army site.
Penny and the B-Sides, meanwhile, shouldn’t have bothered. They start to put their elaborate rescue in action, but Maladie merrily, bafflingly, willingly leaps to her death anyway. “She wanted people to see,” Mundi observes, a few moments before it dawns on him what a bad idea those locked doors were. While everyone was watching the mainstage, the Colonel — Maladie’s henchman who could make you believe his lies — arranged some retaliation. He electrocutes anyone gripping the gate at the front row of the execution and the current ripples through the throng, and sometimes I’d really like to know what the bodycount is on this show. People are desperate to escape. Harriet is injured in the stampede that follows, and she’d surely have been trampled to death if Effie Boyle didn’t stop to save her. In the streets just beyond the hanging grounds, the Beggar King, now Massen’s mercenary, has lit bonfires to stir up more trouble. Nothing too destructive, just enough fabricated mayhem to convince Londoners that Massen’s extraordinary measures are necessary.
Before you can process the bedlam that just broke out, the other shoe drops. Specifically, Maladie’s shoe, and it reveals a foot missing some toes. I don’t know how much it’s reasonable to ask a person to remember week to week, but there was a Maladie devotee who confessed to hacking off her toe in devotion. It seems now she’s made a darker contribution. But if that’s not Maladie on the other end of the noose, where is she? Mundi pieces it together like Chazz Palminteri in The Usual Suspects, which is to say, by looking around his office walls a little too late. Maladie has been posing as Effie Boyle, and Boyle is the girl who turned up dead in the underground tunnels all the way back in the series premiere. Was this somehow Maladie’s plan all along? How is it possible she could predict the chain of events that would fill the space between the episodes? Maybe she killed Effie for some other unknown revenge and saw opportunity later. Regardless, Mal isn’t dead and the only person who knows it is the one getting credit for her capture.
Back at the orphanage, the B-Sides roll in. The A team is already back. Everyone is battered to shit, no one looks happy. Next week, I assume, we’ll find out what happened to Bonfire Annie’s leg. Or maybe we won’t. It’s honestly that kind of show.