Episode 2 of Hemlock Grove picks up exactly where the first left off, another indicator that Netflix’s ‘all at once’ strategy is designed to make you devour it all in one go. ‘The Angel’ ends on a more climactic moment, but the pacing is still very similar. McGreevy and Shipman’s script takes things slower and gives characters longer scenes than we might expect from a teen horror.
Which is not to say that the episode is uneventful; this is the one with the big werewolf transformation, as Peter rips his skin off and eats it in front of his proud mother and an astonished Roman. There’s also the revelation that Norman Godfrey’s daughter Letha (Penelope Mitchell) is pregnant.
According to her and her dream sequence, the father of her unborn child is an angel, although Norman believes that she’s simply repressed the memory of a much more traumatic reason for her swollen belly. We’re also shown Norman losing self-control and sleeping with Olivia, Christina attempting to fit in at a school dance and, most interestingly, we hear Shelly’s point of view as she writes an email account of her activities to Norman.
‘The Angel’ is very much a straight continuation of opening episode ‘Jellyfish In The Sky’, and it’s nice to see the world of Hemlock Grove fleshed out a bit. Olivia and Norman still feel like they’ve stepped out of Dark Shadows.
“I’ve got no fucking idea what you would be capable of if you were afraid of losing me,” he hisses, before jumping into bed with her. Famke Janssen is still getting to have more fun than Dougray Scott, but that’s hardly surprising. After Christina’s “I’m a novelist” entrance, it was nice to see her character forced into some awkward self-reflection and a potential love-interest.
Roman’s fascination with Peter is well played by the two characters, as Skarsgård’s dead-eyed intensity is complemented by Liboiron’s easy-going cheeriness. It’s much more interesting when they’re trying to figure each other out than when they’re actually getting along. For example, Roman jokingly threatening Peter to stay away from his sister is better written and performed that the chicks-and-stuff conversation that follows. With some exceptions, Hemlock Grove seems to be much more comfortable when it’s trying to put you on edge than when it’s trying to be a normal show.
That being said, it’s fascinating when the show stops trying to juggle the two and throws all the balls in the air at once. Take the sequence with Shelly’s email to Norman: it’s a teenage girl writing about a small triumph in her personal life to someone who can be trusted not to share the information, and it’s written and acted well enough that you almost forget that Shelly’s head becomes luminescent. The scene does a tremendous job of situating the characters in a familiar world without losing the genre aspects, humanising the previously silent Shelly while not letting us forget that she’s playing a part in a horror show.
The episode drags its heels occasionally, and we’re waiting for Letha to take a more active role, but giving Shelly a perspective was an excellent choice. It’s peculiar that one of the shortest scenes in the episode is one of the most significant: the first moment of contact between Lynda and Olivia at a market, as the gypsy chats away about the importance of supporting small businesses to a silent Olivia. We assume there’ll be plenty more of that to come.
Finally, a character-building episode came to a dramatic conclusion with the transformation. The makers have talked a great deal about wanting to deliver something original and there’s a lot to be said for the drawn-out, savage nature of it. It’s reminiscent of An American Werewolf In London, The Howling and particularly The Company Of Wolves, but as ever, it’s the little touches that make the difference.
The eyes and teeth popping out and the subsequent eating of the skin is delightfully unpleasant. What really sells it, though, is Lili Taylor’s performance. She’s angry when she hears that Peter has agreed to let Roman watch, but that anger turns to pity when she realises that Peter has “never had a friend.” She talks Roman through Peter’s preparation, accepting a painkiller for herself, and then watches with pride as her boy makes the change from man to wolf. Again, it’s that contrast between domesticity and horror that proves quite compelling, and makes an occasionally slow episode very watchable.