AMC’s NOS4A2 launched the TV adaptation of the supernatural horror novel from Joe Hill (son to Stephen King) with a multi-season run in mind. This produced less-than-stellar results with the first season’s treatment of the psychic vampire story: not too much actual horror and a hell of a lot of exposition. The show was almost hyper-focused on dramatic world-building while sometimes forgetting that it also needed to be scary, but Zachary Quinto (who appears to thoroughly enjoy stealing children’s souls) and Ashleigh Cummings’ performances stood as bright spots. I don’t know if AMC was cool with the idea of a lukewarm start with a promise of more excitement later, but suspect that a lot of people gave up up hope around midseason. Yet if you are a fan of Hill’s work (NOS4A2 is a chilling novel, as is the probably unadaptable Heart Shaped Box), it’s worth catching up and giving the sophomore season a chance.
This season being “worth it” to counteract previous shortcomings is a hard sell, I know. There were a lot of head-scratchers last year involving changes from the book, including the following: (1) Why was Charlie Manx’s aging-and-de-aging process treated like a special effects gimmick and so frequently executed for viewers? (2) Why was Vic McQueen not a child but a young adult with a soap-operatic life? The first question is forgivable, since sure, maybe even viewers of semi-prestige TV enjoy seeing repetitive magic tricks involving a 100+ year vamp, but the second question contributed to a lot of storytelling inertia. Fortunately, the season finale rallied with Vic going into full-on, ass-kicking, horror-heroine mode, which is mostly where she sits in the second season’s first five episodes provided to critics.
Thank goodness for that tweak. Vic’s more settled in life now, and she’s more focused as a character, and the show works better for it. We no longer need the inordinate amount of time that the show spent methodically painting her desire to attend art school. What a strange diversion. Sure, it’s nice to have well-rounded characters, and we needed to know that she was artistic to justify her status as a Strong Creative. That makes her use of the motorbike as a “knife” to cross that magical bridge more believable, but man, there was too much art-school hand-wringing. And that’s a lot of wasted time when she could have been dealing with the powerful immortal who’s snatching kids and insisting that he’s the good guy with a magic car. Priorities, people.
Fortunately, this season brings things the show to a proper head with Vic vs. Charlie (with some necessary assists from Jahkara J. Smith’s still swaggery Maggie and her telltale Scrabble Tiles) and the ominous spectre of Christmasland. There’s more genuine spookiness afoot, and the show’s already outlined the stakes involved, so it’s no longer misfiring into odd offshoots. A more compelling story is being injected into a more ominous atmosphere. Funny how it’s coming together more now.
The story picks up eight years later. Vic’s now the mother of an eight-year-old boy with a reference-filled name, Bruce Wayne McQueen (Jason David), who is (of course) fated to land on Manx’s radar. She’s also now common-law-married to Lou Carmody (Jonathan Langdon), who believed her when no one else would have when all that crazy sh*t was going down. Vic’s still haunted by any mention of Christmas, and where’s Manx? Well, last time we saw him, he was comatose in a prison hospital, all spiritually tied to his supernaturally-powered Rolls-Royce Wraith. Like Vic, Manx wasted a lot of screentime shuttling kids to Christmasland while delivering menacing rants. The season begins with his “death,” but Vic knows better. He’s back to destroy what she’s built and settle his beefs through her, and she won’t let that happen.
The audience will believe her and know better than to be content with the possibility of Manx being dead. That’s where the sophomore season gets it and stops trying to over-explain everything into the ground. Instead, we receive gripping performances from Cummings and Quinto, finally getting the material that their characters deserve. Quinto pulls out all the stops when Manx reenters the picture in an episode so graphically visceral that it might go too far with the gore. There’s a payoff though, since the show stops shapeshifting him from young-to-old. We see a handsome and charming chap during his backstory, although still sinister to the bone. We learn more about the roots of his homicidal madness, although the show declines to empathize with him in his stance against the world. Yet it does perform a rather engrossing exploration of his belief that he’s saving kids from terrible lives, which makes him an interesting villain.
What really helps this second season, though, beyond a honed focus, is that NOS4A2 manages to not only make Manx unlikable despite his smooth ways but to make Vic likable despite her roughness. She’s more than a little punchy and abrasive, and understandably so, and it’s damn nice to see a female hero who doesn’t have to look and act perfect while getting the job done. Vic’s gotta be on her game to deal with a powerful force like Charlie Manx. She’s here for the challenge, and the show’s finally letting her get down to real business. If the show’s audience is willing to take another trip to Christmasland, they’ll enjoy a smoother ride this time around.
‘NOS4A2’ returns to AMC at 10:00 pm EST on Sunday, June 21.