“The Shorter Way” (Episode 101)
June 2, 2019
Based on Joe Hill’s 2013 novel of the same name, NOS4A2 is a new, Summertime horror series from AMC. We did a Love It Or Leave It? Review from SXSW which you should definitely check out here. But, we’ll also be recapping all ten episodes this Summer.
If you’re ready to have the bejeebus scared out of you, continue on for our deep dive recap and review of the pilot episode, “The Shorter Way” … BEWARE OF SPOILERS!!
Here, Iowa. Poor Danny Moore (Asher Miles Fallica) wakes one night, as kids do, but can’t crawl into bed with his mom. Seems someone is already inside his
mother mother’s bed and so he heads to the living room to watch some TV.
Despite it being the middle of the night, Danny can’t help but investigate the Christmas music he hears outside. Nor, can he resist the candy cane lying on his doorstep. Nor, can Danny resist climbing into the back of the 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith … I mean, look at those Christmas presents!! This is much better than late night TV!
Inside the house, Mom’s paramour is being injected with … something. He’s down for the count. Who is this mustachioed fellow in the house?
Inside the Wraith, a man (Zachary Quinto wearing hella old man makeup) appears in the front seat and tells Danny, “you’re up passed your bedtime, Daniel Moore.” This guy is old as fuck. And doubly so as creepy. So old as to make Danny IMMEDIATELY regret climbing into this car and he starts to freak out. Making things worse? The fucking presents disappeared. Bait and switch, man.
“My name is Charlie Manx and I understand what it is to feel lonesome … those presents will return to you as soon as we arrive in Christmasland. A very special place where every day is Christmas Day and unhappiness is against the law. Would you like to go there?”
No, Charlie, Danny would NOT like to go there. He’d really like his “mommy.” Unfortunately, mommy is currently being attacked inside her house by the mustachioed man. She escapes out on to the lawn just in time to see the Wraith pulling away with her son. Sadly, it’s the last thing she sees because the mustachioed man snaps her neck, killing her. RIP Danny’s Mom. At least you had sex right before you died.
Extra sad? Danny saw this whole thing happen. Charlie is not please about this but more on that in a bit. The Wraith rolls on with “Oh, Christmas Tree” continuing to play.
Cue the opening credits.
Haverhill, Massachusetts. Victoria “Vic” McQueen (Ashleigh Cummings) is snooping through a bedroom which belongs to an old friend, Willa Brewster (Paulina Singer). Willa comes in and they chit chat about not seeing each other in forever (8th grade graduation in fact) and where they are applying for college. Vic is non-committal on college and Vic explains she’s been helping her mom clean houses for the Summer … including Willa’s rich-ass parent’s house. They talk about Labor Day plans at Lake Winnipesaukee – Willa invites Vic to the bash being held at her parent’s lake house. Vic tries to beg off, the economic and social status inequalities oozing in this scene are uncomfortably suffocating. Vic’s mom, Linda (Virginia Kull), interrupts the pow wow, rescuing her daughter but also, refocusing her on more vacuuming, less talking. Once again alone, Vic sits on Willa’s bed and stares off, forlornly. She is a modern teenager version of Luke Skywalker staring off at the two suns of Tatooine.
In the car, Linda tells Vic that her future lies in cleaning houses with Linda, not in fancy college learning. Her and her father can’t support Vic forever, Linda says. Wow, she’s a really Debbie Downer.
Back at the house, Vic and her dad (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) joke about is Harley and how it “Harley ever runs” (Motorcycle puns!) and the insanity of cleaning people’s homes (Mrs. Brewster doesn’t work, why can’t she clean her own house, is Vic’s basic point). Linda chimes in that her cleaning keeps a roof over their head which leads to a nagging fight between Linda and Chris about bills and a lost credit card … everything about this scene makes it clear that their fighting is a common, daily occurrence. Vic is over it.
Here, Iowa. A young woman who is clearly more fashion forward than the rest of Here, Iowa, wanders up to Danny Moore’s house, now an active crime scene. The purple haired, tattoo covered girl with Scrabble tiles hanging from her ears (they spell FU – which I found adorable) spots a syringe in the ground, and a body under a tarp, and asks what’s up?!? Sheriff Joe Bly (Chris McKinney) tells “Maggie” (Jahkara “JJ” Smith) that she can’t be here; that there was a break-in and Danny is missing. Maggie was supposed to meet Danny for library literacy and Joe explains that he’s sure they’ll find him BUT she needs to go, he doesn’t want her caught up in anything dangerous. Now, Go! Fear and panic are etched on Maggie’s face. Off to the side, she finds a candy cane snapped in half.
Haverhill, Massachusetts. Vic is drawing in her room (she’s quite good) while she hears her parents continue to fight over the missing credit card. Their words are caustic and Vic can’t stand it after awhile. Outside, she uncovers a dirtbike and takes off. As she rides, her parents’ words echo in her head about the missing credit card and how they are “friggin’ morons” and “friggin drunks” (the Massachusetts accents in this show are top notch).
In the woods, Vic comes across an old, dilapidated bridge. You can tell she has never seen this before. It’s so wasted away, you can’t quite understand how it’s even still standing.
She walks her bike just inside the bridge and looks around. A ton of unseen bats are heard fluttering around inside and there is a faint buzzing noise, it’s a mix of TV static and speaker feedback. “Willa’s” is written on the wall in neon green spray paint. The piercing sound intensifies and it seems like Vic is feeling a sharp pain near her eye.
On the Road. Daniel Moore is asleep on the backseat of the Wraith. Up front, the Christmas music is interrupted by the same static as in the Bridge and Charlie wonders, “who do we have here?” He tries to tune his radio dial.
Haverhill, Massachusetts. In the Bridge, Vic takes another look around and backs her bike all the way out and takes off in the opposite direction. She’s not ready to handle … whatever this Bridge represents.
On the Road. Coinciding with Vic backing out of the Bridge, the static on the Wraith’s radio dissipates and an instrumental version of “12 Days of Christmas” resumes. Charlies has a look of, “hmmmm,” on his face.
Haverhill, Massachusetts. Vic doesn’t head straight home but instead, stops at the home of Haley Smith (Darby Camp), a little girl that Vic babysits from time to time. Haley hands Vic a drawing of Haley’s cat, Mittens. Mittens is currently banished from the house for shitting under a bed and Haley is worried he’ll die. Vic is pretty straightforward, telling Haley that “every cat dies, but not every cat lives.” This doesn’t make Haley cry like it might have made me in the same position so, Haley is made of tougher stuff – she’s very much a young Vic, tough family life, artistic talent, penchant for motor bikes.
Oh, I should mention that, while they are chatting, the buzzing from the Bridge is still echoing in Vic’s head and it’s physically hurting her. Haley’s mom calls her inside and Vic heads home. Haley gives Vic the picture of Mittens.
The McQueen House. Vic arrives home and Chris is icing his knuckles down outside. Hmmmm. Vic asks him if Linda is laying down because she’s not answering Vic. Chris is non-committal on Linda’s state but the iced knuckles tell us volumes of how their earlier fight ended. Also, Fuck You, Chris McQueen, you abusive piece of shit. Vic doesn’t put any of this together (it’s tough to see these things when you’re a kid in the middle of it all).
Anyway, Chris offers “The Brat” (his nickname for Vic) a tonic, which she turns down. They have a conversation about how she doesn’t want to clean houses with Linda but wants to go to art school. Chris empathizes, saying he wanted to go to music school … but life, you know? He’s very encouraging to her and tells her that she can do great things; and that Linda is just scared for Vic and her future. It’s a weird thing, this persona presents to Chris juxtaposed against this relationship with Linda. It’s actually probably pretty accurate among families where the parents are headed for divorce but the kid is still the light of their life. But, the abusing thing. No. No No No No. Nope, you piece of shit, nope.
Vic needs a ride to art class and Chris takes her on his bike. As they head out, he gives her a piece of life advice (which based on her reaction, she’s totally heard before).
“Never get married, never ever, ever have any kids.”
At school, Vic meets up with a janitor, Bing Patridge (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson). She hands over some comic books and it’s clear these two have a friendship on some level – at least, a comic book trading level. Bing seems pretty simple and Vic genuinely seems to like him. There is a boy following Vic around with puppy dog eyes, Craig (Dalton Harrod), and he insists that he and Vic get to class. “Bye, Bing!”
Here, Iowa. Maggie is at the Library, where she works. She grabs a purple velvet bag of Scrabble tiles and asks out loud, “where is Daniel?” She plunges her hand deep, DEEP, into the Scrabble bag (like, too deep to not be magical). The lights in the Library begin to flicker and we here a version of the static from earlier. Maggie pulls out a fistful of tiles. She unscrambles them and the phrase, “The Wraith” appears. Huh. Ain’t that something.
Haverhill, Massachusetts. Vic is at school and drawing an accurate depiction of the covered Bridge from earlier. Her teacher, Mrs. Simonson (Sonnie Brown), comes by to remark on how good it is. Vic asks if she has the talent to make it in art school and Mrs. Simonson is all, hell yeah, you can make it into “RISD” (the very real, Rhode Island School of Design). She tells Vic that financial aid is an option to overcome the costs. Oh, Mrs. Simonson, Linda will NOT be happy with you filling this child’s head with things like confidence and dreams. Shame, teacher. SHAME!
Mrs. Simonson tells Vic that her drawing looks just like “The Shorter Way Bridge” (where Mrs. Simonson had her first kiss forever ago). She mentions the Bridge was torn down 15 yeas ago and Vic is all, “WHHHHAAAA?!?!?!? ”
On the Road. In the Wraith, Charlie Manx is berating Mr. Ives (f/k/a the mustachioed man) (Michael Maize) for making a mess of things at Danny Moore’s house; dead bodies, syringes, and worst – Danny saw the whole thing. Ives tries to deflect, saying he didn’t think Momma Moore would have a man over in the middle of the night and Charlie scoffs. He tells Ives that they know what kind of woman she was … Ives apologizes and says he should have anticipated. Too late, though.
“Mr. Ives, you will not be going with us to Christmasland … you’ve gotten yourself on my naughty list.”
The passenger door of the Wraith flies open and out goes Mr. Ives. Punishment in the Wraith is swift and severe. RIP Mr. Ives. At the sound of the thump thump thump of the dead body, Danny wakes up and seems shocked that Charlie killed someone.
We need to pause here to say, Danny is NOT looking so good, bags under his eyes are darkening and he looks like someone with a very bad illness. Charlie on the other hand, is looking considerably younger. Still old, but not nearly as old as before.
Charlie defends his actions to Danny, explaining that Mr. Ives was a very bad man and that only the best, most deserving can go to Christmasland. “Like me,’ Danny says with some satisfaction. “Like you,” Charlie agrees. Uh oh. Danny is getting used to this idea and that cannot be good. Danny heads back to sleep.
Lake Winnipesaukee. We come back to the McQueen’s having lunch at Aunt Carrie’s diner at Lake Winnipesaukee – it’s Labor Day as referenced at the start of the episode. Chris is looking through Vic’s sketch book and compliments how talented she is. Vic steers the conversation to The Shorter Way Bridge and Chris confirms her drawing is a dead on copy. He tells his daughter that they used to get up to “trouble” on that bridge (Mrs. Simonson wasn’t the only one getting some action back in the day on this bridge) and assures Vic there are no other bridges around like The Shorter Way Bridge.
This is NOT what Vic wanted to hear.
Linda comes back to the table with food. She is all, “:you drew a bridge”and the shits over art school, suggesting perhaps that Vic’s teacher would like to pay for it. Oh, Linda. You suck. Vic decides that going to Willa’s party doesn’t sound so bad and she takes her leave of her parents.
Willa’s Lake House. As soon as she arrives, Mrs. Brewster (Karen Pittman) finds her and hands over the missing credit card that the Parents McQueen were fighting over. Vic stares at it a bit open mouthed as she recalls her parents fighting over it and the green spray paint on the bridge that said, “Willa’s.” Huh. Ain’t that something.
We’re going to skip most of this party because Willa’s friends are rich, private school douchebags and generally condescend to Vic in the worst, entitled rich kids way possible. One boy, Drew (Rarmian Newton), takes a shine to her and doesn’t treat her like a monster, but otherwise, these people are useless.
Here, Iowa. Maggie is waiting for Sheriff Joe at the station and asks if anyone in town drives a Rolls Royce Wraith?!? She’s totes cas, as you can imagine. Joe tells her about finding the body of a dead Mr. Ives and now, given his criminal record, they think he’s the one who did for Danny Moore’s mom and boyfriend. And, it’s probably not looking good for Danny. Maggie asks if Ives drove a Wraith and now Joe is paying attention. What’s the deal with the Wraith, he asks? She mentions her Scrabble tiles and, while Joe admits that Maggie and her tiles have been helpful before, he refuses to run his investigation based on magic Scrabble tiles.
Which is a fair position for a police office to take.
Maggie asks to keep the Ives file and Joe agrees. Joe, you probably shouldn’t hand over police files to quirky Librarians with magical powers but, who am I to judge?
Lake Winnipesaukee. After some more insulting questions from Willa’s friends, Vic makes her way to her own piece of shoreline. Drew sits by her and they talk about what Vic is afraid of? A host of things but right now, she’s mainly focused on seeing the ghost bridge. Vic closes down her vulnerable gates and invents an offense at Drew’s behavior (he was being pretty sincere) and storms off …
Right into Mrs. Brewster who wants to ask personal questions about the state of domestic abuse in the McQueen house. Holy shit, inappropriate, Mrs. Brewster. Vic assures her that she and Linda feel safe and takes her leave from this party. Back at the McQueen campsite, Vic finds her parents and friends around a campfire, playing guitar. Vic returns the credit card.
Vic looks content. It’s one of those moments where you take a snapshot of your life and convince yourself that everything is okay, perfect even. It’s not at all. But, in that one moment, everything is exactly right and how it should be. The human mind is amazing in how it can cope and rationalize. As Chris continues to sing “Here Comes the Sun,” Vic’s face changes as she hugs her mom. And the idea that he mother is being abused sinks for the very first time.
Ashleigh Cummings is a hell of an actress and just did momentous acting with nothing but facial expressions. Powerful.
Haverhill, Massachusetts. The next day, we’re back at home and the McQueen’s are back to fighting, this time about a missing watch. Vic puts down her drawing of the Bridge and heads downstairs to creep closer to the argument (the thought of abuse is on her mind, she wants to see what’s happening for herself).
“What an ugly friggin’ person you are, I cannot believe that I married you?”
“Well, I can’t believe that I had a kid with you! You drunk, selfish bastard!”
Vic bursts in on her parents at this statement and Linda explains that Chris’s watch is missing. Vic stares at her father like she’s never seen him before, with anger in her eyes. Vic is gone. Out the door, on her dirtbike and gone.
With the argument in her head and thinking about the missing watch, Vic finds herself back at The Shorter Way Bridge. She hesitates only for a moment before riding in and through the bridge. “Aunt Carrie’s” is written on the wall in neon green spray paint and the buzzing and bat sounds begin immediately. Vic presses on and emerges on the other side of the bridge, magically transported to Aunt Carrie’s diner at Lake Winnipesaukee. Vic skids to a stop and stares in disbelief at the bridge, which is just sitting there, like it totally belongs. Vic’s are super irritated. Like “she cried for 19 hours straight and then got pink eye” kind of irritated. She kind of stammers into Aunt Carrie’s and the man behind the counter returns her father’s missing watch, wondering aloud if they’d be back to get it.
Vic is super confused but at the same, she’s totally going with it. She understands the power of The Shorter Way Bridge on a basic, subconscious level, even if her conscious, rational mind can’t yet wrap itself around what’s happening. Also, the entire time she is in Lake Winnipesaukee, the buzzing continues and you can almost see her eye literally throbbing in her head.
Vic heads back to the Bridge and a man is there, staring. He can see the Bridge too. Vic seems a little relieved that it’s not totally in her head. She heads back to the bridge and stops halfway between. Her left eye looks like it is bleeding, it’s now so red. She makes it back to Haverhill and when she looks behind her, The Shorter Way Bridge is gone. But the buzzing continues. Vic looks in her pocket and verifies she really does, in fact, have her dad’s watch.
Instead of heading straight home, Vic stops at Haley’s house; this place must be close to the bridge – it’s like a service area rest stop for Vic and her Bridge trips.
Vic isn’t doing well at all and even Haley is like, the fuck happened to you … which is when Vic passes out on the lawn, right in front of Haley. Before she loses consciousness, Vic sees the following flashes: a gasmask, a stack of books in a library, Maggie’s tiles spelling “The Wraith,” and the face of Charlie Manx.
On the Road. Awakened by the disturbance in the force or whatever, Charlie senses something has happened. He seems quite unnerved as a matter of fact. Charlie pulls out a map, the “United Inscapes of America.” The map advertises that it’s “showing all the stop along the St. Nick Parkway.”
On the Inscapes Map, we see several places labelled: The Empty Forest; The Treehouse of the Mind; Pennywise Circus; The Graveyard of What Might Be; Lovecraft Keyhole; and The Shorter Way. This last one is blinking. Ding Ding Ding.
Danny wakes in the backseat and says he doesn’t feel good. He’s looking worse than before, with veins in his neck now appearing fully black. Charlie meanwhile looks infinitely younger than he did before. Danny suspects something is happening to himself and Charlie assures him that he’s right. That this special car is transforming both of them into something special. Daniel goes back to sleep and Charlie contemplates what exactly could be happening at The Shorter Way.
Haverhill, Massachusetts. Vic sees another flash of Charlie Manx’s face before coming to. She’s in her bed and Chris is sitting with her, telling her to relax. She’s very out of it, remembering the images as part of a dream. As she’s about to go fall asleep again, she misses her father trying to tell her something and, instead, blurts that she found his watch out at Aunt Carrie’s, “the bridge took me there.” Chris assumes she’s just ill. He’s got something to say to her but only gets out that her parents are losers and she can be anything she wants. He tells The Brat that he loves her and says it back. Then she passes out.
Here, Iowa. Maggie is back at her tiles, this time asking how she can find The Wraith? The lights flicker as she plunges into the bag and this time, her Scrabble tiles advise her that she needs to find “The Brat.” She doesn’t look nearly as confused by this as you’d imagine.
Haverhill, Massachusetts. Vic wakes and it’s dark outside. Downstairs, Linda has been crying and tells her daughter that Chris walked out on both of them.
Ah, so that’s what he had to say before to Vic but couldn’t get out.
Vic refuses to believe that her father would leave her (Linda, sure but not Vic) and hops on her dirtbike. She’s looking for her missing father and The Shorter Way is happy to oblige. On the inside wall of the Bridge, “Tiffany’s” is written in neon green spray paint. Vic emerges at what must be “Tiffany’s” place and through a window, sees her father cavorting with a woman. Tiffany (Jamie Neumann), I presume? Vic just stares with disbelief
St. Nick Parkway. There is a good snow coming down and Danny is impressed. Charlie assures him tat it’s always snowing on the St. Nick Parkway.
Haverhill, Massachusetts. Bing Partridge is reading through the comic that Vic lent him and he sees an advertisement that really catches his eye:
“Do YOU believe in Christmasland?”
“Don’t give up on Wonder!”
We won’t see the rest of the ad until next episode but Bing is VERY taken with what he sees.
St. Nick Parkway. Very close to Christmasland now, we pop in on the Wraith and oh ho, Charlie Manx is now a very young and handsome fellow, resembling Zachary Quinto. Danny, on the other hand looks basically like a ghoul, his eyes set deep back in his skull and his face lined with black veins. Charlie tells Danny that he is going to drop him at Christmasland with the other children before heading out on his errands. They discuss games that Daniel can play, such as “Scissors for the Drifter.” Eeek!
“I’ll see you again when I return from a far away place … called Haverhill, Massachusetts.”
Oh, Shit, Vic. Charlie is coming for you.
In the final shot of the episode, Daniel breaks into a wide, toothy smile … except, all of his teeth have been replaced with razor sharp, flesh-eating pointed monster teeth. GAH! Charlie Manx chuckles in delight at the change in Daniel and we pull out on The Wraith as it winds through endless pine trees, making it’s way to Christmasland.
I am very familiar with the story of NOS4A2 being a big fan of Joe Hill’s book and, I was wonderfully happy with this first episode. There is a LOT of lore and world building to be done with this show and they covered a lot of ground.
I can see where some people are scratching their heads, all, “what now?” But, by the end of episode 2, I think everyone will be on the right footing and have all of the knowledge they need to understand what’s happening.
I am not going to get into heavy specifics in this recap because it’s still settling for most viewers but I want to talk about a few 10,000 foot view concepts. This show is shot beautifully and aesthetically, looks gorgeous and at the same time, fills you with dread from the very first scene. Successful horror genre shows need to establish a vibe and mood as soon as possible and Jami O’Brien (the showrunner) succeeds in this from the opening visuals of Daniel sitting on the stoop with the candy cane and the Wraith throwing open it’s doors. Such wonderful images, snow, Christmas present, Christmas music, candy canes … these things should fill us with joy and wonder but, in the world of NOS4A2, the opposite is true. Charlie Manx perverts the beauty of Christmas by using it as his house of horrors to kidnap these children and suck out their life force.
Taking the things we hold dear and sacrosanct and turning them into something evil … that’s horror done right because it affects you on a visceral level. *shiver* I am going to have a bad time listening to, “Oh, Christmas Tree” this December.
But, mood and makeup (and Lord, can we talk about how AMAZING the make up is on the show – not only for Charlie Manx but think of Vic’s eye and the bloody horror it is when she uses the Bridge) only gets you so far, you need strong scripts and strong actors.
This adaptation, while differing in some significant ways, follows the thematic elements and tone of Hill’s novel so the, strong scripts take care of themselves, but the true asset in NOS4A2 lies on the shoulders of Quinto’s Charlie Manx and the super strong performance of Ashleigh Cummings as Vic McQueen.
It’s not easy being a teenager in the best of circumstances. But, to come from the broken home of the McQueens, AND have this power that you don’t understand and also, makes your eye bleed and head pound? Vic is having a fuck-all time of it and Cummings is playing every beat with nuanced strength and conviction. She’s fully committed to this role, in every scene. Angry and angsty when she needs to be, thoughtful and reserved and scared at other times, Cummings is flying through the wheel of emotions the entire episode and making you feel every damn emotion that she’s feeling. Watch that campfire scene again, where it occurs to her that maybe she doesn’t really know her parents, specifically, her father, like she thought she did. It’ll really hit you, how much strong acting she’s doing.
And, this is a deep bench where everyone is carrying their wait. Moss-Bachrach and Kull, as Vic’s parents, are really selling just shitty they are – to Vic AND to each other. Chris, a scumbag abuser to his wife but who, also, seems to really love his daughter. But, not enough to not leave the house and go live with Tiffany. And Linda, a sympathetic victim who is getting beat by her husband because she argues with him but, who also can’t stop herself from shitting all over Vic’s dreams. Chris is probably right when he semi-defends Linda that she’s probably just scared for Vic and her future but, you can’t spend all of your time crushing your child’s dreams, confidence and self-worth; that’s a recipe for disaster.
We’ll reserve opinions on Maggie and Bing until next time because, their roles are about to be greatly expanded.
Last, I just want to talk about the fun Easter Eggs on the Inscapes Map. Several of those locations referenced are allusion to work by Hill (“Lovecraft Keyhole” is from his comic book series, Locke and Key, and “The Treehouse of the Mind” is a reference to Hill’s second novel, Horns) and Hill’s father, Stephen King (“Pennywise Circus” located in Maine being a reference to King’s work, IT). I love things like that because it rewards the viewer for paying attention.
NOS4A2 is a show you cannot watch casually. Be all in on it, though, and you’re going to get a tremendous fulfilling, albeit terrifying, ride out of it.
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