Love It Or Leave It? Review
May 31, 2019
On Sunday, June 2, 2019, AMC launches its newest series, NOS4A2, a (different kind of) vampire horror genre show, based on the Joe Hill novel of the same name.
The ten-episode series was adapted for television by Jami O’Brien (Fear the Walking Dead; Hell on Wheels), who also acts as the showrunner (and is an executive producer, as well), and stars Ashleigh Cummings (The Goldfinch) and Zachary Quinto (Star Trek; American Horror Story). The supporting cast includes Jahkara “JJ” Smith, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Virginia Kull, Jamie Neumann, and Darby Camp.
Read on for our thoughts on the show and whether we think you should Love It Or Leave It!
Love It Or Leave It?
LOVE IT! Typically I put this conclusion at the end but, because in the sections below, I give semi-detailed explanations on what you’re about to watch, I wanted to give my generalized feelings here. NOS4A2 is engrossing horror, well scripted, well acted, and exactly what I am looking for from this type of genre show. And in advance of the question I always get, “do I need to read the book first?” No, you don’t. Will it help if you do? Yes, it will. But really, it’ll just aid in picking up some of the smaller, more minutiae details. Everything you need to know is fully presented in the show. And in some places, the book won’t help at all as some plotlines exist solely in the television series.
I understand that there are those certain fans of the novel that will dislike this adaptation because there are significant changes to the narrative BUT, to those fans, I’d say that the spirit of Joe Hill’s work lives on brilliantly in Jami O’Brien’s take. All of the novel’s main themes: loss, the willingness to put yourself in mortal danger to save someone you love, feeling broken inside but still having to persevere; as well as most of Vic’s challenges and obstacles (internal and external), and all of Charlie Manx’s horrific actions are alive and fully drawn in this version of the story. You’re getting a full serving of your NOS4A2 vitamins.
When you take into account the necessities of telling a complex story in a handful of episodes, O’Brien’s decisions to compact the narrative sprawl of Hill’s book make a lot of sense and allows for the viewer to understand the narrative in a coherent way. And extra credit to O’Brien and her team for expanding, and in some places creating out of whole cloth, other aspects of the story that help flesh out the story in a way that makes the world building feel more full three dimensional.
I provide a lot of guidance below but honestly, O’Brien, her writers, and directors (to say nothing of the uber-talented cast) give you all the information you need to understand this story and walk away with an emotional response. If you give NOS4A2 the time, I guarantee that you’re going to be horrified and disturbed; you’re going to feel anger; you’re going to feel sadness; and, while I have not yet seen the final four episodes, I suspect that, in the end, you’re going to feel a level of satisfaction and resolution. Full disclaimer, you’re not going to laugh very much. This is not a funny show.
We live in the age of Peak Dramatic Television and we can be choosy with what we watch. It’s a Buyer’s market for content and so we can be snobs, demanding the finest television has to offer. NOS4A2, especially as a Summer show, sits nicely on the upper echelon shelf of Grade A TV. I can tell you that this Summer, you’re not going to find stronger acting performances than what Quinto and Cummings are throwing off episode after episode. And for the horror fans, I promise that, as you go to sleep, you will be worried about a big man in a gas mask coming to take you away to the House of Sleep. *shivers*
Don’t sleep on NOS4A2, take the time and make the investment in this high concept, well-executed genre horror television!
Below is an overview of the characters and how they interact in the story – a useful guide, especially if you have not read the book. NOS4A2 is a lore-heavy show with lots of specific ideas; words like “Inscapes” and “Strong Creatives” get tossed around from the beginning and some background might help. Below, I introduce the main characters of NOS4A2 and, in doing so, (hopefully) help sort out some of these meanings and ideas without being plot spoilery .
“Our strong creative has an old soul, and a sentimental attachment to broken things.”
Victoria “Vic” McQueen (Cummings) is an 18 year-old woman with parents that are always fighting, a dirtbike that takes her everywhere, and a special gift she is just becoming aware of. Prompted by a lost family item and another fight between her parents, Vic runs out of her house, hops on her dirtbike and rides. Soon enough, Vic (whose father calls her “Brat,” in case that’s important later) finds herself at “The Shorter Way Bridge,” a dilapidated, covered bridge that should not be able to stand, let alone support a girl and a dirtbike rumbling through it.
But, the Bridge holds (we see a name of a place spray painted in neon green on the inside wall of the bridge and we hear lots of bats fluttering around inside), and on the other side, Vic is let out at the location of the (no longer) lost family item. What’s happening here?
Vic’s dirtbike acts as her “Knife” (i.e., a key) to the “Inscape” (a world dreamed up in a person’s imagination that only “strong creative” types can manifest into reality and which, with the use of the Knife, can be accessed). The Shorter Way Bridge (which only opens for Vic – though, others can see it once it appears) is Vic’s Inscape and through it, she can travel to anywhere in the country and find lost things (and people).
The cost of accessing this power is a debilitating migraine behind her left eye, a pain that essentially cripples her several times. With Maggie’s help, Vic learns about her gift, though it’s not immediately apparent what she is supposed to use it for. Not yet, anyway …
“We’re going to Christmasland. Where everyday is Christmas Day and unhappiness is against the law.”
Charlie Manx (Quinto) is a vampire-like man, so old as to be ageless, who kidnaps children from “troubled” homes (troubled, as defined by Charlie is not necessarily troubled as defined by anyone else, especially a parent). Like Vic, Charlie Manx is also a strong creative and, as such, can access Inscapes. He uses his Inscape power to keep the kidnapped children in “Christmasland” — a place that exists only in Manx’s mind. Charlie promises the children that Christmasland is a wondrous place where they can be young forever but in reality, are turned into vampiric, ghoulish versions of their former selves, filled with hatred and bloodlust and, of course, horrifying sharp, pointy teeth.
The transformation isn’t instantaneous, however. The process happens over the course of the trip from our reality to Christmasland; during which time, Charlie and his car (a magical Rolls Royce Wraith), drain the youth and happiness from the kidnapped children. As the children grow less, Charlie’s vigor and youthful looks are restored, and that is how he is kept preternaturally young.
Also, Manx can sense when Vic uses her power to access the Inscape routes — he even has a handy map of the “United Inscapes of America,” “showing all the stops along the St. Nick Parkway” – basically, a map of the Inscapes (portals) available to him to use. I don’t want to spoil anything but there are a ton of fun Easter Eggs on this map for fans of Joe Hill and Stephen King (Hill’s father). The Shorter Way Bridge is one of the noted Inscapes on the map. Through this Inscape power that the two can use, Vic and Manx are sort of psychically linked.
Last, the “NOS4A2” (which is pronounced as “Nosferatu,” a play on words referencing the classic vampire story), from which our story takes it title? That’s the license plate of the Wraith. A fun fact about the Wraith? The radio only plays Christmas songs and for the kids, there are presents in the backseat … not so bad, right? Also, Manx can make it snow inside the car. Neat!
“The girl who finds lost things, can find lost children. Don’t you see, you’ve been chosen.”
Whereas Manx and Vic are “strong creatives,” Maggie Leigh (Smith) is a medium, one who interprets and can assist creatives understand what they’re doing. She is our third character with special abilities. Unlike Charlie Manx and Vic, Maggie doesn’t travel through portals but she is something of a mage. A librarian in Here, Iowa, Maggie has Scrabble tiles that “speak” to her, giving her the power to divine information on items and people. Maggie is the one who gives Vic her mission, her hero’s journey as it were.
Here is an example of how Maggie’s powers work (mildly spoilers for general plot points): when a child goes missing in the Pilot episode, Maggie asks the Scrabble tiles who took him and they reveal the phrase, “The Wraith.” She asks how she can find “The Wraith” and her tiles “tell” her, “The Brat” (remember Vic’s nickname from above?). The tiles cannot do proper names (Scrabble rules, duh) so they give these types of hints. Maggie’s tiles allow her to access her divination power.
Just as Vic pays a price for her power in the form of throbbing eye pain, Maggie’s price to pay is a stutter that gets increasingly pronounced the more she uses her power. It’s simply the cost of doing business. Maggie, who has long lived with her power, takes Vic under her wing and gives her the basics on her powers (and their costs), Charlie Manx and The Wraith, and informs Vic that it’s her destiny to stop Manx and his child abductions.
“Would I like to work in Christmasland? You Bet!!”
Bing Partridge (Ólafsson) is a simple man-child, obsessed with Christmasland and mentally deranged from an abusive and violent childhood. He’s also got a penchant for WWII-era gas masks. In the TV show, Bing is a professional janitor, who works for a chemical company that ships “gases all over the world,” as well as a janitor at Vic’s school. In fact, Vic knows and likes Bing enough to trade comic books with him. It’s through reading these comic books that Bing first sees an ad for “Christmasland.” The idea of eternal Christmas appeals to Bing immensely. He applies for the open position described in the advertisement (“Christmasland is looking for particular people who LOVE children and aren’t afraid of ADVENTURE”). After Charlie kills his current assistant (Mr. Ives (played by Michael Maize) made Charlie’s “naughty list” and so, he had to go), Manx takes on Bing as his new Number 2. His main duties are to do the actual kidnapping of the kids from their homes (and placing them in the Wraith) and then dealing with the parents (mothers mostly) who are present at the time of the abduction. Bing … is not a good man.
That Bing works as a janitor in a chemical plant (SoChemPharm) with almost unlimited access to massive amounts of gingerbread-flavored sevoflurane (a knockout gas that Charlie uses to subdue the children during the ride to Christmasland) has a lot to do with his recruitment. Bing is presented as being simple but also horribly violent with a taste for indulging in being a deviant monster. In many ways, Bing is almost (almost) as bad as Charlie Manx.
“I can’t believe I had a kid with you, you drunk, selfish bastard.”
Chris McQueen (Moss-Bachrach) and Linda McQueen (Kull) are Vic’s parents and are fairly horrible in their own ways. Chris, the parent that Vic identifies with most, is
maybe definitely abusing Linda and for sure, cheating on her. Linda, an exasperated and exasperating woman in all ways, is for a sure a victim of her husband’s abuse, but on the other hand, goes out of her way to hold Vic down in life. Linda sees this attitude as providing a realistic outlook for Vic’s future (she’d like her to clean house like Linda – so they can work together) but in doing so, denies Vic the ability to embrace her artistic talent and gifts and shoot for a better life. Together, Chris and Linda’s chaotic existence is what propels Vic to head out and in turn, discover her gifts. So, from a certain point of view, without the McQueens and their shitty parenting, we wouldn’t have much of a story. Thanks? I guess?
The What and Why.
“The road to Christmasland is paved in dreams.”
I am a big fan of Joe Hill’s 2013 novel. It’s the kind of book you fly through in 1 or 2 sittings, fully engrossed the entire time. Hill has his father’s penchant for horror and, by manipulating the joy and wonder of Christmas, achieves the next level in perverse horror entertainment. There are scenes in NOS4A2, the book, that I found truly disturbing – it’s brand of horror is more psychological and eerie mood, than gore and jump scares. NOS4A2, the television series, evokes a lot of this same uneasy feeling.
may will balk at several of the changes made to the story, some of which are significant and some which are not, but not me. I think Jami O’Brien has made smart narrative choices that move NOS4A2‘s plot along nicely. I’ve seen through the first six episodes and not once have I felt a betrayal to the novel’s aesthetic or vibe. In fact, I think NOS4A2 captures perfectly, the spirit of the novel and puts the viewers in an off-balanced, worried mood from the very first scene.
On the other end of changing plots from the book, NOS4A2 does some improving on the novel. In particular, I am thinking of “The Graveyard of What Might Be.” This will come up in Episode 2 but it really fleshes out the concept from the novel and, more importantly, gives you some real insight into Charlie Manx’s inner thoughts and motivations. Deranged and psychotic as fuck, to be sure, but this fleshed out scene really helps you understand why he (thinks he’s) doing what he’s doing.
Another thing the show does well is the aspect of the psychic connection between Manx and Vic. Not really a concept in the book (though looking back on it, you can certainly see an implication), the use of their connection in the series (mostly via image flashes), really aids in demonstrating Vic’s increasing anxiety about her powers and the reluctant role she
may will have to play in stopping Charlie Manx and The Wraith. It’s a really effective storytelling device and lends itself well to increasing that mood of claustrophobic-like panic that Cummings plays so well in Vic.
Last, O’Brien makes great use of Maggie, increasing her participation as a way to get Vic up to speed on her power and mission faster than in the book, a necessary function given the different path the show takes in bringing Vic and Manx together. It works here and JJ Smith is Excellent in the role of the offbeat medium, a real asset to the show.
The true strength of NOS4A2 lies in its cast. On paper, this adaptation makes a lot of sense but you need strong acting chops to sell this kind of story and have it taken seriously. A genre story of this type teeters on a thin line between high concept drama and schlocky, laughable camp. Luckily, in Zachary Quinto and, the hitherto unknown to American audiences, Ashleigh Cummings, NOS4A2 is in fine hands. Quinto is doing heavy lifting as the villain, Charlie Manx, portraying a much more multi-dimensional, complex character than the novel puts forth. Don’t worry, Manx is still an unquestionable monster and Quinto captures it perfectly. Quinto is a gifted actor that is woefully underused everywhere. I’ve been a fan since his arcs on American Horror Story and he’s bringing all of his considerable skill to bear in NOS4A2.
And Cummings, as the heroine Vic McQueen, gives an angry yet vulnerable performance; hitting all the right notes of this character that book readers will expect. You root for Vic, even when she’s being her most teenaged self. Even when she’s being her most destructive self. A product of a broken home, yet a harbinger of hope with a pure spirit despite her circumstances, Vic McQueen is the perfect foil to Manx and his nefarious plans … and Cummings is pitch perfect in the role. I cannot wait to see what else she’ll do once her run in NOS4A2 is over.
“A product of a broken home, yet a harbinger of hope with a pure spirit despite her circumstances, Vic McQueen is the perfect foil to Manx and his nefarious plans … and Cummings is pitch perfect in the role.”
Lastly, things I am not crazy about? Really, there is only one thing. The teenage love story aspect is just not necessary. I understand that it is being added as a result of two significant (and related) changes from the book. Given the lack of time jump to adult Vic with a family (at least so far), the entire arc of “Vic as a mother” and her relationship with Lou has been ditched in the television series. The show handles this by substituting another young character as a sufficiently developed (and kidnapped) McGuffin, which finally pushes Vic to realize her calling and spring her into action. So, that takes care of her son from the book. So, the love story. If you’re not going to give us the Vic and Lou Carmody quirky love story, then don’t even bother with a love story – it’s really not needed, as the TV’s narrative is constructed. Blech. Move along.
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