NOS4A2, an adaptation of Joe Hill’s 2013 horror novel of the same name, begins its second season this Sunday on AMC at 10:00 PM EST. If you haven’t seen the fantastic first season yet, then it’s definitely worth your time to squeeze in a catch up binge this weekend.
If you already have seen the first season, however, then prepare to be blown away. After watching the first five episodes of Season 2, I’m pleased to report the series somehow manages to be even better. Where most series suffer creatively after diverting from their source material, NOS4A2 fills in the novel’s gaps with some truly inspired storytelling, all while keeping the book’s powerful core narrative intact.
Instead of an episode-by-episode recap (which we’ll be doing as they air), we’re going to take an overall look at what makes the opening half of NOS4A2‘s second season even better than we’d hoped or expected. There will be a few minor spoilers, but nothing you wouldn’t already know from watch the show’s recent trailer.
After last season’s explosive finale, the show jumps forward approximately eight years into the future. Vic McQueen and Lou Carmody are living together and raising her son, Wayne. While they often share moments of familial bliss, Vic’s war with Manx as a teenager continues to take a devastating toll on her life.
Reports of Manx’s death do little to assuage her fears of his return. Her paranoia grows understandably worse when Millie and the rest of Christmasland’s vampiric children find a way to call Vic’s home, angrily berating her for dispatching their father.
Meanwhile, Bing Partridge finally locates Manx’s partially restored Rolls-Royce Wraith. As he begins the process of fully repairing the vehicle, Manx’s former body begins to reawaken. While Bing’s work lights the spark, however, something much darker pushes Manx to return: Getting revenge on Vic McQueen.
What Works (So Far)
When it became clear from the trailers that the AMC series would deviate from the novel by portraying Vic McQueen (Ashleigh Cummings) and Lou Carmody (Jonathan Langdon) as still being together, I was glad. I liked the chemistry they had together in the first season finale and the way Langdon portrayed the character.
What I did not expect was how much the Vic/Lou dynamic would add to the story.
For starters, Langdon is fantastic, providing Lou with a believable balance of faithful love and infuriated heartache at Vic’s devolving state. Although Cummings is somehow even better portraying the adult version of Vic, Lou’s desperate attempts to continue loving her while also being the father Wayne needs gives everything a new a perspective. By the end of the first episode, what was already a powerful storyline has been ratcheted up to a level that’s utterly tragic.
Along those same lines, Vic’s story is paralleled in an unexpected way by an in depth look into Charlie Manx’s (Zachary Quinto) past.
This is something that was barely touched on in the novel, although it’s explored quite a bit in The Wraith prequel comic by Joe Hill (writer) and Charles Paul Wilson III (artist). While the television series doesn’t follow the comic’s storyline, it manages to hit on many of The Wraith‘s main themes while also spinning an original backstory for Manx that’s arguably even better.
One particularly striking component of this narrative is the dichotomy between how Manx and and McQueen behave as parents. Manx was a monster in many ways before manifesting his inscape, but he also has moments that make him genuinely sympathetic–especially when it comes to his daughter, Millie (Mattea Conforti). Despite being a cruel and selfish husband, the doting affection he shows toward Millie provides a jarring contrast to Vic’s destructive behavior.
While it could be argued that Vic’s state is largely due to her battle with Manx, NOS4A2 does a good job exploring how she’s fallen into many of the same dysfunctional behaviors that her parents demonstrated when she was a kid. By the time Manx and Vic’s paths finally cross again, their meeting is so much more than a fight between good and evil. It’s also a titanic intersection of two lives with extraordinary and tragic orbits, much of which has centered around what they’ve been willing to do for the sake of their children.
As far as Vic’s parents are concerned, both Chris McQueen (Ebon Moss-Bachrach)and Linda McQueen (Virginia Kull) are infinitely more likable and engaging this time around. Both characters have grown in believable ways that are still anchored to the sins of their past.
Surprisingly, the character we actually see the most growth from is Millie. Instead of just standing around and looking/acting creepy, she gets a fascinating character arc that explores her loyalty to her father and how she perceives the structure–and importance–of both her families.
The decision to focus on Millie was something that worried me going into this season. Until now, I’d always been of the opinion that she worked best as the gleefully soulless force of nature that Manx cursed her to be. There were plenty of conflicts and pathos to explore within all the other characters (and Manx himself) without delving into whether or not the ruthless/bloodthirsty vampire child ever missed her dad when he went away on business trips. Thankfully, NOS4A2 handles Millie’s subplot spectacularly well, providing a rich new layer to the narrative while also providing a couple of the series’ scariest moments.
Both Maggie Leigh (Jahkara Smith) and Bing Partridge (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) are back, albeit with slight differences from where we left them. Bing is still all types of weird and creepy, but he’s also a bit sharper, which makes his presence even more unsettling.
As far as Maggie is concerned, it appears the shows writers have completely abandoned the stutter she occasionally had from the using of her tiles. In it’s place is a consequence to well being that is far more situational and deadly. She’s also starts the season in a far better place than she was after Manx had been defeated.
While part of me misses Maggie’s tragic storyline from the novel, Jahkara Smith makes her such a likable character that it’s hard not to enjoy seeing her centered, happy, and ready to kick some ass.
And while we’re on the subject of kicking ass, Tabitha Hutter (Ashley Romans) makes a welcome move from her recurring role in season one to a series regular. Her law enforcement career has advanced from being a detective to an FBI agent, but she’s still not ready to give up the search for Bing Partridge.
One of my favorite things about Hutter is that she provides a reasonably skeptical voice to the supernatural elements of the story without falling into the Scully Syndrome trap of refusing to believe anything outside her pre-established realm of possibility
Yes, Hutter is fully aware that there are things about the Bing Partridge case (and Charlie Manx) that defy logic. But she also refuses to abandon good detective work and sequential and forensic evidence. Instead, she cautiously makes note of the bizarre, utilizing any unlikely information she gleans as one of many tools to get the job done.
As far as Season 2’s story goes, there’s not much I can say without spoiling the plot, which you should definitely watch fresh as it unfolds. Even a book reader like myself was on the edge of my seat as things played out. Despite having a general idea where the story was headed, NOS4A2 makes some brilliant changes to the narrative without losing the larger themes that made the novel one of my favorites–and I say that as someone who’s normally a pedantic crybaby when movies and television shows mess with literary source material.
The show also ups its game in the story telling department. One episode in particular shows the same catastrophic event from multiple viewpoints, a narrative device that can often end up feeling redundant. In this episode, however, the differing perspectives significantly add to the story while also causing me to repeatedly almost jump out of my skin.
Even the cinematography and special effects are better. Some of the body horror is so well done that I found myself in the odd position of feeling a bit squeamish.
Also, for those of you (like me) who have been dying to know: Yes, we do take a visit to Parnassus again. In fact, if you’re a fan of Joe Hill’s other books, there’s going to be a big easter egg mentioned that you might want to rewind and watch again.
What Doesn’t Work (So Far)
I didn’t think this would bother me that much, but almost everyone either looks the same or even better than they did eight years go. Not that we needed something like Matthew McConaughey’s transformation in True Detective, but you’d expect to see some sort of physical difference in the characters besides Vic’s tattoos.
I’m aware of how ridiculous this complaint sounds–and it honestly didn’t do much at all to detract from my enjoyment of the show. But when you’ve got a vampire who exhibits his full strength by de-aging to his peak/middle-aged self, it’s a little weird that all the mortals around him look like they’ve been doing a weapons-grade skin care regimen for the last decade.
As far as the characters are concerned, Vic’s son Wayne get relegated to a plot device most of the time, although that appeared to be changing sharply by the end of the fifth episode. A new villain is introduced who could be interesting, but had proven to be more of a frustrating (and shoehorned) plot element by the season’s midpoint. That being said, he also joins Wayne in showing a great deal more potential for the back half of the season.
There’s also a new relationship between two characters that feels a little strange. I know that opposites are supposed to attract, but these two don’t seem like they would work together at all. Thankfully, the pairing manages to bring out the best in both them–so much so that I found myself starting to be won over by the couple. As before, this debatable “weakness” in the show’s script is poised to be one of its strong suits by the final episode.
As I said before, I can be unfairly harsh when it comes to books I enjoy being adapted into movies and television series. Considering how much I love Joe Hill’s NOS4A2 novel, I was highly skeptical of its ability to be turned into a show I would enjoy. I was so skeptical, in fact, that I’m ashamed to admit I barely gave the first season a chance before deciding to discard it. The first episode wasn’t bad, but it just didn’t feel like AMC’s NOS4A2 would come anywhere close to what I wanted.
A combination of good reviews, word of mouth, and quarantine boredom made me reconsider and give the first season another chance…and I was totally hooked. I’m normally not a fan of crow, but I gladly scarfed this helping down with a side of gumdrops and egg nog.
Yet despite how much I enjoyed first season, I still wasn’t prepared for how incredible the first half of the second season would be. If this level of quality continues, then NOS4A2 absolutely belongs in the same conversation as other prestige supernatural crime dramas like The Outsider and the first season of True Detective.
And look, I know this sounds like bizarrely high praise even for the show’s fans. But folks who read my articles regularly (HI MOM!) know I have absolutely no problem ripping into a seemingly decent show that doesn’t adapt its source material well, especially when its an AMC show based on one of my favorite books. So please believe me–or at least my earnestness–when I say that this series’ second season has the potential to elevate NOS4A2 into something truly special.
I think most people will agree that it’s extremely rare to see a television series surpass the source material it’s adapted from–especially when that source material is one of the best horror novels of the 21st century.
AMC’s NOS4A2 might just pull it off.
Read our review of Season 2’s first episode, ‘Bad Mother,’ here.