Last week on NOS4A2, we took a deep dive into Charlie Manx’s past while he pulled himself back to life in the present. Tonight, we check in with Vic McQueen, who abandoned her family after mistakenly believing Manx was gone for good.
As the episode opens, however, we see that Vic’s son isn’t the only child struggling with the pain caused by an absentee parent.
Ghost of Christmas Past
Over in Christmasland, an upset Millie futilely runs after her father’s departing Wraith. The chase leads her outside the park gates, where she notices a strange light in the distance.
After a brief trek through the woods, she comes across what appears to be a replica of the home she grew up in as a (human) child. Upon entering the house and heading upstairs, Millie finds that at least three of the rooms have been refurbished and/or occupied in unexpected ways:
- Room 1: A dusty cobweb-filled bar with a child-size coffin on the floor (this is likely inspired by some form of Manx’s childhood growing up in a mortuary).
- Room 2: A family room containing a beautifully decorated Christmas tree with an overflowing pile of gifts beneath it.
- Room 3: The door to this one is locked, but there’s someone knocking on the other side. The person’s voice, which sounds eerily like her father, whispers “Let me out. The best sledding is the hill beyond the grove.”
The fourth room Millie visits appears to be her mother’s bedroom. After crossing the threshold, she puts down her sword and smiles. Although her vampiric appearance remains, the tiny monster briefly becomes a little girl again, giggling as she takes a dress from her mother’s closet and tries it on in front of the dresser mirror.
The fun and games come to a screeching halt, however, when the reanimated corpse of Cassie Manx appears behind Millie and grabs her daughter by the shoulders. Millie is forced to look at the scars she ripped across her mother’s face while her own reflection changes to show how she appeared as a human girl.
After a brief struggle, Millie breaks free from Cassie’s grip and beats a hasty retreat back to Christmasland.
Back in our world, Vic takes the Shorter Way bridge to a place called “The Lake,” which turns out to be where her father lives now. Despite the late hour of her unexpected visit, Chris McQueen is more than happy to see his estranged daughter and provide her with a place to rest.
After a day and a half of nightmare-filled sleep, Vic awakens and talks to her dad, who’s finally managed to get himself sober. Chris is so committed to his sobriety, in fact, that he’s isolated himself from most people and all temptations. That includes the mini bottles Vic had in her jacket, which he found and threw out.
Vic is furious, especially since her father constantly drank while he was raising her. Chris apologizes for his past mistakes, but holds firm that his house has to be completely dry if she’s going to stay there.
Instead of accepting his offer, Vic gets on her bike and travels to her childhood home in Haverhill where her mother still lives. Linda excitedly welcomes her daughter home, but the good vibes dissipate when she asks where her grandson is. Vic tries to explain that she’s not fit to be a mother, but her own mom refuses to hear it. Instead, she commands her daughter to pick up the phone and let her family know where is.
Lou sees the call from Linda’s number and knows its Vic, but sends her straight to voicemail. To Vic’s credit, though, she still manages to leave a painfully awkward message/apology. After her mom leaves for work, she drowns her shame and sorrow in a bottle of her mother’s cooking sherry.
Back in Gunbarrel, Bing Partridge pulls up to Lou’s bike shop with a Harley Davidson motorcycle in his truck bed. He also begins talking to Wayne, who’s shooting hoops in the driveway.
Having never seen Bing before, Lou steps outside and gives his new customer a warm greeting. As the two head back inside to discuss repair estimates, Wayne notices the shop’s lights flickering and hears Silent Night playing from somewhere down the road. He follows the music until it leads him to the parked Wraith, which is accompanied by a much healthier version of Charlie Manx than the one he met while exploring Sleigh House.
After a smoother (yet still very tense) reintroduction, Manx magically pulls a small candy cane from behind Wayne’s ear and gives it to him. He then makes the door to the Wraith open, revealing a plethora of gifts inside the vehicle’s interior. For the first time since they’ve known each other, Wayne’s guard begins to fall.
Back inside the shop, “Ethan Anderson” is unable to describe what’s wrong with his bike. After taking down some basic (and fake) information, Lou steps back outside to have a look himself. He immediately notices Wayne is gone and starts to panic, but decides not to look for him when “Ethan” proposes finding another repair shop if he’s too busy.
Lou goes to give the bike a once over and notices a gas mask inside the truck’s cabin, which clues him in to who Ethan really is. After taking a moment to collect himself, he tells Bing he needs to call a supplier for a part and dials Linda’s number, instead. Unfortunately, Vic doesn’t hear the phone on account of her being drunk, listening to loud music, and mired in her own grief as she looks through items from her teenage years (including her old RISD acceptance letter).
Lou leaves a message asking for the stock status of a “1048 Fairbanks” (their family’s secret password) and asks Bing to help him get the bike off the truck. After loosening one of the straps, Lou uses the metal latch to whip him in the face. Bing is hurt and stunned, but still manages to grabs Lou’s foot and pull him down. After a brief struggle, Lou gets free by kicking Bing in the face and takes off to find Wayne.
Meanwhile, Manx is on the verge of convincing Wayne to get in the Wraith when the young boy asks him for their family’s password. When Manx is unable recite it, Wayne wisely takes off into the woods. He’s only able to go a few yards before running into Lou, who grabs his son and tells him they both need to hide.
Candy Cane Dreams
Vic falls asleep and is once again plagued by nightmares. This time, though, they’re filled with images of Wayne holding the candy cane Manx gave him.
She’s eventually startled awake by the phone ringing non-stop. After a moment of hesitation, she picks up. Instead of Millie on the other end of the line, however, it’s the Colorado State police calling about Lou and Wayne. Both of them are okay and being safely guarded at the garage by the police, but Manx and Bing have vanished.
Vic calls Tabitha Hutter, who is able to get FBI agents assigned to escort Lou and Wayne to the airport so they can take a flight to Massachusetts. Lou’s joy/relief over the three of them being together again is shattered when he realizes that Vic plans to go after Manx on her own. He bluntly states that being there for her son is much more heroic than going on a suicide mission, but her mind is made up.
While all this is going on, Wayne watches cartoons inside the shop. He pulls the candy cane Manx gave him out of his pocket and looks at it, causing the television to flicker.
Following his failure to capture Wayne, Manx heads over to Parnassus. After putting some Christmas music on the jukebox and ordering two drinks from the bar (a peppermint twist for himself of course), he’s challenged to a game of chance by a slightly reptilian-looking patron named Snake.
Manx turns Snake down before taking the drinks to a nearby table with Abe. His strong creative colleague says he remembers buying the entire bar a drink in Manx’s honor when it appeared he was dead. Manx takes the barb in stride, reminding Abe that he’s not free of his debt to him. He cashes it in by requesting a meeting with someone named The Hourglass.
When Abe refuses, Manx mocks him, reminiscing about how afraid people used to be when he “left his empty forest to travel the Night Road.” Abe points out that Manx is afraid of Vic, just like they all should be. Manx responds by reminding him of the time he saved his life from the Walking Backwards Man.*
*Side note: In the context of the show, the Walking Backwards Man is another evil/malicious strong creative. For my fellow Joe Hill fans, however, this is an easter egg from his books that made us collectively scream with delight (and maybe a little fear).
Abe admits that he’s still grateful, but also wishes Manx were dead. Despite his misgivings, however, he begrudgingly agrees to set up a meeting for him with The Hourglass.
Their own meeting is cut short when Manx receives a phone call from the bar. As he gets up to receive it, Abe asks him to tell his goddaughter that he misses her.
It turns out that Abe’s goddaughter is Millie, who is calling from Christmasland to see when her father will return. She also asks about the light she saw in the mountains without revealing that she went there and explored it. Manx lies and says that there’s nothing there while also reminding Millie that children who venture beyond Christmasland’s gates are put on the naughty list. Millie responds by lying and saying she never went.
After they hang up, Manx notices the lights in Parnassus starting to flicker. He heads outside and sees Vic, who’s taken the Shorter Way to the bar and is preparing to douse the Wraith in gas and flames. Instead of rushing into battle, he calmly admits to underestimating her before; a mistake he most assuredly won’t be making again.
Manx then explains how the bar/parking lot they are both standing in exist on the Night Road, a place created by the collective unconscious of strong creatives who carry a dark aspect within their souls. He reasons that Vic’s ability to be there is evidence of her inability to be a good mother for Wayne. .
Manx could of course be lying about the “dark aspect” thing (never mind the fact that it would make his presence equally damning, as well). True or not, he’s using it as a launch point to taunt Vic over the trauma, struggles, and failures she’s experienced during her adult life. He succeeds in rattling her, but she remains unbroken, vowing to do do whatever is necessary to protect Wayne…even if it means sacrificing her own life.
Manx responds by twisting the emotional knife even further, suggesting that Vic wants him to kill her so she won’t have to face failures (and those she’s failed) ever again. He then cruelly assures her that Wayne will be much happier with him in Christmasland as the Wraith’s engine roars to life.
Vic lights the rag inside her gas container and speeds toward the vehicle. Just as she’s about to crash into it, she swerves and tosses the flaming canister into the vehicle’s path. The car easily turns to avoid the resulting explosion, forcing a defeated Vic back across the Shorter Way as a triumphant Manx watches her flee.
Mother of Trials
Vic returns to Haverhill, where Linda predictably discovered that her daughter got drunk on cooking sherry while she was at work. She sits her down and insists that Vic go back and take care of her child. She also reminds Vic that she wasn’t the world’s greatest parent. Being a mother is a job that takes more than you have and never gives enough back, but its success starts and ends with being present.
Later, Vic arrives at Maggie and Tabitha’s home in Massachusetts. Despite their many years apart, Maggie is both happy and relieved to see her old friend. She also assures Vic she and Tabitha will keep Lou and Wayne safe within their home.
After thanking them, Vic greets her tired and frustrated family, promising that she’s here to stay.
Offerings and Offers
Back in Christmasland, Millie once again ventures outside the park gates to the light in the mountains. This time, however, she cuts off a reindeer’s head to leave as an offering to her undead mother. She knocks on the door and runs off, watching from a distance as Cassie’s corpse walks outside and whispers her daughter’s name.
Meanwhile, an extremely well-dressed man in a hotel room receives a phone call from Abe. He initially dismisses the prospect of taking on any new clients from a “foul old rummy” like him, but Abe says something to change his mind and tone. The newly interested man says he would be honored to meet Charles Manx while taking an hourglasses out of pocket and staring at it.
After pausing to listen to Abe again, he asks “Who is Vic McQueen?”
Once again, NOS4A2, delivers a fantastic episode. In addition to being a highly entertaining hour of television, “The Night Road” is also an absolute masterclass in world building.
The best example of this occurs during the Parnassus scene. Instead of spelling out every detail of the inscape community/universe, we’re provided with a superb framework of ideas via Manx’s interactions. The audience still doesn’t know everything, but we understand enough to have a much firmer grasp of the series’ unseen mythology–and a potential spring board for other great story elements down the road.
This scene also gives us a a perfect example of one of Zachary Quinto’s best abilities as an actor. Yes, the man can deliver lines and emote with the best of them, but he also utilizes every single movement and gesture to enhance his character’s presence.
The gif below is a somewhat obvious example, but watch Quinto’s eyes after the bartender hands him the phone. Instead of screaming “DO YOU MIND?” or dramatically mugging in the bartender’s direction, Manx looks him off with a menacingly subtle glare.
This is one of many small moments Manx has used during his various interactions since the first season.
Individually, they don’t have much of an impact beyond the scene they occur in. Over time, however, their cumulative effect has played a major role in establishing his oppressively calm and malevolent presence.
As far as Vic and Manx’s confrontation is concerned, the malicious energy between these two felt like it might ignite and explode through the screen. Despite how broken Vic is, Ashleigh Cummings imbues her character with some big time Eleanor Ripley energy, leaving absolutely no doubt that she’ll do whatever is necessary to protect her child.
On the flip side of that, Quinto refuses to let his character get boxed into the standard villain role. Instead of rubbing his hands together and proclaiming his evilness, Manx earnestly defends himself as the hero/savior of this conflict. He’s 100% wrong, but he also 100% believes himself to be the good guy.
*Side Note: ‘NOS4A2’ author Joe Hill discusses villains who think they are doing the right thing (like Manx) on last week’s episode of ‘Strong Creatives Welcome: The NOS4A2 Podcast.’ Definitely worth a listen!
Ironically, the only part in this scene that didn’t “cook” was the actual fireball Vic lamely tossed toward the Wraith. Otherwise, their verbal showdown was better than most series’ action sequences.
Millie’s trek to the house outside Christmasland (and what she found inside it) provides a similarly intriguing roadmap for NOS4A2‘s mythology. From a narrative standpoint, her discovery addresses some major story questions (does Millie miss her mom/being human, does she feel guilt, is she willing to defy her father, etc.) while opening up a host other possibilities.
It’s also worth noting how well this scene works on an emotional and visceral level.
Horror television normally doesn’t generate anywhere near the level of terror it does in books or movies, but Ghost Cassie scared the absolute crap out of me. That fearful (and slightly embarrassing) reaction was eclipsed only by how heartbreaking it was to watch Millie attempt to reconcile her past life. Mattea Conforti deserves a ton of credit for the range and complexity she’s given to what was previously a very static character in the source material. We’re definitely watching a star come into her own on this show.
One part of this episode I did not expect to like as much as I did was the return of Chris McQueen (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and Linda (Virginia Kull). Both characters have believably grown in the years since Vic left home while still retaining the rough edges of their personalities.
Linda’s scene with Vic after the Night Road confrontation was particularly good. Instead of glossing over her mistakes as a parent, she fully admits to being a flawed mother while refusing to let her daughter give up. No cheesy pep talk or romanticized history; just the best advice Vic needed to hear right now.
As far as what didn’t work in this episode, only a few minor things stuck out (aside from the Vic’s aforementioned/lame fireball attempt).
The Hourglass character at the end definitely ties in with my affinity for NOS4A2‘s world building, but I feel like his scene would have worked better at the beginning of the next episode. Instead, it took some of the luster off two beautifully crafted codas with a “what the heck is this all about” moment.
Also, there’s no way Lou would have stayed with a customer after losing sight of Wayne. I get that he needs the money as a newly single parent, but that man’s love for his son would have put finding him above anything else. A lot of parents might just assume their kid was off somewhere playing that they couldn’t see, but considering Lou’s earlier stern warning for Wayne to stay where he could see him–and everything their family has been through–I don’t buy it.
That being said, it did lead to some great scenes with Lou secretly calling for help, kicking Bing’s ass, and rescuing Wayne.
I also love how Jonathan Langdon is able to show the character’s undying love/loyalty to Vic while simultaneously expressing the exhaustion and distrust caused by her reckless behavior.
I could go on about even more good stuff from this episode, but you get the idea. This was another great episode in a series that continues to impress and entertain. I’ll admit I was hesitant to give another review that was so effusively positive, but you’ve also got to call ’em like you see ’em.
“The Night Road” is a brilliant piece of storytelling that’s a hell of a good time, too.
Read our interview with ‘NOS4A2’ showrunner Jami O’Brien here.
If one episode a week of ‘NOS4A2’ isn’t enough, then hop over to the NOS4A2 Fans Facebook group for in depth discussion among one of the best communities in the otherwise hellish landscape of social media fandom. Hopefully the show continues to be good so my reviews don’t make things awkward.