–Give me, the one thing you can’t give / take me to the black lodge where you live
Eli Roth’s Hemlock Grove—adapted from Brian McGreevy’s debut novel of the same name—is one more attempt to wring some psychosocial relevance out of the vampire-werewolf mythos (I’d say ‘one final attempt,’ but I lack the optimism). The show, like a slew of others in the last few years (The Killing, Top of the Lake, etc.), begins with the savage murder of a young girl; the early suspect is Peter Rumancek, a Romani(esque) gypsy that the locals accuse, apropos of nothing, of being a werewolf. Is he or isn’t he? The suspense is maintained for only one episode, and after the second you essentially know what kind of show you’re watching. The real mystery centers around Peter’s wealthy friend—Roman Godfrey (Bill Skarsgård), scion of a biomedical leviathan—and his quasi-vampirical mother Olivia (Famke Janssen, vamping her way into Camp legend). Roman is the show’s most compelling character: both violent sociopath and sweet, frustrated kid, part Patrick Bateman and part Holden Caulfield. What’s amazing is that, with so much of the plot already implied by werewolf and vampire clichés, Hemlock Grove manages to sustain a fair amount of mystery. It unleashes the full and frustrating arsenal of the mystery-thriller: red-herrings, back-stories, fake-outs, plot lacunae, and a healthy serving of cryptic, Chris Carter-style dialog. It’s cheesy, derivative, and predicable, but I watched the whole thing in several days and rather enjoyed myself.
What the fuck?
Hemlock Grove was released last month on Netflix as an entire season and, for that reason, will likely be recorded as part of the paradigm shift from ‘episodic’ to ‘binge viewing.’ And, though it possesses nothing like the intricate architecture of the recent Arrested Development season, it does bear the mark of the New Television. For one thing, the show, despite some embarrassing moments of plot exposition, largely eschews the retreat-and-recap mode of a traditional series; each episode proceeds with a confidence that you’ve seen the previous episode very recently (as in, two minutes ago). For another, the show has a free hand with sex and violence that allows it to wildly transgress the bounds of Network television. (The shows finest scene, basically a short film that precedes the title sequence in one episode, begins with a graphic sex scene between Peter and Letha, Roman’s pregnant cousin.) This is not always a good thing: the actors are given some preposterously bad lines (particularly Famke Janssen and Bill Skarsgård), written in the style of teenage poets eager to show just how foulmouthed they can be. (Teens do in reality talk this way, but the show is so stylized it’s a bit disingenuous to suggest that the writers are Naturalists or Realists.) Hemingway wrote his sharpest lines when censored, and a little censorship might have helped the dialog here.
On the extreme other hand, the show has gorgeous camera work (and, in general, the production values are several orders of magnitude better than SyFy or Chiller, where this show might have aired without Netflix’s finances). The opening shot of the first episode—a melting ice-cream cone followed by Skarsgård’s inscrutable pout—is the kind of associational montage I’m used to seeing in Malick, or short films by Eisenstein fetishists (I mean that in a good way). During the first episode—as my wife kept murmuring ‘so pretty, but the acting… it’s so bad’—we joked that the show might have worked better as a silent film; by the conclusion, I was sure it would have. I haven’t yet read Brian McGreevy’s novel, but I worry. The best part of this show is watching it: the haunting rust-belt imagery of Pennsylvania is pitch perfect symbolism for social decay brought on by the capitalist caprice of the ultra-wealthy Godfrey family (represented, with an excess that the show at least acknowledges, by the massive and massively phallic ‘white tower,’ the Godfrey Inc. HQ building that dominates the landscape and appears, looming, in many a deep-focus shot).
But I didn’t watch the full season for the imagery. I watched because I wanted to know what was going to happen, what was real and what was fantasia or fake-out. In a very visceral sense, this—ontology—is a basic human drive: we want to know. It’s why we have paranoia, jealousy, and religion. And, in writing, it’s the most basic and effective structural tool around–even a freshman composition paper stands to benefit from a little mystery, a question posed in the introduction, the answer withheld until the conclusion. It’s why crime and mystery novels are thriving at a time when literary fiction is asphyxiating. It’s also how a lot of outstanding literary fiction gets smuggled past the publishing gate-keepers by acting like thrillers (check out Craig Clevenger’s The Contortionist Handbook or, going back a bit, Raymond Chandler’s closet-Modernism in The Big Sleep). Put another way, the appeal of mystery, the desire to pique and then satisfy the reader, is probably a healthy tonic to the self-satisfaction and sadism of the post-modern novel.
But there’s a hitch—for Hemlock Grove, and for ‘mysteries’ in general—in the form of paradox: we want to know but we’re always disappointed when we find out. Mythology is cool, of course; we like finding out who Fox Mulder’s father was, who killed Laura Palmer, and who engineered the xenomorphs. But it’s always a little bittersweet and a little disappointing. Learning the truth means the mystery is dead, and—worse—the truth is always less spectacular, less mind-blowing then we thought it would be. Those moments—the cryptic pronouncements from the Smoking Man, backwards dialog in the Red Room, a human face on an alien planet—where we recoil and say, ‘what the fuck?’, are ultimately the real thrill of thrillers.
At the end of the first season, Hemlock Grove gives us quite a few answers and they are, despite the beautiful visual style in which they are revealed, unimaginative and predictable (the final episode is almost entirely and unnecessarily expository). Still, the show keeps a few cards held tight—for the mercenary purpose of supporting a ‘Season 2,’ but also because it’s tapped into the aesthetic of the unknown. The show’s strongest moments come from the repeated motif of the characters who just don’t get to know, who don’t get the answers. For example: Dr. Clementine Chasseur (Kandyse McClure), a werewolf hunter posing as a Fish and Game officer and the show’s overt homage to Twin Peaks. (At one point she quips to a local detective, ‘I’m not here for your pie and [damn good] coffee,’ and—much like Agent Cooper—drops into obscurantist factoid mode.) Unlike Cooper, she doesn’t get to find out. She’s sidelined, and in a rather horrifying way—one of the show’s legitimately Argento-worthy bits of gore. In her last scene (of the season, at least), we experience through her something of the sublime of unknowing: the pure, horrifying thrill of mystery.
Very few works take us to the Black Lodge and leave us there. Almost always there’s a Fire Walk with Me. Lynch had fun with the medium and the genre and there’s something broadly parodic in the revelations about BOB and MIKE; the mythos of Twin Peaks is as ridiculous as our expectations that we can find answers. Like Hemlock Grove, it’s a massive—and entertaining—act of covering over, an intellectualized disavowal of how both series began: real and inexplicable death. What follows is an inverted procedural, a systematic reveal of what we don’t know. This is anti-ontology, the philosophy of what we cannot know—about each other, the world, the universe—and, like all things ‘anti,’ its appearances are rare and fleeting. And that’s what makes those ‘what the fuck’ moments so precious.