Hemlock Grove: Season 1 Overview
In 2013, flush with the success of the first season of House of Cards, Netflix decided to approach Brian McGreevy, who had developed and written a TV adaptation of his novel, Hemlock Grove. With Eli Roth on board to produce and direct, Netflix hoped it had its competitor to True Blood crossed with Twin Peaks. Hemlock Grove suffered mixed reviews, to put it mildly; I believe I described it as ‘excruciable and gave up after a few episodes. But, with the dawn of season three upon us, I decided to revisit Netflix’s attempt a serialised horror thriller.
Episode 1: Jellyfish in the Sky
In episode one, written by Lee Shipman and novelist Brian McGreevy and the only one directed by Eli Roth, we are introduced to the small town of Hemlock Grove, Western Pennsylvania. Here breathless pretty things give each other meaningful glances amidst the lush orange grading. We meet newcomers, Peter Romancek (possibly a werewolf) and his mother Lynda, both gypsies in that slightly backward ‘all Romani are mystical, romantic tramps and thieves’ way.
In opposition to their family are the pillars of community, the Godfreys. There’s son Roman who seems to have taken his cues from Ryan Phillippe in Cruel Intentions and might be a vampire and his sister Shelley whose name and countenance reference Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and whose monster is equally reviled by all except family.
Then among the adults there’s matriarch Oliva played by Famke Janssen who might also be a vampire, and her brother-in-law and reluctant lover Norman. Their affair, together with the horror of his daughter Shelley, is what caused Olivia’s husband to shoot himself, back in the day.
So, while Olivia drawls her weird accent at her former paramour to get him to increase R&D spending for The Godfrey Institute, presumably so their pet mad scientist Dr. Johann Pryce can resurrect more deceased daughters, Roman and Peter bond over a dead local girl. Brooke Bluebell was viciously murdered by some kind of beast; perhaps a beast on two legs though. Was it Peter and his lupine tendencies? Or Roman and his nascent vampirism, trying to cover the tracks of his liaisons with a hot cheerleader, clearly an act every high-schooler in their mid to late 20s would try to cover up.
Episode 2: The Angel
Wherein Letha, Norman's daughter and Roman's cousin, turns out to have been made pregnant by an Angel. Peter and Roman's friendship develops, and somehow Roman has determined that Peter really is a werewolf, and it's not just a rumour spread by Christina, a local young scribe. And, more baffling still, Peter accepts this and lets him watch the change.
And an impressive change it is, the wolf almost erupts from within. Not a transformation, an unleashing of the beast within.
But when he eats his own outer human flesh, it's always gross. It does make you wonder though, how does the reverse transformation look?
Episode 3: The Order of the Dragon
Enter Doctor Chasseur, a monster hunter from the Church and final nail in the coffin of sensible character naming. Shelley was one thing, but the sheriff is called Sworn, and the hunter is called Chasseur, French for 'hunter' and the Romani are called Romancek. And this is just episode three, there is more hokey naming to come.
But we do now have a name for our foe: a Vargulf, a werewolf gone mad, is killing the girls. But it's now hunted by not only Chasseur, but Roman and Peter, aided by Peter's witchy cousin Destiny.
Episode 4: in Poor Taste
The first episode not written by creator Brian McGreevy and still finding its feet. But, between the grave robbery and half references to oddities we have confirmation that Shelley had once died and been resurrected.
Episode 5: Hello, Handsome
Freed from the strictures of the writer of the first three episodes, Hemlock Grove strides a little more boldly. We have flashbacks now and the first of these is the revelation that it was Roman and Shelley's father who brought his daughter's corpse to Dr Pryce for resurrection.
Episode 6: The Crucible
Peter and Roman find the remains of the second victim, in the abandoned Godfrey steel mill. And then Roman abandons Peter there, putting their Brotherhood in peril.
Episode 7: Measure of Disorder
The pacing continues to improve, languorous despite the non-linear narrative, which suits the show well. By this point my previous, critical assessment has been largely revoked.
Peter and Roman break up and at last Olivia breaks down. Not only to ask Peter's mum Linda forsomethingo to soothe her cravings, but also to start cramming raw meat into her face.
Peter and Roman's cousin Letha get closer and closer. He is reluctant while she is sultry and seductive. And ultimately victorious.
Roman gets closer to becoming what he is. He's getting paler and more blood obsessed. And jealous of Peter in not the first, nor last, incestuous craving.
Episode 8: Catabasis
A catabasis is a descent and after Pryce takes down Roman and puts him in a coma, it's into a dreamworld that Roman descends. A dreamworld where Shelley, undeformed as he sees her, acts as a spirit guide, revealing truths to him. The most prominent: In the latest naming shenanigan, Roman is actually Norman's son. Roman. Norman. Right.
Episode 9: What Peter Can Live Without
Not much happens, but it's the full moon tonight. Peter and Letha are very much in love, so he sends her away for her safety.
Episode 10: What God Wants
As the town braces for a full moon attack, Roam awakens and decides to reforge his bonds with Peter. It's time to hunt the Vargulf.
Roman's a lot more balanced now, normal in his abnormality. Sympathetic. Overall everyone's less monstrous, even the evil twins and Olivia. Chasseur is the monster now, until she's stopped by Olivia.
But it's all to no use. The twins were presented as more sympathetic so we would feel aggrieved when they were brutally butchered by the Vargulf.
Episode 11: The Price
Christina, in the psychiatric care of Norman, has been increasingly agitated as her hair continues to turn utterly white. Perhaps this has accelerated after the death of her friends? Perhaps it's the guilt of accusing Peter as a werewolf to the town, which is now assembling a lynch mob to punish him for his alleged crimes.
Chasseur, the caged beast, is taunted by Olivia. Not long for this world.
Episode 12: Children of the Night
Chasseur is still alive, for no discernible purpose, other than a bit of exposition and to keep her death for the big climax.
But the revelation to the identity of the Vargulf, that was surprisingly satisfying: Subtly foreshadowed, kept in the shadows, surprising without feeling like a cheat. After all, with Peter turning into a black werewolf, what better imagery for his opponent than a white one?
Poor, vicious, confused Christina. She chose to voluntarily become a werewolf, to experience a story of her own. It's pretty messed up, but manages to make sense narratively and makes the end tense and harrowing, more so than if the culprit were a monstrous other.
The wolf erupting from the flesh is still gross, especially when they're chewing each other's faces off. A solid cliffhanger with tension, family axes, wolves and eat and violence. Quite accomplished!
Episode 13: Birth
WolfPeter is back from the brink and to the rescue! But he falls! Who can save Roman now? Who else but his devoted sister Shelley. She is victorious, but in Christina's defeat she returns to the form of an innocent-looking girl. Innocent-looking enough for Sheriff Sworn to feel certain Shelley is the true monster, shooting and wounding her, as she escapes into the night.
So, a peace of a kind returns to Hemlock Grove; and yet it's still early in this final episode, there are more revelations to come:
- Norman and Olivia are engaged.
- Letha Godfrey gives birth, with endless trauma. Not only does she not survive childbirth, but it turns out that the father/angel was in fact... Roman. Just to complete the incestuous loop.
- Peter and his mother skip town after Letha's death, with no reason left to stay.
- Roman can't cope with all the trauma: Peter's betrayal, his sister/cousin's death and the responsibilities of fatherhood.
- So, to at last silence the endless manipulations of his mother, he fully embraces his upir/vampire nature, killing his mother in the process.
The endless denouement feels a bit strained by the end, especially when we see the in-episode teasers for season 2, like Sworn harbouring a lot of C4. But the funnest is left until last, even though it's yet another naming atrocity: After all, with a name like Christina, why wouldn't she enjoy a resurrection?
Having watching all of Season 1, I've had to change my opinion of it. It turned out not to be 'excruciable' at all. While initially hampered by its writing, and some dodgy namings, Hemlock Grove became something quite solid, even enjoyable. It’s very much of it’s genre, a small-town gothic monster tale, burdened by its source material. But I shall certainly be giving season two a go.