Blindness strikes the crew of The Magus when they trespass on a tribe's sacred land.

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Credit: Mario Perez/ABC
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So we come to it. The true test of a new high-concept series’ mettle. The second week. This can be a make-or-break moment for a new show. Terra Nova had a pretty decent, expansive, dare-I-say “cinematic” pilot. But after episode 2, with the Shannon family’s toddler in peril because of CGI pterodactyls, it was clear that show had no interest in pushing televisual boundaries, but was content to be a tepid “family hour” of teen romance and feel-good parent-child bonding filtered through the seen-’em-all clichés of cop, doctor, and military procedurals. Talk about a dinosaur! Episode 2 proved a deal-breaker for FlashForward, V, and Invasion, as well.

So I have good news for you. “Los Ciegos,” the second week episode of The River not only maintained the promise of its pilot—it exceeded it. That’s not to say that it didn’t share some perfunctory similarity to other less successful pilot follow-ups. Oddly enough, series of this ilk often build on their debut with what could be called a Trial of the Flesh. Terra Nova’s third episode was scraping the bottom of the TV barrel: an amnesia story line. Check that. The bottom of the barrel was truly reached on Star Trek: Enterprise, which took only three episodes to reach a male pregnancy plot. Lost more successfully explored a Trial of the Flesh six episodes into its first season when Charlie gave up drugs. These are all episodes about someone repenting for past sins or overcoming a crippling fear, and both such elements occurred in “Los Ciegos,” an hour that suggested The River may be more interested in developing its characters than merely subjecting us to silly found-footage shocks. But if they do want more of the latter, showrunner Oren Peli seems to know that the best scares come when you actually care about the characters on screen.

“Los Ciegos” opened with a 2002 clip from Emmet Cole’s Undiscovered Country series. I immediately cried foul when he said that sharks are so aggressive that they even start devouring one another “while in the womb.” I mean, only mammals have wombs, right? Yes and no. While thinking to myself that either Dr. Cole is really stupid, and thus his series was maybe just a cover for more covert research, or, and more likely, that The River is really stupid, I did a little research, and apparently Cole’s somewhat right. Unlike a lot of other fish, female sharks of many species carry fertilized eggs to term, though in an oviduct, not a “womb” per se. Hence, their number of offspring from any given reproduction cycle is relatively low. Also, I guess I should have realized that sharks would be smart enough to know that external fertilization isn’t any fun. No matter. The thematic point being set up here, I think, is that individuals can turn on each other when in a confined setting like the womb or The Magus. Like Kurt, apparently plotting the deaths of his fellow crew members in conjunction with some shadowy operatives on the other end of a satellite phone. Or Clark, willing to abet Kurt just because his betrayal will make for good ratings.

Walking deeper into the jungle after their dual experiences with ghosts in their first ten days up the river, the crew of The Magus quickly saw a portent of doom: the mark of the Morcegos, an Amazonian tribe so fearsome that locals tell stories to their children about them to make them behave. Kind of like how my dad invented a mythical school (I think mythical. I hope mythical) called Morganza that he threatened to send me to if I misbehaved. I have issues. But unlike Morganza, these Morcegos were all too real, as evidenced by their chalk-outline symbol, an open eye. It was a warning for our party not to go any further. Sacred land was ahead. Apparently, nobody in the group had seen Jeremiah Johnson or they’d know the perils of venturing into the sacred land of a native people. And they entered into the most sacred part of that sacred land, a terrifyingly claustrophobic cave. All except for A.J., who we learned had been trapped in a mine on a previous job and now refused to go underground. At all. So he watched the camera equipment as everybody else went down into the bowels of the earth, hoping to run into Emmet. Instead, they discovered a corpse missing its eyes. Don’t worry, it wasn’t Emmet, or even Lena’s father. Just some random dude who’d left the Morcegos majorly PO’d. Think of the Morcegos like the Hovitos from Raiders of the Lost Ark, except they protect their ancestral land via disembowelment and inflicted blindness and not by rolling boulders.

NEXT: The River goes all José Saramago on us when the Magus crew is stricken with blindness.Yes, that’s the reason why the Morcegos’ symbol is an eye. They use a chemical extracted from one of the myriad pernicious rainforest plants to make their enemies go blind. And every one of the Magus party except A.J. ventured into the cave. So every one of the Magus party except A.J. found themselves laying next to Chalk Eyes the next morning. One by one they went blind.

I felt bad for Lincoln that he was going to lose his sight just after getting a haircut that finally made him look like someone other than Chad Kroeger. Of course, Clark, our cynical reality-show producer, wasn’t buying it. I particularly loved his comment, “Every corner of the Amazon has story legends to keep out the white people. We’re not here to drill for oil or clear-cut the forest. We’re here to make a TV show!” I don’t know…Keeping Up With the Kardashians definitely ranks alongside strip-mining and slash-and-burn deforestation as Horrors White People Have Wrought. But Clark’s doubts notwithstanding, Emilio was suddenly stricken with blindness. Then Jahel. Then Tess. Then Clark himself.

Not only is blindness an interesting Trial of the Flesh, it’s one that has particular thematic resonance for The River. This is a show built entirely around sight. Well, I guess all shows or movies are, but this one has sight as a self-conscious motif. It’s all about what we can see for ourselves, what we can’t see, and what cameras can help us to see that we wouldn’t be able to otherwise. Sometimes we’re looking at the environment from pretty much the POV of a singular character. Other times we can see things that they can’t see. If you ask me, I think the subjective POV approach has worked more successfully on The River. I find the objective gaze of the hidden security cameras to be distancing both literally—they result in everyone and everything being framed in long shot—and thematically. It takes you out of the action and weakens your identification with the people on screen, making them more creatures than characters—creatures who you’re waiting to see picked off with glee instead of dread. Why Hitchcock was a far greater filmmaker than say, his French contemporary and suspense-movie rival Henri-Georges Clouzot, was that he fiercely limited your own perspective at any given time to that of a character. That’s how he generated suspense, not merely shock. Admittedly, there were a couple objective moments in “Los Ciegos” I appreciated: Especially the way it subverted the horror-movie trope of having something terrifying pop up to a window to scare somebody, when that one Morcego appeared in a window on the Magus but Jahel couldn’t see him. She was blind, after all! But I still can’t help but feel that this found-footage style—composed largely of angles too low, too high, or conversely, too perfectly centered, and always with all parts of the frame in perfect focus—justifies the production team’s lacking ability to compose a shot.

NEXT: Kurt stabs Clark, but by accident or on purpose?This sounds like I hate this show. But I don’t! I really don’t. I just feel that its commitment to this particular faux-documentary aesthetic is undermining its potential for character development and, yes, truly bone-chilling scares. Anyway, it has enough commentary about the manipulative artifice of reality TV right there in the plot. Like that great moment when Clark told Kurt, once he realized that they are all going to be stricken blind, that he knows he has a satellite phone and has been in touch with people elsewhere. Basically, Clark said he liked having a villain on board, because it makes for good drama. Except now that drama could be spilling over to affect Clark himself, which is unacceptable. He wanted an exit plan, so he asked Kurt to call for help. Later, when a severed boar’s head came floating near The Magus, probably a sign from the Morcegos that they were angry Clark shot a boar in the jungle earlier that day, Kurt assumed the natives were ready to attack. So he turned and stabbed one who’d climbed aboard….only it was actually Clark. Coincidence that Clark had just told Kurt he knew his secret? Highly doubtful. The threat of the natives gave Kurt the perfect opportunity to stab that meddling TV producer. (However you interpret what happened, this is the kind of great scene that comes from limiting our vision to the point-of-view of a character.)

So now, a bunch of the crew was blind, and one was blind and stabbed. So Lena went back into the jungle with Kurt and A.J. to look for a bulb that grows underneath a sendito tree, the sap of which can counteract the neurotoxin that caused everyone to go blind in the first place. After all, for every yin the jungle also provides a yang. The only question was, could AJ, Kurt, and Lena find the antidote and return to the ship before going blind?

Well now Lincoln had to stitch Clark up. Except that as soon as he got the sutures in hand, he went blind himself. Forget about the blind leading the blind; how about the blind operating on the blind? Meanwhile, the Morcegos began boarding the ship, so everybody had to huddle in their rooms behind locked doors. Thus it was every man for himself. That meant that the only way for Lincoln to stop Clark’s bleeding was to fire up a knife until it was red hot, then use that to cauterize his wound. Blind.

This became a time of reflection and repentance for Clark. First he needed to atone to Lincoln for having an affair with Tess. Lincoln wanted to just chalk it up to his mother being lonely while his dad was lost in the jungle. But Clark made it clear that Tess didn’t cheat on Emmet with him; Emmet left Tess to go on his adventure in the Amazon, all but ending their marriage. Tess would rather have Lincoln think she’d been unfaithful than mar the memory of his father. Then, when Lincoln was about to step foot outside and confront the Morcegos single-handedly, Clark bopped him on the head and took his place. Only instead of fighting he announced to the natives that he had been the reason the crew had crawled into their sacred cave, and he’d only gotten the others to do it by paying them or threatening them or tempting them with finding their lost family member. It was a genuine act of contrition, a lot more real than we ever could have expected from Clark this early in the series.

NEXT: A.J. literally goes down the rabbit hole.Well, for a tribe that disembowels trespassers, the Morcegos were more than willing to listen to reason. And they took Clark’s cue to withdraw. Not a moment too soon for A.J., either. Kurt had made another call to his co-conspirators on his sat phone saying, “The crew will never find Cole or the Source. They’ll be dead in days.” But as dastardly as that was, A.J. himself upped the ante. When Kurt and Lena went blind, he abandoned them in the woods, declaring his intention to keep walking through the jungle by himself until he discovered civilization. He’d then check himself into a Four Seasons, gorge on Pay-per-view, then call for his friends he left behind to be rescued. But before he could wallow in 300 thread-count sheets, he discovered the sendito tree all by himself. Unfortunately, he’d have to crawl underneath the tree into a claustrophobic, cavelike space to retrieve the bulbs that would cure his friends’ blindness. Yes, he’d have to face his fear head-on. And, after a lengthy torrent of bleeped-out profanity, he did just that.

But before he could gather any bulbs the crawlspace seemed to collapse in around him. His greatest fear was coming true. Thankfully, at that very moment Clark uttered his apology and the Morcegos withdrew, a pair of arms reached into the cave and pulled A.J. out. Oh, and those arms left A.J. some sendito bulbs too. The natives were appeased, and everyone’s eyesight was restored. Huzzah!

The only problem was that Kurt started to think maybe Clark would get ideas about the real reason he stabbed him. He came, hat in hand, to apologize. Needless to say, Clark was not appeased, and more bleeped profanity ensued. It looks like this “mole” story line is moving ahead pretty quickly. Whatever problems I may have with this show’s stylistic choices, they don’t extend to The River‘s pace. If only all new mythology-driven series could be this snappy! But who knows? I probably said the same thing about the first few episodes of The Walking Dead, and now more than half of that series has taken place on a farm.

What did you think of “Los Ciegos”? Is your enjoyment of the plot, the scares, and the ongoing mysteries hampered or enhanced by the faux-documentary format? Just how long exactly do you think it will take before we actually meet Emmet in the present? And are you, like me, still disappointed that this isn’t a TV adaptation of Jean Renoir’s The River?

Addendum: I just discovered Morganza is real! Now I’m even more scared.

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The River

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