HBO's historical fantasy reveals its fascinating true mission in the midseason finale.

By Darren Franich
May 17, 2021 at 01:15 AM EDT
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Warning: This review contains spoilers for The Nevers episode 6, "True."

There is no better feeling in television than watching a bad show turn into a good show. It can be a moment of clarity, so many dark clouds (lame characters, awkward plotting) clearing to reveal a hidden excellence. Or maybe the evolution sparks from an act of merry destruction: Eliminate the bad, make way for the good.

The sixth episode of The Nevers is the troubled HBO drama's best hour yet, and the last before a midseason hiatus. An extended investigation into the secret histories of Amalia (Laura Donnelly), "True" is a great showcase for the best character. The focal-flashback structure ignores various speechy baddies and boring aristocrats — and nobody mentions that terrible brothel. But the episode also expands the series' scope in every direction. A bold time leap edges the superheroes-of-steampunk setting into a head-spinning new science-fiction landscape. Suddenly we're myth-building a three-way galactic war across time that's also a deeply personal duel for the soul of humanity.

The episode reveals just what an elaborate sandbox creator Joss Whedon was building for himself here, before his controversy-swamped departure. The flash-forward, which bears a striking resemblance to a key plot turn from his earlier series Dollhouse, reframes the drama's possibilities. And I'll admit, I didn't think much of The Nevers when it debuted. The whole setting was self-consciously twee, and you always felt the writers reaching for their old-tymey thesaurus ("My ablutions!"). It looked like a lot of "Christmas Carol crap" to me, to borrow a helpful phrase from episode 6. "True" doesn't fix every problem, but it adds crucial context. Our hero knows she's trapped in "18-f---ity-12," and she's not happy about it.

Did those revelations need to take so long? This was an architected twist that required a long lead-up — but it's also the core of the series, offering clear motivation that was missing in the early episodes. The episode ends with Amalia deciding to fill her compatriots in. "It's time to tell them everything," she tells trusted partner Penance (Ann Skelly). "The future, the Galanthi, the fight that's coming." She sounds like a TV producer deciding that, yes, the characters on her show should know what show they're on. And it was clear throughout the first five episodes that something was going on with Amalia, the resident badass and apparent leader of the Touched orphanage. There was talk about mysterious battles in her past — and a strange void in conversations about Why They're Doing What They're Doing. "The future of the world depends on the present," Penance told Amalia last week. "Isn't that why you're here?"

The Nevers
Laura Donnelly and Ann Skelly on 'The Nevers'
| Credit: Keith Bernstein/HBO

EXT. THE FUTURE OF THE WORLD — NIGHT: That's where "True" begins, with paratroopers dropping over a blasted-to-hell metropolis. The soldiers hail from the Planetary Defense Coalition, an army locked in global combat with a religiousy sect known as Free Life. The squad is investigating a spatial anomaly in some kind of secret laboratory. A gunfight brings them into contact with a battle-scarred ally, who's called Stripe (Claudia Black).

The characters speak in a futuristic lingo — hiding is "possuming," doctors are "knitters," VR porn is "f---tech," morphine is just "feen" — so I honestly couldn't figure out if "Stripe" was a military rank, a cultural identity, or an insult. But Black is amazing in the part, nursing "28 years of blood and s---" with terse dark humor. With a résumé that includes Pitch BlackFarscapeStargate SG-1, and the last few Gears of War games, Black's arrival symbolizes the episode's larger genre-shift from magical corseted banter into high-tech horde-mode exhaustion.

The episode splits into four chapters. The first, "Stripe," crafts a mini-Aliens slasher mystery. The Planetary Defense soldiers try to figure out what happened to the facility's scientists — and find their tortured alien friend, a member of a mysterious race called the Galanthi. People start dying, gradually and then suddenly. There's a lot of tantalizing information doled out about this dreary future, where 5 billion people are freshly dead and nuclear bombs fly a bit freely. The Galanthi come in peace, apparently, and carry with them "spores," which can "emphatically enhance" human beings.

Or something? Part of the fun here is how purposefully obtuse the storytelling is, with characters talking in very familiar terms about events a little beyond our understanding. The crucial tone to catch is utter nihilism. Knitter (Elora Torchia) is a young woman who fervently believes the Galanthi can rescue Earth from its death spiral. Stripe has lost everyone and everything. She had a couple spouses, and they never knew her true name. (Personal information is sacred in this sad world.) Knitter tries to talk the elder soldier toward a bit of hope — and then winds up dead.

After betrayal and murder leave the squad wrecked, the Galanthi seems to be retreating to its home world. Stripe retreats into morphine overdose. Somehow, on the cusp of death, the soldier's soul/brain/life-energy gets pulled through the creature's wormhole. She wakes up long ago, in another woman's body.

But first: Chapter 2 is another flashback, moving in a separate but parallel timeline. (Oh boy, a temporal pincer movement!) It's a pocket-size life story of the real Molly True, a kind woman suffering working-class torment in a society that renders her gender powerless. A loveless marriage produces two miscarriages. Her husband dies in debt. Her sick mother-in-law is a near-corpse maintained at great expense. In an episode full of twists, this chapter is the boldest experiment, capturing one regular person's downward spiral. (The script is credited to Jane Espenson, and director Zetna Fuentes evokes Molly's sorrowful futility with clever visual storytelling: a back alley where the walls seem to close in, a fateful decision to turn right instead of left.)

Donnelly was always having fun on The Nevers, playing True as a no-nonsense person in an all-nonsense world. "True" lets her demonstrate her skills as an accent ninja. Molly goes into the water sounding like an impoverished Londoner and comes out with Stripe's deadpan North American rasp. Chapter 3, "The Madwoman in the Thames," traps her in a loony bin, but the asylum marks a new beginning. She reveals her entire history to Dr. Cousens (Zackary Momoh), who provides a handy one-sentence summary for the whole Nevers mythology: "Aliens from the future gave us magical powers!" They become lovers, while fellow inmate Sarah (Amy Manson) turns into Amalia's closest friend.

It's the layout of a superhero origin story, with so many first meetings that will turn into epic showdowns, and a montage of Amalia My Fair Lady­-ing her accent and Rocky-fying her body into action shape. Dr. Hague (Denis O'Hare) swings by, sniffing out rumors of cosmic visions. As an act of self-preservation, Amalia throws Sarah to that wolf. This original sin is, on some level, the invention of Maladie — and then Lavinia (Olivia Williams) arrives with her proposition to open the orphanage.

That's how we got here. "So, now what?" Amalia says in Chapter 4, titled "True." Amalia has been promising her friends the Galanthi will save the world. But the body count keeps rising, and now the city is on fire. "Why did it go so wrong?" Amalia asks the giant glowing orb with the miracle alien inside. "Who is this? Who the f--- am I?"

It is, I think, another meta moment: the hero of a TV show asking what she's supposed to be doing, and why. In response, the Galanthi offers a rush of visions: memories from Stripe's life and Molly's life, alongside brief glimpses of future events. A shadowy voice asks, "Did you think you were the only one who hitched a ride?" So someone else from Stripe's time is also here — possibly multiple someones, possibly hiding in plain sight, embedded in the body of a trusted friend. Is that why Myrtle (Viola Prettyjohn) appears, looking ethereal in a purple-cosmos landscape? She's been a deep supporting character so far; her ability to use every language except English is mainly a running joke. But here she speaks plainly, and portentously: "Oh, Amalia, this is a long time from that little cave. This I will need you to forget."

Amalia does forget. And it's not like her chat with the Galanthi offers any clear answers. "I didn't find out who our enemy is," she tells Penance. "True" ends almost precisely where last week's episode wrapped up. Amalia and Penance don't know yet that Lord Massen (Pip Torrens) and the Beggar King (Nick Frost) are turning their city into a war zone. Presumably, season 1 will return with London in the grips of mob violence.

But this episode closes on a note of affirmation: Finally, we're all on the same page. And the sudden expansion of The Nevers mythology offers amazing possibilities in the road ahead. Amalia isn't just any time traveler. She's a future person who studied this era — the Victorian setting is, she explains, "so specific to my three-term focus." Will her knowledge of future historical events guide her actions? Or as she seems to fear, is her presence in the late 1890s already nudging history in a weirder, worse direction?

There's an emerging trend, somewhere between an experimental style and a political movement, of TV shows trying to fix history. This is most obvious in something like Hollywood, which imagines a Tinseltown golden age that hurled Oscars at underrepresented groups of people. But you can feel that instinct in something like Bridgerton (what if Regency London wasn't so white?) or Dickinson (what if Emily Dickinson got to just tell people "This is such bulls---!") "True" literalizes this artistic mission into an act of world-saving heroism. Amalia is literally ahead of her time, a renegade from an age of total catastrophe that seems not too far from today. The oncoming 20th century is her ticking clock. Can she save the future? Can she save us?  It is "a life's work," Penance tells her, "like as not to drive us mad."

Whedon's earlier TV shows had some wild twists. But The Nevers' massive time jump most vividly callfs to mind the "Epitaph" episodes of Dollhouse. The Fox series starred Eliza Dushku as a mind-wiped agent employed by a mysterious organization that programmed her with new personalities for various sexy-violent assignments. Then season 1 ended, more or less out of nowhere, with a bonus episode (initially released on DVD) that jumped forward in time. Another dark future, another ruined Earth, another mind-bending prophecy that the action antics of a banter-y hero team connect upward into destructive global history.

Dollhouse is the most retroactively controversial Whedon project, a disturbing tale of mental-physical enslavement that is either a deconstruction of predatory gender-power dynamics or a roundabout celebration of same. I love the show's mess, though I respect why some viewers despise it. Its abbreviated two-season run pushes in all kinds of crazy directions, constantly flipping the narrative chessboard. That instinct is all over "True," which is the first episode that made me genuinely curious about Whedon's larger plan with The Nevers.

Where will the show go from here? New showrunner Philippa Goslett will steer the series through season 1's second half, which seems rather far away. HBO had high hopes for The Nevers, and the premiere ratings weren't bad, but the ever-expanding Whedon cloud complicated the network's hope for another fantasy hit. If the next episode picks up where "True" left off, the characters will face the violent aftermath of Maladie's failed execution. (Maybe it will be like the "No Man's Land" arc from GothamGotham ruled!) It seems clear that The Nevers will return with the city in chaos. Ironically, this final episode was the high point for the series as a non-chaotic piece of coherent drama. The exciting revelations about Amalia's past promise to redefine the show's future. If it has one.

Midseason finale grade: A-
Season grade: B-

Related content:

The Nevers

The Nevers

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  • TV Show
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  • Joss Whedon

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