“Touched” is tonally all over the place and full of Joss Whedon’s favorite things, for good and ill, but there’s at least potential in the story it’s trying to tell.
This recap of The Nevers season 1, episode 1, “Touched”, contains spoilers.
Created, written, produced, and directed by Joss Whedon, the overly ambitious and woefully overstuffed new HBO steampunk sci-fi adventure The Nevers is blessed and cursed with all his usual storytelling impulses – including several of the worst ones. This, I suppose, is better than his worst real-life impulses, accusations about which coming from Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Charisma Carpenter and Justice League’s Ray Fisher, among others, probably led to Whedon stepping down as showrunner of The Nevers. But it’s a problem all the same. This genre-blending tale of Victorian women harnessing unusual abilities against the wishes of wider society feels a bit too smugly ahead of its audience to play as the crowd-pleaser that it’s obviously intended as, but then again, that’s just so Whedon, isn’t it?
Imagine me trying to parse this thing during the nebulous opening sequence, set on August 3, 1896, which depicts several seemingly random women – one throwing herself in the Thames, one pumping water, one being dragged to an asylum, one in a wheelchair – staring at the sky. Three years later, which is when we catch up with them again, this is supposed to have meant something. It certainly did within the fiction, but to us? We have no reason to care why that once suicidal widow is now our protagonist, Amalia True (Laura Donnelly), or to understand why she’s working with the water-pumping Penance Adair (Ann Skelly) to “exorcise” a young girl whose parents believe has been touched by the devil but who has really become suddenly polylingual. It’s a confusing, rather smug opening that ultimately amounts to a heavy-handed statement about Victorian London being in the midst of great cultural and technological upheaval – the lines between science and magic, real and imagined, dangerous and benign, are blurrier than they have ever been.
I’ll skip ahead of The Nevers episode 1 because it takes a good while to really lay out what’s going on here. See, Amalia and Penance are among “the touched”, a group of almost exclusively women who were, through some nebulous event three years prior, blessed with what seem to be small-scale superpowers – Amalia can see the future, but only in ambiguous, uncontrolled glimpses, and Penance can see the flow and will of electricity, all the better to help her with her inventions. Many of those inventions tend to be devices – such as a taser hidden in a frilly umbrella – that better allow them to recruit new fellows and stave off the assaults of various wrong-‘uns, including a mad doctor character played by Denis O’Hare who gets like one meaningful scene, and Lord Massen (Pip Torrens), a man of some considerable political import who believes that the “gifts” of these women are a knife already plunged midway into the belly of the Empire – but whose hands are on the hilt?
Maybe it’s just me, but given everything swirling around Whedon recently, it’s a bit icky to know he wrote this snappy dialogue in which men bicker about “our women” and almost every sentiment held by everyone is rooted in misogyny. It’s obviously intended to be empowering, and Amalia frequently becomes a mouthpiece for much more contemporary egalitarian ideas, which sometimes makes her seem like she’s from the future. But it’s occurring against the backdrop of a setting that’s so reminiscent of mainstream superhero fare – this is really just X-Men, and St. Romaulda’s orphanage, which has a literal giant stomping around the grounds, is the Xavier Institute – that any effort The Nevers makes to really challenge the social hierarchy seems a bit gimmicky.
St. Romaulda’s is funded by an heiress named Lavinia Bidlow (Olivia Williams), whose patronage no doubt has strings attached, but the exact function of the place beyond being a sanctuary is one of many things – another is Amalia saying, “This isn’t my face,” when Nick Frost threatens to slice it open, which is so obviously a weird teaser line that it doesn’t work as the badass retort it’s obviously intended as – that The Nevers episode 1 leaves deliberately unexplained. And there’s no wonder, really, since there’s the main plot of the episode, which squares Amalia and Penance off against Maladie (Amy Manson), a touched serial killer and the woman being dragged to an asylum in the opening, as well as competing subplots, including those smoky conversations between men of means, Ben Chaplin cutting about as a detective, and James Norton as a sexually adventurous toff who has designs on opening a sex club for the rich and powerful that’ll also double as a kind of blackmail and information brokerage. It’s a lot.
And it stands to be a lot more in coming episodes. Maladie kidnaps Mary (Eleanor Tomlinson) in the opener, an opera singer whose voice is audible only to those who’re touched and acts as something of a rallying cry, bringing them together and making them feel seen – not entirely dissimilar from Cerebro, really, but with a more obviously Victorian air to it. It’ll mean something, I’m sure, as will the countless other characters and ideas that Whedon picks up and quickly puts down again, like he’s some sort of choosy, capricious creator-God hovering over a game board. At the very least, the pieces are treated with seriousness and wit by the actors who embody them.
With all this going on, it’s almost ridiculous that Whedon ends The Nevers season 1, episode 1 by returning to an alternate version of that opening scene in which it’s revealed that the thing all the women were staring up in the sky at was a giant fish-shaped UFO that weaved through the sky and pumped glowing exhaust fumes over London. As we see the detritus settle on all the characters that we know to be touched, we realize that the finger of blame is being pointed squarely at extra-terrestrials. I mean, at this point, why not?