REVIEW: Hemlock Grove Season 2 in one gory binge-watch
Another year, another season of fraught relationships and messy, bloody gore.
The difference between the second season of Netflix's premiere horror show Hemlock Grove and its first is vast. At times, it felt like watching a completely different show populated with the same characters. Some of that, of course, can be attributed to the source material. Author Brian McGreevy, who wrote the novel on which the first season was based, only wrote one book. There wasn't a complete series to base future episodes on, even though the first season hardly tied everything up in a neat little package. Moving forward, the show's writers were flying on their own. A few shakeups were to be expected.
Still, some of the pulpy, dripping heart from the first season was lost along the way. Season 1 was designed as a gothic drama: gypsies and werewolves and upir, an old moneyed family, a mysterious supernatural murderer killing off teenage girls. The reveal of the killer's identity was a fantastic flip of the old dead, pretty girls trope — poor Christina (the much-missed Freya Tingley), driven mad with rage and envy. The story was fairly straightforward, and it was the kind of show where the ultimate payoff of the final two episodes was worth slogging through some slow, clunky moments in the beginning.
This year, things got more convoluted. The boys aren't in high school anymore; seven months have passed and now they've both settled into something vaguely resembling adulthood, and it's not setting well on either of them. Too many side characters were involved in too many plots that never ended up coming together. A particular problem was Olivia's (Famke Janssen) arc, which spiraled all over the place, her actions never adding up to a cohesive whole — though to be fair, her tortured relationship with her brother-in-law Norman (Dougray Scott) was a weak point of the first season, as well. It was hard to believe them when they professed their love for each other, given that they spent most episodes on opposite sides of arguments or having very impersonal sex.
Still, there was some fun to be had in Season 2.
It was a great choice to open the season with Peter (Landon Liboiron) and Roman (Bill Skarsgård) at odds with each other. Their friendship has always been the most compelling thing about the series. It's not just the actors' chemistry, though that certainly contributes, but the show's made it clear that Peter and Roman are the first real friends they've both ever had in their lives. Easily the best scene of the season was Peter's sincere apology for running off after Letha's death. "You were my only friend," he told Roman, radiating genuine remorse. "And I shouldn't have abandoned you, and I'm sorry." It took Roman longer to reach a place where he could forgive, but their deep understanding and fierce love for each other refused to be shaken off. Not to mention their shared recurring dreams.
Both Peter and Roman struggled with their dual natures this season, though on opposite ends of the spectrum, and the parallels were one of the most interesting components of the season. Roman fought against his upir instincts with everything in him, undergoing dramatically painful gene therapy to try to force the bloodlust out. Peter, on the other hand, finally embraced his inner wolf, to the point where he came to rely on it too much. In Hemlock Grove mythology, a werewolf who turns on any moon besides a full one is at risk for becoming a vargulf or losing their humanity altogether, and once Peter went too far, Roman was the only one who could pull him back, reaching inside the wolf and literally ripping the body apart in a geyser of blood to drag his only friend out of it.
Miranda Cates (Madeline Brewer, last seen as Tricia Miller on Orange Is the New Black) was a welcome addition to the show. A surrogate mother to baby Nadia and an object of lust and love to both Roman and Peter, she started the season as in control of her life and self-assured, but by the end, the realization that both her lovers and the baby she so tenderly cared for were all supernatural creatures made her unravel. Still, she was a shot of humanity that both Peter and Roman sorely needed in their lives, and a conduit towards bringing them back together. Additionally, kudos to the show for being unafraid to show Roman, Peter, and Miranda in bed together, fallen into a three-way relationship bonded by their love for Letha's daughter and each other.
It wasn't a bad idea to give Shelley, newly recast and now played by Madeleine Martin, her own story, and while it was clever to tie it to last season's mysterious Project Ouroboros, it's frustrating as a viewer to see so much buildup only to have it fall flat at the last minute, especially based on Olivia's whims, which spent the whole season wildly oscillating as it was. It was also frustrating that Christina was brought back for such a short, brief scene, only to be killed by Shelley all over again. If last season's terrifying Big Bad is going to be resurrected, it's incredibly unsatisfying to have it resolved before things get scary.
It was always going to be a struggle to top last season's vargulf mystery, but this year's religious sect hunting down babies and small children suspected of being the Antichrist was more bland and much less terrifying than Christina's joyful insanity. While the show definitely stayed as bloody and disgusting as last year, it lost quite a few steps in terms of causing actual terror, and a lot of that stems from a less-exciting mystery.
Lili Taylor's no-nonsense Lynda Rumancek was sorely missed, too, only appearing in two episodes before being carted off to jail and then escaping to Romania. While it gave Peter a reason to return to Roman and Hemlock Grove, and was narratively necessary to leave him a little more lost and unmoored, Lynda's nonchalant approach to even the ugly parts of life would have been nice for some moments of much-needed levity — although it was definitely appreciated that one of the charges on her rap sheet was "trespassing as a circus clown in order to steal an elephant." Anyone want to get a Kickstarter going for a web series?
Hemlock Grove has never shied away from the gore. Peter's horrifying werewolf transformation in the first season is still one of the more disgusting things ever shown on television, and this year, it's as though someone elicited a challenge to try to top that. Roman chowing down on leeches pulled off an old man's chest and back? Check. Miranda's nipples leaking blood through her shirt while breastfeeding? Check. And what Season 2 review of Hemlock Grove would be complete without a special mention of the scene where a drug kingpin gelds two employees who let him down while verbally comparing them to farm animals? Major check.
Additionally, Roman is one of the show's major characters, and Skarsgård does an excellent job of making him complex, someone you loathe and root for all in the same measure, and his very real affection and tenderness for Peter softens him enormously. Still, it's hard to forget that baby Nadia is a result of him raping poor Letha, even if it was a result of Olivia's machinations. (Not to mention that he raped a second girl midway through the first season.) When that's taken into account, it's harder to have sympathy for him, or even swallow one of his tirades where he bemoans what a monster Olivia is. Being an upir didn't make him a rapist; there's no excuse for it, and as a result, it's sometimes a struggle to become reinvested in his problems.
Overall, not quite as strong as Season 1, but Peter and Roman's deep bond make it a season worth sticking around for.