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'Hemlock Grove' recap: A gory homecoming

Season 2 | Episode 1 | “Blood Pressure” | Released July 11, 2014

Hemlock Grove, whose anticipated second season dropped today on Netflix, was never intended to have the aesthetic cohesion of Hannibal or the consistent weirdness of Twin Peaks. Rather, its appeal lies in a mythology that takes center stage in this season’s run. Although the first episode of the new season suggests a sanitization of some of the perversions that made season one such a campy ride, it still manages to use the grotesque so efficiently that fans of the show will not be disappointed.

The episode opens as a silver-masked man enters into a home under the cover of darkness. After ruffling the hair of a sleeping child, he makes his way down into the kitchen, where he explodes the house by turning on the gas and leaving a lit candle. It’s an eloquent moment in what is essentially a crude and non-intimate mass murder. The killing sequence ends with the killer, his mask discarded, engaging in a bit of self-flagellation. And thus begins what looks to be the season’s central murder mystery.

What’s fascinating about this opening is that it is shot according to the expected contemporary style found in horror, and yet it is relatively silent. It’s a brave creative choice because, without the swelling, ominous score, the scene works to normalize what the audience is seeing rather than evoking fear.

But while Hemlock Grove deals in horror, it excels in teen angst, and there is plenty on tap in the premiere. In Ohio, Peter Rumancek (Landon Liboiron) is attending the funeral of a fellow gypsy. The fact that the deceased is sitting up in a chair receiving visitors with a scotch in hand pretty much makes it the most excellent funeral on record. But despite the surrounding party atmosphere, Peter is still deeply depressed over the death of his love, Letha (Penelope Mitchell). There is a wonderful moment between Peter and his mother, Lynda (Lili Taylor), in which she promises her son that he will find love again. A police raid in which Lynda is arrested and extradited back to Hemlock Grove interrupts the sentimental exchange. Chief among her crimes is selling muskrat meat, trespassing as a circus performer and check fraud. Don’t tell me this show doesn’t have a sense of humor.

Peter and his cousin, Destiny (Kaniehtiio Horn), are told by a lawyer that Lynda is being charged under RICO on racketeering charges and that the lawyer requires a $20,000 retainer fee. As the despondent pair head back to Hemlock Grove, flashes of the man in the silver mask assault Peter. As was established last season, visions are just a side perk to Peter being part-werewolf.

On the other side of town, Roman (Bill Skarsgård) is up to his usual tricks, this time running roughshod over Godfrey Industries. In the wake of his mother’s death (we’ll get to her in a second), Roman is hell-bent on making an enemy out of the devious Dr. Pryce (Joel de la Fuente). Roman suggests to the board that Dr. Pryce’s work is outdated and should instead focus on extending the youth experience. The resulting tension between the men then moves from the boardroom to the bathroom, which is apropos considering a pissing match quickly ensues.

By the midway point, the episode has been mainly interested in exposition and reestablishing the characters. It’s a smart choice even if it runs the risk of alienating some of the more impatient viewers. But languid storytelling soon gives way to the shock-and-gore moments we’ve come to expect from this show. Not only do we discover that Olivia (Famke Janssen) is alive and being rehabilitated by Dr. Pryce, but we are treated to an up-close view of her surgically reattached tongue. Yes, the same tongue that was chewed off by her son in last season’s finale. It’s an appetizer of sorts for the banquet of gore about to be served up in Hemlock Grove’s inimitable style.

When Olivia pointedly asks Dr. Pryce how her half-upir (half-human, quarter-witch, quarter-demon) son is feeding himself, the audience is reminded that Roman requires feeding on blood to stay alive. Yet resisting the urge to kill means that Roman is forced to turn toward some unsavory means of feeding himself. In a scene that echoes an exchange between john and prostitute, it is revealed that Roman pays an elderly man to serve as an human incubator for leeches, which Roman then hungrily rips off from the man’s body and consumes. It is a visceral scene that requires a strong stomach to manage.

The inevitable reunion between Peter and Roman is as taut as you’d expect, given the history between the two. While Peter decides to beg Roman for the money to launch Lynda’s defense, Roman remains unmoved and kicks out his former ally. With no more options, Peter hatches a con that imparts some much-needed levity into the episode. He convinces two low-level drug dealers that he has a marketable hallucinogenic, then proceeds to morph into a werewolf in order to convince the men of the drug’s impact. While we’ve seen the horrific process of Peter morphing before, this moment is somehow more disturbing. Seeing Peter eat his own flesh while one of the drug dealers vomits provides a cacophony of repulsion that will appeal to splatter film fans.

A haunting montage of snakes, forked tongues, self flagellation and dead fish brings the narrative full circle back to the man in the silver mask, and sets the stage for what is sure to be this season’s overarching mystery. The episode’s big reveal comes in its final moments. After failing to kill in order to satiate his hunger, Roman enters into a soundproof room, where it is revealed that his child with Letha is alive and well and sporting a particularly bright blue pair of eyes.

Comments, Gripes & Observations

  • Norman remains a character defined only by his relationships. With Letha dead, his identity now comes solely through his interactions with Olivia. His scenes cause the story to stop dead in its tracks.
  • Any guesses as to who is floating in Dr. Pryce’s water chamber? I’m still holding out hope Letha was saved, as the girl floating bears a certain resemblance.
  • I found the lack of Shelley in this inaugural episode disappointing and confusing. I hope to see more of this character, whose arc holds so much potential.
  • Does anyone else suspect that the seemingly gratuitous sexual encounter between Destiny and the mystery man at the funeral will serve a larger purpose?
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