In Stray Observations, The A.V. Club collects its thoughts on recent streaming-TV releases that aren’t being covered episode-by-episode in TV Club. In this edition: The Innocents, which debuted on Netflix on Friday, August 24.
Note: This article contains plot points of The Innocents.
The first season of The Innocents is more of a love story than anything else. The Scandinavian-noir vibes are there, and there are some sci-fi touches with all the shape-shifting, but it’s the blossoming and challenging relationship between Harry and June that acts as the show’s center. There’s great potential for that romance to dip into cliché—and The Innocents doesn’t totally avoid those trappings—but that’s mostly avoided because of the solid performances from Sorcha Groundsell and Percelle Ascott as June and Harry. Their chemistry lights up the screen, and they seem to have a very good understanding of how to convey the wild swings in emotions, from hopelessness to intense joy, that come with being a teenager and facing a world that’s unfamiliar.
If there’s a standout from the supporting players, it has to be Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, who plays the hulking, bearded, strangely tender Steinar, right? Steinar is a complicated character with a villainous intro, but is revealed to perhaps have June’s best interests in mind. The Innocents in general is very good at giving every character their own understandable motivations, but it’s Steinar who’s the most compelling. Jóhannesson’s frame is certainly intimidating, but there’s a humanity there that’s rather remarkable, especially when, in the second episode, he’s tasked with embodying June’s frightened state after her first, unexpected shift.
He also deserves a nod for the below interpretation of a Nordic Walter White:
The Innocents’ real Walter White, in terms of storytelling, has to be Ben Halvorson (Guy Pearce). It’s strange, because he’s probably the closest thing The Innocents has to a villain, but his arc is plotted in a way that makes his experiments in some ways justifiable. It’s not that he should be using June and Kam (previously Freya, the daughter of Runa) to try and preserve Runa’s deteriorating mind, but rather that one can clearly see how Halvorson’s project started out from a place of compassion with a need to save the person he truly loves, only to then morph into something sinister as he gets more and more desperate.
One of the more satisfying thematic focuses of the season is the attention paid to female friendships and ideas of motherhood. So much of June’s experience with shapeshifting is about her entry into the world as a young woman. That means leering eyes, a sense of ownership from others, and the treatment of her body as an object. There’s a reason she’s constantly reflected in a mirror, and not just because it’s a necessary visual to explain the shapeshifting; it’s a reminder that she’s constantly being watched, that being a young woman means constantly thinking about how others view you and how you view yourself.
Thus, it’s important, and quite moving, that her journey is contrasted by that of Sigrid (Lise Risom Olsen), Elena (June’s mother), and Runa (Ingunn Beate Øyen). What begins as a tense relationship built around Halvorson’s experiments at Sanctum turns into something strong, a bond forged over what it means to be a mother, a lover, and a friend, and how difficult it is to occupy all those roles in a patriarchal society. When Halvorson leaves Sanctum to retrieve June, the women he leaves behind open up in remarkable ways. They no longer need to perform for Halvorson. They’re free of his intimidating good-guy schtick, able to share their feelings and secrets in a way that gives them a moving catharsis. Sigrid shares a story of woman she once loved, and longs to love again. Elena admits that she never loved John, that she was with him because it was safe, which mirrors why the women are purportedly at Sanctum.
Of course, the final catharsis comes in the finale, when Runa shoots and kills Halvorson. That moment is her reclamation, disconnecting herself from Ben’s story and instead shaping her own future. She’s no longer tied to him, no longer just another experiment despite his words of love and promise. She makes her own choice to live without him, and violence seems to be the only way to freedom.
To me, the season’s fifth episode is the one with the biggest problems, even though it’s certainly an important episode. June learns that there are others out there like her, and forges a connection with Kam. Before long though, that relationship is moving in all sorts of destructive directions. Kam even goes so far as to shift into Harry’s body and attempt to have sex with June.
The problem for me is that this episode doesn’t have any impact without the later context, when we learn that Kam is Runa’s daughter. With that information, specifically the knowledge of abuse Kam experienced as a child, the show can tell a more fascinating, complex story about trauma while also contrasting Kam and June’s experiences. June, despite her struggles, is surrounded by people that care for her. Kam hasn’t been so lucky, but “Passionate Amateur” can’t play with those ideas because it’s too focused on preserving its twist.
Just look at June, all comfortable in this oversized one.
I don’t even know if this counts, but I’m saying it does.
Runa’s sweater game is strong. She can both rock the massive knit that’s basically a blanket, and also the cardigan/blouse combo. She even pulls off the rare cardigan/blouse/apron look.
If I’m choosing a standout look for the season though, I’m going with the way Elena wears a sweater and overalls.
Netflix hasn’t picked up The Innocents for a second season yet, but it’s rare these days that the streaming service doesn’t at least take a stab at some more content. The first season finale, then, is appropriately open-ended while also wrapping up the stories it needs to. If this is a story about Harry and June and their love for one another, his sacrifice at the end, allowing her to shift into his body to save her from a potentially mortal wound after a car accident, is a shocking but fitting end.
More than that though, the shift suggests season two could expand the mythology in many ways. What happens to these bodies, which now include Harry and his mother, that are essentially comatose? If they’re technically still alive, what does their experience look like? It seems like the show has an opportunity to explore ideas of consciousness and get into weirder sci-fi territory should it be granted a second season.