Who can the Touched trust? The Nevers led with that question in its premiere episode helmed by Joss Whedon, and it’s clearly going to be a recurring query moving forward because second episode “Exposure” (also directed by Whedon) is built around that same idea. Perhaps this was the point of that deluge of villains in the pilot: Wherever the Touched turn (not meant to be a pun, my bad!), there is someone nefarious waiting for them. Lord Massen, and his cohort of government cronies. Maladie, and her hangers-on and sycophants. Hugo Swann, and his promise of female entrepreneurship. The Beggar King, and his desire to hold onto the underworld. And that mysterious doctor from the premiere, who is revealed now to serve a specific master: the very benefactress who is supporting the orphanage and employing Mrs. True and Penance. What the hell are Lavinia Bidlow and Dr. Hague up to?
The Nevers has already provided pieces to this answer. Dr. Hague is conducting experiments on people—trepanning, maybe?—to try and see what is different about the brains of the Touched, and what could be causing their turns. (The “spark,” he calls it.) The result seems to be the creation of worker slaves on one hand, and those kidnapping ghoul-like boogeymen on the other. The former are set to digging up what I think is the crashed vessel from the pilot, while the latter are responsible for kidnapping additional Touched people from around London for Dr. Hague to cut open. And all of this is funded, I suppose, by Lavinia, who in this episode insists that the Touched engage in societal civility—while in that final conversation with Dr. Hague, she says, “This is not fun. This is war.” But is she declaring war on the Touched, or does she think she’s working with them?
I think Jane Espenson’s writing here is purposefully opaque, but I’m going to go ahead and guess that putting up fake fliers for the orphanage and using Mrs. True’s face to lure desperate people just learning of their turns to Dr. Hague, like lambs for the slaughter, is not particularly benevolent on the part of Lavinia. (Poor Ms. Cassini. That chase scene, with her array of floating impediments, felt a little too Fantastic Beasts, but Domenique Fragale’s terror at the reveal of her secret was quite believable.) I would think it’s only a matter of time until Mrs. True, or anyone else from the orphanage, sees one of those posters, but whether they can connect them to Lavinia is up in the air.
“Exposure” begins in the aftermath of Maladie’s opera attack. The city is on edge, and Inspector Mundi sets his sights on the orphanage. His (failed) questioning of Mrs. True had a nice rhythm to it—shout out to Penance’s offended “How are you not wonderful?”—and helped establish that despite being in Hugo Swann’s pocket for whatever reason, Mundi isn’t a complete idiot. “Do you often engage in public violence?” is a sarcastic question, but at its core, a valid one. Mrs. True is a bit of a live wire, and the super-strength, super-speed, and ripplings provided by her turn do seem to make her more powerful than nearly every other member of the Touched.
Except, of course, for Maladie. Yes, she’s very much a villain in Whedon’s deranged Drusilla or lusty-for-pain Vampire Willow mold, and I admit that all her muttering and murmuring about God and crowns of thorns and pain as pleasure made me wish I was just watching True Detective season one for the millionth time. But Maladie seems to be operating totally outside of whatever Lord Massen is trying to do with government control of the Touched, and whatever Lavinia/Dr. Hague are trying to do with finding the source of the Touched’s power. She, as Mrs. True observes, is driven by this zealous desire to please her God—and perhaps to hurt Mrs. True? The conversation between the two of them was difficult to track, but I think they knew each other as children, and Mrs. True (“Molly”) abandoned Maladie (“Sarah”) to the authoritarians that ran their orphanage? Remember that Mrs. True keeps saying that she’s not “from here”—so are she and Maladie from the same place? And when Mrs. True seemingly again abandons Maladie to save the captured Mary and Penance, is she putting the Touched who are aligned with her in more danger? It doesn’t seem like Maladie would take that kind of rejection lightly. (She probably doesn’t like Bonfire Annie turning on her, either.)
Questions, questions! Although the introduction of the truth-forcing Désireé means we get some honesty from various characters this episode (Mundi and Mary were engaged, but she left him at the altar; Mary doesn’t know the meaning of the song she sings that only the Touched can hear; Mrs. True is overwhelmed by the responsibility of running the orphanage), we also, of course, get more uncertainty moving forward. Who gave Mrs. True the “mission” that simultaneously compels and frightens her? Is she referring to the “mission” in a figurative way, comparing her turn with a kind of responsibility to the rest of the Touched, or is she speaking literally? Could Augie, who reveals his bird-inhabiting turn to Penance, come to realize his sister’s nefarious intent? Or will he take her (bigoted) decree to stay away from Penance seriously?
Finally: What is Mary’s song saying? “Hope” is a big concept, and a vague one. Hope for societal acceptance, respect, solidarity, unity, what? The Touched don’t operate as one entity, but Mary’s song seems to bring them together. That might scare people: Recall that Dr. Hague says to Ms. Cassini before lobotomizing her, “Maybe your darkness is part of her plan. I mean, his, but she’s in on it.” Lavinia seems to be the “her” here, but who is the “his”? And did Mary’s song put a target on her back from yet another villain in The Nevers universe?
- Laura Donnelly’s smirk while discussing “bendy Wendy” should be a gif immediately.
- Do we get an explanation for what “The Nevers” means in this episode? No, we do not.
- We already knew that Lord Massen was a hard man, but essentially blaming the Swann family’s tragedies on Hugo? Even if Lord Massen didn’t know about Hugo’s queerness (which I’m not sure he does), that’s still an impressively cruel proclamation.
- However: Does Hugo Swann seem like a conman jerkoff? Also yes. Two things can be true at once.
- Interesting that Lord Massen and Mrs. True both have that immediate dislike of Hugo; remember that she sarcastically describes him to Inspector Mundi as “the man with his cock out” during the opera performance. And also interesting that Lord Massen seems to have some kind of begrudging respect for Mrs. True, even as he targets her and the rest of the Touched.
- Augie hastily investing in Hugo’s sex club doesn’t seem like the best idea, I’ll be honest. Might not impress Penance much!
- Do we hear “It’s only a prototype” again this episode? We do! But admittedly, those Matrix-styled sunglasses that block explosive light were pretty good, and I’m sure we’ll see that goopy fire extinguisher come up again.
- Désireé is my new favorite character, and “I’m a whore, a bit renowned” was delivered perfectly by Ella Smith.
- Have we really determined all of Mrs. True’s powers yet? She boasted to the Beggar King about this not being her face; Maladie keeps calling her the woman who can “shed her skin”—which Mrs. True doesn’t exactly deny.
- “How many nephews did they have to hire?” I love that nepotism even exists in this supernatural steampunk version of our reality!