The marketing for AMC’s NOS4A2 pegs it as “a different kind of vampire story” — and indeed, its Christmas-obsessed villain survives not by drinking blood, but by kidnapping children into his very special Rolls-Royce Wraith and draining their souls. But the story has another distinction that sets it apart: unusually complex female characters.
NOS4A2 is based on the novel by Joe Hill (also of Locke & Key fame), but the AMC series — which just wrapped up its first season — was created by Jami O’Brien, who’s also its showrunner and executive producer. Between Hill’s source material and O’Brien’s adaptation, the show makes a point of emphasising the women who populate its drama.
It’s pretty remarkable how much screen time the women get, considering that this is a show featuring the decadently evil Charlie Manx (played by Zachary Quinto), a guy who drives around the country in a chauffeur’s uniform, ageing at a rapid pace until he or one of his henchmen is able to snatch up a fresh new tyke and restore his youth. Charlie doesn’t kill the kids, he does something arguably worse: He carts them off to “Christmasland,” an eerie amusement park where they’ll live forever as pint-sized ghouls.
Over the years Charlie has developed some particularly pointed opinions about women, and he’s shown to be a raging misogynist who tosses around phrases like “meddlesome female” and “you dirty little whore!” He reserves a particularly sneering, judgmental brand of venom for mothers — we don’t learn too much about his own background, though we’re led to assume his early years were pretty crappy — but he’s somehow still obsessed with finding a life partner who’ll serve as “mother” to all “his children.”
Charlie is absolutely NOS4A2‘s flashiest character, what with all the make-up effects, theatrically-delivered threats, and snowy holiday flourishes — and Quinto is in his element, joyously ripping into the scenery with every opportunity.
By contrast, the rest of the show is pretty gloomy and gritty, especially when it comes to Vic McQueen (Ashleigh Cummings), the show’s misfit heroine. Vic, who’s teetering on that ledge between being a kid and an adult, is dealing with a shit-ton of troubles even before she awakens her psychic powers.
For long stretches of NOS4A2, you might even forget the show features a vampire at all. Eighteen-year-old Vic comes from a hardscrabble family; her weary, overbearing mum supports everyone with her house-cleaning business, while her dad’s more like a cool big brother, except he’s also a mean drunk. The McQueens’ volatile marriage reaches a breaking point in episode one, and the bad blood lingers throughout the season.
Though her parents, especially her mother, doubt her chances, Vic dreams of attending a prestigious art college after graduation, both as a way to develop her talents and to escape dead-end life in small-town Massachusetts.
But her teen angst takes a distressing turn when she discovers she has extraordinary talents that have nothing to do with artwork. After overhearing yet another violent argument between her parents, she speeds away on her dirt bike and finds a bridge deep in the woods that definitely wasn’t there before. It’s known as “the Shorter Way Bridge,” and when Vic zooms across it, she’s able to find almost anything (or anyone) that’s gone missing.
Though Vic’s initial reaction is shock and disbelief, subsequent episodes further underline her growing realisation that the world is a lot stranger than most people realise. Vic’s bridge soon leads her to Maggie (the excellently quirky Jahkara Smith), a free-spirited Iowa librarian who’s able to divine answers from the universe using an enchanted bag of Scrabble tiles.
She’s been enlightened longer than Vic, and while she’s eager to help stop Charlie Manx, she’s learned from experience that messing with mysterious forces can be dangerous. Same goes for Jolene (Judith Roberts), an elderly woman whose own gifts once made her Charlie’s first pick to be Christmasland’s mother-in-residence — a role she refused, at great personal cost.
All three women, as well as Manx, are “strong creatives,” NOS4A2-specific lingo that plays into a larger mythology of “inscapes” (roughly, the psychic worlds that the characters are able to visit) and “knives” (the portals they use to get there). There’s not a ton of room in the episodes to dig too deeply into this stuff, but since we’re learning about it all along with Vic, the fact that it’s all a little confusing and overwhelming actually feels appropriate.
Not every female character on NOS4A2 is a mystical badass, but most are interestingly written and intriguingly messy. A character like Vic’s mother (played by Virginia Kull) could have been compartmentalised as shrill and one-note, but the show makes it clear that for all her tough talk, she’s basically an open wound because she’s spent 18 years projecting her regrets about her own life onto her daughter. A lot of NOS4A2 ends up being about overcoming trauma, or at least acknowledging it, since most everyone on the show still has plenty of healing left to do when season one wraps up.
While messy characters are refreshing to see, especially when so many of them are women — and hey, just because you have magic powers doesn’t mean you always do the right thing! — that doesn’t mean NOS4A2 is without its own, more regrettable messiness. The last few episodes see Vic, who’d previously been flirting with a preppy kid who shares her art-school aspirations, but has some snooty ideas about her family, entering into an intense relationship with Craig (Dalton Harrod), a childhood pal who’s plucked from the “friend zone” he’s been lurking in since the first episode.
Aside from the fact that Vic and Maggie’s friendship has already been solidified as NOS4A2‘s true emotional core by that point, the romance feels rushed, as if the story needed to suddenly up the stakes and find someone to sacrifice during Vic’s inevitable showdown with Charlie Manx. Because, well, that’s exactly what happens.
An additional explanation for Craig’s sudden importance is revealed during the season finale. The episode leaves several dangling threads that will no doubt be picked up in season two, when NOS4A2 will have a chance to explore more of Hill’s sprawling tale. Charlie Manx surviving his fiery clash with Vic is not all that surprising — he is the big bad, after all, in addition to being sorta immortal, and Vic still has to make good on her threat to destroy Christmasland.
The real game-changer is going to be seeing Vic take him on once she’s a mother herself, since the season ends with her finding out she’s pregnant with Craig’s baby. Given the oft-emphasised theme of how much Charlie loathes mothers, it makes a certain amount of sense. And the plot twist will no doubt further bolster Vic’s characterisation as a woman who doesn’t always know what she should be doing, but still manages to be brave and quick-thinking no matter how frightening or unbelievable the situation.
But it’s also a shift that feels too abrupt in a show that’s otherwise content to take its time — except when Vic is taking the Shorter Way Bridge, that is.
NOS4A2‘s first season is available on Amazon Prime.