AMC’s NOS4A2 is a show about very troubled people. One happens to be a vampire who tools around in a Rolls-Royce Wraith, looking for kids to populate his sinister, Christmas-themed fantasyland. Another is a woman who’s uniquely equipped to fight the creep — if she could just get out of her own way first.
We saw Victoria McQueen (Ashleigh Cummings) endure a lot in NOS4A2 season one. Then still a teen, Vic dreamed of escaping her unsteady home life by applying to art school — though her personal woes became infinitely more complicated when she realised she was, in the lingo of the show, a “Strong Creative,” gifted with the ability to create an imaginary world, or “Inscape,” that manifests in the real world, with help from her “Knife,” a Triumph motorcycle that opens up shortcuts to find anyone or anything.
Taking “the Shorter Way,” as her inscape is called, was handy at first — until it started taking a significant physical toll. Even worse, Vic’s powers also opened up a psychic link to an immortal serial killer named Charlie Manx (Zachary Quinto), a fellow Strong Creative whose Knife is that damned Rolls, and whose Inscape is the twinkly, ghoulish realm of Christmasland.
If that sounds high-concept for a TV series, it definitely is — that’s sort of understandable, considering the fact that NOS4A2 is based on a chonky, 700-page novel by Joe Hill, who’s also a producer on the adaptation. You have to tip your hat to series co-writer, producer, and showrunner Jami O’Brien and her team for making NOS4A2‘s wilder elements flow into the story without requiring an explanation every time.
The 10-episode second season of NOS4A2 — which just aired its sixth instalment, “The Hourglass” — has propelled the high-stakes Vic-Manx conflict forward (along with the timeline; the story picks up eight years after season one). It’s also taken care to better flesh out its characters, an important choice because as complicated as the plot can be, the people who’re tangled up in it are complicated as hell, too. In the season premiere, pointedly titled “Bad Mother,” Vic reflected on her path from goth teen to a hard-drinking, haunted mum of an eight-year-old boy (Jason David) who’s rapidly growing weary of his own unsteady home life.
“It has taken me apart in ways that I don’t understand,” Vic admitted sadly, surveying the trauma that’s still controlling her life and has caused her to hurt those around her. “And I don’t think I can be put back together.” It’s made very clear from that early moment: no matter how many firebombs Vic sets off under Manx’s cursed Wraith, or brawls she gets into with his lumbering henchman, Bing (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), she’s never gonna take him down until she heals her own soul first.
Vic might be a mess, but she has some weapons other than the ones inside her magical mind. One of them is Lou Carmody (Jonathan Langdon), a fellow motorcycle and comic-book enthusiast who stumbled into her life at the end of season one and never left; he’s been a de facto father to the kid they call either Wayne or “Bats,” owing to the fact that his full name is Bruce Wayne McQueen. (Bats’ biological father, Vic’s sorta-boyfriend Craig, died at the end of season one in Manx’s burning Rolls.) Lou is loyal, an amazing dad, and the nerdy references sprinkled into his dialogue never fail to add some welcome levity. But he’s also nearing the end of his rope with Vic’s bullshit, despite her promises to tighten up.
Vic’s also lucky enough to still have the support of her parents (now divorced, and obviously better for it; Ebon Moss-Bachrach is especially good as her dad, Chris, a recovering alcoholic), as well as Maggie (Jahkara J. Smith), the quirky librarian Strong Creative who’s able to answer any question by consulting her charmed Scrabble tiles. When we first see Maggie, she’s thriving in a happy relationship with Tabitha Hutter (Ashley Romans), the FBI agent who entered the story last season to investigate the Manx case.
And yeah, about that Manx guy. Though he “dies” in the season premiere after languishing in an eight-year prison coma, he resurrects pretty quickly once Bing tracks down the Wraith and gets it running again by luring a kid into the backseat. As a character, Manx is a lot to take in, strutting around in a chauffeur’s uniform, using old-fashioned turns of phrase like “water closet,” spouting off about how much he hates women, creeping around after children (whose life essence is a necessary component of his immortality), and spreading his particularly grim brand of Christmas cheer. Thankfully, season two of NOS4A2 helps put all that insanity into context with the backstory-laden episode “Good Father.”
We see Manx and his new wife, Cassie (Celeste Arias), in the 1920s, returning from a screening of that newfangled movie Nosferatu. Then we see their marriage falling apart a few years later in front of their young daughter, Millie (Mattea Conforti), whose December 25 birthday helps explain Manx’s holiday fixation. The Wraith came about as part of Manx’s ambitions to manage a fleet of professional drivers, acquired at a bargain price because “someone died in it.” Once Manx opens up his Strong Creative powers — something that’s clearly trigged by his acquisition of the Wraith, though you can tell he was a little bit off before that — he transforms Millie into the first member of his vampire child army.
Bringing Millie into the story adds an important dimension to Manx. Like Vic, Manx is a distracted parent whose kid has come to really resent them. (Millie has also started seeing her mother’s ghost, which rattles her more than she’d like to admit.) It helps that even with a mouth full of pointy teeth and a lot of scenes where she has to just act bratty, Conforti is also able to convey the world-weariness of someone who’s been stuck being a tween for way too long.
While a frustrated Millie gnashes her fangs back in Christmasland, Manx has spent the first half of season two pursuing Vic’s son, the ultimate prize. He’s obsessed with snatching Bats away from his greatest enemy, so he insinuates his candy-cane promises into the kid’s dreams, then turns to an intriguing new character for additional assistance: the mysterious Hourglass Man (Paul Schneider). Most of NOS4A2 takes place in a world that’s recognisable to us, with occasional flashes into Christmasland, the Shorter Way, or the Parnassus, a bar only accessible to dark-hearted Strong Creatives. Bringing in the Hourglass Man allows the show to open up its scope a little wider, reminding us that NOS4A2 isn’t only the story of Manx and Vic; it’s also about this world of powerful humans lurking just beyond the boundaries of perceptible reality.
At any rate, the Hourglass Man gets the job done. In last week’s episode, “Bruce Wayne McQueen,” he mind-controlled Tabitha’s FBI colleagues out of the way, allowing Manx and Bing to overpower everyone else and wrangle Bats into the Wraith. It’s a devastating episode that instantly changes the mood from “hide from the vampire” to “find that vampire and make him pay.”
Of course, everyone’s gotta recover from that bloody brawl, which lands Lou, Chris, and Vic in the hospital, and Vic’s motorcycle shattered by the roadside. (Tabitha’s also in deep trouble with her FBI boss, who obviously doesn’t comprehend the magical aspects of the case; in a nice change of pace, however, Vic’s parents are finally fully accepting of their daughter’s unusual talent, even if they don’t understand it.) Last night’s episode, “The Hourglass,” took a quick breath to let everyone gather themselves — though there’s an urgent ticking clock looming large: now that Wayne is in Manx’s clutches, it’s only a matter of time before he becomes a pint-sized Christmasland vampire like Millie and her pals. Maggie, meanwhile, finally gets to kick some arse — tracking down the Hourglass Man and eliminating him forever, though not before he gives her some food for thought about whether or not she should keeping holding back on using her own extraordinary powers, to Tabitha’s dismay. And Bing? Left for dead after the events of “Bruce Wayne McQueen,” he’s certainly not on Team McQueen, but he’s no longer Team Manx, either.
NOS4A2 is a show about troubled people, but it’s also about the complicated roads they follow — literal, metaphorical, and supernatural. With just four episodes left this season, a climactic battle in Christmasland seems like a sure thing, but the way everyone’s going to get there is not quite so clear. And the show’s better for it.
NOS4A2 airs Mondays on AMC in the U.S. The first season is currently available on Amazon Prime Video in Australia.