The first season was a meandering hot mess of a story, this weird and protracted journey. It was about nihilism and loneliness, alienation and supernatural realism, and we loved it. The story sprawled out like an uncomfortable lover, discomfort set against some truly inspired directorial choices and striking performances from everyone involved. It had some problems, but made those problems work with it. It was a difficult narrative that gave you as much as you were willing to put into it, and it ended on a terrible sense of nothingness. It was awesome.
We weren’t looking for the second season. The second season crept up on us; we were wandering through Netflix and, lo and behold, there were new episodes on offer. We watched those, too, and we adored them – everything from the first season was tightened and improved upon. The directing was tighter, the characterization intriguing, and the story truly daring. If the first season was about ennui, the second dwelt on cruelty, on the idea that nothing is ever truly alright. We loved it more, and went back and watched the first season again.
Doing so gave us a deeper appreciation for both of these stories, the ongoing mythology and the tightness of that mythology. We got the book and read that, comparing the close-knit narrative between the printed page and the flickering fiction of that first season, then watched the second again. We were fans. We want to make this clear, right from the start.
Because the third season is a – and is about – disappointment.
Spoilers lurk ahead. I find it difficult to care about spoiling a season I’m urging you not to watch.
A quick recap: Hemlock Grove is a small mining town where the mining died, and the family that started and ran the town changed over to cutting-edge pharmaceuticals. The town is very New England in decor, but New England in decay; the town is cracking and showing it’s age, strangled by a pervasive and hidden evil. The only building untouched by that entropy is the White Tower, a sparkling edifice to scientific nihilism and innovation, both in equal measure.
Sounds cool, right? It gets better. The family that owns the White Tower are the Godfreys. The patriarch of the family committed suicide, leaving his brother, niece, wife, son, and sister behind. The brother is a psychiatrist who is sleeping with his dead brother’s wife, a secret that his wife tries not to let on that she knows. The wife in question is Olivia, as white and pale as the tower, raven haired, aloof, and ruthless. Her children are Roman and Shelley, one a teenage boy set apart by his wealth, the other set apart by her monstrous appearance. Their cousin Letha is pregnant and claims the father is an angel. Roman and Letha are strangely attracted to one another, and Roman is going through some things.
See, Olivia is a vampire.
Or upire, as they run with in Hemlock Grove. We get some insight through her into what the upire are like, and we see how powerful and horrifying they can be. Olivia is a powerful figure, untouchable and so many steps ahead of everyone else that no one can even hope to play on her level. She has plans for everyone, and escaping them is not an option.
Into this rich tapestry comes Peter, a gypsy who recently inherited a trailer on the edge of town. He and his mother move in just as a series of animal attacks start up, which is troubling because Peter is a werewolf. He knows he’s not at fault, so there has to be someone else out there, and he and Roman form a friendship and end up going to confront evil.
They’re able to connect because they are set apart, and their bonds go deeper than mere friendship. There’s romantic tension between the two of them, which is complicated when Peter sleeps with Letha and Roman finds out the horrible truth about the father of Letha’s child. The two of them still manage to work out their differences and maintain their tie, confronting the evil that lies at the heart of the attacks, but after that Peter is forced to leave town for reasons of gypsy.
Roman is devastated. Things go wrong, and we’re left with a terrible sense of finality.
That’s a brief overview. There’s secret societies, historical tragedies, gypsy magic… Hemlock Grove is beautiful and terrible in its scope, and relentless in the hurricane of festering decay that ruins everything in the town. It’s awesome. We highly recommend it.
Season two starts a few months after the first one ended. Peter’s mother is arrested at a funeral and dragged back to Hemlock Grove. Peter, the dutiful son, follows her back to try and get her free – first legally, and then through jailbreak. It isn’t long before he’s swept up in the town’s entropic field again, crossing paths with Roman.
A girl has a car accident outside Roman’s new home, and Peter’s gotten a job working at a towing company. The girl, Miranda ends up sleeping with one, then the other, and finally both. She sleeps with both of them. At once. We get the first healthy threesome relationship outside of Savages, a slap in the face of monogamy, with all three of them made better and healthier people by the connection they share.
Everything comes together, the stories, characters, and mythologies of the first season grown and improved upon. the secret society of the first season comes back in force, and appears to have a civil war in its ranks. A wounded Olivia plays with redemption. The cutting edge medicines of the White Tower betray an incredible sense of both innovation and science run amuck. The baby has three loving and doting adults who love it completely.
Hemlock Grove being what it is, none of those positives can last. Things go wrong everywhere – the secret society has a civil war in its ranks. Olivia does something unspeakable and returns to power in grand fashion. Sixteen years of ambition is thwarted via a terrible atrocity. The child appears to be a literal Antichrist. Miranda and the baby are stolen by a dragon.
Miranda and the baby are stolen by a dragon.
The freaking season ends with Miranda being stolen by a motherfucking dragon.
So where does season three begin? With a bunch of gypsies robbing a truck using Peter’s lycanthropy. It’s a misstep that carries over everywhere else. The dragon – the motherfucking dragon that kidnapped Miranda and the Antichrist– barely gets more than a passing mention as everyone acts out of character and nothing makes a goddamn bit of sense.
Olivia is a frustrating case study of the whole season. The dominant powerhouse of the first season is gone, and even the wounded survivor of the second is absent in favor of a whimpering shadow of what was. The promise of a the first season’s strength is dashed in favor of a short-sighted unreliable narrator that doesn’t fit anything we know about who this person is. The actress does a fantastic job, giving a powerful performance that belongs to a character that isn’t Olivia.
She’s not the only person to suffer in this way. Roman and Peter and the whole cast appears to have been guzzling stupid pills by the bottle. See, a good chunk of the surviving cast saw the dragon, and none of them seem even mildly interested. It’s idiotic. Let me save you ten hours:
Miranda dies off camera. One gypsy betrays the rest and is killed by the mob, resulting in a bunch of other nonsense deaths that end with Peter ripping out Roman’s heart. The dragon is killed right after they remember the dragon is there; it takes about a minute. All the myth-building about upire society is abandoned; they’re just people that sometimes need to drink blood, the horror and majesty stripped from them so that we can get an idiot zombie thing. The baby being the Antichrist is completely forgotten about, as is the secret society.
Nothing makes any sense at all, except Shelley. Shelley has a coming-of-age story that’s equally sweet and powerful, coming into her own and claiming her own power. She eventually abandons Hemlock Grove and we get a neat parallel of the end of the first season, the only time the third season feels anything like the first or second. Of course, she’s also running away with a much older homeless man who is also a wanted felon, and is carting along the Antichrist. Your happy endings may vary.
The third season also lacks the sweeping directive ambition that the first season excelled at and the second echoed. It’s flat. It’s boring, taking the fertile ground tended to so carefully in the first and second and salting that earth until there’s nothing worth watching. Nothing. Everyone dies for reasons that makes no fundamental sense other than to give the series a sense of finality.
Hell, just look at Roman. The writers forget that Roman can control people with his gaze. They forget that Shelley is important to him. They forget that Miranda is important to him. They forget that not killing anyone is important to him. They forget that trying to keep his humanity is important to him. They forget everything we know about the Upir. Nothing he does in this season makes any sense at all, right up until the point his best friend murders him by ripping out his heart, thereby trapping himself in wolf form forever.
What fucking idiocy is this?
I want to make this clear: it is possible to kill off a cast and do it well. It could and should have worked well for this show, where entropy lies at the heart of every last person. There are some fantastic stories where everyone does – King Lear comes to mind, as does American Mary. What made the massive death scenes in Lear and Mary work was the strength of the characters involved, but Hemlock Grove spends the whole of season three ripping those characters apart. If you can’t care about the characters one way or the other, their deaths have no meaning.
There are two main characters on this show, which is about their relationship. We spend little time with them, and even less with them together. Peter is in a shitty heist movie for a bit, then an equally shitty crime thriller. Roman has no purpose whatsoever. Two strong characters – Olivia and Destiny – are stripped of any agency or power they might have had for no reason whatsoever. A new character is introduced and then does nothing, and isn’t even a character that makes sense.
Yes, I’m talking about Annie. Annie ends up being the lost long daughter of Olivia, and the half-sister of Roman and Shelley. See, way back when Olivia was seduced by a gypsy, but we were told in season one that the child wasn’t an upire, and it was strongly hinted that child grew up to be Peter’s ancestor. So, no, she doesn’t make any sense, which means it fits in great with how nothing else in this season makes any sense.
May as well go on a little bit… remember how Pryce is super strong? The writers don’t. Pryce is the genius behind the science in Hemlock Grove, a intellectual powerhouse that is able to match wits with the likes of Olivia while playing secret societies against one another. That’s forgotten here. We get an abuse story instead that would actually have been really powerful if it had been built to, or, better still, had been given to a character that could have made it work. His storyline and eventual death – you guessed it – make no goddamn sense.
What an absolute waste. What a disappointment. The characters don’t get what they want, the viewers don’t get what they want, and no one is happy. We would have been better off lingering with the cliffhanger than dealing with this steaming pile of shit.
The Good: The cast. The performances are terrific, even though the script doesn’t warrant it. The main characters all bring their a-game, and it almost makes this bearable.
The Bad: The bland direction and sound design. The terrible script. No one acting in character. The dangling plot threads. The abandoned plot threads. The killing of everyone for the sake of killing everyone. The lack of decent werewolf transformations. Vampire zombies that only target vampires. Olivia’s character arc. Roman’s character arc. Peter’s character arc. Pedophilia and incest. Oh, and there’s a horde of dragons that the series doesn’t bother to touch on ever again. What the shit.
The Ugly: The way the scripts of the third season cast aside all the carefully constructed mythology and characters of the first two seasons for nothing.
The Verdict: Avoid this. It’s an interesting case study if you’re looking to watch how to utterly destroy a series. There’s some solid performances that are, outside of context, quite enjoyable.