Everybody wants a piece of the Touched. In the second episode of Joss Whedon fantasy series, our historical heroes are pulled in all directions by a cast of aristocrats and psychopaths determined to use and abuse the superpowered sisterhood.
Episode 2, titled “Exposure,” is available to watch onnow, as is the pilot. There’s a new episode every Sunday on HBO and HBO Max until mid-May. Here’s our recap of the second episode. Spoilers ahoy!
Two days after episode 1’s night at the opera turned massacre-y, Victorian London is in mourning. For some, the bloodshed from the performance of Faust is an excuse to buy a new hat, but for others it’s the beginning of a propaganda war with the fate of the Touched at stake. Meanwhile, in the shadows, an actual war explodes between different factions of steampunk superpowers.
The big theme of episode 2, directed by Whedon before he exited the show, is how society exploits those who are different. “Horror and fascination go arm in arm,” as one character says, and this episode reveals various players at different social strata setting out to manipulate and mistreat the Touched for their own ends.
The authoritarian, anti-suffragette, anti-Belgian Lord Massem sees the Touched as a threat, which means at some point he’ll have to confront his own daughter. Frank Mundi wants to stamp them out. Dr. Hague enjoys his gory work a touch too much. There are even Touched groupies desperate to be granted their own powers. Even apparent allies have their own agendas: at Lavinia Bidlowe’s chaste estate or at the fleshpot of Hugo Swan’s Ferryman’s club, the Touched are displayed as playthings for the amusement and gratification of their hosts.
Lavinia may profess benevolence toward the Touched, but her blue bows separate them from “real” party guests. Penance, Lucy, Primrose and the others aren’t people to the paternalistic Ms. Bidlowe, but turns to be pushed around. Lavinia’s admonishment of awkward aristo Augie reveals her true attitudes: the Touched are untouchable.
The fantasy metaphor at the heart of The Nevers evokes a sad real-life tendency to simultaneously revile and fetishize people who are other. For example, real-life Victorians both ridiculed and commodified Black women like Sarah Baartman, displayed to curious onlookers as “the Hottentot Venus.” In the show, Italian shopgirl Elizabetta Cassini and Irish engineer Penance put up with sexist and racist microaggressions even before the discrimination towards their superpowered sisterhood.
Tellingly, Lavinia’s stern warning to Augie takes place under a nude statue that exposes one breast while also coyly covering itself. That visual detail neatly suggests the tension between prurience and desire within Victorian society, evoking complex hypocrisies we still wrestle with today.
As Amalia True finds common ground with Frankie Mundi, Penance dares to fall for Augie and our heroes face Maladie, what other secrets are exposed in episode 2?
We’ve already encountered Myrtle the polyglot, Primrose the giant, Harriet who freezes things and Lucy who breaks things. This week we also meet diva of desire Desirée Blodgett, who loosens men’s tongues, and hear about the inmate contortions of Bendy Wendy.
Then there’s Miss Elizabetta Cassini, a department store worker who makes objects float with a brush of her hand. The unfortunate Miss Cassini follows a flyer promising safe harbor, but instead of winding up at the orphanage, she’s snatched up by the bad guys at 12 Linkers Lane and experimented on by multilingual sadist and American surgeon Dr. Hague.
Maladie’s merry men are an uneasy alliance of fanatics and mercenaries who don’t mind crazy. Along with the incendiary Bonfire Annie, there’s the Colonel, who can make people believe what he says, and a wannabe desperately hoping to be Touched. It seems Maladie’s childhood inspired her fierce religiosity, leading her to love and fear a stern god who sent angels to teach her glorious pain. She’s apparently indestructible, but she’s also driven away by Annie when her over-elaborate trap for Amalia fails.
I’m a liar, true?
The mystery deepens around Amalia True, played by Laura Donnelly, and not just whether the pronunciation of her name hints at untruth in her background. She may not be a baker, but she does engage in public violence “without natural feminine restraint.”
Dedicated to a mysterious mission, Amalia nonetheless sees herself as less essential than either Mary or Penance, leading her to turn a gun on herself. She also tried to kill herself in the series opener — will Amalia come up with ever more creative ways to do herself in during every episode?
Amalia certainly knows more than she’s saying about the source of the Touch, inadvertently saying Mary Brighton is the “Voice of the G…” That slip suggests Amalia might be the only person who remembers the flying alien thingy revealed in episode 1. Which perhaps puts her remark that “she’s not from here” in a new light. Is she not just not from London, or not from Earth…?
She does have a past with Maladie, however, when Amalia was known as Molly and the childlike killer was her best friend called Sarah. Maladie’s description of Amalia as “the woman who sheds her skin” appears to be a metaphor about abandoning her friends, but then again in the first episode Amalia did say “This isn’t my face…”
Bidlowe sinks low
The shock twist at the end of episode 2 is that Hague’s boss is none other than orphanage founder Lavinia Bidlow. Gasp! It’s not clear why she’s running two separate concerns rounding up the Touched, but we do know she’s employing Dr. Hague’s ruined victims in a mine containing some kind of luminescent alien orb. How long will it be before the inhabitants of the orphanage face Lavinia’s more ruthless side?
Observations and Easter eggs
- The episode title, “Exposure,” means to stand defenseless in harm’s way. It also means a secret is revealed. The Touched have never been more exposed to the public eye, which means the city’s many secrets come close to bubbling up.
- Fans of British telly may recognize the pervy department store supervisor as Alex McQueen from many TV shows including The Thick of It and Fate: The Winx Saga.
- Lucy’s mum was a member of the 40 Elephants, a real all-woman street gang named for their stomping ground Elephant and Castle in south London.
- Primrose is referred to as a tiger, and people gleefully pose for photographs with her. Do they need the snaps for their Victorian Tinder profiles?
- Who are the purple armbands? In Victorian times, purple armbands and clothes were sometimes worn as a symbol a person was in mourning once the initial period of wearing black had passed. No doubt we’ll see more of these possible vigilantes staking out the Touched.
- The Ferryman’s Club is apparently named for the method of crossing the river Styx to the underworld. That nods to the real-life Hellfire Club, a loose cabal of debauched 18th century nobles and upstanding sorts who mocked religion and got up to all sorts of immoral shenanigans. Benjamin Franklin occasionally attended.
- On two occasions we hear about but don’t see someone pulling off some “intimate contortions.” Perhaps orphanage inhabitant Bendy Wendy moonlights at the Ferryman’s Club making both of her somethings do something…