A young mother must overcome her personal demons to save her son from a psychic vampire in the second season of AMC horror drama NOS4A2 (pronounced “Nosferatu”), an adaptation of the 2013 novel of the same name by Joe Hill. (Hill is having a banner year between this and the successful Netflix adaptation of Locke and Key). While the otherwise compelling first season dragged in places—mostly when it was weighed down a bit by the need to build out the fictional world—S2 wastes no time kicking off the action. NOS4A2 rarely lets up over its newest ten episodes.
(Spoilers for S1 below. Mostly mild spoilers for S2 until after the final gallery. We’ll give you a heads up when we get there.)
As we’ve reported previously, the novel is about a woman named Vic McQueen with a gift for finding lost things. She’s one of a rare group of people known as “strong creatives,” capable of tearing through the fabric that separates the physical world from the world of thought and imagination (their personal “inscapes”) with the help of a talisman-like object dubbed a “knife.” For Vic, her knife is her motorcycle; for a troubled young woman named Maggie, it’s a bag of Scrabble tiles. And for psychic “vampire”/child abductor Charlie Manx, it’s a 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith, which seems to have a mind of its own.
But there’s a cost to using their creative gifts: Maggie stutters, Vic’s eye weeps blood, and Manx wields his power at the cost of his soul. In order to maintain his youthful appearance, he must “feed” off the souls of kidnapped children, transforming them into little monsters and trapping what’s left of them in a place in his inscape called Christmasland. The novel moves back and forth between multiple time periods: Vic as a young girl in 1986, Vic as a rebellious teenager in 1996, and an older Vic with a son in 2008 and 2012. Naturally Manx eventually targets her son, and Vic must defeat him once and for all to save the boy—at great personal cost.
Showrunner Jami O’Brien’s adaptation divides the timelines in Hill’s sprawling novel so that the first season focused on Vic’s (Ashleigh Cummings) teen years and her first showdown with Charlie Manx (Zachary Quinto). He kept most of the key elements intact, including Vic’s alcoholic father, Chris McQueen (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), who is prone to violence against Vic’s mother, Linda (Virgina Kull); and Bing Partridge (Olafur Darri Olafsson), a mentally challenged janitor who helps Manx kidnap the children, believing they will be happy forever in Christmasland.
But there were also some deviations, adding in a few new characters, fleshing out backstories, and taking viewers into Manx’s Christmasland inscape itself for a few key scenes. (In the book, we don’t visit Christmasland until the climactic showdown.) Those changes included the introduction of a drive-in waitress named Jolene (Judith Roberts), another strong creative and former love interest of Manx from the 1950s. There was also a subplot involving Vic’s desire to study art at the Rhode Island School of Design and a rather tedious romantic triangle between Vic, her childhood friend Craig (Dalton Harrod), and a privileged trust fund kid.
In the S1 finale, Craig was trapped in The Wraith as Vic and Manx faced off. Knowing that if she destroyed the Wraith it would kill Manx, and urged on by Craig, Vic set fire to the car. Craig was killed in the explosion, and Manx was hospitalized, in a coma, weakening by the day. A pregnant Vic vowed never to let her child (by Craig) ever fall victim to someone like Manx. But in the final scene, Manx appeared to revive, killing an unsuspecting nurse in the process.
S2 adapts the other half of Hill’s novel, following Vic as an adult, now living in Colorado with a mechanic/garage owner named Lou Carmody (Jonathon Langdon) who loves her son—named Bruce Wayne (Jason David)—as his own. As the season opens, Vic thinks she is free of Manx and the trauma she experienced at his hands, painting custom designs on motorcycles for Lou’s garage. But her peaceful existence is interrupted by a series of creepy phone calls from the children of Christmasland. Unbeknownst to Vic, the Wraith has been restored by an unsuspecting vintage car collector, reviving Manx, who breaks out of the hospital and is soon up to his old child-snatching ways. And this time his sights are set on Vic’s son as revenge.
As I wrote in my review last year, “Like Hill’s novel, NOS4A2 is as much a depiction of the potentially destructive nature of artistic gifts as it is about the tragedy of dreams deferred—just all draped in supernatural trappings.” Those themes carry over beautifully into S2, as we see how the cost of her gift has damaged Vic. This is an older and far less wiser Vic McQueen, still haunted by her encounter with Manx all those years ago and prone to drinking whenever his name comes up on the news. At one point she accidentally sets fire to the house, which prompts a confrontation with the long-suffering Lou. Her worst fears are realized when Manx shows up at the garage in the Wraith, intent on luring young Wayne inside with promises of the delights of Christmasland.
(Warning: A couple of significant spoilers below the gallery.)
Just like S1, the basic storyline is intact with some notable additions and deviations, and this time those changes all work very well—even the introduction of yet another strong creative villain, Jonathan Beckett (Paul Schneider), aka the “Hourglass Man,” whose sole purpose seems to be to give Manx an ally. But he does teach Maggie a neat trick for controlling the negative consequences (epileptic seizures) of her gift. (You can either hurt yourself, or hurt someone else; naturally Maggie chooses the former.)
Most notably, O’Brien has fleshed out the backstories of Charlie Manx and his demon-daughter Millie (Mattea Conforti) to give them more emotional depth. We see Manx’s humble origins and troubled childhood, with all the elements you’d expect to find in a serial killer/predator’s past. We also see him as a young man working as a chauffeur, marrying the daughter of his wealthy employer (who naturally disapproves of the match) and fathering Millicent. The two share a strong bond, and he regales her with stories of an imaginary place called Christmasland—as the marriage sours in the wake of financial struggles.
When Manx discovers and buys The Wraith, he comes into his full powers and fulfills his promise to Millie to take her to Christmasland. Millie has been there ever since, leading the other demon children who are victims of Manx’s predation. But even murderous little demon girls start to grow up eventually. Feeling neglected by her father’s constant absence, Millie starts to doubt his ability to keep them all safe in Christmasland when she discovers a different part of Manx’s inscape—one even he doesn’t realize exists, since it houses his deepest subconscious fears.
Once again, the performances are stellar, with extra kudos for Langdon’s Lou Carmody and Conforti’s Millie. (They are relative newcomers; each appeared only briefly in S1.) S2 doesn’t stumble until the finale, which neatly wraps up the events from the book in the first 15 minutes and spends the rest of the time rather ham-fistedly setting up a possible third season. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with producing a limited two-season series when adapting novels, and I wish it were a more common practice. I get why O’Brien would be keen to continue the story, especially after putting all that work into developing Millie Manx. While she’s a great character, I’m not yet convinced she works as a new Big Bad. But I’m more than happy to be proven wrong.
Two seasons in, NOS4A2 remains a beautifully executed, satisfying, and genuinely scary psychological horror story that deserves a broader audience. With many movie theaters still closed, and film and TV production still mostly shut down, now is the perfect time to discover NOS4A2—and maybe even read (or re-read) the book for good measure.
Listing image by AMC