Syfy, Fridays, 9/10 PM
“Ain’t No Sunshine”
Written by Sam Ernst
Directed by Ken Girotti
“Let’s get to work looking for a tall, short, thin, wide dark man who may or may not be carrying a sword.” – Nathan
I remember the moment I got hooked on The X-Files. It wasn’t the first episode I watched, but it was the first episode where the acting and writing and directing all came together to create that special frisson that went down my spine, to create that bond between the characters that I knew would hold through the adventures to come, with a hint of romance, a hint of danger and a large helping of smart. Prior to that episode, I could take or leave the series; afterwards, I wouldn’t miss a single episode. Such was my feeling Friday night, watching “Ain’t No Sunshine”. This is the first episode to really feel like it was based on a Stephen King story. It was spooky, funny, sad, tragic and full of heavy symbolism. The acting, the writing and the directing of this episode melded into a near-perfect 47 minutes of fear and excitement and the breathless possibility of hope.
A couple of murders committed by a (literally) shadowy figure bring Audrey and Nathan to a hospice for terminally ill patients. The families of several patients who have died have been complaining that a Dark Man has been stalking the hallways, killing their loved ones before their time. First mention of the Dark Man put me in mind of the Darkman film directed by Sam Raimi, whose title character has lost all sense of feeling—sorta like Nathan Wournos. Coincidence? I think not. Of course, the major reference for “the dark man” is Randall Flagg, the demonic villain of King’s The Stand(among other novels). Not only does Flagg’s nickname appear in this episode, but a reference to a “Revered Flagg” (sic) appears in the credits for every episode. Symbols, in-jokes, obscure references—yeah, we’re deep into Stephen King country now. Shadows are an old and well beloved metaphor for both the soul and death—a well trained Jungian analyst could probably spend a week teasing out all the metaphors for it found in this show. In classic King fashion, the story plays on our fears of the dark, especially against the banal background of a small town street, a police station, a suburban home. All of these are places where the sunshine of ordinary daily life usually drives away those demons that haunt us in the dark, yet these are the very places where the Dark Man attacks. Even Audrey, working in the well-lit police station, barely fends off an attack by the lethal shadow.
“Turn off all the lights!” — Audrey
Audrey and Nathan are joined, sort of, in this investigation by Jess Minion, the woman introduced as a “witch” in the episode “Fur”. She’s not a witch, she’s a grief counselor at the hospice, and contributes to the case. While visiting blind widower Thornton Aarons (Rick Roberts, Cra$h and Burn), she finds that his late wife never used her prescribed drugs for the side effects of chemotherapy. Clearly, someone at the hospice has been withholding treatment and selling the expensive chemotherapy drugs on the black market. Nathan goes on full alert and races to Jess’s house, but by the time they reach it, the Dark Man has attacked Jess and she is unconscious. As Nathan and Audrey approach Aarons for an interview, Audrey notices that he literally has no shadow. Both of them conclude that it is the widower’s shadow which is attacking staff members suspected of withholding treatment. They devise a trap, which involves Audrey sitting in an interrogation room in the police station having a conversation with several pistol targets (apparently shadow-assassins aren’t very, er, bright). When the Dark Man attacks, she fends him off by setting off several photography flashes, whose light sends him back to his “owner”.
The most interesting facet of this “villain” is the grief and remorse shown by Aarons. When Nathan explains to him that his shadow is the one responsible for the killings, he breaks down in tears and begs Nathan to kill him. Nathan, who five minutes before was willing to do just that, now sees the man before him as a tortured soul, locked into a prison of pain and darkness. Perhaps it is his own experience of losing a major sense that helps him look past his rage to empathize with Aarons. Like all the rest of the “villains” showcased so far in this series, Aarons’ Power is triggered by a traumatic loss, and is utterly out of his control. Yet apparently he is willing to do whatever it takes to save others from its evil—even to being immured in his own light-shuttered house, in a prison of his own making. Again, I am reminded of the best of Stephen King—not only in the “solution” to the Dark Man’s attacks, but in the “villain’s” fate. Everything turns upside down—the threat of the dark shadow is removed when we confront the darkness directly, the “villain” sacrifices himself to save others. Our hero, Nathan, is barely saved from outright murder because thevillain’s pitiful plight arouses compassion in him.
“Don’t stop looking at me.” – Jess
Our B story reminds us that there is more than one kind of blindness. Most of us will (I hope) never encounter a murderous animated shadow, but most of us have at one time or another experienced isolation. Sometimes that isolation is the result of emotional blindness–or numbness. Nathan’s neuropathy means that he literally can feel nothing. Audrey’s “blind spot” is a little more subtle—it takes her a while to realize how friendless, how isolated she is both socially and emotionally. Both of them try to deal with this in their own way. audrey is trying to make friends–but is awkward and gauche when she goes about it. Nathan is trying to forge a relationship with Jess, one which Audrey enthusiastically supports. But he finds himself hung up on his disability, to the point where he is pushing Jess away rather than confront it.
“It’s my first time since I’ve been like this. I can’t even feel my own damn skin. I can’t feel her skin. I don’t know what else I can’t … do.” – Nathan
Beyond the fact that this may be Nathan’s longest speech to date, I was surprised at the depth of trust this conversation with Audrey implies. Most men won’t discuss possible impotence with other men, let alone a woman. For Nathan to open up to Audrey about his deepest fears this way—a man who rarely uses complete sentences—is extraordinary. This is an amazing example of vulnerability, exposing Nathan’s “feelings” far below the mere surface of nerve endings. And it’s only the first of several scenes where we see Nathan with his armor off. He confesses his fears to Jess, who sympathizes with him to the extent of re-enacting a famous scene between Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot:
Joe: Well, it’s more like a, a mental block. When I’m with a girl, it does absolutely nothing to me.
Sugar: Have you tried?
Joe: Have I? I’m trying all the time. (He kisses her.) See. Nothing.
Sugar: Nothing at all?
Joe: Complete washout.
Fortunately, Jess is smart or experienced enough to get past this, by demanding that Nathan keep his eyes open as she kisses him. She knows that we close our eyes to be intimate—it is an instinctual response to the primate gaze, which usually signals aggression. But their shared gaze forces him past his defenses—whether they are unconscious or symptomatic or whatever. Nathan has been thinking with the wrong sex organ, unable to figure out that sex, like all sensation, is in the brain. Matters move quickly, to the point where a frantic call from Audrey finds Jess and Nathan nearly in flagrante delicto. In a show of heroism unparalleled among the male sex, he leaves Jess panting and goes to Audrey’s rescue. Later, Jess decides Haven is too full of Troubles for her, and says goodbye to Nathan with a peck on the cheek. As usual, he does not feel or react to this touch, and she drives away. A sympathetic Audrey reassures him that he still has one friend—her—and gives him a similar peck on the cheek. But this time, Nathan feels it, and the look that went through him at that moment made this one of those episodes I mentioned at the beginning, a landmark in acting, directing and writing.
Kudos to Lucas Bryant for a brilliantly low-key performance. I criticized him in the early reviews of this show for his wooden demeanor. Now I see that that was deliberate. In this episode, Bryant took us gently through a series of delaminations of Nathan Wournos, exposing layer by layer his emotional vulnerability. First we see him shy and awkward around Jess—as Audrey says, he has “no game” around women. Then there’s his aforementioned opening-up to Audrey regarding his physical disability, his fear of sexual intimacy. Then we see his innate honesty sealing the connection between him and Jess. The final revelation is in that last scene between Audrey and Nathan, a moment of breathless astonishment as Nathan realizes he felt Audrey’s kiss. A man who has just been reminded in the most personal, painful and intimate way that he literally cannot feel a woman’s touch–feels hers. We saw a dozen emotions cross his face, with no dialogue at all: shock, realization, wonder—and hope. It’s a signature performance Bryant should be proud of.
Nathan: Maybe you should try small talk?
Audrey: Nathan Wournos promoting small talk? That’s like Superman trying to sell kryptonite.
Nathan: I’m not the one looking for friends.
Audrey: Hey, I didn’t say that I was looking for friends.
Likewise, Emily Rose did her usual excellent job of showing us two Audreys—the brash, self-confident investigator who is not afraid to leap to conclusions that would brand her a lunatic at the FBI, and the uncertain loner who has never yet figured out the social skills that would breach the wall she has built around herself. Her realization and acceptance of her loner status—along with her appreciation for the friendship she has built with Nathan—bring a warm, emotional undertone to a story that is otherwise chill and isolating. Audrey breaks through her emotional barriers to seek connection to others (even when she, hilariously, can never remember their names) and Nathan breaks through his physical barriers to find he already may have an emotional connection. Good stuff.
Ratings for cable TV shows, especially on the Syfy Channel, are more elusive than an honest politician, so I can’t say how well Haven is faring among viewers. Reviews of the show seem to be about evenly balanced between negative and positive. The show continues to beat one theme to death—an emotional trauma triggers unknown Powers in the citizens of one town—but at least in this episode it had that veneer of creepiness, that sideways look at the world, that is the hallmark of a true Stephen King story. If there are more like this, Haven will have an assured place on my viewing schedule.