Syfy, Fridays, 9/10 PM
“The Hand You Were Dealt”
Written by Jim Dunn
Directed by Rick Rosenthal
“…this strange little Petrie dish.” —Julia Carr
What keeps me coming back to this show is the surprise quotient. It seems to be a highly—even boringly—predictable show. I keep telling myself that. Yet I keep tuning in every Friday, and despite the occasional cringe at the dialogue or clumsy plotting, I enjoy myself. If this sounds like left-handed praise, I suppose it is. I think this show has gelled, I think it is growing legs—I just don’t know it that’s enough. This episode, while satisfying on a couple of levels, seemed to be almost a pastiche of Stephen King themes. We get the Firestarter story—someone is killing residents of Haven using heat and fire—and a funny (if obscure) reference to the “lobstrocities” King mentioned in his Dark Tower series. We even get a tinge of X-Files, a reference to the only episode of that series that ever won an Emmy. YetHaven remains all its own, more than a collage, because it is just so darn good at diversion. And that’s the key to keeping my interest—surprise me.
This episode starts out with a bang. Audrey and Duke are looking into the now-familiar Colorado Kid case, and interview a woman who is in the famous photo. Vanessa Stanley (Cynthia Preston, Dead at 17) used to be Duke’s babysitter (what, was she six whole months older than he?) and is now a guidance counselor. A smoking hot guidance counselor, in more than one sense of that word. After their unfruitful interview, Vanessa deals with a high school principal who is not pleased with her handling of a scuffle between two teenage boys, Matt (Max Topplin, House Party) and Xander (Bradley Bailey, The Tenth Circle). As the principal walks to her car, Vanessa runs out, yelling for her to stop. The principal ignores her, gets in the car, and blows up.
Obviously, we are supposed to conclude that Vanessa is an (inadvertent) pyrokinetic. Inexplicably, Audrey shrugs off an exploding car and doesn’t want to investigate it. She’s hell-bent on tracking down all the people in the Colorado Kid photo, and Duke is happy to assist. They find a photographer who was in the photo—and is now a nut case. Morris Crane (Bill Car,Growing Op) starts off normal enough, and to Audrey’s surprise, he is the only witness who remembers that day (both Duke and Vanessa do not). But then he begins describing the men who came out of the sea that day, with lobster claws for hands. Fascinated, Duke and Audrey watch as Morris begins to take his clothes off, at which point they both beat a hasty retreat. I’m willing to bet there was a copy of Dark Tower on Morris’s bedside table.
Nathan, meanwhile, actively investigates the exploding car. Even as he tracks down witnesses, Xander boils to death in the local swimming pool while Vanessa futilely tries to get into the facility. Witnesses identify her to Nathan’s sketch artist, and before too long Audrey’s investigation of the Colorado Kid and Nathan’s investigation of two deaths by heat intersect. Julia Carr offers Audrey access to her late mother’s files, where they discover references to other fiery deaths in and around the border of New Hampshire and Vermont during the 1970s. This pretty much summarizes the plot of King’s Firestarter, including the Vermont location. It’s a clever diversion, because the linking of this story with Firestarter led me to believe that Vanessa was another Charlie McGee, another “firebug” setting fires with her mind. Certainly Vanessa’s “attacks”, which had her doubled over in pain, seemed to imply that the fires were being started by her. But when Nathan, Audrey, and Duke run her to earth, she warns them about an upcoming fire-death, and begs them to prevent it. Which they do, in a fun sequence involving Duke and Nathan crashing a backyard barbecue and throwing the fully loaded propane fueled grill into the pool.
“It’s fate. All I can do is watch. I can’t change anything.” —Vanessa
Vanessa, as it turns out, is not the firebug, she is only the fire alarm. She can foresee people’s deaths, but claims she can do nothing about them. Of course, I was immediately reminded of the classic X-Files episode, “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose”, the Emmy-winning story of a reluctant psychic whose only gift was the ability to see how someone, including himself, died. Vanessa is terrified because, like Bruckman, she can not only foresee the deaths of others, but her own. She is trying to figure out who the real firebug is, leaving sketches of her vision around her house like demonic graffiti. It’s Nathan who finally figures out that she has foreseen an apocalyptic fire at a local homemade movie venue. When the team arrives at the site, they split up to find the firebug, and zero in on Matt West, the only survivor of that hallway confrontation we saw in the opener. West is astonished to learn he’s a firebug—and then embraces his destiny with fiendish glee. The ensuing fire-fight mortally wounds Vanessa but clears the stands. Matt boasts, he threatens, he turns Nathan and Audrey’s guns into hot iron. Audrey turns to psychological warfare to goad Matt into an anger so hot he detonates on the spot. Vanessa dies in Duke’s arms, after telling him how he will die.
“We can make our own fate.” —Audrey
While I liked the idea of the obvious suspect—Vanessa—turning out to be the witness, not the villain, I had serious problems with her characterization. On the one hand, she declares ringingly that her visions cannot be changed, that they are “fate”. That word repeats throughout the episode, with different meanings for the different characters, misunderstood by all. Audrey reminds Vanessa that by breaking up the backyard barbecue, all lives were saved. Vanessa herself tells Audrey minutes later that she has faith that God gave her her gift for a reason:
“I’m supposed to do something. To save people.” —Vanessa
Yet even as she lies dying, having witnessed Nathan and Audrey saving the lives of dozens of people who died in her vision, she tells Duke that fate still rules her life. So, she believes in immutable fate, and that she can and should do something to counter it. F. Scott Fitzgerald may have believed that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas,” but Vanessa seemed to me to just be confused, not intelligent.
“Let’s say a guy like me—can’t feel anything—meets a woman, discovers he can feel her touch. Seems like fate, doesn’t it?” —Nathan
Vanessa’s not the only character pondering fate. Nathan seems to be conducting a few surreptitious tests of his new-found ability to feel Audrey’s touch. He seeks out opportunities to, er, feel her out, without her cluing in to what he’s doing. He high-fives her—and stares at his hand afterward, assessing it. He stands beside her at a railing, and while she rattles on about the case, his hand hovers over hers, almost touching. He invades Audrey’s personal space, initiates a handshake, and then hovers momentarily in a state of stunned contemplation while she wanders off. He’s careful not to let her know he’s testing himself, but we can see the dawning wonder and hope in him. Kudos again to Lucas Bryant for showing us, by degrees, a man coming out of his shell, a man who is afraid to let himself hope but just can’t help hoping anyway, a man seeking to become, once again, a real boy.
“I saw a hand, coming towards my face, with a tattoo…” —Vanessa, to Audrey and then to Duke
Twice in this episode we get another teasing hint of what happened to the Colorado Kid. Belatedly, Vanessa remembers that she was in that photo because she had seen how the Colorado Kid would die. She saw an arm with a tattoo on it, and a hand closing in. Dying, she tells Duke she sees the same thing for him. We have also seen that same tattoo on the arm of a man who aged to death not three weeks ago, and of course the same tattoo appears in the opening credits (as do images referring to other episodes). This would seem to be Duke’s “fate”, but if he and Nathan agree on one thing, it’s free will.
“There is no ‘fate’.” —Duke
“Screw fate.” —Nathan
Of course, that’s always going to be the problem with precognition, or the ability to foresee the future. As creatures of free will, we’re always going to act as if that fate were not sealed. No matter how much we would like to believe someone, somewhere could see the future, we don’t really believe it. We go out and try to change our fates. My trouble with Vanessa was not that she came down on the side of fatalism, but that she never really examined her beliefs, or the actions that contradicted them. This speaks of a character totally lacking in maturity and self-awareness—or it speaks of lazy writing and characterization. Either way, she was a weak character at best, and I could not muster much respect for her.
“Too bad for them. I’ll find them first.” —Duke
So again, what brings me back is not so much the little Stephen King in-jokes, or the sometimes clumsy dialogue. What brings me back are two things: the twists that surprise me, such as Vanessa being the victim, not the bad guy, and the story of Nathan and Audrey. I could not care less about the Colorado Kid, or Audrey’s search for the woman in the photo, or any of the other faux mythology the writers are shoehorning into this show. I do care, however, about a man coping with a bizarre inability to feel, about a socially awkward yet endearing investigator like Audrey, and—surprisingly—about a smuggler/bad boy’s determination not to be the victim of “fate”. For this, I come back.