The Nevers S1E1 Interrogates Modernity Through the Touched

Penance Adair (Ann Skelly) reaches up a hand to be touched by a glowing speck in The Nevers
Photograph by HBO / Keith Bernstein

The following contains spoilers for the pilot episode of The Nevers—S1E1/”Touched”

It is a bit into the runtime of The Nevers S1E1 (“Touched”) that Lord Massen (Pip Torrens) lays out the stakes of the series, during a meeting with a bunch of other stodgy white muckety-mucks about the issue of the Touched. He is so forthright in his aristocratic condescension that it is almost refreshing, as he talks about “caprice and ambitions of those for whom ambition was never meant” (women, immigrants, etc.), but he also raises the question as to the origin of the Touched, which forms much more of a kernel of this pilot episode than I might have expected.

Lord Massen sits at a table looking dour in The Nevers pilot, Touched
Photograph by HBO / Keith Bernstein

Of course, Massen views the Touched as an attack and wonders who the enemy is who has come at the British Empire through its women. This seems absurd if we read the Touched as presenting an allegory for modernity, or at least Massen seems illogically conspiratorial in thinking that there is some foe or faction behind the movement of progress he aims to stem, but by the end of The Nevers S1E1 we see that in fact there was some sort of alien vessel that cruised through the London sky on August 3, 1896, and that this is what did the proverbial touching.

As such, the question about the Touched has to be separated to at least some degree from the general reactionary position Massen inhabits—he may be an arrogant misogynist who wishes he could build a wall to keep back the forces of progress, but that doesn’t mean he is completely wrong in positing secret machinations behind the scenes of the events occurring in the Victorian London of The Nevers. All of the Touched became so at the same place and time (three years earlier), and it certainly is the case that people (including the viewers of The Nevers) are seeing parts of an obfuscated whole. Within the narrative itself, it would seem that no one remembers the ship in the sky that August day, which merely opens another question to ponder.

Amalia hunched to the ground with one hand upon it, after jumping in The Nevers Pilot, Touched
Photograph by HBO / Keith Bernstein

The bulk of Episode 1 follows the characters who seem sure to form the heart of The Nevers: Amalia True (Laura Donnelly) and Penance Adair (Ann Skelly). They apparently spend a lot of their time tracking down the Touched in order to help them and bring them into the fold of their orphanage (if that’s the right word). In S1E1, the case at hand is that of Myrtle Haplisch (Viola Prettejohn), who apparently has been afflicted with a mind crowded by all of the languages of the world, such that she can’t speak English at the moment.

Everything seems to be going fairly well, with Myrtle’s parents coming around from their beliefs that something Satanic is afoot (probably), until some strange men in disturbing masks arrive and try to abduct the young Myrtle for purposes unknown. At the end of the day, though, Amalia, Penance, and Myrtle manage to evade their attackers by unleashing a small automobile from their carriage.

Penance and Myrtle sit in the small car surrounded by others looking on
Photograph by HBO / Keith Bernstein

It would seem Penance’s power involves being able to see energy, which makes her rather the inventor. Amalia we are told gets glimpses of the future (which are also portrayed in the style of flashes in S1E1), but it is a quick line from Primrose (Anna Devlin) back at the home that piqued my interest in this regard, as she exclaims that “mother” says automobiles are a nuisance—perhaps this indicates knowledge of an even further future than what Mrs. True can glimpse?

We also have a moment when Amalia tells Declan Orrun (Nick Frost) that her face is not her own and see that she was in the midst of committing suicide when the event occurred in 1896, such that it seems possible that she in fact died and was resurrected. These sorts of questions proliferate in the margins of The Nevers, and I hope they will ultimately be folded into its narrative in a significant way.

As to the masked men trying to abduct Myrtle, it would seem that they work for a mad scientist type who is trying to determine where the Touched were touched. I am sure we will see more of his recognizable face (Denis O’Hare is credited as Dr. Edmund Hague) as The Nevers progresses, but for the moment I want to emphasize merely the oddness of the question, when we might well be wondering more about the why and how.

Hugo speaks and gestures from a couch while holding a glass of wine
Photograph by HBO / Keith Bernstein

I also find myself wondering how the Ferryman’s will fit into the broader story of The Nevers. Augustus (Tom Riley) characterizes it as a sex club, but the things that Hugo (James Norton) says to Frank Mundi (Ben Chaplin) towards the end of this pilot episode make me wonder if there is something more going on than sex and blackmail.

The relationship between the two also remains a bit of a mystery coming out of S1E1. We know that Mundi is investigating the murders Maladie (Amy Manson) has been carrying out—though it isn’t entirely clear what all there is to investigate when everyone knows she’s been murdering people and what we actually see is him investigating a killing someone else is trying to pin on her—but his conversation with Swann toward the end of the episode gestures at dealings between the two that may or may not involve Maladie. And what to do with Hugo’s line about them both knowing the young woman Maladie and crew have kidnapped? What is Mary’s significance in this regard?

Hugo Swann offers a drink to Frank Mundi as they stand in front of a curtain
Photograph by HBO / Keith Bernstein

Through its first episode, The Nevers is indeed full of questions, and the easy interpretations of what it is all about are undermined by the way its parts (don’t) fit together.

The Touched could easily be seen in analogy with women suffering from hysteria in the Victorian era, for example, and insofar as hysteria readily brings to mind the invention of psychoanalysis, we might be tempted to see confirmation in the mention of psychoanalysts within the narrative of this story. Except that they are being murdered by one of the Touched called Maladie—a name the mind of course rushes to hang an interpretation on—with no indication that they have been trying to treat her affliction.

Maladie further complicates the question as to where our sympathies should lie in The Nevers, if we are prone to side with the Touched. Though of course it’s hardly a new idea for there to be competing factions of mutants, Maladie does not seem to be Magneto to Amalia True’s Professor X so much as a figure of something like diabolical evil who truly acts out of irrational caprice—precisely the kind of threat that would seem to warrant Massen’s point of view.

Maladie flourishes a hand into the air onstage at the opera house
Photograph by HBO / Keith Bernstein

She interrupts a performance of Faust by slitting the throat of the actor portraying the devil and wonders why no one thanks her. She cries out, begging for a reason—a reason why things are as they are rather than otherwise. In this sense perhaps Maladie is a symbol for the de-centering force of modernity, as this disruption of the cosmic order (or the ability to believe in such a thing) defines the malady of modern times.

In the face of this, Mary (Eleanor Tomlinson) sings a magical song before Maladie abducts her. It is not really clear what is going on during this scene, but towards the end of S1E1 Penance tells Amalia that through this song they can bring all of the Touched together, and even if they won’t be safe, they’ll at least be less alone.

Mary stands on stage, looking a bit frightened
Photograph by HBO / Keith Bernstein

At the same time, when Massen complains about the French influence of the word ‘employees’ Amalia suggests the benefit lies in the ability it introduces to pick out an individual (employee). While we might read this in line with something progressive—to be able to recognize the unique worth of an individual person as opposed to viewing each as a kind of human cog in a machine—it is not for nothing that this remains within the context of the exploitation of the worker. And indeed the labor movement of the late 19th century worked primarily in the other direction, by emphasizing notions of solidarity in the face of oppression. Thus The Nevers presents another philosophical tension as we bring the moments of its pilot together.

Overall, The Nevers may be on the track of something nuanced as it uses the Touched as a symbol through which to diagnose modernity; it may be on the track of a complex exploration of mental illness; it may be an exploration of the struggles of women against the patriarchy and the different against a status quo that casts them as abnormal; or it may turn out to be a muddled mess of signs that do not cohere together. The pilot only gives us parts, while the whole remains hidden.

Written by Caemeron Crain

Caemeron Crain is Executive Editor of TV Obsessive. He struggles with authority, including his own.

Caesar non est supra grammaticos

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