The following contains spoilers for The Nevers S1E2, “Exposure,” and in fact notes how the season’s second episode ends in its very first sentence.
The Nevers S1E2, “Exposure,” ends by exposing that it is Lavinia Bidlow (Olivia Williams) who is behind the experiments being done on the Touched by Dr. Hague (Denis O’Hare), which means by extension she is behind the men in scary masks who tried to abduct Myrtle in S1E1 and who successfully nab Beth Cassini (Domenique Fragale) earlier in Episode 2. It is a shocking twist, not in terms of a surprise about Lavinia’s character, but insofar as the logic of her actions seems inconsistent.
On the one hand, Lavinia acts in S1E2 to protect the Touched from outside forces as the world at large has turned against them in the aftermath of the events at the opera. She stands up to Frank Mundi and gets the cops who have been poking about in Primrose’s underwear drawer to bug off. Her material support for the Touched housed in the orphanage is real, and so it might seem like a contradiction when we learn that she is also supporting the mad scientist who is drilling into their skulls.
Even if it is not inconsistent behavior conceptually, her actions seem to be at loggerheads in practical terms: why send both masked men (these guys really need some kind of cool name, by the way) and Amalia True to the Haplisch residence, for example? Is it perhaps that one hand does not know what the other is doing? But then we have Beth’s story here in S1E2, which includes a flier that claims it will guide her to the safety of the orphanage but instead leads her into a trap and ultimately to become one of Hague’s subjects. From a certain point of view, Lavinia seems to be working at cross-purposes with herself. One might have to conclude that Mrs. True and Ms. Adair were working without Lavinia’s knowledge when they went to bring Myrtle into the fold in the pilot.
Ms. Bidlow’s motives do hang together, nonetheless, if we cease to view her support of the orphanage in altruistic terms. And a lack of true regard for the Touched is evidenced by how she trots out some of those in her charge as party attractions in “Exposure.” As guests pose with Primrose by the stairs, for example, the festivities are clearly along the lines of a freak show.
Of course it isn’t framed as such, and perhaps she even views her actions as benevolent, but from anything like an objective point of view, it is perfectly clear what is going on: a rich woman displaying her subjects much like they are curios on a shelf. The dangerous tiger has been tamed—look at my benign exotic pets.
One has only to consider her conversation with Augustus, as she chides him for being too friendly with Penance. The rapport between Augie and Ms. Adair was self-evident in the previous scene, but Lavinia practically forces her younger brother to condescend after she’s taken him aside. We can feel the betrayal Penance feels lodging into our collective guts as we watch her face. Her new friend tells her she isn’t one, because she’s Touched (and worse, Irish)—he doesn’t need to say the last bit for her to hear it. And we can see the pain fall across her face, caused by the classism of the one who would claim to be her benefactor. This all should already have been enough to mark Lavinia Bidlow as a villain in this story.
The final scenes of The Nevers S1E2 also feature a glowing orb that Lavinia and Dr. Hague admire. The latter says it is fun that the thing has become more active, while Lavinia insists that it is not “fun” but war. I have to surmise that this is the wreckage of the ship that flew through the sky of London three years ago, as depicted in S1E1. Presumably neither Bidlow nor Hague remember that event (an interpretation bolstered by Maladie saying at one point in “Exposure” that she is the only one who does), but they have nonetheless connected this strange object with the Touched and clearly see it as key to figuring the whole thing out.
We know that Hague wants to figure out how it all works—this “touching”—and I am led to speculate on the basis of the closing scenes of S1E2 that Lavinia wishes through his efforts to create more of the Touched. But, even if this is not the case, in one way or another her goal is to exploit them. She views them as a means to an end, and perhaps as not quite human (in a way that demeans their moral status), and her remark about war can’t help but lead me to wonder whether that end lies in carrying out something like what Lord Massen fears. Is the stodgy old reactionary somehow right in thinking that there are pernicious forces lying behind the Touched? But in his terms I take it this would be whatever caused the ship to arrive in London in the first place—Lavinia is merely taking advantage of its presence—so if he is right, he is at least off on the details.
All of this raises a further question, however, insofar as it seems eminently possible that Lavinia’s goals may indeed be progressive in a certain way. That is, perhaps her war is indeed against the rigid class structures of chauvinism and ableism that surround her in Victorian society, and the Touched provide a potential weapon in the fight against these systems of oppression. But even then it seems clear that she does not want to fundamentally disrupt the power of the ruling elite so much as share in it. She wants a seat at the proverbial table, whereas a real revolutionary would want to smash it.
Hugo Swann aims to use the Touched in a different way, and I am frankly not sure to what extent the fact that I find it less morally troubling stems from his charisma. Is he prostituting these women or giving them the opportunity for gainful sex work? Everyone has a right to work, after all, and if their special talents make them all the more successful…
Perhaps the most important question, ethically speaking, is whether the individuals involved are acting of their own free will, and I at least see no real indications to the contrary in the Ferryman’s club scene. As it is interspersed with scenes of Beth and Dr. Hague, I find the effect to be more one of contrast than of resonance, though again I have to admit this might be in part because I find Hugo Swann to be so terribly charming. It is clear that he wants to use the Touched to serve his own ends as much as Lavinia does—his ends just seem like fun (not war).
The thought that it is respecting autonomy that is important, though, is problematized by Amalia’s employment of Desirée Blodgett (Ella Smith) in The Nevers S1E2. A self-described whore of some renown, it becomes clear that Desirée’s turn involves the ability to make people speak truths they might wish to keep revealed, in particular when they’re worked up. This leads to some quite humorous moments over the course of “Exposure”—and could certainly be related to the episode’s title—as first Mrs. True and then Frank Mundi reveal intimate things about themselves and their feelings, compelled by forces operating as it were behind their backs.
But is this a violation of their autonomy? If we take seriously the Kantian thought that it is immoral to treat a person as a means only, the goal involved should not matter. Telling the truth may generally be laudable, but telling secrets? There could be even further worries if the secrets are not one’s own. Though on the other hand, keeping the truth from others can be an act of deception that is immoral in itself. All over the place we find The Nevers playing with this kind of grey area where the thing that is usually wrong perhaps isn’t and vice versa.
Because doesn’t Amalia treat Desirée as a means when she takes her to see Mundi? Perhaps it is not in violation of her autonomy, as Desirée seems perfectly willing to help, but The Nevers seems keen nonetheless on blurring all sorts of ethical lines that one might prefer to keep clear. It’s not the show’s fault, though, but that of the lines that claim to be starkly drawn—The Nevers simply shows how reality never conforms to preconceived norms. It is not quite moral ambiguity on display in S1E2 as a fuzzy logic in the domain of ethics—in other words, it is not the morality of a character’s actions so much as the moral standards themselves at play that one struggles to come to a firm landing on.
And this fuzziness extends into theology if we consider Maladie’s religion of pain. She believes that God wants her to suffer—perhaps wants suffering generally—and while it is easy enough to suspect that Amalia is right about her history of abuse, I am less convinced this dispels the question when it comes to The Nevers. After all, it’s not God who did the “touching” but whatever the strange spaceship thing is, and we know next to nothing still coming out of S1E2 as to what motive might lie behind it.
Personally, I am prone to think it was an accident, like some ship that wandered off course, out of control. But to what extent does The Nevers through this object perhaps create a mirror that reflects the viewer’s predispositions in the face of the unknown (or that which “could never happen”)? I suspect it was a matter of chance, Massen is certain it is a nefarious plot to benefit undesirables, Maladie sees another instance where she has been chosen through pain…
Mary, in contrast, sings a song that only the Touched can hear, and it brings them comfort. Maladie is angered by it for precisely this reason. She doesn’t want what she wants, she insists—she doesn’t value love, comfort, or satisfaction. She finds meaning in suffering and makes us consider this as a human possibility. And it seems she might quite literally derive power at this point from being beaten, if I am reading her fight with Amalia correctly.
Of course Maladie is psychologically unwell. If all her present actions didn’t make that clear enough, we have the scenes in S1E1 that show how she was being taken away to an asylum on that fateful day in 1896, before her turn. But I hope The Nevers is careful enough not to suggest that the problem boils down to mental illness. I am confident it will be, as things are already more complicated than that. Though, of course, mental illness itself is more complicated than that—one hopes we’ve long moved past such simplistic notions as affliction, or the mind “going to field” (as Massen characterizes what happened to Hugo’s father, Alistair Swan), much as we previously moved beyond thinking of madness in terms of demonic possession.
But The Nevers makes all of these tropes concrete and rather literal. The woman is even called Maladie, though perhaps she was once a Sarah? There is a lack of exposition in her scene with Mrs. True, and Penance keeps Amalia from providing further details as S1E2 comes to an end.
Let’s just be alive for a while.
This is not at all a bad idea, but we are left to wonder about the history that clearly exists between Maladie and Amalia. Has it truly involved betrayal, and if so why and when? Mrs. True affirms her mission, but it becomes a tinge less clear what that mission is if we start thinking back into the past, prior to 1896. What led her to jump into the water to try to die that day? What happened to her husband? And can she really shed her skin? Is that her face? If not, whose face is it?
I am pretty sure it is not her face.
See you next week.