Note: moving forward, these reviews will feature full spoilers for all episodes through the current episode. If you do not want to be spoiled for Episode 1 or 2, please do not read further.
Emma looks for Conny. She pulls a red curtain away revealing a banquet. In her hand, Conny’s huge stuffed bunny. She walks up to the table, curious, blood-red wine in evidence. A body on a fruit-platter lies in shadowy silhouette. Cut to Conny’s lifeless eyes; cut to Emma’s terrified eyes as the gaping maw with of a demon closes in behind her for the kill.
A terrified scream. Darkness. Emma breathes heavily, eyes filled with terror. The varied snoring of 37 children surround her. She looks up at the clock; the clock looks back at her, swinging and ticking, swinging and ticking, swinging and ticking. Emma huddles, her time is coming.
What a fucking start to an episode.
The Promised Neverland continues creating momentum with its stellar second episode 131045. The animation is beautiful, the storytelling fresh, the characterization subtle, and the sense of danger, palpable. But best of all, 131045 ratchets up the tension, and terror to a fever pitch, without doing anything at all.
Chores after the Apocalypse
One of this show’s greatest strengths so far has been its employment and weaponization of negative space. The spaces in-between, the unseen, the nooks and hidden crannies. This episode takes those small, good things, and makes them horror. Last week’s episode had all the quiet, uninteresting moments used as sub-textual set-up for the wrongness that covered the show’s atmosphere like a gelatinous patina of uh-oh. There were hints that something was up, but nothing overt until the very end of the episode when everything came together in a climax that had me climbing up my sofa: the children of Grace Field House are veal for rich Demons, harvested and farmed at the house.
The violence of Conny’s death and that peripetetic moment has transformed the unsettling quiet of the show. It is no longer just a sub-textual wrongness: it is fully blown honest to god text of terror. Everything boring and straightforward has taken on a sinister cast that hitchcock praised: The dull diegetic sounds of nature feel finite and terrible. The children’s snores are too peaceful. The sound of wind and the peace is distinctly unpeaceful.
Selling the razor-wire tension of this situation is Emma. Her terror is pitch-perfect as she reacts in a way that is both heartbreaking, and tactically dangerous.
Psychology is messy; people are not straight-lines and they do not take hard news in just one way. A person may laugh in the face of doom, or they may weep; they may do both at the same time; they may flip shit or recoil; or they may dispassionately observe. It’s never just one thing, but as Robert Frost said, multitudes. Emma is overtly terrified of her situation, and her terror has translated to a dim, distant numbness. She does her chores with a thousand-yard stare. The veneer of her home has been stripped, and everything has been taken from her. She sees her situation before her. She hears that ticking clock in the background. Tick, tock.
But still, she has to smile.
And despite her terror, she and Norman are capable of calmly discussing why Demons would want to eat them, and how they are harvested. There is a desperate need to escape; but chores need to be done. Why not discuss dispassionately what’s been going on.
The moments in this episode where they push the bounds, go to the places where they shouldn’t go and the interactions with Mom are terrifying. But it is the bored clinical way in which Norman discusses their plight with Emma that is somehow more terrifying. As they walk the halls, there is a sense of claustrophobia – a tangible sense that the walls are closing in – even though nothing, strictly, has happened yet.
The sense that eyes are everywhere is damn near perfect. Where is it safe to be yourself? It’s unclear. But every time Norman and Emma do anything, I’m scared that they are going to be found out because…
Mama Isabella is a fucking terror
Isabella is only in this episode for a few minutes, but those few minutes sell the feeling of claustrophobic horror as much as the reveal of the main characters fate. She is the looming, matronly face of authority. Like Big Brother, her loving show of affection masks that Banal Himmler evil that is both dispassionate, and uninterested in its moral mendacity. She found the stuffed bunny that Emma had left behind in her dismay, and is on the look-out for things that are out of the ordinary. She is in a punishing mood.
The weaponized negative space manifests throughout the episode. Including the battle of wills. Mom cannot let-on explicitly that she knows someone watched Conny’s death. So she has to be subtle; she can only indicate in sidereal ways that she knows the truth; she has to keep on the look-out invisibly.
The tight-rope is tense.
In most Shonen stories, conflict resolution is textually straightforward. One guy does something bad, another guy beats that guy up. The battle is all on the ground. Tangible. In the moment. The fights have subtext – at least the good ones – and thematic importance; but the fights are still recognizably a fight. The punching is the point.
But so far, this show has taken the opposite track: fighting is hidden. It isn’t explicitly a fight. It is a few words exchanged, or a tactical maneuver. Instead of punching the villain in the face, a knowing remark, a glimpse of power are the weapons.
When Isabella shows that she knows where all the kids are, she is attacking. When Norman tells Emma to keep a happy face, a riposte. It is an exhausting long-form duel, which keeps all those empty spaces perpetually filled with the promise of pain and suffering.
This storytelling tactic pays big dividends towards the midpoint of the episode. Emma has gone to do something and runs into Isabella. Isabella has noticed Emma acting strangely, and asks what’s up. For a moment her eyes modulate into something less than motherly. For a split-second Emma almost betrays her knowledge of her plight, but then masks it with a big smile, and a hug. She then casually mentions Conny in a way that feels aggressive and confrontational; and then she adds an extra dollop of honey about how much she loves living here, and walks away.
At the end of the sequence, she drops to her knees from the stress. Girl, I feel ya.
The entire scene works because of how effectively the conflict has been set-up. The chess being played is easy enough for me to pick-up, but still subtle enough to be off to the side, occluded. That is good writing.
It’s horrible for my blood pressure, though.
But what amplifies that disquiet is something much worse.
The Stakes are Ridiculous and the Main Characters are only making it worse
131045 has established with astonishing economy the scope of the odds against these kids. They are not even teenagers, who have to somehow plan an escape from this house. But not only that, there is a world beyond them that they don’t even know about, that is even more dangerous, potentially many times more difficult, and these kids have been sheltered from it their entire life. They are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.
It creates an air of mystery and makes the move forward even less predictable than most. The anxiety that the story engenders is genuine. The stakes feel larger than usual, because there are so many individual components that are to the character’s detriment.
Which brings me to the conclusion, which I feel…mixed, on.
I’m aware that this is a Shonen series, but the conclusion to this episode, where Ray (Sasuk-ray?) is informed of the situation and is recruited to help the kids escape, felt a bit off. Not bad, but off.
For most of the episode, everything being off to the side worked so much in its favor. But this little end piece, where Ray, Norman, and Emma state Emma’s goal to save all the children felt a little…obvious, for lack of a better word.
It certainly was no episode killer, and the introduction of swelling dramatic music, and straightforward comedic moments were welcome in what was a very dour proceeding. But, I dunno, the rest of the episode was so perfectly precise in how much it revealed that it felt a little gauche to have such an obvious approach to the ending.
But it still smudges the end of the episode a bit because it betrays everything else stylistically. It is explicit and on-the-nose, and filling the space, and it is a straightforward character moment. Emma’s reversion to her genre’s cheerful gritty tropes is good – for my blood pressure – but dampens the ending a mite.
But as I said, human psychology isn’t a straight-line and neither is storytelling, so I don’t necessarily mind having a contradictory note to the proceedings, even if it undercuts some of the tension. Because what she wants to do in the face of the precipice which she has been presented is somehow even more difficult than what they wanted to do initially. She wants to save everybody, and that is not going to be easy.
But if these first two episodes are any indication, it will be one hell of a thing to watch.
Until I smile,
877 out of 100 and a definite recommend.