The Promised Neverland Review & Analysis (Spoilers): 131045

Be careful

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

“Smile, Emma”

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.

Norman reflecting my general state watching this episode

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.

If heart palpitations were a human

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.

The Promised Neverland Review (Spoiler Free): 121045

The Promised Neverland’s premiere shows a lot of….promise.

That could have been more eloquent.

The Promised Neverland (2019), an adaptation of the Manga of the same name currently running in Weekly Shonen Jump, has premiered and I want to talk about it because man, I liked it. I liked it a lot.

I have not read the Manga – though I may do so as the season moves forward – so this premiere episode was my first foray into the series. With this combination of subtlety, economy, animation, characterization and pacing, I am excited to explore this series further.

But first:

What is The Promised Neverland?

A partial synopsis of the Manga is as follows (from MyAnimeList.com):

At Grace Field House, life couldn’t be better for the orphans! Though they have no parents, together with the other kids and a kind “Mama” who cares for them, they form one big, happy family. No child is ever overlooked, especially since they are all adopted by the age of 12. Their daily lives involve rigorous tests, but afterwards, they are allowed to play outside. 

There is only one rule they must obey: do not leave the orphanage.

Creep Factor 5, Captain

The most striking element of this premiere is the immediate sense of dread that infects every element of the story, basically from bar one of the OP.

One immediately gets the sense that something is ten kinds of up within the first five minutes of the program. Despite having an on-the-nose cold open, with an announcement of theme that feels more than a bit shoe-horned, the series has a palpable tension and subtlety emanating from its prima facia setting in an idyllic orphanage in the middle of the country.

The aesthetic is something between the Handmaid’s Tale, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Naruto; all the children (everyone around the age of 12) are dressed in glaring white hospital-esque outfits, symbolizing their general childish innocence. The setting, Grace Field House, in design and structure evokes some rural British countryside out of Downton Abbey. From the high vaulted ceilings, and large bedroom which gave me mad Madeline vibes, to the tungsten lighting, everything gives off a quiet, patient, peaceful ambience.

Or at least it’s supposed to.

Emma looking into the unknown

This peaceful old-school atmosphere is undercut by small details: the presence of advanced technology. Bar codes and scannners; large ID numbers in a weirdly decorative font tattooed loudly on the children’s necks. Oh no.

The tension between these aesthetics immediately gets your creep-radar on the alert. And as the episode progresses, and the children just go about their day, that tension only tightens further and further. You may not even notice that you’re being wound up as the kids do things like, play tag; eat food and just be children.

The tension is made all the worse by the energetic lead Emma, who has the bubbly, popular personality typical of Shonen protagonists. She genuinely loves the house; she loves “Mom” – a matronly figure in a maid’s uniform; she loves all her compatriots. She is likeable and charming.

Twist, twist, twist.

The music only enhances the creepiness; used relatively sparingly, and primarily a mix of ambient electronic and piano music. Everything is so quiet that, even though you can feel the tension rise in your gut, you are still lulled into a sense of security. The weirdness is weird, and there are some off details.

Animation & Economy

One of my favorite things about visual storytelling – filmmaking, TV series, Comic Books – and especially time-locked stories (movie and TV) is how, when it’s done well, the storytelling is pure economy: you can explain a character in as little as 30 seconds with a twist of the body, a laugh, and maybe three lines of dialogue.

All the named characters are drawn well from the word go: from the somewhat dim Dom; to the adorable Conny; to the mastermind Norman, the angsty-Sasuke-looking rival trope Ray, and our main character Emma, everything needed to explain who these characters are is done instantly within the first three scenes.

Emma’s ebullient announcement that it’s time to wake-up, followed by all the children playing rambunctiously in the bedroom immediately convey Emma’s assertiveness, confidence, and her leadership of the group of 38 children. The way she speaks with everybody, giving high-fives to certain children, laughing. The way she talks to all the main characters establish who the character is within seconds. During the game of tag, Norman’s mysterious smiles, and far-off gaze establish him as intellectual and tactician; the way Ray abstains from playing games, or interacting with the others pins down his rebellious nature. All the named characters are developed instantly, making the narrative easy to follow, and establishing their innocence.

Ray, he looks like Sasuke, he’s angsty

Uh oh.

I also want to commend the work that CloverWorks has done with the animation. Everything is crisp, and clean; the color palate is just soft enough to be soporific; and they’ve translated Shirai’s character designs so that they teem with life, while remaining distinctive. Emma’s character design in particular is to be lauded.

Economy is a tough balance. Sometimes one can be too economical, and elide all the “Good Stuff” for later episodes. A number of great, subtle storytellers will purposely leave out compelling action for the reader to figure out. Fortunately…

The show is not stingy with its action

Towards the end of the episode, I was growing weary of the pacing a bit. Not too much, that creepiness was over-the-top and the tension was drawn tight. The normality was established and I was expecting that the disturbance – the “call to action” as Joseph Campbell called it, would wait until a later episode.

I was wrong.

Without going into any spoilers, the ending sets up the story and the thematic underpinning of the show – the end of innocence – expertly, and with a degree of emotional pitch I had not expected. A few sequences toward the end of the episode immediately paid off the tension and when it was finally released, I found myself jumping with terror, and grasping myself, as one does, when horror is done well.

It was real satisfying.

But the best part of the end of the episode is not just well…the everything of it, it is how it establishes one of the most important elements of the series going forward: Strategy vs. Brute Strength.

In the episode, during the aforementioned sequence where the kid’s play tag, Norman highlights that strategy and tactics – not brute strength – are what often determine the winner of a battle. Emma’s main failing is that she is “Compassionate” and, more to the point, straightforward.

This series has a long-game in mind, and the traits that have been highlighted are not athleticism or strength – which are Emma’s forte’s – but wit and strategy. Given that “Punching things harder” has been the tacit philosophy of Shonen stories since time immemorial (see: all the shonen protagonists), emphasizing the use of one’s mind, over the use of one’s fist can prove to be a legitimately compelling stylistic choice if effectively implemented. Especially knowing the stakes involved.

There is also a grand sense of mystery, set up in the first episode that, if handled well, could add compelling spice to an already compelling debut.

What doesn’t quite work

There is very little I genuinely disliked about this show. The only major critiques have more to do with the fact that this is a pilot episode. There isn’t going to be a lot of time to delve into who the characters are; and that’s fine.

Norman completes our trio

If I have any complaints, it is that the character’s failings have not yet been emphasized. That is more of a nit-pick, than a major issue. These characters have been established well, but they are still very much in a state of potential, only a promise of something to come. Emma is a compelling lead, featuring all the shonen tropes that make a character likeable, but it is not clear whether the failing established by the show her “caring too much for others” is going to be a sufficient character flaw in the long run to warrant further explanation. Ray is a more one-note character than i’d like; but again, this is the pilot.

If I have any complaints, it is only that my attention flagged a little during the middle of the episode; but again, as an introductory episode, that is to be expected.

Conclusion

The Promised Neverland is off to a great start, and promises to be an excellent show. While the pacing was somewhat slow, I have faith in where the show is going, and I am invested enough in the characters to be excited for the next episode.

Let’s see how that promise lives up, as the season goes on.

Until I score perfectly on my exam

.0000889 out of .0001000

See you next episode!