Episode Two brings us back to the moment Shirley sits up in bed and says her sister is in the Red Room. She immediately drops back down to sleep forgetting that moment of insight. Not that there was much she could do to help Nell at that point, there’s still a sense that she missed a pivotal clue that will hurt her or her family down the line.
It becomes clear early on that this installment is to give us a better understanding of Shirley. She’s not the eldest of the Crain children, but she’s certainly appearing to be at the top of the hierarchy. She may have threatened Steven to cut him out of her life when he published his book, but that’s not exactly possible when you are in a large close-knit family. At a young age the siblings were forced to look out for one another and her anger at her big brother doesn’t get in the way of keeping that obligation intact in modern days. She’s grown up to have a family and life of her own, but her first family still feels like the priority. It’s one of those things in this series that I really relate to by having a big brother I can’t stand to be around but for some reason his continued existence is something I’m still responsible for and reliant upon.
We learned in the premiere that she runs a funeral home but its not until episode 2 that we see how much of a natural fit the position is for her. While having to explain to a child why having an open casket for his grandmother’s funeral is a good thing, you can tell she is drawing from her own experiences to give a thoughtful, simple and helpful advice on why such a practice exists. She’s quick to explain away the child’s proclamations that his grandmother is still around because she’s become an expert of refuting ghost stories just like her brother.
For Shirley, immersing herself in a world surrounded by death has helped her move forward from her childhood tragedy. It’s something clinical to her and not only that, it’s something she can control. She might not be able to save anyone’s life, but she can ensure that they get restored to appear the way they once did and in turn help those grieving in the brutal days between the death of a loved one and their burial. I feel a little gross (and maybe a little lazy) for comparing running a funeral home to house flipping like I did with Steve, but it’s interesting to me that she’s found a calling in fixing something up superficially and quickly moving on without getting too invested in what she’s working on. For Shirley, moving ahead is how she survives.
During her childhood, we learn that not only did she get the idea of her forever home from her mother, but that she also inherited her nurturing ways. She might not give in to Nell’s request for a tea party, but she does offer to still spend some time with her in their insanely awesome backyard. She does end up wandering off on her own and discovering a small cemetery on the grounds. While taking photos, she hears small cries from a shed and discovers a box of adorable baby kittens, probably only a few days old at most. Shirley being a nurturer (or just not a monster who leaves a bunch of kittens to die) wants to bring them in lest they be killed by the dogs that Mr. Dudley claims do not exist on the property. I know better than to care about these adorable tiny meowing balls of fur, especially when they are being fed from a milk bottle that says “They came to visit, not to stay” but its impossible to not love them.
We return to present day and I find myself being far less annoyed by the time jumps now that I’m getting familiar with the characters. Shirley may be good at dealing with sad kids and fixing up corpses, but she’s not good with money. Her husband admonishes her for her bleeding-heart tendencies to do these funerals at cost for too many of their clients. Startled by the purple box her customer brings in, she zones off and her husband walks out of the room. She sees a man sitting on a sofa waiting outside drinking a cocktail. She’s unphased by this aberration but she doesn’t address him either so its clearly not the first time she’s seen him.
The next flashback is the first time we go to another period, six years ago to be precise, for the first time Luke checks into rehab. Perhaps the most horrifying thing in this entire episode is discovering that the cost of one month of treatment without insurance is going to be six grand. Sure, that’s a reasonable amount to expect addicts to come up with and with no guarantee that the treatment will work. As far as the scene itself, I don’t feel like it fits into this episode except maybe to establish why the present-day kids don’t have any faith or trust in Luke. The version of them that had hope for his recovery died sometime during the six years since his first failed attempt to get clean and all the burdens and disappointments that would follow. Maybe that’s just me reading into this family once again having dealt with not only my addiction, but the addiction of two siblings. Either way, I feel like this would have been more suited for whenever we get to Luke’s chapter.
Jumping right back to the present, Shirley discovers her husband has a separate solo bank account she knew nothing about. She’s certainly curious but not enough to actually confront him about it. She goes to bed and has a dream that serves as just another flashback to her summer in Hill House. An adorable saccharine moment between her and Nell quickly goes sour when the dream cuts to night and Shirley and Theo have their first encounter with the darkness of the house. They are startled by loud banging on the walls they eventually turn into ratting windows and picture frames. Their father arrives to try to bullshit them that its really just the pipes but it’s hardly a convincing argument even before his face distorts into a decrepit ghoulish version of himself. Real life Shirley darts up out of her sleep and I’m left to wonder how much of that really happened and how much was a nightmare.
Unfortunately for her, the real nightmare has just begun. I’m not sure there’s any good way to inform your sibling that their baby sister is dead, but I’m more than comfortable with saying that Steve is a dick for the way he delivered that news. I feel like Elizabeth Reaser’s response of “Shut up” is just spot on for the moment. I imagine many people will think that’s not a hard thing to nail with such a simple line, but I detected the exact notes in my own voice from waking up to a similar call: the disbelief, the fear, the denial, with just a smidge of anger that someone would make up such a shitty lie but holding back just in case they are not. The only way that could have mirrored my response completely would be if she just put down the phone to run to a bathroom to throw up. So yeah, it may seem like a simple line but there’s a lot of honesty in it. My chest begins to tighten as the phone call proceeds and her anger dissolves back to denial and she starts to laugh off the preposterous notion, but Steve is certain. You can see the sadness briefly as she starts to realize he’s not lying but she jumps right from sadness to rage and all of it just feels so very real. Her performance that entire scene is so accurate but it’s that first “Shut up” that got me.
The series at this point spares you from having to watch her deliver the news to Theo but instead cuts to a flashback with a whole other unpleasant scenario. She wakes up to check on her kitties and finds one of them has died. I probably would have been more upset had I not just come out of a more depressing scenario. She takes the kitten outside with her parents to give it a proper burial and its here we see why the purple box had unmoored her, its almost exactly like the one used at her first funeral. We also learn she inherited another thing from her mother: a way with words to comfort a child struggling to understand death. There was something particularly beautiful about “we’re all just stories in the end” and I’m beginning to get really sad that we know Olivia isn’t getting out of this summer alive. The beauty is short lived as the show moves onto one of the more grotesque scenes I’ve witnessed this year. The departed kitty begins to move, and Shirley’s joy quickly turns to disgust when she realizes this resurrection is actually a revelation as some giant bug emerges from the departed’s mouth. It’s the kind of thing that makes you go “That’s gotta fuck up your childhood”.
If there’s any question that Shirley and death have a bizarre relationship, her current plans to host her sister’s funeral clear that up pretty quickly. Theo and Kevin are understandably trying to warn her away of being so involved in the process, but she’s adamant in doing it herself as she later insists that it would just be easier for her to do it than explain it to someone else. She’s seems to have compartmentalizing down as she walks out to work the service of the paying customers we’ve already met talking the little boy into seeing his grandmother in the open casket. I wondered momentarily why this is so important to her, but another brief trip back in time shows young Shirley attending her mother’s funeral. She too was upset over the prospect of seeing her and I suppress memories of my own bewilderment and disgust and fear of seeing the dearly departed.
The technique of delaying the reveal of what she saw is just as effective in building tension in the family drama half of this show as it is in the horror half, although in this case I can’t say I really want to see what’s inside. When the body bag unzips, Shirley momentarily shies away from looking at what remains of Nell, but as brave as ever, she stares right at her in her natural state. It’s almost bizarre how she can confront the things that most people who run from and avoids the things that would result in family conflict. I think it’s a trait she inherited from her father this time. Shirley needs to fix things and faces the problems that plague her family would likely result in more of a mess.
Once again, the show stalls on making us witness the revolting process of restoring Nell, but the break this time has no upside. We briefly go back to childhood to find out the fate of the other four kittens. At first when Nell and Shirley look into the box, it appears that all four have perished. Shirley’s excitement when one is moving is far more reserved this time and the results this time are a new breed of terrible. This kitty does turn out to be alive (or maybe it’s just a trick of the house) but its eyes open to reveal eyes I can only describe as off white veiny orbs. Its horrific for sure but just the start of the discomfort. Later, Shirley is told by her mother the one surviving kitten has been given away and Shirley loses it, berating her mother for the decision. The conflict comes to a quick end when a migraine (or perhaps something else) hits Olivia and she is forced to go treat it. All she sees is blackness it’s the first clue we get that the house is beginning to take hold of her. I suspected she was lying about giving the kitten away and the ensuing argument she has with her husband about how she handled the situation without him confirms as such. I find myself rooting even more for this couple that even when they argue they show restraint, not out of fear but out of respect. I theoretically know how to do that but in practice it’s impossible.
On the day Nell got married, Shirley spots Luke pulling up in a cab. She doesn’t inform Nell that her twin has arrived as she doesn’t want to upset her on her special day. Shirley runs out front and as she suspects, her baby brother is high as a kite. She pays him off and demands he leave before anyone finds out he’s there. While I was just convinced this is merely a recollection of the time she cut her other brother off since Shirley is super stubborn and convinced she’s right, I was wrong, it was one of regret. As she works on Nell’s face like she did so many years ago, she tearfully apologizes. It’s a situation she thought she was fixing, but likely only caused more damage. And that’s another thing about family, often times the harm they do comes from them trying to do what they think is best for you.
Just like the first kitten though, Nell’s lips begin to twitch, and that funky ass bug emerges from her mouth. It’s once that moment passes, and she sees that her work is done that she finally allows herself to let go. She begins to sob and recalls the moment she saw her mother in the casket. She looks in disbelief uttering repeatedly “You fixed her”. It’s hard to immediately glean whether it is relief, or shock, or disgust that is on her childish face but considering what she would grow up to be, I think it was inspiring. Shirley likes to fix things, and this is something she’ll be good at. It’s a nice reminder that the people who work in the mortuary business are in a noble profession. So many people struggle with death and shy away from the macabre, but someone has to handle the deceased. And for many, it’s not just taking care of the body, it’s providing relief for the bereaved.
We see Shirley soberly exiting her workroom but when she turns out the lights she sees her mother on the slab next to her sister. She’s sitting right up, and her open eyes are the same as the messed-up kitten, but she doesn’t flinch. Shirley can look her ghost right in its milky eyes as if to will it away. It’s not until this specter presents her with the box from her kittens’ funeral and we hear a feral cat sound come out that Shirley panics, switches off the lights and quickly leaves. It’s interesting that she can confront the visage of her mother, but she can’t abide revisiting her first encounter with death. I guess all of us have our limits.
With two episodes now under our belt, it’s safe to say this isn’t a stock horror show. It may rely on the tricks of the trade to keep in line with the genre, but I’m fairly sure this show is more about loss than it is about fear. I’m not saying that is a bad thing. In fact, ten hours of jump scares and ghoulish imagery would be completely unnecessary. What we have here is a family drama slowly apply the layers and letting us see all the cracks in the foundation. I get the feeling Mike Flanagan is building us a story as beautiful and terrible as its titular house.