The Haunting of Hill House: S01E03, “Touch” Review/Recap

The cold open for Episode Three is one of those classic horror moments that sends chills up your spines. Lying in bed, she feels Nell cuddle up behind her, wrapping an arm around her and clutching onto her hand. Theo repeatedly tells her she’s squeezing too tight and when she finally rolls over to tell her to knock it off, she discovers her bed is empty. “Whose hand was I holding?” she asks, but I don’t think she’s ready for the answer to that just yet. I can’t say I blame Theo for having an aversion to making hand to hand contact with others after that night.

Of course, Theo’s predilection to wear gloves and avoid contact is much more than an aversion to intimacy and not at all related to germaphobia as she lies to her partners. We learn pretty early on in the episode that Theo is able to intuit the truth through her hands. For a lack of a better word I’m going to call it a psychic ability, but it’s not just people she reads. She can feel a box or touch a surface and know things about them. We never got a chance to know Theo before that ghostly hand holding session, so there’s no way of knowing if it’s an ability she had prior to moving in or if it’s a gift the house imbued her with.

Based on the first two episodes and hell, the title of this one, I had thought that the first half of this season was being set up to feature one Crain child story per episode (starting with the oldest) with of course bits and pieces of the other family members thrown in. But Theo’s episode shares quite a bit of its time with the rest of the children. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but it feels apropos for the tale of the middle child to really have nothing to herself. Even in modern day, she doesn’t even own her own home, she’s living out in Shirley’s guest house. My best guess is that she’s grown to like that lack of ownership. It lends itself to her detachment to the world that she literally cannot touch without feeling too much.

Theo reserves using her gift to the people she can really help with it, children in therapy who have not yet developed the skills to voice their problems. However, her first patient, Kelsey, is so similar to Theo that she’s unable to glean any insight from just holding her hand. Kelsey has built up the walls in her mind so well that even Theo can’t get in. I was mildly amused that we finally got a Crain child whose profession I could compare to her parents but then she basically says that she’s doing the opposite. It’s her job to break down those walls. Theo assures Kelsey that constructing such a strong mental barrier is a good thing.  It’s probably the kind of thing a therapist shouldn’t think is a plus, but a survivor of childhood trauma would.

But we’re going to have to wait for answers on what is the root of Kelsey’s Mr. Smiley. First, we jump back to six years ago with the kids arguing (well mostly Shirley) with Steve about publishing their family’s story. He offers them all an 8% cut (I assume Luke is in rehab during this meeting) but Shirley, being the unappointed leader of the group, refuses his offer for the rest of them. Her husband goes along cause I’m sure he’s lost too many of these arguments to even bother fighting and Nell agrees looking too timid to speak for herself. Theo never says where she falls on the matter. She’s heard all the different versions of the story and quite frankly, she don’t give a damn. I completely respect her decision to not want to be mired in the past so that she can move forward, except it doesn’t appear that Theo’s life really had any forward momentum past her decision to get her doctorate.

Looking back further into the summer in Hill House, we see that not only is Theo helpful but she’s also brave and protective. When Mrs. Dudley scolds Luke for trying to go for a ride in the dumbwaiter, she’s not afraid to stand up for her remove her hand from her brother. She gleans that Mrs. Dudley is not angry but scared and Mrs. Dudley looks unsettled that Theo says this so knowingly. She later helps Luke with his mission for a ride in the ersatz elevator which results in Luke’s first encounter with the malevolence in the house. We’re now three episodes in so it feels natural for us to get better views of the spirits inside, but I can’t help feeling like less would have been more in this situation.

The buildup was too sparse for this jump scare to have any real effect on me. Theo is frantic to get the dumbwaiter back up while her brother screams bloody murder trapped in what turns out to be a bootlegger’s cellar. The parents are displeased with her for putting her brother in danger, but once Theo reveals the cellar that wasn’t on any of the blueprints her mother seems to be putting together that Theo has a “sensitivity” that is shared through some of the women in her family. Her mother being sensitive to the discomfort that comes along with Theo’s inherited trait gives her a gift to help her out: a pair of gloves.

I absolutely loved the ’80s flashbacks in this episode. Between the kids’ curiosity of archaic devices in the house, the solo choreography session, and the brief scene of her sobbing in her room after Luke got back up to safety, everything about it felt authentic. If it hadn’t been for the fact that I am a child of the ’80s, I might have thought the choice of “Cold Hearted Snake” was a bit on the nose for Theo’s episode, but I was there. I think every girl I knew was doing the same thing trying to master the sweet moves of that music video. And that moment where she’s crying in her room reminded me of just how much everything was so more extreme as a child. She didn’t just feel guilty for giving him a scare, she was terrified and ashamed of how she caused him to suffer, even if she had the best of intentions.

Once we get a full grasp on what kind person Theo is, we jump back to present day where she goes to Kelsey’s house to find out who Mr. Smiley really is. We’ve seen previously that in addition to using her touch sparingly, it’s generally brief as well. But when she gets on the sofa, she doesn’t just touch it, she lays back and grabs hold of it. She already knows the horror of what happened to Kelsey down there, but she doesn’t let go ’til she’s fully experienced it. After she makes sure her foster dad is taken into custody, we get one last look at Kelsey’s now-former home as if to let the audience know that a house doesn’t have to look spooky to be an abomination.

We see next that Theo did go back and take Steve’s money but not before she mocks him for the inaccuracies of a story he slept through in reality. I don’t think see her choice as being anything but a logical one, but it does hang over her head as future wedge between her and Shirley who does not know. Speaking of people who took the cash, turns out Kevin did and that’s where the solo checking account comes from. Kevin saying “This is as bad for you as it is for me” when being warned by Theo that Shirley knows makes me go from having no feelings about Kev to thinking he’s slimy. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think taking the money from Steve would have been a bad decision from any of them. The story is out there, they are semi-famous from it, why not get some cash? Cause Shirley doesn’t permit it?!? But it’s one thing for siblings to keep that kind of secret from each other, it’s a whole other thing for a spouse to be hiding that amount of cash. And when Theo is doing him a solid by giving him a heads up, it’s really shitty to turn it into a threat that he’s basically going to drag her under the bus with him.

As horrible as what happened to Kelsey is, the hardest scene of the episode to watch is Theo going down to see Nell in mortuary. Whether it be a burning desire for truth or the need to get rid of her anger, she’s ready to touch her to find out what happened. Kate Siegal’s performs one hell of a guttural cry of anguish and I’m really hoping the pattern holds and Luke’s episode is next. I’m not quite ready to know what happened to Nell and I need to steel myself for it. She calls up her lady friend from the club (does she even have a name?) cause she’s ready to feel something that’s pleasurable instead of terrible. Club lady wants to get to know Theo better, but after Theo coldly lists off why she’s won the prize for worst day, she might want to rethink making this relationship anything more than physical. Fortunately for Theodora, she’s not scared off but instead more than willing to help her feel anything else.

My opinion of this show is improving with each episode. I’m finally to the point where time jumps feel completely natural and are a welcome occurrence to distract from the present-day tragedy. Theo no longer feels like a lazy trope and her reluctance to get close to anyone makes complete sense. My only real complaint in this hour was the dialogue. There was a lot of exposition given to explain who Theo is as a person now and I wish Flanagan had trusted his audience a bit more to figure that out of their own. The whole “less is more” doesn’t apply to just the horror elements and I’m hoping he pulls back like he did with Shirley when it comes to Luke and Nell.