The Haunting of Hill House has used the first half of its inaugural season to slowly tell us the tale of the Crain family instead of the tale of the house. Like any youngest child, Nell would have been resigned to always coming last, but thrilled that someone is finally listening to her tale. She’s spent so much of her life feeling like she no one would listen even if she had a voice. Maybe she’d take a little solace that while she came last, more time was spent with her. Literally from her first day in Hill House, Nell has been plagued with visions of the Bent Neck Lady, often coinciding with a dose of sleep paralysis. I’ve been fortunate enough to never experience the natural phenomenon, but I’ve been assured that it is a anxiety inducing nightmare that only worsens the more you realize there is nothing you can do about it but wait. Unfortunately for Nell, it appears she is going to be trapped in that state for eternity after that mindfuck of an ending.
The episode kicks off scene of little Nell waking up to the site of the Bent Neck lady hovering over her bed. It’s just the first night in the house so they seem to think its nothing but a bad dream that’s spilled into the waking world (kudos to her dad for that excellent analogy). This is the Crains doing some fantastic parenting and its devastating to know that in such a short amount of time their lives will be forever changed for the worst. Olivia promises Nell a locket that contains a picture of each the twins once she is older and you just know the offer was way sweeter than how she’s going to come to inherit it. Once the little girl is fast asleep on the couch, her mom goes off to bed leaving Nell to wake up to the familiar scene of the Bent Neck Lady hovering above her on the sofa. It makes the spectre seem even more menacing that she’s just been waiting for another moment when the child is vulnerable. The moment is made extra creepy with the spirit ominously saying “No” over and over again.
We cut to a much older Nell describing her experience with sleep paralysis with an inquisitive, reassuring, and informative sleep tech. Nell mistakes the fairly standard sleep study intake question of “Do you drink coffee?” as him asking her out for a date. She’s briefly embarrassed (but nowhere near as red as I’d be) and this meet-cute turns into a montage of their romance leading up to their engagement. The tone feels a little off from everything we’ve seen to this point but the levity is welcome and also necessary to show that for a brief period in time, Nell was able to find happiness. The brief scene that breaks up the party to show she is still suffering from sleep episodes only furthers one’s appreciation for Arthur as he tenderly guides and comforts her til she is able to move again. I’ve only seen the man for less than 5 minutes and I’m in love with him. A cut to the night of the wedding shows the loving couple sharing their first dance with what appears to be a happy Crain family (minus Luke) watching on.
I adored the little scene with Nell and Steve watching on as Theo dances with a bridesmaid as they stare at Shirley waiting to see how long the wheels in her head will spin before she figures out Theo likes the ladies. That’s just some authentic family bonding and those kinds of shared laughs will be something that I suspect Steve will cherish for the rest his life. The joy of the evening is briefly dampened when Nelly has a vision of her mother reminding her that Luke wasn’t the only one who missed out on her special day.
When we next see Nell having another sleep episode, her loving husband goes through his usual routine to help her things go about as bad as they can. As he reaches for the light his face contorts, his body seizes and he falls to the ground with Nell trapped on the bed, not even able to properly scream as she sees the Bent Neck Lady looking upon her. This my friends is one of those things that could give me nightmare. Not so much for the ghost in the room. She’s given us no reason as this point to believe her to be anything other than an observer so I don’t think she’s the cause of Arthur’s untimely death. Its the impotence she must feel both being trapped by her sleep disorder, the notion that death can take you at any time, that happiness is not guaranteed, the whole thing is just upsetting.
To no surprise Nell finds herself in therapy recounting that night and her experiences with Bent Neck Lady. Here’s a fun fact: you probably recognized her therapist as Dr. Jacoby from Twin Peaks but the actor, Russ Tamblyn, played a very different Luke in the 1963 film adaptation The Haunting. I know, I know, I promised to leave the movies out of this but I just thought it was cool. He tries to reassure her that her husband died of an aneurysm but Nell needs to blame it on Hill House. And she’s not looking for his belief in her story, she’s just being honest in therapy which makes me respect her because why go to therapy if you are going to lie.
Despite knowing that Olivia will meet her end in this house, its not until the next turn back in the 80s I really get worried for her. I get being pissed at your kid if she’s trying to lie to you about writing on the wall (especially when the house is your source of income) but it’s the tone in which she speaks to both her daughters once her migraine comes on. It doesn’t help at all that I spotted this in the corner under the piano bench.
In case you still don’t see it, take a gander under the piano bench. Now that gave me some chills cause it took a third time I looked at this episode trying to get a screen grab for the featured image to even notice it. I suspect in my future I’m going to do a watch strictly to see if there’s more stuff like that I completely missed. I’m sure there is more to be found if I do I proper ghost hunt.
The next we see of Nell is the night before she goes to check Luke into rehab. It’s one of those scenes that so realistic (save for one detail I’ll get to in a minute) that I’m certain it was ripped from one of the writer’s real lives. Before Luke is willing to go in, he convinces his twin that he just needs one more fix to help him get well. Its the kind of logic that will only ever make sense to an addict but if you thought he couldn’t be shittier you’d be wrong. He pleads with his sister, leveraging their relationship, to actually get out of the car and buy it for him since he owes the dealer money. She’s so desperate for a connection at this point that she agrees to do this abhorrent favor for him. But he’s so unbelievably selfish as she tries to open up to him that he basically tells her that they can talk about her problems once they solve his. I understand Luke’s actions but that doesn’t make me see him as less of asshole at this moment in time. The thing that felt off about it is that Nell, having just sat in her very momish hatchback for 5 minutes in front of the this dealer is able to get out looking prim and proper and convince a dealer to sell to her. In my experience, no dealer is going to sell to someone who looks that much like a narc without some kind of referral or view of a track mark.
Being selfish and shitty isn’t reserved for just addicts though. After dumping out her meds, she invites her Theo out to LA for a visit. Instead of hitting up some tourist spots or crying over some drinks, she brings Theo to her room and manipulates her to use her gift to try to glean information of her husband’s death. When the pillow gets her no insight, Nell grabs her hand and tries to force her to touch the place where Arthur died. Nell’s appearance has gone from looking sad to looking manic and she’s mired in her own grief. Theo tries to talk some sense into her but instead of confronting her own shortcomings, she does what most siblings would do and turns on her immediately. She says just the right amount of awful judgmental things to get Theo to leave her wallowing in the bedroom. I once had a friend who witnessed one such fight I had with my sister who said he didn’t understand how we could be so happy with each other one minute and so hateful the next and the only thing I could think was, “Well yeah, that’s just how sisters are”. It completely dysfunctional but its a system that seems to work cause with a small amount of time and a measly apology, things go back to normal. So once again major props to this show for its realism or its psychic insight to my life.
In Nell’s quest to burn all the bridges in her life, she ambushes Steve at a book reading and exposes him as a fraud who doesn’t even believe in the things he writes about. If she’s trying to isolate herself she’s doing a hell of a job, but she tells the therapist she’s merely following his advice. He tells her that the one thing he wants her to confront is her past and manages to convince her that the best way to do that is to go back to Hill House. It is afterall just a carcass at this point. It’s fascinating that yet again we have a character referring to the house as a living being, well in this case a deceased being. I guess this is good news for Shirley since she gets skipped over in the confrontation tour.
Nell takes his advice and heads home. Before she arrives she stalls by staying the night in a motel where for the first time she is haunted by something new during a sleep episode. While trapped in her body she is forced to look at the ceiling where a very dead Luke is sprawled out. It’s not the first time someone in this family has seen there’s loved one deceased before their time, but it is the first time that vision does not move. I really have only one guess in that something in the house is trying to stall her from going back but fails when she uses a Crain phone tree to find out he’s doing fine in rehab. With that one loose thread tied up, she can’t put off the inevitable.
Before she enters the estate she makes that phone call to her father from the premiere that sounds a whole lot like a final goodbye. Here’s my biggest issue with the episode but it’s one that I hope answers itself before the season ends. How exactly does her dad know to find her at Hill House when he last spoke to her he tells her to go to Steve’s (which is in LA) and he’ll be on the quickest flight out there? I could be wrong about the location of the house since they’ve been very vague on it from the start but I was under the impression that its somewhere in New England. Even if it is on the west coast, wouldn’t he still have gone to Steve’s place first? As of now it feels like a massive plot hole and its going to irk the hell out of me until I get an answer.
What we do get is a little bit more information on the day following Olivia’s death. Hugh had left to the children at a motel while he presumably when back to get his wife. Once he’s returned, he covered in blood he clumsily tells Nell is actually just paint. His facial expression speaks volumes to how terrible a sight he must have discovered when he went back to get her. Henry Thomas’s face is so brilliantly expressive and I don’t even want to know what experience he had to draw from to show so much pain and sadness. Not only does he sell his grief, he completely looks like a younger version of Timothy Hutton with the way his lips pursed and his tears welling. Those lips remained tight for the next 26 years leaving his family in the dark about what happened to their mother. Maybe if they hadn’t Nell wouldn’t be looking for answers in the worst place she knows.
There’s no question as she goes through the gates that the house is still alive as it lights up as she approaches. Walking through the doors, its not crumbling or decaying and it sure its empty. Restored to its once full glory and filled with her family just as she knew them 26 years earlier she’s drawn right in. Young Shirley escorts her upstairs to see that her mom is the one writing her the welcome sign on the wall. She’s writing backwards and that’s not weird at all. Her mom wants her to get dressed for bed, but once in a nightgown she informs Nell a reception awaits her.
Up until now, Nell has been resistant to the ghosts that haunt her. She doesn’t run from them like her twin, but she’s never embraced them either. It is not until her life starts to bottom out, having lost the love of her life and gotten the relationships she has with her siblings have soured, that the house is able to hold her attention by offering her a perfect life that will forever elude her. A loving husband, a supportive mother, a sober twin, a happy family. The only thing that distracts her from this fantasy is bumping into Luke’s imaginary friend Abigail who stares at her with a stone expression. Its not enough to fully break the spell and she follows her mom up that spiral staircase. She’s believes she’s gifted with the locket when in fact a noose is around her neck. She starts to become aware of the reality of her situation, but the pull of the fantasy is too strong (or maybe it was just pushing ghosts) and Nell falls to her death. It would have been a haunting enough image to end the first half of the season with, but apparently that wasn’t traumatic enough. Instead of just seeing Nell’s lifeless body with snapped neck dangling from the staircase, we see her falling over and over again, witnessing living Nells staring back at her. I want to say that the repeated sound of her neck breaking was a nice touch to really drive home the brutality of it all, but I’m not sure I will ever get that sound out of my head. But that’s right folks, it appears she is now a time traveling ghost that’s been haunting herself her entire life. It’s a twist I both simultaneously loved and hated the second after the episode ended although rationalizing it to myself is really got me leaning towards the love. I was resistant to the idea that the spirits of the house exist outside of time or and puzzled by when Bent Neck lady shows up when she does. What exactly is the common thread to the moments that she appears to her living self? If those moments were less random, I might be able to drawn on some sort of theme about how the fear of the future or change paralyzes us from making choices and ultimately dooms us, but that’s not exactly the case when you think about how it didn’t show for 8 months after she had moved to LA. Without that deeper meaning, it just comes off more as a parlor trick, albeit a really good trick that makes her demise that much more horrible. As someone who has dealt with suicidal ideation for much of my life, the notion of an afterlife is one of my biggest fears because the it it removes the promise the release and relief from the pain of existence. Thinking of Nell trapped in an endless loop of suffering is about as bleak as anything I’ve ever seen.