The Haunting of Hill House: S01E08, “Witness Marks” Recap/Review

When we left off, the Red Door was opening and Hugh was running in. So naturally the episode starts off with Steve and Leigh sitting inside a fertility clinic. Yeah, that’s right. We’re not getting into the nexus of Hill House just yet. This development would be less disappointing if not for the fact that we’re getting to learn more about the least intriguing member of the Crain family. Oh well, at least they’re finally going to let us know how Steve’s marriage started to fall apart.

I do realize that I share another trait with the eldest Crain child. I too have little interest in discussing the process of making babies. He’s not read the literature so he can’t even allow basic conversations with the doctor to take place and then he’s zoning out during the answers to the questions he bothers to ask. As he distracts himself from discussion of menstruation by staring out a privacy textured window and notices someone standing right outside the room. As the woman gets closer it’s easier to see the similarities she shares with his mother. After an awkward q&a regarding his ejactulating habits, he looks once more and the woman is only getting closer and as her hand touches the glass, her face becomes clearer and get recognizes her and looks terrified. I can’t say I blame him, I’d be mortified if my mom was eavesdropping into a conversation about when I last got off.

Seriously, though, I’m as startled as Steve to see Olivia in this place. The lighting is ambaint, the mood is calm, and there’s no shadows for scary things to hide in. But Steve doesn’t believe in ghosts. As he told Irene at the start of the series, they can be formed from secrets, anxiety, fear and guilt. Steve has repeatedly brought up the faulty DNA in his family so it’s easy enough to figure out that he’s nervous of passing these traits along, but the tone in his voice hints to a much larger secret. I’d guess it was that he was showing signs of mental illness in the form of hallucinations, but I have a hard time believing she’d leave him if that was the case.

Back at the funeral home in present day, Shirley has notified her credit card company of the theft and tells the rest of the family they’ll contact her at soon as it’s used. Since Luke has already wronged her once in the night she assumes that he’s to blame for her destroyed model home but Theodora, as she’s now unaffectionately called, steps in to say she doesn’t think he was at fault. She fails to mention its because Ghost Mom likely destroyed it but there’s more pressing matters. She’s worried for Luke’s safety. She’s worried it’s much worse than a relapse, that he’s moved on to suicide. One can act like a contagion and you start seeing it in clusters in families and for a twin the odds are that much worse. This prompts Steve to take some kind of action so he opts to look for Luke in places he knows addicts frequent. We get to see so much of him being an ass that I appreciate this brief moments where his family protector mode activates. Hugh jumps into the car before he can take off which might not be a great idea cause he’s leaving Shirley and Theo alone.

Another thing we see is that Steve was witness to his mother’s odd behavior in the days leading up to her death. His father sends him out of the basement because he’s afraid his exposure to toxic chemicals. Steve’s adamant on helping out and that’s when Hugh tells him that his mother is going to be going away for a bit and he’ll be needed to look out for his brothers and sisters. He goes upstairs and stumbles upon his mother in the twins room talking to them. Just one problem, they twins are not in there. As if that wasn’t startling enough, she’s trying to convince the invisible twins that they are safe with her. Even her audience of none isn’t buying that. When Steve brings her out of her delusion, she plays it off is as if nothing’s wrong but she’s visibly disturbed. Again I’m just impressed by how quickly Carla Gugino bounces around in demeanors and moods with no hint of affectation. Unable to help his mother or his father, Steve heads off on his own to play video games.

Meanwhile, back in the car, the guys are mocking each other for their method of searching for Luke and I adored getting the drop on Theo’s musical tastes by having not one, but two Ani DiFranco bumper stickers on the back of her jeep. Hugh then really jumps into dad mode and starts to pry into Steve’s marriage saying he noticed they were distant at the funeral and he even more importantly he knows Steve isn’t living at home. Steve’s indignant about the line of questioning so Hugh switches tactics. You gotta give a little to get a little so he opens up about his own marriage.

He tells of the 20 years they were marriage and the charming comparison Olivia makes that he was the line to her kite. But it was always smooth sailing for the pair. Briefly after Steve was born, they got in a fight and separated for 2 weeks before Hugh realized the error of his ways. All it took was him knocking on her door and she took him back and from then on they were always a team. Even fights them always came from a place of love. It’s certainly a beautiful notion and something I think we would all be better off if we did, but I’m skeptical it’s even possible. It’s also interesting to ponder that maybe Hugh coming back was not for the best. Sure, it would mean that of the Crain children, there’d only be one in this world but that would have meant that neither Hugh or Olivia would have never set one foot in Hill House. Maybe it’s just my desire to like Hugh more but I’m sure this thought has crossed his mind and he still shows no regrets about that choice to return. His only regret is leaving in the first place.

Over at Shirley’s house, Kevin has come by to take the kids out trick-or-treating. In a moment of Netflix solidarity her son has in fact dressed up as Daredevil, the non-commercial one who dons all black instead of a fancy costume. Despite having turned off her patio light, those pesky candy fiends ring her doorbell or so she thinks. After opening the door she sees no one and just leaves a bowl of candy behind because Shirley’s got nothing left in her to give.

Father/son bonding time in the car isn’t going so well. Hugh’s back to criticize Steve’s search plan and he needs to find his boy. He can’t bear to lose anyone else and once Steve has kids he’ll understand that. Hugh’s disappointed when Steve very matter-of-factly says that he’s never having kids and conversation only turns worse. Hugh tries saying that everything he did, including leaving his children he did to protect his family and Steve goes for the low blow “Like you protected mom?” You can sense that Hugh’s gonna let his son get out all the shitty things he wants to say before he addresses this complaint.

And Steve does. With great detail he describes what he read in the police report of the multiple injuries his mother was found with that night. There’s the implication that Hugh was abusing her but Steve refuses to explicitly state that. Because when it all comes down to it he left her their alone and without treatment.

We return to Hill House to see how Steve tried to help his mom in the only way he knows how. Try to make her happy. He’s found a vanity in a game room that Mrs. Dudley does not know exists which is a big red flag considering the years she’s spent tending to the house. Inside it’s drawer they discover a photo of Poppy Hill. Mrs. Dudley informs him that she is Poppy Hill, wife to William Hill, the gent so happy he bricked himself up in the basement. She makes sure we’re well aware that they were clinically insane and had even met in an asylum. She tosses the photo back in as a bonus gift for Olivia once Steve finishes fixing it up.

Present day Shirley is dealing with some pranksters who continue to play a game of Ding Dong Ditch and driving her mad. She’s back to seeing vision of handsome cocktail drinking guy who does his signature raising of a glass to her. With the doorbell still chiming and knocking intensifying, Shirley goes out to her porch to berate unseen mischief makers but only Theo in her driveway is there.

Theo decides to follow her back in to clear some things up from the night before. “It’s okay Shirley. It wasn’t about kissing your husband and even if it was, he rejected me”. I’m paraphrasing here but it’s about as well delivered as the real thing and Shirley takes to it as well as you’d expect. Tempers flare and years of resentments and thing unspoken come out and it all culminates in slut shaming and boob hitting. I was legit amused that there’s a brief halt in the physical confrontation to mock or asses that boob hitting has actually just occurred. The sister’s might not erupt in laughter but I sure did as Shirl owns the moves and puffs up trying to act all tough.

Just as she’s about to toss her sis outside, the knocking on the door continues. They pause before opening to reveal what we all should expect: no one there. Expecting it doesn’t mean that it’s any less effective at giving me goosebumps. The door closes and the ladies back into the center of the room. The knocking escalates to banging so hard the door is rattling. The sense that these women are trapped intensified when they unseen harasser/s start banging on the windows as well. The phone rings and I tense up waiting to hear what’s on the other end.

Jokes on me, it’s just the credit card company alerting her the card was used at a gas station conveniently located on the way to Hill House. Shirley seizes this moment as a chance to deny what was just happening to them and focus on finding Luke now that they know where to Luke.

The information is relayed to the guys who are still hashing things out about Hugh’s denial of mental illness plaguing the entire family. Steve lists off what’s wrong with every one and unexpectedly makes me laugh again by referring to Theo as a “clenched fist with hair”. I had forgotten as a writer he has a way with words and that’s just such a perfect description for her (as well as myself up until about the age 28). But Steve won’t let it go continuing to chalk it all up to insanity til he finally admits his big secret. Steve had a vasectomy right out of college to make sure he wasn’t passing this along to future generations. For a half second I sympathize with what he’s done because it’s an unselfish act to want spare a child for that kind of existence. But then I remember that he’s been married for a good while, not told his wife once about this procedure, lets her go on believing there’s something she can do to have a baby, has her counting her ovulation cycles and considering the extremely personal and invasive procedure of IVF and he STILL HASN’T TOLD HER?!? I’m done defending this guy. He wants to go through the motions of what it looks like to be a decent guy but underneath it all he is only thinking of himself. I guess we can add the role of Steve Crain to Michiel Huisman’s ever growing resume of assholes he’s played with aplomb

I try to let my anger fade so I don’t hold it against young Steve. After all, he’s being all sweet trying to cheer his mom up with a freshly painted vanity. It works for all of about 3 seconds before she looks at the reflection and smashes the mirror. I guess she didn’t love whatever she was seeing afterall. I do feel for young Steve. My best friend from middle school on who was even my college roommate had a mother who starting suffering from schizophrenia when we were about 14 had to deal with a similar situation for about 4 years before his mother took her own life. He too was living in a constant state of trying to please her believing that good moods would keep her demons at bay. He never could succeed because that’s not how it works, he was never the thing that was setting her off. That was all in her own mind. Realizing that was not a comfort but just added to his suffering with a sense of helplessness and sorrow of what he knew would be the inevitable conclusion. I want to reach out and hug this young man especially knowing that her death would not bring relief either. Just more resentment, pain, and isolation from the world around him.

Adult Steve is like his dad in that he can’t watch another family member fall. While refueling gas at the same station Luke stopped out, Papa Crain gets some answers about the charge on Shirley’s card. The attendant confirms it was Luke who came in and bought plenty of fuel for Jeep and several gas canisters. Hugh switches into a mode that we haven’t seen since his early days of fatherhood. He commondeers Steve’s car to speed up the trip and finally tells Steve what he’s been unwilling to accept but asking to hear for years.

He starts out cryptic but Steve needs it spelled out. The house is alive and it wants the Crains back. It’s an especially dangerous place for Steve because of what he wrote and how he wrote it. At first I’m mildly amused about the idea that the house managed to read Steve’s book and is pissed off about how it was betrayed. It’s embarrassing but I feel I owe my honesty here that it took Hugh going into more detail and I really haven’t learned a lesson about being patient. Steve is in danger because he is oblivious to the truth of the house. It’s been so good at mimicking real life that he’s not even aware he’s seen at least one ghost that he wrote about. Hugh states that in the chapter he talks about the vanity and Steve doesn’t just let him speak. As Hugh describes each detail of the story, Steve refutes it all with textbook words describing mental illness. He goes back to the detail about passing a man repairing the grandfather clock on the stairwell. He gives a brief lesson in clock repairs including a tidbit about witness marks, the scrapes left behind inside the machine that lets future fixers know what kind of work had previously been done on it. Hugh had taken it to be appraised and found that the clock hadn’t been worked on since the 60s and that the only people who could have fixed that clock wouldn’t have worked on it on site. The man Steve walked by was no man at all, at least not a living one.

Steve’s still not buying it so Hugh continues on. I’m loving that this car ride has become a fount of information because next we hear that the treehouse Luke was always playing in, the one that Steve even joined him in was not there either. It makes perfect sense because why would Hugh have spent time assembly such a place for his kids in a home they were only going to spend a couple months in. He didn’t exactly have the spare time or resources. It’s important that Steve knows that no one in the family is crazy. That when he enters the house he needs to do so knowing exactly the kind of tricks it’s going to pull on them.

Just after Steve doubts that the ladies stayed at home, we cut to the two of them having their own unpleasant car ride in a mad dash to save Luke. Shirley is finally willing to confront what no one has been saying out loud. First she asks if Theo thinks Luke is going to kill himself. After Theo says no, Shirley wants more information. Theo tries to describe what happened to Shirl’s forever home model but that’s not what she needs to hear about just yet. She needs to know what happened in that closet between her sister in her husband.

Theo’s explanation starts off sounding like a woman who was lost in grief looking for something. But when Shirley misinterprets this as a poor excuse to sleep with her husband Theo goes dives deeper. She admits that she touched Nell’s body and Shirley starts wondering what the hell is wrong with her. The argument they start having that sure feels devoid of love is halted before it can really begin when an annoyed Ghost Nell pops out from the back seat with a guttural scream indicating she’s heard enough fights already. By far this was the most effective jump scare of the series for me with zero hints with music or lighting or any camera tricks that give you the general warning.

They skid off the rode and Shirley’s shock is broken by Theo getting out of the car and having her own breakdown on the side of the rode. There’s no more denying they are literally haunted and now Theo is going speak very frankly about her gift or what sounds like a curse. After touching Nell’s body she felt nothing. It’s a speech that works so well on both a literal leave for a supernatural tale and a figurative level for the shock of losing a loved one to something so sudden and terrible. That nothing she felt spread to the very core of her being until she was numb to everything. Being around fellow mourners didn’t help, booze didn’t help, a darkness was all consuming her. She was trapped in the darkness and reached for the first thing she could find. Kevin. Kate Siegel pours herself into this monologue and sells the hell out of Theo’s shame, sadness, fear and regret.

The episode ends with Luke arriving at the house. He splashing the gas all around the parlor reading to light the joint up. He does his counting trick and drops the flame. He doesn’t however go down in flames of glory. Instead a cool looking blue flame quickly extinguishes and his mothering looking fierce in a red dress appears at the head of the stairs. Just as he says her name, Rotten Polly pops up behind him and takes hold.

The shortest episode of the season has turned out to be the most revelatory. There’s also a notable shift of tone. It’s as if we’ve moved from denial stage of grief into anger and I’m loving it. Anger is causing this family to take action and lay it all out there. It’s also definitely a shift into more of your typical horror fare which I’m digging cause it allows for moments of comic relief and more ranges of emotion. It’s not lost on me that Hill House has managed to get the whole family home on All Hallows Eve. I’m also taking note of the fact that Hugh describes Chapter 19 exactly how we’ve seen it play out in a flashback. This makes me want to go back to see if the numbers line up and in fact every flashback we’ve seen is lining up to match his first novel. I’d like to sound like a professional here, but I’m just going to say that was one badass episode and I’m not even remotely pissed that they failed to show us what was behind The Red Door. I’m just excited that the Crains are finally really putting up a fight to save their family and I can’t wait to see how it all goes down.