“Endings are hard. Any chapped-ass monkey with a keyboard can poop out a beginning, but endings are impossible. You try to tie up every loose end, but you never can. The fans are always gonna bitch. There’s always gonna be holes. And since it’s the ending, it’s all supposed to add up to something. I’m telling you, they’re a raging pain in the ass.” These are words taken from a far less poetic show, Supernatural, but it’s a quote from what was originally set to be their series finale that I can’t help hear over and over when I ponder over my thoughts over the final chapter of the Crain’s story. If I’m being honest, my initial reaction when the episode ended was one of disappointment. I’ll get into specifics when I get towards the end of this very long writeup, but the tone of the back half of the finale doesn’t line up with the 9 episodes preceding it. However, upon rewatching it (as well as the entire season for the purposes of this writing project) it grew on me, not only because I was paying way closer attention but I had time to marinate in it and really think about what it was aiming for.
The cold opens returns to a familiar scene of Shirley and Nell using a key to try to open The Red Door. What’s different this time is that we finally get to see what is causing shadows to move on the other side. Nell would be let down to find that it’s not a pony, but I’m pleasantly surprised that it’s actually Theo working on her Paula Abdul’s cold-hearted dance moves. There’s a lot of reasons to heap praise on Mike Flanagan’s work in this “adaptation”, but his subverting horror expectations goes pretty high on that list. For 9 episodes I imagined what hideous monster remained hidden behind that crimson barrier, but I can safely say that a young girl jamming out to 80s pop was not on my radar.
Before we get more information on the final big mystery of the season, we go to our first flashforward of the season. Steve is struggling with writer’s block trying to write a followup to his Hill House book which his wife thinks can be cured with french fries. I’m happy for her that she’s pregnant but super disappointed that she’s even back with this asshole. She wants to know where Steve’s at and he’s stuck at having just arrived back to Hill House with his father in their quest to find Luke. She encourages him by reminding him how much he needed answers from his father and the same will be true for their own little Eleanor.
Back to that fateful night at the house we watch as the Crain men enter and find the place not burnt to a crisp. There’s no sense of relief as loud thuds are almost immediately heard and then Steve, now aware of the ghosts in the house, spots Bowler Hat Ghost (aka William Hill) but decides to keep on walking. I think about how he’s lost his edge now that I see him face on and standing still. Upon entering the next room, he is stopped by his father and sees Abigail sitting at the base of the spiral staircase. When it rains, it pours, amirite? His dad tells him to focus on him because Bowler Hat is floating right up for a stare down. So I was wrong cause I did find the prolonged stare effective in creeping me out. When Steve fails to flinch, the ghost floats back to where ever he came from and the father/son duo ascend the staircase, Hugh in a much bigger hurry than Steve.
Hugh starts trying to beat down the door and Steve tells him to just take it off the hinges. Damn, I hate when I agree with him, but I was wonder why that or an axe weren’t used from day 2. Hugh tells him the door will only open when it wants to and nothing he’s tried has work, but for some reason is still trying to gather tools for a task he knows he cannot complete. However, when Steve looks at the door it’s wide open with Luke lying on the floor inside reaching out for him. Without hesitation he wakes right into this trap and the door slams in Hugh’s face.
With a closing of a laptop, we are back to the future (man, I’ve been wanting to say that for days) and Leigh is wanting to once again know where he’s at. He’s recalling what we’ve just seen and Leigh pushes him further to say that Luke died. But Steve is hesitating to admit that despite his wife nudging him there. It’s not hesitation though as Steve really can’t say what happened in the Red Room. He doesn’t remember. Just as he doesn’t remembering leaving Hill House, or heading back to California, or finding out Leigh was expecting, or how they got back together.
The proclamation causes Leigh to open up and progressively berate him in the most polite of tones but the most cutting of word. I was posi-tutely gleeful during this tirade despite knowing that it was not actually happening. She moves on from talking about how awful her plastic hack husband is over to mentioning the baby and how hungry she is. She’s an eater just like Steve. My words will fail to describe the how awesome the visual imagery is as the baby devours her from the inside, so I made a gif.
Steve is awoken from this nightmare by Nell, and we see he’s never left The Red Room and is now joined by his sleeping sisters. Steve rushes over to Luke who as foretold is laying on the ground with a needle in his arm foaming from the mouth. It hadn’t occurred to me until this episode that Luke really did have it worse than everyone else (even if it wasn’t by a large amount). Not only did he lose his mother like the rest of them that fateful night, but Abigail was a real friend get murdered by his mother in front of his very eyes as she tried to kill him. No wonder he’s so messed up.
We get to next jump into Luke’s point of view. His nightmare brings him back to the night he lost Joey in the streets. We see him back at the payphone pleading to be let back into rehab, but Joey shows up behind him telling him that she got them a room. He disputes this, clinging to the knowledge that he never reunited with her. She tries to entice him to shoot up together one last time but the program is working for Luke now and he’s not willing to put the needle back in his arm. But she tells him it’s too late, he’s already put the needle in. She mentions seeing the girl with runny eyes in the wallpaper and my skin crawls as her eyes turn to, well, mush is the only word I’m comfortable saying as I think about it. Luke wakes up on his own and sees the needle is in his arm but it’s filled with the rat poison his mother tried to kill him with when he was 6. So yay for Luke not relapsing but it looks like literal poison is more than effective at killing him. The moment he woke up happens to be when Steve had just arrived and we once again get reminded that Hugh is not invited into The Red Room.
We see that just after Steve had entered the room, Theo and Shirley arrive. While it’s Theo who runs straight upstairs and is taken by Poppy, it’s Shirley’s mind we’re going inside first. As she stalled downstairs, she turned around and found her Cocktail Drinking Ghost who’s actually not a ghost but a man named Ryan. We go back to the first time she went out of town alone after her kids were born. Being the thrill lover she is, it was of course for a funeral home owners convention. She receives a drink from a gentleman at the bar who gives her his signature toast when she looks over at him. Instead of leaving well enough alone, she decides to be her version of funny by ordering him the weirdest thing off the menu.
He knows she’s married but he still comes over to flirt and Shirley doesn’t stop him. The two end up shutting down the bar together and applaud themselves for being so well behaved. He invites her to his room for an innocent nightcap and she declines. But the house doesn’t let her buy into that fantasy for long. Moments later he returns and reminds her of what really happened. After checking out to make sure he had a ring, she heads upstairs for a fling with a man who had as much to lose as her. She can make all the excuses she wants to justify what she did but it doesn’t stop her from being a complete hypocrite with how cold she’s been for Theo and Kevin’s transgression. I’d argue with Shirley’s logic saying that her icing her husband out over taking the money was far more petty, but that’s splitting hairs.
Up to this point, everything we’ve seen with Shirley has been a memory but how do you break a woman down by just showing her something she thinks about constantly and manages to live with? You show her her own funeral being run by two men: her husband and the funeral director who fixed her mom up. Kevin taunts her with what Shirley fears most. That one day they will both be dead and when that happens, he will know everything and she’ll be lucky if she goes first so she doesn’t have to live with the guilt of him knowing. The funeral director her walks her to her own corpse graphically describing what he had to do to restore her and that underneath she is dead and rot and ruin. It’s a line the house had Poppy use on Olivia so I think it’s beginning to run out of material. Well, that’s not entirely fair. Watching corpse Shirley open up her empty eye sockets and claw away her face is new and comes in a close 2nd to Nell’s wire cutting scene for most disturbing image of the series. Just as Shirl is about to lose her shit, Nell shows up to wake her. Back in the Red Room she finds Steve trying to revive Luke and joins him.
We finally get to see what plagues Theo while she sleeps. She’s in bed with Trish and having the weirdest pillow talk about the one time her mom hit her. The family was getting ready to show one of their houses when Theo took a rock and shattered a pane of glass in a greenhouse. It doesn’t dawn on me til this moment how very upsetting that massive storm had to be for Olivia with all its breaking glass and how the sounds of shards exploding must trigger memories of her father’s sudden death. I assume that’s what Theo is referring to when she says how much she learned about her mother from that slap.
Theo goes to put on her gloves and discovers that she can’t feel anything. I had actually wondered to myself back in Touch if Theo has to be careful about what gloves she wears she she reads inanimate objects as well so I’m glad they even answered that by the season’s end. She’s nervous that she is no longer able to feel things other than fear and guilt Trish distracts her with a seductive ghost story of William Hill. She tells Theo how she knew a man who was haunted by two sisters, Guilt and Fear, until he walled himself off from the world but even that wasn’t able to separate himself from them. They joined him inside so he tried to claw himself out unsuccessfully. He was trapped in there getting smaller and smaller but once he died he woke up tall. While Theo lays there no doubt pondering why the house made a ghost taller, Trish moves down on her body and soon rotten hands are touching all over her face. Just as she starts to panic Nell wakes her up as well.
All four of the Crain children’s dreams have some truly gruesome provocative images that in any other episode would have made my skin crawl but here in the finale they are little more than a ghoulish visual treat. I’d have to blame this on the lack of tension I felt throughout the episode. That might be due to getting too many answers too quickly but I think in this case it was the lack of increasing intensity. In previous installments, jumping from one point to another was not only jarring but it made you want to scream from pulling back or moving in another direction where stakes just kept getting higher. With the Red Room dreams, we witness each of these mini-tales that are just pure insight and each resolve themselves by the character waking up.
That’s not to say these scenes are entirely a waste. As I said, at least they give us insight. Not just to the Crain children but to a better understanding of how the house operates. For Olivia it preyed on her fear and desire to protect her children by showing her the worst thing imaginable. For Nell, it preyed on her loneliness and used honey-tinted images of a life filled with a happy family. For the rest of the Crains, the emotion that is controlling them all at this point is guilt. Rather than scare them or entice them, it lets them stew in that guilt of what they most regret. That is their biggest regrets after ones that involved not stopping their sister from going home to end her life. Nell is both figuratively and literally the only one with the power to unburden them.
With all the kids wide awake in the Red Room, it’s time to see if they are able to bring back Luke. Things are looking grim as he’s completely taken on the lifeless form his mother saw all those years ago. He “wakes up” in a very different Red Room with stark white walls and the tea party picking up where it left off 28 years before. His mother is so glad to have him awake and there. She tells him how she fell in love with houses on a trip with her mother as a child. She imagined for herself a home with magic where she could live forever and no one would find her. She tells Luke to put on his hat but it is little Nell who tells him no. Olivia continues to try to convince Luke to stay but his twin is adamant that he leave. It’s the older Ghost Nell who is able to pull him out.
He informs the others as such when he points to Nell who is standing in the room with them. She goes into a monologue and is unable to hear her siblings. It gives to her feeling of otherness but it also finally gives Nell the chance to be heard. She speaks of time and how its not linear like a row of dominoes falling but like the rain falling around you. She tells them all that they have each been in the Red Room. It turned itself into something the would pacify each of them as they were devoured inside: a reading room for Olivia, a game room for Steve, a living room for Shirley, a dance studio for Theo, a treehouse of Luke, and a toy room for Nell. Poor Nell is trapped in that stomach forever but she doesn’t want Luke in there with her. The world outside might destroy him, but at least it is real and she needs that for him. Luke says he doesn’t no how to go on without her and she informs him that he doesn’t because she’s spread all around him. I can’t help but be moved by this moment because it is the one thing that I say to myself when I’m missing my brother and making fruitless wishes that he was still here. I get reminders all the time when I see his face in his daughter, or hear a song he loved when, or drive past the school he used to walk me to, or when I turn on a movie he introduced me to. I might not be making new memories with him, but they are always with me and are a part of who I am.
The Crains do get one blessing out of this visit. The get a chance to apologize for failing Nell and she is gifts them in return with the warmth that comes with forgiveness. All that really matters is that they all loved each other and she loved them. It’s the first time Steve’s proclamation that ghosts are a wish makes any real sense in this story.
Outside the Red Room, Hugh has resigned to just waiting to find out what has happened to his children. His nerves are shot and he’s struggling to pop in his medication because his hands are trembling. Poppy shows back up to recite a freaky poem about murder that was apparently told to Ms. Shirley Jackson as a child. I thought I had it bad growing up in a time when Freddy Krueger was introduced to haunt my nightmares, but can you imagine hearing that poem every night before you go to bed? Olivia doesn’t like Poppy playing with her husband and sends her on her way.
Olivia is so happy to be reunited with Hugh. Well not just Hugh, she’s got the whole family home. She’s had to lie and make a fool of herself but she’s gotten them all there. Hugh tells her that he couldn’t bear to see her in the house but that’s she been with him always. Olivia refutes that and says that was just in his head. It pretty much directly contradicts what Nell has just told the rest of the family. If I had to guess which of these two to trust, I’m going with the younger Crain who doesn’t want her family trapped in the house forever with her. Afterall, Olivia is the one who has been working to bring them back together. She’s the one with motive to convince Hugh to stay.
The two begin having what I can only describe as another argument on how to raise the kids. Even in death they are fighting with love. Olivia wants them inside the house where she can keep them safe and Hugh wants them out in the real world we they can have a life. She’s angry that he took them to begin with and allowed them to get hurt. She doesn’t want anything bad to happen to them but Hugh points out that if she gets them nothing good will happen either. He tells her to open door and makes her listen to what she is doing to them. They are not waking up and they are dying and she has it within her power to save them.
That’s when she blurts out that she doesn’t want to be all alone again. He tells her that he would have died all those years ago with her had it not been for those kids trapped in the Red Room. He bargains with her that if she lets them go he’ll make a promise he can keep forever. He asks her to let him fix things. That’s when she finally gives in and Hugh rushes into the Red Room. On the way to the car Steve sees something on the way out that causes him to stay behind. Shirley and Theo leave to take Luke to the hospital and moments later another car pulls in. Its young Hugh arriving back to the house on the night of Olivia’s death.
They are magically transported inside to watch as young Hugh finds Olivia’s corpse and cradles her. He starts screaming demanding to know what happened, appearing at first to be yelling at Steve, but the shot opens up to see it’s actually Mrs. Dudley he needs answers from. She trails off saying they were looking for something and Mr. Dudley walks in while Hugh still holds Olivia’s lifeless body saying he can fix it. He demands again to know why they are in the home and that’s when the terrible truth is confirmed that Abigail is their child and now both of their kids have been fed to the house. Ghost Abigail appears to them and Clara wants to know who hurt her and she points at Olivia. Hugh looks over the balcony down to where his wife’s body lays but her spirit roams. Hugh professes that he’s going to burn the house to the ground and salt the earth but the Dudleys appeal to him. They say they’ll keep their mouths shut if Hugh leaves the house stand so they can still be with their child. She’d hardly ever left that house and no one will notice. Hugh makes this pact with the Dudleys that as long as they never tell his kids or anyone the truth of that evening then he’ll leave the house alone. The home may belong to Hugh but not all the precious things inside of it do.
After Steve gets the last missing piece to the mystery of that fateful night, we see what Steve saw when he first got out of the Red Room. Hugh is dead and his body resting at the top of the spiral staircase where he made a promise to his wife. Steve and Hugh apologize to each other and Hugh informs Steve that caring for the house is now his responsibility. He starts his off as older Hugh saying goodbye to his son and leaves a young Hugh telling his son how proud is of him before taking his leave in the Red Room with his wife and daughter. Steve takes his leave, surveying the house once more and walking through a myriad of its ghosts on the way out the door. Had it been up to me, the episode, this story, would have ended right here in near perfection.
Sadly it does not. We cut to some vague time in the future bouncing between Steve opening up to his wife and Shirley making her confession to Kevin. While those two are saving their marriages, Theo is moving out with Trish. I mean, I don’t if they are going to move in together but Trish is helping her pack. Before she walks out the door, she tosses out her gloves. Much further down the road, an aged Mr. Dudley brings his wife to die inside the house and we see her as a ghostly young woman taking care of her girls. For Luke we see him celebrating 2 years of sobriety with what is left of his family. I’m in disbelief that it includes Leigh and surprised it includes Trish and Kevin. We get one last look at the house with Steve voicing over the first chapter of his (and Ms. Shirley Jackson’s) book but an edit that whoever walks there, walk together. The house is now lit warmly giving the feel of a happy ending.
I gotta tell you. I hated that final sequence a bunch the first time round and I’m not much more fond of it now but I’m marginally better with it now after coming to a new theory about the house and Olivia. If you stuck with me this long I ask for you to indulge me for a few more paragraphs.
Between the speech from the white Red Room and Poppy taking orders I really got to thinking about the Crain matriarch and how she might not be so much of a victim of the house as episode 9 suggests. Stay with me here for a minute. Nell has just reminded us again that time is not a straight line and we’ve watched her travel through time to be her own ghost. Would that be any more of a paradox that Olivia has always been haunting the home waiting for her family’s arrival. We’ve seen how she was able to work her “forever home” into the confines of Hill House and everything about its appearance is magical, beautiful and even remote. Even before her delusions had taken taken hold of her, she was finding items around the house for her children. A box for Shirley’s first burial, the gloves for Theo, the bowler hat for Luke, and buttons for Nell. If there was a gift for Steve I sadly forgot it but if there wasn’t I’m just going to attribute that to the idea that even the house/his mom doesn’t like him.
Repeatedly we heard Hugh tells us that he she was the kite and he was the line. His job was essentially to bring her back to earth when her thoughts took her to dangerous highs. Hugh is the only member of the Crain family who doesn’t get his own version of the Red Room. Not only was the house not inviting him to stay or making him feel welcome, it was actively hurting him to leave it alone. Olivia would have known that Hugh would talk her out of her awful plan and the house knows not to admit him into the Red Room while it tries to consume his children.
Then there’s Poppy. Sure, she spent episode 9 taunting Olivia and suggesting to her in so many words to kill her children. But she also has that line where she tells Olivia that they are both dreams. The show never really goes into Poppy’s backstory but I think there’s something noteworthy that from the start, she speaks to Olivia with familiarity. It’s possible that Ghost Olivia was lonely and using that ability to move through time used Poppy to deliver the Hill children into the abode. The Poppy in episode 9 is just returning the favor. When Theo gets the story of William’s death from the house in the form of Trish, he walled himself in because of TWO women who were taunting him. He only had one daughter. Was it Olivia as Fear and Poppy as Grief that drove him mad? And Poppy looked in control in episode 9 but acts as Olivia’s flunky all throughout the finale. She’s gathering the kids and quickly takes her leave after Olivia tells her to go.
Even that weaksauce bit where the Dudleys accept far too quickly that Abigail is permanently part of the home and just bury her was part of Olivia’s masterplan. She could have taken their daughter, not out of malice but what she perceived as something good for the house and good for the Dudleys. After all, they were fine with shutting her out from the world. Now she can be preserved just as Clara would want her to be and Olivia’s got someone to look after her home in the real world for at least another 40 years. With that final line change of saying that “whoever walks there, walk together” fits perfectly now that Olivia’s ghost has caught up to the present and she has at least part of her family back. I just can’t shake the felling that she is the architect of a true forever home.
Even without that theory in mind, what at first glance appears to be a “happy” ending is still quite bleak. Hugh killed himself and the remaining 4 children have now lost another parent to suicide. The Dudleys who did everything they could to make sure the house didn’t have a hold on them are now trapped within its walls forever. The Crains will never be fully reunited. If you think about it, the fluffy stuff only relates to the relationships the survivors get to have. I feel like for Shirley, Theo, Luke and Steve their happy endings weren’t earned just by confronting what thoughts haunted them. Addiction, infidelity, betrayal are not something you can just overcome by admitting them out loud. Repairing all those damaged relationship and coming up with new coping skills don’t just happen overnight. For all the show laid out in the previous 9 episodes, they do a disservice to the reality of all the struggles the Crain children deal with by making it seem like there’s a magic solution to make these issues disappear just by facing the ugliness around them.
The first (of what I assume will be the first of many in an anthology) season of Hill House ended more with a whimper than a bang but it doesn’t dampen my love for it one bit. I can’t tell you the last time I felt so wrapped up inside a story, both anxious for more and terrified of what was going to come. One that made me think about scars I learned to ignore many years ago but also reminded me of precious times with the people I’ve always loved. For those of you who rode out this journey with me, I thank you for your patience. I know these recap/reviews were long and hardly ever on time, but I just didn’t want to sell this series short and I had plenty of thoughts about it as you well know by now. And you should probably be grateful. Just imagine how much longer it would have been if I kept trying to compare to the book or movies. Thanks again and I’ll see you next season…hopefully.