I just finished watching season one and am sharing my feelings about it. There are spoilers here, and I assume if you read on, you watched the show already. So if you don’t want to read spoilers, stop. Seriously, the very next paragraph starts with a spoiler, so if you don’t want spoilers, it’s high time to fuck off. I didn’t like the last episode, for various reasons…
It ended happily for everybody concerned
Liv, the mad matriarch didn’t get her way and have the whole family “wake up” to die and spend eternity as ghosts in the “forever house”, but did get her husband to sacrifice himself to save the surviving kids. But all three sides here, the living, the dead, and the house itself, ended up happy. The living escaped, the dead are ghosts but they’re happy where they are, and the house itself… is safe because Steve agrees to take over his father’s deal and not try to destroy the house.
No real scares in the last episode
Yes, the truth about the Red Room being whatever each character wants it to be, the tree house, the dance studio, the library, the games room… that was creepy. The playing around with time was cool, and tied up nicely with the way the story was told. The converging of multiple timelines coincided with the story itself presenting time as being interconnected. But the dreams given to the characters weren’t particularly traumatizing, except for Luke’s, which did not make sense. (See next point.)
The breaking of rules between dreams and reality
Luke did not relapse. He didn’t stop and buy heroin before entering the house. He only had a needle in his arm in a dream. So how was it there when he awoke? The rules for the ghosts affecting reality were made quite clear throughout… they can trick the living into killing themselves. Lure the mother into madness. But what the characters experience in their dreams or visions are hallucinations. Having his dream drug usage bleed into reality is a major plot hole. “A little spill”, Hugh’s words to Nell when she was a child, refers to them seeing things, but not the effect we see here because what they see is not really there. (I mention this because it is a theme and I assume would be used as the explanation for the heroin from Luke’s dream affecting reality.) This would be fine if the rules were undefined, but nothing quite like this happens at any time other than the last episode.
Nell, the bent neck lady or the happy hippie ghost?
After Nell’s death, we get to see that time is not a single one-way thread in this narrative, and she becomes the “bent neck lady”. It turns out she was always the bent neck lady, and trapped in that form in death, she must suffer forever as she suffered during sleep paralysis, sent back in time as the ghost that accidentally terrorizes her younger self. It’s implied that she is trapped like that, a terrifying figure with a broken neck, to be misunderstood by all who see her, for the rest of time. And that is how she should have remained. Except she didn’t. She also gets to be cheerful, and save all her siblings in the nick of time when they dream the hallucinatory dreams that the house gives them.
Who is the antagonist?
The Red Room is the heart of the house, so it would seem that the house itself is the antagonist.
But the characters are sent off to slumber and dream the dreams that the house supplies, by Poppy. So is Poppy an agent of the house? Well, Liv gets to dismiss her from terrorizing her husband, so that she can do so herself. So again, who is the antagonist? Is it the house, Poppy, or Liv? Is Poppy an agent for the house, or is Liv? The events do not make sense, and the ghosts’ behaviour is inconsistent. Sometimes they have free will, and sometimes they are carrying out the “wishes” of the house. Sometimes they’re just there for decoration. (This sort of poor writing is commonplace in lower class horror. You get plot elements just for the effect at the time, such as jump scares involving ghosts that remain trapped inside a place showing up in the greater world, and when the various narrative threads are woven together at the end, things don’t add up. I didn’t expect such obvious plot holes in this series.)
Furthermore, the toasting man who haunts Shirley is not a ghost at all, but a memory of her infidelity and guilt, used by the house to taunt her. That’s a problem though, because it again raises the problem of who the antagonist is. A house is just a house, and this lack of a clearly defined idea of an antagonist, even a supernatural force but one properly defined, comes apart in the last episode.
Here’s the thing… If the house can haunt Shirley without needing an actual ghost, none of the ghosts need to be fully fledged characters. The threat to the living is then death. They can be seen as zombie like husks of their former selves after death, without fleshing them out or even defining if the ghosts are really former living people at all. Maybe they are, or maybe they are mere projections of the souls captured and swallowed by the house. Keep it ambiguous and it remains scary.
The tone is all wrong in the last episode
Everybody is happy, the living and the dead. Dying and being trapped as a ghost in the house is not a threat if you’ll be happy there. This is a paradox in horror, especially in ghost stories. The mere existence of an afterlife is required for ghosts to exist, but that also means that death is not the end, which casts doubt on what there is to fear.
Normally you’d miss this, because you are only presented with the threat of death, and the ghosts are never fully formed but remain mysterious. Cross that blurry line and show us tangible ghosts, and take away their suffering but make them happy, and horror is no longer horrifying.
For me it all went wrong in that last episode. I enjoyed the series until then, and thought it was well crafted supernatural horror up to that point. I didn’t see the Red Room twist coming, which was a pleasant surprise. I did see the Abigail twist coming, and thought that was mildly predictable, but still something I know most viewers would not have guessed. I also liked what they did with time, especially after showing Nell’s death from her point of view. They should have left her trapped in the form of the bent neck lady after death. That would have been perfect.
But that happy ending! It was too much. Plus their breaking of their own rules, the inconsistent treatment of ghosts, and the failure to decide whether the house or the ghosts were the antagonist. In my opinion, they went way too far in the wrong direction. The ghosts should have been manifestations created by the house, with the house itself an evil, intelligent entity. Thus the threat is existential, the characters face death and nothingness, their souls swallowed and devoured, their effigies then presented to living occupants as soulless husks, animated cadaverous carcasses of the former occupants taken by the house.
Instead we got happy ghosts, some of them delusional, but happy and content. That’s not how you end a horror. If the monster gives you eternal life and happiness, it isn’t much of a monster at all. Right through, my son watched it while reaching in terror for my hand, his tether to reality, but he didn’t need that for the last episode, and commented to me about how happy everyone was.
Update: I missed the ambiguity of the final scene. Luke’s two years clean cake is blood red, a hint that maybe they’re in the Red Room and in fact never left. But this just creates a bigger, more messy plot hole. The deal struck with Steve, the knowledge that the caretakers begged his father not to destroy the house (and that he now takes that role) because the ghost of their dead daughter was there, and the woman’s return there to die and be young again with her husband shows us the plot where they escape really happened. The house let him leave. So what we have is two narratives that contradict one another. This is not clever; it’s merely poor writing and shoddy directing. It also alows them to guage the viewer response to the series, and decide after the fact which story to follow for season two.