[News] ‘1899’ Episode 2 Recap: “The Boy”

What is the difference between a mystery-box show and a show that is purely mysterious? Is there a difference? Since J.J. Abrams coined the term to describe Lost, the seminal science-fiction series he co-created (and then largely left to its own devices, under Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse), I’ve seen it used to describe everything from the kids’ cartoon Gravity Falls to HBO’s once-upon-a-time next-big-thing Westworld to shows that predate the term entirely, like Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner. At root, the phrase seems to be used to describe shows that create a sort of “What the hell is going on here?” feeling: The stories in question do not contain a mystery or multiple mysteries, they are one big mystery, leaving the viewer scrambling (and, ideally for the creators and networks, tweeting and Redditing and tumblring and so on) to figure out what is happening and why at basically all times.

For me, the phrase has taken on an almost purely pejorative connotation. It describes shows that hide things from the viewer almost arbitrarily, not because the story demands it or benefits from it, but because the goal is to keep the audience engrossed and guessing at the expense of creating emotional and intellectual investment more organically. So for me, The Prisoner wouldn’t qualify, as its sinister surrealism requires a lack of explanation to establish that tone; Westworld, with its ginned-up “who is he? when is he?” riddles, does qualify, as it’s obscure mainly for the sake of eventual revelations that don’t really pay off the delayed gratification. More recently, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power attached a series of needless question marks to seemingly half its characters and storylines, for no ostensible purpose other than to get the viewer to tune in next time to find out who the heck Adar is or whatever. Mysteries push the story forward; mystery boxes are substitutes for stories.

By this (entirely invented for the purpose of this review) definition, 1899 is not a mystery-box show. Oh, all the hallmarks are there: an entire cast of characters each with their own mysterious past; an implied or explicit but uncertain connection between several or all of them; flashbacks and flashforwards and hallucinations and dreams that reveal new layers of story; portentous symbols; mysterious strangers; the strong suggestion that there’s some kind of temporal rupture or loop involved. 

But — here’s the key — it doesn’t make me feel trapped like a mystery-box show does. I’m not banging my head against the walls of this thing, trying to find the writers’ way out before they reveal it. I’m taking each new revelation and secret and strange occurrence as they come, treating them as seasoning for the real main course: a collection of sad and broken people who have discovered a calamity, and who may be next in line. 

1899 ep2 CLOSEUP ON THE CAPTAIN’S FACE

To run down what we learn in this episode at length would eat up the entire word count of this review, so we’ll be as brief as possible. Ángel and Ramiro are not brothers, nor is Ramiro a priest, nor is he even Spanish; he was a Portugese servant, and he and Ángel are now lovers, on the run from the law, one presumes due to their homosexuality although, given Ángel’s lupine personality it could be anything.

1899 ep2 BIG KISS

Speaking of which, he’s definitely into Krester, the young Danish man he shared a cigarette with in the pilot. He tracks the guy down and gives him his expensive cigarette case, only for Krester’s sister Tove to angrily take it and return it, threatening (in Danish) to cut the Spaniard’s dick off if he approaches her brother again. It’s implied that she knows Krester is gay and that a rich person has treated him poorly before, perhaps resulting in that scar of his.

The unhappy honeymooners Lucien and Clémence each strike up the beginnings of new romances, or something adjacent to romance. Lucien flirts with Ling Yi, the fake Japanese woman, only to learn from the assertive Mrs. Wilson that her affections are available for sale, so to speak. Clémence, meanwhile, has a conversation with Jérôme in which they both seem to feel like they’ve met before. Little does she know he broke into their room to drop off a medal of some sort, pulled from an envelope with Lucien’s name on it — or that he’s a stowaway rather than a crew member, which the rest of the crew figures out and beats him up over, though not before he nearly takes out half a dozen of them on his own.

From here on out, things get a little hinky. Maura spends much of the episode tending to the emotional needs of the mysterious boy pulled from the abandoned Prometheus, and to those of the captain, Eyk. Eyk, who kicks off the episode with a nightmarish hallucination and/or hallucinatory nightmare, hears and sees his family aboard the ship — an impossibility, given that his mentally ill wife killed herself and their three daughters via arson. Yet when he follows them, he winds up discovering a secret passage from his burned house directly into his cabin on the ship, a passage that remains in place even when the dream/vision/whatever ends. (When he descends into it afterwards, he finds it lined with impossibly clean and shiny black tiles, leading me to wonder exactly who built this passage and why.)

Eyk winds up coming clean about (almost) all this to Maura, seemingly out of general emotional desperation as much as for any other reason — though her closeness to the Prometheus’s one surviving passenger is part of it too, given that he blames the ship’s presence for the hallucination, as well as a mysterious phenomenon causing all the ship’s compasses to spin wildly out of sync. (He even attacks the boy, demanding answers the mute child cannot or will not give.) He shows her a letter he received that’s nearly identical to the one we know she has, which contained a pic of his family and seemed to invite him, somehow, to discover the Prometheus as he has indeed now done.

But while his letter is addressed to him, as it should be, Maura’s is addressed to “Henry.” In a brief conversation with the mystery man who climbed aboard last week, who calls himself Daniel Solace (Aneurin Barnard), he notes that Maura is an Irish name, though she is not Irish. She also reveals, to the boy, that her brother was aboard the Prometheus, and that she believes he somehow sent the letter. 

Finally there’s Daniel himself, who uses one of the mysterious green beetles that scuttle around and lead people who follow them to where they need to go. It leads him directly to Ada, Krester and Tove’s precocious little sister. “I’m so sorry,” he tells her.

1899 ep2 I’M SO SORRY

Next thing we know, she’s discovered dead by the crew, who are on the brink of mutiny over the captain’s decision to ignore the brusque order they’ve received from their passenger line’s mysterious new owners — “SINK SHIP” — and make a U-turn in order to tow the thing back to Europe.

And oh yeah, everyone’s on a bank of TV monitors…???????

1899 ep2 FINAL SHOT OF THE EPISODE WITH THE TV MONITORS

There’s more, namely a mysterious sigil: a triangle crossed with a line, which shows up on the secret passage’s trap door, on the carpet in the first-class section, on the back of Maura and Eyk’s letters, in the design of Clémence’s earrings (?!), and on a tattoo on the Boy’s neck. In short, there’s plenty to keep you guessing.

But I don’t think the purpose is to drive you nuts trying to theorize your way out of it, mystery-box style. I mean, you can do things that way if you want, you always can, but it’s very much optional, as it always has been. (No one ever needed to pen 3500-word “reviews” of random Lost episodes about how the Smoke Monster has to be nanotechnology or whatever.) A mystery-box show, in the pejorative sense, kind of does require you to theorize, since it has little else to offer. A mysterious show treats the mysteries as their own reward, a way to generate suspense, dread, confusion, a sort of dreamlike/nightmarish vibe. I think that’s undoubtedly what 1899 is doing. The combination of its dark, inscrutable mysteries and its depressive, desperate characters creates something more than the sum of its parts, not less. It’s not a mystery box, it’s a black pyramid, and like the Boy and Maura, we can turn it around in our hands and contemplate it and still see only the darkness.

Sean T. Collins (@theseantcollins) writes about TV for Rolling Stone, Vulture, The New York Times, and anyplace that will have him, really. He and his family live on Long Island.



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