“This Is A Strange Town”: Hemlock Grove, Episodes 1-3

When I reviewed Brian McGreevey’s Hemlock Grove last year, I described the novel as “a post-Lynchian melodrama,” a blurring of the line between Gothic and prime-time soap opera that, two decades after Twin Peaks, didn’t have to worry about audiences being confused by the intrusion of the uncanny. In a way, it’s actually just a natural extension of the melodrama—to crib from myself, “a genre of failed repression, [where] the harder you try to cover up the sins or the traumas of the past… the more damage they will cause when they finally erupt.”

The announcement that Hemlock Grove would be a 13-episode Netflix series came right around the time of the novel’s release, and I’ve been curious to see how McGreevey’s soap opera dynamic would play out on the screen. Well, all 13 episodes were released Friday, and I’ve had a chance to watch the first three, which I’ll share some quick thoughts about now… and, over the next week or so, we’ll catch up to the rest. A word of caution: I’ve definitely got spoilers for episodes 1-3; the comments are likely to reveal things from even later in the series. (Heck, I might not even read the comments until I’ve got a few more episodes under my belt….)

One thing I noticed in this early episodes is that the “boy detective” vibe I get from Roman Godfrey (Bill Skarsgard), the teenage scion of Hemlock Grove’s “ruling” family, and his Gypsy classmate Peter Rumancek (Landon Laboiron), is already stronger in the series than I remember it being in the book. From the moment they meet at the site of the first killing, there’s an emotional undercurrent between them—and McGreevey (working with Lee Shipman) doesn’t hesitate to underline the homoerotic possibilities. It’s already a running gag that Peter’s relatives will exclaim that his willingness to let Roman into his hidden life stems from never having a real friend before; every time, you’re half-convinced they’re about to say he’s got a crush on Roman.

Roman’s the rich kid, but Peter’s the one who knows things—even before Roman displays his mind-controlling capabilities, Peter suspects there’s something uncanny about him. Both of them can sense the evil lurking in the town’s background… and though their mutual decision to solve the mystery is rooted at least in part by Peter’s desire to clear his own name, it’s also a melodramatic standard. When their parents’ generation ruins the world—or, as Roman’s father said all those years ago, “I brought evil into our house”—and then try to act like it didn’t happen, it’s the children who have to deal with the collateral damage.

Hemlock Grove

The Godfrey family’s sins are spelled out early; we learn in the first episode that Roman’s father killed himself after, among other things, learning that his brother Norman (Dougray Scott) was sleeping with his wife Olivia (Famke Janssen). The affair continues to this day, although Norman is clearly not happy about that, and believes his sister-in-law and her son capable of just about anything… as when he learns that his teenage daughter believes she has been impregnated by a dramatically backlit angel.

So far, I like McGreevey and Shipman’s pacing. We get the question of whether Peter is or isn’t a werewolf out of the way before the end of the second episode; we have some hints as to the deal with Roman’s younger sister Shelley (Amazon Eve Nicole Boivin) although clearly we’ve just scratched the surface—and I loved the juxtaposition between the vocalizations Shelley can make and the inner voice that appears in her emails to Norman. And we’re still meeting new characters in the third episode, including Dr. Chasseur (Kandyse McClure), a “fish and wildlife” agent who, considering that she’s reporting to a priest before she heads out to Hemlock Grove, probably won’t be satisfied by Peter’s attempts to brush off her questions about lycanthropy.

Hemlock Grove

With ten episodes left to go, though, there’s room for a lot of plot twists and revelations—and quite possibly something other than a point-by-point adaptation of McGreevey’s original story. We’ve already seen the addition of a few new wrinkles… and not always effective ones. As in, the police know the first victim’s iPhone was on when she was killed, but we’ve never circled back to the character on the other end of the call? (Granted, that was probably just a bit of titillation, but still.)

Is the series goofy in spots? Sure, and that’s not necessarily mitigated by the fact that it knows that it’s goofy—on the other hand, it’s not necessarily a problem, either. Which is a point I’ll probably come back to once I’ve got more episodes under my belt… In the meantime, though, what do you think?

Ron Hogan is the host of The Handsell with Ron Hogan &…, a video series where authors and independent booksellers offer reading recommendations based on the books you already love.


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