Marvel’s Helstrom is about a dysfunctional family with certain issues that run in the family. These issues are serious and sometimes spread to those around them, so various authorities and agencies have been involved with the family for decades. Thanks to these interventions, the younger members of the family are doing better than their elders. The kids struggle with a weaker version of the same issues, though, which can become harmful to those around them if everyone involved doesn’t keep their guard up.
What are the Helstrom family issues, you ask? HIV? Or perhaps alcoholism/drug addiction leading to violent abuse?
The Helstroms are infected with demonic possession and varying degrees of evil.
Some are demons themselves. Some are in a gray area that could tip either way between their human side and their demonic side. All have supernatural powers and foul tempers. Some are more violent than others. Some are downright devilish, though dear old Dad barely appears on camera this season.
The Catholic Church keeps a close eye on them, because of course it does. Who else would be capable of controlling evil demons?? Don’t answer that. Disney and Marvel do not have time for your globally inclusive spiritual point of view. PEOPLE ARE DYING.
The season carries on the Marvel tradition of multiple endings before it gets to the really, really final one, which opens the closed story back up for season 2 or the fan fic writers over at AO3. This is a bit of an orphaned show, due to changes in management and structure at Marvel HQ, so it should be viewed like HBO’s Watchmen. It’s an interesting riff on a comic book series that’s probably a limited TV series, but could get picked up for another season someday, when the world settles down again, if fans want more.
Helstrom’s budget reflects it’s orphan status, though it’s by no means a low budget black box theater production. Just don’t expect tons of special effects, monsters in elaborate makeup or costumes or highly choreographed fight and chase scenes. We’re talking about Agents of SHIELD season 7 level budget, not season 1. People ride in elevators, instead of fighting in them.
But Helstrom uses its money wisely, the way a good theater troupe would. They put their budget into writing and actors, then sparingly into important effects, costumes and props. The rest of the magic is provided by the behind the scenes technical aspects of production that punch up the work overall, such as lighting and editing. There’s a cyclops skull in the pilot that tends to hang out with candles which kept making me think of Hamlet. The skull probably earned its keep based on that alone.
Like Agents of Shield, Helstrom has a diverse cast and crew and highlights its many female characters, who are a range of ages from late middle age and possibly dying to young and confused about their lives. Many of the actors elevate the material they’re given, because of the emotion or the humor they add to it or both. Especially Sydney Lemmon as Ana, who early on turns her wardrobe and bravado into a fully formed character; Alain Uy as Chris, whose character starts out as Ana’s yes man but becomes quite multifaceted as the season progresses; June Carryl as the long-suffering Louise, the one mostly sane person in this whole situation; and Elizabeth Marvel, who gives a tour de force performance as both Victoria and Mother, the demon who possesses Victoria for decades. Marvel is loving and malevolent, desperate and strong, and she turns from one to the other so fast it will make your head spin. Pun intended.
Tom Austen, Ariana Guerra, Robert Wisdom and Deborah Van Valkenburgh (Esther Smith) are all also very good. They and their characters just didn’t grab me the way the other four did, though I did enjoy Gabby’s storyline in the last 2 or 3 episodes. Excellent variation on a well-worn theme. I wish we could continue to follow her storyline, because I think she has the makings of an interesting character in Helstrom Part 2.
Helstrom S1 takes a while to get going and find its rhythm. The first 3 or 4 episodes rely a little too much on horror and character tropes to carry them, rather than jumping into the plot and unique aspects of this story. But by episode 5, the groundwork has been laid and the plot moves quickly from then on. It’s still quite tropey, but the second half of the season has more fun with the tropes, rather than feeling like it’s following a textbook, or Jessica Jones season 1, on how to twist tropes on their heads while avoiding getting to the point.
I almost didn’t keep going with Helstrom after the first three episodes, but I pushed through and I’m glad I did. Horror and scfi are frequently used to examine mental illness, but it’s rare to let the victims of a psychopath, particularly the family who lived with a serial killer for years, process their trauma on camera with this much sympathy and heart. Prodigal Son and Evil also delve into this territory, but I don’t feel like either portrays an adult family that fights this hard for each other after suffering extreme trauma, abuse and separation for decades, along with the inevitable mental illness that accompanies those experiences.
The tendency to fall into similar patterns with new abusers as adults, while also finding it difficult to walk away from childhood abusers who haven’t changed, are other aspects of surviving a dysfunctional childhood that are rarely acknowledged by TV. These aspects might be portrayed while blaming victims who haven’t learned more healthy ways to cope. But Helstrom confronts this cycle and how it can be broken, without feeling exploitational, while also acknowledging that the seeds of dysfunctional behavior remain inside abuse victims.
If all of the psychological insights into Helstrom haven’t turned you off, let’s finally look at what the show is about: Daimon Helstrom (Tom Austen) is a college ethics professor by day and an exorcist by night in Portland, OR. Daimon is the son of an evil serial killer/powerful demon who abandoned him and his mother and kidnapped his sister, Ana (Sydney Lemmon) when Daimon was a young teen. Their mother, Victoria (Elizabeth Marvel), was possessed by another demon who gained increasing amounts of control over her (alternatively/metaphorically, Victoria was driven insane by life with her husband). Eventually, she had to be institutionalized.
Daimon’s handler, Louise Hastings (June Carryl), a former nun who runs the St Teresa Center for Mental Health where Victoria is institutionalized, also supervises his supernatural work. Louise raised Daimon after his mother was hospitalized. Though Ana had been recovered from her years on the run with her father by then, Louise didn’t foster her. That left Ana adrift in the foster care system and under the sporadic supervision of Louise’s counterpart, Caretaker Henry (Robert Wisdom).
There are instances in Helstrom where it’s hard to make sense of the characters’ decisions- those times in the horror film when you’re screaming at the group not to split up because the monster is lying in wait to pick them off, one by one, and we know it, but usually they don’t. Except the demon hunters know the ways of the monsters better than the audience. I found that the characters became much more understandable when I remembered their pasts and how that would inform their current mental and emotional states.
Helstrom became a much more interesting show when I started looking at the show through the lens of mental illness for all of the characters. It’s not a bright, trippy hallucination through the characters minds like Legion. Instead, it’s a dark, gritty story where every single character is a survivor who’s still struggling to survive, the way former addicts work at sobriety everyday for the rest of their lives. Ana and Victoria are the standard bearers for that struggle. Humans like Louise and Henry frequently get caught in the cross-fire.
At the start of the season, Ana and Daimon are estranged. Ana lives in San Francisco and deals in high end antiques as her day job, while at night she acts as a vigilante who kills vicious criminals using her psychic and telekinetic powers. Her business partner in both endeavors is the best friend she’s had since her early days in the foster care system, Chris Yen (Alain Uy).
Louise is battling lung cancer, so she sends for a potential replacement from the Church, Noviate Gabriella Rossetti. Sister Gabriella is a young almost-nun who is perhaps overconfident about her ability to handle her new assignment. She comes in with her faith and naivety blazing, determined to discover what Daimon and Louise are keeping from her and certain that she’s smarter than them about religion, psychology and evil. She reports to the Church and not Louise, which leads to more friction.
In Portland, several employees and patients connected to Victoria at St Teresa’s die or go missing. At the same time in San Francisco, an orderly from St Teresa’S, Kevin Spivey, conducts a raid on a demonic tomb which holds a strangely deformed skeleton. When Ana and Henry investigate the tomb later, Ana senses there’s something important about the skeleton and takes its skull with her so she can analyze it further.
From there, things continue to go wrong. More demons get involved. A secret demon-hunting society shows up. It’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys for awhile. Shenanigans ensue. More demons get involved. And a lone cop. But not a hot priest. Emotional truths are discovered and revealed, occasionally denied, and battles are fought.
Check it out.
Image courtesy of Hulu.