The Nevers has arrived. Some of us, who heard Whedon describe his plan for the comic book Twist, or “female Victorian Batman,” years back, have been waiting for quite some time. True, Whedon is off the project now (and indeed, he quickly left the prior Agents of SHIELD after that one was started). Still, he wrote and directed the first episode, and Jane Espenson wrote the second. The episode title, “Touched,” is also a Buffy title. It’s not just the language: the character lineup and worldbuilding are very recognizable to fans of his other franchises.
In their earliest scene, sweet Penance the perky intuitive inventor and competent Mrs. Amalia True go out to help Myrtle, who’s been chained by her small-minded keepers. This combination suggests aggressively kind Kaylee and warrior-matriarch Zoe nurturing mad teenage River, who they similarly discover in their first episode. They even speak Chinese. “Penance tenderly tells her, “There’s plenty of girls who’ve been shown a strangeness of some kind, a turn. But Mrs. True and I, we’ve worked with hem and they come up fine. Would you like that?”
Amalia True is a damaged leader who’s been through far too much and been disillusioned. Her closest parallel is Melinda May, the damaged leader who was forced to kill a superpowered child before events of the story. Like Mrs. True, she’s frighteningly competent, protective, and tough, even rude. Melinda never truly lets of of the damage, but she protects and loves her charges while discovering where she’s meant to be. Presumably Amalia will follow the same path. There are mysteries like Mrs. True’s “This isn’t my face.” The motive behind her attempted suicide also is left to be revealed.
Immediately, as one expects with an action show, the ladies are attacked. The cloaked villains dragging Myrtle away suggest the secret societies of Buffy, or perhaps the evil government of Firefly. Quickly, there’s a fight, a carriage chase and an experimental weapon that’s “only a prototype.” “This is weird for us too,” Penance says, and suddenly they’re in a remarkable metal car. It’s an auto-carriage; apparently only eight have every existed. Like Firefly (again), the mashup has turned very steampunk, combining the nineteenth century with cool technology. Steampunk fans celebrate Firefly as an early precursor to the genre, though at the time science fiction westerns were rare. Now that Steampunk has been established, it’s easy for The Nevers to capitalize on the work already done. As such, they’re Victorians in beautiful gowns with wild inventions (vehicles, weapons, and so forth), in an aesthetic that’s quickly recognizable. Steampunk is particularly known for revisionist history that’s more feminist and minority-inclusive. As such, the show primes viewers to accept modern egalitarian qualities within the Nevers’ hidden world.
Of course, in such a story, one of the enemies is the restrictive voices of society. Accordingly, as the distant, judgmental government, stuffy old white men gather to discuss what to do with the uppity women. One insists, “We are the first generation accustomed to the impossible. What women are appalled by today, they will accept tomorrow and demand the day after that. And the immigrant. And the deviant.” Of course, the Nevers will resist these restrictive forces, again, much as Buffy did with the Watchers’ Council and the Initiative, not to mention the evil preacher of the final season.
The Nevers, meanwhile, are a beautiful community where all the misfits are protected from society, their gifts nurtured (a staple of every Whedon story). Several characters stand out there. Primrose’s giantness is instantly recognizable to fans of giant Dawn from the Buffy season eight comics — both a reaction to an unlimited special effects budget and a metaphor for the awkwardness of growing up. Further, the girl’s happiness in having another her age join the society reflects an identical moment in Whedon’s arc on the Runaways comic — in which the teens travel back in time to roughly this era.
Next they’re off, not to the ball of Shindig, but to the opera. Like on Buffy, the women affirm each other’s worth and back each other up with complementary skills even as they indulge in girl talk. As with the “Shindig” episode, and the entire Firefly show, the heroes occasionally infiltrate the upper class on their mission, hiding their true selves. As with Firefly, again, the ragtag group has upper class allies in sympathy with them. It’s even another brother-sister pair.
Augie Bidlow, clean and tidy, reminds of Simon Tam. He’s a geeky, isolated gentleman who will likely join the misfit team. His sister Lavinia Bidlow, meanwhile, is raising funds for the Touched. She’s played by Olivia Williams. This is not just an amusing nod for Whedon fans who know he casts repeat actors through his franchises. On Dollhouse, she’s the villainous manager who both protects and exploits the Dolls. Still, by series end, she has grown into a heroine. One might expect a large arc for this apparently benevolent character as well. Further, in the other series she was an outsider — not a doll. One wonders this time whether she simply believes in this cause or whether she is secretly one of the Touched.
There is a bit more diversity than in some Whedon works, fittingly for 2021. Still, as this is the first HBO show, the heavy cursing may be the most surprising addition. In all the Whedon shows, there are heavy allegories. This time, there’s disability as well as race, class, and gender. At the opera, Mrs. True identifies as Touched and adds, “We don’t consider ourselves afflicted.”
Of course, something seen through Whedon shows is trauma and the many ways characters deal with it. Mrs. True describes her prognostication a bit like reverse PTSD: “You’ve seen men who suddenly see themselves back in battle. Well, sometimes I go forward.” This phrasing suggests her glimpses are traumatic, and, indeed, they show death and violence. At the opera, a madwoman, Maladie, shows up, insisting “I killed the devil.” Whedon is well known for his madwomen, including Drusilla, River, Tara, Echo, Sierra, and more.
Valerie Estelle Frankel is the author of Joss Whedon’s Names, Buffy and the Heroine’s Journey, Pop Culture in the Whedonverse, and similar pop culture titles. https://www.amazon.com/Valerie-Estelle-Frankel/e/B004KMCLQK/