SPOILERS for Season 1 of NOS4A2 follow:
Here’s a partial list of things the hit AMC show NOS4A2 is about: A Christmas-themed amusement park; A magical motorbike; Soothsaying Scrabble tiles; Alcoholism and generational trauma; Cannibal children; a 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith; Creativity as a superpower. Here’s one thing the show is not about: Vampires.
The word vampire is never used in the show’s first season. Its central villain, Charlie Manx, is never seen drinking blood and moves freely during daytime hours. In the sense that he drains his victims of their essence and turns them into evil, bloodthirsty monsters, he is a vampire-like figure. But his enthusiasm for vintage automobiles and a certain late-December holiday makes him a more agnostic monster, at least when he’s not appearing in his desiccated true form.
Based on the Joe Hill novel, the first season of the show slowly revealed its curious narrative universe, which is as much in the realm of fantasy as horror. The show’s lead — the eternally anguished Vic McQueen (Ashleigh Cummings) — is a “strong creative” who is able to summon a bridge that allows her to travel “the shorter way” to find lost things. This puts her on the radar of Charlie Manx (Zachary Quinto, relishing the role), a sinister figure who kidnaps abused children and spirits them to Christmasland, a Neverland of rides and delights. They get saved from their abusive families, never have to grow up, and get to play fun games like “Scissors For the Drifter;” Manx gets to drain them of their humanity so that he can stay young for eternity. It’s a win-win!
Sadly, that’s not how Vic McQueen sees it. At the climax of season 1, she torches Manx’s Wraith, leaving him on life support (if it seems highly suspicious that the authorities would leave a 100-plus-year-old child kidnapper with a face full of spiked teeth connected to expensive life-support just in case he wakes up and can be hauled off to prison for the rest of his life, don’t worry: He dies for real in the opening of the second season). But with her boyfriend (and baby’s daddy) Craig dying in the Wraith’s backseat, the encounter has left Vic traumatized. Like her father, she uses booze to keep her demons at bay, which is taking its toll on her relationship with the kind-but-nerdy mechanic Lou Carmody (Jonathan Langdon) and her son Wayne (Jason David).
Like its first season, early episodes of NOS4A2 season 2 spend a surprising amount of time digging into dysfunctional relationships and the way the unresolved issues from our past can haunt our present. This extends to Charlie Manx, who gets something of an origin story in the second episode. Though faster than the first season, the show’s patient pacing emphasizes character development; even Milly, the de facto leader of the haunted children in Christmasland, gets a backstory.
But the show is at its best when its tensions run high and with Manx now menacing Vic’s son, the stakes feel higher than ever this year. It also helps that the hulking but dull Bing Partridge (Olafur Darri Olafsson), who was somewhat sympathetic through much of the first season, is now fully committed to the role of menacing henchman. And the show's plotting has quickened considerably, thanks to the brush clearing of its exposition-heavy first season.
From its pacing to its character development to its action, the second season of NOS4A2 is an improvement on its first. It may not be about vampires, per se, but there’s plenty to sink your teeth into.
NOS4A2 airs Sunday nights at 10pm ET on AMC. You can catch up on the first season, commercial free, with AMC+