'Them: The Scare' Season 2 premiere recap: "Are You Scared?" (2024)

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THEM: The Scare

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THEM: The Scare

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There’s an old maxim about how only the very rich and the very poor can afford to make great art, since they’re the only ones with nothing to lose. Perhaps that’s why Amazon’s Prime Video, the creative fiefdom of the richest man in show business (or any business), is the most adventurous streamer out there when it comes to original programming. In shows like Barry Jenkins’s The Underground Railroad; Ed Brubaker and Nicholas Winding Refn’s Too Old to Die Young; Leonardo Fasoli, Mauricio Kartz, and Stefano Sollima’s ZeroZeroZero; and Alice Birch’s Dead Ringers, Prime has pushed the content envelope farther than I ever thought it would go on television. These shows have more in common with arthouse or extreme cinema than they do with Succession. They are challenging viewing, but for viewers who love a challenge, they’re a godsend.

To this group we can safely (if anything about this show can be said to be safe) add Them. Conceived of as an anthology series by writer-creator Little Marvin, the show debuted in 2021 with a season subtitled Covenant and bristling with some of the most harrowing and horrific violence ever aired on TV. Since almost all of the terror, even the supernatural elements, comes heavily freighted with anti-Black racist animus, Them is doubly upsetting. Watching that first season is like fighting a battle wielding a sword without a hilt: You can emotionally survive it, but not intact.

I won’t say it’s the biggest nightmare the family in Them: Covenant faced, as it certainly wasn’t. However, the daily deluge of racist suspicion, condescension, and outright aggression to which they are subjected is the show’s ace in the hole for building the kind of tension and dread great horror requires. Watching the show, you never know which of the friendly-faced white neighbors or coworkers or shopkeepers they encounter will be decent and helpful, and which will turn on them and treat them like dirt at the drop of a hat. You never know who is operating under the crazy-making rules of racecraft. In essence, you never know who is sane and who is not.

'Them: The Scare' Season 2 premiere recap: "Are You Scared?" (3)

The world we encounter at the start of Them season 2, subtitled The Scare, is a slightly saner one than that in which the Emorys faced back in lily-white 1953 Compton; the sacrifices of the civil rights movement ensured that. It is, however, 1991 Los Angeles — far from a post-racist utopia. As the action begins, the videotaped footage of motorist Rodney King being mercilessly beaten by multiple LAPD officers after a traffic stop is everywhere, as is the anger it engenders.

Enter LAPD Detective Dawn Reeve. Played by Deborah Ayorinde, a standout as traumatized mother Lucky Emory in season one, Reeve is liked by her lieutenant (Wayne Knight!) for her work ethic and intelligence. But she has that classic TV good-cop characteristic: She cares too damn much. Her reputation has taken a hit after an altercation with a confidential informant jeopardized an investigation. It’s unclear if this refers to the case of the South Side Slayer, an apparent serial-killer hunt from which she was pulled without success.

So when she’s called in on a new case, she has to ride shotgun while another, whiter, more male detective, McKinney (Jeremy Bobb), takes lead. He’s another classic TV cop type, this one slightly more realistic than the glamorous Black woman serial-killer hunter who cares too much: the casually racist and sexist middle-aged white guy with a mustache and bad eating habits who sucks at his nominal job of solving crimes but who’s great at making life unpleasant for any halfway decent woman or person of color on the force, let alone suspect or witness.

The case they’ve caught is a ghastly one. An abusive foster mother, Bernice Mott (Cindi Davis), has been found dead, which barely scratches the surface of how she was found. She was stuffed into the cabinet under the kitchen sink, bones and spine snapped and twisted so she could be folded up like a suitcase, eyes wide, mouth distended in a horrific Munch-esque screaming position. (When you see a cop vomiting on Reeve’s way into the house, you know you’re in for something nasty.)

McKinney’s suspicions fall on her oldest charge, a terrified teenage boy named Malcolm (Deion Smith). An abused child getting old enough to seek revenge is honestly not a terrible guess, given how many calls the cops and child services have apparently gotten to Mott’s house; it’s just obviously wrong, like, right from the start. That doesn’t stop McKinney from slowly, racistly exaggerating Malcolm’s size, threat level, and penchant for aggression to the proportions of the cave troll from The Fellowship of the Ring.

The fact that Reeve doesn’t bother hiding her distaste for McKinney’s interrogation techniques on her face, nor refrain from making sure the kid gets a lawyer before McKinney grills him into a false confession, is telling. It seems to indicate she’s graduated from the “go along to get along” portion of her career. If she thinks McKinney’s not much of a cop, she may not tell him so to his face, but she’s not gonna go out of her way to pretend he’s Elliot Ness either. That’s a big difference from the 1953 season, when Henry Emory’s every interaction with his white colleagues had to be a flawless performance of pride-swallowing ass-kissery. But again, making a disgusted face because your partner is a moron is small consolation when the moron was put in charge over you.

At least her life at home is pretty good. Reeve lives with her mom Athena, a nice lady who’s unsuccessfully covering up some kind of condition involving her hands, and her son Kel (Joshua J. Williams III), a nice kid and a pretty good rock/Afropunk drummer. (“Guy who loves Fishbone, Bad Brains, and the Beastie Boys,” as Shawn does according to the posters on his garage wall, is a great 1990s type of guy; that’s a collection of bands that feels a lot more considered than the constant and clumsy 1990s music references on Yellowjackets, for example.) The pair throw her a little birthday party, complete with the gift of a photo of her looking nerdy as hell with a horrible home hairdo as a teen. Aww.

But ominous signs and portents abound. Lights flicker and pop inside and outside of the house. The breeze from a fan unleashes a scream that seems to come directly from Reeve’s files on the Mott murder, causing Athena to grab a knife out of caution. Multiple characters, including Malcolm, get nervous about cameras for some reason. And Rena (Skylar Ebron), an adorable little girl taken from the Mott house, warns that Bernice spent her last days afraid of an unknown “him.” Bernice was afraid to sleep lest “he” get her, and she didn’t want the children sleeping either.

With a smash cut, we learn how she kept them awake: by blasting a bank of televisions and radios at them at full volume, clutching them to her and screaming about a ghost, as a tearful Malcolm shouts at her to stop.

'Them: The Scare' Season 2 premiere recap: "Are You Scared?" (4)

Compositionally it’s a stunningly disturbing tableau, like a Charlie White photograph; as a sudden, unexpected image of severe mental illness in a parental figure and its effect on children, it’s up there with the classic Adult Swim Infomercial Unedited Footage of a Bear, which is about the highest praise I can pay it. Did “he” make her do this? Is “he” the person this poor kid overhears snapping Bernice’s bones after the cacophony inexplicably stops and they all wake up in the dark hours later? Is “he” the voice Reeve later hears on her crime-scene recording, growling “ARE YOU SCARED?” through waves of distortion?

Running parallel to all this is what may best be described, up to a point anyway, as the Ballad of Edmund Gaines. Edmund (Luke James) is a nerdy actor who can’t seem to catch a break. When he tries to liven up his day job as a costumed character performer at a Chuck E. Cheese knockoff by hopping off stage and dancing to the stone-classic hip-hop song “It Takes Two,” his manager upbraids him even though the kids obviously love it. When auditioning for an actual role — in fact, for a classic TV cop antagonist, the Stereotypical Black gangb*nger, given the ridiculous and yet period-accurate name Pookie G — he lacks…well, the white casting directors won’t say it, but he’s not the kind of Black they’re looking for. They’re looking for the same proverbial Unidentified Black Males that Tony Soprano would go on to pin all his crimes on, or that Detective McKinney expects to find behind every homicide.

'Them: The Scare' Season 2 premiere recap: "Are You Scared?" (5)

Yet there’s a ray of sunshine in his life, in the form of a friendly receptionist at the casting agency named Rhonda (Tamika Shannon). She’s taken a liking to Edmund and offers to help him find a role better suited to him than the gangster garbage he’s always reading for; in exchange, he offers her and her adorable son free tokens at his job. It’s just that he also parks outside the agency and sits there all day, staring at the door, waiting for her to come out and mumbling incoherently when she does so with a cameraman who was an asshole to him during his flop audition. There’s also the matter of the episode’s cold open, in which an unseen person wearing white gloves torments a man with a bag over his head while surrounded by Chuck E. Cheese-style animatronics. Why, whoever could it be?

With the exception of that smash cut to Bernice Mott’s last night on earth, nothing here reaches out and grabs you by the throat the way Them’s first season immediately did. Which is fine, I think. Horror filmmakers are under no obligation to maintain the exact same emotional register from project to project — look at John Carpenter, Mike Flanagan, Jordan Peele, or Alfred freaking Hitchco*ck, to name just four examples. The need to vary things up is probably even more pressing for television, where even the shortest season is going to clock in way longer than your average horror movie and there can definitely be too much of a good thing. Channel Zero, the scariest horror TV show of the past decade, told four very different stories across its four seasons, using four different directors to give each season a distinct visual signature. Point is, there are a lot of approaches you can take.

I’m not arguing that this isn’t, at times, an upsetting episode of television; the ubiquity of the King footage and that horrific screaming scene ensure that. It just isn’t the emotional abattoir that was Season 1. At least not yet. “Fear is pain arising from the anticipation of evil,” runs the Aristotle quote Little Marvin chose to open the episode. The anticipation is building.

'Them: The Scare' Season 2 premiere recap: "Are You Scared?" (6)

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

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'Them: The Scare' Season 2 premiere recap: "Are You Scared?" (2024)
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