Spoilers are ahead. There is a lot going on in the first episode of The Nevers on HBO. The series clips along at a relaxing pace despite the fight scenes and steampunk aesthetic, but there is a lot of new lore to learn and nary a film nor a comic book to turn to for guidance. If you tuned in to the pilot and have questions, you're not alone. Here's what you need to know about The Nevers, why they're actually called "the touched," and what the heck we saw at the end of that first episode.
The Nevers is about a group of people (mostly women, and a few men who whether oppression or are seen as misfits) living in Victorian London who gained supernatural abilities three years before the events of the series. They call themselves the "touched" and their powers manifest in many different ways. Some can see the future. Some are ten feet tall. Some communicate or see the world in supernatural ways too. The Nevers is not shy about being X-Men and Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets, like, Harlots. The protagonist of the series, Amalia True (Laura Donnelly), makes it a point to say that the touched do not consider themselves "afflicted."
The fact that the supernatural characters in this show are called "touched," which is an old-fashioned synonym for "crazy," might raise your eyebrows and unsettle your stomach when you consider the historical significance of women being called crazy... and then realize that that's probably the point. This brings us to Joss Whedon.
Confusingly, The Nevers describes the touched, but the touched are not called "The Nevers" in the show. Huh. And at San Diego Comic-Con in 2018, Whedon described the title of the series like so:
"It’s a phrase that’s meant to evoke a sort of reaction to their oddity, to what is considered unnatural. The idea that you should never be like this, you should never have existed. Something is not the way it should be, and you don’t have the right to have whatever weird power or ability or that you have. And that idea, that some people are not of the natural order, is fascinating to me. I don't agree with it. But to me, it’s one of those things where you take something negative, and you wear it as a badge of honour, basically. Certain things could never happen — they’re happening. And the people they’re happening to are taking their place in the world."
The way he describes the touched as, to paraphrase the above, "unexpected people with power... well, of course, I wouldn't call them unexpected... but other people would..." gets ickier and ickier the more you think about it. We get it. Girls and other underrepresented groups aren't supposed to be superheroes or have power and we should just be so thankful that The Nevers dared to defy convention. Ha.
Whedon, whose self-proclaimed feminism and penchant for a certain type of Strong Female Character that he himself defined, has come under fire in recent years after allegations of mistreatment of actors and a collective cultural unpacking of the veiled sexism behind his favourite tropes and characters. While the creator left The Nevers midway through season 1 and the reigns were handed over to a new showrunner, Philippa Goslett, his signature style is impossible to ignore in the pivotal first handful of episodes and the central conceit of the series.
With that in mind, and with our eyes towards a more hopeful future now that Whedon is no longer involved going forward, let's dig into the actual story. The show is, after all, enjoyable and compelling enough on its own. It sets up some major mysteries for the season, including the origin of "the touched" themselves.
At the end of the first episode, a flashback to the event that "touched" these mostly women and some men, shows how they got supernatural abilities. It wasn't a chemical spill, serum, radioactive bug, or even lightning storm... but it is wild. A glowing ship flies over London and rains sparkly pastel droplets on hundreds of unsuspecting citizens. The droplets seem to have a mind of their own, choosing who to land on and who to avoid. So what the heck was that ship? Why did it decide that London fog needed a dash of supernatural abilities? Here are some potential explanations.
The ship could be carrying aliens.
Anyone who has seen Firefly (at least once they're done grumbling about how their problematic fave was canceled too soon) can tell you that the ship seen at the end of The Nevers looks kinda sorta vaguely like the spaceship Serenity. It's just... more bird-like. Maybe even fish-like. An extraterrestrial solution definitely is one of the first possibilities that come to mind.
The ship could be full of time travelers.
The ship could, additionally, belong to some fancy folk from the future granting powers to fulfill some kind of larger purpose. Steampunk fiction — a subgenre of science fiction that imagines an alternate world in which modern inventions were developed in the 19th century and run on steam or coal — often dallies with both time travellers and parallel universes. The ship does not appear to have passengers and looks like it is piloting itself... just like the car we see in the first episode, invented by one of the touched. Maybe that's a clue!
The ship could be something religious.
There are a few references to organized religion in The Nevers, which opens up the possibility that some kind of God or demon rained down upon the streets of London. Fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer know that religious imagery and philosophical discussions are another of Whedon's favourite things. The way he described The Nevers as a concept has a strong "meek shall inherit the Earth" vibe to it as well.
Whatever the answer is, it's as mysterious to the audience as it is to the characters. Which, in a way, is a small comfort. We're all just along for the ride, wherever The Nevers takes us in the weeks to come.