Once upon a time, American Horror Story could serve up a truly horrifying finale. Well, Netflix’s new Dutch horror thriller Ares saw the FX anthology’s Rubber Man and decided to raise it a buffet of greater psychological terror. The drama even comes complete with its own latex-like creature. The result is Ares’ mind-shattering, shockingly bloody, wildly deadly season 1 finale, “Episode 8,” and more specifically, its chilling closing sequence.
“Episode 8” is both unapologetically frightening and deeply thoughtful, likely leaving viewers pondering its meaning for hours (if not days). Thankfully, we have answers on Ares’ viscous black shame well, the disturbing transformation of biracial, working-class medical student Rosa Steenwijk (Jade Olieberg), Dutch slave trade history, and how it all comes together.
The trick of Ares, about a fictional Dutch secret society for the ultra-powerful, is that it never fully tells viewers what its central dark mystery is, but still manages to keep them enthralled over eight episodes. We know there is a spooky place where upper-level Ares members “offer” the guilt of their souls, and that a Rubber-Man-but-scarier monster named “Beal” consumes that darkness via an egg vomited up by Ares members. Rosa has repeatedly been haunted by Beal, and has an unforgettably creepy encounter with the creature at her home during “Episode 6.” It is unclear what Beal really wants, or where it comes from. All that is certain is that Jacob Krudop-Six (Tobias Kersloot) is convinced that releasing Beal will eliminate the foundational evil of Ares.
Then, in the last 15 minutes of “Episode 8,” all is revealed and destroyed.
By this point, Rosa has already stabbed best friend Jacob to death, committing the kind of murder necessary to ascend to the coveted position of president of Ares (it is also a great enough sin to lead to the creation of a shame egg). Rosa first goes to the eerie circular balcony where prior presidents have traditionally “offered” their shame egg to Beal from a distance. Rosa nearly follows in those men’s footsteps but asks to go downstairs to see Beal herself. Shady Ares leader Maurits Zwanenburg (Hans Kesting) obliges Rosa and takes her into the depths of the Ares house.
It is here Rosa learns there is no monster living in the basement of Ares at all. Instead, there is a whirling black well, made up of all the black goo “offerings” the leaders of Ares have been feeding it for centuries. This is the same image Rosa’s mentally ill mother Joyce (Janni Goslinga), who fled Ares decades earlier, has been drawing in the hospital following a death by suicide attempt. Jacob came in contact with the goo because the substance seeped into the walls of the Ares catacombs — not because Beal is hiding down there.
“Beal is a story we tell the rest of our members. Something to fear,” Maurits tells Rosa. Ares hasn’t been offering up their shame to Beal. Rather, the group has simply been vomiting their guilt into the well for centuries. It is over 500 years old and its origin is unknown. By using the well to “its full potential,” the members of Ares have been able to commit unspeakable acts, “expel” their culpability, and continue on their treacherous course without a second thought.
“We use this to make decisions others aren’t capable of,” Maurits tells a shocked Rosa. “So we can be the leaders this country needs. And leadership requires sacrifices” The underlying suggestion is that “sacrifice” is a whitewashed euphemism for money-making atrocities to keep a country as small as the Netherlands prosperous.
This theory is confirmed when Rosa refuses to offer up her shame egg and instead throws herself into the well. We are transported into the past and reminded that the Dutch were a large part of the slave trade for about 200 years. As the camera adjusts to the darkness, it becomes clear we now are looking at the bowels of a slave ship circa the 17th century. There are dozens of black men chained in the hull of the ship. Above, there are Dutch deckhands walking about. And at the top of the ship we see the well-dressed ancestors of the current Ares members taking in what is likely the African coast from a captain’s perch. The flag of Ares has just been raised.
The monster Rosa has seen — the monster we’re meant to believe is “Bael” — is the personification of Ares’ multitude of wicked transgressions, starting with Ares’ slave trade industry. Hence the repeated motif of iron chains in all hallucinations of the creature. The well is the receptacle for all of that brutality and whatever Ares crimes followed. That is why presidents like Arnold Borms (Jip van den Dool) and Joost van Moerland (Steef de Bot) were driven to death by suicide after coming in contact with the well residue through Jacob. Not only were they haunted by guilt they had already purged over their own villainy, but infected by centuries of horrific shame.
These reveals bring Ares’ to its explosive closing sequence, where biracial Rosa has become one with the shame substance. She emerges from the well as fearsome a being as we ever believed Beal to be. Just the sight of Rosa drives the members of Ares to madness, since she is now the memory of Ares’ greatest disgraces made gleaming black flesh. Some members of Ares attempt to outrun this reckoning and flee the building. Some die by suicide on the spot. As Rosa walks through an Ares banquet, we see corpses littering the blood-soaked ground. These disturbing visuals are intercut with shots of the Dutch Golden Age paintings that cover the walls.
At the beginning of the series, Ares members like Carmen Zwanenburg (Lisa Smit) point out which people in the pictures are their direct ancestors.
Now, Ares makes the connection between those lauded art pieces, their violent Colonialist, slave-trading reality, the posh descendants still making fortunes through nefarious means, and their gory retribution at the hands of a Black/black woman. The statement hits its zenith when Rosa finds Mauritz in his study. He has cut the outline of the traditional Ares mask around his face, and pulls all of the skin off, creating one of the most disturbing images ever captured on film. This is how Mauritz dies.
Rosa then sits at Mauritz's desk, since she is officially the president of Ares. She only rises to greet her father Wendel (Dennis Rudge), the sole black man in Ares, who has happened upon the nightmarish scene. Father and daughter hug, ending Ares season 1.
Rosa Steenwijk may not have known it, but this was a revenge story all along.
Ares is available on Netflix now