Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House
Season 1, Episode 2: “Open Casket”
Directed & Written
by Mike Flanagan
* For a recap & review of the premiere, “Steven Sees a Ghost” – click here
* For a recap & review of the next episode, “Touch” – click here
Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) wakes up whispering “Nelly‘s in the Red Room” to herself, as her partner Kevin (Anthony Ruivivar) wonders why she’s up. We cut back to her talking to the little boy at the funeral home who saw his grandma despite the fact she’s dead. The kid doesn’t want to see her in her “open castle” for the funeral. Shirley does well by rationalising the things he saw, probably from having to do that over the years for Nell (Victoria Pedretti). She goes on telling the kid about the process of preparing a body for viewing. She says grandma will look “just like she‘s supposed to.”
Back in the day, young Shirley (Lulu Wilson) watched her mother Olivia (Carla Gugino) drawing architectural plans for their “forever house” they’ll build and move into once they’re done flipping real estate. Mom related a home to a body— its walls are “like bones,” the pipes “are veins,” and so on. What exactly happens then when a house – a.k.a the body – gets ill? Hugh (Henry Thomas) was busy asking Mr. Dudley (Robert Longstreet) more about the house, particularly the red door upstairs we saw in the 1st episode, the one that refuses to be unlocked.
Shirley wandered out to the graveyard in the woods, where all the old Hill family were buried long ago. Nearby is a shed, where Shirley heard the sounds of newborn kittens. She also stumbled onto a huge wasp nest, looking like a face hidden in the dark. Mr. Dudley breaks it down and they find the nest was built around an old Halloween mask.
In present day, Shirley’s boy is pissed off about his Halloween mask. He wanted to be Daredevil, and she bought him a blank mask he could decorate. The past is ever present in Shirley’s life, down to the forever house model she keeps in her office. She and Kevin have a relatively normal life compared to some of the Crain siblings, yet she’s never far from being haunted herself. Things for the Crain-Harris family aren’t as perfect as they seemed. Shirley finds her husband’s chequebook, discovering a separate bank account she never knew existed.
Jump back six years. Shirley and Steven (Michael Juisman) were trying to take care of their brother Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen(. They were looking to put him in rehab. They found out it was incredibly expensive without insurance. Nevertheless, she was determined to help him, and put herself in a bad financial place to pay for Luke’s stay in a facility. Sadly, we know this wasn’t his last stint in rehab. How does an addict escape the past when their past is full of ghosts?
Further back in the past, the kids were hearing dogs Mr. Dudley swore didn’t live on the property anywhere. Shirley got blamed by her sister for banging on the walls, though she swore it wasn’t her. They both heard the noises together, like someone was pounding on the wall. Dad blames it on “hot water pipes” – similar to the explanation(s) for the Enfield Poltergeist, which was the basis for The Conjuring 2 – before his face turns into a drooping mask.
Shirley wakes from a nightmare. She receives a call from Steven to tell her Nell died. She doesn’t believe it at first, until her brother explains she killed herself. He tries telling Shirley about seeing her in his apartment, but can’t bring himself to speak those words. The mystery brings up the family’s tragic past and she’s angry with their father Hugh (Timothy Hutton): “He can‘t just not tell us what happened.” It’s like their mother’s death all over again.
As a girl, Shirley had to deal with one of her kittens dying under her care. Mom and dad helped her give the animal a funeral. Dad told her about giving “a eulogy,” and this was like the beginning of her interest in the industry of death, leading her to an eventual career as a funeral director. Her mother said when people die we “turn into stories.” Young Shirley gives a sweet speech about the kitty. Then she thought it was still alive, its mouth began moving, only to reveal a bug crawling from its throat.
In the aftermath of Nell’s death, Shirley wants to host her funeral, which both Theo (Katie Siegel) and Kevin think is a bad idea. She won’t take no for an answer, neither is she overly concerned about her father being there for the service. On top of that, Luke’s already fled rehab, so nobody even knows where he is anymore after he saw Steven briefly. Kevin keeps trying to tell Shirley she shouldn’t work on her sister’s corpse, but she refuses to let a stranger do the cosmetics. Eventually it’s only her and the body of her sister, alone in the funeral home morgue.
Shirley thinks back to years ago, when Nell wanted to help feed the kittens. The two young sisters found the rest of them dead, aside from one, whose eyes opened to reveal only the whites. Her parents took the cat from her, worried the animals were too sick for her to take care of herself. In reality, Hugh had to put the cat down. From her own parents having to teach her about death, which they actually lied to her about, Shirley’s having to do deal with her children and death in the present, as they’re both curious about what happened to Aunt Nell. She chooses to be as honest as she’s able.
More of the past. We get a glimpse of Nell’s wedding— she was getting married to Arthur (Jordane Christie). Shirley was doing her makeup, paralleled with the current scenes of her doing post-death makeup on her sister, as well. A juxtaposition of two entirely opposed moments. Moreover, we see Luke tried to be there, but he was stopped by Shirley, who didn’t want him there strung out and looking terrible. She gave him money before cutting him off for good, and she lied to the family, so they all thought he missed the wedding.
In the present, Shirley thinks she sees a bug crawl from Nell’s mouth like the cat from her childhood, not fully realising the hold that house still has on them all. At her mom’s funeral, Shirley was helped by the funeral director to go look at Olivia. This was another catalyst for her eventual career as an adult. And the memory of her mother is a ghost haunting her at every turn. Before closing up the morgue, she sees Olivia, holding the box with the dead cat. But it’s just a daydream, right?
This series is killer already in its first two episodes. Flanagan’s writing and directing together is magical. He weaves the past and present together as good as any other writer, taking us between the two Crain timelines with ease, and he draws out such impressive themes, great performances, and plenty of eerie imagery.
“Touch” is next.