After the emotional catharsis of last week’s episode, everyone’s relaxed and having a good time at Deerfest. Trina’s posing for goofy photos with her parents, Jacob’s cheering on Beau as he rides a mechanical bull, and Mayor Izzy’s in her element, ordering people around. Even Giorgio is in good form. He’s cooking up the world’s largest pot of spaghetti (which for some wonderful reason is being stirred up with hockey sticks), but takes a break to give some genuine encouragement to Trina’s friend Savannah, and be charming with her mom (Cass’ friend Nat), who’s clearly smitten with him.
But while the rest of the town is celebrating, all’s not well at the general store. At the end of last week’s episode, Mr. Johnson, disillusioned with his lack of talent not matching up with his “Magician” Morpho card, tries to break the machine open with a sword, and gets electrocuted. Luckily the doctor who Jaocb met with early in the season is on hand, but she can’t do much beyond a few minutes of CPR and a call to the paramedics, who wheel Johnson out of his shop. The damage has been done, not just him, but to Morpho, which sputters and goes dark.
And all’s not well at Deerfest either. After hearing about Cass and Dusty’s courtship, and realizing that all of the adults on this show went to high school together and their essential dynamics never changed, Trina says she couldn’t imagine spending her whole life with someone she was dating in high school. Which is entirely reasonable, but the guy she’s dating in high school doesn’t see it that way. She asks him, “is something pointless just because it ends one day?” Which is a mature view of teenage relationships, but Jacob leaves the question unanswered.
Speaking of fraught relationships, part one also ended with Father Reuben visiting Hana at the bar, and confessing he doesn’t want to be a priest any more, before kissing her. The priesthood saved his life when he was in a dark place after the death of his wife. But he’s ready to move on. He tells her Dusty’s theory about Morpho, that the card isn’t a prediction, it’s an “arrow”, pushing your life in a new direction. But all this weighty philosophical talk is a bit too much for Hana. She’s a loner who lives in a sparse room under the bar and doesn’t really have anyone, whereas even at his lowest, Reuben had family and friends and was supported by his father-in-law. Except he had never mentioned his father-in-law. Hana knows far more about Reuben’s life than she should.
But it turns out, Hana knows about Reuben’s rock bottom because she was there. She was the bartender who threw him out on the worst night of his life, just before he found a card that said “Priest.” He notes that she’s been in two towns where Morpho was present, and the show’s been hinting that Hana has some connection to the machine. But maybe she just moves around a lot, and her refusal to get close to people make her seem more mysterious than she really is. As she tells Reuben, “stop looking for signs.”
So many people on this show are desperate for some kind of connection, but the people who do have connections are constantly questioning them. When someone makes a snide remark about the money Cass raised at her gala (money her mother falsely accused her of embezzling). Cass doesn’t take it lying down. She lays out the ridiculousness of her mother’s accusations — that she had a master plan to betray everyone she knows in a close-knit small town for a few thousand dollars, and that it necessitated Morpho showing up. She drags her mother away to take her to task, but instead of dressing Izzy down, she just hugs her. Over Izzy’s protestations, Cass says “you’ve hurt me too many times,” but she keeps hugging, and then walks away. Nothing she’s going to say to Izzy is going to make her less toxic and self-absorbed; walking away is the only thing she can do.
But even Izzy gets a moment of decency this week. She gets a call from the hospital — Mr. Johnson’s alive, but he’s had a heart attack, and he has the mayor listed as his emergency contact because he doesn’t have anyone else. She might be awful to her daughter, but she has enough compassion to rush to his side.
And when the storm finally comes, it’s not a metaphor for all of the show’s relationships to come to a head. Everyone’s in a pretty good place. But the storm causes a town-wide blackout, and sends everyone home from Deerfest. And it sends everyone walking past Johnson’s shop, and the only thing in the town that still has power — Morpho. The machine has powered back up, and the only potential it gives us is for the mystery to deepen in season two, as the machine displays six words:
“Are you ready for the next stage?”
• Dusty is apparently short for Duster, which of course is a traditional Irish first name.
• When the ferris wheel gets stuck during the blackout, someone offers the use of their bucket truck, and Giorgio snaps, “I don’t think a truck full of buckets is going to help!”
• And that’s it for season one. Usually when a show is based on a novel, there’s an open question as to how the series is going to progress when it runs out of book. But that’s less of an issue here, as the series changes a lot, down to nearly every character’s name and several key relationships. Beau, called Hank in the book, is mayor; Trina is the priest’s niece, not Dusty and Cass’ daughter, and her relationship with Jacob is less sweet than it is here. Even Morpho is called DNAMIX, and it’s more explicit that it discovers people’s potential by analyzing their DNA, whereas its methods here are completely mysterious. Without having read more than a summary of the book, it seems like the changes are for the better, both in letting the show stand apart from its source material, and in terms of bringing the characters a bit closer together. While The Big Door Prize isn’t on the level of high-concept gems like Severance or Station Eleven, it’s a warm, funny, likable show that asks some deep questions without providing easy answers. We’re ready for the next stage, although the writers’ strike mean we don’t know when that’s going to arrive.