Anyone comparing Teen Wolf’s second season to Buffy either isn’t paying attention to the dark gem Jeff Davis’s show has become or doesn’t understand what Joss Whedon’s show used to be. Think instead of this reboot of the silly Michael J. Fox '80s film as fully on par with Ronald Moore’s remake of Glen A. Larson’s way-'70s Battlestar Galactica. It’s that good. And now, it's that grim.
Gone are even the small gestures toward even nominal teen melodrama normality season one made, mostly courtesy a sound-weave that was already more Lynch than CW, more Cocteau-dream-time-floaty than let’s-sell-some-alterna-pop catchy.
From the credits onwards, the second season announces a visual sensibility that suggests Lars von Trier pace Melancholia in a suburb called Beacon Hills, where McMansions literally sit next to rotting poverty homes. Where there is never anyone on the streets, or any place of business open but the ER, the police department, and a 24-hour veterinarian’s office (Teen Wolf may be grim but it's not without humor.)
The last time I wrote about the show, I mentioned an across-the-board ache, a sense that everyone of parenting age had failed, leaving a generation of children trying to reassure the adults that everything would be okay.
That ache has metastasized into distance, malevolence and violence. The show’s teen werewolf, Scott McCall (Tyler Posey), now keeps a certain distance from Mom since a telepathic bond with her revealed her endless well of erotic loneliness.
Scott’s best friend Stiles (Dylan O’Brien) has a father (Linden Ashby) so humiliated by his drunken confession of broken marriage anguish that he can barely face his son anymore.
And Scott’s beloved, Allison (Crystal Reed), has learned that the worst thing in the world isn’t her morally compromised father (JR Bourne), but her morally psychotic grandfather, played with scene-eating intensity by <i>Battlestar’s</i>Michael Hogan, this season’s very bad, big bad, wolf.
All of this is mirrored in the visual poetry of Teen Wolf, most often conveyed in pairs of shots that tersely convey discrete information, the cinematic version of haiku. Cinematographer Jonathan Hall—best known for The Walking Dead—somehow conveys darkness even in his day-lit school hallway scenes.
Oh. Right. Werewolves. Or as I like to say, “weres”, because it’s shorter and makes things sound as un-lame as the show Davis—best known as creator of Criminal Minds—has gifted us with.
Davis still uses his moneymaker moon howlers, but mainly as bearers of metaphor. But since I want you to fall for this show, I’ll run some Wolf basics by you before getting lost in those thickets.
When we first met Scott McCall, he was a golly, gee-whiz teen lacrosse player in love with the lovely Allison. Scott’s pal Styles was a knockabout, but not a pop-culture-spouting one.
Then Scott got clawed in the night and became a were, which, downside, meant turning halfway into a wolf, but upside, meant super-enhanced strength, night vision, speed, healing abilities, and so on. Sure, there was the whole thing with murdering people and eating their flesh, but a little forethought and some chains and locks could take care of that.
Unfortunately, Scott quickly gained the attention of longtime were Derek Hale (Tyler Lee Hoechlin). Like the zombies hanging around the mall they loved when they were alive in Dawn of the Dead, Derek can’t stop himself from hanging at his burned down, old American dream house.
Last season, Allison not only learned of her family’s avocation—hunting down and killing weres—but saw her sadistic, morally insane aunt killed by the sadistic, morally insane ‘Alpha’—a sort of ultimate werewolf who may or may not lead the pack of weres.
Also, everyone knows that Scott’s a were when his attempts to gain some privacy with Allison at last year’s winter formal only lead to Chris, the werewolf hunter, accidentally finding him while in wolf form.
This season finds the Argent family closing ranks and forcing Allison to break up with Scott. (Of course, the two work out a complex system of signals and signs for meeting up in secret.)
Then Hell comes to town in the form of cruel, killing-‘em-old-school Gerard, who loves the sound of a young homeless were’s screams, cut off when he cuts him in two with a special sword.
Gerard believes in killing all weres, shows zero tolerance of Others, and has a pungent Tea Party vibe to him that, in an election year, one assumes, must be intended.
Then Allison finds out that she must train to take her aunt’s place and become a were killer. As Valentines to nuclear families go, this one isn’t winning anyone’s favor.
The alternative isn’t kittens and roses either. Derek is trying to create an alternative family based on the pain of others, to repel the Argent menace.
There’s Boyd (Friday Night Lights’s Sinqua Walls), a black kid bussed to Beacon Hills, where he’s forced to do menial work, who chooses Derek’s bite to gain power over a core-rotten school system. And Isaac (Daniel Sharman), a white kid whose abuse at his father’s hands reverberates horribly in a post-Penn State context. And an unnamed student (played by the awesomely-named Gage Golightly) ruined by uncontrollable, humiliating seizures is more than happy to give up a known awful life for a life living like Derek looks.
For whatever reason, because the show works under the disguise of genre, because everyone isn’t putting every word uttered under a critical electron microscope, because the show is free to use metaphor freely, Teen Wolf is free to delve deep into topics whose existence a show like Girls might deny.
And were the show not called Teen Wolf, its to-be-continueds would surely be the stuff of virtual water cooler conversations. Breaking Bad, now there’s some word play for adults. But Teen Wolf, seriously? Next you’ll be saying Battlestar Galactica, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer or . . . Oh.
Take the battle for the soul of Jackson Whittemore (Colton Haynes). Everything that’s remarkable about Jackson—his steely good looks, his bottomless checking account, his classic Porsche—only remind him how much he didn’t earn them. And so what good there is in him is eclipsed by a need to act out his self-loathing. Worse, Jackson is aware of this extra dynamic, which makes him truly tragic. We never hate him.
And now he wants Derek to turn him into a were as well. To give him a power that comes from his body, not his Chase Titanium card. If something gay happens, well, whatever.
In direct opposition to Whedon’s wonderful alternative families, the Buffy, Firefly or Avengers crews, Teen Wolf is a dire warning against socialization, especially for Scott: if he enjoys Allison, his mom may be getting killed by Gerard. If he’s with his mom, how can he protect Stiles and Allison?
This is horror for times of terrifying scarcity. It’s why Allison hangs on to Scott and vice versa, and it doesn’t feel clingy or retrograde, and it's why Stiles will save even Derek when a new monster comes to town. In lean times where the family is verklempt due to ideology, bad breaks or character flaws, they’re all they’ve got.
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