TV reviews

Charmed 1×09 – ‘Jingle Hell’ – Review

It’s beginning to look a lot like a mid-season finale…

Christmas has come to Hilltowne, and for us viewers in the U.K., it’s that wonderful tradition of seeing any seasonally-themed shows well after when they’re intended to be shown, meaning we’re getting another festive period at the start of March. You know, Christmas keeps on getting earlier every year.

When we Brits do Christmas episodes, the main thrust tends to be either sending the main characters abroad for a bit of a jolly (as well as seeing them set up as a fish out of water, with ‘hilarious’ consequences); waxing lyrical about how it’ll be the best Christmas Walford’s ever had (which is normally the cue for unrelenting misery which makes the last days of Saigon look like Mary Poppins); or – if you happen to be Doctor Who – shenanigans involving aliens or monsters and mortal peril (all draped against a Christmassy backdrop).

American TV, however, pulls out all the bells and whistles, and throws virtually everything festive you could find at the screen – ridiculously large trees, eggnog, snow, dinners which are large enough to feed a small army, more snow, and lots of touchy-feely family togetherness. With ‘Jingle Hell’, Charmed has ended up with a fusion of all these things – a stiff Brit in various cultural clashes purely for yuks; family caring sharing moments, tinged with emotional trauma and betrayal; all the Christmas trimmings you could shake a (tinsel covered) stick at; and demonic activity coming out the wazoo. And down the chimney, at one point.

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The various plot threads the writers have been carefully laying down, particularly in the last few episodes, start to come to a head here, as Charmed places family and friends in very close quarters at what’s supposedly the most wonderful time of the year, lights the blue touchpaper, and retires to a safe distance in order to see the sparks fly. TV series always attempt to wring every last drop of dramatic tension out of Christmas-based episodes, as there certainly is plenty of opportunity to try and stir things up a little, even in normal circumstances; the fact we’ve got three witches, a Whitelighter, a demon and a mortal in the mix here makes events even more volatile.

At times, things start bordering on farce, with people doing their best to keep their various secrets under wraps from each other, cases of mistaken identity, and a lot of action taking place in one location with a lot of running around between rooms going on in the process. While that may sound derogatory, it’s actually far from the case, as the writers have handled the whole thing remarkably well, and done a reasonable job in trying to balance out the  situational comedy elements with drama and menace, while also managing to drive forward the series’ story arc involving a great evil returning to threaten all life on Earth. All while decked with baubles, to boot.

Demonic killer Hunter Caine (Constantine Rousouli) and half-brother Parker (Nick Hargrove) journey all the way across to a church in Romania to steal the Amulet of the Archangels, a mystical artifact which steals the magical powers of others; their demon father, Alastair (Craig Parker), has plans to use the Amulet and save Parker’s life by turning him into a full demon; the fact that it will also transform Parker into the Source of All Evil is probably a strong motivator for Alastair too. It appears the family that slays together, stays together. I guess other people’s blood is thicker than water.

Being Christmas, it’s the perfect time for a sinister mystical MacGuffin to be dressed up as an innocent present from Parker to his girlfriend – and Charmed One – Maggie (Sarah Jeffery). Demons aren’t a girl’s best friend, apparently. Maggie’s already been established as the heart of the sisterly trifecta, and she likes to see the best in everybody – her empathic abilities have also helped convince her that Parker is on the level, so when Mel (Melonie Diaz) sees Parker affected by the magical protection mark on Galvin (Ser’Darius Blain), there’s an uphill struggle to convince Maggie that she’s wrong, and been suckered in a big way. Well, there’s the family conflict box ticked.

Add to the fact that Maggie’s been eagerly awaiting the arrival there of her and Mel’s  estranged father, Dexter (who walked out on the family the day after Maggie’s fifth birthday), you can see that the writers are going all-in to create an emotional double whammy of disappointment, heartbreak and seasonal misery here for poor, sweet Maggie, when Dexter texts to say he can’t make it along after all, as expected by Mel. Cranking up the uncomfortable energy quite significantly is the fact it’s Maggie and Mel’s first Christmas without their mother, so you just know that no matter how hard they may try to make it perfect, it’s inevitably all bound to unravel in a rather spectacular fashion.

With Macy (Madeleine Mantock) doing her best to try and find out the cause of Galvin’s mark flaring up while Parker was around him, Hunter knocks her out cold and ties her up in a shed, before using his shapeshifting abilities to take on her form in order to avoid arousing suspicion. You just can’t beat a good bit of doppelgängery action, and any fantasy or SF series worth its salt will end up doing one at some point, even if only to give the actors the opportunity to flex their muscles a little, and have a shot at doing something a bit different.

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Mantock certainly excels in drawing a very clear distinction between the real and phony Macy, and it’s reassuring to learn just how much of Macy’s twitchy, nervy tics and energy was a performance rather than an extension of herself, as she manages to easily drop all of this when we see her as Hunter/Macy. When the mask drops, she also has the additional challenge of tying to evoke Rousouli’s turn as Hunter, without trying to be a slavish copy, and there’s enough in evidence here to show that she’s just about managed to pull it off.

Of course, if you have a neat idea like this, why only use it the once? The writers are very much of that same mind, as when Hunter’s duplicity is rumbled he takes on the form of Whitelighter Harry (Rupert Evans), as well as Maggie, just to give the same opportunity to Evans and Jeffery as they’ve afforded to Mantock, by having a bit of fun with being evil for once. Well, it is Christmas, so why not give the regulars a little gift? Thankfully, this doesn’t end up overstaying its welcome, avoiding lots of potential tedium where everyone tries to work out just who’s who – Hunter/Harry quickly ‘outs’ himself by turning up the Britishness to eleven, and it ends up being a dead giveaway.

Mel’s initiation into gothy witch sect the Sisters of Arcana (or ‘S’Arcana’) comes in handy here, as they send crows to protect her – in much the same way as they tried to apparently protect the Charmed Ones’ mother when she was killed. Head of the S’Arcana, Jada (Aleyse Shannon), seems to have far more than a professional interest in Mel, as evidenced by the long, lingering glances between the two of them here, as well as the intimacy of her holding Mel’s wrist under the pretext of checking out the initiation tattoo she had done; this stretches all the way back to Jada’s brief flirtation when she first appeared in ‘Out Of Scythe’, so it looks as though there will be a further blurring of lines for Mel, as she tries to work out where her loyalties lie, and why.

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With a punning title like ‘Jingle Hell’, you might expect there to be some tropes of the horror movie genre in there, and you wouldn’t be at all disappointed – here, we have the returning bad guy to cause more mayhem just as it was thought he’d been banished, as Hunter turns up to take his revenge on the Charmed Ones. Parker – having broken Maggie’s heart by being outed as a (half) demon – rides to the rescue, bringing with him a magical staff which opens the portal to Tartarus, with the intention of banishing Hunter there. I spy ‘redemption arc’ a-brewing for the second half of the season.

Of course, you just can’t expect to have a happy ending when we’re pulling up to the mid-season finale cliffhanger, and boy, do the writers know how to leave you dangling on tenterhooks. It would never be as simple as just sending Hunter away to Tartarus – instead, they raise the stakes somewhat by having him grab Harry’s leg as he’s sucked towards the portal, taking Harry with him before it closes up again, leaving both of them stranded, seemingly without hope of escape (especially as the magical portal staff gets pulled in there too, before it gets sealed again). Way to leave us wanting more. It’s actually hard to believe this is the same programme I was loudly eyerolling at just a few short weeks ago.

Oh, and if everything wasn’t complicated enough already, the whole affair was also seen by Galvin, who’d previously been passed out in one of the bedrooms after one too many glasses of the Vera family’s patented Christmas drinks, the Coquito (apparently, the secret ingredient isn’t a French chicken. Who knew?). The plot (much like the Coquito) thickens, and it remains to see how the Charmed Ones will manage to talk their way out of this one.

Actually, with Jada having Whitelighter powers, Mel will probably just ask her to wipe Galvin’s memory. Or they’ll just get Harry to do it when he (presumably) gets released from Tartarus. So there’s more than one way to get out of it. Except, the writers may be bold and dynamic, and leave Galvin’s memories intact; it would certainly be a brave way of shaking up the status quo permanently, so let’s hope that we’re in for a few more surprises when Charmed returns from its hiatus after a brief spell.

Yule be pleasantly surprised by just what fine fettle Charmed leaves us in with this Christmas episode. Even if there was a bit more of ‘Satan’s Claws’ than ‘Santa Claus’ about it.

I’ll stop now.

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