Wednesday night’s installment of “Channel Zero: No-End House” was an episode-length dose of that universal feeling that comes with watching a piece of finely tuned horror: the tiny voice inside (or outside) that screams, “No! Don’t do it!” As with all on-screen tales of terror, the Syfy anthology series has mined plenty of moments like this in its second season, themed around the all-encompassing psychological consequences of an insidious haunted house. But while “The Damage” was a relative breather in the scope of what’s come before it, “No-End House” as a whole remains an ambitious series that’s building on the innovations of TV’s latest narrative wave.
As two friends who get sucked into the horror of No-End House, a literal end-of-the-road attraction with escalating horrors in each of its six rooms, Margot (Amy Forsyth) and Jules (Aisha Dee) have been fighting memories of their past in more ways than one. As they question the nature of their reality inside this mental prison, the series follows in a line of 2017 offerings that have pushed TV conventions while exploring that same question — “Legion” turned David’s questioning a superpower, “Twin Peaks” ratcheted up the inexplicable nature of its predecessor, and “Mr. Robot” is back to its old dissociative tricks.
“No-End House” has become an effective distillation of the strengths of so many of those shows, driving its story forward through an immersion into its central characters. The plot is as simple as the main impulses of the house’s victims: Use what you know to stay alive. At various points throughout the journey through the house’s ever-expanding world, Margot has put into words many of the revelations the members of this group have faced. But like Margot first seeing her deceased father standing in a kitchen and smiling, this show thrives on people realizing that what they’re seeing shouldn’t exist, even if they don’t know why. As TV crests on its biggest “show, don’t tell” year yet, “No-End House” is reinforcing that within a rich horror tradition.
To be sure, “Channel Zero: No-End House” is still informed by genre tropes: as characters waking up in a full bathtub or quizzically staring down the end of a shadowy hallway, flickering lights revealing trails of mysterious liquid that look even more sinister in low lighting. The opening of the season is even eerily reminiscent of the film “It Follows,” with a rotating camera slowly unveiling the terrors of an assuming suburban neighborhood.
Only instead of walking through a rote series of jump scares, “No-End House” has built its scares on a more gradual psychological fracture. Part of that comes with the disorienting timeline, locked in a non-reality realm where traditional concepts of time aren’t nearly as important as escaping humanlike predators.
Some of these characters aren’t so fortunate enough to evade capture. When that happens, “No-End House” builds its meticulous moments of violence with inventive ways to dispatch each successive person. They’re designed to be shocking not only in the weapon of choice and the resulting spurts of blood, but in how quickly a moment of relative serenity can turn destructive. As soon as Margot, Jules, and their cohorts walk through the entrance, the show is a spring, coiled and ready to be let loose at a moment’s notice.
“No-End House” is driven by that atmosphere. There are occasional philosophical musings about what this house *all means.* (One character’s clunky observation: “What do you dream about when you’re trapped inside a dream?”) But the show also takes advantage of a new kind of audience that’s willing to reject the plot-heavy, spoon-fed nature of most TV mysteries and give these hours over to something of a twisted luxury. There’s a monologue worth of horrors alone in one sight of what the malicious forces in this world have for dinner.
Even as this world is populated by beings that feast on abstractions, the mystical parts of “No-End House” are still tethered to tangible things in the real world. At one point earlier in the season, when blood pools on the floor, it does so in the shape of an actual vein. When the night sky turns hazy and shimmering, it only looks particularly out of place because it changes too quickly. Some of these figures may be whispers, but when they bleed and a distraught loved one rushes to their side, “No-End House” still manages to dredge up sympathy for nameless figments.
But there’s a confidence in that immersive nature of the story that doesn’t resort to heavy-handed back stories or cheap shortcuts to spooky moments. Instead, “No-End House” lays out a world of suburban terrors with just a few off-kilter clues, directing all of the folks trapped inside to a possible way out. All of this is wrapped up in a characteristically wonderful performance from John Carroll Lynch as The Father, whose ability to suddenly turn from warm, loving father to shivering instrument of terror is a foundation that few other shows have the fortune to build on.
It’s through that character that the show also finds family, its other major guiding principle. Whether through the ghosts of Margot’s past or the friendships renewed through a metaphysical journey through psychosexual horrors, this show details a universal desire for connection. As Wednesday’s episode ends, it shows what some of these characters are willing to risk for a sense of clarity and what others might sacrifice to bring them back.
Near the opening of “No-End House,” as the group enters the front door, the camera reveals a placard that you might see at a gallery, inscribed with the title and medium that a particular piece was created in. If that was the show’s way of getting the audience to consider its head-spinning mind games explicitly as art, it’s a bold statement for an equally bold series. With the season finale still on the horizon, it’s done plenty so far to back it up.
“Channel Zero: No-End House” airs Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. ET on Syfy.