It isn't until several minutes into The Haunting of Hill House's sixth episode of its first season, "Two Storms," that you realize something special is going on. It begins with mortician and eldest Crain child, Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser), putting the final touches on her dead sister, Nell (Victoria Pedretti), in her casket, while middle child, Theodora (Kate Siegel), speaks to Shirley over her shoulder.
It's a simple two-shot, with the focus on Shirley working on her sister in the foreground and Theo anxiously drinking brown liquor in the background. At least, it seems simple. But on reflection, it's the first step in a meticulous dance that creator and director Mike Flanagan choreographed, a routine so complex and full of moving parts that one minor error would send it all crashing down.
As the camera flows with the actors in spins and semi-circles, more and more characters pile into the funeral home while the sounds of a relentless downpour and thunder bubble under the dialogue. Kevin, Shirley's husband, walks in. Brothers Steven (Michiel Huisman) and Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) enter from outside. And with all that's going on, the camera still manages to catch important character moments. Shirley pleading to no one in particular that her troubled drug-addict younger brother Luke not screw anything up, and Steven momentarily losing his breath as he spies his dead baby sister in the coffin while Luke is hypnotized by the sight of her. Luke stares past the camera at his sister while Shirley and Steven talk behind him, Kevin approaches Luke asking if he needs anything, and Theo saunters across the frame in the background on another trip to the bar. There's a lot going on and a lot to keep track of, but something seems different about it from a normal scene.
It's about now than you realize holy sh--, there hasn't been a single cut yet. This has all been one long, uninterrupted shot. And it continues, and continues, and continues. The 51-minute "Two Storms" takes place between two locations, Shirley's funeral home in the present and Hill House in the past, and is mostly composed of five long shots, the longest of which is a dazzling 17 minutes. Some of these lengthy scenes even blend together, like when Crain patriarch Hugh (Timothy Hutton) walks from the funeral parlor into Hill House and the past and sees his younger self (Henry Thomas) in a flashback. There are also flashback elements within scenes, like when Hugh enters the funeral home and sees his kids together for the first time in a long time, only he sees them as their younger selves and child actors have replaced the adult ones, again, without a cut. And there are GHOSTS that linger on the fringes of carefully framed shots, all while a storm rattles the shades and blows out windows.
It's a stage play on a closed set, it's risky performance art that pays off, it's experimental television pushing boundaries (and budgets). Whatever it is, it's a staggering achievement that shows the power of being locked into a mesmerizing moment, thanks to an insane level of preparation and a little luck.
The Haunting of Hill House isn't the first show to use the uninterrupted shot, which became fashionable on the small screen after True Detective's memorable chaos of Rust Cohle hoofing through a gang war. Mr. Robot took the long shot to the next level in Season 3's "Runtime Error," patching several long takes together with edits that craftily blend together to create an entire episode that appeared to have no cuts.
But "Two Storms" never hides behind sleight-of-camera trickery; there are no still shots of closed elevator doors or holds on stationary objects as safeties in case an actor flubs a line or misses a mark. There's a vulnerable nakedness to the episode in its use of the uninterrupted shot that underscores what the episode is really about. While the first five episodes were each focused on a different character, "Two Storms" is about the family as a whole and is the first episode to bring all the dysfunctional Crains, including dead Nell and her ghostly spirit, together in the same room at a time when they're the most damaged. Freeing the show of cuts and edits allows the nervous awkwardness and social terror of the situation to overwhelm the viewer. There is nowhere and no time to hide. It's out there, for all to see, in all of its uncut ugliness.