The Haunting of Hill House’s third episode, Touch, is a Theo-centric episode. To date, Theo has probably had the least amount of screen time. Played by Kate Siegel, who previously starred in Mike Flanagan’s Hush, Theo is the child psychologist and Crain family member who seemingly always wears gloves.
So far in The Haunting of Hill House, flashbacks have hinted that Theo is extremely keen. Touch finally tells us just how ‘keen’ as well as finally revealing why Theo always wears gloves. Touch’s opening flashback is a nod to the best moment in The Haunting. In the middle of the night, Theo wakes up when she thinks Nell has crawled into bed with her. Theo complains that Nell is holding her hand too tight, but when she turns to brush her away she finds the bed empty. A terrified Theo asks aloud, ‘Whose hand was I holding”. Cue the opening credits.
In the next flashback, Theo finds little brother Luke playing with a dumbwaiter, and agrees to help him take a ride upstairs. But it’s Hill House so Luke is inadvertently lowered into a previously unknown section of the basement. It’s in the dark and dank cellar where Hill House gives arguably its best scare yet. Poor Luke sees a hideous figure creeping in the shadows that rips out a piece of his pyjamas. Hill House uses a ‘less is more’ approach here. You only catch quick glimpses of gaunt and disfigured entity crawling out from behind a barrel.
Feeling awful for what happened to Luke, Theo investigates and proves that there is indeed a hidden area of the cellar. Not surprisingly, Hugh and Mr. Dudley don’t find any monstrous figure, but they do discover that bootleggers once used the cellar. What Hugh can’t understand is how Theo found it as it wasn’t on any blueprint. Later in the episode, Olivia confides to Theo that she and her grandmother could ‘see’ things when through touch. Olivia then gives Theo a pair of gloves to help protect her from these intrusive feelings and thoughts.
Six Months Prior to the Present
In a final flashback scene, the adult Crain children, sans brother Luke, arguing with Steven about publishing their family story. Though Steven offers his siblings 8% of any royalties, Shirley turns down his offer on behalf of all the siblings. But Theo comes back later to take her cut. Before she leaves, Theo points out that Steven got the ‘dumbwaiter story’ wrong, remaining him that she was the one who discovered the hidden cellar. When Steven asks what she’ll do with the money, Theo proclaims she’s going to get her doctorate.
In the present day timeline, Theo, now a child psychologist has a session with nine-year-old Kelsey. Though Kelsey seems bright and healthy, her foster parents are concerned about some strange behaviours. Kelsey claims she is being haunted by a ‘man’ she calls Mr. Smiley. Yet the young girl is so closed off emotionally that Theo is unable to feel anything when she touches her hand. Perhaps seeing a kindred spirit in Kelsey, Theo tells her “You’re a lot like me.’
Later in the episode, Theo pays a surprise visit to the foster parents’ home. When she lies down on basement couch, Theo is struck by a vision that reveals the secret of ‘Mr. Smiley.’ It turns out that the foster dad is in fact ‘Mr Smiley’ and he is molesting the girl. Kelsey has buried the memories and conjured up Mr. Smiley as a defence mechanism. Theo calls Child and Family Services and, as she expected, foster dad confesses immediately.
Next, in what is arguably the best scene so far in the show, Theo goes to see Nell’s body in the funeral home. She slowly lays her hands on Nell and then screams before breaking down into sobs. Touch doesn’t exploit the situation with any cheap gimmicks or jump scares. The scene is driven entirely by emotion and it’s an absolutely heartbreaking moment. When Theo goes home, she finds a ‘booty call’ she ditched earlier in the show. In another touching moment, the tough and emotionally shut-down Theo opens up to her and finally allows herself to be vulnerable with someone.
Some Final Thoughts
Touch continues Hill House’s delicate balancing act between conventional elements and gripping family drama. Kate Siegel is a fantastic actress and Hill House’s story gives her one of the best character arcs so far in the series. There’s a lot to unpack with Theo’s story. On the exterior, she is seemingly the least traumatized of her siblings. But Touch is about much more than Theo’s psychic abilities. The episode’s title also explores how people bury their emotional scares and close themselves off from the people around them. Theo admires Kelsey’s ability to bury her trauma deep into the unconscious. It’s only by the episode’s end that Theo allows herself to be touched and be truly vulnerable.