Episode 8, Witness Marks, doesn’t quite have the emotional punch of Two Storms. Yet what it may lack in emotionality, the episode more than makes up for it with some huge story moments. In fact, Witness Marks may have the most ‘a-ha’ moments so far in the series. And watch out – the best jump scare is tucked away in this episode.
Steven Goes to the Clinic
No cold open for Witness Marks. It’s straight away to the opening credits, and then we join Steven and Leigh in a fertility clinic. It’s a low-key moment, but it lays some foundation for explaining the couple’s estrangement. There’s also some further hints that Steven has seen more ghosts then he’d like to admit. For a brief second or two, Steven sees a shadowy figure staring at him through a frosted glass window.
Steven Gives Olivia a Gift
After the storm damage, Hugh has hired as many helpers as finances will allow to speed up Hill House renovations. Steven wants to help with the basement cleanup, but Hugh isn’t anxious to have his help after the fan mishap. When Hugh asks him to watch his younger siblings, Steven sulks his way up the stairs. Pay close attention to all the helpers including an odd looking man fixing an antique clock. Just remember the man in the overalls. On his way down the hall, Steven finds his mother staring into twins’ empty bedroom and mumbling to herself.
While he’s playing in the game room, Steven notices an old vanity tucked away in the corner. He takes it to Mrs. Dudley and asks for paint. In another subtle exchange, Mrs. Dudley looks a little perplexed at the mention of a ‘games room’ in Hill House. But she quickly moves on and surmises that the vanity belonged to ‘Poppy Hill’. According to Mrs. Dudley, Poppy Hill met her future husband, William Hill, in a mental asylum. Both Poppy and William were quite mad.
Later in the episode, Steven paints the vanity in the ‘game room’. In what may be another subtly placed hint, Steven notices dark markings along the vanity’s underside. When he presents his gift to Olivia, all initially seems well. Then Olivia stares into the vanity mirror and starts screaming before she finally smashes it with her fist.
Hugh and Steven Take a Roadtrip
Back in the Harris Family Funeral Home, Shirley tries to figure out where. Luke has gone. The always-supportive Steven assumes that Luke has gone to his old ‘haunts’ to score some drugs. When Steven decides to drive around town looking for Luke, Hugh insists on tagging along. Not surprisingly, it’s the world’s most awkward roadtrip.
Hugh tries connecting with Steven about his marital woes, which goes about as well as expected. But for once, Hugh is able to find something to say to his children. In one of the series’ more subtle but emotionally resonant moments, Hugh talks to his eldest son about his marriage and life with Olivia. ‘She was the kite, and I was the line’, Hugh tells Steven. He even throws Steven a bit of curveball by admitting that they too once separated, though only briefly.
It’s a touching scene, and not just because it’s finally a ‘father and son’ moment. Hill House finally adds some emotional subtext to Hugh and Olivia’s relationship that’s been missing in the show. Sadly, the ‘father and son’ bonding is short lived. Steven throws it back into Hugh’s face, reminding him that Aunt Janet raised the Crain children. He also reminds Hugh abut how Olivia died alone. In a disturbing exchange, Steven recites the list of injuries his mother sustained, which included a crushed skull. Just what exactly happened to Olivia in the ‘red room’?
Steven Continues to be Impossible
As the search for Luke continues, Witness Marks drops a few huge plot points. First, Hill House confirms what most viewers have probably long suspected. Steven, believing mental illness runs in the family, had a vasectomy long before he even met Leigh. Yes, their visit to the fertility clinic was a fraud. It’s why Steven’s marriage has failed. He is afraid that his children would inherit his family’s ‘curse’. Steven also believes that even he is afflicted, chalking up his ghost sightings to the early onset of hallucinations. In what may also be the best line of dialogue in the show to date, Steven refers to Theo as “basically a clenched fist with hair.”
‘Theo is basically a clenched fist with hair.”
Hill House Wants the Crain Family
When Shirley calls after getting a hit on her credit card, Hugh and Steven track Luke’s last location to a gas station. As it turns out, Luke wasn’t trying to score drugs. He filled up five canisters with gasoline before heading off to burn down Hill House. It’s at this point in Witness Marks where Hugh drops some huge truth bombs. Hugh is fully aware of what goes on in Hill House. He’s tried to protect his children from the truth. But now we know why. As Hugh explains, “Our family is like an unfinished meal to that house.” Yes, Hill House has been trying to get the Crain children back inside its walls. It got Nell, and now Luke is walking right back into its halls. In another interesting reveal, Hugh warns that Steven is the last one who should set foot back in Hill House. It’s a comment that suggests that Steven’s phony book may have ‘angered’ whatever resides in the house.
Steven Can See The Marks, But Can’t Read Them
Steven tries to explain away ‘Hill House’ again by chalking everything up to family mental illness. But this time Hugh shoots him down with another massive revelation. He prods Steven about one of his book chapters and a ‘man fixing a clock’. Yes, the man in the overalls I mentioned earlier. Hugh then explains to what ‘witness marks’ refer. Of course, antique clocks don’t come with repair records. You have to look at all the little marks inside the clock left by tools, gears being replaced – they’re ‘witness marks’ telling you that someone fixed the clock. You see, Hugh had the clock looked at by an expert. No one had touched the inside of that antique clock since at least the 1960’s. He never hired a ‘man in overalls.’
Then Hugh drops one more shocker. That treehouse Luke always played in – Hill House doesn’t have a treehouse. Hugh reminds us hat the Crain’s were only supposed to be in Hill House for several week to fix and flip it. When would Hugh have had the time to build a treehouse? In the episode’s second best line, Hugh tells Steven, ‘You see the marks, but you don’t know how to read them.” So does this mean there is no ‘game room’? Mrs. Dudley certainly seemed surprised at the mention of a gamer room. For the first time in Hill House, Steven looks shaken in his beliefs.
Shirley and Theo Still Don’t Get Along
Things are still pretty tense and awkward at the Harris Family Funeral Home. Shirley ushers Kevin out the door to take the kids trick-or-treating. As she cleans up her smashed model home, Shirley notices the same smattering of dark marks that Steven saw years ago on the vanity. But she doesn’t have much time to consider it. She’s plagued by a ghostly game of ‘Nicky Nicky Nine Doors’ with an unseen presence. At one point, Shirley catches another glimpse of the same man in the suit toasting her with a drink. Is he another Hill House entity? Or something else?
Theo eventually shows up to try and explain what happened with Kevin. But Shirley’s not interested and, in one of Hill House’s rare funny moments, we get an awkward exchange that ends with Shirley punching Theo in her ‘boob.’ The tension-easing moment is fleeting, and soon the sisters are surrounded by phantom pounding on the doors and windows.
The Crain Sisters Hit the Road
Though Hugh explicitly told his daughters to stay put, it wouldn’t make for very compelling television. So of course Shirley and Theo head off to Hill House to find Luke. Along the way, Mike Flanagan delivers the single best scare in Hill House to date. It is as terrifying as it is unexpected. Yet in an odd story choice, the scare is followed by Theo completely breaking down and describing to Shirley how it felt when she touched the dead Nell. On the one hand, it’s an emotionally raw moment, and Kate Siegel nails it. Still it’s also an awkwardly timed monologue as one would have to wonder why the sisters aren’t talking about what they just saw in the car.
Luke Goes Home
Witness Marking ends with Luke arriving at Hill House. It’s a beautifully shot scene with the dark silhouette of Hill suddenly lighting up with an ominous dark red. Inside Hill House’s main hall, Luke starts pouring gasoline. To absolutely no one’s surprise, the gasoline won’t ignite. When Luke up to the stairwell, he see his dead mother with her arms outstretched. Too bad he wasn’t looking behind him because Poppy Hill’s ghost is waiting. Witness Markings ends with Poppy grabbing poor Luke.
Some Final Thoughts
Eight episodes into The Haunting of Hill House and I can’t help but think of Lost. There is almost no chance that this Netflix original series can’t answer all of the questions it’s raised. Witness Marks arguably has the most pure story-telling in the entire series. Nevertheless, one can’t help but imagine that there are generations of history in Hill House that can’t be explored. If Mike Flanagan follows the same approach as Lost, Hill House will focus on an emotionally-satisfying conclusion than one that answers each and every question.