Four years ago, Netflix did what it does best: It axed an exciting new show with an excellent first season, leaving fans with only the lost promises of what could’ve been and a reminder that the streamer doesn’t actually care about the quality of its original programming. Marianne showrunner Samuel Bodin had plans to turn the series into three seasons, but in 2020, Bodin noted a familiar rationale by Netflix: There weren’t enough viewers to justify a second season. Thankfully, season 1 works perfectly well as a stand-alone story, and Marianne satisfies as both a thrilling and emotionally gratifying work of horror — just now with a cliffhanger ending.
Marianne centers on successful French horror novelist Emma Larsimon (Victoire Du Bois), who decides to end her bestselling series surrounding heroine Lizzie Larck and an evil witch named Marianne. At a book signing, a distraught friend from Emma’s past shows up to tell Emma that her parents are in danger unless she returns to her hometown of Elden and continues to write her Lizzie Larck stories. What’s more, the friend’s mother, Mrs. Daugeron, believes herself to be the witch from Emma’s books. But Emma left unhealed wounds among her old childhood friends, her family, and other residents of the town when she abandoned Elden 15 years ago, and she quickly discovers that her unresolved trauma is intimately intertwined with a demon who’s been haunting her dreams since childhood.
As Emma struggles to settle herself back in a home she never wanted to return to, she slowly unravels what has been plaguing Elden in the years since she left, starting with Mrs. Daugeron — whose face I still have to block from my mind if I get out of bed in the middle of the night. Played unnervingly by actress Mireille Herbstmeyer, Mrs. Daugeron isn’t the only thing making Marianne sumptuously horrifying, but she’s a critical part of it. Her visage is enhanced, but Herbstmeyer has an exceptional face for horror as the possessed Daugeron, who takes to ripping out her teeth, wrapping cursed objects in strips of human flesh, and grinning sadistically. Emma dodges Daugeron’s requests that she write Lizzie Larck back to life, so Daugeron makes good on her promise; after her first day home, Emma’s parents disappear into the night, naked and bloodied with markings carved into their skin.
Marianne is very precise in its use of macabre gore without overdoing it, and ultimately, restraint defines the chilling 10-episode narrative. Bodin, who directed the series and co-wrote alongside Quoc Dang Tran, knows all the right ways to get under your skin, and the prolonged yet exacting nature of the format allows the creators to admirably hold back for as long as they can. They take care to conceal the appearance of the story’s ultimate villain, leaving it and Emma’s background largely up to audience imagination as it’s slowly doled out piece by piece.
But within the arc of each episode, too, the creators understand just how much to show and tell, and exactly when to show and tell it, producing jump scares — of which there are many — that are well earned. It’s a productive combination of tension, atmosphere, and some of the most appallingly unsettling visuals I’ve ever seen, making the show exceptional in how it balances a compelling narrative and rich characters with genre conventions that work from beginning to end. The overt trauma narrative functions so well because, more than the fact that it is written to be tied directly to the horror story, the creators simply never forget that neither should overshadow the other.
Marianne’s conclusion sets up a clear subsequent chapter, but it’s not altogether deflating. Enough loose ends are knotted elsewhere in the narrative that the incompleteness of Emma’s own arc is gratifying (and quite ghastly) in its open-endedness, even if the series’ short life was undeserved. In the end, Marianne is a gripping story that’s a constant pleasure to watch as it slowly untangles itself, centered on a prickly, selfish, habitually unlikable woman who is never unsympathetic — in fact, her self-destructive antiheroism is invigorating. Working in sync, Emma’s story and the story of her parasite, Marianne, are never overwrought or overstuffed, and the emotional beats are genuinely as affecting as the sight of Mrs. Daugeron’s bug eyes gleaming with bloodthirst while she stands perfectly nestled in a dark hole in the earth. At the time, viewers who watched the horror series had tweeted how the show made them “scared for [their] life,” and, admittedly, I can say I’m still one of them. With Halloween just around the corner, it’s the perfect thing to throw on if you’re looking to be scared. Personally, I recommend keeping all the lights on.