Channel Zero season 3, episode 1 recap: Into the woods

CHANNEL ZERO: BUTCHER'S BLOCK -- "Insidious Onset" Episode 201 -- Pictured: Mysterious Staircase -- (Photo by: Syfy)
CHANNEL ZERO: BUTCHER'S BLOCK -- "Insidious Onset" Episode 201 -- Pictured: Mysterious Staircase -- (Photo by: Syfy) /

Channel Zero: Butcher’s Block kicked off with a season premiere that was dense, beautiful and above all, terrifying.

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Channel Zero’s terrific and frightening first season Candle Cove established the series as TV’s best horror show. It’s fantastic and profoundly unsettling second season No-End House confirmed as being one of the best shows on television. Going by the premiere of Butcher’s Block, the program’s third season might be its best yet. For one thing, it’s the show’s most ambitious outing. In addition to examining its core themes of guilt and toxic nostalgia, Butcher’s Block will be tackling urban decay, mental health, and addiction. Thankfully, the series doesn’t seem to have lost its signature rich interiority in broadening its scope.

Butcher’s Block began with family advocate Alice Woods (Olivia Luccardi) explaining to her co-worker Nathan (Aaron Merke) that she and her sister Zoe (Holland Roden) recently moved to a new city in hopes of making a difference and getting a fresh start. The latter half of that sentiment was more about Zoe, who was revealed to be schizophrenic and having a history of substance abuse. In turn, Nathan told Alice a story about a pair of local teens who were killed by something that resembled a little person in woods near Butcher’s Block after encountering a mysterious staircase in the woods.

Although “Insidious Onset” had to introduce a new setting and its history, it did so without sacrificing characterization. At the end of the episode, I had a very clear sense of who Alice and Zoe are and the fraught nature of their relationship. They obviously care deeply for one another but Zoe’s schizophrenia and Alice’s anxiety about it have injected their familial bond with resentment, anger, and frustration. I’m already on board for seeing how if it can endure whatever Butcher’s Block has in store for them.

Syfy, Channel Zero: Butcher's Block
Photo Credit: Channel Zero: Butcher’s Block/SYFY, Acquired via NBC Media Village /

The woods are lovely, dark and deep

On her first day at work, Alice learned why the Butcher’s Block neighborhood was so dilapidated; a meat plant founded by Joseph Peach (Rutger Hauer) once sustained the city but it closed when Joseph mysteriously disappeared. During a visit with a client named Tanya (Nadine Pinette) and her daughter Izzy (Linden Porco), Alice correctly sensed that something was inside the walls. That something being the creature form Nathan’s story. After taking to Izzy, Alice came to believe the creature caused the injury that a necessitated the involvement of social services.

As Alice informed Nathan of what she learned, both Tanya and Izzy suddenly vanished. The police were called but they believed that Tanya fled to keep custody of Izzy. Not convinced, Alice and Zoe later returned to Tanya’s home to look for Izzy. Soon after arriving, Zoe was attacked by a delusional local woman and seemed to experience a schizophrenic break. Alice and Zoe separately pursued what they believed to be Izzy into the woods. Alice had a brief encounter with Joseph while Zoe followed the creature to the staircase and saw a skinless monster.

Butcher’s Block director Arkasha Stevenson did a great job giving this season’s central location a very strong sense of place. It feels like every American urban enclave that never managed to recover from one recession or another. On its surface, you can see the remnants of what was once a thriving bedroom community underneath all the rust and grime. Butcher’s Block also has the feeling of an urban space that is being eaten away by an ominous wooded expanse. And it’s barely hanging on local community only contributes to the feeling that Butcher Block is a city of contemporary ruins.

But I have promises to keep

The next morning, Zoe insisted that they leave the city and return home immediately. Alice protested and Zoe accused her of being afraid of becoming schizophrenic like her and their institutionalized mother. This prompted a fight between the two that ended with Zoe fleeing on her own. Alice learned from her landlady Louise (Kirsha Fairchild) that Butcher’s Block had a long history of unresolved disappearances. Louise also laid out her theory that Joseph and the other Peaches were behind everything. The episode ended with Joseph, who was said to be at least 130 years old, struck up a conversion with Zoe at a local bus stop.

One thing I’ve enjoyed in every season of Channel Zero is that the show never wears its influences on its sleeve. It’s possible to discern elements of Candyman, It Follows and Don’t Look Now in Butcher’s Block, but they don’t overwhelm the work. It never feels like a tribute to the past, but rather something new built on the foundations of what’s come before.

Creator Nick Antosca and his collaborators are telling a story about the ways grief and economic anxiety can as frightening as the supernatural, but it’s not the same kind of story that Bernard Rose, David Robert Mitchell, and Nicolas Roeg told. In a TV and film landscape that is dominated by nostalgic retreads, the series dedication to forging a new path is very refreshing.

And miles to go before I sleep

Another thing about Butcher’s Block that I found to be fascinating is that it feels like a spiritual sequel to No-End House. Both are stories about young people who are trying to build lives for themselves in unhealthy environments. But whereas No-End House dealt with barely out of college kids who were trying to define their identities, Butcher’s Block deals with an older generation. The Woods sister have a greater sense of themselves but are struggling to reconcile their expectations of the world with its reality.

For Zoe, it seems like her journey will involve fully coming to terms with the permanence of her condition. For Alice, it seems like her time on Butcher’s Block will involve her coming to accept the world as it really is, not how she wants it to be. Despite what she read in Mother Jones, Alice learned that Butcher’s Block is not a city on the grow. She also learned that its systemic inequities are less about a lack of educational resources and more the result of entrenched bureaucratic apathy. And as Louise told her early in the hour, her attempts at changing the world will likely result in it changing her.

Next: Channel Zero season 3 news: Here’s everything we know about the Syfy hit’s third season

I suspect by the end of the season, Alice will have a much less optimistic view of the world. Given how horrific and common the process of becoming disillusioned in your late 20s is, it’s a rich thematic notion for a horror series to explore. And given what we’ve seen of Butcher’s Block so far, Alice would be lucky if the city only claims her sense of hopefully naïveté.

Channel Zero: Butcher’s Block airs on Syfy Wednesdays at 10 pm.