Tabula Rasa is a (maybe) haunted house story told in slow motion. It’s also a pretzel-shaped mystery, domestic drama, noir crime story, and mind-fuck thriller.
It’s a lot of things, is the point, all of them good, but also all of them slightly frustrating. In the age of peak TV where showrunners regularly unload every narrative trick they can think of as fast as possible just to keep us hooked, it’s somewhat startling to come across a show which actually takes its time and is probably best digested just an episode or two at a time (there are 9 total). Tabula Rasa, for example, takes four full episodes to lean into horror, but even then there are cop stories to be satisfied, a mystery to be solved, and possible marital infidelity to uncover as well as the looming question of whether the horror is real or just in the lead character’s mind.
There’s definitely one strand too many in there – I haven’t even mentioned the pyromaniac ally/enemy yet – but if you have the patience Tabula Rasa is worth your time due to its twisty narrative, spooky imagery, and a truly stellar star turn from Veerle Baetens, who also co-created the series (and does indeed look like a Belgian Hilary Swank).
A brief explanation: A 2017 Belgian show (in Flemish, with English subtitles) just added to Netflix last week, Tabula Rasa can be easily, if somewhat inaccurately described as coming about as the result of someone asking, “What would Memento look like as a haunted house story, minus the backwards narrative gimmick?” The central character, Annemi D’Haze, Mie for short (Baetens), was once a famous performer, but now she has retrograde amnesia caused by a car crash. She retains all of her long-term memories prior to the crash but struggles to keep any of the short-term memories she’s made since then. Every day is obviously a challenge, both for her and for her husband Benoit and young daughter Romy.
When we first meet Mie in the pilot, she’s been admitted to a mental hospital and is the sole suspect in a missing persons case. An unnamed eyewitness says she was the last individual seen with the person alive. She doesn’t remember that, obviously. She doesn’t even remember the person, a local junker named Thomas de Geest. Heck, she has to be reminded every day why she’s even in the hospital or that she’s a suspect in any kind of crime.
The series is then in told in two different time periods: the months before the disappearance (a time when Mie and her family moved into her dead grandfather’s home in the country) and the present day at the hospital (where Mie is regularly grilled by an oddly determined detective and befriends a fellow patient who happens to be pyromaniac). Over time, she starts to remember more, but only in small increments and always in linear fashion, with her neurologist later explaining her brain is just naturally working from the start to the present.
It’s a perfectly fine twist on the increasingly common murder mystery/missing persons-centric TV show, and it ensures we uncover the mystery at the same rate Mie does. But there’s also this built-in explanation that since Mie’s amnesia stems from trauma it can also be triggered again by high levels of stress. So, if the detective presses her too hard and overloads her with too much new information she might snap and forgot where she is and why her family isn’t there, which is exactly what happens at one point in the pilot. Elsewhere, though, the stress forces her into seeing bizarre, waking dream imagery, such as recurring visions of a very particular red sand emanating from the walls or even, in one effective sequence, spewing out of someone’s mouth.
It’s enough to unnerve you and cause you to question if there might be something more to this show than just a simple missing persons case.
I never would have watched Tabula Rasa if I didn’t think there was more to it. I came to it based on the following recommendation from Margaret Lyons in the New York Times’ “Watching” newsletter:
“The show has an intense ominousness and a real spooky streak, as well as an impressive — disquieting — visual style. It is sometimes downright frightening, but not in a slasher-gore way, more in a poisoned poem sort of way: arms that shatter like porcelain, a nightmarish magician, an ever-present doll and a startling red sand that seems to appear out of nowhere.”
Sure enough, as the episodes progress the flashbacks to the time before the disappearance gradually turns into the story of Mie becoming convinced the family’s new home is haunted. Romy behaves like she might be possessed. Mie starts seeing people who might not actually be there. A Ouija board portends ominous things. A Zelda Rubinstein-esque medium comes out and floats her own glass eye around a table at one point.
Benoit thinks it’s all in Mie’s imagination or that some unscrupulous people are taking advantage of her, but we see enough to know that if not explicitly supernatural there’s at least something strange happening in the house and the surrounding small town. Also, we know something Mie doesn’t, which is that Benoit is hiding something from her.
The triumph, though, is even as the series pushes into possible horror one of the most haunting things that happens is simply when Mie plays hide and seek with Romy and then forgets her. This gives us a nice jump scare when Mie opens the kitchen pantry door to get things to make dinner for the evening only to find Romy crying on the floor, but that jump turns heartbreaking fast when Romy yells out, “You forgot about me. I’m never playing with you again! I hate you!”
There’s nothing more horrific in that instance than being a mother who forgot her own daughter, and even as the series expands its horizons in terms of genre this central drama is never too far from the center.
In another scene, for example, Mie suffers every mother’s nightmare in thinking her child has been kidnapped by some mysterious figure outside her bedroom window only to discover she’d simply forgotten that Romy was sleeping at a friend’s house. The look of horror on her face at that moment along with the mixed reaction of frustration and understanding from her husband, awakened in the middle of the night by his hysterical wife says it all. If she’d forgotten where her daughter was can she even trust her own eyes in having seen the strange person outside her daughter’s window?
That, ultimately, is when Tabula Rasa is at its best. The nightmarish imagery promises more than it delivers, and the narrative heads in some regrettable soap opera directions. But the inherent challenge of being a wife and mother who can’t always trust her own memories and all the symbolic red sand on the periphery makes for a compelling character study performed quite beautifully by Veerle Baetens.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Be patient with it and devote more of your attention to the characters than the mystery or nightmare imagery. It is a psychological thriller that twists and turns and bleeds into several different genres, but at the center of it is a moving depiction of a woman (and her family) trying to cope with life after a brain injury.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHT
- So, apparently in Flemish they sing “Happy Birthday” in English and call hide and seek “Punch and Judy” (unless Mie meant simply that they watched the Punch and Judy show). Good to know.