“New Year, New You” dabbles with toxic femininity and festering insecurities with an emotional, dark story set against New Year’s Eve.
“Happy fucking New Year!”
New Year’s Eve is a time of self-reflection, looking towards the future, and hopefully starting off the new year with the best foot forward. It’s a time that’s meant to be optimistic and encouraging. These aren’t topics that are typically conducive to the horror genre, but Into the Dark‘s “New Year, New You” finds a dark way to weaponize them.
“New Year, New You” marks Into the Dark’s first female director, Sophia Takal, but the episode also features an entirely female cast, too. “New Year, New You” makes this gender slant part of the episode’s discussion as it tackles themes like society’s focus on superficial traits, the loss of identity, and the growing power that social media has in its ability to effect our equilibriums. The subject matter and absence of males in this episode aren’t accidents and Sophia Takal’s “New Year, New You” wants to say something important about the female experience. Not only does Takal get her point across, but she also turns out what feels like the most fully realized, mature installment of Into the Dark, yet.
This entry of Into the Dark looks at a group of millennial friends who reunite to hang out and reminisce on New Year’s Eve. However, once they begin to dig into their grudges and reopen old wounds courtesy of an innocuous game of “Never Have I Ever,” they begin to notice that their beef with each other may be manifesting in very real and very dangerous ways. Here’s the thing, this is the first episode of Into the Dark that actually has a disposable cast! Every other episode has either been a two-hander (with “The Body” being a slight exception), but this episode’s larger cast allows the installment to embrace its inner slasher film. This episode feels a lot like a more introspective, dark version of I Know What You Did Last Summer, and it’s exceptionally strong debut work from Sophia Takal.
Much of “New Year, New You” centers around Danielle Williams (Carly Chaikin). Danielle is a crystal-wearing social media influencer who peddles wellness cocktails and other products and Takal explores the phoniness of her image and persona in clever ways. She bombards Danielle’s videos with impatient pop-ups where hashtags and clip art invade what she says. It perfectly highlights what this character represents and Takal uses metonymic devices like that to shed light on all of these characters.
Alexis (Suki Waterhouse), on the other hand, is pretty much the opposite of Danielle, or at least wants to believe that she is. At one point Danielle catches herself in a mirror and can’t help but pose, whereas mirrors are a source of anxiety for Alexis. She leads an unglamorous life that’s been full of loss and perseverance rather than the cushy road that Danielle has found herself on. She makes for the more compelling protagonist and it makes for a better story to see Alexis unable to avoid Danielle’s social media presence and get inundated with alerts about how much everyone loves her. Alexis becomes even more insecure about her faults when she’s back in Danielle’s orbit. Kayla and Chloe, the other friends in this reunion, have similar feelings about their successful friend.
The chemistry between this group is wonderful, all of these actors click, and their dialogue feels incredibly realistic (right down to the fact that Elon Musk would hook up with one of them). They actually feel like friends, which is pretty fundamental to this story. Just simple moments of gossip and girl talk between these friends manage to be exciting due to how well they sell it. It’s such a natural atmosphere through this episode, so when the dread sets in and things start to go wrong, it’s especially chaotic.
Danielle is slowly able to win over her former friends, but Alexis remains distant and the animosity between the two of them is another major strength of this story. Alexis does not want to let Danielle into her life and as this story continues, the drastic nature of these feelings becomes increasingly apparent. Takal depicts Alexis’ instability through various editing tricks and camera fades that help the audience get inside her fragile state.
“New Year, New You” also plays with the audience’s perception of Danielle and just when it seems like she maybe isn’t so bad she’ll do something that’s incredibly artificial. It’s hard to peg down exactly what she thinks about all of this and it shows surprising depth to what looks like a shallow caricature. Suki Waterhouse gives a layered performance as Alexis, but Carly Chaikin really shines as the delusional Danielle (who’s kind of just an exaggerated version of her character from Suburgatory).
“New Year, New You” pushes forward a message of female empowerment, but it also looks at what happens when this idea gets perverted and the dangers of false female empowerment. Or what happens when the wrong female is the one that inspires others. It’s the perfect subtext for a story of this nature and although all of these friends enable and encourage each other, it’s not always for the best. The episode even viciously uses female beauty products as a means of torture to truly tap into the idea of toxic femininity.
“New Year, New You’s” script, which is written by Sophia Takal and Adam Gaines, is incredibly effective and efficient. It avoids exposition whenever possible and creates a strong mystery for the audience. It becomes clear that certain characters are conspiring against others, and that people are keeping major secrets about their past, but it allows the audience to dwell on these questions and generates suspense, rather than outright explain what’s going on. In a similar sense, the episode’s swooping cinematography stops and lingers on certain items in the home as a clever way to tip you off to the fact that they’ll be important later on, almost in a Hitchcockian manner. Every decision that “New Year, New You” makes respects the audience’s intelligence. It lets its story organically blossom over time and the episode’s bigger revelations hit with a greater impact as a result.
The episode is also sure to touch on many New Year’s Eve cultural touchstones like New Year’s resolutions, going over your accomplishments of the year, and the countdown at midnight. It’s nice to see how much “New Year, New You” plays into the New Year’s Eve angle rather than it being an incidental detail in the story, like how Thanksgiving was handled in “Flesh & Blood.” There’s also not enough horror that uses New Year’s Eve as its landscape, so Takal’s “New Year, New You” sets a strong standard here.
“New Year, New You” takes its time to build to the true horror and get to the meat of its story, but there are still enough creepy moments through the first act to maintain interest. Once things really get going, they don’t slow down and hold back and it’s all the better because of the incredible character work that’s gone down in the beginning. The turn in this episode really works and the way in which it reframes its characters in terms of who’s good and bad is brilliant. After the incredibly emotional first half of “New Year, New You,” it only makes sense that the monsters in this story are humans at their worst and not something supernatural. The ending injects the story with a tense cat and mouse dynamic that helps power it through until its finish.
Into the Dark has also struggled to make its 80+ minute installments actually justify their runtime, but “New Year, New You” doesn’t struggle at all in this department. There’s more than enough material to last this story and at no point does it feel like the episode is padded for content. The structure and presentation of “New Year, New You” also feel the most like a feature film out of all of the Into the Dark episodes. This isn’t just an overly long episode that acts like a movie.
“New Year, New You” is a complex character study that explores the insecurities of all of these women, the dangers of manipulation through encouragement, and measuring yourself up to other people’s success. It’s a chilling story that only gets darker and more complex as it goes on. It also doesn’t shy away from an incredibly bleak ending that makes her point with eerie poignancy. Takal doesn’t try to overextend herself and this boiled down take on friendship and jealousy gone wrong is arguably the best addition of Into the Dark to date and hopefully just the start of Takal’s filmmaking career. With episodes like this and last month’s “Pooka!” delivering impressive, psychological pieces of horror, hopefully Into the Dark can carry this momentum and turn out another winner with Valentine’s Day.
‘Into the Dark’s’ “New Year, New You” premieres on Hulu on December 28th.