Netflix’s Chambers is essentially a teen horror drama that skirts around notions of identity, race, and grief. It centers on Sasha Yazzie (Sivan Alyra Rose) who in the series’ opening moments suffers a freak, near-fatal heart attack at the age of 17. After receiving a life-saving heart transplant, Sasha begins to experience visions and takes on new personality traits ascribed to the young woman whose untimely death gave her a second lease on life. Sasha soon begins to investigate the life of her donor, Becky Lefevre (Lillya Scarlett Reid), an act that’s made entirely too easy after she’s invited into the affluent lifestyle of Becky’s family. That family, Ben (Tony Goldwyn), Nancy (Uma Thurman), and Elliott (Nicholas Galitzine), and their radically different class and social standing in the small Arizona town of Crystal Valley, becomes one of the series’ many potentially engaging but ultimately underdeveloped concepts.
A lack of clarity on what the central mystery actually is — contenders include Becky’s backstory, the circumstances of her death, the weird, cult-like atmosphere surrounding her parents, and what it means for Sasha to take on more of her donor’s personality — muddles the series from the outset, leaving the viewer with only a vague idea of what’s going on and what, ultimately, is at stake. The series is partly a ghost story and partly a possession drama, one that plays openly with notions of race and class and the divisions that emerge along those lines. Sasha lives with her uncle Frank (Marcus Lavoi), the proprietor of a fish store, in close proximity to a Diné reservation where Sasha’s semi-estranged grandfather still lives. In that same town exists the moneyed friends and acquaintances of the Lefevre family, including Lilly Taylor (The Nun) and Matthew Rauch (Banshee).
The obvious dissimilarities between Sasha and the Lefevres drive much of the early tension in the series, as Becky’s parents begin to take a greater interest in Sasha’s well-being and her future. They go so far as to offer her a scholarship in their daughter’s name, one that sends her to a predominantly white, well-to-do, seemingly progressive high school, and later, by gifting Sasha Becky’s old Prius, much to the chagrin of their son, Elliott. On the surface, Ben and Nancy’s altruism appears to be born of their grief over having lost a child and desire to see her live on in an oblique way through another young woman. But it’s not long before their supposed selflessness begins to take on more sinister implications, ones that begin to threaten Sasha’s identity and eventually her soul.
The series plays with the latter elements in frustrating fashion, often appearing indecisive over whether or not the mystery of Becky’s death is intended to offer insight or open the door to more terror. At first, Sasha begins to relive moments of Becky’s past, seeing, feeling, and fully experiencing parts of her life, up to and including the moments right before her death. The visions are only part of the package, however, as Sasha gradually begins to see changes in her personality and even her physical body, with her naturally dark hair turning blonde and even her skin whitening as the threat of possession becomes more evident.
Even as the series foregrounds ideas of racial and cultural erasure and forced assimilation, it struggles to turn them into the compelling, propulsive narrative they deserve. It comes down to intent versus execution, and although the intent of Chambers allows it to deliver a subversive take on horror and its many tropes, the manner in which those ideas are carried out — or laid out for the audience — often feels (oddly) of two minds, the seeming uncertainty of which ultimately proves unable to give the story the energy it needs to sustain itself through 10 (almost) hour-long episodes.
The series attempts to balance the terrifying subsumption of Sasha’s identity with the palpable grief of Becky’s family. In doing so, it briefly flirts with humanizing an ostensible Great Other that is more or less the boogyman of this story. But, like everything else in Chambers, the road to discovering who the Lefevres are and what they want is long and ponderous. And that’s saying nothing of how labored Becky’s possession of Sasha proves to be. Instead, Chambers seems uncertain how best to utilize the presence of Thurman and Goldwyn and too often settles on repetitive scenes in which their unguarded emotions result in various interactions with Sasha, Frank, or even the privileged Elliott becoming overwhelmingly awkward.
Although it offers a thought-provoking ideas, a socially relevant premise, and a clear desire to subvert horror tropes, the series’ execution fails to match the ambition of its conceit. Filled with dialogue that is often stilted and dull, and plagued by a meandering pace that frustrates in its refusal to commit to the concept, Chambers settles for intriguing when it could have been outstanding.
Chambers will stream exclusively on Netflix beginning Friday, April 26.