Reviews

Penny Dreadful: 'And Hell Itself My Only Foe' Review

After last week it was pretty obvious that the Greenwich Place crew just wasn’t going to function well without Vanessa and Ethan, so it makes sense that this season’s penultimate episode, And Hell Itself My Only Foe, would open with them and what it would take to get the duo back to London. 

Somehow that jackass, Warren Roper is clever enough to not only figure out where they went off to but to sneak up on a hellbride and a werewolf, while both of them are sleeping and dispatch their weapons all the while cozied inside a house with enough juju in it to keep out the Devil’s head bitch? Well, okay. We’ll go with that.

Two episodes ago, we saw Vanessa hexcraft a man into being eaten by a his own pack of hunting hounds, but for all her supernatural abilities, we now learn that knives work just as well once she dispatches Roper by repeatedly stabbing him. It’s a scene that feels anticlimactic with all the build up surrounding the man’s hounding of Ethan and threats to drag him back to America. It almost feels a little too deus ex machina with regards to that particular storyline, but to be honest, it was really my only complaint with this episode because the rest of it gets underway pretty quickly once Vanessa and Ethan bury Roper. 

There’s a brief exchange between them as they acknowledge their shared roles in the man’s murder and Vanessa harks us back to last week’s themes by demanding to know “What are you?” But before she gets an answer, Victor rolls up in a carriage to let them know the current fate of Murray. As a side note, there’s something both pathetic and adorable about Victor in a carriage since I imagine he would be too afraid of horses to actually ride one despite that probably being more practical out in the Moors than something heavy with wheels.

Murray is still being interrogated by the neglected corpses of his family, the wife he married out of obligation and the children who pale in comparison to last week’s should-have-seen-it-coming revelation that Vanessa is his byblow daughter.

This interaction also helps to set us up for one of the primary ideas for this episode, the often conflicted and antagonistic relationship that parents have with their children. This continues as we shift from Murray to Evelyn and her Icarian daughter Hecate. As the former cautions the latter, Hecate throws out more insults to Evelyn’s advanced age with, “The dinosaur should know when the mammal is hunting”. Catty as hell but par for the course as the show continues to examine the complicated tensions between parents and their children. We see it over and over again with not only the literal parents such as Evelyn and Murray, but also in Victor’s massively messed up situation with his creations.

Frankenstein, Vanessa and Ethan finally arrive back in London only to be ambushed by Rusk outside Greenwich Place claiming some crap about a spike in burglaries in the area. This leads to an interesting conversation between the American and the inspector as Rusk describes phantom pain syndrome and applies its meaning to the events at the townhouse. “Something is going on here that is not quite real, but completely true.” This assertion fits with the mystical battles everyone has been engaged in this season since they all tend towards playing out in a form of supernatural Cold War between the witches and Ives’s contingent. Rusk continues to try and Mulder his way through what is obviously some weird ass stuff and clearly fancies himself as a skilled and nuanced hunter. But as much as I feel for the guy who is just doing his job, it kind of comes back to that old adage that if you have to say it, it isn’t true.

However, I’ll give him one thing, he’s tenacious as hell and that stubbornness pays off when he drops the bomb of Chandler’s true identity, Ethan Lawrence Talbot. There’s power in a person’s name and you can immediately see how Rusk is comfortable using that as a weapon against Ethan, stripping him of the armor the rouse of Chandler has previously afforded him. Ethan’s only real response to this is to remind him that a cornered animal is the most dangerous.

We also finally get to see Lyle cave and confess to his betrayal of the group to their enemies and his status as an infiltrator which brings us to another theme that’s continued throughout the run of the series, but especially in this episode, “No one here is above guilt.” Vanessa assures Lyle of this, but it really speaks to a bigger sense of what has been going on in this show. No one here is really a good guy. They’re all monsters in one shape or another. Whether created in a lab, adapted out of necessity or they assumed that role, there are no clean hands in any of this.

But there are ways to wash those same hands, and Vanessa sees saving Murray from the witches as exactly that, and becomes furious when the group resists launching an immediate rescue mission, but the war has changed and with it, so should their tactics,  Sembene notes that “This is not a battle of firearms. It is a battle of faith”, bringing us back to the concept of a phantom war and Vanessa, for all her religious piety and powers, she is their literal nuke.

Of note, this marks the first time that anyone other than Murray dared to really gainsay her as Lyle, Chandler and Sembene all tell her what an idiotic move taking on the coven at night, on their home turf would be. Naturally, she doesn’t listen, because Vanessa. 

But before that, we return to the wax horror house where John Clare and his employer Putney find themselves in a discussion over the recent success of the new crime scene gore-fests that the wax show displays. As always with Clare, this leads to a broader philosophical consideration of what the public wants and the nature of evil. “True evil is, above all things, seductive” and much like the Devil himself, comes draped in desire. “When the devil knocks at your door, he doesn’t have cloven feet, he is beautiful.” When Putney queries what do you do then, John’s response is that you “Save your soul…or you give into her.” It’s pretty clear John is struggling with the emotional fallout of the temptation Lily represents and her request that he kill their shared creator, but when challenged with the reality that you’ll be damned should you give in, his only response was to comment, “But you’re not alone.” It’s becoming more and more easy for me to see John Clare as the most tragic of this show’s characters. He had absolutely no agency in his own creation and he is acutely aware that he is an abomination that should not exist.

In the typical poet’s turn, Putney mentions wanting to create a Pandora’s Box diorama but inspiration had failed him with regards of what to put in the box, John immediately said “A mirror.” I mean, come on. As much of a dick as he is, sometimes you want to just give the guy a hug.

Moving on, Lily and Dorian seem like a recipe for a beautiful disaster. Apathetic to a fault, but both absolutely seductive and charming, it would be easy to apply the analogy of Lucifer to either of them. Both of them are curious about the other, circling around each other’s esoteric origins. Neither should exist, but whereas John mourns this fact, Lily and Dorian embrace just how messed up their lives are and play at finding enjoyment in it.

Again, we get to see the use of a true name as a weapon when Dorian calls Lily by Brona for the first time since her reincarnation. But, unlike Ethan, the revelation is taken in stride and we see her acknowledge that taking on a new persona is as easy as using a new set of syllables. 

I’m absolutely loving this new storyline between these two, they’re both so wonderfully messed up and both so uncaring about circumstance, it’ll be really interesting to see what kind of hell they end up unleashing by the end of things. Lily really is forming into this sinister kind of predator and it’s sort of amazing. She’s probably also the first one to really snatch control away from Dorian since the advent of his painting absolved him of consequence and the metaphor of the Devil is no more clearer as when we see the temptation without price the two of them offer one another.

Meanwhile, Victor is still cuddled up to his narcotics addition hammering home just what corrupt people we are witnessing. Every single one of them has an obsession to deal with, while with Victor it’s a literal addiction, there is also Vanessa’s addiction to god, Murray’s addiction to Vanessa, and the reminder that temptation always becomes the destroyer. Though she recognizes this point, it doesn’t stop Vanessa from offering succor to her people and she’s slowly been adopting this priestly persona of confession with each of those in her circle, offering absolution where she can, “You (Victor) are a beautiful monster and there are those who could love you and shall.” Sometimes you feel bad for Victor, but then sometimes you remember he stole the corpse of his friend’s lover and turned her into a zombie sex toy so his other zombie would leave him alone. 

One thing I’ve been waiting for all season was some back story on Sembene. Prior to this episode we’ve known that he joined Malcolm Murray’s employ somewhere in Africa and was with him during the campaign that claimed the life of his son, Peter Murray. Other than that, we really just knew that he gives a mean side eye and has a talent for baking cakes. Sunday, we got more in the knowledge that not only was he a part of the Murray expeditions, but he was a former slave trader and the markings on his face weren’t a cultural status, but instead identified him as a man that was both feared and hated by his own people. Admitting to this fact, he encourages Ethan that “I have found kindness among the unkind. And so have you.” which is the most straightforward any of them have been about the fact they’re all basically a bunch of a-holes. Cool powers, yes, but total a-holes.

Continuing with the theme of devils and temptations, Hecate makes an appearance within the house in Ethan’s bedroom, despite the charms and wards that have been in place, proving just how weak and untried the group’s defenses really are. She appeals to him that everyone has ambition and falls into the classical Greek sin of hubris, reaching too far, too high and being too god damned arrogant, but not before she uses another name reveal to bludgeon her point home, naming Ethan the Wolf of God. Hoping her speech about superiority and power are enough, she recedes into the mirror, leaving Ethan to gawk at himself, which is not only a neat visual trick, but also a clever piece of literary echo that brings us back the conversation between John Clare and his employer regarding Pandora’s Box and its contents. All of this is well and good, except for the fact that while all of this is transpiring, Vanessa is pulling a Vanessa and running headfirst into the trap Evelyn put together.

Speaking of John Clare and the goings-on at the wax house, we get to see more of his awkward and stunted interactions with Lavinia, the blind sculptor daughter of Clare’s employer. Now, I have to admit, while I understand that not only is Mary Shelley the grandmother of science fiction and also the originator of this particular trope which can be found in the original Frankenstein novel, I hate it. The idea that only a blind person could love someone who is disfigured is as sad as it is overused. We see it so often, in movies like Mask, in books like Red Dragon and in comics like Fantastic Four. I was letting myself get distracted by how much dislike I have for the “blind and the beast” trope that I almost missed that Lavinia was totally scamming John Clare into checking out the new dungeon with her and eventually tricked him into a cage and locking him in, revealing the purpose of the new exhibit is to be a zoo for freaks of nature. Total bitch move.

With all the grandstanding and posturing both factions have participated in since the beginning of the season, it was nice to see the set up for next week’s season finale with Vanessa willingly walking into the storm to rescue Malcolm. Even without her merry band of misfits to help her out.

Of course, they aren’t far behind her and arrive on scene looking all the world like the intro to a dirty joke, “Two fops, a badass and a former slave trader walk into a mansion and…” But seriously, bringing Lyle and Frankenstein to a battle? Is Lyle planning on pomading someone’s hair to death? Is Victor going to lecture at them about Linnaean naming protocol? All of that is moot because the first thing that happens is Sembene and Ethan immediately fall into a booby trap, and with the full moon upon them and Ethan’s lycanthropy to contend with, being trapped in a small tight space is not where you want to be. Victor follows suit and gets trapped himself, only with him, he manages to find their initial goal of securing Murray, who is still violently hallucinating his carrion filled family reunion.

This room proves to be some sort of Lemarchand’s Box except, instead of Cenobites, it’s stocked with the parental sins of its occupants and Victor isn’t any more immune than Malcolm is. Confronted with the good doctor’s two biggest affronts and, surprise! Proteus is back to help his siblings haunt their father. I really loved the character of Proteus in the first season, and while I understand that his destruction served as a very dramatic introduction for John Clare, you can’t really help but wonder if he would have continued to develop into the sweet and earnest character he began as or if he would have matched Lily and John in their tortured and ruinous paths.

Faced with the impending transformation and inability to prevent the creature’s savagery, Ethan attempts suicide in the small room but is prevented by Sembene, reminding him of the role he plays in all of this and insisting that these circumstances are designed by god himself. This scene made me wonder at something that’s previously been hinted at through this series’ run, the question of whether or not we are the pawns of destiny or the crafters of our own fates. The old Calvinistic argument for predestination as well as Hobbes’ assertions regarding un-manipulated free will were something that were revived in the 19th Century as the rapid advancement of science and the distancing of the Church became more expanded, and both of these factors heavily influenced both Shelley and Wilde. Its inclusion in this series really impresses me with how much research the creators must perform when working on the world-building and storytelling.

This all brings us into the final moments of the episode as Vanessa enters the incredibly creepy doll room, presumably to meet her new master, but instead comes face to face with the doll that was crafted in her image. But we aren’t there long since as soon as the doll comes to life and names Vanessa a murderer, we are taken back to the small trap holding Ethan and Sembene. Ethan finally loses control over the beast inside himself and the episode ends with what could safely be assumed to be his friend’s death, though, as with Roper, a clean kill isn’t always assured with a werewolf.

A lot happened this episode and much of it was geared towards priming us for the season finale, but now that we aren’t just teasing out the back histories of the players involved we’re really getting into the action, I’m getting super anxious to see how this turns out. Season three has already been confirmed and I can only hope that we’re going to see even more of Lily and Dorian as they start into what looks to be some straight up Salò craziness. 

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