Here’s the thing with this season of Penny Dreadful- despite all the witches, regardless of the appearance of Lucifer, angry villagers who burn women at the stake or any of the other monsters we’ve come across- the real enemy, the true beasts, have always been the past. The first season built a very tight narrative structured around the quest to save Mina Murray and defeat the vampire lord who took her, but the resolution of that very effort only managed to reveal that in the end we’re all just battling ourselves. This theme is exactly what season two explored, while at a slower pace than the previous arc, it often did so very well. The past becomes us, in all its various and sinister ways. We can either embrace it and find power in it or we can be its victims. Sometimes we are both.
That said, Jesus, those god damned talking dolls are just not okay.
We last left off with Vanessa in the belly of the beast and confronting the disturbing simulacrum of herself, naming her a murderer. Not only has she recently stabbed Ethan’s former victim in defense back at the cut-wife’s cabin, but she also unleashed hell on that jerk lordling in the Moors by using her hexcraft to have him fall prey to his own pack of hunting dogs. Honestly, both idiots deserved it so it’s kind of unfair of Lucifer to be all preachy and finger waving about it, but here we are. Falling back into her old comfort of Christian righteousness, Vanessa refuses to be swayed by the mocking and names him as the fallen angel that’s been quietly working to bring about this whole mess upon the heads of everyone.
“Who is the liar here? You claim to walk with angels, but your every action speaks otherwise.” The fact that this is coming from a replica of her own face is an interesting choice given the clout that mirrors have had over the course of the last several episodes and the idée fixe of “know yourself” gets hammered home once again.
We also learn that whatever forces and manipulations have been working to bring Vanessa to this point also require, at least at some level, her consent. A large part of this scene focuses on trying to attain that allowance by any means necessary. No one knows Scripture better than the devil and while her faith has always been Vanessa’s greatest comfort, it is also Lucifer’s sharpest weapon.
Vanessa isn’t the only one being confronted by the horrors of her sins, locked in the memory room and surrounded by their own personal hells, Victor and Malcolm are still being strung along by the apathetic incompetence of their parenthood. The tragedy of Proteus dominates here, “Like a lamb I was, Victor. How could you let me be hurt?” Which immediately prompts Victor to disavow any ownership of his crimes by pointing out that it was John Clare who killed Proteus, with Clare reasoning “But what am I, but an extension of you? All your sin emptied into me. I am your other half, your truest self.” Again we have the idea of reflection, and as if we had any doubt of this season’s philosophical obsession, we are demanded by the narrative to know ourselves, no matter how ugly the visage.
Both Victor and Malcolm’s families stand testament to the sins visited upon them by their fatherheads and both desperately deny any blame in the fates that befell all those in their orbit, refusing to acknowledge the situations they themselves constructed, “Did you name a mountain for me?”, “Did you enjoy her body as I bled?”, there is no colder hell than one’s own mind.
“Did we ask for this life or was it your pride?” Victor Frankenstein and Malcolm Murray share a fatal flaw, hubris. The fact that they are both trapped in the same room together, tormented by the ruins of families they have destroyed isn’t a coincidence. There is a symmetry within the plights the two men experience and their dual torments expose the grand scale of their choices, of which neither have ever really seen the direct consequences for, instead it’s those they’re supposed to care for that fall victim.
Both cling so tightly to the identities that each has manufactured for themselves, Murray the explorer, intrepid adventurer of Africa and Victor consumed by his reckless status as a scientist in order to sterilize all humanity and responsibility from the terrible things he has played at. As both begin to collapse under the weight of what they’ve done, they’re both contrite, ruing that they would do the past another way given the chance, but “life only leads forward. There is no going back. “
All of this explores two key concepts that stretch to every character in this episode, the first is atonement. How do we correct the depravities of the past? The other is the polarity of the kindness found in lies and the cruelty of the truth. As Victor and Malcolm’ s children push them towards suicide, Vanessa has become locked in her own hell, the temptation of normalcy, as a fantasy plays in her head of herself living an innocent life with Ethan and their children. It’s a vulgar fiction as Vanessa will never be a simple woman and Ethan isn’t even exactly human himself. “There is an old dream in you, a deep longing. To be free of pain, to be loved simply for who you are. Is that not the engine of all human creatures?”
This phrase from Lucifer also marks the second time this episode uses the word “engine” as reference to either motivation or the means to attain desire. It also has a connotation of artifice and intervention, especially with the context that the early 19th century was still reeling from the previous century’s Enlightenment. Western society was struggling with the Judeo-Christian morality it had always participated in and was coming into conflict with the radically evolving understanding of science as the discipline continued to develop and expand. Within a few years Darwin would present his theory on evolution, critically challenging the way humanity saw itself in the scheme of the world. Dinosaurs were already a known factor to the Victorians and Nichol’s nebular hypothesis was entreating our culture to look outside of the immediate and into where we fit in the universe as a whole. Science was effectively making us know ourselves and it’s an uncomfortable process.
Still locked in their mental hells and close to falling into suicide by cajoling corpse children, Victor and Malcolm are being tempted by the truth in their lies, that death would be a great adventure, the final discovery, while Vanessa breaks free of the mental prison pretty fast. “You offer me a normal like. Why do you think I want that anymore? I know what I am.”
Oh, sweet Jesus, finally a good devil magic scene. Screaming at each other in the Verbis Diablo as Vanessa once again taps into the old darkness and her power fully comes into fruition as she goes toe to toe with the fallen prince. She commands Lucifer, “Beloved, know your master.” right before straight up destroying that creeptastic doll, scorpions spilling everywhere. Oh. Crap.
The scene culminates in that god damned brat, Hecate, making herself useful for once and releasing Ethan from his trap. She was probably hoping in his werewolf rage he would go after Vanessa and contain the clearly out of control situation, at least in part, but instead he went directly after dear old mum and rips out Evelyn’s throat. It’s the most action we’ve seen from this show in weeks and, I won’t lie, I was pumping my fist in the air like an idiot when that went down.
This also marks the first time Vanessa is seeing Ethan’s beast and it’s a fairly tender moment we get to witness as she handles what he is with grace. The moment makes you wonder if atonement is necessary in the face of acceptance. But with these two, nothing is ever that easy.
Poor fussy Professor Lyle has been being choked by the same witch for what feels like the span of two episodes now only to pull out a gun and utter a line that would make RuPaul so damned proud, “Never underestimate a queen with lovely hair, my dear,” right before busting a cap in her. Which, it turns out, totally works on them.
With the witches dropping like rocks in a pond, the power of the torture room begins to abate, and in effect losing its grip on Frankenstein and Murray. I find it pretty interesting that the two most egotistical of the group were also the ones that failed to save themselves. In fact, both were on the verge of falling prey to the room’s devices. Even my man, high dandy Ferdinand Lyle was able to get away on his own and these two weren’t.