Penny Dreadful is the kind of ridiculous show that makes you happy you paid attention during 12th grade British lit. It absolutely worships the Victorian obsession with the macabre and Faustian. Drawing directly from the gothic classics, the series remains loaded with allegory and melodrama that remain true to that era and while iconic characters such as Dorian Gray and Victor Frankenstein make their appearance, the main plot revolves around the supernatural troubles of possibly possessed, possibly crazy, probably the bride of Satan, Vanessa Ives, played by a feral faced Eva Green.
The show is digging into it’s second season and was recently renewed for a third, securing us for at least an additional nine episodes of lush and tawdry vampires, witches and caliban.
I’ve been obsessed with this show since I got a chance to sit down with the first season and have loved every overwrought episode as it expands the lore of each of its characters. That is until last week. I’ll be honest, there was just something massively unbalanced about it and I think the culprit in that one was the awkward chemistry between Green’s Vanessa and Josh Hartnett’s Ethan Chandler. Or, rather, Ethan’s chemistry with everyone. There’s something in the way Hartnett delivers the brash American that just seems so against the grain compared to the rest of the nuanced cast. Since last week’s episode was essentially nothing but Vanessa and Ethan, there were no other opportunities interesting enough to distract from how flat some of the interactions can be and Green can only be expected to carry each scene so far by herself.
It probably would have been a stronger episode if Vanessa had fled London for the Moors by herself and hung out in the old cut-wife’s cottage without Chandler chastising her for being a total badass. I’d probably be willing to just watch a show that was nothing but Vanessa being all bug-eyed and talking in tongues and drawing scorpion graffiti all over the place in her blood. Homegirl does a great possession scene.
With all of that, I went into Sunday’s episode with apprehension that one of my new favorites was already chewing itself into a corner by separating the group from its hero. What I got instead was an episode that delivered a lot more than expected without the focus being on the principle concerns of Vanessa and did an impressive job of exploring the concepts of knowing who and what exactly you are and the consequences of being a human as well as the awareness that our deaths are impending by simple merit of being alive and the fickle nature of youth’s transience.
The episode opens with amnesic lich Lily, née Brona, curled up and considering the corpse of the man she killed the previous night in bed. Her flippant remark of “Well, you’ll never grow up now.” sets us up for the first clues that she might be remembering her life before Frankenstein got ahold of her, and interestingly, rather than dwell on the uneasy reality of what she is (a rather chatty and mobile corpse) she begins to see the power in it, something she never had in her first life and it’s pretty telling that the kill token she snatches from the house of cards on her victim’s table is later revealed to be a queen of hearts. Lily fast becomes aware of the power she has over the men in her orbit and begins to craft guile into her weapon of choice.
Next we shift to conflicted double agent and Hunger Games character, Lyle, as he and top witch, Evelyn, compare their own paeans to youth, the former accepting its passing remembering a bathhouse encounter, “All around me were handsome men who had the thrill of genuine youth…” The dig is clearly meant as a raised brow to Evelyn’s Faustian agreement with Lucifer to keep her from aging and her terror of growing old in exchange for delivering Vanessa Ives to him. In response she kisses him and tells him he “…tastes like a fat little man.” For someone as clearly invested in his vanity as Lyle, it’s a low blow, but also reminds me of Jessica Lange’s Fiona Goode and for that I forgive a lot.
Back at the manor house, we begin to explore the secondary theme of the night with a conversation between Victor and Murray in what first feels like Frankenstein confiding his morphine addiction, but is really just a means of explaining his burgeoning pants feelings for the zombie he created. A zombie he specifically created to make another zombie he created not mad at him anymore. For a doctor, he leaves much to be desired in the way of common sense. But I guess we wouldn’t have a story if any of these people really thought out their actions.
Anyway, the conversation about injecting stuff in your arms and calling it undead love all leads up to Murray saying that love basically made him a monster that didn’t bother to show up to his wife’s funeral because he was too busy dancing at a ball. With a witch. While his ward/bride of Satan hallucinated it was raining blood. Inside. Like, seriously, what is this show?
Buried inside this episode is the final translation to Lucifer’s Gospel the team has been trying to suss out. During the fall from Grace, not only was Lucifer and his army thrown from heaven, Lucifer’s main partner in crime was his brother, namely the vampire lord from the first season, and finally explains all this cosmic bruhaha over Vanessa. She’s essentially a means for the damned to retake heaven.
Late in the episode we finally get to see what Dorian has gotten into and the tension between him and Angelique as his fascination with Lily grows. This culminates in not only Angelique discovering the infamous portrait, but Dorian straight up killing her. Even as he offers poison, he challenges her with a parting comment of “That is who I truly am”, echoing an earlier interaction between them when Angelique revealed her male body. Those out there with a strong Classics game will recognize the song playing was Dido’s Lament, which entreats you to remember the individual but forget their fate. We also get our first real look at the monstrous painting. A gnarled and deformed Dorian, pocked by sin, bound in chains and seemingly as aware of him as Dorian is of the painting. Creepy.
My favorite scene by far was Lily’s final appearance when Frankenstein’s other monster, John Clare, confronts her, furious at her rejection of him. She doesn’t cower from him in the way that Victor always does. She’s already dead, she has nothing to fear. Lily comes right back at him and Billie Piper delivers one of the best performances I’ve seen in a long time. Mocking his poetic inclinations and lack of practicality, she again embodies the episode’s leitmotif of “Who are you?” And you realize that even if Lily doesn’t remember who she is, she knows exactly what she is and, unlike Clare, she doesn’t shy away from it. When the mood in this scene shifts from Frankenstein’s first creation being the aggressor to Lily seizing all control in the moment, I was hoping I was about to see Lily rip him apart, as he had done to poor Proteus in the first season (seriously, poor, sweet, simple Proteus). What she does instead is far more sinister. Recognizing in him a new weapon to use against those who have stripped her agency from her, Lily tells him that women flatter men with their pain even as they make them into dolls, as Frankenstein has done to her. As he has done to John. As the monologue escalates, her refined received diction corrupts into the brogue of her former life, which is a fine bit of acting on Piper’s part. It was a scene that was massively impressive for the power and vulnerability both actors were able to convey and the unexpected turn of Lily’s plan to kill her creator add a new layer of interest to the season.
This season isn’t as tight narratively as the first one was, this go round lacks the defined foe that we saw previously and much of this season has dealt with trying to figure out who the real enemy is. Despite that, there are many episodes that continue to stick out and follow me in the weeks after watching them- Vanessa’s training with the cut-wife and now this scene with Lily? I feel like we finally got a bad guy more interesting than the yet to be seen Lucifer. That in its own right is pretty impressive.
This episode, unlike last week's, felt like we're back on track and pulled some stunts that will force the plot to advance.
Episode Score: 4/5
Penny Dreadful airs Sundays on ShowTime.