Last week, Penny Dreadful cranked through some very Victorian flashbacks and positioned itself for the second act. This week, things get even more Victorian as everyone goes out to a play and has the worst night ever — except for the people who stayed home, for whom the night was slightly worse.
This week I finally gave up on trying to screencap every loaded glance, because every glance exchanged in this whole episode was Loaded. Instead, I made a relationship map that will hopefully help keep up with this amazing muddle of desperate feelings only barely subsumed in sniping, staring, or meaningful cut-tos.
Here's where things were as of last week:
Dotted lines indicate where we're unsure of intensity or intent; largely this has to do with Victor, who's so desperate for affection yet so quick to lash out that it's hard to tell if he's petulantly hitting on people or genuinely hateful. (You know the kind.) The dotted line between him and Caliban is only because Caliban might want to kill him more than he wants to make out with him, and so we have to wait for that to play out. It is not because there is not tension:
That's covered. It's covered with pretty much everyone. "Is it subtext? Eh, just make it text." - Penny Dreadful, about everything.
This is right before Caliban tells Victor, with a sort of defiant shame, "My bride must be beautiful." Victor, as soon as he's recovered from the physical proximity, replies, "To match her mate?" Rude. This is why he calls you "demon," Victor. (Also, once again TV has given us someone we're supposed to regard as physically unsettling, when really it's just a guy who needs a haircut and some moisturizer It's all very I, Frankenstein. "I'M A MONSTER!" *abs*)
Victor spends the rest of his subplot trying to drive away as many people as possible, including a visiting hematologist—Doctor Van Helsing, of course, who christens the blood-drinking hematophagy, seems to guess what Malcolm is after, and looks like he wants to hurl Victor out a window mere minutes after having met him.
(Dig that golden microscope. No stone left unturned in Victorian design.)
It reminds me of Caliban's vow to kill Victor's loved ones and how that's probably going to end up being pretty slim pickings, which never fails to make me smile.
Victor is terribly good at being a creepy Victorian torturer, though, so that's something.
The arrival of Fenton has actually brought a lot of simmering tension to a head, which has its uses perhaps especially in a quiet episode. There's much to learn by watching Victor in his element treating a living person like a collection of samples, and Malcolm seeming to regret his prior Beat The Crap Out of Him approach and angling closer to good cop. (When he asks why Fenton wants Vanessa, Fenton gives him a Look and says, "Why does everyone want her? So nurturing, isn't she, Sir M," which would be chilling enough without Olly Alexander's great delivery and physicality. It's a fine line between pathetic and terrifying, and he walks it well here.)
There's probably something to learn from Ethan Chandler, normal human man who is definitely not a possible werewolf, refusing to be part of a blood transfusion. There's definitely something to learn about how completely beyond this entire business Sembene is quickly becoming.
Also over it at the beginning of this episode: Dorian, whose elaborate yet awfully holding-still orgies just don't hold the appeal they used to, somehow.
That is a man who has tipped over the far side of the effort/reward matrix for orgy hosting; it's just not the same since Brona hacked blood all over him. (This is also a man who sits in front of his painting when everyone has gone home. Was the orgy a sin? Is he checking to see if it is? Surely it's worse to lie and murder and stuff than to host a swingers' party of consenting adults? Is the painting subject to contemporary societal edicts or internal ones? Who knows.)
Vanessa is also searching for some answers in life, sitting outside a church and getting random catechism from an adorable moppet named Lucy (my ears are perking up, show) who may or may not be in league with the Devil as she speaks of bodies not staying buried the way they're supposed to.
Then, in a coincidence I am only buying because of the many Victorian penny dreadful tropes this show evinces, Dorian comes out of the church (uh huh), and Vanessa gives pursuit into the orchid show greenhouses. Too bad.
Here's the thing; it's absolutely no surprise to me that he'd be drawn to her, but despite the turnaround later in this episode (oh, we'll get there), he still seems to be little more than the sidling louche, all told, so I'm at a loss as to why she'd be attracted to him. Acceptable hypotheses: she's looking for an affair outside the family circle, so to speak; she senses he's supernatural and wants to harness that power for herself; she wants to cut him some decent bangs.
They immediately load the flowers with Victorian-displacement sexual innuendo, because of course they do. He asks her what the flower tells her. Vanessa: "Touch me, with your finger, softly, my scent on your neck, open your lips, taste..."
Eh, just make it text.
Dorian, slightly taken aback by her intensity (this guy is so out of his league), tells her it's belladonna, actually, and it's poisonous, so who'd want to taste it, nobody am I right, ha ha!
Vanessa, who drinks a glassful of belladonna just to get up in the morning, is not impressed.
But it's hard to blame her for looking outside the house for a makeout partner, because by the time she comes home, Malcolm has driven a wedge between Ethan and Victor by inviting Ethan to go to Africa, but Victor was the one who wants to explore, Surrogate Dad, why can't you ever just pay attention to ME, SURROGATE DAD, while also maintaining a frankly impressive snipe front against Ethan's claims he's "bloodless."
(OUR daddy issues, indeed.)
Vanessa, walking in, catches the mood of the room with some hilarious tennis-game back-and-forth:
Then, she puts on her Socialite Skin and teases everyone just enough to make it all sound like a frivolous argument that allows them to save face, check in on Fenton, break up, and go home. Vanessa Ives, you're marvelous.
Ethan's still concerned about how they're treating Fenton; as a normal human man who has no beastly tendencies or possible supernatural afflictions himself, he can't imagine what it's like to be held captive and used as a science experiment, but just as a hypothetical he doesn't feel great about it, is all.
You can tell Vanessa is growing to actually enjoy his company because her eyes are dialed down to a softer, gentler, five-hundred-yard stare. She even seems to share his concerns; certainly she had a moment of pity for Fenton when she tried to feed him her apple, and even being the target of Fenton's desperate verbal attack didn't actually provoke any cruelty or retaliation from her. I believe she's brutal, as she warned Ethan last week, but there's also some level of understanding that's utterly absent in, for example, Victor. This episode seems relatively quiet, especially through this act, but it's doing a lot of work establishing limits and shifting relationships.
And that's just getting started, since Ethan, Brona, Dorian, and Vanessa all head to the theater for a night that's even more full of shifting relationships and ends up being disastrous for pretty much everyone!
Not that staying home's any better. Malcolm and Victor end up having to frighten away the vampire that's managed to get into Vanessa's room (yikes), killing an escaped Fenton in the process by hurling him onto a shard of window glass (YIKES).
On the other hand, Malcolm explains that Victor reminds him of his own dead son (who was also presumably a giant pain in the ass), and he asked Ethan to go with him because he doesn't care what happens to Ethan nearly as much as he cares about what happens to Victor.
It's to the endless credit of Harry Treadaway that Victor has a streak of broken humanity in him that keeps him from being a caricature; his need for any kind of human connection from someone who seems to have answers is painfully evident in this moment.
Speaking of things that are painfully evident:
NOBODY'S A WEREWOLF, OKAY, WHY ARE YOU EVEN ASKING.
Also, this is a remnant both of the pan-across horror reveals this show has given us before and my own theater-person past that as Caliban was rushing around backstage, nimbly handling everything, I kept being horribly nervous something would go wrong during the show and a massacre and/or mentor death would ensue. (Who did they have doing this before he came along?) I'm still surprised nothing actually happened, though I do admire the intricacy of the backstage set and Rory Kinnear's deft hand with stage business, which are both worth admiring.
Brona and Ethan have a wonderful time, Dorian can't keep his eyes off Vanessa, Vanessa occasionally pins Dorian right to the wall with her stare, and things are going great until they all meet up in the lobby.
Poor Brona, already nervous with her illness and mingling with schmancy types, being introduced to the work wife who has more to casually chat about that Brona dares venture. Worst possible date. Wait, nope, hang on:
There we go.
It goes about as well as expected, and ends with a crushed Brona trying to preemptively save some heartache by breaking up with Ethan in the middle of the street.
She staggers home, but she doesn't last long; when she sags down coughing in a street and then goes quiet, either she's passed out, or Caliban has just had his number called on the bride front. (It's a suitably busy street, as well; this episode's second half is packed with Victorian beats like this, where women just die in the streets sometimes, and what are you going to do? Gory theater safely viewed from above for the fancy types? Sure thing. Underground gambling rings? But of course.)
Ethan's torn up and distracted – so much that when Dorian invites him to ditch Act II and go watch a dog kill some rats, Ethan agrees.
Vanessa's left alone at the theater, with only Sembene for company.
(Sembene, why are you here? Malcolm told Victor you had the night off, so he is lying and you're still under his employ or is there something more direct between you and Vanessa? I'd honestly love to know anything else about Sembene whatsoever; we're at the halfway point, he needs to get more to do than stand around and occasionally kill cats for quasi-vampiric hostages.)
When she goes home, Malcolm tells her what she missed, and she immediately recognizes that Mina set her up to find Fenton and let the big guy in, which is a crushing blow. Malcolm takes the opportunity to have an even more loaded argument than normal as they hurl blame at each other for what happened to Mina, inching closer and closer:
He calls her on her cruel streak and finally spits out, "You're the daughter I deserve," which does absolutely nothing to reclassify their freeform tension; it's still just as present, and now it's more awkward than ever.
It's particularly interesting when contrasted against the rest of Ethan's night, after the underground rat-baiting outing doesn't go well.
(Great shot; this episode really carries the feeling of those with luxury being at play in a way that feels nicely sinister.)
Ethan, normal human man, is not doing well with this dog raining down carnage. When he's approached by the most pricelessly posh group of bullies ever (Actual dialogue: "You're in Britain now. We do things like we like. You hear?" "Answer him, you rude thing."), it was bound to end in a fistfight.
Back at Dorian's, they chat about art over absinthe in a way that, on any other show, would be extremely loaded subtext.
"I suppose we all play parts," Dorian muses, after Ethan feeds him a cowboy line about his favorite art being in saloons. Ethan: "What's yours?" Dorian, becoming interesting for perhaps the first time: "Human."
They toast to Vanessa (hmm) and start drinking, at which point Ethan experiences one of those flashbacks that starts ten minutes ago and wheels back through time all the way to the pilot, which indicates that he's an enormous, hopeless mess desperate for any way out of having to face up to his past, however recent, and not looking forward to the future very much either. He's also quietly furious, seething drunk, and as he's told Dorian, he's aching to be someone else. It's bound to overflow.
This was the point at which I thought, "This is a LOT of subtext." But I had forgotten what kind of show this is.
"Is it subtext? Eh, make it text."
Why Ethan Chandler, you certainly can surprise a girl.
How does our map look now?
Busy episode, after all! I think this episode and the last one were necessary even though they lacked the showstopping atmosphere of the first two; there was a lot of character work done this week, and most of it feels like it's about to pay off. I look forward to this map becoming a huge, ridiculous snarl next week—especially if Brona ends up being the Bride, and definitely so when we introduce Mina properly, plus the sheer number of nascent makeouts waiting in the wings. Never has a show been so blase about any characters wanting to bang. "Sure, it could happen" - Penny Dreadful, about literally anyone.
Next week: More Victorian flashbacks, so riddled with subtext we won't even know what to do with ourselves.