Penny Dreadful has spent its season lobbing foreshadowing and then vanishing. This week it begins to deliver, as things go more wrong than ever for a group of people who did not have a lot going for them to start with. Plus, someone finally namechecks an actual penny dreadful.
Despite the truncated season, it's taken a week or two to sift through the big twists that built up while Vanessa was writing the world's longest letter. Even now that we're back in the swing of things and plots are chugging forward left and right, we're still dealing with what feels like a much longer timeline than it is. The first time in "What Death Can Join Together" that someone mentions "last night" made me realize what a condensed chain of events we're following. And this week is a turning point across the board; it's an episode of people pushing too hard, and moving into intimacy of various kinds too much or too fast, and it backfiring almost across the board.
The other thing about the events in "Demimonde" having happened just last night is that this crew, for all their undereye circles, still seems way too rested. Everyone should look like Victor Frankenstein, who could store library books in his eyebags, though he's never seemed more content than as he handles the first of this week's consequences:
Fenton. Who, I'll admit, I'm surprised is just dead-dead. Victor gave a lecture about how whatever Fenton turned into after his blood transfusion was going to be on their heads and they'd have to be responsible for the creature they created, and I was figuring that would come back to haunt him even after the shard of glass through the back of the head. I suppose it's never too late for poor Fenton to rise from the grave, but doing so after an autopsy is going to be 1) harder to explain, since even the hieroglyph vampire died and stayed dead and 2) a mess.
Then again, Victor's sort of a mess all over this week, once again isolated from the group proper. He and Vanessa have a nice, haunted sympatico, and even with Ethan there's the sniping of two people who recognize various but not always similar dangers of their situation. But Malcolm treats Victor like an employee except when he's drawing him in by feeding him lines about reminding him of his son. When Victor comes in to report on Fenton, Malcolm's checking up on plague ships based on Vanessa's intel. Victor staunchly asks when they plan this hunting expedition.
Malcolm, never looking up: "You will not be required, Doctor."
But honestly, he's having the least rough day of this crew. Vanessa starts the episode by examining the destruction in her room, which raises questions about when that letter was written, and even if last episode was a flashback framing a flashback, what happened when she came home last night after the theater? Did Sembene just suggest they play gin rummy all night to keep her from going upstairs? (I'd watch that.)
Whatever it is, Malcolm's even more desperate for help finding Mina, and asks Vanessa to tap into her bond with Mina despite knowing her powers are unpredictable and hard to force. (For all the vampires on this show, Malcolm remains the single biggest endangerer of others by a pretty wide margin.)
Vanessa and Malcolm, two orphans of life essentially married by hate, here looking actually married. Later he gets parental. It doesn't change how married they feel. It's the messiest Father's Day episode ever.
But for Mina's sake, Vanessa agrees, using her tarot cards (the Five of Cups and the Moon, I believe) to conjure up some truly horrific sounds of dozens of men meeting a gruesome end. Eva Green's shifting expression as she listens to the death throes of numerous shrieking strangers is so great that capping it doesn't do it justice.
But if she was hanging out researching plague ships than Malcolm couldn't be so mean to Victor, because she's so demonstrably skilled at shooting down his regular-level bullshit. Guess it's time for a date with Dorian Gray!
(Definitely how two platonic people look at each other when one of them is offered a date. Also a platonic thing to say about someone to her date: "She is always her own creature, our Miss Ives." Be cool, boys.)
It's the first of two dates Vanessa and Dorian have this evening, unfortunately. This show is working very hard to push the one relationship that doesn't feel particularly interesting.
That said, their trip to the photography studio was something deeper than we've seen from Dorian, who so far has been present largely as the show's STD vector. Alone with Vanessa, he starts asking questions that suggest he's aware of the darkness behind her magnetism, and seems to be seeking answers in a way that feels more organically sociopathic for him than anything he's previously come up with.
There's an unblinking, serpentine quality to him when he starts offering ideas about seeking your equal and knowing about eternity; it almost makes up for his hair.
On the other hand, the dialogue seems to realize how forced this is, because he's so far outclassed in both creepy and sexually-magnetic respects, leading to dialogue like: "I have a bit of a resistance to [being photographed]." "Then why did you agree?" "You seem a man born to overcome resistance." That's not a thing, show.
Really, the only good things about this date were the intensity of her stare, during which I was legitimately expecting the lens on that camera to crack:
And her return to the house, hours later in episode-time, where she thanks Dorian for the "unexpected afternoon." I guess that's relatively accurate re: how long you had to sit still for a Victorian picture. Sure, fine.
And while she was gone, Sembene finally got to say something that indicated he was having thoughts independent of the plot requirements of the moment!
Those thoughts? "Where I come from, some people cannot be saved. If your daughter is one of them, what then? Know what you are going to do."
I love that he's staunchly anti-Mina. But I have to say, in a show that otherwise enjoys picking apart Victorian tropes, Sembene has simply become one. This is literally the first time in six episodes Sembene has gotten to deliver more than just exposition. Danny Sapani nails this scene, too, putting a decade of backstory into this short speech. He shouldn't have had to wait this long. He should be getting more than this. (This was only a fifty-minute episode. There was room. Come on, show.)
Elsewhere where the supporting cast is knocking things out of the park, Caliban gets a visit from actress Maude whose blood tube is clogged (theater!), and who suggests he doesn't have to be shy about his face because her brother got into a steam-engine incident and his face is also completely messed up, so no big.
It's not awkward at all.
It's actually not, for all that Caliban's quiet freakout is palpable, and her attempt to be kind comes out sadder than intended as she talks about her brother; when she mentions his name is Lucifer, Caliban gets so lit-student horrified he turns around, which was adorable. (Also adorable, if infinitely sadder, is his panic-attack breathing that sounds like his heart's about to stop.)
Less adorable: him spying on her.
That is Mr. Magoo levels of visible.
He leaves her some Milton, because if you bring Lucifer into the conversation that's the present you're getting, and when her boyfriend stops by he asks what it is and she says, not at all unkindly, "A love token," and brushes off concerns that the giver is a rival. And if you thought Rory Kinnear's prey-animal breathing after their first conversation was sad, wait until you hear his masterful crying from a being who doesn't remember how it works, so it's half sobs and half tuneless whining. Amazing.
The good news: he doesn't seem to blame Maude for not loving him back!
Bad news: He sure does blame somebody!
STOP STARING AT BALLERINAS. Such is the nature of this show that I don't know if this is merely creepy atmosphere or a terrible, terrible plot point in the making, but oh my god, somebody stop him.
Van Helsing does! Everyone who wanted more David Warner must be thrilled to see him, even though he could not possibly be more doomed. He even talks about his girl back home! ("I looked up from my anatomy book and there she was. Pale blue dress, with embroidered flowers.")
He also gets the honor of being perhaps the first person in the series to actually say the word "vampire," warning Victor that "the dead travel fast," and dropping some literary research on Victor via the penniest dreadful of all.
If you don't know Varney the Vampire, I urge you to seek it out. It's genuinely interesting in its then-unusual treatment of the villain as both a monster and a victim of circumstance who yearns for another lot. It is hilarious in every other respect, given that it was a serial written over a period of nearly two years, during which all continuity vanishes and no one ever says a thing once if they can say it five times instead. It goes perfectly with Victor's addressing Van Helsing as "my good friend," given that in the timeline of this show they met precisely one day ago.
Then again, it's vaguely feasible that he'd say that about anyone who showed him a scrap of kindness, because the kid's a mess. His inspirational poem of the day? "No more let life divide what death can join together." Yikes.
Van Helsing, though, is infinitely understanding. So of course Caliban kills him.
("I looked up from my friend's corpse parts and there he was. Pale, black coat, with embroidered face.")
I'll admit I was wondering why we were getting such a full-court friend press on Van Helsing until this moment, at which point I realized no one else on the show liked Victor enough to be worth killing, which is both sad and hilarious.
Rory Kinnear makes this standoff pretty poignant for a guy who just broke an old man's neck because he wants a girlfriend. (The tension between Caliban and Victor remains undiminished, which suggests something besides death that wants to join together, but these two kids might never work that out.)
Even more convoluted: Vanessa and Malcolm, when she asks him for an opinion on her date outfit in the way maybe a daughter would, and he replies with an "Oh" that is not fatherly in the slightest.
They're so codependent that when one of them trips the other one falls over. I love it all, and also it's horrible.
Thank goodness for Ethan. See, even though she did not die last night, Brona is not great, having moved on to the stage of consumption where you lose that winning, sparkling, man-supporting glow that art so loves in its consumptives and start barfing blood from actual illness.
But they're a very tender pair, and his affection for her is sincere even when she asks, "Where have you been all night?" and he answers, "I went out with Mr. Gray," probably very thankful for the many ambiguities the English language provides. (That's not the only ambiguity we're dealing with; if you wanted any moment of reflection or glimpse of emotional consequences for that dalliance, you'll be waiting another week.)
Instead, he's off to investigate a plague ship with Malcolm and Sembene, though he doesn't like that Vanessa's not joining them. "And why's that?" Malcolm: "Another time." Bless you, show.
Despite offering no information, Malcolm does offer Brona a place in the country for a more comfortable decline; it's half manipulation to keep him on the team and half unconscious need to father whoever hasn't yet become a bride of the Dark Lord. Ethan wisely turns it down; they'll stay home, together. Malcolm warns him that once she starts opiates for the pain, she'll become someone else. "Then I'll love who she becomes," says Ethan, sincerely.
The ship is a standard creep-around fightaround. The stunt work is impressive, all three guys get to look like badasses against a group of women who seem to multiply into the dozens once the fighting starts, and Malcolm even gets a glimpse of Mina!
It's not great.
Ethan, however, finally gets to lay some truth down on Malcolm. "You're pretty goddamn sure you know what the hell's going on." (You think you're something just because people give you information, huh, buddy? Huh?) "There are battles you lose. At the end of the day the only thing we have is the people you trust. Like Miss Ives." Malcolm is surprised Ethan trusts Vanessa, because I guess he missed the part where Ethan very carefully pledged himself not to the mission, but to Vanessa. That's quite a blind spot for an evil mastermind, Malcolm.
Speaking of blind spots, after the world's most portentiously boring date, Dorian takes Vanessa home and plays her the Flower Duet from Lakme, which has to be an homage to The Hunger. (Even the "What do I give away?" "Nothing," exchange reads like it.)
When Dorian asks to kiss her neck, Vanessa says, "Don't ask permission," after which I only heard a buzzer noise for a while because no way, this is wrong in general and wrong for Vanessa, for whom verbal sparring is her favorite and feeling safe has been so tenuous.
Setting that aside, the rest of the sex scene is hilarious, because it just brings home that Dorian's out of his league. He sexily cuts off her corset; she uses the knife to cut open his chest and drink his blood, then rips at his back and chest, gnaws on his shoulder, and gets visited by her demon: "I've been waiting...What games we will have now."
And then she bolts, leaving Dorian utterly flabbergasted and me laughing really hard.
(Also, because this has come up a bit in discussion: I'm glad we haven't seen his painting. I hope we never do. It should be so horrible we're left to imagine it. We all saw LXG. Don't show us the painting.)
Meanwhile, Vanessa comes home, where a penitent Malcolm is waiting to finally begin repairing the huge, codependent cracks in this relationship. "I haven't been honest with you about -"
Welp, Happy Father's/Repressed Lovers Day!
Our updated chart, showing some movement on the Messed-up Business front as Sembene takes sides and Dorian seems to be sounding Vanessa out about becoming his immortal partner in crime:
Next week: Probably everything falls apart even more, and hopefully the demon explains why it was waiting, because she's had sex before and this didn't happen. What was it waiting for? (Answer: it was waiting for Episode 7.)