The first episode of Penny Dreadful gave us Victorian pulp, some great acting, immersive atmosphere, and things that go bump in the night. Turns out this Gothic was just getting started, as "Séance" rockets the show into an impressive second act.
I want to break down a lot of things here, especially since this episode offered two showstopping scenes (so early in the run that I am now even more excited and terrified about the next six), but perhaps it's best to start at the beginning, where director J.A. Bayona and the cinematographer do some artful work framing the terror of this doomed woman.
And, much like with Sleepy Hollow, this show has such a firm hand on its tone that I both appreciated this shot and waited patiently for the pan of her limp apple-clutching arm to end abruptly, because I already knew was inevitable. (Explosive deaths will continue until morale improves.)
Cut to: Ethan waking up on the water's edge, hand punctured as if from defensive wounds, looking out of it. You know, we've seen vampires and Frankenstein, and this dude's waking up on the beach despite having enough money for a room, and somebody's eviscerating all these cold opens, so if the show is trying to tell us he 's a werewolf, I'm behind it.
Facing another long day of nobody telling him anything, he stumbles into this mariner's inn, which the set decorator wanted you to know is the most nautical possible inn:
("Aye, mariners hung those lengths of rope for safekeeping long ago, then neeeeeveer returnnnnned," this inn's servers are probably trained to say about these decorative ropes, like waitstaff at Disney who have to pretend they're actually pirates.)
While drowning his sorrows with a bottle of whiskey, he meets the lovely Irish prostitute Brona, played by Billie Piper, whose screen presence is as winning as ever and whose accent has got to be kidding me. However, one of the small things I appreciate about this show is that it doesn't race to define the nature of meetings or even the nature of relationships. They enjoy each other's company in that this-is-doomed consumption-ridden way, and they meet up and exchange small talk in their little bits again this episode, and it establishes a certain regard and friendship that doesn't immediately lead to a sex scene. To the outside plot, so far, their meeting only matters once (we'll get there); otherwise just know Ethan spends the episode drinking and chatting a little and being quietly thrilled that someone's volunteering information.
Brona's appointment for the day is Dorian Gray, less a character in his own right than the great-grandfather of Pete Campbell's combover. It's quite a house, though.
Great setup; Dorian's never out from under the watchful eyes of strangers. Sure, for him this is an excuse to have sex with a woman who has consumption, and for the show it's an excuse to get in a sex scene, but really it's an excuse to prove that there's nothing that can't be made darker, since she coughs blood right onto his face with the velocity of somebody experiencing an imminent chestburster and it just turns him on.
Did someone call for some visual commentary about the voyeuristic gaze vis-a-vis the Victorian obsession with sex? Great, thanks, show.
Did you want to add some additional commentary about sexual flesh vs. criminal flesh and the endless Victorian appetite for both as captured by the emerging technology of the photograph?
Sure did! Nice. There's not much other reason for this scene to exist, except for Malcolm to deduce a few expositionary things from last week for a policeman who isn't even sure why this subplot is here. Dalton also gets to Dalton his way through a line about how they have to stop hunting a man, and start hunting a beeeeeeeaassst.
Speaking of people who definitely are not involved in the horrifying monstrosities of the supernatural, Ethan stops by the post office to VO some mail.
I have no strong opinions about Josh Hartnett, but whatever his level of talent, he is more effective at conveying his internal life when he's quiet. This screencap indicates a bereft, regretful soul; the voiceover letter he was reading sounded Telepromptered. (It was also egregiously signed, "Your father." I believe you mean OUR father, Josh.)
Elsewhere in London, Victor Frankenstein is having an extremely thematically complicated time with his creation.
At the end of "Night Work," when we were introduced to Frankenstein's Monster, amid the surprisingly affecting introductions in incredibly dim light I thought, "That really doesn't look like Rory Kinnear, who's billed as the Monster." This week, the first shot confirmed that it wasn't. Well, somebody's doomed! That somebody's this reconstructed gentleman, who gets to choose his name out of a Shakespeare folio over a very sensual throat-stroking breakfast of tiny bread pieces. He points, at random, to Proteus. (Handy!)
And for a show that only has eight episodes, the pacing of their time together does some really fantastic work. The trope of Frankenstein and his monster got tweaked in their very first moments, as Victor is gently obsessive toward his creation in a way both romantic and fatherly; that continues here, as he works on vocabulary and abstract concepts with Proteus in between errands, often busy but always fond.
One errand includes a visit to the House of Tears, another potential crossroads of the romantic and fatherly, as Malcolm suggests Vanessa unbutton her shirt three whole buttons to drive the Doctor mad with lust for some reason. (Sadly, Malcolm didn't see the breakfast we saw or he'd know she was unbuttoning up the wrong tree.) The fact that Vanessa doesn't bat an eye only makes me wonder more about their dynamic, which—again—is revealed to us only in slivers. We know they're close; how they got that way is details for later.
One of my favorite things about this show is how Vanessa's sexuality is so overtly, casually predatory that it just looks like she's guessing dudes' coat sizes so she can borrow their stuff after they're dead. She can exchange pleasantries about poetry all she wants ("Have I not reason to lament/ What man has made of man?"), but she's just lulling you into a false sense of security before she turns you to stone.
Speaking of which, let's cut to the séance.
Clearly the centerpiece of the episode, the séance takes up a good ten minutes (an impressive amount of screen time for a single scene in an episode that covers as much as this covers), and the mood of the episode radiates out from it like ripples in a pond. Even things like Ethan's wake-up call take on a more sinister cast after watching this evening party plummet downhill. It starts well, with the return of my secret favorite, Ferdinand Lyle, whose wife is still invisible, whose décor is an Orientalist catalog shot, and whose enthusiasm for creepy party games is boundless:
The bit where Dorian tries to cold-call Vanessa with the Bond monologue she gave Ethan fell flat to me: besides Reeve Carney being outacted by the barest glance of Eva Green's laser eyes, Green's done so well with the grace notes of her character that Dorian was telling us nothing about her we didn't already know, in a way we'd already seen. I know he's meant to be an eerie simulacrum of life that has insight into her inner self, but so far they haven't sold him.
However, his list of the various influences on the décor in this hideous drawing room was Victorian-perfect. (Lyle's later discussion with Malcolm about the apocalyptic danger of Amun-Ra and Amunet ever joining forces is suitably creeped-out, and lays out some plot options about Vanessa being seduced into an unholy union by the Darkness, but it takes place in this room in the daytime, and this room in the daytime is a Thing.)
It's all spot-on and 110% Victorian, and so of course Lyle's having a séance, and of course it's being conducted by someone with the moniker of Madame Kali (Helen McCrory!).
And because it quickly reveals that Vanessa's harboring something terrifying, it's essentially an Emmy reel for Eva Green, who devours this entire scene whole.
Interestingly, Green switching voices and adopting the pained body language of something struggling to get out and and claiming to be Amunet the ancient evil and then staggering onto the table like a ghoul is not the scariest part of this scene. The scariest part is how little information gets handed around the otherwise silent table. Dalton doesn't provide the usual expository TV gasps that would help a scene like this along, so we're left listening to the rattling testimony of unnamed specters (maybe his son, maybe his daughter, a woman we're increasingly hoping wasn't Vanessa) that terrify Dalton beyond words, and who are left heavily undiscussed afterwards; it keeps them more alive in the story than identifying them would have.
It's shocking to everyone, though no one else has seen the wall of spiders, so perhaps they weren't as prepared. You know who was prepared?
Vanessa. That's the face of a woman who knows that something inside of her is wrong.
On the way home, she pauses to sex a stranger on the street, because this is Showtime (though it also seems in line with her general mien). The best thing about this scene, by a margin of a thousand, is that Dorian shows up too late to get in on the stress release he knew was imminent, and instead he gets to stand in the rain like a boyband music-video screencap:
"Too Late For Love," The Xplorers, from the album Pictures of Us, 1997.
Back at home, Vanessa sleeps as Malcolm draws a blanket over her. Here, as with the look the pair exchanged as they got settled at the séance table, we get an impression that their relationship is lengthy and complicated. They hardly ever speak to one another; most of their communication is in swift glances that often escape other people, or brief statements that are loaded to us but obviously perfectly understood between the pair of them. It would be the most trusting relationship on the show...except for the right-side up crucifix that's on the wall when he turns to go, which means soooomebody's praying to the Dark Lord on the sly with old Malcolm knowing. (ETA: As a commenter pointed out, that person is apparently not Vanessa, who prays with it right side up. Therefore, the CGI spiders have been turning it over between shots, and that is rude of them, but it means Malcolm and Vanessa's marriage/fatherhood/road trip movie can still be saved.)
Elsewhere, Victor and Proteus go for a walk. Seriously, they go for a walk for several leisurely minutes as Proteus marvels at the outside world (dogs, chestnuts, fairy lights) and Victor looks alternately paternal and romantic (it's such a fine line to walk, and Harry Treadaway walks the hell out of it). The honeymoon lasts until they reach the river and Proteus becomes quietly overwhelmed as memories start washing back over him and he realizes enough to know that something inside of him is wrong.
Alex Price does a superb job in this; too numb to be angry, too trusting to turn on his maker, though it's still a scene of quiet betrayal and both he and Victor are well aware.
And because the world is a creature of coincidence, they run into Ethan and Brona, out on a date of their own.
This delightfully awkward little scene endeared me to Proteus and Brona, pleasantly surprised me about Victor's willingness to publicly acknowledge his creature, and gratified me by having Ethan silently fishing for information nobody provides. (It's worth noting that in a show where sex so far has always contained an element of the monstrous—which is of a piece with the tone—actual monster Proteus offering Brona a chestnut and politely wishing her a good evening underneath the fairy lights was the most romantic thing this show's given us.)
All in all, it's as incongruous a portrait of the old Frankenstein story as we could expect, and the slow reveal of his good intentions actually panning out through emotionally-responsible application—and resulting in a socially-viable companion—became the episode's most surprising twist. As they come home and Proteus is making soft-spoken plans to get some friends (not Ethan, Victor does not consider Ethan a friend, this show is marvelous), we even begin to believe that he can make "Ten. More than ten."
Until Proteus gets ripped in half by this guy.
("And THERE's Rory Kinnear," we all say to ourselves; it's devastating that Proteus got torn to pieces, but at least we've reconciled the casting.)
"Hello, Father," he growls. And it's so sudden and horrifying, and simultaneously such a fantastic realignment of the canon we know at the worst possible moment to find it out, that the line manages to be both camp and chilling, reflected in the terror of Victor at confronting his old sins come home to roost, and the fury of Kinnear's monster. One of the best "Oh shit!" episode endings in a while, a reveal constructed perfectly. And this is only episode two. Welcome home, son.
Next week: Everybody gangs up to fight wolves (of which Ethan is certainly not one, probably, but if he was no one would tell him), Vanessa discovers Malcolm's been holding back, the new monster in town loses no time sidling up to a subplot of his own that, and this entire cast continues to make me blissfully happy for another 55 minutes, except Dorian's hair, which will likely attempt an escape.