Last night, High Gothic returned to TV, as Penny Dreadful picked up its second season almost exactly where it left off and threw an even campier enemy at Vanessa Ives and company. Here’s the five best parts, and one problem.
This show begins and ends with Vanessa Ives – as well it should. In the case of this episode, that’s literal, since we open with her getting hit by witch magic on her way home from church.
This shot’s no accident; the force with which she keeps people at bay feels like it’s going to be a big character beat this season.
But it’s also just what happens when you write Eva Green the role of her lifetime and set her loose among a bunch of actors whose styles offer a chance to try out everything from naturalism to high camp, and all of whom are devoted to her. Watching the men of the house in a room with Vanessa is like watching a stage play about a magnet and some iron filings.
Not pictured: the moment she gets woozy and three of them lurch forward to assist her – two of them from outside the frame. When evil Evelyn Poole intones, “The man concerns me. She has a protector,” it’s an Ethan/Vanessa reference, undermined by the fact that she could be talking about literally any man on the show. It’s a suitably Gothic position for our heroine to be in, and avoids being mere damseling so long as Vanessa is also one of the agents acting on her behalf.
And here’s where the complications set in. This episode feels like a deliberate mirror to the series premiere. There, she was so determined and confident she stopped a vampire in his tracks; she spends most of this episode terrified.
It is, essentially, the plot – Vanessa’s attack sets off a chain reaction that brings everyone back to the house to pledge themselves to another hunt. And while I wouldn’t be excited about a season of Vanessa’s terror, it’s handed fairly deftly here as a weather vane for where she stands with the men in her life, particularly Ethan and Malcolm.
So where does she stand with Ethan?
About kissin’ distance apart.
Moments later, they hop in a carriage and close-talk about Ethan’s imminent departure from London; she asks how she can help, and he replies, “You can’t change what you are, no matter who you save, or who you love,” which isn’t actually an answer, but definitely seals the deal on their subtext. And after she’s attacked, he ditches all his exit plans and stays by her side. They spend the rest of the episode in straight-up Jane Austen blocking as she tries to maintain distance and he just gives her Ethan Chandler “How Can I Help You” Eyes:
Oh, we know.
At the outset of the show I had my concerns about this relationship, and this still feels like a big emotional statement for a season premiere, but with Brona dead (aahahaha oh wow that’s going to be a mess) and after all they went through during her possession, I’ll buy this for now.
My favorite part about it, though, is still that Vanessa doesn’t trust herself – as much because of that ordeal as because of her general emotional disaster. My single biggest outstanding questions from last year are Vanessa related. Firstly, what exactly did she grant the Devil during her possession? And secondly, does she ever plan to mention the times she made out with the Devil in the guise of two of the closest men in her life?
Let’s ask the other closest man in her life!
Yeah, it’s weird.
But she’s still Vanessa; even in the throes of despair, she’s capable of enough anger to repel a witch attack:
And this season, she’s increasing her sphere of influence by actually asking Sembene direct questions! She starts by asking him if he thinks the past can return. Sembene, already over this entire season: “It never leaves us.”
(“This is why I didn’t talk to you last year – you’re a bummer.”)
I can’t wait for more of this. In fact, I can’t wait for more of Sembene with anybody! Or anybody with anybody! Because one of the other best things about this show is the motley crew it’s assembled.
2. The Family.
One of the best things Penny Dreadful’s first season managed was to introduce and construct a found family of characters both original and borrowed, a task made trickier not just because it was borrowing an already-done premise, but because many of them were kind of awful people. (When the guy who resurrected a man from the dead and instantly abandoned him is only the second-worst person in the room, that’s a tough room.) And because the show hits so many tonal notes, often in the space of a few minutes, the cast covers a wide range of acting styles.
And yet, it all works, and I’m usually perfectly happy to see anybody talking to anybody, even (and sometimes especially) when they’re being awful. This episode’s MVP in both arenas was Victor! Harry Treadaway has thrown his creepy all behind Victor, and it’s really paying off.
The biggest laugh of the week was his reaction to Caliban – so far the series’ toughest sell second only to Dorian Gray – note-perfect Nice Guying all over Brona’s corpse: “We’ll seek the shadows together, then.”
“All right.” Each syllable’s gold.
But after Caliban leaves (calling him “creator” on the way out – a step up from demon! Things are going well!), Victor manages to creep HIMSELF out by chatting to Brona’s corpse:
“I miss talking to you,” he says wistfully, about that one time they spoke and he angled for permission to smother her and resurrect her in an attempt to get his last mistake off his back. And this is BEFORE he starts fondling her. (YIKES.)
But the episode’s single best moment might be when he’s interrupted by Sembene, summoning him on Vanessa’s behalf. “What will I need?” “Courage,” says Sembene, each syllable a diamond.
Busted, you glorious little shit.
Of their never-merry band, Victor and Malcolm are the closest to villains, and John Logan does well letting them occupy those gray areas as both foreshadowing and character development; Victor tenderly taking Vanessa’s pulse moments after feeling up a corpse is a reminder both that he’s thrilled to be part of this action and that he’s a relentless creep.
Not that we always need subtlety in our bad guys. This season’s got something else planned.
3. The Villains.
Last season’s bad guys did exactly what they were meant to do: they provided an uncanny introduction and set up a problem for our heroes to work around. But in the interest of all those Victorian signposts and creepy atmosphere, things got a little disjointed, and by the time Fenton had come and gone and Mina had been properly introduced, Frankenstein was dealing with Caliban and Vanessa was dueling with the Devil himself. Hard to top that, and turns out, the vampires didn’t (not even Mina! Oh, cruel subtext-turned-text, to be thus abandoned!).
This season, we already know more about the face of the enemy in the first episode than we did about the vampires all last year. And since that face is Helen McCrory’s face, we’re in for a treat.
Is that Helen McCrory bathing in blood while surrounded by skeleton décor and the corpse of the last victim hovering out of frame like some kind of human bath mat? It sure is. This show has never missed a Gothic trick, and by gum, it never will. (She’s even singing “The Unquiet Grave,” which we reach only after hunting her during a respectable tracking shot. And while she reaches such heights of commitment to the role that even Eva Green might have her work cut out for her, McCrory plays this moment chillingly straight, and even having seen this clip a dozen times in promo didn’t rob it of its impact when the time came. )
We even got to see a little infighting among the coven, which is already more than we saw of last season’s more nebulous baddies, and suggests a greater focus in the coming faceoff. Granted, what we saw was mostly Helen McCrory devouring the scenery and spitting out a day player at the end of it, but really, who was going to turn that down?
Pictured: Helen McCrory relishing her Memento Mori monologue; a doomed witch; some seriously pre-Raphaelite hair.
It’s all still as campy as it needs to be for this to work. When she hears that their attack failed because Vanessa has Ethan as a protector (it didn’t, it failed because if you frighten Vanessa enough she will just turn on her anger and consume you, but fine), Evelyn intones, “We shall have to be yet more ingenious – we shall have to employ stratagems,” as if planning that snatch-and-grab was an Italian Job that took them all last season.
But there’s also a sense that the show’s taking them seriously as antagonists. The carriage attack is the pulp adventure we’ve come to expect from these set pieces (witches attack naked, because of course!), but there are also deliberate parallels to the heroes. Here’s Evelyn and her daughter Hecate breathily discussing the Master’s plans for Vanessa: “Even now he twitches for his beloved, his great tail wrapping around her ankle, and up, and up...”
I didn’t think this show would ever work harder on creepy implications of parent/child bonds than it has on the connection between Vanessa and Malcolm, but I stand corrected! Oh, those Victorians and their illicit pulp thrills!
4. The Victorians.
One of my favorite things about this show is the way it draws from its source material – the actual penny dreadfuls as much as the more literary figures – and the historical context around them both. The Victorian Gothic was as much erotic as it was terrifying; it was the seduction of the spectacle. Last season gave us a Grand Guignol that showed Victorian England’s endless appetite for blood spatter and the gruesome.
It’s one of the reasons Caliban’s been such an odd fit; looking the way he does, he’s barely worse off than any given impoverished Victorian dude, and it’s only his insistence on being weird to people that’s isolated him. (It was clearly wise of Shelley to park her monster in the countryside; in London he’s held down a job that he only lost after a rape attempt, which is seriously dousing sympathy for his trials.)
But the moment Caliban showed up here, I grinned:
It only got more perfect when we met the proprietor’s daughter, who’s blind because of COURSE she’s blind. Rory Kinnear actually delivers some of the pathos he was hired for when he haltingly tries to stall a tactile introduction: “It is not a face for touching.”
This shot could be a woodcut from a Victorian novel about piously noble poverty, it’s so spot-on.
I’m very curious about the timing of her introduction with Brona’s corpse back home under the besotted eye of Victor Worstenstein: making a love triangle or trying to avoid one? Judging by the slapped-by-a-fish look on Caliban after this intro, we’ll probably have a little of both!
There’s also a little commentary on the reality of gore vs. the fantasy of it, as Ethan wakes up in his first scene and gets to look out over what happens when he loses his temper.
And yet, of all the Victorian things on this show, Malcolm Murray is without a doubt the most Victorian. Gentleman of leisure, super-judgey adulterer, African “explorer,” human disaster (remember when he named an African mountain after himself instead of his dead son), he’s this show’s commentary on many of the most harmful Victorian ideals.
But though his relationship with Vanessa is his most interesting facet, his biggest scene this episode isn’t their reunion (though the shock on his face is great; he knows she doesn’t really trust him, so something awful must have happened). It’s Mina’s funeral, where he assures his estranged wife, “If you knew how hard I tried to save her...” He waited three whole seconds before he one-linered and shot her clean through, Gladys! Why can’t you understand that??
At least we know where he gets that affinity for the stares Vanessa gives him. (Noni Stapleton was awesome, and is welcome back to the show any time.)
But part of selling this Victorian nightmare is making it as breathtaking as it is claustrophobic, you need the place to look good. And does it ever.
5. The Cinema.
One of Penny Dreadful’s calling cards has been how deeply cinematic it is; the stylish direction, the beautiful score, and the lush production values all work to legitimize the campy aspects and highlight the sincere ones. There are shots meant to underscore Vanessa’s disorientation:
Shots meant to suggest Caliban’s new employer is more sinister than he seems:
And shots that suggest Universal classic monster-movie posters.
(It Came From Beyond The Carriage...To Terrorize The City!)
And though I didn’t cap them because nearly all of them were naked, women all over “Fresh Hell” – the witches, the witch bath, the wax museum, and raising the Bride – seemed positioned in the frame as commentary on the disposability and objectification of women. It’s an interesting question the episode doesn’t quite know how to answer: If the Jack the Ripper installation in the wax museum is exploitive and ghoulish, and the naked woman on the bathroom floor suggests callous villainy, and Victor’s violation of Brona’s body is meant to be a line even he knows he shouldn’t cross, what conclusions are we meant to draw from witches whom the show strips naked before they’re at their full powers? It’s certainly not a nudity meant to entice, and they’re definitely active rather than passive, but is this merely Showtime taking lessons from Game of Thrones? Only the rest of the season can tell us.
Basically, James Hawes has turned in a visually-intriguing episode of an incredibly fun show with a cast at the top of its game. So what’s the problem?
The show still falls into some of the tropes it’s trying to resurrect. Sometimes that’s all part of the fun – why bother having Victorian Gothic witches unless they’re going to skulk around in cloaks in a drawing room studded with skulls and use knife-rings to slit throats? But sometimes it’s hard to ignore that some of these tropes feel old no matter whether you’re trying to bring the audience into the joke or not. Some of those problems will self-correct, I expect; Caliban’s creepiness with women feels like it’s going to be addressed, if for no other reason than Victor’s managed to scoot past him for the win there.
Others will be harder to fix. After leaving Sembene at loose ends last season (mysterious bodyguard from the heart of Africa is only interesting if you are dissecting the trope a lot harder than Penny Dreadful ever tried), he gets more to do in this episode alone than he did in most of the last eight, which feels like a step in the right direction, but knowing asides do not a full character make, and the show needs to step up and be worthy of Danny Sapani in the part.
The other problem is the ladies! Vanessa is unabashedly awesome, with her woes as much a reaction to society’s nonsense as the devil’s interference, and she skirts the damsel trope through the power of personality and the actions she takes on her own behalf. But she’s awfully isolated; it’s no wonder she imprinted so hard on Mina when the world’s so stiflingly full of men.
There’s hope everywhere, though. An undead Brona suggests a revenge arc that could be much more interesting than her consumption was. And though Evelyn and Hecate are out to kill Vanessa and so it’s unlikely Vanessa’s going to find the balm of sisterly consolation there, there’s something very interesting in setting up this struggle as excluding the men almost entirely. There’s DEFINITELY something interesting in setting Eva Green and Helen McCrory against one another. Whatever happens this season, it’s going to be one hell of a game.
Plus, she offers a whole new vector for messed-up business, just when you thought this chart couldn’t get any redder! Thank you, Evelyn. Thank you, show.