In Penny Dreadful, the world’s so small almost any characters work well together, and the show knows. “Verbis Diablo” turns London into a date night – by turns charming, campy, and creepy as hell.
This show’s priorities are fairly well-established: plot’s nice when you can get it, atmosphere is always welcome, but its joy is when the characters are hard at work filling that chart of interpersonal weirdness. And that can pay off in episodes like “Verbis Diablo,” in which nothing particularly happens except a witch stealing a baby for the evil puppet room (I know), but there are interesting beats everywhere, as characters pair off to great effect. Let’s rate the dates!
MALCOLM AND VANESSA
Whether a daddy/daughter date or the other, more awkward kind of date you go on with your semi-adopted daughter, Vanessa and Malcolm know each other better than almost anyone else. He only has to hear her call his name from the other side of the door to know something’s horribly wrong; it also doesn’t stop him from being a complete jackass about it, because when has anything ever stopped that?
“Tell me I deserve peace,” she begs. “I’m a poor minister for happiness,” says Mr. I Named a Mountain For Myself, which isn’t even an answer, and sounds fairly judgy for a man who’s killed both his kids. The good news: “I’ll not leave your side.” She murmurs into his chest, “I don’t know what I would do without you.” They’re going to make this nebulous subtext as inappropriate as they can for as long as they can, and I respect it.
(Look at that hovering hand. “You were somehow more reassuring when the Devil was borrowing your skin to have sex with me, but thanks.”)
The only thing he can do is to take her to the soup kitchen, hand her a cholera mask, and extol the virtues of trickle-down Victorianomics: “It makes me feel like I’m a better man.”
Same, Vanessa. (It’s perfectly in character for Malcolm to pretend going to a soup kitchen once a year makes him a better man; it’s not this show’s fault that when anyone on TV does charity work at a soup kitchen I think about Soapdish.)
Bonus: Malcolm ditches her almost immediately to go buy stuff, which is so perfect I can’t even stand it, and though she finds her own company, we’ll follow him first.
RATE THE DATE: Old Marrieds. Or, Take Your Daughter to Work Day. (Whoops.)
MALCOLM AND EVELYN
This show can handle all kinds of scene partners, at all pitches: One of this week’s best dates is the most camp person on the roster paired with the most internal person. But none feels quite so much like a Wild West standoff than Helen McCrory and Timothy Dalton trying to sharpshoot a scene out from under one another.
Worldly innuendo? CHECK. Sexily testing perfume while she Verbis Diablos him? DON’T MIND IF THEY DO.
Evelyn effortlessly outshooting him on the gun range as she makes sure the wife is out of the picture? PLEASE.
“What does she like?” “We’re estranged.”
Objectively, it seems impossible for Malcolm not to be entranced by Helen McCrory in full sail. Secretly, I love that Malcolm’s such a confirmed jerk that even witchery might not work. Ethan would compliment a woman who outshot him; Malcolm blames the gun’s alignment and looks on the verge of blaming the target, too. Will his pigheadedness shake whatever influence she put on him? It would be kind of incredible. The power of smug masculinity compels you!
We’ll see about that.
RATE THE DATE: Too Hot to Handle.
Naturally, nothing deconstructs smug masculinity like having Ethan Chandler around. Deeply conflicted, stoically helpful, casually queer, and with an excess of stored-up affection that keeps overflowing: Ethan Chandler is this crew’s dream date. And you know who knows it?
ETHAN AND LYLE
He’s back and he’s marvelous. Simon Russell Beale is sublime, of course, and manages to make Lyle both sincerely over-the-top and foreshadowingly self-conscious. He strikes the perfect note as he exposits about the Verbis Diablo and the British Museum (“Like most of the plundered riches of the British Museum, they are scrupulously ignored”) in between flirting with Ethan. It delights everyone. Everything is delightful.
Vanessa starts out charmed by it all, but is also the one who asks about what happened to Brother Gregory, who recorded the Verbis Diablo. (Death, obviously. Poor Vanessa.) But Lyle would never let that put a damper on his date with Ethan.
Putting someone as high camp as Simon Russell Beale in a scene with someone as contained as Josh Hartnett could have been awkward. But not on Penny Dreadful! There’s room for everybody in Penny Dreadful! And maybe the best purely-comic moment we’ve had is these two sneaking into the British Museum, getting caught, and having Lyle cover: “My brother.”
*Mission: Impossible theme plays*
Ethan’s main concern inside: this shield’s motto, ‘The Wolves Will Protect.’ Wolves don’t protect! Terrifying hunters! Throats! Angst! Lyle’s main concern: his family crest is two fish on a bed of lavender (“I ask you – fish”). My main concern: why Lyle bothers to downplay his medieval knowledge given the Macguffin he’s after. Modesty doesn’t become you, Lyle.
“Who likes puzzles?” What a conundrum! This’ll take three – nay, five – episodes to sort out! (Smart move to keep everyone at the house. Nobody can resist a puzzle on the dining table.)
But despite the terrifying collection of Verbis Diablo artifacts that came out of it, the evening’s adventure was clearly a success for at least one person.
And given how his life’s about to tank, we’ll let him have this one.
RATE THE DATE: Butch Cassidy and the Classicist Kid. Lyle would run away with Ethan tomorrow. Ethan likes people who like him. (Fold that into the lingering daddy issues and Lyle has a bigger chance than he thinks!)
I wonder if Ethan ever thinks about Dorian; Dorian got fairly soundly dismissed from Vanessa’s life (thank goodness), but he and Ethan had a connection I can see them coming back to.
DORIAN AND ANGELIQUE
But even if they don’t, and even if having Dorian on his own sounds like it could be awkward, I was perfectly happy to see him as the object of affection for Angelique (Jonny Beauchamp), a newcomer who sits down with Dorian and turns her flirting up to eleven. Million.
“Utterly mysterious, don’t you think?”
“I don’t know what to think.”
“Probably best. Thinking would age you terribly.”
Dorian’s interest level is also at eleven million! (For him, anyway.)
But of course, merely flirting doesn’t get you anywhere with Dorian. What does? Being an emotional mess nursing a heartbreak and determined never to love again.
“And your heart?”
“Waiting.” (Angelique’s game is unparalleled. Dorian WISHES he had this game.)
We have yet to know if Angelique’s going to play a larger role, and her part here is deliberately performative with only a glimpse under the flirting, but I like her, and I like the idea of Dorian moving through parts of Victorian life that everyone else is too busy being stalked by the Devil to really get into. Dorian makes total sense as a POV character for that.
Bonus: production design that establishes character! We know Brona was at the end of the line, parked in the Mariner’s Inn and Rope Store. As soon as we see this fancy-schmancy brothel, we know Angelique has something to lose.
Of all the brothel rooms ever set-dressed, this might be the brotheliest.
Penny Dreadful is a queer show in a lot of ways: two major characters are bisexual, Lyle is gay, and Dorian is, I assume, pansexual. But it’s also fairly low-key about all that sexuality, as much as a show that includes a room full of evil puppets can ever be low-key about anything.
That said, given the logline that “Dorian meets an intriguing woman with a secret,” I was braced for this show to play Angelique, who’s transgender, as harboring a big reveal (and there’s no point I can see in showing full frontal except to thrill, which is a moment I am not particularly happy with). It was a relief, though, that the show framed her character so that her secret, and her ultimate allure, was the heartache. And in the brothel, Dorian’s reaction to Angelique disrobing is only a lustful smile. He’s into her, end of story. Awesome.
FIFTH WHEEL INTERLUDE: You know who didn’t get a date on date night? Sembene. You know who didn’t even get to sit down when everyone’s discussing plans? Sembene.
Isn’t it bad enough you can’t find anything for him to do?! LET SEMBENE SIT DOWN.
Sembene’s continued obscurity seems even stranger given the lengths the episodes goes to to get disparate characters to meet. If you can arrange an entire soup kitchen set piece for Vanessa, surely Sembene can get suspicious and follow a lead? Talk about a personal concern? Something? They can manage it for literally anybody else!
VANESSA AND CALIBAN
Caliban, who’s so far not great at going to that Waxworks job, interrupts his busy schedule of reading and feeling sorry for himself when Vanessa stops by with soup and conversation. It’s stagey, in a good way, with the closest this show comes to rapid-fire dialogue (“Have you religion?” “Are you offering it?” “Do you require it?” “I never have.” “Then I shan’t offer.”). And it’s about theology vs. humanism, of course, because this show loves a Victorian digression.
A lot happens in this scene. For Vanessa, an honest talk with someone who has, for her, a powerful perspective – the idea the Devil is nowhere, and holds no sway. For Caliban, it’s even more important. In some ways this show has robbed Caliban by trying to make him vaguely palatable. In the original story, his looks prevented him from ever living the life Frankenstein gave him. So far, this Caliban’s gotten a job, had friends, and gone about his business unmolested. (He’s been the molester! The messaging in this storyline has not been sterling!)
So really, this canon has presented him the arc of emotionally waking up. Part of that is realizing neither Maude nor the kindly boss’s daughter nor Brona owe him love, but a slightly more pleasant part is realizing he’s a person anyway. Vanessa tests both things; Caliban’s just aware enough to pass. (Last episode, Rory Kinnear was game for howling at the sky while everyone pretended a big storm was going on, which is nice of him, but this sort of scene is clearly why he was hired. His discomfort as an almost physical restraint is affecting here.)
A thing I like about Vanessa is that she calls bullshit a lot, but with troubled people, her first approach is almost always kindness. When she met Brona last season, she was kinder than Brona expected and kept the small talk light; with Caliban (or John Clare, depending), she puts him at ease by noting her discomforts first – the nuns, the soup – and then debating him like someone whose opinion is worth hearing. You see Caliban unfolding in real time.
All’s very helpfully platonic until she compliments his eyes, right at the end, which is just going to add to Caliban’s eight hundred issues.
RATE THE DATE: Well, it’s going to end in tears, but overall, the First Annual Philosophy Majors s. Theology Majors Potluck went well!
It’s definitely the better of the two dates Caliban had this week.
VICTOR, BRONA, AND CALIBAN
This is the creepiest dynamic on the show right now and I won’t even bother trying to set it up as a date, because this episode tackles the entitled-dude tropes of both Caliban and Victor, and it has never needed to do that more.
It begins with Caliban trying to make fetch happen with a shellshocked amnesiac: “I’ve waited so long!” Dude, you have been alive for maybe five years. Sit down.
Brona’s body language is every woman who desperately wants out of a social situation but is too scared to cause a scene.
But Victor’s no better, starting with his claim Caliban forced him into “creating another sin.” Has he forgotten Caliban was ready to throw off this mortal coil rather than live as a creeper, and it was Victor who murdered a woman in cold blood to give Caliban a present instead? I mean, Caliban’s problematic, but Victor does not have the high horse for this one.
Victor does not have the high horse for ANYTHING. Victor spends this episode trying to imprint on Brona so hard she Stockholms herself. Victor is delightful high-Goth garbage about this.
(It’s to the eternal credit of Harry Treadaway that he keeps Victor on the human edge of supercreep; when she repeats his name he gives a shaky exhale like she’s punched him.)
This is also a great episode for Billie Piper, who had little to do last season and makes the most of her new naïvete here, with the hilarious bonuses of dropping the accent and the wig. When she cries over being named Lily (the flower of death and rebirth, the unsubtle Victor explains), she’s genuinely baffled: “I don’t understand...the words come out with so little meaning.”
But does Victor care? Nope! He only cares that she believes he’s her cousin, and that he’s the one in control. When she’s overcome with it all he only murmurs, “Be still.” Yeah, you’d like that, wouldn’t you, corpse-molester.
“Cousin, teach me. I am at your mercy.” Yikes.
Things get even more strained when Caliban comes home, trying to keep his cool; she’s kinder than he deserves, but at least hes not as pushy as he was earlier. Victor gets no points except in the Jealous Creeper Bitchface Contest, where he does peerlessly well:
And despite tearing himself from his victim’s side to show up at the townhouse and get angry at 11th-century monks (Victor’s that atheist who yells at anyone who says ‘bless you’ when he sneezes), most of his time’s spent making sure somebody pliant loves him best. It’s honestly some of the creepiest stuff this show has ever given us, and it’s marvelously done. The best beat comes as he’s dying her hair: “Did I admire fair-haired ladies?” His offhand response: “I did.”
WOW. It’s a big statement that in an episode that involves an entire room packed with creepy dolls, Victor Frankenstein is still the creepiest thing in this episode, but here we are!
RATE THE DATE: GIRL, GET THE HELL OUT AND BURN IT BEHIND YOU.
I was tempted to make the last, off-the-rails minutes a date, but honestly it’s too bizarre to try. Lyle is, of course, working for Evelyn, against his will – he’s being blackmailed. (It’s almost hilariously mundane; pictures of him with guys.) Evelyn thinks it’ll be fun to let the crew of the SS Vanessa creep toward the truth, and her questions about Ethan get deflected so hard she has to have noticed, but she’s too evil to think about it now! To the baby!
For a season that has taken two episodes to introduce a detective investigating the Ethan Killed Everybody Massacre, it wastes no time making sure we know these witches are evil. How evil? Kill civilians evil! Tear the heart out of a baby evil! Room full of human-hearted dolls evil!
(Lyle, Caliban, Mina, Brona? Honestly asking.)
But the only doll that matters now is this one.
Sleep tight, kids and especially Vanessa!
As you can expect, this episode did a number on the chart. Lyle’s smack in the middle of this whole mess now! (It’s going to be great.)
Next week: Just when you think this show couldn’t get any more Victorian, Vanessa has a flashback episode on the moors! Thank you, show, we love you, too.