Penny Dreadful has spent its entire season building to a supernatural faceoff. And this week, the show goes for a pulpy haunted-house ride that’s so Victorian, we hit the Varney Singularity. Ruh-roh!
With only one episode left in the season, this episode is so busy, it’s essentially a 55-minute cliffhanger. And only Penny Dreadful could give us “And Hell My Only Foe”—an episode that features the beginning of the Vanessa/Evelyn faceoff we’ve been waiting for all season—and surround it with such industrious Gothic-Hammer plotty nonsense that you can barely pay attention to a moment so deeply eerie, even Vanessa Ives gets creeped out. (We’ll get there.)
Their quest is to save Malcolm from Victorian-damseling himself to death. Since this is the episode before the season finale, they fail spectacularly. Since this show is what it is, they fail by splitting up in a witch’s house in the dark, which seems avoidable even for 1891.
But first, Vanessa and Ethan have to face Ethan’s past, as Roper shows up while they’re sleeping (reminder: these two are ostensibly a psi-sensitive witch and a werewolf) and holds them hostage. Then again, there might just be a damper on the house—since Roper doesn’t seem to clock the “who cares how many people we kill at this point anyway” vibe in this cottage, and tries to threaten Ethan into coming back to America by menacing Vanessa.
As you might imagine, this gets him killed.
(The run of show on this: Vanessa slices his neck, then Ethan bangs into him, then Vanessa claws at his painful scarring, then Ethan takes a chunk out of his neck and gets stabbed, and continues to kick Roper in the face while Vanessa uses that knife to stab Roper five times, because occasionally this show is a Gothic cartoon.)
As much as this seems like an abrupt end for Mr. Roper (whose menace got so impressive a few episodes back), John Logan seemed determined to close at least one subplot up tight—as much as Penny Dreadful ever wraps anything. So until Mr. Roper returns from the dead halfway through season three while Vanessa’s casting something, let’s wish him well. (Honestly, there’s got to be some satisfaction in being cast in Penny Dreadful, because being dead never precludes you returning. Look at Malcolm’s family! Look at Victor’s!)
Somehow opting not to just go full Gothic and have sex in front of the corpse, Vanessa and Ethan just hover on the edge of confessing their feelings/lycanthropy instead, until Victor shows up to summon them home. (I hope Harry Treadaway enjoyed his full day of location work just to step out of a carriage and say a dozen words.)
I love how casual Victor is about how married they are and how wrecked they look. He’s fine if Vanessa’s banged up by fighting evil and Ethan’s twitchily holding a gun and they’re staring meaningfully at each other! That was at least 58% of last season.
Ethan isn’t allowed a clean return, since Rusk is there waiting for him. But gosh, there has just never been a better time to not menace Ethan, and even though Rusk’s Upstanding Justice Plans will not be deterred, he clearly starts to suspect Ethan will murder him in broad daylight.
(Ethan’s face is imploding from the effort of seeming casually innocent. Josh Hartnett is such a revelation in this show.)
Still, Rusk gets his big moment when he calls Ethan “Talbot” in his farewell: Ethan does the ol’ Victorian slow turn, as somewhere far in the distance someone at Universal’s Wolfman division pumps their fist joyously in the air:
(Slow turn pictured in real time. It’s Monday, and he’s still turning around.)
Though Rusk is largely here this season to poke the hornet’s nest, I appreciate the meta-frustration of Douglas Hodge in this part. His phantom-limb speech is so fourth-wall, you can feel him already sensing the secret exit he’s sure Ethan will be using. Does anyone particularly care about the Talbot connection? Certainly not yet. However, someone as stubbornly pissed about it as Rusk is going to care a lot—say, until the halfway point of next season?
But that goodwill burns up the moment we discover unforgivably that while Ethan was eating screen time turning around as slowly as possible, Lyle confessed everything offscreen. And it’s nice that everyone forgives him. But Simon Russell Beale is so good that he summons tears during a single interjection during a scene of setup, and we don’t get to watch him confessing to Vanessa—because of course, it’s Vanessa he’s really confessing to—so he and Eva Green have a moment?
Show, you’ve betrayed me.
While everyone at home waits for Vanessa to sneak away alone at the worst possible time (because Victorian Gothic), we check in with Caliban, who gets imprisoned by Lavinia as part of Dad’s plan to add an unwilling sideshow to his wax museum.
If I thought this was going to last, I would have a lot more thoughts on it: Lavinia as inversion of the Victoria-woodcut trope she was introduced as, Putney as a Dickens character more than a Gothic villain, and the dehumanization described by so many Victorian sideshow performers at the hands of an audience wanting to gawp without having to worry about being confronted by those they were gawping at, wax and living alike.
However, given that Caliban is tricked into going into his cage by a book of poetry in the center of the floor (which made me laugh so hard I initially missed some of the gloating), I don’t expect we’re meant to take this particularly seriously. I also don’t think it’s a tenable containment situation for a guy with the strength to casually rip through a human body. What I do think is that, evil aside, this episode accidentally sums up a lot of my feelings on Caliban’s storyline this season with a one-two punch: “True evil is above all things seductive. When the devil knocks at your door, he doesn’t have cloven hooves. He is beautiful and offers you your heart’s desire in whispered airs like a siren, beckoning you to her ruinous shore.”
Same, Mr. Putney.
But the big reason I don’t expect Caliban’s captivity to last long is because Lily won’t let her first lieutenant languish long. She even spends the day recruiting Dorian nearly verbatim to the way she recruited Caliban: venomously powerful speech, deeply uncomfortable frottage.
(To force him to show her his powers, she consumes both a portion of his ear and the remainder of the scenery.)
Dorian, whose murder of Angelique neatly set him up to become the coldest of our potential evil trio, seems completely fine with it. Also, he’s known she was Brona all along, because apparently it is fairly easy to recognize her after all, and this show is never going to let me forget the Tea Room Non-Incident. But if you must bring Dorian back into the fold, a trifecta of three mostly-immortal people with beef against the house in the Square is a pretty solid setup. At last, after two seasons of occasional muddle, everybody’s role makes sense!...or DO they?
But Cliffhangers 1-12 will have to wait. The rest of this episode is the Steel-Door Fellows setting up foreshadowing so it can play out horribly in the Scooby Doo portion of the Victorian Haunted House once they split up to conduct a dual search for Malcolm and Vanessa, who snuck out because somebody thought he could convince Vanessa the Immovable to wait until tomorrow to rescue her husbandfather and then just leave her to her own devices.
Those people have no one to blame but themselves.
Heartsore addict Victor and sympathetic Vanessa, doing their best impression of doomed Victorian siblings for whom “beautiful monster” is a term of endearment; in this version he’s the sibling dying of consumption, and she’s counting the minutes until she masters her magic and can make people’s heads explode without the bother of stabbing them five times first.
I’ve said it before; this is the kind of scene you can do when you have a cast like this, where Treadaway and Green convey a small arc in ten seconds, and you understand the significance of this taking place in Vanessa’s study instead of the main parlor. It’s family comfort. The sort of family comfort you wish you had when you make it to Malcolm (congratulations!) and get confronted by your own children as you and the strings section both completely lose it.
Of all the people who could be facing their demons, Victor is and always has been the least prepared human alive. (He had so much trouble just facing his mother’s death that he made three more people. Then he had sex with at least one of them. The man is troubled.) And while Victor deserves whatever hell they give him as much as Malcolm deserves his, they’re both such good actors that their horror lands a lot more effectively than it might.
(You are hardly ever dead on Penny Dreadful.)
Ethan gets tempted by Hecate, who’s trying so hard to make a subplot happen you have to admire it. Ethan has a destiny! Ethan’s a magical wolf! Ethan’s so handsome! Ethan, kiss me!
(Ethan’s mostly concerned with finding out if bullets kill witches; as soon as he has that he crumbles, which I assume is half foreshadowing and half a feint.)
But how could Hecate possibly get inside the house with all those wards, you ask? Well, through the mirror like a regular witch, since those wards “have no real power to those who don’t believe in them.” COME ON, SHOW.
Ferdinand has the common sense God gave a waffle and thinks this is all a terrible idea! Ferdinand gets a tiny gun! (He rejects the first one with a “Surely you jest” born of a long marriage; Ethan responds accordingly.)
His cliffhanger is small—pinned to the wall by one of the witches—but that’s just as well. His big moment comes at the gates of the house, where he prays with such earnestness even Victor can’t summon much snark. Given that everyone else’s foreshadowing paid off, we can guess Ferdinand will be asked to reevaluate his loyalties and come up with the short straw in a dramatically-logical way, but whatever it is, I hope he gets his due when the time comes. If we must bid Lyle goodbye, I don’t want another offscreen aside.
Evelyn has kind of a rough week! Here’s an outtake from the photoshoot for the cover to her Goth-folk album, in which Helen McCrory somehow makes you feel for her despite it all.
Her daughter’s realized that if you fetishize youth and power, being young and powerful is probably a great gig that you can leverage to usurp your mother—which has to sting. (Evelyn even admits, marvelously, “If I were of another constitution, I would fear you.”) Plus, despite doing what needs doing, Evelyn’s mourning Malcolm. He’s lost his dignity. As she asks Vanessa, “Without that, well, what are they, but throbbing vermin meant to procreate and expire?”
Vanessa does not give one shit, does she.
Despite what until recently had been a case of exceptionalism in a male sphere that meant Vanessa was called on to be all women to all people, Vanessa has always been a layered character that made the most of Eva Green’s strengths. And none of those strengths is quite as solid as her training that face-melting stare at someone as they slowly realize they’re done for. (See above; you know the one.)
It was literally the first thing she ever did with Ethan, and that same preternatural calm means she has a relatively calm meetup with Evelyn, who at this point seems as happy for the company as she does happy to have a sacrifice for the Master.
It’s all very civilized horror, with that nightmare quality of you knowing something’s awful but you can’t do much against it, except ask to see the person no one will let you see, and suffer the sexy gloating of the daughter of the house.
Turns out they share an opinion of Hecate. (If you’ve brought Evelyn and Vanessa together in side-eyeing you, please rethink your choices.)
But of course, the big moment is the Chamber of Dolls, where Vanessa’s fetish opens its eyes and calls her a murderer.
The Vanessa Ives stare has never been better deployed; as terrified as she is, she’s even more angry. If the next episode opened with that doll’s head exploding, I would not be surprised.
However, the next episode had better not open with that. It had better not open with anything except Sembene coughing out “I’m fine!” as he stands up, because of all the nonsense this show has ever pulled with Sembene, this episode outdid it all.
Yes, after two seasons, we finally got backstory for Sembene to provide haunted-house foreshadowing! Everybody else’s foreshadowing set up the demons they’ll face in order to rally and fight evil. Sembene’s? “These marks mean I was a slave trader. This is my sin to live with.”
OH. DO THEY? WERE YOU? IS IT?
So, to recap the first two seasons of this show in this new light: Sembene is a slave trader in a show that purports to be disassembling some of the most pernicious Victorian tropes into their component parts. Fine. It is almost always a bad idea to attempt anything like this in a work with only one person of color in it and a default white POV, for reasons that maybe should have been more obvious to John Logan, but fine. Sembene bought into the promise of the Victorian dream and knows he screwed up big-time. Sembene the slave trader comes across Malcolm and decides only here is a man shitty enough to be a fitting target for Sembene’s penance. Sembene accepts the role of the household servant because part of his penance is echoing the servitude he sold others into.
Fine, as far as it goes. But by leaving this until the last second as a big reveal, you lose the struggle we have seen from literally any of the other characters as they work to make peace with their deeds. I buy, with great reservation, that Sembene was a slave trader. It’s at least a position of narrative movement for his character: how do you make good after something like that? But it’s only a position of movement if we know he’s moving. The show kept him like a spare car making exposition runs for two seasons, and the thing we learn about him that asks us to recalibrate our opinions and find new depths in his character comes so far into events not even Ethan gets to process it. If you want a character to seem important and real, asides and occasional portents are not enough, even in the hands of someone as great as Danny Sapani, who has carried Sembene with amazing nuance.
But this didn’t feel like something he’d have to deal with in the haunted house and come to terms with next season, and the show didn’t even pretend it should. It felt like a reveal you give a character who will need to atone with his life.
And frankly, that’s bullshit.
The next episode promises to be great payoff; despite some missteps, Logan has made good use of the extra two episodes of breathing room, and this all feels like it’s building somewhere really interesting. But if part of that includes writing Sembene off permanently after this sloppy attempt to turn him into a repentant martyr, then I am going to Vanessa Ives something.